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?

Listen to clients. They say the darndest things.

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

You need special business lenses for the same reason.

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

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

New clients vs. long-term clients

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

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

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

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

Ask openly

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

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

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

Listen to clients without an agenda

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

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

Photo by mattlucht

Strategic Notepad: Take Ownership

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

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

Take ownership

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

Here’s an example of the wrong approach:

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

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

Read that again… “NOT AFFILIATED WITH ENTERPRISE”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting your business

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

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

Which do you do?

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

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

Recovering FOR your client

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Customer Service, context is everything

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

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

What if you actually followed up?

Ducks In A Row

Does your business follow up with your clients and prospects like you should?

You should probably consider what “like you should” means, before deciding whether you follow up properly or not.

Having done that, let’s define “follow up” as continuing the conversation with that particular prospect or client, in exactly the context they are in with your business, in a timeframe that makes sense to the client.

This isn’t about you. It’s about them, where their interests lie, what needs they have right now where they are in the flow of things in their life and/or business. Not where you are.

Let that sink in – this is not about you, what your sales staff has on their mind today, where you are with the month’s cash flow, whether or not you’ve made your weekly nut, etc. Thing is, if you do this right, it’ll help you worry a whole lot less about that last one.

Figure out the right whens

If you’re trying to start doing this right, it would help to start with the basics – identifying when to follow up with your clients and prospects. I call these “touch points” (meaning when to reach out and get/keep in touch), but it might make it easier to think about if you view them as events in the timeline your clients and prospects follow as they meet you, become your client and continue down that path until they are no longer your client.

One more reminder, this is about the right time for them, not you.

Here are a few ideas for touch points:

  • Someone becomes a new lead by calling, emailing, filling out a web form, etc.
  • Someone clicks on a link in an email.
  • An existing lead contacted you for info.
  • A lead bought a new product or service.
  • A client bought a product or service for a second-nth time.
  • A client had an interaction with your service department.
  • A client paid a bill on time.
  • A client paid a bill late.
  • A client paid a bill late for the second/nth time.
  • A client fails to buy something on their normal purchase schedule that they used to buy from you on a regular basis.

Take a few minutes to consider what your touch points / events are. You may have a lot more than that, but I would be surprised to find that you had fewer.

Now what?

Let’s analyze the why behind a couple of these so that my comment “Thing is, if you do this right, it’ll help you worry a whole lot less about that last one” makes more sense.

Think about how things work in your business today.

If a client who usually buys something once a month doesn’t buy this month, are you aware of it?

If you aren’t, it’s possible for them to disappear and stop being a client without your knowledge. How many clients do you have that buy something every month? How many of them disappear each month? Do the math and figure out what that could be costing you.

That’s the possible return on investment of being able to follow up when this event happens.

If this purchase doesn’t happen and you know about it, then you can turn your service or sales team loose to make sure nothing is wrong or that conditions have changed for your client. Maybe they don’t need to continue buying that product or service anymore. So be it, but they may need something else. Or you may have had an unfortunate interaction with them.

Whatever the reason, knowing is a ton better than not knowing. You might find out that you will lose them and can’t do anything about it (changes in their needs, etc), but at least you’ll know.

One more example

If a client pays a bill late, do you grumble and add a service charge to their next bill without any conversation? Does the service charge get added automatically?

There are plenty of ways to talk to a client about a late payment without coming off like a jerk. Maybe they need different payment dates, a different payment method or they just missed the invoice somehow because someone was out sick.

Personal follow ups like these can keep a relationship going for years, rather than letting them sour because of a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge.

Out of Stock

Quais de Seine, Paris
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zigar

When your store is out of stock on an item…what does your staff do and say?

When I was out of state not long ago, I looked around for a pair of light hikers for everyday wear. I knew exactly what I wanted right down to the model name.

I visited a locally owned store, but they didn’t have my size in stock. A few days later, I visited a box store. They had the shoe on the wall (which is never my size), but they didn’t have any others. They didn’t even have the match to the one on the wall.

As I got into the car in the box store parking lot, I called the locally owned store again just in case they had some new arrivals. Nope.

They offered to order a pair for me, but I told them I was visiting from elsewhere and wouldn’t be around when they arrived.

At this point, they had choices:  Focus on the sale, focus on the customer or try harder.

What’s your focus?

If your sales people are trained to focus on the sale, they might say “Nope, we don’t have any” and be disappointed that they didn’t get a sale. If that’s the end of the conversation, your customer might go elsewhere – losing the sale and the customer.

If your sales people are trained to focus on the customer, they might say “Nope, we don’t have any. Have you looked at (competitor number one) or (competitor number two)? They both carry that brand.

If your sales people are trained to focus on keeping your customers happy, they might say “Nope, we don’t have any. If you come by and let us fit you in a similar shoe in that brand, I can order that model in your size and have it shipped to you. If it doesn’t fit like you want, we’ll take care of you until you’re happy or we’ll give your money back.

What they did was refer me to two of their competitors (one was the store whose parking lot I was in). The second one had my size in stock, so 20 minutes later, I had my shoes and was heading for the in-laws place.

The “try harder” choice might not have been what I wanted, but I wasn’t given a choice. Keep in mind that you can always fall back from the “try harder” position if the customer isn’t interested in or cannot use that kind of help.

The important thing

You might think that the locally owned retailer lost a sale, but that isn’t as important as keeping the customer over the long term.

While I wasn’t able to buy the shoes from the place I wanted, they were able to help me find them.

They could’ve run me off quickly by saying “We don’t have that size.”

They didn’t do that. I suspect their handling of the call was the result of training driven by a management decision.

I wasn’t a familiar voice calling them on the phone. While I’ve bought from their store on and off for 20 years, they don’t know that because they keep paper sales tickets. I’m not there often enough to be a familiar face / voice and had not been in their town for two years.

Yet they treated me like someone they want to come back.

Do you treat your customers that way? Do your online competitors?

Competition from tomorrow?

Sometimes business owners complain about online competition.

Yet online stores can rarely provide instant gratification. It’s difficult for them to help you buy something you need today for a meal, event, dinner, date, meeting or presentation happening later today.

They can rarely deliver the kind of service a local, customer-focused business can offer.

Online often gets a foothold when local service and/or selection are poor and focused on the wrong thing. Even with online pricing, a product isn’t delivered until tomorrow.

When you aren’t competing strongly against tomorrow, you really aren’t even competing against today.

Focus on helping them get what they want and need. Whether they are local or remote, customers just want to be well taken care of and get what they came for.

Sand gets in everything

Relaxing in Maldives
Creative Commons License photo credit: nattu

Twenty-three years ago, I sold a now-kinda-embarrassing piece of software to someone and started a relationship that continues to this day.

Two weeks ago, I found out that one of the biggest problems facing the client at that time was…. SAND in the keyboard.

No matter how much you know about a customer…there’s always something lurking back there that can help you understand, if only you find a way to get to it.

How well do you know your clientele?

Making it personal at BusyMac

World's Favorite Sport

If you live in Northwest Montana, you know that one of the things we “cling to” is high school sports.

I live in Columbia Falls, a town of about 4500 people. Our arch rival is Whitefish, a town of about 6000 people.

While our towns are changing, Columbia Falls has historically been the blue collar industrial hub of Northwest Montana, with several lumber mills and a large aluminum plant (now closed). Whitefish, on the other hand, started off as a lumber and railroad town and transformed itself over the last 70 years into a ski resort town that has become known for the ski mountain, palatial lake homes – as well as the railroad depot.

Both towns are changing as the economy (and our country) has changed over the last 20 years. Today, both towns are homes to technology, public relations, marketing and/or internet-related firms with national and/or international markets.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The rivalry between the high school teams.

Making a connection

All of this sets up the story for an email I received yesterday.

Due to a setting in Google Calendar, I was having a problem with syncing Google calendars with calendar software on my Mac, which is called “BusyCal”.

I emailed the company and thanks to a handy option in the software they provide, some diagnostic info about my calendar was sent to their support staff.

A short time later, I received an email with instructions to check a few things.

The email closed with this comment:

It could also be that you are from Columbia Falls and we’ve designed the product to specifically notice that and cause issues. Moving to Whitefish will solve all your problems… (Whitefish, Class of ’83…)

Regards,

-Kirk
support@busymac.com

With this brief comment at the end of an already helpful email, Kirk has taken our connection from a brief, distant tech support relationship to a friendly rivalry.

It’s a great illustration of how simple it is to create a real connection with a client.

Business is Personal.

Think about how you and your staff can create personal connections with your clients.

UPDATE: 3 days after posting this column, the Columbia Falls Wildcats won their 4th state boys basketball title in 9 years. A month earlier, the Columbia Falls Wildcat Speech/Debate team won their 11th state title since 1991 and their 6th in a row. While it’s “only sports”, there are important lessons being learned in Columbia Falls about what it takes to succeed – even outside the classroom.

Knowing when to be a cowboy

Cowboy Pondering
Creative Commons License photo credit: crowt59

It’s not unusual for entrepreneurs to display a cowboy mentality.

I don’t mean so much a “shoot first and ask questions later” thing as much (though it certainly exists) as much as a “I can break any horse” mindset.

Maybe you can, but consider the difference between breaking the horse and training it to carry a rider.

Ultimately, it’s the same thing, but the journey is different. The mindset is the difference, just like it is with your clients.

Sharpen the saw

This reminds me of the old carpenters’ saw, “Measure twice, cut once.”

The cowboy mentality is important when you need a decision to think big , reach for the moon, and push ahead when everyone else says it’s never been done that way before.

It doesn’t work so well where product quality are concerned. Do you want to break that horse?

Customers, like horses and other animals, get “gun shy”.

Too much cowboy in the quality department can cause your customers to look at your next big thing with a jaundiced eye until someone else proves it’s OK to use (or worse, they’ll wait to buy). While that’s a downer for you, it also doesn’t help them. They’ll see a kickin’ new solution but know they have to wait to use it.

If you aren’t careful, that’ll make you seem like an impediment to their work (even the work they haven’t yet done). If it becomes a trend, it can make you irrelevant to those customers.

Isn’t that the opposite of what the cowboy in you is trying to achieve?

Little, inexpensive things mean a lot

Relax, Mr. Accountant
credit: Dennis Wong

What transforms an experience from “acceptable” to “cant wait to tell my friends”?

To me, “acceptable” service starts with a smile, an effort to make sure the customer received what they came for, eye contact and a thank you.

“Can’t wait to tell my friends” service doesn’t come *before* you do little inexpensive things, it comes *because of* little inexpensive things.

That’s right – the things that transform your service to “cant wait to tell my friends” are often simple, inexpensive little things.

By themselves they might not seem like such a big deal. Below, a few examples. In each case, consider the perception of the customer.

The birthday card

  • A birthday postcard sent via an automated postcard service during your customers’ birthday month vs. no card at all.
  • A birthday postcard sent via an automated postcard service vs a hand written birthday card signed by the owner or manager.
  • A voice mail from the business owner wishing you a happy birthday, vs. a brief call to invite you into their establishment that required 4 callbacks to get you in person.

In 5 of 6 cases, a happy birthday message arrives. What’s the difference in the perception of the message?

A cup of coffee

  • A tasty cup of latte made from freshly ground, freshly roasted beans vs. a cup of latte made from coffee ground 2 weeks ago and roasted who knows when (matters to those who can tell, doesn’t matter to those who cannot).
  • A tasty cup of latte made from freshly ground, freshly roasted beans vs. a tasty cup of latte made from freshly-ground, freshly-roasted beans that is topped with latte art such as the cat you see above.
  • A tasty cup of latte made from freshly-ground, freshly-roasted beans that is topped with latte art in the shape of a fleur-de-lis to celebrate the Saints’ Super Bowl win.
  • A tasty cup of latte made from freshly-ground, freshly-roasted beans that is topped with latte art in the shape of a heart for the runup to Valentine’s Day

Doesn’t make the coffee taste better, but it does provoke someone to talk about what transformed a mundane cup of coffee (no matter how good) into something you tell everyone about, that you take a picture of with your phone and post on Facebook or Twitter, and that causes you to bring your best friend the cat lover to this place as a little surprise. Next thing you know, she’s bringing all her cat lover friends.

In the latter case, something to create a little free buzz (pun intended). Perhaps you do so before the game and give your customers a choice of the Colts’ horseshoe or the Saints’ fleur-de-lis. You can do this year-round for holidays, sports events, you name it.

The letter

  • A letter from your Senator congratulating you on an achievement, with the Senator’s signature signed by the Senator’s personal assistant.
  • A letter from your Senator congratulating you on an achievement, with the signature rubber stamped onto the letter.
  • A letter from your Senator congratulating you on an achievement, with the signature printed as part of the letter.
  • A letter from your Senator congratulating you on an achievement, with a handwritten signature.
  • A letter from your Senator congratulating you on an achievement, with a handwritten signature , and a brief handwritten PS from the Senator.

Which of these would you show to your friends? Which would you frame and hang on your office wall? Which would you keep in your scrapbook for the rest of your life? Which would you show your grandkids 30-40 years from now?

Little, inexpensive things mean a lot.  They create relationships that few competitors can hope to break.