Your company must make them FEEL something.

If  you’ve read my blog for any length of time you know that I have a huge Business Crush on Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks.  Dino Dogan would tell you that ‘we all do,’ and he’s probably right.  What Howard, or more How do you create passion for your brand?correctly, what Starbucks does to illicit these emotions from customers is that they prompt them, continually.

I’ve written repeatedly that “It’s not about the coffee.”  I don’t even drink coffee; I’m a hard core tea addict.  Starbucks has decent tea and a great Chai, but even that’s not why I keep coming back.  It’s the entire customer experience that keeps me loyal.

In my past life when I supervised 18 Sales Reps. spread out across the Eastern half of the US, Starbucks-Everywhere was my office.  We could sit for hours in a pleasant environment , use the free wireless, and never ever feel rushed.  Not only did I spend thousands of dollars a year at the chain, I became a brand loyalist and incredibly grateful for their hospitality.

And they keep on doing things that make me feel passionately about the brand.  Last year it was the Indivisible campaign; I wear my bracelet and drink from my Indivisible mug every morning.

Recently, Starbucks began offering reusable $1 mugs to cut down on waste.  Of course I bought one, because I care about the environment and feel like I’m part of the Starbucks mission.  Now, my reusable cup )pictured here) already has my favorite drink permanently written on it.  Most of the time I don’t even need to tell my local Baristas what I want, because they know me … another customer service moment that connects me to the brand.

Perhaps you too have a major Starbucks connection, or perhaps you’re a contrarian who swears by Dunkin Donuts.  The point is, the brands that you are passionate about have done something to trigger that passion.  What is it that makes you want to evangelize for a brand?

The next, logical question is: What do you do to create that same loyalty and zeal in your own customers?  Because you know, it doesn’t happen by accident.

When is it time to fire your customer? A review.

I wrote this post in August of 2010, and I still feel strongly about the topic. The brilliant Margie Clayman started a discussion on Facebook after reading this post on Entrepreneur.  After an interesting debate I thought I’d dust off my blog archives and re-read this to see if almost 2013 me still thinks 2010 me was right. Yep, I do.  I haven’t changed a single word: 

When do you fire your first customer? Certainly not when you start out and can’t pay your bills. When your business is new, your main concern is earning enough to pay your rent, light bill, and hopefully buy enough groceries to feed your family. You’ll take jobs sometimes knowing they may not be worth it; the customer will be unacceptably difficult and you’ll put so many hours into that one project that you basically work for free. But hey, you’re the new kid in town and as the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers.

And that’s ok, in the beginning. You need to get some work under your belt, build up your portfolio, and get the word out that you’re good at what you do. But there comes a point when you must start saying no to the obvious fire a clientproblem customer and be much more selective with who you work with. When you finally get so busy that you can’t keep up with all of the work you have, you must do two things:

1. Raise your prices.
2. Fire, or don’t hire, your problem customers.

If you own a small business, or even if you’re a consultant and part of a larger group, you cannot clone yourself. Only so many jobs get done, so you must pick the profitable jobs that will help your reputation, not harm it. That means the client that makes a million changes because they never know what they want and can’t make a decision to save their life must go. That means the customer who wants to haggle over price at the END of the job must go. That means the client that drags their feet and doesn’t get you the information you need in a timely manner, slowing you down and costing you time you could be spending on other projects must go, no matter HOW much you like them.

If you’re sought after because you’re good at what you do, you deserve to earn a living and work with people who can help you maximize your, and ultimately, their potential. The entire point of self employment is having control over when you work, how hard you work, and YES, WHO you work for. Not every sale is worth it, and not every customer deserves your time. The key is, recognize when you’ve reached the point that you cannot keep up. If hiring new staff is not an option, you need to raise prices and be more selective with clients. I guarantee you that it will improve your bottom line, and your quality of work-life.

Should You “Dabble” in Social Media?

A smart marketing friend and I have had a few discussions revolving around the question:Dabble in Social media

What is the proper response time for Social Media complaints?

He has stated a few times (and I’m paraphrasing here, because he is fully capable of making his own argument) that our expectations are too high; we, as in the social junkies, expect responses within hours if not minutes.  There are situations that are too complex, and companies that are too busy, to fix a problem or get an answer to you in a matter of hours.

I agree wholeheartedly with that thought process: some problems are complex and require time to sort out.    However, I do not think there is an acceptable excuse for not RESPONDING quickly, as in within hours. His question for me then was “‘What if company x is just dabbling in Social Media.’

I had to think on that one.

OK, I’ve thought.  Here’s my answer:

You should not dabble in Social Media.

I understand that not every small business owner is internet or tech savvy; some of us are just too busy getting work done to maintain a Small Business Facebook Page or Twitter account and respond within hours.  If that describes your business approach to social media, my advice is: get off of the social networks.

Here’s why: having a Social Profile means that your social savvy customers will find you there, and when they do, they’ll expect you to use it as a channel of communication.  If you are only going to check it infrequently, you are opening yourself up to unintentionally disappointing your customers who reach out to you via your page or profile.  It’s like setting up a voice mail at your business and only checking it weekly.

Do I think really Small Business should abandon social marketing? Absolutely not. But if you can’t commit to checking your social pages and profiles at least a couple of times a day, then perhaps you should rethink your social existence.  It is supposed to be a 2 way conversation, and if you’re not listening and responding, they’ll stop wanting to talk to you at all.

THIS is how you do Social Customer Service

A friend of mine had a very valid complaint about FB’s website auto-playing music, so she did what many irritated customers would do these days: she posted her complaint on the FB iFrame Facebook Page.

What happens next you can see for yourself:

Customer Service on Facebook

FBiframes responded to her initial complaint within 7 minutes, and then apparently fixed the problem within 20.  When I looked through the complaints posted by others, it appears that it is their regular practice to respond within a couple of hours (often much more quickly) to any post on their wall.

I’ve had many discussions with marketing friends of mine about what is a decent response time when someone complains online, and we often have differing opinions.  I’ve been told on more than one occasion that the expectations of social marketers is unrealistic; companies at times cannot immediately respond.   I disagree with that thought process.  It may be that your company cannot fix the problem within a matter of hours, but if you are going to play in the social arena, you need to be listening when your customers complain and at the very least, respond within hours if not minutes.

Is that an unrealistic expectation?  I don’t think that’s a marketer’s call to make.  Social connectivity has changed what your customers expect, and responding in lightening speed to at least let them know they were heard certainly may stop them from looking for another, more responsive, competitor.

How Kind is Your Company?

If you’re an avid reader of Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks you will have read her fantastic story of the ultimate Starbucks customer experience. Those of us who regularly patronize Starbucks aren’t really surprised.  Just last week How Kind is your company?my daughter and I  drove through our old Starbucks and ordered our regular drinks; without even seeing us the drive through barista said “I know who this is! How’s Addie?”  Of course we felt special.

I have friends who still try to convince me I’m getting ripped off when I buy my $4 chai, but I know I’m not. The personalized, friendly customer service one receives at Starbucks is incredibly rare.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.   Social Media was supposed to make us more human… give us an opportunity to connect with our customers in a real way, uncluttered by traditional marketing speak.  It is supposed to allow for conversational exchanges between brands and buyers.  Sadly, most of us have forgotten that, and use it too much like a promotional machine… a digital billboard we aim at our targets.  We have forgotten how important being nice actually is.

What Starbucks knows is that kindness works.  People want to be treated as if they matter. Don’t believe me?  Try this: mail a handwritten Thank You to all of your customers from the past week.  I guarantee you will get a reaction. Why? Because companies have forgotten the human dimension.  Because we all want to be remembered.  Because in this age of automated bill pay and internet banking, the humanness has been sucked out of our lives.  Our customers crave it.  We ALL crave it.

Now go and look at your company practices:

  1. Who answers the phone and how do they do it? Have you ever instructed them on what you expect?
  2. What did the last 10 Facebook posts look like?  Was there any attempt to generate conversation?
  3. Is your Twitter stream just a broadcasting mechanism?  How many actual conversations have you had on there in the past month?
  4. Are you telling your company stories?  Is there a mechanism for your employees to hear them internally?
  5. Are you asking your customers for THEIR stories?  Are you giving them a voice?
  6. When was the last time you took an anonymous company poll to ask for employee input?
  7. How are you rewarding employees for excellent customer feedback?
Maybe Mitt was half right; maybe corporations are supposed to be people.  When was the last time you looked at your company practices seeking out evidence of kindness?  I know, it all sounds a bit mushy, but It Is REAL.  I believe it’s the single greatest ingredient in Starbucks’ incredible success.  If more companies made it part of how they do business, we’d have more success stories, and posts like Gini’s would be a lot less rare.


You can’t DO Social Media

DISCLAIMER: I have absolutely no intention of joining the inane argument about which generation should be in charge of your Social Media community.  Statements like “No one over/under 25…” make me furious because it is so ridiculous to judge anyone based solely on their age.

However, like all of us older Social Media geeks, I have encountered the discussion in real life far too many times. Over the past 2 years I’ve had an ongoing ‘debate’ with a young man who started a ‘Social Media Management’ You can't DO Social Mediacompany; he once declared that ‘in 5 years there will be nothing BUT Social Media Marketing.’  I know, it’s another discussion not worth having because it is based on idiocy.  Very few companies can thrive with only ONE marketing tactic driving their sales.  TV, print, signage, email marketing… they’ll all change in the next 5 years.  Social Media will change too… but none of them are going away.

Just today I discovered that this same Social Media Management company did something that burns me, and should burn everyone else who ever reaches out to a Facebook Business Page for customer service:

They deleted a negative post.

Young and old friends – Never, Ever do this.  Not unless the post contains language that will offend your audience.

If someone takes time out of their day to reach out to your company for help, HELP them. The removed post wasn’t rude, it was simply requesting help after repeatedly calling and emailing.  Not only was it removed,  it wasn’t even RESPONDED TO.

This brings me back to one of my most persistent gripes about Social Media: It isn’t there for the DOING.  It is a tool. A Tactic. An incredible communication tool for small business.  Sure, people will complain.  And, just like in Real Life, every customer complaint is an opportunity for relationship building. If the complainant is so irrational that you cannot build a relationship with them, your patient, professional dialogue about their issue gives you the opportunity to build trust with the other people listening.

What has me so fired up about this type of ‘delete’ is that I know how very hard small businesses work to gain customers. I know that, especially in THIS economy, each one is so precious. Erasing any of them is criminal.  And I am convinced that this sort of reaction is what “doing Social Media” is. But that’s not good enough. You need to have a strategy, a plan… you need to nurture your online community.  You need to be there for the good and the bad.  You need to be prepared, in advance, for the bad and how you will react to it.

Here’s the myth debunked: Social Media is no different than real life customer relations.  Whatever you should do in a Real Life situation should be done in your Social Communities too.  Would you hang up on a disappointed customer, or would you try to resolve the issue professionally?  I think everyone knows the answer when they just stop and THINK about it.  Social Media, like the telegraph, phone, and email before it, is simply a new communication tool.  Don’t loose your marbles trying to ‘do’ it, and just ‘do’ good business.

Don’t let your client set the budget.

I’m a HUGE believer in the relationship being the cornerstone of good salesmanship; what separates the wheat from the chaff is what you do with that relationship to leverage sales and make your client happy with the results.Selling what your client needs.  If you really understand your client’s needs and believe in your product, you cannot let a client set a strict budget limit before the negotiation begins.   Too often in this weak economic atmosphere we sell from fear; fear that we won’t get the deal based on our client’s belt tightening.  Fear that we won’t get paid and therefore won’t be able to pay our bills. Fear that we’ll ‘lose the sale’ altogether by presenting what they need rather than what their stated budget needs.

You must find a way to erase that fear totally if you want to do your job properly. Your job, my sales friend, is to sell your client the product they really need, not the product that fits their budget.

Often, the client  doesn’t know what that is; YOU are the expert after all.  In addition, they have no idea what the ROI will be.  You need to explain all your plan and its projected ROI before you set the budget with your client.

A client just left my office having spent 3 times the budget they’d set for marketing, and I can guarantee you they are thrilled with their decision.  I listened to her when she told me her initial budget,  but I didn’t allow that to dictate our discussion over what she actually needs. Her number did not factor into what I presented to her.  If you work backwards by allowing the budget to dictate what your client purchases,  you do both you and that company a disservice.

Develop the optimum plan first, analyze what that will cost, and then present that to your client. Explain that their company’s goals come first, and you cannot do your job properly if you don’t educate them on what will work to achieve those goals.  IF they object because they sincerely can’t spend what it takes to execute your plan,  re-analyze your plan and cut the least necessary pieces.  If your plan is a solid one, and you do your job convincing your client of its value, you will do very little cutting.

Starbucks sells a lot more than coffee

I have a brilliant but antagonistic friend who has big issues with my deep admiration for Howard Schultz;  he doesn’t understand how I can admire a man who figured out a way to charge $4 for coffee. I don’t admire Schultz simply for his genuine rags to riches story, or his Indivisible campaign… although the latter is something that I think is remarkably inspiring.

My admiration for Schultz and the company he created began when I fell in love with his product… and in case you didn’t notice, his product is NOT coffee.  As a VP- Sales who traveled extensively to manage Sales Reps Starbucks isn't about the coffeeworking primarily out of their vehicles, I spent hours upon hours having meetings in Starbucks.  I don’t even drink coffee, but I am intensely loyal to the brand that Schultz built.  Here’s why:

1. Consistent quality products; I’m a big tea drinker – try getting a decent cuppa anywhere outside of a major metropolitan area that ISN’T Starbucks.

2. Always friendly and helpful employees.

3. Comfortable and attractive interiors.

4. Never the feeling that you’ve overstayed your welcome.

5. Free wi-fi

I know there are plenty of Starbucks haters who deride the demise of the independent coffee house, and I totally get that… but most of us living outside of major cities never had a decent coffee shop, let alone a pleasant place to meet for a leisurely hour.  Starbucks sold, and we BOUGHT, and experience.  A pleasant, warm, quality experience that did not exist before they built it.

The question for your company is: what’s the experience you’re building for your customers? If it’s just product, you’re in trouble, because there’s always a newer, shinier product that comes along to entice them away.  What about the experience of dealing with you will build this sort of loyalty?  It’s NEVER been just about the coffee for Starbucks.    It can’t be just about the product for you either.



Restrooms are for Customers Only

I am baffled by the widely accepted practice of hanging up a sign at a Retail Location that says: Restrooms for Customers Only. Why would any retail location NOT welcome people into their space? If you know anything about shopping habits you understand that familiarity makes shoppers relax, and when they’re relaxed they spend. One of the biggest challenges for any new retail location is to get people in the door the first time.

What’s your reaction when you see the Restroom Warning Sign? Mine is always “I’m never going in there;” you’ll only let me pee if you make money off of me? I envision myself with my 4 year old daughter bursting at the seams and no where to pee. I think, “Wow, are your restrooms too precious for the truly pee-needy?”

When I ask store owners about this I get lots of excuses:

1. “It was becoming a real problem with people coming in JUST to use the bathroom.”
2. “There were people living down the street under the bridge…”
3. “I’m not cleaning up after non-customers”

Really? Don’t many of your ‘customers’ come in and NOT make a purchase? Isn’t browsing allowed anymore?

Traffic is the life blood of Retail….. there are hundreds of books written on how to use signage to get people in the door, how to layout your store to get people to buy… the psychology of retail is finely tuned. No where in any of those books will you see the suggestion that you put up signs telling people not to come in your door.

IF you are one of the very rare Retailers who has a homeless problem right down the street, you can converse with your maker about how compassionate you want to be to a person in need of facilities. But the vast majority of Retailers using this sign are NOT dealing with that particular issue.

My office is located in an affluent town where we do not have loitering issues, and I see this sign everywhere.

In fact, there is an ice cream shop that has the following signs to make customers feel really special as they wait in line to order:

“Have your order ready when it is your turn.”
“If you drop your Ice Cream, that is YOUR problem.”
“If you are with a large group we will only issue ONE check.”

WHAT message do you think they’re sending? I know that’s an extreme example, but here’s the school of thought I come from:

I love my customers, and I even love the ones considering becoming my customer. I am always grateful and amazed when they turn their hard earned dollars over to me for my services. I think there is far too much negative energy in the world; I don’t intend on pushing any of it on the people who fund my paycheck. If I get to the point that I’ve even tempted to put up a sign like that, I’m quitting.

After everything our economy has been through in the last 4 years let me tell you something:

Every person still in business should be grateful to the people who walk through their door. You never know who you’re turning away with negative signage.

So if you’ve got a sign like that up, and I don’t care if it’s at the Gas Station you own, go take it down right now. Have some pity on the need-to-pee-ers. And have some gratitude that you own your business and people think it’s worth walking through your door.

Lessons In Persistence

In my heart of hearts I’m a ‘salesman.‘ Although my career has taken me far from the “boots on the ground” type of selling where I started, my soul will always be in Sales. If you’re good at sales someone always wants to promote you, and if you are a natural salesperson, you take that promotion in your never ending quest to “achieve more.” You find great Sales Hearts who wind up in all sorts of places; sometimes with great success… sometimes bemoaning the fact that they ever left the front line.

Through my career in Sales/Sales Management and now Marketing, I’ve been exposed to thousands upon thousands of Sales People, Sales Tactics, and Sales Strategy. Reading a fabulous post by S. Anthony Iannarino reminded me in a very compelling way about the 2 qualities successful sales requires:


I cut my sales teeth in the Flooring Industry, not glamorous but full of gritty mom and pop stores where the basics of smart business meant the difference between doors open or doors closed forever. And I covered New England; anyone who has ever sold in that beautiful segment of the country knows that NO ONE is welcomed with arms wide open unless they’ve known each other’s families for generations. It was a great place to learn tough and learn quick; I was lucky to meet quite a few old timers who were willing to share their stories and advice with me. One of these stories has stuck with me for the last 20 years and I’ve probably retold it a hundred times. Here it is again:

One of the most successful stores in Southern New Hampshire literally dominates their area. I went in full of hope and enthusiasm and was determined to build my sales. Months went by; although the salespeople became quite friendly with me, I saw no orders. My prices were good… they liked my product, but I was getting NO traction. Frustrated, I went to speak with the owner and literally asked him “What am I doing wrong.” His reply, “Nothing, you’re doing everything right. Just keep doing it.”

Then he told me this story: He had another female rep. (we were a rarity in those days) who represented Armstrong Sheet Vinyl for a specific distributor. He informed the woman the first time she came into his store that he had been buying his Armstrong from the other distributor for 20 years, was great friends with the other rep., and although she was a very nice lady… she shouldn’t waste her time trying to get his business.

Most reps, who are counseled ad nausem by their managers about “efficiency,” would have thanked the owner for his frankness and spent their time developing other prospects, but she didn’t. Each quarter when new samples came out and were shipped to that store, she came in and updated the display. On her rounds she’d stop in and make sure the Salespeople had everything they needed it and checked in with the owner. He always asked her politely why she kept trying so hard when he gave her no business, and her response was always the same “one day you might.”

After about 18 months of this continued pattern the owner had a lead on a very big commercial job and could not get a hold of his long time rep. for a sharper price. After waiting 24 hours to hear back he called the other rep. and was taken care of on the spot. The next day he decided that she would get 50% of all of his company’s Armstrong business.

It may seem like a lot of work for half of the reward, but this store was HUGE and did a tremendous volume. That 50% was worth a gigantic spike in our persistent rep’s overall numbers.

It may seem like a simplistic tale, but it’s an honest one, and the lessons I learned through this other rep’s experience have made me stick with a prospect far longer than I would have without knowing this story. Most of the time it has worked to my benefit.

I am not advocating that you latch on to every prospect with this sort of tenacity; you would never have the time to do that and it would be nonsensical in some cases. However, there are some prospects whose shift of only 50% of their business to you would transform your company. Your job is to understand who they are and stick with it.

Your job is to also understand which of those clients you already have, and remind yourself that there may be another company out there as persistent as this woman in my story; you need to treat your current clients with persistent and excellent service to make sure they stay with you.