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Competition Improvement Leadership Management Project Management Setting Expectations

Project Management: Is it done yet?

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

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

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

Project management requires discovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

When will it be done?

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

Better design? How?

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

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

But it’s not perfect!

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

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

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

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

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

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Buy Local Consumer Advocacy Customer relationships Leadership Setting Expectations Small Business

Your referrals leave an impression

Recently, I received an email from someone who described a rather unpleasant home improvement job, which involved the purchase of materials and a subsequent installation of them. We like these things to be boring – meaning everything went smoothly with no drama.

This one doesn’t appear to be turning out that way.

When I say rather unpleasant, the job describing to me included the theft of building materials by a contractor who was referred by the company where the materials were purchased. They also described bill padding on two occasions by the contractor, once for materials, and once for the labor. I’m told the referring supplier reimbursed the customer for the stolen materials, and that the contractor first offered to reimburse for the padded bills and then disappeared.

A few things about this merit discussion: First, there’s probably more to the story. Second, these situations almost always leave clues before bad things happen. Finally, this is really about how much care are you (the business owner) take when you refer someone to help your clients.

Do no legal ties mean no responsibility?

Referrals made in these situations are typically made to businesses with no legal ties to the referring business. You can understand why a referring business would make a point of distancing themselves legally from the folks they refer, but *does the lack of a legal connection matter to the consumer*?

Only legally, if that. And only until you establish a pattern of referring people to your clients regardless of how the referred vendor performs. The corporate line will almost certainly be one of maintaining that legal separation and that the consumer must be responsible for selecting a contractor.

The thing is, if you are going to go to the trouble of referring someone, why do it poorly and without conviction?

Taking the wimpy, “no legal connection” angle is not how you make business personal. I understand that there’s a desire to avoid burdening the corporate parent with the possibly sketchy behavior of a local contractor. What I don’t get is why you would recruit and refer contractors with so little care that it’s simply a matter of time before you run into trouble.

Even if there’s no business relationship and no legal responsibility accepted by the referring company, only a fool would believe that a referral doesn’t reflect on the one who makes it. So why do it poorly?

Why not refer well?

The smart business who makes these referrals will recruit, select and refer contractors that are so good that they leave the kind of impression that you can’t wait to refer them to your clients. Help your customers choose by giving them the tools they need to choose the best contractor from your vetted list of referrals.

The smart business who makes these referrals won’t stop there. They’ll follow up with every referral after the job, perhaps during each job until they’ve developed a level of confidence in the contractors they refer. It isn’t enough to recruit and select well – you have to keep it up. These people represent you whether you like it or not. Make sure they do it well and make sure they understand the importance of the work you’re sending to them.

The consumer bears the burden too

Part of the story that I left out up to now is that the referred contractor asked the customer if they could pay in cash because of some irrelevant reason.

If you (the consumer) don’t immediately disqualify a contractor who asks this question, you shouldn’t be surprised if (when) you have problems with them. In this case, that’s what happened. I told the consumer that this should have been a red flag to expect trouble.

When I get this question, I ask myself what else they want to skip.

Will they skip work that would result in dangerous construction? Will they skip town with my money? Will they skip town with materials? What else might they do while having access to my home or business? Did they skip buying insurance? What else did they shortcut?

The smart business will remind their clients that while working this might save you a few bucks, it might also cost them a lot.

The quality of your referrals matters. Make sure they’re worth giving.

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customer retention Customer service Management Marketing Setting Expectations Small Business

Experience management matters

Delivery of a product or service is about far more than the act of your client opening the box or getting the service they paid for. The total experience matters, so you’d better manage it. An example should give my assertion the context it needs to clarify why experience management is so important.

A need to know basis

I recently flew a major airline from Chicago to Kansas City. In the middle of the boarding process, one of the gate agents came out of the jetway, halted all boarding halfway through zone three’s entry to the plane, got on the phone and then disappeared back down the jetway.

About 10 minutes passed without a word from anyone at the airline, including the agent minding the boarding pass scanner. Finally, the agent who halted the boarding process came back out and gave the boarding agent the all clear to resume boarding. All of this happened without a word to passengers. Clearly, we were on a need to know basis and we didn’t need to know.

I tweeted a comment about the situation. After my flight, a subtle dig from the airline’s Twitter account reinforced the culture that leadership has established, and is perhaps indicative of the kind of mindset the recently departed CEO put in place.

Why experience management matters

Did our lack of awareness of the boarding situation affect the final outcome of the flight – a safe on-time arrival? Of course not.

Did our lack of awareness of the situation positively influence our confidence in the provider’s ability to consistently and safely deliver the service we purchased? Not really. Instead, it gave the impression that delivery is all that matters – an assertion that doesn’t hold water.

It isn’t as if the passengers on the flight needed to know why we our boarding was temporarily delayed. The nitty-gritty details may negatively affect your confidence in the business delivering the service – and could roll downhill to your thoughts about the safety of that delivery. Even so, knowing that the delay is not unusual, will be cleared up in 10 or 15 minutes and will not affect an on-time departure is enough information to calm a nervous group of passengers who might be concerned about safety, about making a connection, or the likelihood their flight will actually happen.

Simply stating these three details (situation normal, expected time till resolution and lack of impact on delivery) will do the trick. Taking these few issues off the table improves the experience, communicates that you have your clients’ back and understand the importance of delivering the service as well as the issues that define its importance to your clients.

An opportunity to build

When you can build the client’s confidence in your ability to deliver and improve the credibility you have to trust that you can handle whatever comes your way, use the opportunity humbly.

It reminds me a good bit of the refrigerator sheet story that I use to demonstrate how a real estate agent provides a confidence building framework of “things that frequently happen during a real estate transaction that I routinely handle for you so don’t sweat them“.

The same airline missed an opportunity to show their understanding of the nature of their clients’ use only a week earlier. I was flying out of a small rural airport on a very small regional jet. It was the first flight of the day in this tiny little plane leaving an airport that is not a hub. This means that the first flight of the day is always going to be boarded by clients who need to make a connection in a hub city so they can reach their intended destination.

On a plane that only seats 50, this produces a group of people who are not inclined to give up their seats, unlikely to miss a flight due to a connection and unlikely to have an opportunity to easily book the next flight out without repercussions. The logic that this sort of rural flight would be overbooked by 20% ignores all of these qualities / needs of the passengers involved, yet the 20% overbooking is exactly what happened.

At a hub airport, we may not like overbooking, but it’s easy to understand the justification. The combination of first flight out, rural airport and small plane make it an anti-customer decision that sets the company up for a bad experience for their entire service delivery experience – a situation you don’t want to create.

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Business Resources Competition customer retention Employees Management Positioning Setting Expectations Small Business

When the smoke clears, will your reputation?

No one in the Pacific Northwest has to be reminded that this is the worst fire season since 2003.

Depending on what you do a bad fire season could be a boon, a bust or a non-issue to your business. Over the last couple of weeks, we had communications and marketing oriented conversations focused on the folks whose businesses are placed at risk by a bad fire season.

There’s a different kind of business impacted by fires, natural disasters and similar events: those who provide things like tanker trucks, field rations and related convenience items, construction supplies (lumber, drywall, tools etc) and so on.

If a scene like this summer means that you will be extra busy for the next year or so, perhaps more, good for you – particularly if you are a trusted member of your community (business and otherwise).

However obvious this may seem, it needs to be said…

A reputation setting recovery

The way you and your staff serve your clients from now until the recovery is over – regardless of what’s being recovered from – will set the tone for your business’ future.

Some will eventually give you a second chance, but for most, this is the one chance your business will get to show its colors. It will seal the reputation of the business, its owner(s), managers and staff.

Captain Obvious, you say? Perhaps, yet we continue to see examples where businesses have behaved so badly that governments feel obligated to put “no gouging” laws into place.

The thing is, pricing is the least of your problems. People understand that pricing gets a little crazy when resources are constrained. Supplies are often harder to get, and they’re often competing for scarce transportation facilities including berth time at port, dock time at warehouses, much less truck drivers or semi-trailers to haul those supplies. Qualified people are in demand, which tends to create overtime hours.

Do your clients want to wait or pay overtime-related costs? Ask them.

Communicating the challenge

When these situations occur and drive up your costs, communicate the situation as frequently, quickly and clearly as possible. Communicate what you’ve done to try and work around the situation. Ask your clients for ideas and connections in their network that could help you serve them a bit better.

You never know when a client might have access to resources or connections that could solve a problem that’s simply “killing” you – and those things may be out of reach without a little insider help. Even worse, if these clients know what’s blocking your progress and they know their resources / connections could help but you keep telling them you have things under control – how could that damage your relationship / reputation?

It’s OK to ask for help.

Resource problems aside, be sure that any abnormal delivery timeframes, costs, staffing challenges or other potentially damaging issues are communicated well. Transparency works. Small businesses use it as a competitive advantage vs. larger, better funded competitors during good times, why not use it during challenging, resource-constrained times for the same reason?

Call volumes are unexpectedly high, but your call is important to us…” – something you’d never say to a client before putting them on hold. Yet you only get this greeting when reputation damage is most likely to happen.

We don’t remember that the cable internet met their 99.9% uptime goal last year, but we remember each of the 43.8 minutes of downtime per month that this uptime goal allows for – and that the downtimes happened at inopportune times.

We remember when we consistently get a transparent answer or explanation.

The mindset that risks it all

The “they have no choice, I will get (and keep) the business no matter how I act” mindset can infect everything from sales and service to receivables and delivery. Once observed in one part of the business, it’s a matter of time until it crawls elsewhere.

I won’t belabor this, because the kind of business owner or manager who would let this behavior happen wouldn’t likely read my work. Despite that, check out the short 30 seconds it takes Vince Lombardi to describe the obligation that team members have to do their best on every play of every game.

Print readers, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKN3rvrWyvg&feature=youtu.be&t=0m50s

 

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Customer relationships Direct Marketing Email marketing Management planning Public Relations Setting Expectations Small Business strategic planning systems Travel marketing

Communicate when nature threatens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Details protect your business

Last time, I added a lot to your plate:

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

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

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

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

Fine tuning the message

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

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

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

Two examples:

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

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

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

 

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Customer relationships Direct Marketing Email marketing Management marketing to the affluent Marketing to women Setting Expectations Small Business Travel marketing

Forest fire communication can burn you

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

The fire is almost out.

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

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

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

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

What else gets burned in a forest fire?

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

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

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

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

Yes, this is all about communication.

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

Which guest needs which information?

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

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

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

These groups of guests include:

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

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

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

Rules of the road

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

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

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

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

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Automation customer retention Employee Training Improvement Productivity service Setting Expectations Small Business systems Technology

Filling cracks with automation and metrics

How many emails did you send last Tuesday? How many phone calls did you make last Thursday? How many things fell through the cracks last week or last month?

The first two are trivia until you start thinking about the time they consume compared to the return they produce.

The last one is the big one: tasks that fall in cracks, meaning you forgot to do something, or have someone else do something – like make a call to close a sale or follow up on a lead.

I’m guessing you have no idea how many things disappeared into cracks last week unless they’ve cost you business since that time. If they didn’t have a cost, does it matter? I think it does, but not for the reason you might think.

Metrics are lonely fellas

Metrics are great, until they aren’t. Their failing? Metrics tell you what happened and in some cases, what is happening, but they don’t tell you what to do next. By themselves, metrics can get lonely.

Automation can cure that by either telling you act on what’s happened (or is happening), or by doing it on your behalf with your advance permission.

You need to get metrics hitched up with automation, but not solely to get your metrics delivered regularly. While that’s certainly a very good idea, there’s more to the marriage of metrics and automation than prompt and consistent delivery.

There’s curing that crack problem.

Preventing cracks is better than fixing them

If you drive a diesel pickup, particularly one that’s chipped, tuned and so forth – you know what I mean. If you’re a tuner, you probably have an Edge or similar device monitoring exhaust temperatures and other engine information.

Those are metrics.

If you have an Edge or similar, you may even have it setup to tune your engine’s “brain” as engine metrics signal a need for something different.

The tuned diesel truck owner uses tools like this to prevent engine rebuilds while getting the best possible performance out of their truck. In a similar fashion, stock traders use automation to sell stocks when they hit stop loss points because they want to prevent portfolio rebuilds while getting the best possible performance from their investments.

Create a crack prevention system

Metric driven automation like that used by the stock trader and the tuned diesel owner can likewise keep our business fine tuned simply by making sure we’re aware of things that need to get done on a daily basis.

Simple but effective methods include making appointments for yourself and keeping reminder-enabled todo lists in your phone. Obvious? Sure, but they can be all but life saving when chaos finds its way into your week.

I use a few simple online tools to keep track of my work, but I’m always on a quest to find a way for them to nag me more intelligently. These tools help me remain responsible by making sure I get the right things done at the right time.

For example, after seven years, my Flathead Beacon editor knows he’s going to get this column from me every week, even if isn’t there on deadline day (five days before press day). When he gets to his desk on Monday (press day), he knows it’ll be there and it won’t require editing, except for rare occasions when my headline is a bit over the top.

Occasionally, 11pm Sunday arrives and the column isn’t finished. I have a reminder on my phone to tell me to get up 90 minutes early on Monday (ouch, right?) so I can get it published on time, allowing him to meet his commitments.

Here’s the crack prevention: Automation helps me meet my commitment, no matter how hectic life gets, no matter where I am. If the automation was fully data-driven, the reminder would only occur on Sundays when my column hasn’t yet been posted. Some situations will demand that level of data-driven automation. You don’t have to cut it as close as 11pm on the night before. Getting up 90 minutes early on Monday is my self-inflicted punishment / motivation not to let that happen.

Together, automation and metrics allow you to become more dependable as your business / volume grows, while still remaining independent. Don’t forget to show your team how to use automation to improve their performance.

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attitude Customer relationships customer retention Getting new customers Improvement Leadership market research Setting Expectations Small Business

Desperate for business?

Recently, I drove past a local shop advertising everything they sell at 50% off. While I don’t like to assume, it’s hard not to wonder if such a radical price cut is anything else but a desperate move to make sales that aren’t happening for the “normal” reasons.

When an owner is desperate for business, (at least) two things often take place in an effort to turn things around:

First, an assumption is frequently made that price is the reason they aren’t selling as much as they need or want to sell. While that is possible, it’s a situation that is easy to research online, much less by listening and asking your clientele. You have to word these questions carefully, since the answer to “Would you like to pay less for what we sell?” will almost always be met with a “Yes!” If you haven’t done this work, then thinking that your sales problems are caused by prices that are too high is an unproven and dangerous assumption. Regarding the store in question… I’ve been in there and price is definitely not their problem.

Second, desperate circumstances manifest themselves in the behavior of sales and marketing. The most common symptom of this is focusing on “everyone with a heartbeat” rather than everyone whose heart beats faster when they see, talk about or think about what you sell.

The latter group is already bought in to the idea of what you sell, so they don’t have to be sold on the idea, but they will need a compelling reason to purchase this product/service from you, as opposed to someone else.

When you focus on everyone, many of them have yet to develop an interest in what you sell (if they ever will). Some portion of them still must be sold on the idea, much less the specific product/service you’re selling and then they must be sold on your ability to deliver it. Selling the idea is often the steepest part of the climb and requires the most energy. Unfortunately, the energy you expend trying to sell disinterested people in what you sell is wasted, leaving less energy for the prospects who actually care about your products and services.

So what’s a business owner to do when sales take a tumble? Ask a few questions.

How’s your value proposition?

Price often comes up first when value proposition is discussed. We’ve talked quite a bit about pricing in the past and the importance of not assuming that your prices have to drop simply because they’re higher than Amazon’s or Wal-Mart’s.

Thing is, pricing is just a part of the value proposition. The ability to provide immediate gratification, convenience, service, delivery, installation, faster delivery than anyone else, financing, access to product / service / industry experts, consulting and better-than-typical guarantees / warranty coverage all have value.

The difference in value prop between the vendor with the best price and the vendor who can roll out delivery, financing, on-site expertise, installation and follow that up with a fair price and solid warranty is massive.

These things take an investment in time, labor, materials and/or people. It’ll be tough to roll them out all at once. Talk to your ideal clients and find out which of these things are most important. Move on those things first. Keep the conversations going.

Why did they leave?

Everyone has clients who have left them, including me. One of the best things you can do for yourself, your business, your next client, and your existing clients is to ask the ones who left what made them unhappy enough to leave.

A few questions to get you started… How did we disappoint you? What promises did we break? What was the turning point for you that told you it was time to leave us and find another vendor? What product didn’t live up to our promises? How did we fail to meet your expectations? What told that you could no longer depend on us? Was price the reason you left? What would have kept you as a client even if our price was higher? What did we fail to offer you that you wanted or needed from us?

The key to all of this is that it isn’t about you. It’s about what they want and need from you. If stuff isn’t selling, there’s a reason. Cutting the price in half isn’t going to find it.

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Business Resources Competition Customer relationships Customer service Guarantees Retail service Setting Expectations Small Business systems

Your systems should focus on your clients

Do your systems serve your internal customers or all of them?

By internal customers, I mean your accounting department, the staff on the shipping dock, customer service representatives, sales people and so on.

Systems that serve your internal customers do things such as accept, validate and record orders, track commissions, automate shipment notifications, manage inventory and a multitude of other things necessary to make sure that orders for products and services are properly fulfilled.

These systems (investments, really) serve your “real” clients as well, but in many cases their service to the client is indirect. I say indirect because your client rarely sees this service, even though they benefit from it. These systems enable your staff to serve your clients, keep track of where their package is and keep track of the fact that they’ve paid their bill. That’s service they benefit from – even if it is indirect.

Clearly, these investments are valuable. My assertion is that these systems don’t often focus on the client’s needs, even though they ultimately serve that client.

For example?

You knew I’d have an example or two.

You’ve probably seen a cryptic medical bill at some point. These bills have improved vs. the bills of five or ten years ago, but they could still be easier to read. Focusing on client needs might mean making the effort to create a customer-focused bill where info other than the total amount due is intelligible to the patient and their family.

A recent cold snap snuffed the battery in my wife’s car. When I went to replace it, I had to take it to a different store in the national (but locally owned) chain where I buy auto parts. Because the store’s systems are focused on internal customer needs, they were able to see inventory in stock and tell me which stores in the area had the battery I needed. While that’s useful information to help me get a new battery, it fell short of the staff’s needs and my own.

Unfortunately, they had no way to access my purchase information from a few years ago so that they could provide the appropriate discount on the new battery, since the old one expired during the warranty period.

The last time I bought a battery from these guys, they calculated the discount from the date on the battery (ie: the month and year that are picked off at the counter when the sell it to you). This time, that date was considered irrelevant. Further, I was scolded for not having a three year old receipt (which I probably have, but haven’t found).

I asked for advice to avoid this in the future, since I was used to the prior system where the pick-off date on the battery was what the trusted. The guys at the counter suggested that I tape the new receipt to the battery so that I’d have it next time. It seems like a good idea, but tape plus battery plus Montana weather times three or more years tells me that reading that receipt might not be so easy in the future.

Where’s my warranty discount?

The discount was trivial and really isn’t the point, but the situation provides a good example of a business system that primarily serves internal customers. The store that sold me the new battery has the ability to check inventory of the store where I bought the old battery and get a part from that store – both of these features primarily serve internal customer needs. A missing internal customer need that would also serve the external customer would allow store personnel to confirm a purchase at another store in the chair, as well as track the purchase for warranty purposes.

You’ve seen this before. Pharmacies are able to track prescriptions at any of their stores and refill them in any other store even if the original was called into a pharmacy thousands of miles away. To be sure, there are laws covering the record keeping of these purchases, but they could make it much more difficult to buy in the second location than they do.

Why do they buy from you?

The point is that your clients have a choice. If your internal systems make it easier for your clients to buy, redeem, refill, obtain service, and buy again…. they’ll likely buy from you.

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Business culture Customer service Employee Training Leadership Management Setting Expectations Small Business The Slight Edge

The magic triangle of small business

Take a look at any reality show business turnaround and the story is always the same: Quality, customer service, management.

It’s the magic triangle of small business, much less the formulaic basis of most business turnaround reality shows.

What’s a bit stunning is that people actually wait around for the reality show hero and their crew to show up before they take action to clean up the mess they’ve made – and even then, it’s orchestrated by the show. Sure, there’s some money and some not-so-good publicity involved, but most of the time, they’d be ahead financially and publicity-wise if they simply took care of business without waiting for the show people to arrive.

Think about what these people would do if they showed up at your business tomorrow.

They’d taste your food or try your product or service. They’d see how clean the place is. They’d monitor your service. They’d look at your books. They’d ride around with your delivery rigs.

Yes, these are the same things you should be doing in one way or another.

Management

Sometimes other things find their way into the success equation of a good small business, but they’re almost always rooted in the magic triangle. Some of these things are a part of management.

For example:

  • Cleanliness… is management.
  • Hiring…. is management.
  • Knowing your numbers…is management.
  • Knowing who your clientele is, and isn’t…is both management and marketing.
  • Focusing your marketing and client care on exactly the right people…is management.
  • Being focused on the quality of what you produce and sell is management, as is how you deliver it.

Quality

Think about the things you’ve seen in other businesses that made you angry, disappointed or made you wonder “Who’s running this place?” Consider the service you’ve complained about.

Is any of that happening at your business? How do you know? Have you called the last several customers you lost? Are you even aware who they are?

What about the last few new customers? Do you know who they are?

If you don’t know the last few you lost or the last few you got, it’s tough to check in with them and ask how things went. If you can’t do that, you’re probably guessing or assuming how things are going.

Is there a TV truck out front yet?

The phone

Think about the last time you were served well over the phone. Or about the last time you had a terrible phone experience with a business. Remember how you felt? Remember the “I’ll never use this business again” thought process – or something like it.

Now, with that thought cemented in your mind – are you sure that your business isn’t having those same kinds of issues with customer calls? Are you positive?

Have you called your business lately as a customer? Have you talked to anyone who has? If the answer to both questions is no, how do you know that your clients are being properly cared for by phone?

Try calling your accounting department and asking a question about an old invoice. Once the conversation is done, ask them to send you a copy of the invoice.  Do they refuse? Does the copy ever show up? These are the kinds of things that set customers off on a daily basis.

Call your sales and service departments as well. How does that go? Try being a “good customer” as well as a “bad” one. How does the experience change? Are they following your training? Speaking of, are they being trained?

Onboarding

What’s your new customer “onboarding” process like? Is it consistent? Does it set expectations for how things will go after that? Do you train them how to do business with you?

What’s your process like? Think about the process that other businesses have put you through, or used to welcome you into their “family”.

Which do you prefer? Yours, or theirs? If you prefer the ones you’ve experienced elsewhere, is there a reason why you haven’t adopted parts of their process and made them your own?

Pay attention to the magic triangle and everything that it touches. Don’t wait for the TV truck to pull up – it may not arrive soon enough.