Are you testing your training?

By the time you read this, we’ll have finally arrived home from an almost six week long work / play trip. What that really means is that I worked as we travelled and she played. Ok, I played a little bit too. The beauty of having a business that isn’t tied to a single physical location is that you can do that work from anywhere. BUT… that isn’t today’s topic. I think I’ve harped on the value of remote work enough, at least for now.

This was a long road trip. We saw long “lost” relatives we hadn’t seen in 20 years, had a little bit of beach time, spent time with family and college friends, as well as knocking off a few things on our “gotta do this” list. One of the constants of a road trip – particularly one that takes consists of a lot of time in the high desert plains and mountains – is thirst quenching. There’s a certain drive through place we visit that has a happy hour twice a day – half off or very cheap drinks (no, not THOSE kind). These places are (almost) everywhere along our trip’s path, so we managed to visit quite a few of them.

At almost every one of these places, we found that we had ordering problems. An unbelievable frequency of them, in fact.

The problem is not the problem

At first, we thought it was my accent. I don’t have one, according to me. Ok, I really don’t have one and I have had enough trouble with this at drive ups that I tend to be that guy who enunciates every word slowly so that even Siri could understand it.

Didn’t help. When you’ve had this issue in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and a few other states whose people talk far differently accent-wise, you start to get the idea that it isn’t you.

The same data and experiences that help you figure out that it isn’t you also help you figure out that it isn’t the person on the other end. That was the good news.

Eventually, we started asking questions. Yes, I know. Who does that?

The real issue?

At first, it really wasn’t clear what was creating this issue at so many locations. While I was still thinking it might somehow be me or engine noise, the problem was consistent in too many places, even with the engine off. Plus we were driving a Subaru, not a diesel pickup.

What was clear was that employees of this franchise system were having massive problems all over the West, Midwest, and as far east as the Florida panhandle.

After talking to a few employees at different locations (after we had trouble ordering at each of them), we found out that they were having terrible struggles with their point of sale ordering system. It wasn’t clear if it was new, poorly designed, unclear, and/or if an awful lot of people hadn’t been getting trained well, or all of those things.

It eventually became clear that the more experienced employees were doing ok with the system (think: Morning visits usually staffed by a manager), while afternoon visits were the source of the struggle. It finally seemed to come down to newer employees who may have recently started for the summer. They would be less familiar with the menu and the point of sale system, as well as the challenges of voice ordering.

In one case, the flustered person trying to take a two drink order finally called over their manager, who cleared up the point of sale issue almost immediately. The manager was very apologetic to us, but I don’t think we deserved an apology. I think the employee who perhaps hadn’t been trained enough or mentored enough was the one who should have received the apology (and some additional training).

The point? Test, train, repeat.

We encountered similar things at other businesses during our trip.

If you implement point of sale, tech support or order management systems in your business – whether you own/run a restaurant or a heavy manufacturing business, find a local fast food joint that has deployed do-it-yourself ordering kiosks.

Every manager (including senior ones) will benefit from watching the general public as they use these systems. Having done that… watch newly trained employees do the same with your systems. Only then will you know if your training is working.

Photo by familymwr

Two out of three

Recently I spent some time in the town where I went to college. One of the things that tends to happen when you meet old friends from those days is to check out your old haunts and see if how they fare against your (probably) inaccurate memory of them. From the business perspective, it speaks of consistency – but also of gaining return clients. Any college town that hosts a school with sports and other major events is likely to be judged like this on a regular basis.

Still holding their own

The first place is a rather old barbecue place, but not the one I mentioned last week. It was closed for a little bit, bought by a competitor some time later and has remained without significant changes for the last three decades.

It’s a unique place in some ways. You order your meal the same way you did over 30 years ago – via an old school wall phone in each booth. The current owner has a few other local BBQ places under different branding – and all of them are solid locations. More importantly, the current owner of this old BBQ place has kept the qualities that people remember from decades ago. They’ve kept most of the menu, the funky booth ordering phone system, and did so while keeping the food quality at the level of their other locations.

Recognizing and promoting the story of this old place and the memories people have for it wasn’t all that hard to do – but someone had to recognize the value of retaining these things and execute them well. Keeping all of that intact despite having a multi-location barbecue business with different branding is a good example of understanding what makes customer retention and return visits happen.

Fresh face, old place

This place is unrecognizable compared to the original. It’s on the same site, but the original building was torn down back in 2015. The new place is bigger, brighter and frankly – a serious improvement. I worked at this place back in the early ’80s while I was in school. The business has changed hands at least once since that time and there’s a lot of water under the bridge. However, this place also had a lot of long-time customers and, of all things, is “famous” (if not memorable) for the old building’s iconic blue metal roof.

Customers remembered it so much that when the new building went up with a silver metal roof, you might say they received “a little” feedback about it. So much feedback, in fact, that they changed the color of the roof on the newly constructed building and included a reference to the roof (and its color) in the new name of the business.

Best of all, when you walk in the door, you see a large photo of the original building on the wall, along with another large sign next to it that tells the story of the business. While all aspects of the business have moved forward and improved substantially, they’ve remembered their past and helped their customers do so as well.

No mas

Unfortunately, not all of the old haunts in my alma mater’s town are showing the life that the previous two displayed. Many are closed, replaced by new things and / or new buildings. While the loss of some of the more revered ones is sad, after 30 plus years, you have to expect it.

One of the old joints now has numerous new locations, but has closed the original location on the college’s main drag / hangout street.

Unfortunately, the resemblance ends there. While the menu is largely the same, not much else is. The food’s gone downhill, even from our last visit two years ago. The service? Missing. Locals now comment that it has become a BYOF (bring your own food) restaurant because the food and the service are so bad.

The lesson?

The lessons in all of this come down to a number of things:

  • Knowing why people love your place, even if it wasn’t (and still isn’t) perfect.
  • Knowing why they come back to a place you recently bought.
  • The importance of the story that existed before you were involved – so that you can respect & leverage it, even if you need to make big changes.

Talk to your customers. They’ll tell you what you need to know. Don’t make it harder than it really is.

Photo by greatdegree

Horseradish & the pursuit of perfect

Last week we talked about what it takes to be the perfect place. Not really “perfect”, but something that feels perfect. Thing is, perfect is quite often different for each person. That’s why it helps to decide who your ideal customer is and zoom in close to eliminate who they aren’t, AND more importantly, zoom in super close to determine who they are, what they do, who they do it with, and so on.

When you zoom in that close, you’re far more likely to notice the small things that are important to them. Whether you look through a telescope or a microscope, you have to pay very close attention to what’s in view in order to know what to do next, what decisions to make about what’s important and what’s not.

Under the microscope

When examining something under a microscope, you’re looking at tiny little things, but in the context of the viewing area, they’re still important despite their size. The same goes for little things that your ideal client cares about.

While the lack of those little “insignificant” things might be ignored by your ideal client, the situation changes when those insignificant little things exist. It might not make sense, but here’s what happens: That little insignificant thing isn’t expected in most situations, so it doesn’t count against the business that doesn’t provide whatever that little thing is.

However, those customers are always looking for those little things. They might not be disappointed when they don’t find them, but their sensitivity to their presence is always high. When that tiny item IS present, everything changes. The ideal customer is looking for it and the presence of that item, no matter what it is, is transformational.

It changes their opinion. It changes everything because it changes the lens they see that business through. Suddenly, that business “gets” them. It understands them. They know that this business understands the minute little things that “fussy customers” are looking for.

You don’t miss what you don’t care about

Like a rest area on the highway, people who aren’t looking for them don’t miss the ones that don’t exist. Even when one appears after many miles, they won’t necessarily appreciate it if they don’t use it. Likewise, those who have been waiting for that rest area are thrilled to encounter it, even though it’s only a rest area.

It’s a bathroom and maybe a place to have a picnic and walk the dog.

Even so, it’s what you want, when you want it. You can probably name a few examples of this kind of appreciation that you have in your world.

Horseradish

Here’s a simple example: horseradish. Years ago, I stopped into a barbecue place for the first time with a couple of friends. This place had a special take on things. All the walls in this place were lined with three rows of various hot sauces, barbecue sauces and the like. I had never heard of most of them, but I surely tried a few.

That, however, was not the thing that brings me back to this place. Their barbecue is excellent, but even that is common in the southern midwest.

What brings me back every time is the fact that in addition to their barbecue and vast array of sauces is, of all things, the cole slaw. While this is not uncommon given that you can get into downright religious arguments about cole slaw (acidic, on the sandwich, on the side, etc), what’s different about this place is that their cole slaw contains the perfect dose of horseradish.

Yes, horseradish. That’s it. I drove by this place today, as I happened to be in the same town for the first time in 16 months.

Of course, I haven’t quite perfected this touch on my own, as simple as it might seem, so that makes it even more of a draw. Anytime I’m in this town, I MUST visit that barbecue place (For those hankering for detail, it’s Buckingham Smokehouse in Springfield Missouri).

This is a perfect example of a trivial little detail that raises your business’s game above others every time. Do I have high expectations of them as I do every business I return to? Sure, but that detail is what pulls me back.

That is how a tiny insignificant thing can pay off.Photo by mbtphoto (away a lot)

This place is perfect.

Have you ever said “This place is perfect” after spending some time in a store, restaurant or other business? What made that place “perfect”? Many times, it’s little things.

Sometimes, it’s about the things you might normally forget. Other times, it’s about things you simply don’t expect. Or a lack of the things you’d normally expect. No matter which one creates the perfect experience, seek out these things.

Odors or fragrances?

At times, it’s about cleaning things that will never stay clean. I was walking down a New Orleans sidewalk a few blocks down from Bourbon Street on a recent Saturday morning. Across the narrow cobblestone street from me, a man in a waiter smock was mopping the sidewalk. Not sweeping it, MOPPING it. If you’ve been in any “party zone” area of town on the morning after, you know he was making sure today’s customers wouldn’t smell anything left by revelers who happened to pass by after his restaurant closed.

Strong, unpleasant odors have a way of making a sizable first impression. Mopping the sidewalk was one way to make sure that that morning’s customers didn’t get the wrong first impression as they entered the restaurant. Imagine if you were part of one of the groups entering the restaurant that morning and were accompanied by your best client, or someone who would be – if they said “Yes” at that lunch. Or perhaps you’re meeting someone to pop the question. Suddenly, a simple mopping job on a sidewalk takes on a different level of importance. Mopping the sidewalk has transformed from a chore into something much more important.

When did you last sweep and mop (or at least hose down) the sidewalk in front of your place? What could a “little” change to the experiences of entering your business mean to your customers? Maybe you should ask them. They might surprise you.

Surprising experiences

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped at a highway rest stop in eastern Idaho. A state facility, not a Federal one. Ever seen a spotless highway rest stop? During the summer? On any highway? I have. I was floored. It was perfectly clean and smelled like anything but a highway rest stop, particularly one along a busy highway. Spotless, yet not antiseptic, or smelling of mildew. Shockingly perfect. We’ve all been in heavily used rest stops that were nothing like that one.

Something as mundane as a highway rest stop is still memorable weeks later because someone who takes their job seriously has done more than simply clean the place.

What little improvement or consistently higher-level attention to detail in the mundane work around your place could produce that kind of surprising experience?

Mea culpas everywhere

The reverse of these little things that create perfect experiences often happen when we forget why we’re in business, who we’re serving, and why. You may have seen recent advertisements where Facebook, Uber, and Wells Fargo grovel for your forgiveness. Maybe they’re legitimate, maybe not. The trouble they have to overcome is that many people still aren’t sure if their apologies are real. Likewise, you still aren’t sure they’ve truly learned a lesson from their mistakes.

These are the questions you never want to create in the minds of your customers. It takes a great deal of time and effort to re-earn lost trust. When a woman no longer feels safe doing business with your company, you may never regain her trust. This isn’t solely an Uber issue, but their safety issues make an ideal example. You can create unsafe or uncomfortable situations in almost every business. Even woman-owned businesses have to reconsider situations they may not personally be concerned about, as customers have experienced things that they may not have had to deal with.

Finding what makes yours perfect

By now, you may be wondering what sort of little touches or improvements would make your business perfect. Look back at your customer service logs, complaints and suggestions received. Taking the perspective of a customer, review the ones that seemed petty, tiny, “little and unimportant”, or similar. More often than not, these situations tend to provide clues to finding angles to approaching “perfection”. They may not be the keys themselves, but they’ll often point you in the right direction. The key to creating so-called perfection is wanting to.

What’s your growth plan?

Last week, we talked about the mechanics of growth, focusing on the important of renewals / repeat business to your growth. We skipped over one of the more important aspects of figuring out how to grow: what you want your business’ growth destination to be.

Are you the “doer”, the “p and p’er” or both?

Figuring out your preferred role is critical. It drives how you feel about growth. Few people like both roles, but they do exist.

Some people are doers. They love the work. Whether it’s drywalling, programming, operating heavy equipment, or defending clients in court, they love the work. Some doers don’t even want to think about stepping away from the work to deal with employees & other trappings of growth.

Some doers decide not to grow their business (or grow it beyond themselves) because they’re seriously allergic to the “people & paperwork” aspects of business. They know that growing the business is all but guaranteed to pull them away from the work they love.

The “people and paperwork” role I’m speaking of is “the back office”. We’re talking about sales, operations, marketing, hiring, people and project management, etc. Unlike the doer, there are some folks who love the “people and paperwork” thing. They’d be happy to let people who love the work of the business actually do that work while they take care of the p & p duties.

Few people relish both roles, but they do exist. No matter which of these roles is your favorite, you need to figure out where you want the business to end up. Once you figure that out, the path to growing it (or not) will be far more clear.

Thinking about growth

At this point, you might be wondering what your options are. Only you know which one’s right for you, but you’ve got to figure it out. Really, it’s about where you want the business to go combined with where you want to go.

Some would like to do the work until they retire, close it down and walk away. Some would like to grow the business and sell it. Others might want to grow it and pass (or sell) it to their family. You might be looking at some combination of those things.

One thing I like to ask owners is to describe how they see their life 10 or 20 years down the road. Does the business need you around at least a few days a week? How does your team (and your customers) feel if you disappear for months? Does the business disappear if you disappear? Does it not even skip a beat? Is there work that you do now that you’d rather not do because it takes you away from work you love?

It helps to have an idea which of these scenarios you want to live because the scenario drives what your growth plan looks like and what you as an owner and manager need to focus on.

Getting out

If you want to be the person who disappears for months and has a business at home that never misses you, then your growth plan needs to include (if not focus on) replacing each of your roles. Most of you wear multiple hats. Start by giving away the hats you can delegate easily. Automate a hat or two if you can.

The big job is replacing you. While there are people qualified to run your business, they probably don’t have the “you” brain. They’ll make decisions based on their experience, values, ethics, etc. If that’s OK, then you’re in great shape once you find and train that person.

However, most small business owners aren’t OK with that, no matter how great their hire. Why? They want the decisions to be made the way they would make them. Be patient selecting and training this person so you can sleep easy later.

Staying in

If you want to stay, do the “real work” & avoid the p and p tasks, it’s time to find someone you can build trust in so that they can take on all those operational tasks. Focus on what allows you to step away from the things that annoy and frustrate you and the things you put off. Procrastination is a great way to identify what you hate to do. This person may need to take on partner status, which is OK for the right person.

 

Photo by Atli Harðarson

Growth, market size and renewal rate

Everyone I talk to wants to grow their business. Yet in the last ~20 years, I can’t recall a single growth conversation that included their renewal rate or the size of the market that remained, until I asked.

How big is your market?

It’s the question that often provokes people to look away and give a laser beam stare at a fluttering leaf on a distant elm tree as they think about what the number is and/or how they’ll figure it out.

For example… “So how many programmers, accountants, cities under 20,000 population, dog kennels, or whatever are there right now?

In other words, how big is your market? If everyone who actually should be your customer was your customer, how many customers would you have?

If your customers buy $30,000 industrial drills, you’d better know how many companies use a tool like that, how many each of those companies would typically need, and how many companies still need that kind of drill. You’d also better know who in China is making a knockoff to clone the one they bought from Samsung, who already knocked it off.

Renewals matter

The other troubling question affects some businesses and not others. That is, “What’s your renewal rate?” In other words, for a service you sell on a recurring basis (or a product that requires “refills”), what percentage of your customers buy their next purchase from you?

Lots of people know. Lots of people don’t. As you might imagine, I think you should know.

Imagine that you run a company that makes $200,000 a year. You’re in a recurring sale business model where your product or service requires “refilling” on a regular basis.

So, you want to have a conversation about growth. If you want to get to $600,000 by the end of 2025, a major impact item on getting to that number is “How many people want / need what you sell?”. The other is how many customers can you keep of the ones you get. Of course, we need to determine if your market will support that number, but there are always ways to deal with that – market expansion, reaching beyond the edges, looking for markets whose needs mimic your market’s needs, and many more.

It goes deeper than knowing the numbers. You need to know why they renew. Why they don’t. Growth depends on renewals in these businesses.

Are you part of the 92%?

Customer service is a good example of an area that can transform renewal rate. Most of us are in an alternate reality zone about how much our customers love us. The quote below speaks directly to that, even though customer service is only one place that causes you to lose renewals.

According to research by Bain & Company, when asked, 80 percent of companies say they deliver “superior” customer service.

The customers’ perception of the service level was very different.

Only 8 percent of customers felt the companies delivered “superior” customer service. – Joey Coleman, Never Lose A Customer Again

What do your customers think?

When leaving you is easy

Your highest chance of losing a customer is in the early going. The first 30, 60, 90 days.

Early on, they get their first exposure to your product, service, support, billing department, documentation, deployment team and so on. They haven’t yet developed a commitment to you. Your products & services haven’t become an integral part of what they do. As such, the friction to replace / discard your stuff is low.

At this point, the decision has low political cost, despite the embarrassment / reputation loss someone will take for approving the purchase. However, if their entire company is being on-boarded like they’ve never experienced before, the political cost increases substantially.

Given that knowledge, what can you do to make it incredibly easy (“frictionless”) to adopt your products / services in the first 30, 60, 90 days? What can you do in that timeframe to help new clients make your stuff such an integral part of their business that no one dares stop it?

That’s what good on-boarding does. It starts working on your renewal rate on day one, when most others think “sold = done”.

Most companies aren’t good at this.

There’s so much headroom available above the average that you have lots of room to play with. Competitors tend to not be exposed to these changes. Even if they find out about them, they frequently think they’re little more than frills and puffery.

Just what you want.

Why so many privacy policy updates? Part 2 of 2

This week, we’ll continue discussing why you’ve received so many privacy policy updates lately.

Over the last decade, the trifecta of poor security controls, poor user-behavior controls (ie: can you bring a USB drive to work and plug it into a cash register?), and criminals crossed paths to produce repeated data breaches. You’ve heard of the big ones like Sony, Home Depot, Target, and Equifax. Naturally, there are many more. We rarely hear about the ones at small local businesses.

While the Feds have done little to require businesses to strengthen data privacy & security, some companies have voluntarily raised their security efforts. Many didn’t. It’s a broad global issue.

For example, you never give your credit/debit card to a clerk, waiter, or bartender when traveling outside the US. They bring the card machine to you. You insert the card, ok the amount & pocket the card, then hand the machine back to the clerk. US cardholders control the card like this only at big box retail & grocery stores. This process reduces the possibility of people stealing card info because employees never get possession of the card.

The other shoe drops

Two years ago, the European Union decided they’d waited long enough for companies to use consumer data carefully & properly protect it. They created the GDPR – or “General Data Protection Regulation“.

The GDPR gives control of a consumer’s personal data back to the consumer, requires clear privacy policies, and sets rules for how opt-ins are offered / used. But that’s not all.

It also has a few other items of interest:

  • Ever been frustrated that a company has as data breach and doesn’t report it for months or even years? GDPR requires providing the EU authorities within 72 hours of determining that a breach occurred (there are more details about what breaches require this, but I’ll leave that investigation to you).
  • Ever installed software, installed a phone app, or accessed a website that asked you to agree to 42 pages of terms and conditions written in legalese? GDPR puts a stop to that, which is why you’ve been getting all those privacy policy update emails.

First, I don’t recommend reading the GDPR reg on the EU website unless you’re an attorney. Maybe not even then. There are plenty of good, detailed explanations about what it means to companies based in the EU, companies with offices in the EU, and companies that do business with EU residents.

That last part is why US companies have to pay attention.

Why does a US business care about GDPR?

First off, this is not legal advice and I am certainly not an attorney, nor do I play one on TV. You need to discuss this stuff with your legal counsel, mostly because getting caught playing this game wrong can get really expensive.

You may think this doesn’t matter because it’s an EU regulation. You might be right, particularly if you only serve local customers. However, if you have an online business that serves customers in the EU, a closer look is merited.

This isn’t solely an EU problem. This change had to start somewhere and most of it is necessary. I suggest that you look at GDPR with your team. There are numerous “GDPR for Americans” explainer pages to help you decipher it.

For example: There are exemptions (perhaps not the right word) for data collected when the EU person is not in the EU, or when you don’t advertise in the EU, target EU prospects in your ads, or have EU languages / currencies as part of your website.

Even if exempt, we need to look forward

Companies need to take more responsibility for protecting they data they collect than they have previously done. Likewise, they will eventually need to give consumers better access/control of the data collected about them. Failing that, it will be forced upon them.

Why? Because Congress will eventually be forced to implement something & they have routinely shown a lack of ability / desire to understand how US businesses use technology.

Imagine how “the Patriot Act for business” and “TSA for data” might look like if written in a fear-based mindset after a “bad actor” gets an IRS database. If history teaches us anything, it’s that they’ll overreact.

Another angle: Companies that are ahead of the curve are going to be more attractive to consumers and prospective buyers.

The GDPR is enforceable as of May 25, 2018.

Why so many privacy policy updates? Part 1 of 2

If you buy stuff, do business, and/or take courses online, you deal with someone who collects your email & other personal info. Recently, you’ve probably received numerous emails regarding changes in their privacy policy. A privacy policy documents how a company uses the data they collect during the process of selling something or providing content to you.

A little backstory is necessary to paint a picture of why data privacy has gained recent attention & how recent changes could affect your business.

Why the data is important to businesses

If you’ve gotten a credit card offer in the mail, credit card / bank / credit bureau data about you was used to turn you-the-product into you-the-customer. It’s easy to buy a list of mailing addresses of people who make more than $75K a year, live in upscale neighborhoods, & own their own homes. This is not new in the Facebook era & they aren’t the first company using this data. It’s been happening for decades.

Some of this use is wise. Advertisers want the best return for their investment & businesses want the advertisements they offer to be effective so that advertisers keep advertising.

When we see out of context ads, they seem stupid & annoying. You may wonder if the advertiser (and the company displaying the ad) know what they’re doing. Effective advertisers don’t make money being stupid, and annoying. They like putting stuff in front of you that you’re inclined to buy.

Retargeting, not Big Brother

Advertising effectively includes using what you know about a prospect to show them ads for things they’ve previously shown interest in.

Perhaps this morning you looked at baby clothes on Amazon. This afternoon, you might have been weirded out to see an Amazon baby clothes ad in the Facebook sidebar.

This isn’t Big Brother.

It’s the smart (and sometimes obnoxious / overbearing) re-use of data collected when you were shopping. It’s called behavioral retargeting. When you visit Amazon.com, a blog, or Pinterest, your browser stores info about what you viewed.

Amazon advertises on Facebook. When they do retargeting, their dynamically generated Facebook ad has the ability to re-use the data your browser stored on their behalf while you were at Amazon, but they can only see the data they stored. Other sites you visit can also buy Facebook ads pointing at Amazon-offered (and other) products based on what you viewed when on their site, but they can’t see what Amazon stored.

Circling back to privacy policy

The value of this data grows as you collect more of it. When value is developed, there will be people who want to abuse it. Likewise, there will be people who want to steal the data and misuse it.

For years, the Federal Trade Commission has been tightening up monitoring and enforcement of advertising & (particularly) testimonials posted by US-based online businesses. This happened because of poor behavior by a small percentage of people. They made up testimonials, paid for testimonials (without making it clear that they were paid for), and/or sold their contact list to other businesses without telling customers they’d become their product, etc. While not all paid testimonials are a bad thing, misuse & less-than-ethical behavior was going on. The volume of complaints to the FTC was increasing.

Originally, there weren’t many rules about how the data could be used because the companies with this data treated it as a trade secret. Before company networks connected to the internet, data was easy to protect. Obviously, being connected to the internet changed that.

The FTC hasn’t taken the next step regarding the contents of the privacy policy. By requiring businesses to state how a person’s data would be used, they left action to the consumer by allowing us to choose businesses (in part) based on their stated privacy policy.

Brick and mortar businesses and organizations like Equifax haven’t been held to the same standards as online businesses, probably because they’re easier for the consumer to find & confront. However, businesses like Equifax are under no regulatory requirement to adhere to your requests about the data they collect about you. For example, when you ask them to delete your personal data from their systems, they don’t have to do it (and probably wont). You’re the product they sell, remember? More specifically, data about you is the product.

The misuse & lack of consumer control provoked what happened next. We’ll cover that next week.

Photo by stockcatalog

Reviewed your public internet access lately?

Last week, I was in Chicago for a seminar. As you might imagine, public internet access is important to business travelers. My hotel had internet, but browsers and Outlook both objected when I attempted to connect to any secure site or resource. When I switched to the wifi hotspot on my phone, those issues disappeared. When I reached wifi at other locations, those issues didn’t reappear.

Verdict: hotel internet was misconfigured, broken, hacked, or some combination thereof.

Reporting the problem

I reported the problem Monday afternoon to the front desk and to the hotel’s customer service account on Twitter. By the time I checked out early Friday morning, the problem still existed. It took their corporate Twitter people 28 hours to respond, despite the fact that they’re a substantial global hotel chain – or perhaps, because they are.

I noted to the Twitter reps that I didn’t expect the front desk to be network experts, thus I was reporting it to them so they could get the hotel property some corporate-level network help. This didn’t happen – at least not yet.

Their response was to contact the hotel manager. Based on his post-checkout email to me, he had no idea what I was talking about. As previously noted, I didn’t expect him to. Even better, they accidentally forwarded me the internal corporate support team email with the case number and all the contacts, all while leaving this hotel manager hanging out in the breeze to figure it out on his own.

So how does this affect you?

Public internet access quality matters

I don’t want to turn this into a geeky network security post. I mention it because there’s a lot at potential risk when networks offering public internet access have problems like this.

When your customers connect to a secure site from your wifi & that network is misconfigured, it may simply prevent use of the network. If your business is frequented by business customers, fix this quickly as you don’t want them to leave and decide never to return.

You may not think this is a big deal, but business customers do – especially if they’re on the road a good bit. Don’t think of them as one person who “isn’t even a local“. Think of them as all business travelers (or tourists) as a whole. There are sites and mobile apps out there that guide people to businesses with good internet. If your internet is bad and your coffee and croissants are awesome, many of these folks will go elsewhere.

If a regular traveler finds a spot to settle in for an hour or two of work and that spot is dependable, they’ll never forget it and they’ll return every time they’re in town. BJ’s Coffee in Forest Grove, OR comes to mind immediately for me.

If your network is hacked, the risks go well beyond repelling customers. Worst case, the bad guys can “see” your network traffic and send it to a place where they can store and review it. If they have what appeared to be in place at the hotel I visited, they can gather logins, passwords, credit card and other account numbers and so on.

While it’s not a good idea to use the same network that you offer to your customers, if you do so & it’s hacked like this, info on the cards you run could be at risk, even if you passed PCI-DSS certification a few months ago. To be sure, this depends on the hack, your network config & other things. The details aren’t the point.

The risk these situations expose you to …. that’s the point.

Add “network health” to your regular checkups

On a regular basis, you probably check in with your lawyer, doctor, CPA, and a couple of other advisors. You do this to reduce / avoid risk, maintain good health (physical and/or financial) and keep yourself out of trouble.

I suggest adding “network people” to that list.

Ask them to help you lock your network down without making it impossible / annoying to use (there is a balance to be had). Ask them to show you what to check and how to detect when something is “not right” so that you know when to call them for expert help. This landscape changes often. Your network and the equipment, customers and data that touch it are assets. They need protection too.

Photo by Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com)

When customer service consumes a business

Recently a software business came to me looking for some help with sales emails. During the initial discussion, they hinted at being a bit overloaded on support. While explaining the big picture situation that provoked their request about the emails, they revealed some details about support tying up development. This was also keeping them from attending to sales. Thus, the emails needed to improve so that sales can improve without needing quite so many phone calls to people wearing a sales hat right that minute, when they needed to be wearing a different hat.

When the phone rings, it’s important

You might wonder why the same people are doing sales and support. If so, you probably don’t have a small company anymore. Think back to how things were when your company had four or five people juggling business development / sales, customer service and whatever else you have to do.

Three calls come in at about the same moment. All three get answered by the four or five people you have. This is standard operating procedure in a small business. We do what has to be done with what we’ve got at that moment. When the phone rings at a company that maybe doesn’t know with absolute certainty where next month’s revenue is coming from – every ring sounds like “ka-ching”, either whether the money is heading in or out. The phone gets priority.

The idea seemed to be that better emails might reduce the demands on the folks trying to juggle sales and support. While that might be true, it’s the wrong problem, even though I totally understand why it’s the focus. Sales feeds the bulldog, folks.

The trouble with priorities

Jim Rohn once said that every time you say yes, you’re saying no to something else. Customer service calls can consume every moment of your day… week… life. Yes, they can literally consume the rest of your life.

Why? Because your priorities need to be adjusted.

Look, I’ve been there. I know those service calls have to be handled. I know you base your reputation on the quality of your support. But you’re missing the big picture, and I’m that guy who in this very spot has written many times about lame service and differentiating service and so on. I’m not waffling on that, but when support becomes all consuming, it means your priorities need to be adjusted.

It’s time to sit down with the sales, support, development and management teams. You might not do software, so you may have a manufacturing, installation, customization, and/or deployment team. Whatever. Point is, this is not solely a software business issue.

Customer service eats the world

Like a fire consumes all the oxygen it can, that’s also how service loads can work. Certainly you’ve heard “Your call is important to us, please hold for the next available agent, blah blah blah“. Normally, this means that a large company has understaffed their customer service department and simply won’t admit it, so they tell you they’re experiencing “unusually high call volumes”. Yep, sure they are.

Sometimes it means something else is going on, such as the entire internet is down, or Metallica announced an extra show, or similar.

The point is that this is the nature of customer service. It can and will eat the world unless you make an intentional effort to eliminate the need for it.

Eliminate customer service?

Yes. Eliminate it. Not the department. The need.

When ELIMINATING the need for service is the goal, everything changes.

Imagine if you told the people who write your user manual that you were giving them a new goal: Eliminate the need for a user manual.

Next, tell your folks in shipping (or on the dock) that all shipping customer service calls will go to whoever packed the box.

Finally, tell your product development / install / deploy / customization team that  all customer service product questions will go directly to whoever made it.

After they finished howling at you, they’d ask why, how and so on.

Try something like this: “Let’s build something that people can use without asking for help.”

It completely changes how they think about what they do, much less how they do it. What about new users? What about experienced users? What about power users? Which one of those users does the dev team focus on now? Probably none of them.

It also completely changes how & what you manage.

 

Photo by Kay Kim(김기웅)