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

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.

The Social Media Scoreboard

dirt
Creative Commons License photo credit: shoothead

You’ve probably seen people on Twitter or Facebook yammering about “Wow, I only need 17 more followers or fans to hit 2000” (or  10000 or whatever).

If you’ve used Twitter, you know that there’s a curve there and when you round it, it’s like drinking from a firehose.

Stowe Boyd talks a little about the social media scoreboard in today’s guest post, stating that quality rather than quantity is the important factor.

Remember that each of those fans or followers are people. They have needs, wants and presumably they followed/fan’d you because they thought you had something to say. “I’m having a waffle” just isn’t it.

@BillGates doesn’t have 400-500k people following him on Twitter after just a few weeks because they want to hear him talk about Windows or MS Office. Bill is engaging to follow nowadays because he talks about poverty, disease and education – and then puts his money where his mouth is. Lots of it. Almost $300 million for polio, for example.

Engage. Have a *meaningful* conversation.

Think about the folks on Twitter or Facebook whose posts you look forward to. How are they different from yours?