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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?

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You will not receive a reply.

JConnectFeedback

What message do you send to customers when you tell them up front that their feedback will not get a response?

How many businesses have you stopped communicating with because they don’t listen and reply? Does anyone feel that way about your business? About you?

If you have to do less communicating in order to do so in a way that creates better client relationships, give it a try.

As for the graphic – If you don’t have time to reply, do you have time to read their feedback? Maybe, but that’s not the worst of it. If you aren’t listening and people know it, they won’t share anything with you.

It isn’t the customer who won’t receive a reply… It’s you.

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Why isn’t everyone on time?

IMG_1362

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.

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Are you a drama queen?

Memories: A Lament
Dan Kennedy is known to say something to the effect of “If I wake up at 2 am thinking about you or your business, you’re in trouble.”

I can relate.

For me, the “are you worth it?” measuring stick is often drama-related.

Drama happens. It’s part of life. On the other hand, if you intentionally generate drama when it isn’t necessary (is it ever?), your effectiveness/ROI aren’t what they should be.

If a vendor introduces unnecessary drama into my life, that vendor is the next one I replace.

If a contractor or staffer introduces unnecessary drama into my life than they are worth, they are the next one I replace.

You may say you’re set in your ways, crotchety, fussy or whatever – regardless of your age. All of those are excuses for things you can change about your business persona.

Keep in mind that no one searches Monster.com looking for crotchety people who are a pain to work with.

Drama isn’t picky

It doesn’t matter whether you’re the leader, the newbie, an employee, a vendor, a contractor or a temp – if you’re creating this sort of environment around you, you will either drive people away from you or you’ll provoke them to “offer you an opportunity to seek work elsewhere”.

Not being a drama queen (or king) doesn’t mean you don’t report/discuss problems or enter contentious discussions. It means that you don’t turn them into an episode of “Real Housewives of Orange County”.

If you manage the drama makers and fail to address the environment they’re creating, you could lose the best people on your team. Not only do they not want to deal with that stuff, because they are your best, they can easily find another opportunity. Think about how it would hurt to lose your key person in any one department *tomorrow*. Now think about what happens if you lose 2 or 3 of them – all because you wouldn’t take action

Real Customers of Orange County

Yes, there are customers who introduce as much drama as the “Real Housewives”.

Ultimately, you can either feed this beast, tame it or slay it.

If you feed it, you’ll repeatedly have to deal with their drama.

Every contact with this kind of customer which goes “untreated” has a cost.

  • Your staff doesn’t want to deal with them, so they avoid calling them back.
  • They get slower call backs than they expect, so this stirs them up even more.
  • They will have less legitimacy with your staff than a typical customer, because your staff tends to be more focused on the drama rather than what’s being said.

That last one is really dangerous. These customers can be more invested in their work than is typical, which is what drives their drama. If their concerns are discounted because of their emotional baggage, you could miss something quite critical.

If you tame the customer’s drama, you’ll get better customer relationships from it. If you keep at it, you can usually change their attitude.

I’ll always remember a classic conversation my support manager (Hi Julie!) had with a frequently cranky customer. He was a nice guy, but he’d get more excited about an issue the more he talked about it. As he worked himself into more and more of a frenzy, she stopped talking about the problem they were trying to solve. In a calm, quiet voice, she asked him if he was upset with her. He said no, realized what he was doing and they resumed the conversation without drama. Without the infection drama brought to the conversation, the situation was quickly resolved.

That customer became one of our advocates, and was someone who referred his peers to us as new customers. Yet he started out as one of the dramatic types. The kind you didn’t want to call back.

That leaves the beast you must slay. Like vendors, contractors and staff, you’ll eventually encounter a customer who must be fired. The cost of dealing with them is too high. You’ll know when it’s time. The benefit of not having them around will far exceed the revenue.

Bottom line: Be the professional who doesn’t make people’s lives more complicated, dramatic or contentious. Even better, be the one who defuses those situations.

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attitude Business culture Customer relationships Customer service Employees Hospitality Leadership service The Slight Edge

The most important little thing we do

When you’re on the road, little things matter. In fact, they matter all the time. Every. Single. Day.

That extra comment or tip from the lady at check-in. The friendly suggestion from the dude who drives the shuttle. A restaurant recommendation from the parking/cab attendant that turns out to be amazing and a good bargain all in one.

When delivered consistently, they can grow well beyond the sum of each act.

Think about the little things your people do and how your business handles them.

They matter, but they’re almost impossible to put into place with a training program. More often than not, you get them when you hire.

Hire well. It’s the most important little thing you do.

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Go somewhere else

Sadness
Creative Commons License photo credit: WTL photos

The only way some businesses will learn that they cannot continue to take you for granted is by taking your money elsewhere and letting them know that you did so.

Sometimes the attitude will be “Good riddance, we didn’t want that demanding/pain in the butt customer anyhow”. What they may or may not learn is that a small percentage of people will repeatedly take being treated poorly.

They may learn nothing at all. However, if you don’t do this, you have no one but yourself to blame for the poor service you receive.

This include the businesses that serve your business.

And…it includes the people *you* serve.

Look at your service in the mirror. Make sure you like what you see. Make sure it’s the kind of service you’d want to receive.

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Where’s my concierge?

One of the rungs on your ascension ladder should include cater-to-their-every-whim service – within the context of your business.

Audible has figured this out, as you can see from the screen shot above.

I’ve told you about my use of it in the software business (“done-for-you software setups in 7 days, guaranteed”) as a way of getting new users started quickly as a way of increasing sales, improving our percentage of sales closed and improving our service so that renewal / maintenance agreements were a non-issue.

Have you figured it out? If so, I’d like to hear what your “cater to their every whim” concierge service is like.

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Taking Care

One of the lessons my dad impressed on me when I was old enough to begin to “get it” (or so I thought) was “Be a good listener.”

Naturally, the meaning of that phrase changed for me over the years.

  • As a teenager, it had a rather obvious meaning, “Pay attention and you might learn something.”
  • As a college student, the meaning changed a bit, but the fundamentals were the same.
  • As a newly married guy and later as a dad, I fine-tuned it a bit for the roles I found myself in.

Ultimately, it was about listening before speaking or acting. A handy business lesson if there ever was one.

At work, it became far more complex as it became about listening…really listening to customers (including other people’s customers) about the detective work necessary to create and retain customer loyalty, and sometimes, about figuring out what wasn’t being said while the words still flowed.

Sometimes the most important words from a customer are the ones they fail to say.

Despite the complexity that lesson has taken on at times, the core message is still the important one – a message of listening to learn, one of the most valuable lessons my father taught me.

What level of care do you deliver?

My current context for the most personal level of service was set by Hospice of Cumberland County (Tenn.), but the who and what isn’t really the context I’m trying to get at. The level itself is what I want you to arrive at, regardless of what you do.

Consider the level of care that you’d give to a sick family member. It’s likely to always exceed that given during the course of business, but it’s a standard of care that you can consider when designing different levels of service in your business.

A level of care we’re speaking of is very personal. It isn’t suited for just any business and perhaps not for just any customer, but that isn’t my decision to make about your business. Fact is, it might be perfect for a subset of your customers…or perhaps all of them.

As personal as the end of life care you’d provide for a family member? Isn’t that a bit much? Sure it is.

I suggest that because it brings a level of personal touch to what you deliver that you might not ever have considered. While you still might not deliver something that’s of the same class as end of life care for a family member, it might just provoke a thought that transforms your high end business. That which transforms your high end business quite often transforms the rest of it as well.

What level of care have you failed to offer to your clients? Beyond levels of care, what care itself are you failing to deliver to your clientele?

Doing it right

The other lesson I remember most is “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” The unspoken second part of that is “That doesn’t mean that you should do less.”

You might wonder if there is a conflict there, but I don’t believe so. Doing the job the best you can, each time, doesn’t mean perfect. It just means best for you given the skills you possess at that time *and* with a commitment to continuous improvement.

Not starting a project (or a piece of work) because the outcome can’t be perfect is far worse than finishing it with your best, yet imperfect effort. What have you not started because you felt you couldn’t deliver perfect?

Oh and the third part…focus. Doing things right requires focus on those things. Doing 100 things poorly serves no one well, least of all you. What efforts are you making to get and stay focused? To deflect, destroy or defer distractions?

The undercurrent

Over the last seven weeks, I had many opportunities to learn while caring for my dad. Whether from him, my mom or their friends, the lessons were almost always about taking care.

Are you truly taking care of your clientele? Is there a level of care that you’ve neglected, ignored or simply failed to design?

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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.

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Raise The Bar!

Monkeys on a Banana
Creative Commons License photo credit: Furryscaly

During some recent travel to deal with some family stuff, I’ve had a chance to see how business is going elsewhere in the U.S.

One thing caught my eye over the weekend and I think it merits some discussion.

It illustrates how much room there is for a coherent, attentive business in the marketplace…even in today’s economy.

Billboards

If I look, did it work? Nevermind, that was a few weeks ago…

Seriously, I saw a billboard that stated a HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) company’s unique sales position (USP) and / or differentiating factor.

It was “We’ll be on time.”

If they aren’t on time, the service is free.

They didn’t advertise the quality of their service or the highly trained nature of their service people.

They simply said “Unlike everyone else, we’ll be on time and if we aren’t, our work will be free.”

One of the biggest time-wasters foisted upon consumers these days is the “We’ll be there between 8 and 5 or noon and 5” etc. People are unwilling to commit an entire day to deal with your inability to manage your work schedule, but they have no choice in many cases.

This HVAC company has a much smaller window of “we’ll be there”, but they’ve decided to accept responsibility when they mismanage their time.

I think it’s an effective sales tool that speaks directly to consumers’ pet peeves, but it begs the question “How much lower can businesses lower the bar?”

Are you lowering the bar or raising it? Which benefits you and frustrates your competition? Which makes it easier for consumers to choose you?

What are you doing that your competition is unable or unwilling to do? Are you leading your market or simply showing up?

Raise the bar.