Strategic responsibility: Client Care and Feeding

The custody, guardianship & defense of your clients is a strategic responsibility for anyone interested in customer retention. When you fail to provide timely, wise counsel to your clients, it creates risk. An aging example that has a very recent twist is Windows XP. The subject is only an example, as the lesson applies to all businesses.

In 2001, the beta of Windows XP was released. I installed it on my laptop before going to a trade show in Mobile. I walked back into the booth as my sales team finished a demo of our product (a back office management system for studio photographers). The prospect was tech savvy and he had visited our biggest competitor’s booth before stopping to see us. As I arrived at the booth, the sales team had this “we’ve got trouble” look on their faces.

As I arrive, the prospect turns to me and says “I have XP beta on my laptop. When I tried your competitor’s software on my laptop over there (pointing at their booth) and it died an ugly death. Will your software run on XP when it’s released?”

XP’s moment of truth

I turned and said “No”, pausing long enough for him to start to enjoy my answer, then finished my sentence… “The demo you watched is running on XP beta. It doesn’t look like XP because I’ve disabled the XP UI. Since most people haven’t seen it, I didn’t want to distract the sales process with questions about the new UI features.

Fact is, I also hadn’t told the sales team because I wanted unvarnished feedback from them and from prospects.

I’ve always been a bleeding-edger when it comes to a new OS. I don’t install the new system everywhere, but I use them enough to assess a level of trust. In this case, I had been running an XP beta on my laptop for several months. I knew it’d be available between August and October, so when the June beta was publicly available, I hopped on it. I did most of my development and testing on it at the time because I wanted to be ready on XP launch day.

Launch day was strategically important to Windows. Many applications used by my (often bleeding-edge) clients were getting major updates for XP, including Photoshop (remember, the company’s clients were photographers). We had to demonstrate that we had their back by launching an XP-ready version the day XP became available.

That doesn’t mean that I use it 16 years later.

Client advocacy is strategic care and feeding

Back in 2012 or so, Microsoft finally provided a drop dead date for XP. 18 months in advance, the advocacy went in motion. XP was already old news, but many clients still used it. On April 8th 2014, Microsoft said they would stop issuing patches and security fixes for XP, so it was time to move on. The same situation was coming in the summer of 2015 for Windows Server 2003. Both systems were a bit behind in the OS security world and had been left behind by most software developers.

Users feel differently. They’re comfortable. They aren’t fans of things that, to the naked eye, look like change for the sake of change. To this day, you can find XP running ATMs, kiosks, announcement boards, etc. The advocacy to convince people to upgrade from XP had to happen. Some vendors forced their clients to upgrade by refusing to provide installers that worked on XP and Server 2003 (this was the strategy I selected, coupled with almost two years of advocacy).

Some vendors let their clients decide. Last week, many of their clients learned a painful lesson when the “WannaCry?” ransomware disabled (so far) over 230,000 computers in businesses and hospitals world-wide. WannaCry was effective only because the affected systems hadn’t been updated. Did IT-related businesses who have WannaCry victims as clients do enough to motivate them to perform the proper maintenance on their systems? Probably not.

Care and feeding is a strategic responsibility

The custody, guardianship & defense of your clients is a strategic responsibility. You were hired by your clients because of an established, known, and respected level of expertise in some area(s). You know more than your clients on those subjects and they should expect you to be a mentor and advocate for them. Leverage your expertise and strengths to help them protect themselves.
Photo by kyz

Your referrals leave an impression

Recently, I received an email from someone who described a rather unpleasant home improvement job, which involved the purchase of materials and a subsequent installation of them. We like these things to be boring – meaning everything went smoothly with no drama.

This one doesn’t appear to be turning out that way.

When I say rather unpleasant, the job describing to me included the theft of building materials by a contractor who was referred by the company where the materials were purchased. They also described bill padding on two occasions by the contractor, once for materials, and once for the labor. I’m told the referring supplier reimbursed the customer for the stolen materials, and that the contractor first offered to reimburse for the padded bills and then disappeared.

A few things about this merit discussion: First, there’s probably more to the story. Second, these situations almost always leave clues before bad things happen. Finally, this is really about how much care are you (the business owner) take when you refer someone to help your clients.

Do no legal ties mean no responsibility?

Referrals made in these situations are typically made to businesses with no legal ties to the referring business. You can understand why a referring business would make a point of distancing themselves legally from the folks they refer, but *does the lack of a legal connection matter to the consumer*?

Only legally, if that. And only until you establish a pattern of referring people to your clients regardless of how the referred vendor performs. The corporate line will almost certainly be one of maintaining that legal separation and that the consumer must be responsible for selecting a contractor.

The thing is, if you are going to go to the trouble of referring someone, why do it poorly and without conviction?

Taking the wimpy, “no legal connection” angle is not how you make business personal. I understand that there’s a desire to avoid burdening the corporate parent with the possibly sketchy behavior of a local contractor. What I don’t get is why you would recruit and refer contractors with so little care that it’s simply a matter of time before you run into trouble.

Even if there’s no business relationship and no legal responsibility accepted by the referring company, only a fool would believe that a referral doesn’t reflect on the one who makes it. So why do it poorly?

Why not refer well?

The smart business who makes these referrals will recruit, select and refer contractors that are so good that they leave the kind of impression that you can’t wait to refer them to your clients. Help your customers choose by giving them the tools they need to choose the best contractor from your vetted list of referrals.

The smart business who makes these referrals won’t stop there. They’ll follow up with every referral after the job, perhaps during each job until they’ve developed a level of confidence in the contractors they refer. It isn’t enough to recruit and select well – you have to keep it up. These people represent you whether you like it or not. Make sure they do it well and make sure they understand the importance of the work you’re sending to them.

The consumer bears the burden too

Part of the story that I left out up to now is that the referred contractor asked the customer if they could pay in cash because of some irrelevant reason.

If you (the consumer) don’t immediately disqualify a contractor who asks this question, you shouldn’t be surprised if (when) you have problems with them. In this case, that’s what happened. I told the consumer that this should have been a red flag to expect trouble.

When I get this question, I ask myself what else they want to skip.

Will they skip work that would result in dangerous construction? Will they skip town with my money? Will they skip town with materials? What else might they do while having access to my home or business? Did they skip buying insurance? What else did they shortcut?

The smart business will remind their clients that while working this might save you a few bucks, it might also cost them a lot.

The quality of your referrals matters. Make sure they’re worth giving.

Coming: Toll roads that cost more on critical trips

Depending on where you live, you may have paid to drive on a toll road.

Toll roads have been modernized in recent years to cause fewer traffic jams while encouraging drivers to sign up for the wireless automated payment systems they support. Instead of a toll gate that requires drivers to stop and pay with cash, multiple lanes have sensors that read an in-car device’s wireless signal that identifies your car.

That device is tied to a credit card or bank account so that the tolls are collected without stopping or worrying about having the right change. Because you didn’t have to stop to pay, the likelihood of traffic jams at toll booths is sharply reduced and makes your trip faster.

Increasing costs associated with maintaining roads have prompted toll road managers to look for ways to increase revenue on their roads. Toll roads have always charged more for vehicles with more axles. The idea there was that more axles meant more vehicle weight, which wears down the road more quickly. This formula for variable tolls has been accepted by those driving commercial trucks for some time.

So how do toll road managers find a way to get more revenue from the same traffic, but without raising tolls for everyone?

One of the ideas they’ve come up with focuses on eliminating traffic neutrality.

What is Traffic Neutrality?

Traffic neutrality is the idea that all vehicles of the same type pay the same toll. Whether you drive by yourself in a rusted out 1962 Ford Fairlane or you drive a $92,000 2014 Mercedes S550 full of Fortune 50 CEOs, the toll is the same.

Tolls for commercial vehicles work similarly, so if you drive a beat up three axle commercial dump truck carrying grass clippings, you pay the same as the driver of a brand new three axle dump truck carrying nuclear waste.

In other words, the toll is the same and the cost applied without conditions across traffic when you look at vehicles of the same type.

That’s traffic neutrality.

A new idea for raising toll road revenue

A change you might be seeing soon removes this neutrality and allows the in-car device to add additional charges to the toll based on where you are going and how important the trip is to you and your family or business.

For example, if you’re racing your wife to the hospital so she can deliver a baby, or someone is driving you to the doctor due to the allergic reaction to a bee sting, this would be sensed as an important trip and thus, the toll would be higher.

Another revenue idea is full speed lanes. Motorists on important trips pay more to drive in lanes free of interference from speed-control vehicles. Speed control vehicles drive slowly to moderate speeds in lanes not designed for “full speed limit service”.

Speed’s easy to manage since a road’s speed limit is regulated by law. However, the speed collectively driven above a toll road’s minimum speed limit is not. In order to manage these slower speeds, toll road managers pay frequent drivers a stipend to drive 10 or 15 mph below the speed limit.

Drivers are paid based on a device that monitors the car’s speed while on the toll road. If you meet your commitment, you get full pay.

These cars pull the average speed down for lanes that have not qualified for “full speed limit road access”, while not violating the law since those speed controlling cars drive at speeds above the road’s minimum speed.

Traffic volume plays into this as well. As the number of cars paying to drive at full speed increases, the demand for fast lanes increases.

When a new lane is needed, a non-full speed lane is converted to full speed and all remaining cars are funneled into the remaining non-full speed lanes. This increases traffic on the slower lanes and motivates more people to buy into full speed limit service on the toll road.

What’s this really about?

For now, this annoying toll road story is made up.  However, it describes exactly how the Federal Communications Commission is conspiring with large internet services and content providers to control internet traffic and destroy “net neutrality”, the real world internet version of traffic neutrality.

If this sounds like an idea that will hurt your business, call your Senators and Representatives and ask them to preserve net neutrality.

The most expensive refund

During my recent trip to Tulsa, I stopped into a chain drug store (similar to Walgreens) next door to the hotel.

When I got to the register, a mom with two young kids was trying to exchange an item she had purchased for a very similar item that had the same price and was made by the same company.

Standing in line behind her, it seemed like a pretty simple thing to exchange an unopened, undamaged item from the same company.

But not today, not with this policy and not with this manager.

Your card, please. It’s our policy.

You see, the mom didn’t have the debit/credit card that was originally used to pay for the item – because her husband paid for the purchase during their last visit. He wasn’t with her on this trip.

Despite the fact that she had the original receipt, the store manager couldn’t adhere to store policy without the card used to make the purchase.

You see, store policy required that he refund the item being exchanged onto the original card used to buy the item, then sell the exchanged-for item as a new purchase. It really wasn’t an exchange, but a refund and a purchase – and that’s why policy intervened.

The store’s point of sale system was designed to enforce the store’s refund policy, which required having the card present in order to refund. Having the original card used for the purchase is not a requirement of a merchant card vendor account. It’s an intentional limitation put in place by the store to serve their refund policy.

Most likely, it’s designed to make it impossible to return cash back to a customer who paid with a credit or debit card. In the case of a return for refund, this makes perfect sense – but it still doesn’t require the original card. Merchant card accounts are perfectly capable of refunding or voiding purchases to the original account – even without the original card being present.

Win-win policy

In situations where a customer is exchanging identically priced items, a refund-only policy puts staff and management in a bad place.

Normally, the register clerk would’ve exchanged the item with a simple transaction at the point of sale where the barcodes on both items are scanned and no money changes hands. This transaction makes sure that inventory reflects reality and that store replenishment is correct when the next truck arrives – both good things. This serves the needs of the customer as well as the store. While tax-driven issues can be created when there’s a long period of time between the original purchase and the refund, they can be handled.

An exchange policy that is really more of a refund and new purchase policy turned this into far more than a simple transaction. Policies should give a manager the ability to be a customer advocate, even while protecting the store.

Training matters

As the manager repeatedly quoted the same policy-driven argument with the customer, that well-intended, audit-proof store policy turned a repeat customer into an upset customer who might never return.

This wasn’t entirely the manager’s fault. He was simply adhering to corporate store policy. If he defied it, transactional data sent to corporate could mean he’d have to answer for his efforts to please the customer, despite the zero cost transaction.

Does your management training encourage your staff and managers to make common sense decisions to preserve customer relationships? It should. The cost of an equal exchange nets out to zero, unless you lose a long-time customer in the process.

Hard costs

Losing customers like a family with two young kids over the exchange of a $12 item is a poor choice. Two kids under the age of five means 13 years of drug store trips, say $20 a month. 13 years (age five to 18) times 12 months times $20 a month is $3120, not including the word of mouth costs of losing that customer. $3120 doesn’t seem like much, but it’s the cost of just one exchange transaction that should cost nothing.

While writing policies to protect your business, be sure to consider how they’ll work in the field. A group that included an experienced register clerk, a store manager and their assistants could reveal win-win training and policy changes that protect this business while encouraging customer loyalty.

The most expensive refund is one that costs you a customer.

Things a software vendor should never say

Are you damaging the relationship with your customers when you respond to their requests for help?

If the staff receiving feedback reacts to bug reports and questions as if they’re a personal insult, you probably are.

Snarky remarks, veiled insults and/or disdain have no place in the feedback loop, yet they happen far too often.

Here are a few ways you might be sabotaging your business when handling customer feedback and how to improve each of them:

“You’re the first one to report this.”

Even if I’m a beta tester, it’s an irrelevant piece of information unless the word “Thanks” is at either end of the sentence.

The implication is that if you’re the first to report it, it must not be a legitimate problem.

Better: Investigate the why and the what, rather than prosecute the who. Even if you tell your customer they’re the first to report the problem, at least one thing is necessary: Thank them. A lot depends on your attitude when sharing that fact. Even more depends on what happens next.

The alternative is that they give up on reporting things because your company takes an attitude with them. If they don’t report things they’ve encountered, what opportunity cost does that have? What does it say about your relationship with them?

“It works fine on my machine.” aka “WOMM”

This one makes me think “Well, I’ll be right over, so be sure to have my favorite coffee ready. Oh, and make me a sandwich because I’ll likely be at your desk for a while.

Seriously, telling the customer it works on your machine is fine, but only it’s said without the “You’re an idiot user” attitude. It’s not a bad thing to let them know that the problem is not well-known. Treating as if they’re an idiot is.

Better: It’s OK to let the customer know it works for you, but do so in context – while letting them know that this probably means there’s a simple solution.

“You’re using it wrong.”

While this could be another parallel to WOMM and a statement that the product’s usability isn’t what it should be – it’s really focused on blaming the customer. Keep in mind that if your UI, UX, error management and such are bad enough that the user could do something that would provoke such a remark – you should be focused on something other than blaming them.

Better:  Try “You’re doing something we didn’t consider during our design and testing. Can you tell me more about what you want to happen?” If the customer is doing something the system isn’t designed to support – this isn’t the time for criminal prosecution. It’s time for advocacy for both your development team and the customer. They may be about to describe a new market for a slightly altered version of your software – if you’re willing to listen for it.

“Why would you want to do THAT?”

This response to a request for new or altered functionality is usually spoken in a tone that gives you the impression that the vendor thinks you’re an idiot. You’ve set the wrong tone for a conversation that could have revealed a new market, a new segment of your existing market or more.

Better: This response needs to parallel “You’re doing it wrong”, as it can indicate UI and UX issues. However, this reaction is most often connected with opportunity. Market opportunities are lost when the user is about to describe something that would benefit them, but before they can, they’re insulted with “…THAT?“.

Benefits sell products. More benefits sell more products and help retain customers. Listen…you might actually hear something.

“It works fine on Windows XP”

This one is a close parallel to “It works fine on my machine”, but it also tends to send the message that your vendor, their support people or their developers are worst case stuck in 2001 when XP was released and best case in 2008 when Windows XP SP3 was released.

Supporting XP is OK if your market demands it for whatever reason. Ignoring the fact that there have been three releases of Windows since that time – sorry, can’t apologize for you there. Is this the kind of message you want to send to new customers? To prospects (yes, your comments will get out).

Better: If you haven’t completed tested on the OS release that your customer is using, try “We’re still testing on that version. Can you describe how it acts for you? I’d like to report this to our (install / development / testing / QA / management) team(s), so it would help to have as much information as possible.” Of course, if you can come up with a workaround until your OS support is more complete, do so.

As OS vendor development cycles shrink and they move to smaller and more frequent iterations, these situations are going to increase…unless you dedicate yourself to being ready for them. It’s simply a part of leading your market. Last week’s Build conference made it clear that Microsoft is serious about decreasing the time lag between OS releases. You can treat this change in speed as the enemy or as a competitive advantage.

The bottom line

It only takes one snarky comment to become an adversary at a time when the customer is asking for help.

They didn’t contact you to have a more negative experience than they’re already having – they asked for help. Customers are hard enough to keep without your staff running them off with remarks that tend to come off mean or snarky.

React with courtesy, intelligence and understanding even when things aren’t going well. Customers notice and remember.

How much trouble do you go to for your customers?

Most companies go to a little bit of trouble to create content for their customers. Some go to a lot. Some exert little or none.

Hubspot exerts more than most for a video on their unsubscribe page.

How hard are you working for your customers?

Hat tip to PRDaily for the find.

 

The value of trust

In this TED talk, Amanda Palmer explains “Business is Personal” in the context of her music and art businesses.

It’s obvious that her connection with fans and followers is personal and immensely important to her.

From a business perspective, not having that connection would mean she’d have to act like most other musicians. IE: Sign with a label, obey the label’s rules, accept their limitations and perhaps tolerate their tweaks to her music.

Making this connection means getting a new fan – and connected fans are where the feedback, revenue and a surfable couch come from.

This personal connection is everything for her – and it can be for you.

Depending on which acts you’ve seen lately, you may or may not have experienced after-concert meet-and-greet sessions like the ones Palmer described. I saw this for the first time at a Heart concert last summer and was pretty impressed. After their set, the opening act (which I’d never heard of) came out into the large grassy seating area. People lined up to connect with them, talk, take photos and get autographs.

Think about it…isn’t this the kind of interaction you’ve like to have after seeing a speaker, musical act or similar performance? Yet so few do, probably due to a fear all too similar to the fear-of-asking that Palmer talked about.

Lessons

Two of Amanda’s comments stand out for those seeking connections with the people in their market:

  • “Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet… [is] about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough.”
  • “I trust you this much. Should I? Show me.”

The first one speaks to the personal nature of your business that we talk about regularly: the effort you make to establish trust and connect with KK’s 1000 true fans. The second one is even more personal. You’re asking for some of the most frank feedback you can get. Are you strong enough to ask for it in that way?

Important for entrepreneurs: Amanda talks a little about the trouble with her label. She defines what success means to her, rather than letting her label define it. A huge “discovery” for many entrepreneurs.

Hat tip to Gayle Valeriote for the passing Amanda’s vid to me.

Did you train them to defend your business or your reputation?

Them, meaning “your staff”.

Are they using your policies and training as a shield to protect your business, or are they using them as tools and leverage to protect your customers and your brand?

There’s a big difference between the two. An example is this story involving a repeatedly broken-down U-Haul truck, whose details quickly spread across Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

You can see things ratchet up here (the tweets are listed in reverse chronological order, 21m means “21 minutes ago”, 3h means “3 hours ago”):

If some of those names don’t mean much, consider that:

  • @Mashable reaches almost 3 million people via Twitter and millions more in the business and tech world via retweets and Mashable.com.
  • @petershankman reaches 140k people on Twitter and has an email list full of journalists, authors, bloggers and PR people waiting for his HARO emails several times a day (HARO - Help-a-Reporter-Out)
The timeframe between 28 Jun (11pm) and the tweets marked 3h is about 36 hours. There are no responses from UHaul during that timeframe. Yet minutes after I mentioned the situation to @PenskeCares, they responded with this:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/PenskeCares/statuses/219109851844984834″]

After social media pressure started to heat up, U-Haul finally spoke up on day three with this (which you see Dave’s response to at “21m”, above):

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/UHaul_Cares/status/219102539017224193″]

Defending the brand

I’m sure that Dave and his dad will be cared for. What about the several hundred thousand people (according to HashTracking.com) who have seen this? Will it be what pops into their head the next time moving related topics are on their mind? That certainly isn’t what U-Haul wants. Will Dave, his friends and family ever use U-Haul again?

Is this what would happen if your business had a problem with someone who knows how to enlist help like this?

Things break. People make mistakes. Customers generally understand. They’re cranky when it happens because it’s unexpected change, discomfort and challenge, but their reaction depends on how you respond.

Your staff’s character and training determine how they implement your policies – and whether the situation becomes the next feel good story (or customer service nightmare) that your customers talk about on Facebook, Twitter and to their friends and family.

Character, Training and Policy

Reputation damage prevention comes down to character, training and policy implementation because you can’t always be there. There’s little doubt in my mind that U-Haul CEO Joe Shoen would have taken care of this properly – just like you would.

But Joe isn’t the one answering the phone.

He has managers and call centers handling that. Initially, it appears they did little to assure Dave that they had his back even though (or because) this drama took place in the region near U-Haul’s Phoenix corporate headquarters.

Efforts to defend their business damaged their reputation – by design, but not by intent. By design means we train our employees to defend our business, but we seldom empower them to defend its brand.

Why? We want to be the one making the decision when money is spent or time is committed to resolve a problem. We believe that no one would make the same decision we would because the staff isn’t spending their money. The problem is that we aren’t always around when these decisions are needed, so we make policy. Policies produce consistent handling of daily operations, a good thing.

We often provide our staff with policy that encourages non-responsibility (“It’s our policy” and “There’s nothing else I can do”) combined with job insecurity (“violating policy is a termination offense”). This prevents your staff from doing the right thing when the unusual occurs.

For edge cases requiring conscientious thought, our policies are often silent. They rarely say “If use of this policy could damage our reputation, do what you think is best for the customer if the short-term cost to the company is less than (whatever), otherwise ask for approval of your resolution.”

And that’s where U-Haul is right now, both at the corporate customer support level and sadly, at a few franchises in the U.S. Southwest. Franchisees have just as much ability to damage the brand as HQ does.

It’s OK to train your staff to defend the business, but be sure they’re empowered and trained to defend your reputation as well.

The ROI of Social Media is…

Two minutes and change that hit some of “the what and the why” discussed during my Social Media – A Roadmap for Small Businesses talk this week.

The ROI of social media is that your business is still here in five years.

What’s your plywood?

“When youâ??re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, youâ??re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. Youâ??ll know itâ??s there, so youâ??re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” – Steve Jobs

What’s your plywood?

PS: Thanks for raising the bar, Steve. Be well.