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Any single step can make or break you

Oak Leaf Raindrops
Creative Commons License photo credit: peasap

The process of returning my son’s iPod for warranty replacement has been interesting.

I talk to Costco customer service, now called “concierge service”. That experience was outstanding.

By the way, just calling it concierge service sets the expectation for a good experience, doesn’t it? It also means that you have to deliver.

The Costco guy connects me with Apple service and stays on the phone with me until I’m done, then confirms that I’m happy with the result.

The Apple customer service guy is just as good, and takes care of things quickly. He tells me that he will email me instructions and that I can just take the box to any UPS Store and they will pack and ship it at no charge.

Later, I go into the UPS Store and mention that I have an Apple return. I’m the only one in the store.

Before saying “Hello” or “So….UConn or Butler?”, the UPS store lady hears me say “Apple return” and says “Crrrrraaaaaaaaaap”.

After making a call, she took the box and said it’d be taken care of the next day, but the last impression I have for the moment – which also reflects on Costco and Apple – is….”crappy”.

I tweet something brief about it before leaving the parking lot and head for home. I’m not annoyed about it, mostly because I’ve come to expect stuff like this from retail businesses. I am a little surprised to hear that come from a woman – particularly one that I think is a generation older than me.


By the time I get home and settled at my desk, Lindsay with UPS Store care corporate (or a fairly smart automated bot) is on top of it and sends me a Twitter message asking me to email her with details.

12 minutes later, I get a personal reply saying they’ll take care of it.

I didn’t tweet to get support from UPS. That just happened.

The point is that they were paying attention.

Paying attention

The result of paying attention means that Lindsay’s tweet and the email that followed the detailed reply she requested turned a less-than-positive last impression into a good one.

Never forget that every interaction gives you an opportunity to either reinforce/strengthen your relationship or lose a customer.

Every. Single. One.

Stuff like this is a form of marketing that’s the most expensive you’ll ever invest in: Employees.

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Service before the no-sale

This is what can happen when a legitimate customer hits an artificial wall within your business.

It’s made worse when customer service is setup to fail. Clearly the service person has no power to do anything positive to seal the deal and help / retain this customer.

The guy is standing there with money in his hand and she is forced to tell him they can’t take it unless he’s willing to buy an old, backdated version of the product.

What’s worse is that the rep has been trained to say something like “I understand why you would be concerned.”, which is code speak for “Yeah, it stinks but I can’t do anything about it, sorry.”

Don’t put up artificial walls.

Don’t make customer service (much less your website) into a “sales prevention department”.

Make it easy to buy.

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Poisoning Your Customers

Last week a Flathead Beacon reader sent me a nice note about a column that he liked, and while doing so, posed a question.

He said “One thing I am dying to read from you, is how do you get rid of a pain in the butt client — or a pathological recreational shopper — or the perfectionist from hell — without him or her poisoning your other customers?

He’s not in for what he probably expected.

In my experience, few clients really, truly need to be fired (aka “gotten rid of”).

Why not just fire them?

Three reasons:

  • If they really, truly are worth firing, it’s often easier to get them to fire themselves without any negative consequences for you. Raise the bar on what it takes to become/remain a customer. The benefits of doing this are substantial.
  • If they aren’t worth firing but are simply a thorn in your side, it’s the person in the mirror (you and your business) that needs to make changes. Once the thorny customer is satisfied, they usually become one of your biggest fans. I’ve seen it time and time again.
  • How hard is it to get a new customer? What does it cost in time, effort and money?

As I said, if they really need to go, I prefer to work things out so that they fire themselves. But that isn’t the question he asked, so let’s address it.

Back to the question

Let’s do the easy one first – The “pathological recreational customer”.

Some things to consider:

  • Are they coming into your store just to get warm? Obvious…maybe, but be careful. More on that soon.
  • Are they shopping for someone else?
  • Are they a mystery shopper?
  • Are they investigating but not personally planning to buy? The smart ones aren’t going to tip their hand until price comes up and the business is ready to buy.
  • Did they randomly walk into your store?
  • Are they doing price comparisons on your store for a competitor? Note: anyone with a smart phone can do this. Get over it. In fact, get over price as the ONLY competitive edge. Part of your edge, fine. All of your edge? Not so fine.
  • Is their recreational shopping a burden to your business?

Have you talked to them? “I notice that you like to browse through our store but you haven’t become a customer. Is there something you need that we don’t offer?” and take the conversation from there. Again, be careful. You gain nothing from embarrassing a (potential) customer, but there is plenty to lose.

Keester pain

The next easiest one is the “Pain in the Butt customer”.

Let’s consider the reason they’re a pain. It could be one or more of these:

  • The customer is just one of those angry-at-the-world kinds of people.
  • The customer is not being treated in a manner that meets or exceeds their expectations.
  • The customer is not being treated well by anyone’s definition.
  • The customer bought a product or service that doesn’t meet or exceed the expectations you set, which again could mean that you didn’t set any. Sometimes called “merchantability”, we ask the question “Is the product/service reasonably able to solve the problem or fill the need it was being sold for?”
  • The customer has unreasonable expectations.

Note the operative word? Expectations. Do a better job of setting them.

The pain in the butt can most often be turned into your best reference by simply becoming their advocate.

Boy, it’s hot in here

The “perfectionist from hell” is the one you’ll be most tempted to get rid of. Problem is, they often fit into the “keester pain” category.

More often than not, they’re really an indicator that your product line or services are missing one or more tiers of service at the high end. Yep. It’s probably an opportunity. Isn’t that cool?

People like this often have high personal accountability standards and (right or not) hold others to those same standards. Your regular products and services at their regular prices aren’t a good fit for them and their appearance of perfectionism is a good indicator of that.

Add another level.

A higher quality product with a greater level of service attracts a customer who might be a perfectionist and is also willing to pay more for that level of quality.

It’s also a great way of defining expectations for the customer BEFORE they make the purchase and allowing them to choose how they’re served.

It’s Chevy Suburban vs. Cadillac Escalade. Both have a market.

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One guy and 12 minutes to a lifelong customer @SouthwestAir

Not long ago, a little boy was murdered.

Soon after, his grandpa was traveling to see his little 3 year old grandson one last time.

He was running for the plane, desperately late despite getting to the airport several hours before departure.

After two hours of standing in line, pleading with TSA officials and airline employees to help him get to his gate on time, his perception was that no one seemed to care how important it was to make that plane.


While the drama takes place in the ticket and security line, the airplane was sitting at the gate.

Waiting, waiting and more waiting.

It’s a Southwest airplane.

Anyone who has traveled with and/or read about Southwest knows that one of their top operational priorities is fast turnaround at the airport’s gate.

It’s simple. Planes make money in the air. They don’t make money sitting at the gate.

Southwest takes that to heart. Their focus on at-the-gate efficiency is so well polished that they can turn a plane from arrival to departure in 20 minutes, 2-3 times faster than many competitors.

Every employee is well aware of that focus.

The grapevine

Somehow, someone at the gate found out.

Despite the focus on turnaround and the potential risk to their jobs, the ticketing agent and pilot refused to move the plane away from the gate until the grandpa arrived.

People know to make these kinds of decisions every day, but they often don’t out of fear for their jobs or the specter of “policy”.

The wrong kind of business culture breeds that behavior.

The right kind of business culture empowers their employees to make decisions that are the right ones for the customer at that moment, even if they temporarily fly in the face of business policy or strategic goals. They hire and train with those things in mind.

The agent and pilot knew what should be done and took action.


Who do you think that grandpa and family fly with in the future?

Opportunities to create life-long loyalty are fleeting. Make the most of the ones you get and make sure your people do too.

Especially when it’s the right thing to do.

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Never let a customer settle

Mayflower II with her lifeboats
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

Some customers have enough confidence not to settle for poor treatment by a vendor.

Others solve the problem by deciding never to come back.

If a customer settles for something, it’s because the business they’re dealing with let them do so.

The confusing thing about those businesses is that it takes just as much time to run a poor business as it does a strong one.

Don’t ever let a customer settle.

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Grow for your customers

Recently, we were talking about making it easy to buy a TV, but this stuff isn’t just about TVs.

Merchandising is both an art and a science.

Big business invests millions studying it and testing what works and what doesn’t. You should pay attention to it as well to the extent that you can.

The goal is still to make it easy to buy.

Is your grocery like every other one that created high-margin convenience stores by putting ALL of your milk at the back of the store?

Sure, that ploy works. If it works that well, why not move the checkout stands to the back of the store? Or make people move through your store like a Disney ride – by exiting through a maze of “Mommmmmmyyyyyy, can I have that?” impulse items?

Or do you keep a small milk chiller near the front of your store like Stew Leonard‘s store does?

These days, even the convenience stores have the milk at the back of the store. While we chase that rabbit, ever wonder why liquor stores don’t carry milk and bread? I suspect some do, I just don’t recall seeing one.

Grow (and think) beyond your needs and wants. Serve your customers like no one else.

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Notify, notify, notify

One of the reasons that smart phones are so popular is that they provide a much better means of getting notified about any number of events, appointments and so on.

Your customers’ desire – if not need – to be notified is a critical aspect of your customer service planning.

In fact, these communications can be an essential difference between lousy or non-existent customer service, and good or even great customer service.

Working in the dark

For example, earlier this week I ordered some large format printing from a local vendor.

I spoke with them on the phone and because their website allows uploading documents,  I was able to upload the zipped graphics rather than make a 40 minute round trip drive to deliver the files and return to my office.

The vendor’s website said the file was accepted. About 30 minutes later, I hadn’t heard anything from the vendor, so I called them.

They hadn’t received the file and said that it must be “stuck” on the franchise system’s server and that they would surely find it.

At this point, they had my name and number and knew I wanted to get some work done. 3-4 years ago, I would have expected to babysit the job from start to finish because any business could stay open.

Despite having a confirmation from the web server, the file never appeared on their system… or they never looked for it.

Regardless, failure #1 was not following up with me to confirm that they had found it, or that they hadn’t and needed me to re-send it.

Tick, tick, tick

Two days go by. The promised completion date and time arrives without a message, so the natural thing for me to figure is that the job is complete.

45 minutes before closing time on the promised completion date, I call them. No answer.

Historically, they’re on the phone a good bit, so I don’t think much of it. I hop in the car and continue to call every few minutes during the 20 minute drive.

I arrive 10 minutes before the closing time listed on their website – the same closing time painted on the office door.

They’re closed up tight. With that 20 minutes wasted, I drive 20 more minutes home, having wasted 40 minutes and accomplished nothing.

I call and leave a message asking what happened, mostly resisting the urge to vent and ask them to call me to make sure my job is done and let me know what times they’ll be open the next day so I can pick up the job materials.


By mid-morning of the next day I’ve heard nothing.

I call. They know nothing about the job or the upload. Turns out some health issues caused early closure the day before, so I can’t really be upset about that…BUT here’s that notify thing.

They could have left a note on the door about the early closure.

They could have left a comment on their phone system about the early closing.

They didn’t.


Stepping up

At this point, the notification failures have added up, but the person in charge steps up a notch.

I get the file to them using another means and we make arrangements for pickup. One of their guys is coming to my area later in the day, so we arrange to meet. He will call when he’s close.

He calls, we meet, I get my stuff. All good. Today’s interaction has gone much better because the communication and notification was active and frequent.

What should happen

A few weeks ago, I uploaded a job to Staples’ web print center, which routes print jobs to a store about 20 minutes away.

I received a confirmation email shortly after the upload.

I received another email telling me the job was complete.

That’s how it works every time. And that software is available to any print shop. It isn’t something special that Staples developed.


Remember, customer service is marketing.

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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?

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Romeo Oscar Kilo Uniform Hotel Echo Lima Papa

Overweb :: Midori cluster
Creative Commons License photo credit: br1dotcom

That’s military phonetics for “Roku Help”.

Last month, I bought a Roku XD-S so we could watch Netflix on our TV rather than on a laptop.

It’s a fine unit for streaming Netflix and (probably) Amazon Video-on-Demand, Major League Baseball on demand and so on.

The interface was a little disappointing because I hoped to be able to queue Netflix DVDs from it, but the primary function was streaming and at that it performs quite well.

Trouble is, the Wii that we never use (it was a gift) now plays Netflix as well, so we no longer need the Roku. The last thing we need is another box and more wires under the TV.

Beam me up

So I use the Roku support form on their website to ask for a RMA. I would have called them, but nowhere on their site does it say “DO THIS TO RETURN YOUR UNIT”, despite the lovely graphics saying “30 day unconditional return policy”.

The next day, I get an email saying “We don’t do RMAs by email, please call 888-600-7658.”

That’s fine, so I call.

I get transferred overseas, judging from the accent of the very nice man who answers the phone.

While his command of English is an order of magnitude (or several) better than my command of his native tongue, we have accents to deal with. Both of us.

We end up using military phonetics for TWENTY-THREE minutes because we can’t communicate very well, primarily due to our accents.

Throw in 5s, 9s, Cs, Ss and Fs and we had a jolly time.

Focus: Customer Experience

Shipping your tech support overseas doesn’t bother me, as long as the internal feedback chain remains in place and the customers are served well.

Putting people on the phone who require Hotel Echo Lima Papa (“H E L P”) to be understood (and to understand the caller) does your company a disservice and alienates customers – regardless of what their native tongue might be.

The guy did an admirable job and given our communication issues, showed great patience. Neither of us got angry. I got what I needed.

But 23 minutes to get a RMA because names, email addresses, street addresses and so on have to be communicated in military phonetic alphabet creates a horrid customer experience.

As a small business owner, you probably aren’t even considering moving your customer support overseas. But are you doing something else that creates a customer experience that is this slow and unproductive?

As I said last Friday, “follow the paper”.

PS: Shortly after the call, I received an email with the details of the RMA, shipment and packing info, etc. We got it right, but the email was a ton faster and crystal clear. The SAME rep could have serviced that request perfectly via email in 2 minutes, rather than spending 23 minutes on the phone.

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Customers: Not the enemy

If your customers are treated like the enemy when they give feedback about your products, services, customer service and so on; that’s exactly what they’ll become.

How are you treating your customers when something you did (or something they *perceive* of you) manages to set them off?

It’s easy to take it personally…but do your best not to.

The high-value feedback you might normally miss out on is hiding right behind the bluster.

It’s often the most valuable you’ll get. It’s coming from a customer who cares in a vulnerable moment.

Soak it in. Thank them. And take action.

PS: That doesn’t mean you let people become abusive. Defuse, then discover.