Communication: More important than ANYTHING

I would have put this post up yesterday, but I couldn’t because I spent the entire day waiting for Verizon to come and install my internet and phone line in my new office. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t set me up for disappointment by setting the appointment time between 8 am and 12 noon.

Steam may not have been rising out of my ears at noon if they’d call to tell me that their technician was tied up on a previous call.customer service

My voice may not have sounded so strained if, before they missed the second deadline of 2 pm, they called to tell me that they were pushing it until 5 pm, and if the employee arrives at 4:59 pm I’m to wait until he’s finished.

I wouldn’t be thoroughly disgusted with them right now if ANY communication about their poor scheduling was initiated by them instead of me. Or, if I hadn’t waited on hold for over 30 minutes calling them each time.

This post isn’t simply to rag on Verizon, although God knows they deserve it. Sadly, bad communications happen all the time. The result is always an angry, possibly former customer.

And it is almost always avoidable.

Most people are kind, patient and understanding… but they aren’t when you treat them with disdain. Not communicating is always interpreted by the customer as your company not caring. Contacting them as soon as you know of an issue avoids a lot of the negative experience issues they’ll have if you don’t.

Think about it this way: for every single dollar you spend on marketing and positive PR, one bad episode of non-communication can repay that, times 10, with negative publicity. Think about it, what do you do when you’ve been mistreated by a company? For one, you probably blast them on your social media network, more than likely complain about them when you get together with your friends. If you have a blog & you’re a marketer like me, you probably craft a post based on your bad experience.

That’s a whole lot of organic negative pr going on about a company for simply blowing the communication.

Even if my high-speed internet is rip-roaring fast and never a problem, I’ll have a sour taste in my mouth for how lousy I was treated from the outset. Your customers are no different. You may deliver the greatest product in your industry, but if you blow the communications and make you customer feel like you don’t care about them, their network will hear all about it.

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.

Why Starbucks Makes Me Smile

I know, I know, Starbucks has not looked like the untouchable juggernaut it once did; with the l-o-n-g recession mindset hanging over us, paying $4+ for a cup of coffee doesn’t seem as cool as it once did. But Starbucks has survived, despite closing 600 stores during this economic downturn.

And anyone who looks beyond the hype knows why, and it ain’t the coffee.customer service
It’s the experience.

When you walk into nearly every Starbucks you know you will be greeted by a cheerful staff and find free wi-fi, two things I found priceless during my years as a frequent business traveler. I have logged more hours in my ‘other office’ at Starbucks than I can count, and despite sitting in the same seat for hours on end I have never been made to feel unwelcome. As a matter of fact, most frequent Starbucks visitors will tell you that the barristas are now their friends.

This didn’t happen by accident. There’s an entire book written on The Starbucks Experimence if you want to delve deeper, but suffice it to say that it is part of company policy that customers are to be treated with kindness, always.

This may sound simple, but we all know how rare it actually is. There’s a local convenience store near me that I swear to GOD has the exact opposite policy. But they’re the only game in town so they get away with it, for now. Once another convenience store moves in hoards of customers will flock to the new place with glee as punishment for years of being taken for granted, or worse.

So what experience do your customers have? If they don’t smile at the thought of interacting with your company you’ve got some work to do. And it ALWAYS starts at the top.

5 Ways You Can Help The Customer Be RIGHT.

The Customer is not always right. I know, Nordstrom’s would disagree 99% of the time, and believe me – Zappos, Nordstrom’s and companies like that are my Customer Service ROLE MODELS. But I’m a pragmatist, and I realize that my clients (primarily small business owners) do not have the very deep pockets OR net margins of either of those big behemoths. Which means that if someone mis-orders or has misplaced expectations, it would break their company to try to accommodate the clients’ every request.Communicate Clearly

So, do you tell the customer they’re WRONG? No. I won’t say “never,” but rarely.

What is essential is that you manage your customer’s expectations from proposal to contract and throughout your project. Customers are not WRONG if they are informed. In most cases, complaints grow from misinformed expectations. This means that you do the following:

1. Don’t oversell no matter how badly you want the job. We all get giddy with the thought of landing The Big One; but if the big one is too big for us to haul in, it’s just a waste of energy going after them.
2. Spell out every detail of what is and is not your responsibility in your contract. Put in a clause that clearly states that any features/add-ons not specifically listed in this contracted will result in additional charges. Highlight that section.
3. Head off disappointment at the pass: many sales types really love being loved. There are times things are mentioned in passing while speaking with a client that you’re tempted to let slide. Don’t. Immediately but politely let them know that additional charges may be incurred for the ‘extra’ they mentioned and that you’d be glad to add that to the contract.
4. Put Change Orders in writing; any verbal agreement during a project needs to be backed up in writing to avoid confusion, intended or not.
5. Make sure Sales communicates clearly with Accounting: in some cases they both may be YOU. If you’ve agreed to a Change Order, add it to the invoice and send the client an updated version. Nothing is more awkward then sending out an incorrect, less expensive invoice and then having to ask for more money that really isn’t ‘more money’ at all.

The nut & bolts of all of this is clear communication, both with your customer and your internal staff. Nothing eases tensions and averts problems better than consistent, clear communication. Start making the above a reflexive habit and you’ll be amazed at how much happier your customers are.

You Can’t Sell Anything if You’re Not Ready to Walk Away….

I was schooled by one of the all time great salespeople – Al Frink, who with his partner Scott Guenther built a small, agile, and very profitable carpet mill: Fabrica Fine Carpet & Rugs. Al was responsible for selling the product and sell it he did. It was 10 times more expensive than most of its competitors but Fabrica made beautiful product; with Al’s selling skills and the salesforce he developed, the company grew to gross 65 million a year. That’s not Microsoft, but it made a lot of people very wealthy over the course of the time Al and Scott ran the show.

Almost every great sales technique in my arsenal came from the learning at the feet of the great salespeople of that company:

1. Every customer wants an experience. Don’t show up and go through the motions – if you’re selling something special you’d better dress, speak and act the part. That doesn’t mean be artificial or put on airs, but it does mean that you show up with pastries instead of donuts and that you speak about your product with care and respect.
2. Create a vision for your customer; they DO want you to help them make the decision to buy – they just don’t want to feel pushed into it. By painting a picture of how your product will improve their life you make it easy for them to say yes.

And most importantly:

3. You must be ready to walk away if the deal isn’t good for your business; you can’t sell anything to anybody for a price that is acceptable to your own margins if you are not ready to leave without closing the deal. People can sense if there is room to squeeze you, and good negotiators will squeeze until they have you as far as you’ll go. You have to be mentally ready to walk away from the table at a certain point before you sit down to negotiate or you’ll never close a deal.

One of the most freeing realizations you can come to is that one customer will not make or break your company, no matter how sweet it may be to land them. Sometimes deals are lose/lose if they are set up so that your company can not do their job right or make enough money in the process of doing the job. If you read this blog you know how important I think customer service is, but you don’t have to sell every prospect. Great companies understand this and only enter into deals that allow both parties to benefit from their partnership.

You Are Your Client’s Bouyancy

You are not allowed to drag them down, EVER, no matter how close you may become. You are not allowed to tell them about your troubles at home, your struggles with employees, or ANYTHING that may dampen their spirit. They should leave every phone call or meeting with you feeling more inspired and hopeful than they did when it started. Period.

Is this fair? Who knows. Is it the way things are? YES. No matter what they tell you , your clients want to know that you are solidly going upwards… you are never faltering or doubting your direction. You may change course but you may not discuss WHY until you’re certain that you are.

I have a friend who owns a Title Insurance company and has been making a fortune these past few years; if you know anything about the Real Estate business you’ll know that profitability has NOT been easy of late. If you know anything about Title Insurance you’ll know that it’s not an industry many get rich in. Why is my friend Bob doing so well? Sure he’s smart and does a thorough job, but the REAL key to his success is that you are guaranteed a smile when you interact with him. He is ALWAYS upbeat, quick witted and he listens when you speak. He makes everyone he interacts with feel special, and he makes you smile. That’s it. People WANT to be around him. People choose to do business with him when there are hundreds of others in his area they could choose.

So think about that long and hard before your next customer interaction. Suck in whatever stress you have and save it for your best friend – make your customer feel like they mean something to you, and give them a smile. The ROI on THAT is immeasurable.

THIS is Great Customer Service

On our work-vacation this week we checked into one of our favorite hotels – the Longboat Key Hilton. Sure, it’s not a 5 Star joint, and it’s not an ultra cool boutique place either. But for years I traveled at least 3 nights a week and the reason I frequented the Hilton chain is because it is consistently clean & stylish and it ALWAYS has a business center. Most importantly, it is friendly.

We’ve stayed at this hotel at least 10 times, and every time we are met with a smile and accommodations are almost always made for my constant requests. One year we actually switched from a rare below grade Hilton down the coast and the manager of this hotel sent a champagne and cheese tray to our room to make up for the OTHER hotel’s failings. I would have been thrilled if I wasn’t 6 months’ pregnant at the time… but seriously, the gesture was greatly appreciated.

This year we show up with my 3 1/2 year old in tow at 2pm when check-in is 4:30. They didn’t have the room ready and didn’t until 4:30 on the dot. It was ok – I knew I was asking for a favor yet again, so we went for a walk on the beach, picked up some groceries and killed time. We checked in at 4:30 and started unpacking and getting settled. Within 10 minutes there was a knock on the door with a very nice fruit/cheese tray that my 3 year old ate right up. A card was enclosed thanking us for our return visit.

Now, this may seem like standard fair to a lot of you, but as a well seasoned traveler I can guarantee you it isn’t. There are hotels I’ve stayed in 100 times and they don’t know my name or acknowledge my return. It means something to me (and my family) that this hotel does, and how much extra effort did it really take?

No, I didn’t write this post to extol Hilton hotels, but this particular one is doing a lot right and I notice. It reinforces my desire to let every customer of mine know how much I appreciate the fact that they spend their money with me.

I have a very wise friend Laurie Cadden who runs a PR agency and her mantra is that EVERY interaction you have with ANYONE is PR. It’s about being considerate in your emails, picking up the phone every now and then and spending your time on people, and doing the little things consistently.

Just a little bit of profoundity to think about as we move into the next year.

Your Customers Want to Know You

Sure, it may not be possible for your customers to know YOU personally, depending upon how large your company is and how vast the geography you sell to, but they want to know what makes your company tick. First and foremost, they want to know how YOU can help THEM. Then they want to know, in more detail, how that process works. Lastly, if you’ve convinced them on any level that you might be of service, they want to know how you’ve helped others.

Companies spend thousands or even millions of dollars crafting an image they want their customers to believe is who they are, but Social Media has raised our ‘consumer’s IQ’ and no amount of money can hide what your company’s about from a determined customer. What your Social Media efforts, website, blog and all that jazz is ABOUT is letting the customer get to know your company.

When a referral or interested party comes my way the first thing I do is ask: Are you on Facebook? You see, they will automatically check out my website and that’s a great cataloge of our work and explanation of what we do, but Facebook/Twitter is a way for our clients and prospects to have a continuing conversation with us about what we do and how it may impact their business. Anyone can build a good website; Social Media allows anyone to follow what we do and how we think on a daily basis; are we creative, consistent, inspirational, but most importantly, are we useful to them? They decide on their own time if we’re worth looking into.

Social Media has done what millions of people are unknowingly grateful for: it has killed hard selling.

So go ahead and start the conversation – invite anyone who is interested to join in. It’s an opportunity for your company to show its best self to the world.

It’s Never Too Late

Everyone I know – my friends, employees and even our UPS driver, is so insanely busy they can hardly see straight; I’m sure you’re no different. Americans, always known for living large & fast, have kicked it into another gear altogether with the help of technology. If you turn on a tv or open your internet browser you are well aware that an entire self-help industry focused on “slowing down” and “finding peace” has sprung up to help us survive in this lightening speed world.

I’m a big believer that the only way to survive without losing your mind is to accept that you can’t keep up with everything and you cannot be perfect; choices must be made. It may be that your house doesn’t look museum-tidy when a neighbor drops by, or that YOU don’t look like a hollywood starlet because you can’t work out EVERY SINGLE DAY. We ALL must make our own choices of course, but there is one area, if you want to be successful professionally, that you CANNOT choose to relax the rules on and that is CIVILITY & PROFESSIONALISM.

A million columns have been written about the lost art of handwritten notes, but don’t worry – I have not completely lost my mind – I KNOW we don’t have time for that on a regular basis. But if you don’t have time to return phone calls and emails, or to thank a client for their business, you might as well close up shop. And NO, I don’t have some arbitrary time limit by which time these calls/emails must be returned, but they must at some point. Believe me, there are times I’ve returned an email a month late, and NO, I am not proud of that fact but I do know this: the recipient completely understood and was glad that I hadn’t altogether bailed. Gary Vaynerchuck of Crush It fame acknowledges every single email, blog post or comment that comes his way. He doesn’t promise to do it in a timely manner, but he does it and every single recipient remembers the one they got.

The same with Thank Yous – I know it seems arcane and time consuming, but it is more powerful than you can imagine when a new or existing client, drudging through their stack of junk mail & bills, comes across your note to say that YES, you do appreciate their business. Personally I use because they allow me to customize my thank yous and I don’t even have to get up from my computer to sent it, but any Thank You that comes in the mail (no emails) is more powerful than you can imagine. So make yourself the commitment right now that, although your world is as crazy as everyone else’s you are going to go the extra mile and become known as the one Pro that gets back to people and acknowledges your clients & friends. Not only will it help your business, it will help you. Just do it and you’ll know what I mean.