Filling cracks with automation and metrics

How many emails did you send last Tuesday? How many phone calls did you make last Thursday? How many things fell through the cracks last week or last month?

The first two are trivia until you start thinking about the time they consume compared to the return they produce.

The last one is the big one: tasks that fall in cracks, meaning you forgot to do something, or have someone else do something – like make a call to close a sale or follow up on a lead.

I’m guessing you have no idea how many things disappeared into cracks last week unless they’ve cost you business since that time. If they didn’t have a cost, does it matter? I think it does, but not for the reason you might think.

Metrics are lonely fellas

Metrics are great, until they aren’t. Their failing? Metrics tell you what happened and in some cases, what is happening, but they don’t tell you what to do next. By themselves, metrics can get lonely.

Automation can cure that by either telling you act on what’s happened (or is happening), or by doing it on your behalf with your advance permission.

You need to get metrics hitched up with automation, but not solely to get your metrics delivered regularly. While that’s certainly a very good idea, there’s more to the marriage of metrics and automation than prompt and consistent delivery.

There’s curing that crack problem.

Preventing cracks is better than fixing them

If you drive a diesel pickup, particularly one that’s chipped, tuned and so forth – you know what I mean. If you’re a tuner, you probably have an Edge or similar device monitoring exhaust temperatures and other engine information.

Those are metrics.

If you have an Edge or similar, you may even have it setup to tune your engine’s “brain” as engine metrics signal a need for something different.

The tuned diesel truck owner uses tools like this to prevent engine rebuilds while getting the best possible performance out of their truck. In a similar fashion, stock traders use automation to sell stocks when they hit stop loss points because they want to prevent portfolio rebuilds while getting the best possible performance from their investments.

Create a crack prevention system

Metric driven automation like that used by the stock trader and the tuned diesel owner can likewise keep our business fine tuned simply by making sure we’re aware of things that need to get done on a daily basis.

Simple but effective methods include making appointments for yourself and keeping reminder-enabled todo lists in your phone. Obvious? Sure, but they can be all but life saving when chaos finds its way into your week.

I use a few simple online tools to keep track of my work, but I’m always on a quest to find a way for them to nag me more intelligently. These tools help me remain responsible by making sure I get the right things done at the right time.

For example, after seven years, my Flathead Beacon editor knows he’s going to get this column from me every week, even if isn’t there on deadline day (five days before press day). When he gets to his desk on Monday (press day), he knows it’ll be there and it won’t require editing, except for rare occasions when my headline is a bit over the top.

Occasionally, 11pm Sunday arrives and the column isn’t finished. I have a reminder on my phone to tell me to get up 90 minutes early on Monday (ouch, right?) so I can get it published on time, allowing him to meet his commitments.

Here’s the crack prevention: Automation helps me meet my commitment, no matter how hectic life gets, no matter where I am. If the automation was fully data-driven, the reminder would only occur on Sundays when my column hasn’t yet been posted. Some situations will demand that level of data-driven automation. You don’t have to cut it as close as 11pm on the night before. Getting up 90 minutes early on Monday is my self-inflicted punishment / motivation not to let that happen.

Together, automation and metrics allow you to become more dependable as your business / volume grows, while still remaining independent. Don’t forget to show your team how to use automation to improve their performance.

I love companies with slow computers

How much money do you waste by making your staff wait for computers?

For slow networks?

For slow internet?

For slow computers?

How hard do you make it for them to get their work done?

How many times has a hotel desk clerk apologized to you at check in time because their computer was not behaving, was slow, or was down? I don’t travel all that much, but I hear this fairly often.

How many times do you get similar messages from retail employees, or from customer service reps that you’re on the phone with?

Regularly, for me.

Is your staff’s productivity hamstrung like this? What impression does a recurring “I’m sorry, my computer is slow, thanks for your patience” message leave with your clients?

I love companies like this – when they’re competition for my clients. Don’t be one of them.

Your systems should focus on your clients

Do your systems serve your internal customers or all of them?

By internal customers, I mean your accounting department, the staff on the shipping dock, customer service representatives, sales people and so on.

Systems that serve your internal customers do things such as accept, validate and record orders, track commissions, automate shipment notifications, manage inventory and a multitude of other things necessary to make sure that orders for products and services are properly fulfilled.

These systems (investments, really) serve your “real” clients as well, but in many cases their service to the client is indirect. I say indirect because your client rarely sees this service, even though they benefit from it. These systems enable your staff to serve your clients, keep track of where their package is and keep track of the fact that they’ve paid their bill. That’s service they benefit from – even if it is indirect.

Clearly, these investments are valuable. My assertion is that these systems don’t often focus on the client’s needs, even though they ultimately serve that client.

For example?

You knew I’d have an example or two.

You’ve probably seen a cryptic medical bill at some point. These bills have improved vs. the bills of five or ten years ago, but they could still be easier to read. Focusing on client needs might mean making the effort to create a customer-focused bill where info other than the total amount due is intelligible to the patient and their family.

A recent cold snap snuffed the battery in my wife’s car. When I went to replace it, I had to take it to a different store in the national (but locally owned) chain where I buy auto parts. Because the store’s systems are focused on internal customer needs, they were able to see inventory in stock and tell me which stores in the area had the battery I needed. While that’s useful information to help me get a new battery, it fell short of the staff’s needs and my own.

Unfortunately, they had no way to access my purchase information from a few years ago so that they could provide the appropriate discount on the new battery, since the old one expired during the warranty period.

The last time I bought a battery from these guys, they calculated the discount from the date on the battery (ie: the month and year that are picked off at the counter when the sell it to you). This time, that date was considered irrelevant. Further, I was scolded for not having a three year old receipt (which I probably have, but haven’t found).

I asked for advice to avoid this in the future, since I was used to the prior system where the pick-off date on the battery was what the trusted. The guys at the counter suggested that I tape the new receipt to the battery so that I’d have it next time. It seems like a good idea, but tape plus battery plus Montana weather times three or more years tells me that reading that receipt might not be so easy in the future.

Where’s my warranty discount?

The discount was trivial and really isn’t the point, but the situation provides a good example of a business system that primarily serves internal customers. The store that sold me the new battery has the ability to check inventory of the store where I bought the old battery and get a part from that store – both of these features primarily serve internal customer needs. A missing internal customer need that would also serve the external customer would allow store personnel to confirm a purchase at another store in the chair, as well as track the purchase for warranty purposes.

You’ve seen this before. Pharmacies are able to track prescriptions at any of their stores and refill them in any other store even if the original was called into a pharmacy thousands of miles away. To be sure, there are laws covering the record keeping of these purchases, but they could make it much more difficult to buy in the second location than they do.

Why do they buy from you?

The point is that your clients have a choice. If your internal systems make it easier for your clients to buy, redeem, refill, obtain service, and buy again…. they’ll likely buy from you.

Earning return business, part two

Last time, I shared a story about how Best Buy avoided losing my family’s phone business (and perhaps all our business) by bending the rules a little on an insurance claim that had gotten in the weeds thanks to a combination of errors on our part and theirs.

This week, car rentals. We recently drove 1300+ miles to see my mom and rented a car for the trip. Most of the adventure occurred during the rental car pickup, of course.

Deliver what you promise, unless you can’t

I reserved a small, high-mileage car for the trip. My evil plan was to rent a car whose difference in gas mileage would more or less cover the rental, while giving us a chance to check out the car.

While talking on the phone to the local guy at the  rental place, I was assured that they have one in stock. Naturally, when I got there a few hours later, they didn’t have the car I reserved. This isn’t uncommon when reservations are made online and far in advance at an airport, but when you call the local outlet and ask the “Do you have what I reserved?” question – you expect to get it. Turned out, they had so few cars that they ended up making me wait 45 minutes while they tried to clean up their “mule” (shuttle car).

The car I got was a lower mileage car than we wanted, though not terribly low, and it wasn’t the one we wanted to evaluate for purchase, so it ended up being a less productive rental than we’d hoped.

They were wise enough to end the pickup experience on a positive note by defusing the frustration of a 45 minute wait by waiving the fuel charges and saying “Bring it back as empty as you can.”  If you’re calculating the cost of defusing situations like this in your business, keep in mind that the fuel charge savings of at most $30 isn’t what defuses the situation. Owning up to the inconvenience, apologizing and making an effort to ease the annoyance is where the situation is turned around.

Owning up is part of earning return business

With some clients, owning up, apologizing and putting $30 on the table won’t be enough. That’s why it’s critical to train your staff and give them the authority (and boundaries) to resolve situations like this without forcing the client to hear them restate policy, wait for permission to escalate the issue, wait for a response from corporate, etc. Making your clientele wait another 45 minutes and getting them on the phone with the corporate call center will make things worse, not better. That’s why last week’s BB situation worked – there was no waiting.

Waiving the fuel charge meant more than not worrying about the fuel – it meant not making an extra stop before returning the car. Little things…

Little lies are still lies

On the negative side, there was a token apology for not having the reserved car we’d talked about, and of course, no action on that. However, I understand that things happen and you can’t give someone a car you don’t have (the car didn’t come back on time from the prior renter).

In your business, this is where you take the opportunity to make things better, not worse. For example, they could have retrieved the same make/model car from the airport (30 miles away), or suggested that I go there and pick up that car to save time and then comp the airport parking of my car. They didn’t offer either.

When I asked why they operate differently from the airport, such as charging us for a day when they are closed, I got the excuse that local rental locations “work differently” than the airport location because “we’re a different company”. Of course both use the same reservation systems, corporate branding and pricing.  But they’re different.

Train the excuses out of your staff

Not long ago I heard someone say “Excuses are a lie wrapped in a reason.”

In your internal training, you’ve got to repeatedly reinforce that things like this are unacceptable discussion points.  They aren’t malicious, but they become part of your story because you’ve told them 100 or 1000 times. Each one is a paper cut on your culture and your reputation, and eventually – those cuts bleed.

Earning return business

When you make client service decisions, do you weigh the cost of losing the client in your decision?

I’m talking about the hard cost of losing that client, not the often fuzzy, sometimes made up, and frequently inaccurate cost of a loss, that usually includes the 10-20 people (on average) that an unhappy client will tell after a poor experience – even if it’s their fault. While that does tend to happen, it’s this unhappy client I’m focused on, not their friends, family and coworkers. That’s the one you’re almost sure to lose in a badly handled situation.

What will it cost you if that person never comes back? Not their friends, not someone who reads what they say on Facebook, but them.

Let me describe a recent adventure at Best Buy to give you some context.

Best Buy?

A couple of months before the iPhone 5S came out last year, Best Buy (BB) had an offer to upgrade from an iPhone 4 to a 5 at no cost. The only catch, which I didn’t view as a catch, was that we had to renew our cell contract with Verizon.

We’re happy to reward their early investment in Montana cell infrastructure by remaining with them, at least until they give us a reason not to. As such, renewing was a zero friction event. More like a two free phones event.

BB has a different device insurance than Verizon and we felt the coverage was better, so we put BB insurance on our phones. The one part of Verizon we aren’t a fan of is the corporate stores, so handling all warranty/damage claims in BB seemed like a much better idea. Little did we know…

Earning return business sometimes means bending the rules

My phone recently developed a loose charging socket, probably from me catching the cord on something too many times. Near the end, I had to get creative to get it to charge. So I go up to the nearest BB store and show it to them. The guy at the counter starts the replacement process and checks their records. He says our insurance was cancelled for non-payment.

Hmm. We dig further and find that our debit card number changed in February. We didn’t think about the connection when that change occurred, and they couldn’t charge the insurance to the old card, so the cancel was legit. Unwise, but legit. After a single email to get our attention – they cancelled it.  The email went to an account that gets a lot of spam and isn’t one that I monitor, so it was missed.

While still in the store, I ended up on the phone with the BB insurance guys. Staying mellow paid off, as the agent was willing and able to reinstate the insurance without paying back premiums, setup future payments with the new card number, tweak the email address and allow us to continue the warranty replacement process.

Yes. You read that right. They didn’t even charge the unpaid months in the past.

Preserve and Protect Lifetime Client Value

The potential lose-a-client error, in my mind, was them allowing the insurance to cancel after a simple email. Are you that willing to let a recurring charge client go away? Pick up the phone, people.  One email is not enough effort.

Here’s why: Had they denied the claim, which was clearly their right, I would probably never do phone business with BB again. If they handled it poorly enough, they could have lost all my BB business.

But that isn’t what happened.

Someone is presumably training the folks at BB insurance to think about the long term and what marketing people call LCV – lifetime client value.

The question you have to ask is “Is the incremental value worth the lost lifetime client value?”

In BB’s case: Is it worth the incremental replacement cost of a phone, minus the payment of insurance premiums, to keep a BB client? I think it is, particularly compared to the cost of losing a client, perhaps forever.

In my case, it could have added up to decades of purchases by my wife and I, and perhaps our kids. I suspect that would add up to more than an insurance company’s wholesale price of a refurbished iPhone 5.

Are you thinking about the incremental cost of the service you provide vs. the lifetime client value when training your staff? You should.

Tourist season is coming – Are you ready?

Before you know it, the long winter will be a forgotten memory – except for the powder days. As it finally warms up for good (whatever that means this year), school will be out and tourists will be inbound for another summer.

It’s almost tourist season. Are you ready?

Is your facility ready? I’m sure you have a checklist for that, so I won’t go there.

Instead, let’s discuss some steps to help you make tourist season better than expected:

  • Do you have an easy way to prompt your visitors to leave a review? Will they be encouraged by your facility to take pictures at your place and post them to social media? Is there an easy way for them to suggest that their friends should visit?
  • Can they find your place on Google Local, Google+ Local and Google+ Business?
  • Are they on your email list?

Encouraging reviews and photos

Most people like sending an occasional “Having fun, wish you were here” photo to friends, family and co-workers, if nothing else, just to rub it in a little.

You can make this easier with suggestions for the best places to take photos to send their friends, family and co-workers, but also by asking to take their picture. This gets everyone in their group into the photo and gets your staff engaged as well.

Ask your visitors to text their photos to you so you can print a copy for them. With their permission, post the photos in your facility and on your website to provide social proof of the great time your visitors have. Print postcards from the photos for a special touch they can send to friends and family.

Don’t be invisible to tourists

If your business doesn’t have at least a minimal profile (name, address, phone, hours, photos), you’ll be invisible to smartphone maps and the tourists who use them (lots).  That’s the last place you want to be invisible.

Be sure you’ve updated (or added) your profile on the major profile sites, such as Google Local, Google+ Local, Google+ for Business. Restaurants should do the same with Yelp and UrbanSpoon. If you have more time, take the same steps with Bing, your local chamber of commerce and local directory sites. Don’t forget a Facebook fan page.

These days, “Google, local, social” is the smartphone equivalent of “location, location, location”.

Create a special email list

If they’ll be staying with you (ie: you run a campground, RV park, hotel, motel, hostel, cabins, resort, etc), consider building a special email list for your visitors.

To make it most effective, it should be timed to their visit. An email series that gives them a countdown to their visit would be useful, particularly if it prepares them at the right time in advance of their visit. All of this can be automated to make it easy for you while making it super useful for your visitors.

For example, an email might let them know about popular events during certain days, or that a special dinner location requires reservations three weeks in advance during prime season.  If they receive the latter email three to six weeks in advance, they can take advantage of it. If they don’t find out until they get there….too late.

Road problems? Let them know. Don’t expect that they have had time to find your area’s road conditions page – or that it is up to date. Let them know so that your guests are prepared for anything.

Don’t let this list end with the before visit email sequence. Keep in touch during their visit about how you can help with things they’ve forgotten and with local advice. Quality advice will be appreciated if it’s pertinent to their time with you.

Finally, keep a notebook and a camera handy at the front desk for notes and photos when the opportunity presents itself. A casual photo of your guests included in an email – or better, a postcard waiting for them when they return home, is a great personal touch to remind them to return and refer their friends, family and co-workers.

Don’t have their email address? Try a text message sequence. As with email, be sure you get permission first.

Take advantage of the time remaining before tourist season to turn a good visit into a memorable experience that has them ready to return – and talk about you in the meantime.

Pivots make customer service personal

It was Saturday so my social calendar was in full swing.

Earlier today, I met a friend for lunch and barley pops at a place that has a sunny, well-lit dining area perfect for the first sunny day in a long while.

After being greeted as we sat down, no less than five different wait staff walked past us repeatedly during a 10 minute period that made it clear we’d left our cloaking device turned on. This prompted a well-worn thought, ‘This would be a great place for a restaurant.’

Once we were done joking about that, I stopped one of the servers as they passed by and asked if we could get some menus. He grabbed a couple, told us the name of our server and said he would send the server to get our orders. Not much later, our server arrived and while service was still slow on a busy Saturday, we were attended to in a reasonable manner. During this service, the initial delay was never mentioned, despite the fact that our server had walked past our table numerous times without a nod or a glance before being told that we’d asked for menus.

While it really didn’t matter or impact the occasion, I wouldn’t be writing about it if the server had simply mentioned that they were sorry for missing our table, that the place was rocking or they were down a waitperson, or what not.

Failing to acknowledge the lack of attention has a way of implying that the diner is supposed to think nothing of it.

Customer service slip ups happen

Things like this happen all the time. It’s OK. We’re human rather than perfect little robots, after all.

Still, by taking a moment to acknowledge a slip up, we give our clients the acknowledgement necessary to allow their minds to stop dwelling on it (even subconsciously) as a part of their experience, which makes it easier to forget and move on.

With the tiniest personal touch, we turn a negative into a positive.

The tiniest opportunity

Later that day, my wife and I met my in-laws for dinner.

The food was good – better than I expected, in fact. The service was quite good and definitely attentive. The server made recommendations based on their personal experiences with the dishes they serve – and she was spot on.

One of the dishes had a problem, though. When the person who ordered it took their first bite, they found a twisted piece of plastic in their food.

Once notified, the server handled the situation well, took the plastic, said they would show it to the manager and left to do just that. Not much later, the server indicated that the manager would visit our table.

The manager never showed up. I wonder if the kitchen was ever notified. The server comped the meal, which the diner didn’t request, so that was a nice gesture.

Will that diner forget that experience, or will it percolate the next time they consider eating there?

Involvement matters

What I would like to have seen, even though the plate was not mine:

  • The manager tells the kitchen what happened (which they may have done – we don’t know).
  • The person who prepared the food comes out to the table, introduces themselves, acknowledges the problem and offers a brief, but sincere apology with no groveling (again, mistakes happen).
  • The preparer explains what the diner found. This allows the diner to feel comfortable completing their meal, or not, depending on the situation. If the food problem could make the diner sick, they’d take the food and discard it unless testing was warranted.
  • Finally, the person who prepared the plate could, regardless of the explanation, offer to replace the dish, or substitute it for something else.

Consider what each of those steps demonstrates or accomplishes in the diner’s mind.

Consider how they’d describe the event to others after this happened and compare it to “I found plastic in my food and all they did was comp my meal.”

Customer service pivot

In the startup world, a “pivot” is a strategic direction change made after customer feedback indicates your idea needs adjustment.

In customer service, the pivot is that little thing you do to transform what could be a customer-losing experience into one that almost guarantees they’ll be back.

You will not receive a reply.

JConnectFeedback

What message do you send to customers when you tell them up front that their feedback will not get a response?

How many businesses have you stopped communicating with because they don’t listen and reply? Does anyone feel that way about your business? About you?

If you have to do less communicating in order to do so in a way that creates better client relationships, give it a try.

As for the graphic – If you don’t have time to reply, do you have time to read their feedback? Maybe, but that’s not the worst of it. If you aren’t listening and people know it, they won’t share anything with you.

It isn’t the customer who won’t receive a reply… It’s you.

The most important little thing we do

When you’re on the road, little things matter. In fact, they matter all the time. Every. Single. Day.

That extra comment or tip from the lady at check-in. The friendly suggestion from the dude who drives the shuttle. A restaurant recommendation from the parking/cab attendant that turns out to be amazing and a good bargain all in one.

When delivered consistently, they can grow well beyond the sum of each act.

Think about the little things your people do and how your business handles them.

They matter, but they’re almost impossible to put into place with a training program. More often than not, you get them when you hire.

Hire well. It’s the most important little thing you do.

Perfect is the enemy of done – or is it?

A couple of weeks ago, NASA celebrated the one year anniversary of Curiosity Rover landing on Mars.

As someone who has been taking pictures since the ’60s, I still find it amazing that we can tell a satellite orbiting Mars to take a picture of a Jeep-size spacecraft parachuting to its landing 62 million miles away and have the photo on my laptop 20 minutes later.

The photos and video of the landing and all that led up to that event reminds me of the oft-quoted remark “Perfect is the enemy of done.”

Does it need to be “perfect”?

While shipping something and iterating its benefits, features and quality are perfectly acceptable strategies for many products and services, I think we shortchange ourselves if we don’t keep in mind that there’s a time and a place for “better than done”.

I was trained by engineering professors during my college days, so “perfect” means something well beyond “done” to me, often well beyond four decimal places.

Perfection is extremely difficult to achieve and even harder to prove , so let’s settle on a “Much better than where it is now” definition so we can keep the engineers happy.

Using that definition, perfect makes no sense for most work under most circumstances. For example, software programs are never “perfect” and while you can always sand a surface with a finer grit of sandpaper, does it matter if you take an 800-grit-smooth surface to where 10000 grit will smooth it?

Perhaps a better question is this: Is the cost and time investment worth going past “good enough/done” to reach for those “perfect” four, nine or 27 decimal places?

Going beyond a seemingly ridiculous number of decimal places is one reason why Curiosity made it to Mars and still rumbles across the Red Planet today – yet it’s unlikely that Curiosity is perfect.

BUT… it is extremely well-designed and resilient.

Design and Resilience

My point is this: while perfect is certainly the enemy of done for much of the work that you and I deliver, that doesn’t eliminate the need to put serious thought into the design and resilience of our best products and services – if not all of them.

It’s not unusual for us to design something based on immediate and short-term needs, never taking the time to consider what happens if it encounters situations and customers our short-term design never considered.

The information we don’t have is often as important as what we know and assume at design time.

When you send a product like Curiosity to Mars, you don’t get an opportunity to replace a part you didn’t think through as well as you should have. You can’t make a service call or throw a tarp over it while you rip it apart to figure out how to resolve today’s problem.

Instead, your design time process has to include what *could* happen and how your product would react and extract itself from an unexpected situation….long before you load it onto a rocket, pallet, download page or Fedex box.

What if your product…

  • Finds itself being used by a customer 10 times bigger than your design-time’s “Ideal Customer”? Or 10 times smaller?
  • Is being used in an unfriendly environment? A high-security or low-security situation?
  • Lasts 10 years longer than you expected? Remember – the work or result it provides still reflects on your business.
  • Cost 250% more to replace once it’s installed – and that installation takes 253 days  (the time it took for Curiosity to reach Mars).

When Curiosity lifts off, it was too late to turn a screw, change a part’s materials, or sand and polish it to an even-higher tolerance fit.

Think about your best stuff – no matter what you do. What would happen to it under the conditions described above? Would it be worth more if it handled those things without breaking a sweat?

How would you react when that extra bit of design effort pays off? What revenue will result? What will that first few seconds of success feel like?

PS: The sum of *all* NASA spending over the last 50 years is $800 billion. Lots of money. Yet that 50 years of exploration and discovery were cheaper than the government bailout of Wall Street, which cost $850 billion. A stunning comparison of ROI, even before thinking about the spin-off technologies from NASA’s work that have trickled down to business and industry, much less the things that impact our daily lives.