Ask questions while the answers still matter

Back in November 2017, my wife hit a deer at 70 mph on a four-lane road on her way to work in the pre-dawn hours a few days before Thanksgiving. The events that followed provided a number of takeaways for business owners, in addition to pointing out the importance of asking questions while the answers still matter.

tl;dr – If you have an admin with little or no domain knowledge make the initial sale, review what they sold. Call or email to suggest any changes based on your experience, what you know about your customer, or tell them you did so and have no changes to suggest. Speaking of, follow up regularly with customers who have damage claims. Consider what carnage has been introduced into their lives. Don’t make your customers do your job. Even better, have a documented process for your team thats over and above what the national carrier forces upon you. Don’t be an order taker.

Timeline

Monday 11/20 – National claim office person tells me they expect the car to be totaled. They tell me to run out and collect whatever I need from the car because they are going to tow it to a salvage facility. I make 2 trips out to the car, which is 12 miles down the road. 1 of those trips is my fault, forgot the garage door opener and the plates. Took the plates since we may never see it again. Presumably we’ll be able to use them on the replacement car. Tow truck driver also predicted it would be totaled because five air bags were deployed.

Tuesday 11/21 – Based on what the national claim center told me on Monday 11/20, they are supposed to pick up the car from the tow place today. They didn’t.

Wednesday 11/22 (day before Thanksgiving) – Salvage yard’s tow truck goes to pick up the car, a day late. The tow place that originally picked up the car is closed for Thanksgiving.

Thursday 11/23 – Thanksgiving. Didn’t expect anything to happen today.

Friday 11/24 – Nothing happens. Not really surprising. Tow place is probably still closed.

Monday 11/27 – I call the claims office and find out nothing has happened. Person I spoke to seemed kind of short with me. Maybe they think I’m asking too many questions or being too persistent by expecting them to predict / commit to dates when something will happen. I didn’t get fussy (yet) so maybe she was getting abused by someone else before getting me.

Interestingly, when I call, the system knows I have a claim based on my phone # and asks me to press 1 to confirm that’s the claim I’m calling in about. Despite that, when I am connected to an agent, they ask for my name and claim number. Agent tells me that they haven’t got any scheduled date in the system for review of the car. Then they tell me it was never picked up from the tow place (this was supposed to happen on Tuesday).

I get the idea that this process will never complete without me hounding them every single day. I no longer feel like a client whose car was ripped from my hands. I now feel like a transactional sucker who pays someone to abuse me when and if I need their services.

It has been a week since the accident. Zero contact from the agent.

Takeaway – If you make your customers do your job, they are going to be frustrated, or they are going to expect a great deal. Set expectations up front.

Tuesday 11/28 – I will call and see if the car got towed to the salvage yard today. I will ask if an adjuster is now scheduled to visit the yard and assess the status of the vehicle. Call the agent and ask what the process is supposed to look like. Am I expected to nag the adjusters and the claim office every day or twice a day to get this stuff done in a reasonable timeframe?

Called mid-afternoon. Spoke to a very helpful woman named Tonya. “Tow dispatched but we cant tell if it was moved yet.” Adjuster will “automatically” check the car once it is “checked in” at the salvage yard, but that check-in hadnt happened yet. Otherwise, she didn’t have further info on the schedule.

Wednesday 11/29 – Called about noon. Got Donna (I think – was hard to hear at first). She was very friendly and ended up having to call the salvage yard and other people to find out out what was going on. The car is now at the salvage yard and checked-in, so the adjuster is expected to look it over in the next 2-3 days. Tomorrow is possible, but she couldn’t give me a firm date as the adjusters apparently work their own schedule. Doesn’t sound like they are insurance company employees, but I might be reading too much into her comments about their appointment schedule and work load. It’s possible that adjusters work for an adjuster firm that handles estimates / assessments for multiple insurance companies in rural areas. I don’t know the workload of these folks, but that would seem more efficient than every company having their own and trying to keep them all busy. I’m guessing someone who reads this might have more information about that.

Takeaway – When a situation clearly has the potential to frustrate a customer, a little extra effort on the part of your team goes a long way.

Thursday 11/30 – Received a voice mail about 820am saying that the vehicle is repairable (ie: they will not total it). They asked me to call them back. Called and reached Paige, who explained the situation and the benefits (warranties and such) that selecting a body shop that the insurance company “works with” (ie: trusts, has ongoing experience with, saves them money and probably hassle/paperwork). She emailed me a list. I reviewed the list, posted a few names on Facebook to see if any Missoula-based people had suggestions about the list. Chose one of the shops suggested to me. Called insurance company back, told them which body shop to use.

Later in the day, called back, asked Raul to explain the benefit that you get when using a body shop on insurance company’s preferred list (you can choose anyone, including a vendor not on their list). The deal is that repairs and anything else that comes up related to the wreck are guaranteed by the insurance company for as long as you own the car. NOTE: I haven’t seen the actual terms of this guarantee as yet. Given that we keep cars until they “BluesBrother“, this is a potentially valuable benefit, so we chose a shop on their list.

This is what I mean by “BluesBrother”:

Estimate arrived in my email. Called claim line again, turns out this estimate is actually from the insurance adjuster. $6200. Car is scheduled to be towed to the body shop on Friday.

Takeaway – Give your customers a good reason to make the choices you want them to make.

Friday 12/1 Car being moved from salvage yard to Action Auto Body in Missoula.

Monday 12/4 Called body shop, talked to John,  who happened to be the guy finishing up the estimate. Tells me it will take a week to get parts and 2 weeks to do the work. Very nice, detail oriented guy who seemed happy to answer all my questions without sounding the least bit tired or annoyed.

Takeaway – Having technically adept people on the phone who also fully understand how to work with a customer who lost use of a car is a big plus. Being able to do that job and put up with 15 minutes of questions from me without getting frustrated is impressive.

Tuesday 12/12 While I haven’t heard a word from anyone at the insurance company or the body shop since 12/4, today I received an automated survey email from insurance company. The nine page survey asked me to evaluate the claim handling. The survey clearly isn’t designed to be filled out until the claim is completed, yet it allows only 10 days to complete the survey – which will expire at least a week before the body shop expects to have the car back to me. Obviously, the technology generating the surveys has no visibility into the status of the claim in question.

Takeaway – If you care about survey responses, make sure the surveys are sent at the proper time. Automation handles this kind of stuff in it’s sleep – if it’s automated with the right data. “Ask questions while the answers still matter” also means don’t ask too soon.

Thursday 12/15 Received a mailer from insurance company suggesting that I could refinance the Subaru at a lower rate. Only if they’re offering negative interest.

Takeaway – Wording on your direct mail matters as much as it does in tweet or email. The assumptions you make can make your marketing piece all but invisible.

Friday 12/16 Talked to body shop. As of today, all the parts showed up, so they will start work on Monday the 19th. Parts were supposed to take a week, but my guess is that ground shipping has been impacted by Christmas shipping season. It’s clear we wont’t get the car back in 2017.

Tuesday 12/20 30 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.

Friday 12/29 Work is underway, had to order another couple of parts for previously unseen damage, and those parts have not arrived yet. Holiday shipping traffic and people on vacation have probably slowed delivery. Body shop estimates the car will be completed sometime the week of the 8th-12th.

Monday 1/8 Checked in with body shop. They asked me to bring in plates so they could drive it. They say the car is pretty much done, looks great. Told me that they were taking the car to Subaru to get it started again and certify sensors and automated driver-assist systems, etc. He cannot start the car, so Subaru apparently has to reset the computer or similar. Once they get it back from Subaru, they will highway test it to make sure all is well, and then we’ll be done with it.

Wednesday 1/10 Checked in with body shop. They reminded me to get plates to them. I have no car since the Mrs is driving mine to work and they are not open outside normal working hours, so I’ll have to drop them off during off-hours.

Saturday 1/13 Dropped the plates by the body shop so they could drive it.

Tuesday 1/16 Spoke with John at the body shop. Subaru has had the car for about 10 days. They were unable to get the car started for days. Apparently, they were unable to convince the computer to allow it to start and no one knew what to do. I’ve seen what happens when this occurs at other dealers – the service manager calls the factory and gets some help. Apparently, they managed to get it running a couple days later because a factory-certified master mechanic happened to be passing through Missoula and helped them figure it out. Makes me wonder if our local dealer has any factory-certified mechanics for 2018 vehicles. John tells me they told him to come pick it up. He did. On the short drive back to his shop, John sees that the dash is lit up like a Christmas tree – every light is on. Clearly, the dealer didn’t finish the job and left the car in a state where it is running, but not ready to return to the customer (ie: me). No idea if driving in this condition would have eventually caused engine damage. Body shop guy turns around, returns the car to them, tells them not to bother giving the car back until it is 100% perfect. I suspect it wasn’t worded that way, but the point was still made.

Takeaway – Notice how the body shop advocated for the customer? Can you imagine the response you’d get if you made a similar demand of your dealer’s service department?

Takeaway – Don’t all dealers have at least one factory-certified master technician? If you have them and you know the other dealers don’t, why isn’t your advertising letting people know this important detail?

Friday 1/19 Spoke with John at the body shop. He tells me that Subaru seems to be making progress. They found a sensor or something that needed to be replaced, so they ordered it for Monday (1/22) delivery.

Saturday 1/20 60 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.

Tuesday 1/23 Spoke with John at body shop. Dealer still has not returned the car to them. He didn’t know if they received the part on Monday, or what progress had been made. Said Dar has been working with them and that he would know, but he was gone for the day.

Wednesday 1/24 Called body shop to see if they had any news from Subaru. Dealer is still trying to figure out engine issue.

Friday 1/26 Body shop called. Subaru dealer still lost on what’s going on. Thought it was figured out, they gave him the car on Thursday. Once again, on the drive back to the shop, it started throwing engine failure warnings, so he turned around and took it back.

Monday 1/29 Body shop called, said that Subaru finally reproduced the problem so now they seem to have it narrowed down to a computer error or an oil sensor error. Apparently the problem is intermittent. Every programmer you know will tell you this makes the problem harder to find.

Wednesday 1/31 Called body shop. They explained that after they called Subaru late on 1/29 after we last talked and found that Subaru techs determined that the one of the car’s computers was messed up. They figured this out by swapping a new car’s computer into our car and re-testing, as well as swapping ours to a new car. As your programmer friends will tell you, this is debugging 101. Replace / disable the components that are involved, but do so one at a time. Why it took three weeks to arrive at that point, I have no idea. Interestingly, the dealer does not stock computers for the current model year even though the Outback is the highest selling model in the U.S. as of 2016 with a mere 16.0 days to turn (ie: days on lot before it gets sold ). Perhaps computers don’t fail that often. Dealer apparently isn’t allowed to take the computer from a new car, so they had to order one (delivery time: three to four days). Body shop was hopeful (but not super confident) that he would get it back late Thursday or early Friday so he could get it to us before the end of the day on Friday.

Friday 2/2 Body shop called in the morning to say that he got the car back and that it was OK. They need it for a few more hours to finalize cleanup and then we can have it. I was able to pick up the car about 4:30pm. The total repair bill was just short of $16,000. Later that night, I got a detailed email receipt from the body shop, as well as an automated email from the insurance company that an “updated claim estimate” had been received. The body shop gassed it up before returning it.

Takeaway – Filling the tank was not required and not expensive, but it was a nice gesture when returning someone’s car after over two months. What “not required and not expensive” things can you do to impress your clients?

Saturday 2/3 Received an automated email from the insurance company noting that the claim had been paid. On a Saturday. Despite decades of working on automated systems, I’m shocked this didn’t require management approval, particularly given the amount (almost $16K). It appears from Friday night and Saturday driving that the car is back to pre-deer condition. Body shop’s paint/finish job was very well done.

Takeaway – Systems work. While the efficiency provided by inter-company systems produce a time and cost savings benefit to the insurance company, body shop and dealer, these systems are also a benefit to customers.

Verdict of the experience:

Body shop – Great job, both on the work and as an advocate for me when dealing with the local dealer. Slower than expected, but three holidays and the shipping time for multiple parts orders didn’t help. At times, they seemed surprised that I didn’t go ballistic on them or at least take out my frustration with the situation on them during our calls. I never felt the need to do that because they kept me informed, set expectations, and were clearly playing the role of advocate for me when dealing with the dealer. They didn’t make me do their job.

Local dealer – They had the car for over three weeks. I wonder what would have happened if that factory-certified technician from somewhere else hadn’t been in the area twice while our car was being diagnosed. I got the impression that this guy was the savant who twice rescued the dealer’s service department from throwing up their hands and giving up. Imagine if a random customer had been dealing with the dealer instead of a peer in their industry. The body shop guys tell me that they still believe in the dealer’s service department, so that goes a long way. The dealer should appreciate that they were held to the body shop’s standards.

National claims office – Outside of a slow start with the tow (which added a week) and the adjuster (which added another week) and one episode of snark on the phone, they performed as expected.

Local agent – Was a non-factor in the process. Agent missed a substantial opportunity to create a relationship and show how they care for clients.

What’s missing from this timeline?

A personal contact from the agent.

The lady who cuts my hair knows more about our experience with the deer hit and the subsequent repair adventures than my (former) insurance agent. If this seems normal, you have the wrong agent or you are the wrong agent.

In the nine weeks between hitting the deer and getting our car back, our only contact with the agent’s office has been my call to their office where I talked to his admin on the morning of the deer hit. She was pleasant, asked if everyone was ok, took a little bit of info, then transferred me to the national claim office. That part was expected as the priority at the time is to get started on repairing the car once we’re clear that there were no injuries.

A week after getting our car back, it was clear our agent wasn’t going to reach out. I called them to move our coverage to the CFalls agent we previously worked with for almost 15 years (call it a corrected oversight).  The old agent’s admin was pleasant and said she would take care of it, noting that she would contact me if they needed more info. She didn’t ask about my wife or the car, which tells me that their customer contact software doesn’t give them any sort of recent history to help “make conversation” & check in on a customer’s satisfaction level during customer calls.

The next day, the agent called me for what I believe is the first time in three and a half years.

He was calling to tell me that he had released our policies to CFalls & to ask if we were moving because of something they’d done. It was too late to ask. They might be able to fix it for someone else, but for anyone wearing the customer hat, it doesn’t matter. Some might share, but most are going to say whatever gets the guy off the phone – and that’s exactly what I did. I was busy with work at the time and didn’t have time to get into what would probably become an hour-long discussion.  Interestingly, the agent said he asks the same question of customers transferring business to his office – ie: what made you leave the other agent? What about the gap between getting and losing a customer?

It’s critical to ask good questions, but be sure to ask them while the answers still matter.

Fill gaps of inattention

So let’s get back to the real reason I bothered to share all of this with you: To help you understand how you might be leaving gaps of inattention in your relationship with your customers.

After my wife hit a deer at 70 MPH on a pitch dark morning just before 6:00 am, no one called during that nine week period to ask if:

  • … the driver is still doing OK (injuries and issues often show up days/weeks later)
  • … we’ve gotten the car back or to ask if we know why it’s taking so long (we have and I do).
  • … if we’re satisfied with the repairs (we are).
  • … if we want to make any coverage changes (we do).

This is below my expectations.

Some agents might say they “aren’t allowed” to make that sort of contact with customers. Don’t confuse being a real person who cares about their clients with being an order taker.

If your parent company doesn’t allow you to have personal, caring contact with your clients, find another company to represent. If anything, that sort of rule may indicate how that company will treat you someday.

Some insurance agents reading this might be thinking “we’re not told to do that“. Bear in mind that there are many things you should do to keep and care for a client that no one tells you to do.

Don’t be an order taker.

An order taker says “Do you want fries with that?”, yet an order taker can show some humanity and assess the purchaser on their feet and comment/question accordingly when appropriate.

An order taker can be replaced at will. I can switch to another agent for the same company without a second thought. I can switch to another insurance company without much thought, if all I want to do is compare dollars and cents.

On the other hand, if a client is madly in love (maybe that’s a stretch) with the care and attention provided by their insurance agent and their team, you’ll have to pry them away in most cases.

Which agency do you want to own? Which agency do you want to use? The order taker or the caring, attentive team?

What would they do to put you out of business?

When I asked “What would they do to put you out of business?“, you probably wondered who “they” are. “They” might be someone whose expertise in another market tells them yours is ripe for the taking. “They” might be a competitor you already have, or someone new to the market who doesn’t know any better. Remember when you didn’t know any better? You’re still here.

Who they are really doesn’t matter. What they do & why… that’s what matters. How would they price, market, sell, deliver, service, & communicate?

Pricing

You might expect that they’d come in with lower pricing. While it depends a good deal on your market, I wouldn’t be surprised to find them going higher and establishing a market segment above yours, leaving you with what remains.

The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” – Ben Franklin

Companies with plenty of margin can afford to spend more on marketing, delivery and service. If you were starting over today, would you price the same way, or differently? Why? Why not?

Marketing

Ultimately, marketing is about exchanging cash for a (hopefully predictable  and consistent) number of leads who turn into customers. If your marketing efforts spend $27.50 to get a lead, would you rather your leads turn into customers who spend $2750 or $27500 over their lifetime as your customer?

Thinking back to what you do now, can you make that choice? Can a new entrant to your market? (and if so, again… can you make that choice?)

Looking at it a different way…. If your new competitor can afford to pay two or three or ten times what you can afford for leads, who will likely end up with more leads and more ability to choose select the best leads?

If you were starting over, how would you market differently? Would you choose a different customer to focus on?

Selling

Thinking about how you and your market peers sell now, how would an upstart in your market do it differently… and better? What steps would they add, subtract, or embellish? Would they listen more and talk less? Would they speak of the needs, wants, concerns and worries of their prospects? Would they parrot features and speak in bullet points, while lamenting about the need to meet their quota?

If you were starting over, would you sell differently? How so? If not, why not?

Delivery

Do you deliver and/or deploy for your customers today? What would a noob to your market do? Would they prepare differently? Tool up differently? Deploy differently? Train the customer’s team differently, more, or less? Would they follow up more or differently than they do now after delivery and deployment is complete? What would someone do differently than you if they come from a high attention to details market?

If you were starting over, how would delivery and deployment look?

Service

Almost everyone brags about their service. It’s rarely as good, unique or unusual as they think. People talk about under-commit and over-deliver, but finding it in the wild is rare. Your service rarely feels like you’d want it to feel if you were in that client’s situation.

If you were starting over, how would your client’s service experience look and feel?

Communication

Through every step of sales, marketing, delivery and service, there are opportunities to set expectations and over-communicate. There are opportunities every day to take away the doubt, lack of clarity, wonder about what’s going to happen next. There are opportunities to pick up the phone instead of sending an email, or to drop by instead of picking up the phone.

If you were starting over, how would you communicate?

What would “they” do?

They’d do what you refuse to do. What you’re afraid to do or haven’t thought of. They’ll do what you don’t feel like doing or don’t think is necessary. They’d do what turns customers into clients who wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.

More than likely, you know what these things are. Knowing isn’t enough. Answers are easy to come by. Execution of it is another thing entirely.

Will you wait until the new kid on the block forces you to mimic their behavior, or will your behavior set the bar so high that no one will dare enter your market? All those things you’d do if you were starting over can be started when you decide to do them.

The choice is yours.

Photo by MDGovpics

Selling someone else’s products

Have you ever thought about selling someone else’s products? When you sell someone else’s products,  parts of that vendor’s business obviously become a part of yours: their products and services. However, the reality is a good bit more complicated.

Be sure what business you’re in

When you consider selling someone else’s products, it’s critical to assess whether the product is germane to what you do.

For example, it isn’t hard to find stores selling fidget spinners. They’re an impulse buy that could add a small bump to daily sales, so grocery stores, convenience stores and the like could justify selling them back when they were hot.

However, it makes little sense to see these gadgets advertised on outdoor signage at pawn shops and musical instrument stores – which I’ve seen lately. The logic behind advertising out-of-context impulse items on a specialty retail store’s limited outdoor signage escapes me – particularly on high traffic streets.

Will it confuse their market? Will they lose their focus by selling a few $2.99 items? Doubtful. While they’re trying something to increase revenue, the emphasis on an out-of-context, low-priced impulse buy product is the reason I bring it up. It makes no sense for a specialty retailer.

When you start selling someone else’s product, there are questions you don’t want your clients and prospects asking. They include “Have their lost their focus?” and “What business is my vendor really in?”  These questions can make your clientele wonder if another vendor would serve them better.

Should you sell out of market?

I had this “Is it in context?” discussion with some software business owners this week.

One of the owners (not the tool vendor) is asking the group to sell the development tools they use to their customers & other markets. Ordinarily, this would be a head scratcher, since most software development tools generate their own momentum, and/or are marketed and sold with a reasonable amount of expertise. That isn’t the case with this tool vendor.

However, the discussion really isn’t about that tool vendor, even though they’re at the center of the discussion being had by these business owners. The important thing for you is the “Should we sell this product?” analysis.

Start the conversation by bluntly asking yourself if makes sense for your business to sell this product.

Adjacent space or different planet?

If your company sells to businesses that develop software internally or for sale to others, then you might consider selling a vendor’s software development tools to your customers. It might make sense if you sell into enterprise IT.

However, if you sell software to family-owned, local businesses like auto parts stores and bakeries, it makes no sense at all. You’re going to appear to be from another planet going to these customers to sell software development tools.

If you try to sell these tools in an unfamiliar market, then you’re starting fresh in a market your team probably isn’t used to selling and marketing into. The chance of losing focus is significant unless you’re leading your current market by a sizable margin and have plenty of extra resources.

Ideally, a new product line feels congruent to your team, clients and prospects. Even when it’s a good match, the work’s barely started as selling and supporting a ready-to-sell product requires a pile of prep work.

Your sales team needs training to sell the product and know how/when to integrate it into multi-product solutions. You need to include the product in your marketing and training mix. Your support team needs training to provide the level of support that your customers expect. Your infrastructure team needs to incorporate it into your CRM, accounting, website, and service management systems. Your deployment team may need training as well.

What if the new product’s vendor has problems?

Reputation damage is one of the biggest risks when selling someone else’s products, particularly if you have to depend on the other company to service and interact with your customers.

Does the product vendor provide support as good as yours? Do they communicate in a timely & appropriate manner? Do they service things promptly? Are they a good citizen in the developer community? These things are important in the software tools market. In your market, they may not matter.

The actions of the product’s creator reflect on you, since YOU sold the product to YOUR client. Carefully consider the risk/reward. Your entire clientele will be watching.

Being ready for a new customer

In a sport, when a player isn’t ready when the play starts, bad things tend to happen. In some sports, a penalty. In others, the opposing team gains an advantage, sometimes big, sometimes a few points. In business, being ready when “the play starts” means you might get the business. Not being ready may mean you don’t get the sale. Sometimes this means a lot, sometimes a little. Worse yet, not being ready may mean you don’t get the customer. Not getting the customer is a critical failure. Few of us have a business where we can afford to miss out on customers. Some of us have businesses where if we miss out on that chance, we may never get another chance to sell that customer.

Being ready times lifetime customer value

Never having a chance to sell to the customer you missed can be costly. Any car dealer worth their salt can tell you how often (on average) they see a repeat customer. Do the math, and you’ll know how many cars they can sell that person’s family over a lifetime – assuming they don’t mess up the relationship. Factor in the relationship habit that often creates in children, referrals to friends and referrals to other family members and before long, you can see that the value of establishing that first relationship can be sizable. The same can be said for real estate, legal and financial assistance, among others. A relationship created by being ready when a new customer steps into your world as a real estate agent, attorney, lawyer or similar can result in a lifetime of steady, lucrative business, despite having the possibility of having years pass between transactions. Again, the family and friends referrals can mount up in value.. if you’re ready.

However, this type of substantial lifetime customer value creation isn’t limited to big ticket businesses. Retail, restaurants and many other businesses benefit from long-term relationships created by that first transaction or event… if you’re ready.

What does not being ready look like?

Not being ready comes in many shapes, colors & sizes. Are your people trained for the job you sent them to perform? Do they have the tools they need? Do they have the training to do that work? Do they have the materials needed? This includes brochures, business cards, safety gear, proper clothing, etc. These may seem like obvious questions, until if you ask your customers whether or not the people they work with seem prepared. I suspect you will find that they encounter ill-prepared staffers more often than you would like. Ask them if they encounter unprepared people at other businesses – without naming the business. This eliminates their desire to avoid embarrassing someone on your team, but provides examples you can use to check on your own team’s state of readiness.

Training your team is part of being ready

Making sure your team is trained is critical to making sure they’re ready for the opportunities they encounter. One of the areas I often see untrained team members is in front line positions that senior team members don’t want to staff. A good example is a real estate open house on a weekend. The listing agent can’t be in more than one place at a time when they have multiple houses open simultaneously, so the team members they book to staff the other homes is critical. If you’re the listing agent sending untrained or barely-trained people “into harm’s way”, consider the possible cost. If you send an ill-prepared team member to staff an open house, their lack of preparedness and/or tendency to act more like a house sitter and less like you can be costly. Will they collect leads? Will they follow visitors around the house like a new puppy? Will they have the home info learned well enough to answer questions without having to read the spec sheet for visitors? Make sure they have a process to follow.

A similar situation arises when a restaurant’s wait staff comes to the table not having tasted the food, wine, and other things their restaurant serves. While this might seem surprising, it happens frequently. Part of training your team is tasting the things you want them to sell. Recommendations from your staff matter.

Think about your encounters over the last week. Were they ready to serve you? How did their level of preparation make you feel about that business?

Photo by Leo Hidalgo (@yompyz)

Bounce rate too high? Set the stage

What are you doing to keep your website’s bounce rate down? Bounce rate is the percentage of visitors that visit your site and leave without looking at another page, or taking any action (opt-ins, etc). A high bounce rate would be a bad thing in most cases. There are sites where higher than normal bounce rates aren’t unusual, but for most business-oriented sites that have sales, service and related functionality – it isn’t usually a good thing. A business site may have some pages that have a higher bounce rate than the rest of the site, but those tend to have specific purposes and are self-contained (ie: everything the customer/prospect needs is on that page – like a phone number or the answer to a specific question).

High bounce rates can be caused by pages that are: boring, objectionable, uninformative, unclear, misleading, or didn’t match the expectation (reason) that the view believes that the page exists. For a home page, a high bounce rate might tell you that the page doesn’t do a good job of communicating what the company does and why you should be there. Think about the reasons why you leave a site after visiting only one page. You didn’t find what you wanted. The site isn’t what you thought it was. The site is too technical or is filled with jargon. The site isn’t technical enough and targets people far less experienced in the subject than you.

Some of those reasons are legitimate, depending on the person coming to the site and their expectation. It’s the reason audience-specific landing pages exist – the home page can’t be everything to everyone. Even so, your site (like a retail store) needs to set the stage.

Set the stage

When you walk into most retail stores, someone either says Hello (or welcome). In many cases, the store’s next action is for a staff member to ask if they can help you. Sometimes the ask is inquisitive, sometimes it’s asked in a tone that clearly hopes you say no, sometimes it’s perky. No matter how the question is asked, the most common answer is “Just looking”, of course. The possible translations of “just looking” include: “I got this”, “Leave me alone”, “I don’t need help, thanks”, and others. Sometimes, “just looking” is OK. Sometimes, they’re showrooming – but they’re in your store, so reducing their bounce is what you do next.

In far too many cases, “Can I help you?” is a conversation that tends to feel like this: “How was school today?” “Fine.”

Many stores handle in-store visitors in a more effective way. Some explain how the store works, particularly if it has an unusual process or there’s something non-obvious about it. A good example: “If you see an item you like, and you want it in a different color – please let us know. We have every color of every item in stock and ready to take home.” Is there a similar comment your website could make to set the stage for the visitor to accomplish what they came for? Take that same “we have every color…” angle and look at your website.

Compare it to face time

I looked at a computer bag / luggage site recently. Their site made it clear which laptops fit which bags. It showed how to measure the dimensions of your laptop (vs. trusting “15 inch laptop”) so that you’d be sure your gear fit. My guess is that poor fit is a common reason why people return computer bags. Their site makes sure I buy the right thing and don’t bounce due to uncertain fit. What makes your visitors bounce?

What would you say if a web site prospect was sitting with you at a local coffee shop or cafe? If they walk in and sit down with you, how would speak for your website in a way that encouraged them to look further, or help them find the answer they’re looking for? What would they say as they were seated?

What’s the first thing you would say to them to help them feel comfortable, welcome and knowledgeable about what your site is all about? What would you say to enable them to take the next logical step, assuming they are the type of person (or business) that you want to visit your site? Is that what your site says now?

Photo by jacopast

Which little things do you let slide?

We often let little things go because we have “bigger fish to fry”. We prioritize tasks, clients, products and services over others of the same sort because we have to. Prioritization of what’s important today over what might be important tomorrow, or even later today is perfectly normal. We have to do it.

The challenge with little things is that they add up, particularly when they’re repeatedly set aside. They have a way of ganging up and creating momentum, as if they were a colony of ants. Together, a colony can move things much larger than any single ant.

We cannot allow any error in judgment to delude us into thinking that ‘letting the little thing slide’ would not make a major difference.” – Jim Rohn

What little things?

What sort of little things come to mind for you as important for your business?

For me, the little things that matter are those things that tell me what the business thinks is important. Every business says the customer is important, but how do they prove it? Do their words match their actions? Little things are a great place to sort this out.

Little things explicitly communicate what’s important to the owners of the business. They tell me about the culture of the business and paint a picture of what’s important to the business’ management team. These things indicate how hard the ownership and management has thought about what their customers need, want and expect.

Their consideration of and emphasis placed on these things is reflected in the staff’s behavior. Their behavior is an indicator of the quality of management. It signals management’s emphasis during staff training, as well as the quality and frequency of that training. All of this points at the importance placed on serving their clients’ needs, wants and expectations.

Think about the curb appeal of a house. Consider your impression when stopping in front of a home with a weedy, un-mowed yard. Now think about the impression you have when viewing a nicely manicured one. What does that tell you about the upkeep, maintenance and care taken for the rest of each home? Your impression might be wrong – but changing that impression is tough. A business with poor “curb appeal” may never get a chance to improve the impression they’ve left.

That’s exactly what little things can do. They have a knack for sending a big message to your clients.

Prioritization by impact

Big things matter. If you think back over your career, I’m sure you can think of a number of big issues that started out as little things that were left to fester. But which ones? It’s critical to separate the little unimportant things from the little things that can fester into big ones. And how exactly do you do that? One of the most important prioritization skills you can develop is the ability to determine which of these little things are unimportant and which need to be dealt with before they create big problems.

I tend to look at the impact, rather than the size.

If something small is likely to impact a number of people, it won’t be small for long. That’s the kind of little thing that requires short term attention. Little things to you, your team and your business might be big things to your clientele, which speaks to your awareness of client needs, wants and expectations.

If something small isn’t communicated, it can become something big simply by not letting your clients know about it – and know that you’re aware of it. Even if you believe it’s a little thing, communicate anyway. This gives the client a chance to say “Thanks, no problem” or “Hey, it’s not a big deal in and of itself, but it’s going to create another problem that causes a big impact.” The incremental cost of that brief advisory to the client is tiny. The return on investment on that communication can be sizable if it helps keep a small issue from morphing into something ugly.

If you only identify one of these situations per year and it results in keeping a client you might have lost, the return on investment is obvious. If you retain one sale a month by categorizing these little things and taking action on the important ones, the return on investment is obvious.

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: 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.

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.

Project Management: Is it done yet?

When I was young and a bit green at project management, I somehow managed to have responsibility for a number of big projects. Some came in OK, some never seemed to get rolling properly, some were late, and some seemed to take on a life of their own. A latter group tended to include projects whose scope was a moving target or had many unknowns.

The worst of these have a way of being the unknowns you never see coming, often gestated from a family tree of assumptions and incorrect or changed information.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously said that decisions are made while dealing with “known unknowns and unknown unknowns“. Anyone with large project experience knows exactly what he meant. Interestingly, Rumsfeld credits a NASA manager with the terminology.

Project management requires discovery

The software business has a sketchy reputation for delivering projects on time, despite a lot of internally-driven improvement over the last two decades. This reputation is sustained by the memory of failures of very large software projects.

Agile project management and related methodologies have helped a great deal. Many of these methodologies can trace their roots back to Lean manufacturing / management methods taught by Deming in Japan after World War II.

Success with these management strategies depends on early discovery of issues, challenges and changes in the information driving your decisions. This, along with our human tendencies, is why the MVP (minimum viable product) construct works. The earlier the customer sees your work, the earlier you’ll find out if you’re on track.

Usually, you get to decide how this discovery occurs: organically as the project work occurs, or in advance, thanks to discussions of expectations, requirements and manufacturing options during the design phase.

Poorly managed projects are often started without sufficient discovery and discussion. Even today, many projects are started and finished with very little advanced thought. No one would build an airliner as it rolls down the runway. While that sounds a bit ridiculous, this is exactly what happens.

The context of the design is critical as well. Work done in a vacuum, even with the best of intentions, often produces incorrect assumptions thanks to the aforementioned unknown unknowns.  The project’s scope is an known unknown and the unknown unknowns are often a simple matter of lack of experience with the environment where the completed project will be used. The gap between expectations and results matters whether you’re building a crescent wrench, a software program or a Mars rover.

When will it be done?

While you may not have an accurate answer to that question, better design will improve your ability to give an estimate that someone can actually trust.

Better design? How?

The most common problem I see is not breaking things down into small enough pieces of work. Granularity is critical to the design and estimation of highly detailed / technical work. The volume of dependencies and unknowns in this type of work compounds the miscalculations and omissions resulting from a lack of detailed analysis, resulting in inaccurate estimates and missed expectations.

An estimate of days, weeks or months without a detailed breakdown of subtasks is symptomatic of the problem. I find that estimates require subtasks no larger than two to four hours to create a design that’s thought out well-enough to meet expectations, discover obstacles in advance, while producing a reasonable estimate.

But it’s not perfect!

Human nature also creeps into the equation: We like completing tasks.

It’s such a part of our us that people tend to focus on less important tasks simply because we can complete them before the end of the work day. We feel accomplished despite leaving big projects untouched.

If you’ve ever written things on a checklist that you’ve already done so that you could check them off, then you know what I mean.

Rather than fight the fixation on small projects that we can “download” and complete in a work period, feed it with subtasks of your big, important projects that conform to the need to complete something the same day.

Life has a way of being incredibly creative when it comes to finding ways to delay a project’s completion. Build these project management tactics into your design, estimate and build workflow so that you can get better work done faster – even on big projects.