First impressions: Driven by mastery

Most likely you’ve heard the saying “A poor artisan blames their tools.

Despite the ROI of blame being zero (at best), this situation goes well beyond blame.

When you blame the tool, at least two situations can pop up:

  • Your current tools don’t produce the kind of benefits / outcome / work you need (even if they used to), and that suggests you need to choose another tool that will do the work.
  • Your comfort level with the existing tool may exceed your need (or desire) to select a better one, even though the better tool has substantial benefits to your business. A frequent obstacle is the inertia created by the anticipated learning curve of a new tool. Even the perception of that curve can prevent a tool switch capable of producing massive benefits.

However, there’s far more to mastery than your expertise with the tools used to create the services and products you deliver.

Beyond mastery of production

This experience includes the tools used to communicate with your client community, such as your accounting system, email list management (such as http://enews.aweber.com), webinar software, phone systems and redundancy management such as backup systems.

Low tech systems should also be a part of these discussions, as they’re as important as the others. Examples of low tech systems include office / shop / restroom cleaning, plumbing as well as trash and scrap disposal. Hazardous materials management (such as benzene containment) will also play a part in the equation for many service and manufacturing businesses.

Even if none of these systems touch the service or product your clients receive, they do form the foundation of your clients’ experience. How they interact with each other, as well as how they interact with your clientele, is critical to the first impression you make, much less the day to day experience you create.

Master your communications tools

Communications tools are a common stumbling point in this way. Consider the last few webinars or conference calls you’ve attended.

How many times have the organizers struggled with the webinar or phone software or hardware? Did it reach the point where it was a distraction that kept participants from accomplishing the meeting’s goals? Did it prevent effective communication in the meeting?

The frustration factor of these things wears on participants, particularly if they experience it repeatedly. The more organizers struggle with the technologies, the worse it gets.

A common factor in less-than-ideal group settings like webinars, call-in shows and conference calls is a lack of rehearsal by the presenters. When presenters read from a script or bullets they’ve never rehearsed, the mechanical / monotonous nature of reading text that the reader has not rehearsed reduces attendee comprehension.  If interaction is expected between presenters, an unrehearsed presentation’s conversation isn’t conversational, it’s mechanical.

Good speakers can ad-lib from bullets or scripted text, but if you haven’t practiced enough to make the ad-lib feel natural, it won’t be sound nearly as smooth as you’d like.

When a conversation loses this natural touch and goes mechanical, it leads listeners down the road to inattention and boredom.

Bark, meow, disconnect

When speakers confuse the mute button with the disconnect button on their phone, it produces a jarring experience. In some webinar software, it’s a challenge for the organizer to return to the call, and in some cases, the conference is terminated when the organizer disconnects. Are you ready to lose 1000 listeners because you clicked or touched the wrong button?

Less serious flubs like echo, feedback, cell phone rings and animal noises in the background not only distract the listener, but they speak to your attention to detail – prompting listeners to wonder where else your lack of attention will manifest itself.

Is it streamlined?

First impressions are rooted in streamlined interactions, a lack of jarring experiences and consistently well-met expectations.

How you achieve these things is not driven solely by product and service quality. Consistency in delivery, interaction, returns, accounting, conference calls, billing, refunds, follow ups and a litany of other minutiae (like spelling minutiae properly) contribute to the overall experience your clientele has, remembers and expects.

When great first impressions become a streamlined, consistent experience, it transforms referrals from “We use so-and-so” to “You’re totally crazy if you don’t use so-and-so. Don’t use anyone else!”

Isn’t that what you want?

Why isn’t everyone on time?

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One of the things I notice while working with clients (and being one) is that some of us are pretty good at making things hard on our customers.

Hard on customers?

You might be.

Let’s clean up a few things so you can make it easier on them (and easier to keep them as clients).

Show up on time

Given that so many people have smart phones, smart watches, computers in their cars and so on – you would *think* that they’d be on time more often.

When you don’t show up when you said you would, you make it hard on your customers. I know, I know. You can’t always do that.

Here’s what you can do – the instant you know there’s a chance you’ll be late, call to warn them. Give them options (bail or wait?) If you can, dispatch someone else to take care of their situation. Few things annoy a customer or partner more than setting time aside (or taking time off work) to meet you, only to have you show up 90 minutes late without a call.

While it’s an obvious, common sense competitive edge, why isn’t everyone on time?

Close the four hour window

My impression is that a lot of vendors are getting better at this, but there are still enough out there telling their customers that they’ll meet them between 8:00 AM and noon, or “sometime in the afternoon”.

This shows a (perhaps passive) lack of respect for the customer’s time.

Do you really manage your time and your staff / equipment resources so poorly that you can’t estimate arrival windows to smaller increments than half a day? I doubt it. I think you’ve gotten used to it and haven’t changed it because it’s comfortable. Comfortable for you, that is. I assure you that your customers don’t feel this way. Don’t trust me on this – ask your customers if they’d appreciate a smaller window. They might even pay more to get a smaller window.

Arrive with what you need

Sometimes, you don’t know what the deal is because the customer didn’t explain the situation too well. Sometimes you don’t know what size of this or that to show up with, and if you took this too far and showed up with the right parts every time, you’d have to drive an eighteen wheeler to work. While you probably can’t know what you need every single time, do what you can to reduce the “I’ll be right back, gotta grab some parts” trips. They increase your overhead and they annoy your customer.

Make it easy to pay

Offer some payment convenience.

Fewer and fewer people like handing over a piece of paper with their bank account number on it (ie: a check). If you get a smartphone-enable credit card reader such as Square, you save a trip to the bank and they get to pay without a check – if that’s what they want to do.

Keep track of the paper

If you must save the business paperwork that your customers send you and you can’t replace the paper system with something else (assuming that thing will work better), make sure you can find their paperwork when you need it.records. I recently sold a house. On two separate occasions, the deal was almost scuttled (or made far more expensive) because someone misfiled paperwork related to little things like septic plans and wells. A sharp agent is the only thing that prevented an expensive, annoying outcome.

Making it easy back at the ranch

Fact is, we don’t limit this “making it hard” thing to customers. We’re also pretty good at making things hard on our own people.

While work isn’t necessarily supposed to be easy, there’s no reason to make it more difficult than it already is. Each of the make-it-easier for customers things have an impact on your staff. Your internal systems for communication, tracking and appointment management are critical to making this easy to fulfill for your clients. If they aren’t, your products and servers are much less likely to be delivered in a friction-free manner. Don’t make your staff fight the system to get their work done.

Always be looking for bumpy spots and internal / external hassles you can eliminate. Make it easy for them to recommend you to someone, and to call you back the next time.

Checkmate on the Fridge

My favorite story about setting expectations comes from a really smart real estate agent.

When you decide to buy or sell a house with her, she gives you a pre-printed list of all the things that can happen during the process of buying or selling.

A list of 20 or 30 things that could delay the sale or otherwise go wrong might seem like a bad thing to give to a customer, but it works for her.

She explains that the list contains the most common roadblocks encountered during a transaction and assures the customer that she knows how to handle all of them.

If and when they occur, she’ll call and say “Number 16 on your list just happened, and I’ll take care of it.”

Works for me

How does this work for her?

First off – it shows the buyer/seller that she is experienced and is prepared for the little things that come along and try to derail a transaction. By discussing them in advance, she sets expectations, establishes her expertise (again, by warning you about these things in advance and telling you she has your back) and leaves you far more confident about things.

If trouble occurs, the sheet (which also acts as a timeline) shows that she predicted that it could occur and handled it for you vs. the appearance that this could be a surprise.

Once the transaction is done, the list serves as a reminder of all the things that *could* have gone wrong but didn’t. The list also reminds you of the value she delivered by taking care of all those things.

She could have simply provided a generic FAQ list and made the client sign it (likely without reading it) and handle it like other agents handle these things.

Instead, she leverages it into an advantage that – among other things – demonstrates why the client should value her services.

The hungry dog expects a bone

Pancho's Bones 02.09.09 [40]
Creative Commons License photo credit: timlewisnm

In almost every market, there’s someone who seemingly owns that market’s customers and prospects.

They’re the household name in that marketplace.

A common assumption is that they get so many customers that they may as well get them all.

To be sure, doing things that make you that household name is something I strongly encourage you to do. So what do you do if the market you want to enter already has a household name?

You’ve heard me suggest that you: Do more. Do it better. Do it more often. Do it differently.

The owner never has 100% of the market. If it’s a market you’re truly interested in, you need to figure out if there is enough left to make a business of it.

“Enough to make a business of it” has to last at least long enough to get a foothold so you can start to chip away at the leader and/or create new markets for what you do.

Can’t Get No…

For example, every single market includes customers who are dissatisfied.

They might not be that way because the market leader treated them poorly or failed to meet their expectations – though that’s certainly possible.

Every market has people who aren’t aware of the market “owner”, people who will intentionally choose someone other than the market leader just because that business is the leader, people who want something more/better/faster than what the leader does, people who want something different, people who have had a run in with the leader, and so on.

No matter what the reason is that you have them, the expectations thing is a big deal.

In the absence of someone setting expectations for them, people assume their personal expectations will be met – at whatever level they have them. Failing to set expectations almost guarantees dissatisfaction among some portion of the population you serve because their assumptions will be higher than yours.

Different levels are OK. Disappointment is not.

Because you’ll find different levels of expectations, you have an opportunity to create good, better, best, unbelievable, and rock-star class tiers of products and services. Still, your job is to set those expectations as appropriate so that even the lowest tier of service gets *at the very least* exactly what they expect.

How often do you get *exactly what you expect* from a business?

Think hard about that.

Now the hard question: How often do your customers get exactly what they expect from your business?

 

Meating expectations

When I first came across this meat vending machine, the comment I read introducing it was something along the lines of “Do we *really* need this?”

If this butcher has customers who do shift work – or anything that keeps them from visiting the shop during business hours- it’s worth a try.

Perhaps he had a lot of customer comments about his hours from shift workers and this was how he decided to serve them.

Perhaps it only serves custom pre-paid orders. You don’t really know, but if it works for the shopkeeper and their customers, who cares?

The real question is what can you borrow (and change to suit your needs) from another line of work in order to better serve your customers?

Setting Expectations

Publishing an about page as a guest post does not mean I’m desperately short of guest posts (nowhere near, actually).

I’d like you to read a most un-software-company-like about page from a software company.

Any guess what their USP is?

Any guess what expectations you should have about their software and doing business with them?

Finally, think about how it positions them in your mind (and in their market).

Check it out at: http://humanized.com/about

Outstanding.

Hold that plane

Something amazing happened to me during my trip to Vegas late last month: An airline exceeded my expectations.

“Exceeded” is a bit of a misnomer because my expectations are so low with airlines in general, but the fact is that they treated me like I would expect to be treated.

These days, that’s exceeding expectations.

I was flying Alaska Airlines from Vegas to Seattle and we had a terrible headwind that made us 45 minutes late.  Normally, I wouldn’t care but I had a 55 minute layover and had to change terminals.

After waiting an interminable amount of time for the late plane to unload, bypassing every restroom in the airport (time’s a wasting) as I ran through the airport like OJ (hey – it was running like OJ to me) to barely make the little automated tram to the next terminal, then doing the OJ again from the tram to my gate…I arrived.

Most of the lights in the terminal where I ended up were out as all the other gates were closed. When I finally arrived, there were two people in that part of the terminal: Me and the Alaska gate agent.

She waved me toward the open gate exit and said “We’d almost given up on you.”

In 25+ years of traveling, I’ve never had someone hold a plane for me. Maybe it was because it was the end of the day. Maybe it was because they didn’t want to pay for a hotel for the night, much less the aggravation of dealing with rebooking me.

No matter what it was, it would have been easy to let that plane go.

But they didn’t.

The agent could have called it a night – it was quite clear that they were done for the day – it was after 9pm in this very sleepy corner of SeaTac.

But she didn’t. I doubt she held that plane because of an extensive management training course. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s simply the right kind of person for that job.

What do you do to figure out whether someone is the right kind of person for a customer-facing job?