Listen to clients. They say the darndest things.

I love polarized lenses. Sunlight reflected off snow or water is brutal on my eyes. Polarized prescription shades make it all better. They aren’t inexpensive, yet the payoff in improved vision and eye strain is huge. These special lenses help me see things in a way I can’t otherwise experience. Taken further, consider the special lenses available for folks with color blindness. Many YouTube videos show a thrilled & tearful reaction to wearing these lenses for the first time.

You need special business lenses for the same reason.

A special lens filters out glare, distractions and visual “noise” while making it easier to see what’s not normally apparent. This is why  I repeatedly suggest the use of dashboards. Trends and intermediate figures stick out on a dashboard. They don’t typically become apparent (or appear at all) on an income statement – or they’re buried in other numbers.

One of the best lenses for viewing your business is the lens your clients see through. You might see things that you might not normally value – at least not how your client values them.

New clients vs. long-term clients

One area where it’s easy to miss this data is in the difference between your newest clients and the ones you’ve had forever. I visited a long-term client a while back. When I asked “Where do you the value in what we do for you?”, they mostly talked about how (and why) the relationship started. Eventually, the discussion turned to the feeling that they felt protected and that we had their best interests at heart, even after all these years.

I felt like I wasn’t getting “the dirt”, so I asked what makes our stuff critical to them day-to-day. What affected them more than anything was being on time, every day. Not 15 minutes late. On-time meant six figures of difference in their daily cash flow.

While new clients may have bought your stuff because of the latest, greatest thing you’ve done, not everyone fits that mold. Long-term clients may not need the newest stuff you’ve done because whatever you do inherently has more impact on their business day-in and day-out.

The new stuff we’d done was designed to deal with issues that didn’t exist when we first started working together. Even so, those issues paled in comparison to the impact of not being on time. Anything that can affect a company’s cash flow by six figures each day is pretty important (British understatement). It might allow them to avoid hitting a line of credit that week, or even having to have that line of credit. It might be what allows them to take that “month off” each year that many lines of credit require.

Ask openly

When you listen to clients, you have to be careful what you ask, and how. I don’t know if I would have heard about the daily cash flow impact if I had asked about a particular feature, service or product.

Instead, I simply asked them to tell me how (and why) they felt they benefited from continuing to do business after all this time. You could drive an airport snowplow through the opening I provided. Not only did that allow them to tell me about something super critical, but to do so outside of the product / service context.

Cash flow has nothing to do with what’s sold to them, at least not directly (as I learned). What it clarified was that a slower than normal response from customer service could cost them $100K+ that day. To some clients, that hour isn’t important. Getting a quick response at a certain time of day was huge to these folks. Setting up with a special rapid response service would likely benefit them greatly multiple times per year.

Listen to clients without an agenda

While your clients may not have that kind of time-bound value tied to certain hours of the day, there are things to learn from asking open-ended questions that don’t necessarily point at product / service topics – and then listening intently to what they say.

When you listen to clients openly and without an agenda, the value of what you learn can be huge. Questions intent on confirming what we think we already know serve no one. Instead, ask better questions.

Photo by mattlucht

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

Chaos, frenetic activity and burning buildings

Years ago when the photo software company first started, it was not all butterflies and rainbows. Quite the opposite. Day one was full-on chaos. On Friday, the check was delivered and a jointly-written email (and written letter) from the old owner and I went out to every client. On Saturday, the code assets arrived. On Monday, reality arrived with a vengeance, along with a few hundred new-to-me (and annoyed) clients.

Instead of day one of a software company being a blank page full of “OK, what do we want to do and where do we start?”, day one was about the phone ringing off the hook. Most of the people calling eventually told me they were glad that someone took it over, but that was well after an awful lot of rescuing people (and their businesses) from the software equivalent of a burning building. While I didn’t create the situation, that didn’t matter. My purchase of that software meant that I also bought the chaos and inherited the responsibility (if not the blame) for it.

Without question, this is the worst kind of multi-tasking (as if there is a good kind). As a whole, my newly acquired clients looked more or less like this: Everyone panicking. Everyone worried about being able to take care of their clients. Everyone wanting a solution as soon as possible. Immediately would be OK too, of course, but most of them were surprisingly reasonable and patient (thankfully). I “inherited” it all via the purchase, so I clearly asked for it. Over the next few months, it took daily (or multiple daily) releases of software to bring all of that chaos to a halt. Back then, one (or five) releases a day seemed like such a big deal. Today, web-based software that runs companies like Uber and Etsy deploy thousands of changes per day.

That isn’t why I bring up this story. The chaos is.

Chaos management

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you know that it’s easy to panic. To this day, I am not sure why I didn’t – other than having been in the software business for 15+ years at that point. Despite having been responsible for plenty of high value, high pressure systems prior to that, I always had others to help out if I needed them. This time, I didn’t. Sometimes you want something bad enough that you might even forget to panic. Maybe that’s what it was. I don’t say this to humblebrag. I mention it because I’ve taken part in numerous situations where other people were involved and I want you to think about the impact of this sort of chaos on your customer-facing staff members.

Business owners might find it easy to shrug off the panic and take the chaos in stride. You may have dealt with experiences that allow you to juggle all of this and handle it without freaking out. Where you have to be careful: your staff. If they’ve never been in this kind of situation, it’s on you to make sure they get the support they need and the guidance that helps them deal with the customer service equivalent of Black Friday at Wal-Mart.

If you haven’t dealt with this before, there’s a simple strategy that’s easy to forget when the overwhelm hits: One at a time. That’s it. While it’s simple and obvious, if your team doesn’t get a calming influence and “one at a time” (or something) from their leadership (whether it’s you or one of your managers), they could panic. They could shutdown. They could unintentionally say or do something damaging to your relationship with the client.

Responsibility for handling and communicating all of this is on you (and your managers). Your team needs your backing and guidance – and preferably know this in advance. They need to know that they can escalate to you or a manager if things get bad. Obvious (again), but it’s easy to forget these things if you’ve been out of the trenches for a while.

As for clients, I suggest this as a starting point to reduce panic on the other end of the phone:

  • Communicate early and often.
  • Make sure clients know you understand the situation’s urgency and severity.
  • Deliver incremental progress. Don’t wait for perfect.
  • How your team handles recovery from a mistake is often more important than the mistake itself.

Understand anything and everything

On this Armistice Day, I’m reminded of the wisdom of the Vets who influenced my life. Typically, this means lessons learned from my dad and father-in-law, who both served as B-52 mechanics (Presque Isle, Carswell, etc). Seems that the harder the lesson was to understand and learn, the more value it holds.

Watching the election returns come in reminded me of an old joke that a successful landing is any landing you can walk away from. When the context of survivors is “political parties who do things the way they’ve always done them”, it’s too early to tell if anyone survived Tuesday’s landing.

For those who didn’t come here for politics, have no fear, we’ll circle back to a place very much in context with you and your clientele.

I have often noted that anything you do is everything you do, and Tuesday was a world-class illustration.

Hearing what you want to hear

After the Presidential votes are counted, everyone’s a pundit. We know what happened through the view seen from our own window on the world. Some saw it as a shocker. Some as a GOP mandate. Some as a long overdue rejection of the political establishment. You can count me in the third group.

It’s like the “crazy” family member at Thanksgiving dinner. If you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you.

Collectively, the RNC couldn’t believe they had to run with Trump until they had no choice. Likewise, the DNC couldn’t believe their “luck” that the RNC was stuck with Trump. I suspect the RNC couldn’t believe their luck when Hillary was nominated.

Neither party realizes they’re the crazy family members at the table.

Each party’s echo chamber remains in pre-election condition. Before long, I expect you will start seeing signs of “not getting it” in each party’s behavior. I’d like to be wrong about that, but it’s difficult to change organizations of this type, particularly when they say what they say so they can hear it again.

Listen to, understand and know your clientele

Neither party seems to understand one of the messages the election sent: “Stop sending us the same old candidates who do whatever the party wonks say while delivering nothing the candidate promised“. That it was delivered to both parties by the same candidate is noteworthy.

This happens after decades of not listening to your clientele (yes, voters are a clientele). It happens after decades of telling your clientele you’re going to deliver, but you never do. Not that they delivered two days late, or two months late but NEVER.

With that, let’s start to tie these events to your business.

Circling back with understanding

Until it happens, it’s extraordinarily difficult to understand what it’s like for a factory to close in your town. Most politicians think they understand it because they’ve seen photos and spreadsheets, talked to the former plant manager and toured the factory. You can’t really understand it without living it. Unless you worked there, live in the town, know the people, know their kids, see them them at ball games and grocery stores, it’s difficult to understand. Even then, unless your job is one of the ones that was lost, you don’t really get it.

The business owner has a parallel. They’ve lost customers, or lost or closed a business in the past. They understand that every day, their business is up for re-election.

If I asked your clientele to vote anonymously for your business’ survival, what outcome would you expect? Every stop or visit to your website is a vote of confidence. If they’re tired of your place or want a change, it’s a vote in the other direction.

Like a politician, you have two choices. You can depend on your echo chamber like those political parties, or you can get nose to nose, toes to toes with your clientele and learn what really makes them tick, what makes them worry, what takes away their pain and why they like (or don’t like) you. It’s hard (sometimes exhausting) work much like campaigning.

When you know your clientele better than anyone, it changes anything and everything. Your behavior, service, team, products, marketing and reaction to events that affect your clientele – they all reflect that knowledge.

If you’re a politician… it works roughly the same way, notwithstanding the votes you get simply because you’re a member of a particular party.

Assumptions are dangerous

For the last month or so, I’ve been working on an all-consuming project. Yesterday, during a conversation with the recipient of this work, it became obvious that both of us had made some assumptions about the work that overcomplicated the project in the short term. In the long term, no time was wasted on this large, multi-phase project but in the short term – the assumptions were stunning.

Despite hours of phone conversations and emails, detailed technical specifications (geeks: think WSDL but newer), we still managed to have a rather large gap in the workflow of this project. Fortunately, there wasn’t any damage done and the situation merely juggles the position of a few tasks on the timeline, but we didn’t have to be that lucky.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov

The root of assumptions

The root of assumptions, at least in this case, was both groups of people thinking they had properly and completely described the project. Bear in mind that there are mindmaps and API calls and a bunch of other technobabble. Still, this happened.

But why?

Not enough questions?
Not enough diagrams?
Not enough workflow description?
Not enough conversation?

Perhaps all of those, but there have been plenty. What ultimately caused this was quite simple: there was a fundamental asset involved in this project that I was unaware of. They knew it would be used. I didn’t know it existed, so I was planning to use a similar asset under my control.

I speak vaguely about these things because the details really don’t matter and I don’t want the technical jargon to distract from the meat of the discussion: assumptions are dangerous.

The project will come in on time and it’ll be good for both parties, but it might not have worked out as well had this discovery happened a week later. It wouldn’t have broken anything, but it would have wasted some time, or at least caused work to be done that won’t be needed for a month or more and that would delay work needed soon.

There are many ways that assumptions can endanger your projects. The key is to have a process that does as much as possible to eliminate them.

Eliminating assumptions with a third party

The most dangerous assumption I made was that the technical documentation and the mindmaps would effectively communicate the project’s details to a technical audience. At a granular level that was true. Where this assumption got me was at the 10,000 foot level – the level where you break down a ton of technical workflow to 10 sentences (step 1, step 2, step 3…) in plain old English that anyone would understand.

Didn’t happen. Six weeks went by without this critical message climbing out of the technical documentation – and even then, it didn’t. It came out when those 10 sentences were written to clarify something that suddenly became confusing.

Many years ago, I was involved in an exercise along these lines where two people with experience in a field had to explain something to each other. Once they reached agreement, they had to explain it to a third person who had no background in the subject.

A fascinating thing happened.

The two people who thought they were describing the same thing were still far apart. When each of them described the project to the third party, they were stunned at the assumptions each of them had made – not big ones, not project killing ones, but differences that could create drama, friction, additional cost and so on.

Watching these two people realize they were not talking about the same thing was illuminating and stunning at the same time because the audience was made up of people with similar experience to the two ‘explainers’.

Of course, the exercise was designed to set them up to some extent and the whole idea was communicate to all involved that communication is real work and that it is breathtakingly easy to make a few small assumptions that can take two parties on substantially different paths even though they think they are talking about the same thing.

Getting two people (or two groups) to understand each other and agree that they are talking about the same thing requires great care.

Next time you have a project to deliver, involve a third party with much different skills. Describe the project to them and see where the conversation goes. Maybe you can avoid dangerous and potentially costly assumptions.

Hat tip to @ClayForsberg for the Asimov quote.

Strategic Notepad: Take Ownership

Last week, we talked about the opportunity presented to you when you find yourself helping a client in a stressed, deadline-driven or other pressure-filled situation. You can either create a good memory or a bad one.

We’ve talked about how to make the best of these situations and we’ve talked about the opportunity created and what I experienced with a travel agent. Sometimes people act on your behalf because you have signed a contract with them to do so. For example, I have a client that owns a bed and breakfast and they are “represented” in some fashion by online booking agents, travel review sites (like Trip Advisor) and so on. If a reservation agent treats one of their clients rudely, you can bet it will reflect on the B&B.

Take ownership

Whether you like it or not, anyone who sells for you, advertises for you, reps for you or in any way helps you sell what you do REPRESENTS YOU. Make no mistake, if they do something wrong while working on your behalf, your client will associate you with the situation – and they should. While you can’t always control whether or not these situations occur, you can certainly impact what happens when it manages to roll downhill to you.

Here’s an example of the wrong approach:

When I contacted the car rental company about the situation I was dealing with, this was their response:

Hello Mark, I can understand how this experience would be frustrating for you. Expedia is an independent third party brokerage service that is not affiliated with Enterprise. If given the wrong information such as the address and pickup time, please contact Expedia for further investigation.”

Read that again… “NOT AFFILIATED WITH ENTERPRISE”.

While I have little doubt that this description is accurate from a legal / terms of service perspective, the reality is that I rented a Enterprise car via Expedia. Affiliated or not, anything Expedia does regarding that rental certainly reflects on Enterprise whether they like it or not. Expedia doesn’t own the cars. They’re basically a combination of Google (ie: a search engine) for flights, hotel rooms and cars – and a store that can hook me up with those time and location sensitive assets.

Keep in mind that this was the response vs. something like “Hmm, that’s unfortunate and I apologize that the site sent you to the wrong address. I will reach out to our Expedia vendor rep and make sure the rental location address is corrected.” Most importantly, there was no “Can we get you a car, or have you taken care of that already?” – remember, their business is renting cars, not tweeting. There was STILL a sales opportunity and more importantly, an opportunity to “come to the rescue”. That opportunity was squandered.

While it might seem like I’m busting on the support representative who sent me this message, that’s not the case. Almost certainly, the text of this was approved by management for situations like this. A few minutes later I received the same message intended for someone else. The only difference between the message addressed to me and the second message was that the second one was addressed to “Dan” and mentioned Travelocity rather than Expedia. I politely noted that to the rep so Dan would get his message.

Canned responses are a normal part of customer support. You wouldn’t want reps who handle hundreds of messages per day retyping them, much less authoring them on the fly. The rep did exactly what she was trained to do and in fact, provided the fastest response I received from anyone – but it didn’t help me get a car.

My response to the rep is the real message of this post:

I get that, but do understand that ultimately they represent you and I suspect, do so on millions of bookings per year. Its not solely on them.

If someone sends you thousands of purchases per day, for all intents and purposes, they represent you even if the TOS says otherwise. Take ownership. People are buying your stuff from you, even if someone else takes the money. YOU deliver.

The most serious error of this entire situation was the failure to close the sale and provide a car for me. That’s the business they’re in. NEVER forget what business you’re in, or your clientele might.

Strategic Notepad: Customer Service

Last week, I noted that how you should recover from a client’s poor experience with you is dependent upon the context.

For example, a four hour flight delay is meaningless if you have a six hour layover. It becomes serious if you have a three hour layover before an international flight late in the day, or if the delay causes you to miss an important meeting, a wedding, or a funeral. If the delay causes you to get bumped to a connecting flight later in the day, it might not be a big deal. If it causes you to get bumped to next Saturday…

Context matters a lot.

Serious context is a serious opportunity

When your client is under pressure, deadline, stress or similar, you have an opportunity to create a memory that can last a lifetime. Will that memory be good or bad? Whichever way it goes is likely to be how your relationship with that customer… unless you treat them like a client.

What’s the difference? A customer is a transactional thing. Customers buy and consume “stuff”. Clients are like patients – under your constant (or at least regular) observation and care. Which are you more likely to take better care of, based on that definition? My guess is the client. Despite the definition, it’s all about perception. If you perceive them as an asset to be cared for (and to extract revenue from for a lifetime), you’re likely to treat them differently than you would if you think you might never see them again. Thing is, if you treat them like you’ll never see them again, you might experience that.

The opportunity to save the day / be a hero in your client’s most stressful, pressured, awful moment is a gift – but only if you open it. Sure, you might push COGS a little higher for their transaction. You might take a little heat from your manager if you take the initiative to solve a client’s problem in a slightly unorthodox way – but not if they truly get it because they’ll know you’re protecting the business.

Are you encouraging initiative?

One of the things that seems to be getting being “beaten” out of employees these days is initiative. Evidence? The fact that people are so impressed when someone takes initiative to help them as if they read the Business is Personal playbook. Businesses have produced a generation of workers who fear helping clients in an appropriate manner (when context calls for it) because not adhering to policy and procedure is often considered as a firing offense, even if you acted in the client’s best interest.

Even if you can’t stretch, provide options

Last month, I reserved a car rental with a pickup at 3:00pm. The rental location address provided by the vendor was wrong – fortunately it was wrong by a few blocks (and across the street). However, the rental location closed at 3:00pm and the nearest open branch was about 50 miles away. After waiting on hold for 54 minutes, customer service basically said the whole thing was my fault because I arrived a few minutes after the pickup time. By the time my call came off hold, I was more than an hour’s drive from their only open location and due to my appointment schedule, I was unable to visit that location. I made it clear that I was more or less stranded but my comments were ignored.

How could this have been handled – even if the customer service person couldn’t spend a dime? They could have offered to send someone to pick me up – but at 5pm on a Saturday (which tells you how long I was on the phone), there was no extra staff at the airport to shuttle a car to me. Had they said they checked and couldn’t do that due to a lack of extra staff on duty, I would have appreciated it. They could have asked which hotel I was at and (because they are a travel agency), offered to rebook me at a hotel close to me and have the car delivered the next morning.

Instead, they chose to blame me for the entire situation. They were focused on shifting blame, rather than helping a client juggling business and family travel on a very important family day. I will not forget and neither will your (former?) clients.

Protect your business by protecting your clients.

Protecting your business

Business owners protect their business by reducing risk, managing cash flow, getting appropriate legal advice and insuring their people and assets properly. Most businesses decide to check out motor trade insurance instant online quotes and look for the company that suits them. The thing is, you can do those all things properly and still leave your business open to damage that’s incredibly difficult, expensive and time consuming to repair. How? By providing out of context customer service.

Specifically, I’m referring to what tends to occur when you’re trying to recover from a mistake. The perfect time to show them you have their back… or to turn your back.

Which do you do?

Every once in a while, you make a mistake. Hopefully you learn from it. If it was caused by a systemic failure, you know by now to put a system (preferably automated) in place to prevent it from happening again and of course, integrate it into the rest of your systems. If it wasn’t caused by a systemic failure, then the problem might have been caused by a customer service flub, a product or service mistake, or a failure to deliver – regardless of the reason.

What happens next is where I see businesses repeatedly making a mistake: How they recover for the customer. That’s when context becomes critical.

Recovering FOR your client

When approached by a disappointed, angry, concerned, distraught customer, it seems that many businesses have trained their people such that their Customer Service Prime Directive is to protect the business at all costs.

Guess what. Recovering from your mistakes in a way that preserves the customer relationship IS protecting the business, but only if it’s done right. While protection of the business is essential in these circumstances – your legal paperwork and insurance should have already done that. The third leg of the stool is how the customer feels when the exchange is over.

Consider what happens if a flight attendant accidentally spills a cup of black tea in someone’s lap on a plane. The passenger’s linen skirt is stained (a bit embarrassing for now), but it could impact the skirt wearer’s day severely if they’re being met at the airport by an important new prospect. What if their next direct manager is meeting them at the airport for an interview? What if the flight arrives at midnight and the traveler simply has to grab their bag and drive home alone at midnight.

The subconscious loss of confidence in the client / employment situations could alter the airline client’s entire life. Maybe that’s good, maybe not. How the airline reacts FOR their customer can determine how that customer feels about them for the rest of their lives. People remember how they were treated – particularly in situations like this. The context the client provides (even if you have to extract it from them) is critical to the level of your response.

I’m reminded of a surprise Peter Shankman received in 2011 from Morton’s Steakhouse after he jokingly asked for a steak to be delivered to Newark airport. You might think that was an expensive response resulting only because Peter had a lot of Twitter followers at the time. I think they saw an opportunity to make a lifetime memory for a good customer, even if they knew that he’d blog/tweet about it. Five years later, where do you think he takes clients to dinner more often than not?

How you recover for the client in their current context is everything. If Peter was landing in Missoula (which has no Morton’s), then a clever tweeted response might have sufficed, though they could take if further if they had a connection to a solid steak house in MSO.

In Customer Service, context is everything

Sometime’s a “Sorry” and replacement / discount will suffice. Sometimes, the client’s context makes your $154 mistake a memory that could last for years. Imagine you had a romantic evening out of town planned with your significant other and when you arrived at the hotel, they didn’t have a room – even though you’d paid in advance. What if the town is booked solid because of a local event? There’s “no room at the inn”… ANY inn.

How you protect the business is everything at that point – keeping in mind that the wrong kind of business protection creates customer defection. If you’re going to create a lifetime memory, make sure it’s a good one.

Where’s the Maitre’ D?

When a new client arrives at your store and/or on your website, do they know exactly where everything is? Probably not.

If not, are there clear introductions to where things are, what the rules of the road are, how (and where) to get help, what the buying process looks like, where to find service help and so on?

Guidance needed

In a retail store, these things are somewhat common – at least the basics. You’ll probably see signs that say things like Parts, Service, Lawnmowers, Chainsaws, and whatever the other departments of your store are. Even so, is there guidance in any form that helps people figure out where they can get warranty, financing or delivery information?

Think of it like a website that you’ve never visited before. When you first get on a retailer’s web site, you often have to dig around a little to find policies and procedures, or how they handle refunds, delivery/shipping, etc.

You have two choices when onboarding a new visitor who will presumably become a client:

1) Guide them step by step in a logical manner and provide them with the tools they need to have exactly the experience you want them to have, and position them to be the ideal buyer.

2) Let them figure it out for themselves and explain where they went wrong when they find themselves painted into a corner, or stuck trying to figure out how to get service, delivery, refunds, exchanges, on-site help, upgrades / updates / improvements, financing and repairs.

Think of it like a restaurant

At some restaurants, you are greeted at the door, guided to your seat, provided with a menu, and introduced to your wait staff (or advised of their name). You might then have your expectations set regarding the arrival of someone to take your drink order, explain the menu, share the night’s special entrees and desserts, as well as any other information you might need. Later, you might be asked additional details about how you want your order, whether or not you want dessert, coffee, etc.

Obviously, this varies a bit depending on the type of restaurant, but I suspect you’ve experienced this level of guidance – all to do something you do every day: Eat.

The alternative, even in the same restaurant, might be to provided none of that guidance, have menus on the table, be expected to place your order at the counter, pick up your food at the counter and pay on your way out the door.

Neither of these is wrong, but both types of guidance are designed to fit the type of restaurant you’re in. Generally, you probably know what to expect when you enter the first restaurant vs. the second. If the experience is not in sync with the type of restaurant you’re in, the “system” seems out of place or the experience feels broken. When I experienced things like this with my dad, he would say “This would be a great place for a restaurant” – noting of course that we were in a restaurant at the time.

Restaurantize your business?

Now overlay those restaurant experiences onto your business. Think about each step of the dining experience (in both types of restaurants). Which one of these experiences is a better fit for a new visitor to your business (or your website)? Which is a better fit to a long-time client?

Before you decide which experience is best for an experienced client vs a new one, let’s back up a step… even when you go to a restaurant with a highly guided experience, does the maitre’d recognize that you’ve eaten there before? If so, do they hand you a menu and point at the dining room and leave you to figure out the rest, or are you guided through the process in a similar manner to every other visit?

Which of those experiences makes sense for visits to your store? Which experience makes sense for visitors to your site? Which experience creates a new client who is more prepared to purchase what they really need vs. what they think they need? Which experience produces the client retention you want? Is there a difference? How do you know? Testing helps.

Fine tune the experience for each stage of your client lifecycle in a way that creates an optimum client experience for them while producing the ideal client for you.

And after Small Business Saturday?

Besides being a particularly busy Christmas shopping day, this coming Saturday is “Small Business Saturday”.

Once a year, American Express (organizer of Small Business Saturday) encourages shoppers to shop at a small local business and offers marketing materials to help small businesses take part in the event by encouraging locals to shop their store.

While you might be thankful that Amex makes an effort to place shoppers’ focus on small retailers for that all-important Saturday in November, and for the (hopefully) positive effect it has on your Christmas season sales, Small Business Saturday (and the holiday shopping season in general) is far more important than a one day sales boost.

For many shoppers, it might be the one opportunity you have all year to get their attention and leave an impression on them that helps them remember to shop your store all year long. Bottom line: Amex has gotten the ball rolling for Thanksgiving Saturday. The other 51 Saturdays are on you.

Not simply another sales day

Even without Amex’s help to promote Small Business Saturday, it’s an opportunity to do so many things because you’ll see shoppers you usually don’t see.

Show them why they should shop at your place more often. Make it clear to price shoppers that your prices are competitive, and if they aren’t, make it clear that your prices are justifiably higher because your products/services are of higher value, or that you deliver more, save time, save hassle, etc.

Use this opportunity to engage shoppers in recurring purchase opportunities, but do it in a way that makes sense for your clientele, not simply because I suggested it.

Collect contact information. While some are protective of this info, it’s often because their contact info has been misused or used ineffectively. No one wants to hear more noise, but most people will happily accept valuable info that helps them. Tell people what you will do and do that and nothing else. Let them be selective about the resources you send them rather than giving them only one choice.

You might have lists for monthly promotions, value shoppers, last minute (or low stock / closeout) deals, as well as for special events. Let THEM decide what list they’re on and treat that list with great care.

Make your place a refuge from shopping mayhem

We’ve all seen the news stories and video of the ugliness of box store Black Friday sales. People are fighting traffic, fighting for parking spaces, fighting to be one of the first 62 people to get the Barbie Turbo Fashion Corvette, fighting massive crowds and so on.

Don’t let your store become a part of that. REI decided to close their store on Black Friday. To be sure, some of this is about publicity and this decision was likely made based on their Friday sales figures (think about their clientele), but no matter what really drove the decision, they really are making a point about not taking part in what goes on during Black Friday.

While closing shop probably doesn’t make sense for you, the idea to stand out and take steps to be a refuge from the mayhem is a good one.

Standing out in a crowd

Think about the things that reduce the enjoyment that people get when shopping for gifts for the people they love:

  • Starting at 4am
  • Lines
  • Crowds
  • Parking
  • Dealing with “those people who only seem to drive/park/shop one weekend a year”
  • Shortages of items
  • Hauling around the day’s booty

Everyone’s list might be different. What steps can you take to take the pain, hassle and aggravation out of their day?

While it might be too late to plan and execute a big splash, do nothing wastes everyone else’s efforts and puts off your gains for a year. Even if you start today, a focused effort to do what you *can* do will help.

If you have a preferred client list, this is a great time to bestow a nice benefit for those who have earned the right to be on that list. Offer them valet parking, special shopping hours all to themselves and deferred pickup of items.

Let them order by phone or via your website, even if you aren’t setup to take their money until they arrive for pickup.

Next year, plan your Small Business Saturday

Next year, be sure to plan and promote your Small Business Saturday event well in advance.

Ask your local retailers group and your Chamber of Commerce to get involved in promoting the event both to shoppers and to local retailers, if they aren’t already.

Take advantage of the effort Amex is making, and the resources they provide to make Small Business Saturday your own – and not simply a one day bump in sales.