Creating a Consistent Customer Experience

I was lunching last week with new friend Carol, who helps organizations teach outstanding customer service to their teams, when she shared a story about her own customer service experience. She suggested it would make a good lesson for a blog post, so here it is.

She found a pair of shoes she really liked at a store in the mall, but they didn’t have her size in the color she wanted. No worries, the store clerks were very accommodating and said they could easily have them shipped to her home, no charge. [great customer service]

The shoes arrived as expected, but when she opened the box, she saw they’d not been wrapped properly; they were pretty much just thrown in a shipping box and sent off. There were a few scuffs on them and she was disappointed, but figured they’d end up looking like that after a few wearings anyway, so she didn’t make a fuss about it. [not so great customer service]

A company’s customer experience should be consistent throughout the process, no matter how many departments are involved.

A few days later Carol got an email from the company asking about her experience. She responded and told them about the condition of the shoes she’d received. She didn’t ask for any kind of compensation (although she really would have liked a discount or coupon for her next purchase); she just wanted them to know what had happened.

The woman responding from the company said she would send Carol a new pair immediately [great customer service] and apologized for the service she received in the store. [What? The store clerks were good.]

Carol emailed back some clarification on her fine experience in the store vs. the package that was shipped and received another email from the customer service department contact who admitted not reading Carol’s entire first email, hence the confusion. [customer service is taking an annoying turn.]

Nevertheless, she restated she would ship out a new pair of shoes right away and Carol could return the ones she had to the store.

Fortunately for Carol, she decided to wait to return the shoes she had until she received the second pair, as the replacement pair never showed up. Further attempts at communicating with the customer service person went unanswered. [very bad customer service]

What happened here appears to be a case of inconsistent training or lack of standards or both at this shoe company. From the outside, it looks like everyone is left to act on their own accord without any accountability for outcomes. If the salesperson is innately good at serving, the customer experience is a favorable. If the salesperson, or warehouse packager or customer service rep isn’t so adept at making sure his job is done well, or doesn’t have a clear explanation of what is expected, then the customer experience isn’t so nice.

There are many points of contact in Carol’s entire experience and therefore many places where things could go awry. If you’re running a business with a lot of moving parts, you’d best make sure you have clear instructions for each step and everyone knows exactly what is expected of him/her. I am transitioning over Zen Rabbit’s fulfillment to a new organization this week. I know what it’s like to have to create detailed instructions for every step of every task. It’s certainly no fun to put together. BUT, once it’s done and in place, you can be reasonably confidant everyone involved is on the same page. The customer experience will be consistently good. Spend the time and effort creating touch point templates now or pay for it later.

Do More Than You Think Necessary

With Ruth Sherman at her Charisma Event

Ruth Sherman came to the DC area last week to present her “Cash in on Charisma” program. Here are three points she shared that really resonated with me and could be of value to you.

One of the big reasons why video works so well for disseminating your message and building relationships is that humans are wired to connect face to face. I’ve been saying this for a while. All this electronic technology is great, no question, but at the end of the day, people need to connect on a more human level. They need to see each other, shake hands, reach out on a physical level. That human need is why sending thank you cards and gifts to customers is so powerful. It is a tactile form of communication.

Next, Ruth implored that when preparing for live presentations, YOU’VE GOT TO PRACTICE much more than you think you do. I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of not doing that enough. I know my subject matter and can deliver well, but I know I could do much better if I spent more time practicing. When I took piano lessons as a child, I hated practicing. I must have had some natural talent because I remember playing pieces such as Debussy’s Clair de lune, Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Joplin’s The Entertainer in recitals. But I hated practicing and after a couple of years I convinced my mom to let me quit.

Public speaking ranks at the top of the list of things people are scared to death to do. But I absolutely love it! So here and now, I commit to spending more time practicing my stories and material, because I realize the people in my audience are giving me their time and attention and in return, my goal is to deliver great value for them.

The lesson for you – whether or not we’re talking about practicing presentations – is you need to do and give more than you think necessary. Start thinking what you consider good enough is probably the bare minimum you can get away with. To really build those client relationships, you need to step up the game. Communicate more. Reach out to customers and potential customers more. Engage them in conversation! If they don’t want to hear from you, they’ll tell you. In the meantime, deliver more value more consistently.

Lastly, your communications don’t need to be long. Who has the attention span anymore? While there are still places for sharing in-depth explanations and details, most of your videos (or other regular communiqués) need only be a minute or two. Just pop-in, share quickly, and step out. That means they won’t take you long to put together either. Hmmm. Now you have no excuse to not do more.

The Cyclical Nature of Life, the Economy & Customer Retention

As Election Day in the U.S. draws closer, I feel the need to address a perspective that I’ve not seen anywhere. People in this country, and indeed the world, have been conditioned to 1. Want everything to be “good” all the time and 2. Delivered quickly. Thanks a lot Apple and Amazon and Zappos. (Hey, I enjoy next day delivery as much as the next person, but not everything in life can be delivered that quickly!)

Unfortunately for those who expect that kind of life experience, frustration and disappointment are inevitable. Let’s take the economy. Yes, let’s delicately go there without getting into which party or candidate has the best plan. The expectation that the economy should always be growing, the stock market always going up and wealth always increasing is absurd.

OceanWavesOnBeachIn nature, everything is cyclical. Ocean waves come in AND go out. While breathing, you must inhale AND exhale. Trees grow leaves in the spring and shed them in the fall. These are not things that need thought or study, they just happen. This is how nature works. Everything is cyclical. Furthermore, everything has a gestation period. On average, human babies take nine months to develop before they are born. Carrots take approximately 12 weeks for full maturity. The Grand Canyon formed over a period of 18 million years. Development takes as long as it takes!

So it seems odd that everyone is freaking out about the down cycle of the economy, its length and severity. I am not insensitive to the people who’ve been affected; I get it, it’s very uncomfortable and a lot of people are in a lot of pain. What I’m saying though, is this experience is part of nature’s cyclical system. Humans have attempted to change and manipulate nature to better suit their needs for thousands of years. Sure, we can make vegetables and animals grow faster (hormone injected and genetically modified foods anyone?). It seems to work out much better when we work WITH the environment instead of fighting against.

Of course in many cases nature can be helped along by such things as pesticides, technology, the Federal Reserve System or such. Again, these aides (experiments?) work better when helping the organism or system do what it does naturally as opposed to working against the “evil” that threatens it.

Customer acquisition and retention are cyclical too. Clients will always be signing on for your service or leaving your practice. It’s part of the natural Cycle Imagecycle of business. Recognize and accept that and then take the measures that you can, use the tools available to you, to extend that cycle by saying thank you to clients for business.

Although it would never happen, what if a candidate came out and said, hey, this uncomfortable downturn we’ve been experiencing is natural. Life and the economy are not always going to be happy, pain-free and comfortable. Real growth and innovation are what happen when things are UNcomfortable. Some cycles in life take more than a few minutes or even a few years to turn around. Situations are not resolved as quickly as they are in a two-hour movie. Know for sure though that they absolutely WILL turn around. And they will, no matter who is in office because nature has laws that are not breakable.

I welcome your thoughts and commentary on this concept, but I absolutely will not tolerate any political rants or accusations.

Properly Setting Customer Expectations

Last weekend I spent two and half days at Sandi Krakowski’s Social Media Smartphone GPS event at the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort. I love hotel experiences because they offer so many opportunities to observe customer service practices. This one was no exception.

Upon arrival, the lobby smelled inviting and pretty. I know, those aren’t actual fragrances, but it’s the best way to describe it. It just smelled GOOD. Staff was friendly and accommodating at check-in. Since I was a speaker at the event, my room had been upgraded to Executive Level. These occurrences, along with the architecture, set my expectations fairly high and I looked forward to a great stay.

It’s interesting how just one or two employees can taint a guest’s, or client’s, overall experience. Boxes I had shipped ahead to the hotel were to be delivered to my room and when I inquired about them, I was assured they were in my room. But I’d just come from my room and unless they’d been stored under the bed, the boxes were not there. Oops, they’d put them in the wrong room. Mistakes happen. I get it. No worries.

Later I asked the concierge for a recommendation of an off-property place to eat. He insisted that the kind of place I was looking for was no less than 20 minutes away. But after getting our bearings (we’d both been to the area before, but not recently) my friend and I found several such places much closer. Seems like someone in that position should know the area better.

And now to the one experience that never ceases to amaze me. At hotels and conference centers that host events all the time, it astounds me that so many of them are so ill-prepared to efficiently serve the attendees lunch and/or dinner in their restaurants.  This hotel is not alone in its struggle to manage such a task. But when you have a facility regularly holding events that give attendees an hour for meals, one would expect you have the experience, staff and systems to handle it well.

In our particular case, we weren’t served any water or other beverages until we’d asked at least five times and were just about finished with our meals. I saw a manager and mentioned our frustration. To his credit, he comped lunch for everyone at my table, but giving away meals doesn’t make up for decent service.

I’m just finishing up the book “Setting the Table,” by restaurateur Danny Meyer. In it, he talks about all the components that must be in place to provide what he calls “enlightened hospitality.” The takeaway I’m getting is that it all comes down to people (employees), systems and your sense of purpose. The lessons are not just applicable to restaurants; they apply to every business. Look for my full review of this book within the next week or so. Right now, suffice it to say that you are in control of setting a customer’s expectations. Once you do that, you are then obligated to fulfill them or you risk losing that customer as well as any referrals that person may have sent your way.

Understandably, not all hotels can provide the level of service you find at a Ritz-Carlton. But I would argue that each does need to live up to the expectation it puts out there at the outset. In order to thrive, your business, regardless of industry, needs to do the same. Take an honest look at the experience you’re providing your clients to make sure it’s consistent with the bar you’ve set.

Perseverance and a Sense of Urgency

It’s another beautiful autumn day in the Washington, DC area – blue skies and crisp temperatures. As I thought about topics for today’s post, my mind returned to a day similar to this one back in 2006. I had recently been introduced to the person who would become my first contract baker, the first person to whom I would entrust with the job of producing The Gratitude Cookie for me.

At the time, I was living in south Florida and after exhausting options for finding a baker anywhere in that state, a mutual contact recommended I connect with Harvey Christie, legendarily known by all in Virginia and West Virginia as Chef Harv.

It was on a day like today that he met me at BWI airport and we headed to Baltimore to meet up with Irwin, a broker from whom I would end up buying the cookie machine that would automate the process of making the cookies. Chef Harv and I hit it off right away. I felt really comfortable working with him and optimistic about growth potential.

The cookie machine was manufactured in Germany, so we had to wait weeks for its delivery. Once it arrived, the die that shaped the cookies wasn’t exactly right. So we had to wait longer to have that corrected. I kept pushing Irwin to call the German company and get them to expedite matters; it was getting closer and closer to the busy holiday season. Irwin was an elderly gentleman and he basically suggested I chill out and not get so worked up about this, else I die young.

Chef Harv and the unexpected
I’ve always had a strong sense of urgency, so pushing Irwin to get that cookie die delivered didn’t seem out of character or particularly prescient. When it finally arrived, I went back up to West Virginia and Chef Harv, his crew and I figured out how to run this machine (it did not come with a detailed instruction manual).

We hadn’t actually signed a contract yet when he ran the first “real” batch of 5,000 cookies the week of Thanksgiving. (And thinking about this point now, I’m reminded of how I clearly did not learn my lesson on this topic, but that is another blog post.)

And then on the morning of December 1st, Chef Harv was killed in a car accident. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about how even though I’d known him only a few months, I felt that I’d lost an amazing friend. The fear over what would happen to my business came second.

To the credit of Chef Harv’s team, they pulled off the incredible feat of carrying on, fulfilling all of Zen Rabbit’s holiday orders that season. My clients had no idea what was going on behind the scenes as all their thank you and holiday gifts for customers were shipped and delivered on time.

Postscript
In the end, Chef Harv’s wife decided to continue the business and we did end up signing a contract. I’ve since moved on to a much better baking partner arrangement, however I’ll always be grateful for this overall experience because of the lessons it taught. For all the business owners reading this, keep on, keep the faith. At some point or another, we all face challenges that seem insurmountable. Prove to yourself and everyone that you DO want and deserve success. And eventually it starts to come to you.

Invitation to Connect & Building Strong Relationships

Yet again I have received a LinkedIn invitation to connect from someone who did not bother to include a personal note. Does this oversight drive you crazy or is it just my own personal issue? If the purpose of connecting on a social networking site is to build relationships (which it IS), then why on EARTH would you not do the most important thing for building relationships and TALK to the other person?!

Start a conversation. No matter if you think the person knows who you are, you need to include a short note with your connection request. “It was nice meeting you at the breakfast yesterday…” Everyone is busy and meets lots of people every day. Maybe you are so extraordinarily memorable or maybe you just think you are. Even if I’m sending a request to someone I’ve known for a while, I’ll send a note such as, “how are we not connected here after all these months of phone calls and collaboration…”

Don’t even get me started on the requests that come from random people you don’t recall ever meeting and who aren’t even in a common group with you. Why? Why do you want to connect with me? Tell me. Where are your manners, like shaking hands with someone you meet in person? You would never just walk up to someone, say nothing, hand him your business card and walk away. You don’t “win” by having the most connections if those relationships are meaningless or non-existent. No one needs a giant database full of names of people they don’t know and don’t have anything in common with unless they are up to no good, also known as spamming.

Being successful is about building strong relationships. Relationships require communication. Therefore it only makes sense to start or continue a conversation here. Do I really need to remind you what happens when you assume?

Yes, this note serves the purpose of jogging someone’s memory of how you know each other. It also acknowledges her as an individual. It shows you are reaching out to connect with someone personally, as opposed to giving her reason to think you’re simply sending mass emails to reach a goal of having 7,500 connections. The personal touch here is just as important as the concept of customer thank you notes or thank you gifts; it makes someone feel good about their relationship with you.

When someone feels good about his relationship with you, he’s far more likely to think of ways to help you, work with you or send you referrals. In my social media world, it’s about developing advocate relationships. If that’s not what you’re doing, please, don’t send me a request to connect.

Pop-By Gifts for Realtors & Other Business Professionals

While developing a special gratitude program to help real estate agents say thank you to their clients, I learned that the most successful agents use pop-by gifts to strengthen relationships. These are little “thinking of how much I appreciate you” or “reminding you I still exist” kinds of gifts, usually tied into the month or season. So for example, an ice cream scoopIce Cream Scoop, thermal bag for keeping foods cool or some sunscreen in the summer. Or a snow scraper, umbrella or a pair of gloves in the winter. The gifts are paired with a cute gift note that ties into the theme, such as “don’t get burned by working with someone who’s less than professional” to go with the sunscreen.

Such appealing reminders keep you top of mind and generate referral business. Realtors are certainly not the only professionals who need to consistently stay in touch with past and current clients. This pop-by gift idea is awesome for almost any business, including those in financial services, internet marketing, and sales training. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to implement regular appreciation marketing, nor do you need to drop off the gifts in person. And think about how much of an impact a small, unexpected thank you gift would have on a customer’s day.

It’s back to school season. Seeing all the sale flyers in the Sunday paper this weekend, one idea I came up with is to send mini dry-erase boards with the note “I appreciate working with you” written on it in dry erase crayon. Clients will get a kick out of the sentiment and creative delivery and then can reuse the board around their office.

You can tie your gift idea into a time or event in your industry, such as a tax file folder sent out in January from accounting professionals, or use a more general concept like sharing a box of note cards in November so your recipients will have them to use for holiday gift thank yous.

I love the creativity involved here and while coming up with memorable client gift ideas and messages is fun for me, not everyone has an easy time with this task. If it’s not easy or fun for you, don’t do it! Get in touch with me and let’s put together a customized done-for-you program. Saying thank you and consistently staying in touch with your customers is imperative to your success. Why are you waiting?

Good Grammar vs. Personality in Your Writing

I read an article last week on hbr.com titled “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” While many of my clients, colleagues and friends took offense and justified their feelings by saying grammar isn’t that important anymore, I applaud the author. Grammar mistakes do make you look stupid.
Yes, writing and speech has become more casual and that’s not a bad thing. But poor speech is.

Here’s why it’s important. When you want to improve client retention or say thank you to your loyal customers, you need to use tools that build strong relationships with them. Some of those tools may be newsletters, blogs and thank you notes. It’s important to use good grammar in your writing so that your audience takes you seriously and sees you as a credible source. My financial adviser, real estate agent or attorney doesn’t need to be a legendary novelist, but I do want to work with someone who knows how to properly use language. I’m not so trusting of the one who ain’t got no need to be real good at words ‘n sh*t.

That said, I also believe there’s room for incorporating your personality. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Writing how you speak, infusing your personal style into your communications, is one fantastic means of differentiating yourself from others in your field. Writing with personality makes you more interesting and helps build stronger relationships with your audiences.

There is a difference between using regional colloquialisms that are ingrained and define who you are vs. flat out poor grammar such as “I got some ice cream for her and I.”

Maybe you weren’t as “lucky” as I was to have parents and grandparents who consistently corrected your speech from the time you started talking. Perhaps Ms. Huertas didn’t teach English at your high school and you weren’t forced to learn “The 10 Offenders.” (#1-Do not end your sentences with a preposition.)

If that was the case, there are great resources you can use to educate yourself. Lynne Truss’s book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” is a good start, as is Strunk & White’s classic “The Elements of Style.” Definitely do not turn to today’s radio and television broadcasters, save for anomaly Brian Williams.

For those of you reading this post and making note that I’ve started a sentence with the word and or but, let me say this, “you have to know the rules to break the rules.”

Doing Nothing Is Not An Option

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been meeting a lot of new contacts and in many of my conversations, I’ve heard them admitting they’re not doing a great job of marketing. “I know I need to do more, but I just don’t have time.” Or “I’m not sure what to do. I mean, I know direct mail doesn’t work and advertising is so expensive…”

Hold on there, friend. Your reasons for not marketing is you don’t know what to do and don’t have time?! You know you’re essentially saying “I don’t have time to get new clients or keep the ones I have and it’s really not important enough to figure out.” I hope you’re not planning to be in business for a long time and you like working at fast food joints.

Two things need to happen quickly if your business is to survive. One, you need to make consistent and effective marketing a priority, stat. And two, you may need to hire some help.

That help can take on several forms, depending on you and your business. Outsourcing has become a politically charged word lately, but it really just means to “obtain goods or services from an outside supplier in place of an internal source.”

Marketing is an opportunity to have fun and get creative! (It took me a while to figure out not everyone thinks that statement is true.) If you don’t agree because that’s not how your brain works, you need to engage the services of a marketing expert who can help you create a plan of action. We’re not talking about putting a Madison Avenue agency on retainer. You need someone who lives, loves and breathes marketing, knows what works well, and is excited about drawing up a simple strategy for you to implement easily. And that might be all you need – get some great ideas, knowledge about how and a schedule for when to execute them.

Ideas and plans are FAN-tastic! But if you don’t get around to using them, they don’t do anything for you. If that’s where you fall down, then recognize that and find someone with a done-for-you program. Hand over the reins and let someone with more time and a better system go to work on your behalf. That way the marketing is getting done, relationships are being cultivated and nurtured, and you’re free to go on attending to providing the service your clients expect.

Interested in learning more about how easy it can be to keep more clients for longer? Schedule a free 15-minute strategy consultation with me during August and let’s figure out the best way to build super-strong relationships with your clients. Check http://tungle.me/zenrabbit for available time-slots.

Building Better Customer Relationships

There was an article a couple of weeks ago in Forbes.com on “Four Ways Brands Can Build Better Relationships.” The author mentioned that today’s marketer needs to go beyond transactional relationships and expand to interactional relationships. As a business person, selling something is not enough. You have to make a human connection. Even, or maybe especially, if you’re selling online.

Your customers and clients CRAVE personal interaction. Everyone’s spending tons of time online and communicating electronically, but humans are designed for more tactile connections. Remember the old Bell Systems’ tagline “reach out and touch someone”?

Life = Relationships. How you interpret that may vary. Some say their business is their life. Others view work as a means to living a good life. Doesn’t matter; it all comes down to whatever kind of life you choose, the most satisfactory ones are built on a foundation of solid relationships. And it’s not likely you can long maintain bad or weak business relationships and still enjoy a good life.

Phone calls, printed newsletters, handwritten notes, gifts delivered to one’s doorstep are all essential tools that will strengthen your connection to customers and thus increase client loyalty. You’ve heard it before – happier customers send you referrals and the combination of those two elements ultimately equate to more profits.

YES, these things “cost” more than sending an email and may take more than 30 seconds to craft, but the investment pays off in multiples. Stop being cheap and employing the short-term, transaction-based mentality that has derailed so many big company executives in the past several years. Get with the 2012 program and become humanly relevant.