Adding value to gathering feedback

Being obsessive about the customer-facing activity of your business requires some discussion about the company’s process for gathering feedback.

Ironically, these systems and processes for gathering feedback tend to be at their worst when the customer would benefit most from being heard. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the process for responding to feedback typically trails a company’s collection of feedback.

Why is feedback broken?

Because feedback is a multi-faceted beast, it tends to be broken in any number of three ways, including these:

  • No one is collecting it.
  • Someone or something has made it incredibly difficult to share.
  • When it’s collected, it goes nowhere.
  • When it’s collected, it isn’t tracked (no source, no situation, no financial impact etc).
  • When action is taken on it, there’s no effort to follow up.
  • When action is taken on it, there’s no communication to the rest of your customers.
  • It isn’t used to improve the rest of the company.

Feedback has four parts

Feedback is a four part activity, so be sure that none of the pieces are broken.

The pieces are: Collection, Valuation, Action and Communication.

Collection is a matter of letting your customers be heard. Many times, simply giving them an outlet for their feedback will satisfy them. In some cases, people simply want to vent and may not care if you respond (you should). Finally, feedback often comes in the form of a suggestion, and in many of those cases, people don’t expect a response.

Collection is more than simply saying “Thanks, we got your comment”, but that should be the absolute minimum if that’s all you can manage. There’s always time to improve, since every day is a good time to improve something.

Valuation is an often ignored part of the collection process. It’s easy to take a complaint, tell someone you’re sorry and give them a coupon for next time (or some such), and then move on. Unfortunately, that wastes the value and opportunity that hides deep inside the feedback.

Valuation

Valuation assesses the feedback and its impact on your clients, and your company. For example, you may get feedback about certain things which only come from the customers who buy your most expensive products, but only during third shift on the weekends. The when and where both matter since many businesses function a bit differently during “off-hours” or non-prime shifts.

Sometimes feedback points out “reaching demand”, a client behavior (doing something, hiring someone and/or spending on something) that identifies a need that should become a part of your offering. Other times, feedback points out a failure point in a product or service that needs attention. It could be about quality and workmanship, or a lack of clarity in marketing materials or sales processes that creates a disconnect between expectations and reality.

Valuation helps you assess what parts of the company can be improved by the feedback, beyond the context of the complaint.

Taking action

If your company’s feedback loop ends at “Sorry, here’s a coupon for next time“, who misses out the most? Your management team.

That eliminates an opportunity to take a high-level view of the problem for further action. Nordstrom is famous for its empowerment of employees to make things right in these situation, and their feedback loop doesn’t stop at the employee.

While these complaints might seem to be “employee failure alerts” that a line employee might want to hide from their manager, they often point out where management needs to provide better support and/or infrastructure to their staff.

Without complaint awareness, it can be difficult for managers to see trends that (going back to valuation) can be incredibly wasteful and expensive. This is particularly true when there are lots of part-time people involved across changing shifts – negating the ability to see such trends.

Communication

Many times when you file a complaint, you get a response indicating that the company isn’t staffed to respond personally to each complaint. If you can respond to each one, I suggest doing so. If you have thousands of clients and get a lot of feedback, it can be overwhelming to respond individually.

However, individual responses can often be avoided if you respond in a way that serves many. Use your website, email list or text subscriber list to discuss complaint resolution, including the actions taken. Share internally with your team as well.

Are you communicating company goals?

The natural thought process for small business owners at this time of year is often about goals, i.e.: “How can we do better next year?”

Before you can answer that, you need to decide what “do better” means. What’s your process for thinking that through? If you decide it’s about increasing a high level focus item like profit (rather important), you’re going to have to break it down so you can focus on the actions that produce the increase you’re looking for.

Departmental goals matter too

Once you’ve settled on an area to improve, don’t limit improvement ideas solely to your focus. If you have a staff, you have to get them involved. If you’re big enough to have multiple departments, you have to get them involved. Get them together and take them through the process you went through. For each department or area of the company, what data should they review? For each department or area of the company, what else needs review and discussion? What do they think they can improve upon this year that will have the most significant impact on their area’s quality and speed? Each department needs to understand how achieving their goals will contribute to other departmental goals, and vice-versa. Finally, all departments or areas of the company need to understand how their area’s goals contribute directly to company-wide goals.

Communicate company-wide goals

Most business owners are pretty good at breaking down the achievements required to reach their goals, but a common misstep is to overlook the communication required to make sure that the owner’s company-wide goals have “Why does this matter to me?” context at all levels of the company, for every employee.

This is a critical step for several reasons, most of which are connected to the need to provide employees with context to the company’s goal(s). When discussing the context of the goals with your team, answer these questions from the employee’s perspective: Why should I care? How can a brand-new employee contribute to such a high-level goal? How can an employee who feels their work is “menial” possibly believe their effort is critical enough that it rolls up into the company’s goals? What do I need to hear about my work to make this company goal important? (If they don’t know these things, they won’t likely be bought in to company goals.) My low-level work seems unimportant, so why does this matter to anyone? I watch the clock all day, how could my work be of importance to the company?

Each person, regardless of what they do, needs to understand how their work contributes to the company’s goal(s). They also need to understand what their department’s goals are. They need to be reminded that the most “menial”, seemingly “low level” task is important because that work is often where the company has significant contact with the customer. If they don’t truly understand the importance of what they do – their leader needs to step in and help.

Obvious, but often overlooked

You might be thinking this is all so obvious, but in small, closely-held companies, these things are not commonly communicated, or are not explained to a level that makes them resonant with the staff. If your company goals don’t resonate with the staff, they really aren’t company goals at all. The same goes for departmental goals, which can produce silo’d behavior that leaves people with the impression that the performance of one group or even one person is not all that meaningful to the rest of the company, when the truth is that all of these pieces working in sync are critical to making the entire company’s goals.

Things to consider

What are the three most valuable pieces of information you learned about your clients this year? Of those three, which demand that you leverage them with into the new year? Is any one of them such a competitive advantage?

What is an area of strength in each department that can be leveraged for the entire company? Is this a strength limited to that department, or can that department teach the rest of the company how to gain from it?

When you sit down to look at these things and discuss them, be sure that you’re thinking about and discussing the data, rather than going on gut feel. It’s way too tempting to do this by the seat of the pants, but don’t do it.

Communicate when nature threatens

Last week I said “Allowing perceptions to percolate in our guests’ minds without updates is dangerous not only for this year’s success, but for future years as well.

Part of your job is to set guests’ minds at ease by giving them the advice they need to make considered decisions during situations they’re unaccustomed to.

They want to protect their investment, their vacation and their families. It’s safe to say that your local, regional and/or state tourism groups, media and attractions will put effort into this. What isn’t safe to assume is that your guests will see their message and understand it as you do.

You might be the only one in the area with their name and contact info. You might be the only one who develops a relationship with them. Your business is the one that will pay the price if they get off a plane in Minneapolis and see an airport gate “if it bleeds, it leads” style news video with an uninformed announcer from 2500 miles away saying “Glacier Park is on fire“.

They don’t know what you know. You’ve seen all of this before.

Make sure they understand that and that you are giving them time-tested advice based on your knowledge of their visit and their family. YOU need to contact them and make sure they have accurate information, otherwise, their next flight might be toward home.

Details protect your business

Last time, I added a lot to your plate:

Segmenting guests into groups. Collecting emails. Collecting cell numbers. Writing emails. Sending emails. Documenting the various communication processes so anyone can do it, even if you’re tending to a sick parent. Producing templates for the emails you might need to send. Producing templates for the text messages you might need to send. Producing a fill-in-the-blanks script that a staffer can read when calling guests who are in transit or in the area. Documenting the process so that anyone on site knows who is responsible for starting the process, which one to start, who to notify and what to say.

This isn’t about creating more work for the owner/manager. This is about putting a trust-building, by the numbers, automated where necessary system in place so that it can be handled by employees who never dealt with it before.

You won’t have time to do any of this when a fire blows up in the park. You won’t have time to manually send 300 emails or make 100 phone calls while deciding what to say on the fly.

This is about creating time to deal with critical high-season work when you least want to be “messing around with emails”, even if your place isn’t directly threatened. These tasks need to be organized, tested and ready to implement before the season starts.

Fine tuning the message

When you sit down to build this system, you’ll have a lot to think about. For example, the urgency and means of contacting them is as different as the message for each group and situation.

What conditions that merit separate communications and (most likely) separate messages? What groups should be split out of “the entire list of guests”?

A number of situations will expose themselves as you think it through. Go back over prior years and think about the times you handled this well and not so well. What did you learn after the fact that you didn’t consider when things were unfolding? Your own experiences count too – How was this done when you were on vacation and unexpected problems occurred?

Two examples:

  • If evacuations or cancellations are necessary, will evacuated / cancelled guests get priority booking for a substitute stay at your property?
  • As the situation unfolds, it will become more clear what to say to your guests with reservations a month or more out – but you need to communicate the plan now so they know what to expect. What will you say?

Your business may not be affected by fire season but nature threatens your business somehow and when it does, “fire season lessons” apply. Your area might be subject to drought, low (or high) water in rivers/lakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, or a damaged bridge instead of a forest fire.

No matter what happens, send the right message to the right guests in a timely manner in the right way. Build trust. Practice, automate, document, delegate.

 

Forest fire communication can burn you

Now that the Reynolds Creek fire is 65% contained, there are two myths to squash:

The fire is almost out.

Not true. Ask anyone close to the fire teams and they’ll likely tell you that only a season-ending snow will likely knock it out completely. Even so, if you let this cancel your 2015 Glacier National Park visit, you’re probably making a mistake.

There’s not much to see with the fire burning.

Not true. As I noted online numerous times over the last several weeks, the park’s still open, the Going-to-the-Sun road is mostly open, 99.97% of the park is not burning and it remains more than capable of wowing (and challenging) your mind and body. Thankfully, news organizations, Inciweb, GNP, various tourism groups and others are communicating this message so that visitors don’t cancel their plans.

Allowing these two perceptions to percolate in our guests’ minds without updates is dangerous not only for this year’s success, but for future years as well.

What else gets burned in a forest fire?

Forests aren’t the only thing that are burned by forest fires. Profitability, traffic, cash flow and our well-laid plans can also go up in smoke.

When we have a fire, it’s all but certain to hurt tourism – particularly if you depend on someone else to set your visitors at ease.

I know you’re busy. It’s peak season, or should be. Even so, the Reynolds Creek fire should have you thinking about a few things:

  • How does your business react when red flag conditions are present?
  • How does your business react when that first fire of the season hits the news?
  • How does your business react when the first wave of cancellations comes in?
  • Are those reactions planned? Have they been rehearsed / tested?
  • If you’re away from the property (perhaps your parent is sick), will these plans be executed as you wish with the type of messages you want delivered?
  • Do you have all of the steps in place to communicate with your visitors in order to minimize the damage to your business?

Yes, this is all about communication.

The first thing you might ask is “Which visitors do we communicate with?“, but don’t forget that what you say is as important as who you say it to.

Which guest needs which information?

My suggestion would be “All of them“, but that’s an incomplete answer.

When a fire (or similar event) happens, there are several groups of guests impacted – and their decisions will affect you and your business. The better prepared you are to keep them up to date with calm, consumable information, the better they will be able to make well-considered decisions. The last thing you want to do is (intentionally or otherwise) convince them to continue their trip only to have them deal with circumstances that cause them to never return to your area.

Sidebar: You are doing your best to get them back on a recurring basis, right? Sorry, I digress.

These groups of guests include:

  • Guests currently at your property
  • Guests in transit to your property
  • Guests with reservations in the next couple of weeks
  • Guests with reservations a month out or longer
  • Guests pondering making reservations for next year
  • Guests whose reservations must be cancelled because of an evacuation order
  • Guests wondering if they can get into your place due to cancellations

I’ll bet you can think of a few other groups of tourists, guests, visitors – whatever you call them.

Each group to make a decision about their visit, but the message each group requires is not the same. If you’re communicating with all guests with the same information, it’s likely that you are not helping them make the best decision for them and in turn, it’s costing you business.

Rules of the road

I suspect you have the ability to communicate with these groups easily using email. Please don’t send one generic email to 746 visitors. Many of them will not receive it and the “tech savvy” ones will find it aggravating.

You should also have their cell number so you can catch them in-transit or in the area.

You should be able to get a personal message to each person in each of these groups without a lot of hassle.

By now, you may be wondering why I left a lot unsaid. That’s why we have next time.

Working the stage

People at Red, Canon and Nikon are fanatical about the photography and video equipment they build. People at Adobe and Apple are fanatical about the video software they build.

This amazing video is an example of their “why”. Imagine the feeling this emotional piece would give you if it was made with your tools.

Would you take Denali home? Do you have any doubt about the strength of Ben and Denali’s relationship? Do you feel like you know them?

Would you want Ben to make a video about your business?

The next time you step off the stage (or the page) after sharing something important to you, what will leave your audience feeling as strongly as you felt as you watched this film?

Are you working the stage?

 

Prevent lost customers with these five words

Small businesses are always interested in getting more new customers, but sometimes forget that keeping existing customers is less expensive than the cost of replacing them.

While products, services and customer support are critical to the health of your business, it’s critical to maintain a strong connection with your customers through properly timed communications.

Tending to this connection and nurturing into a relationship is critical to the health of your business.

Think about the businesses you frequent most often. Do they communicate in a way that encourages trust, doesn’t waste your time or take you for granted?

These things build a good business relationship just as they do a personal one.

Five words can help you stay focused on helping your small business prevent lost customers and improve the quality and effectiveness of your communication with clients.

Collect

Despite the obvious need to stay in touch or be forgotten, most businesses fail to setup a consistent, cost-effective system to collect contact information from their customers. 

10 years ago, most people would give up their contact info much more readily than they will today – and for good reason. Combine spammers, data breaches by hackers (or data shared by them) and the all too often inappropriate use of customer data, your clients have plenty of reasons to have second thoughts about passing along their contact info – even if it’s nothing more than their email address. 

These days, it has to be worth it to let you into their email box, even though it is (usually) easier than ever to leave their email list.

Think about the last time you gave someone your email address. Did they treat it well, thus appreciating that you allowed them to email you? Did they abuse the privilege?  Did they send info that clearly had nothing to do with you, your needs, wants and desires – or did they nail it?

Imagine how much trust it takes for them to give you their full contact info. Are you honoring that trust? Given the data breaches in the news these days, this is a taller order than it used to be.

Talk

Most small businesses don’t communicate enough with
their present customers in multiple, cost-effective
ways.

I say multiple because what works for one doesn’t always work for another. If you have a great Android smartphone app to communicate with your customers, where does that leave customers who own iPhones? What about customers who don’t have smartphones?

Different people favor different communication media because they retain info better in their media of choice, be it direct mail, a blog, a smartphone app or a podcast. If you don’t make it easy and convenient to consume, you’ll automatically prevent some people from receiving your message – no matter how urgent or important.

Remind

Most small business owners don’t know when they’ve lost a customer, and even when they do, most don’t communicate often enough with these “lost” customers via cost-effective methods.

Without up-to-date contact info and valuing your former customers’ time, your message either fails to reach the person or is of so little value, they ignore, unsubscribe or worse.

What could be worse? They forget you ever existed.

Clean

Do you keep your customer list clean?

Clean means you deal with bounced emails, returned mail and bad phone numbers so that your contact attempts get to the right place. For communications that require an investment, this helps make sure the money you spend actually gets the message delivered.

Segment

Do you communicate to different customer groups with a message fine tuned for their needs, wants and desires – or do you sent the same message to everyone?

Many small business owners waste a tremendous amount of time, goodwill and/or money contacting their entire client list rather than using finely tuned advertising and marketing, which keeps costs low and skyrockets results.

Even if you don’t use direct mail, there’s a lot to lose if you don’t make sure the right message reaches the right people.

How many times have you received a great “new customer promotion” deal even though you are a customer of that company? What messages does that send?

Proper communication is essential – and it’s far more than broadcasting your message to anyone with a heartbeat.

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.

25 (or 6) to 54: Is that demographic important to you?

25 (or 6) to 54 is not a song from Chicago (that’s 25 or 6 to 4, video above).

It’s people.

People aged 25 (or 26) to 54 make up…

  • SIXTY-TWO percent of all social media use.
  • FIFTY THREE percent of Facebook users (687 million as of June 2011)
  • SEVENTY-FOUR percent of Twitter users.

We’re talking about a ton of people who have jobs, families, purchasing power, retirement plans, homes, cars and P&L responsibilities.

In other words – they might not be who you assumed they were. Many of them are potential customers who need and/or want what you create.

Typical

The typical social network user is 37 years old. Not a 13-15 year old who hasn’t yet gotten their license.

59% of people from ages 16 to 32 get their news online (is *that* demographic important to you?)

Are you taking social media interaction seriously from a strategic point of view? Are your competitors?

 

Social media use age profile (click to see full-size)

Graphic source: http://news.community102.com/how-different-age-groups-interact-online For the sources of these numbers, see the links at the bottom of the graphic. They’re readable when the graphic is viewed full-size (click the image).

Notify, notify, notify

One of the reasons that smart phones are so popular is that they provide a much better means of getting notified about any number of events, appointments and so on.

Your customers’ desire – if not need – to be notified is a critical aspect of your customer service planning.

In fact, these communications can be an essential difference between lousy or non-existent customer service, and good or even great customer service.

Working in the dark

For example, earlier this week I ordered some large format printing from a local vendor.

I spoke with them on the phone and because their website allows uploading documents,  I was able to upload the zipped graphics rather than make a 40 minute round trip drive to deliver the files and return to my office.

The vendor’s website said the file was accepted. About 30 minutes later, I hadn’t heard anything from the vendor, so I called them.

They hadn’t received the file and said that it must be “stuck” on the franchise system’s server and that they would surely find it.

At this point, they had my name and number and knew I wanted to get some work done. 3-4 years ago, I would have expected to babysit the job from start to finish because any business could stay open.

Despite having a confirmation from the web server, the file never appeared on their system… or they never looked for it.

Regardless, failure #1 was not following up with me to confirm that they had found it, or that they hadn’t and needed me to re-send it.

Tick, tick, tick

Two days go by. The promised completion date and time arrives without a message, so the natural thing for me to figure is that the job is complete.

45 minutes before closing time on the promised completion date, I call them. No answer.

Historically, they’re on the phone a good bit, so I don’t think much of it. I hop in the car and continue to call every few minutes during the 20 minute drive.

I arrive 10 minutes before the closing time listed on their website – the same closing time painted on the office door.

They’re closed up tight. With that 20 minutes wasted, I drive 20 more minutes home, having wasted 40 minutes and accomplished nothing.

I call and leave a message asking what happened, mostly resisting the urge to vent and ask them to call me to make sure my job is done and let me know what times they’ll be open the next day so I can pick up the job materials.

Silence

By mid-morning of the next day I’ve heard nothing.

I call. They know nothing about the job or the upload. Turns out some health issues caused early closure the day before, so I can’t really be upset about that…BUT here’s that notify thing.

They could have left a note on the door about the early closure.

They could have left a comment on their phone system about the early closing.

They didn’t.

Notification.

Stepping up

At this point, the notification failures have added up, but the person in charge steps up a notch.

I get the file to them using another means and we make arrangements for pickup. One of their guys is coming to my area later in the day, so we arrange to meet. He will call when he’s close.

He calls, we meet, I get my stuff. All good. Today’s interaction has gone much better because the communication and notification was active and frequent.

What should happen

A few weeks ago, I uploaded a job to Staples’ web print center, which routes print jobs to a store about 20 minutes away.

I received a confirmation email shortly after the upload.

I received another email telling me the job was complete.

That’s how it works every time. And that software is available to any print shop. It isn’t something special that Staples developed.

Notification.

Remember, customer service is marketing.

Where they are is more important than where you are

El Pulpito (Noruega)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Angel T.

Coincidentally, that was the premise of one of those annoyingly “innocent” questions I like to ask.

The question on Twitter? “Does your church podcast their sermon recordings?”

Note the assumption – that your church already records them. I asked that way intentionally so that anyone who doesn’t know would think to themselves…”do we even record them?”

A pastor saw my question on Twitter and asked “Why should a church podcast its sermons?”

Which is exactly what I hoped would happen: We’d talk about what “other people” do.

Many churches don’t record, much less podcast their sermons – but some do. Meanwhile they have all kinds of programs in place to reach out to shut-ins, the infirm, nursing homes, traveling church members (many folks are working away from their hometown these days) and so on.

Think about it: Who doesn’t have an iPod or access to the Internet these days? Not too many folks. The last numbers I saw said that 77% of the US population has high-speed internet access (I think that’s a bit high, but that’s another discussion).

Apple’s free iTunes podcast service (like many others) will let you broadcast audio (or video) recordings globally. The price is the same to your local shut-in, a traveler on the road or a deployed soldier.

Free. And most importantly for them, they can listen on their schedule.

If you had to choose between folks not hearing your sermon all vs. not hearing it until their Monday workout or during their commute (very high focus time), what’s your preference?

When I asked Twitter and Facebook why their church podcasts sermons, this is just one of the responses: “We are reformed so this past year I did look for podcasts about John Calvin since we celebrated 500th anniv of his birth.”

People are looking to consume (learn / read / watch ) info that’s important to them. Their lives might not allow them to be in church every week. I suggested to this pastor that during his next sermon, he should ask this question: “Raise your hand if you’re on Facebook.”

Where are your customers when they aren’t in front of you?