Don’t Lose Your Customer Before You Get Your Customer

Fotolia

Like many of you, a lot of sales professionals reach out to me. Some drop in, hoping for a chance to introduce themselves and their product. Some call or email, with the intent of scheduling a longer phone call or face-to-face in the near future.

Regardless of how they reach out, I try to respond personally to all of them. They have a job to do and I respect that. Very recently, I had two very different experiences from two company representatives that wanted me to consider the product they offered.

In the first example, a folder with information was dropped off for me at the front desk of the hotel.  I received the folder at approximately 3:00 pm.  With a very full schedule that day, I made a note to review and respond the next morning. That evening, I received an email from a member of my front desk team.  It turns out this sales person was a guest in the hotel.  His reservation had been made about a week prior to his arrival.  He was quite upset I had not responded by end of day, made reference to me flying out to visit him at his office and then questioned the quality of the guest experience at the hotel, from the product offered to the level of service.

That same day, I received a note in the mail from Debbie, an account manager for Classic 107, a local radio station. Debbie and I had spent time together the week before. She asked me lots of questions to ensure she understood our priorities and customer demographic and provided initial suggestions on how she could help us achieve our marketing goals. Even though Debbie left without any immediate new business, she sent me a lovely, handwritten note, thanking me for my time and promising to follow up later in the year.

Debbie and I had a scheduled appointment, but my team knows to call me if someone drops in.  If I am available, I make the time to meet with the person, even if only for a few minutes.  I used to participate in sales missions, from a city and a brand perspective, so I get it.  By far the majority of our calls were planned, but sometimes along the way, we would simply drop in on the off-chance a decision maker would be immediately available to see us.  It rarely happened.  At that point, the gate keeper was our decision maker. The gate keeper’s impression of our professionalism was vital. What he or she said about us directly impacted the possibility of a response or what type of response we would receive.

Ensuring a positive pre-sale experience is important.  A 2011 Consumer Report’s survey indicated that customers who bailed on a transaction did so because of poor service. That’s potential customers who were ready to purchase but chose not to.

There are a lot of touch points in between first point of contact to signing a deal. Each of those moments can make or break a potential sale.  Be as careful of those touch points as you are about each and every one after the first sale is made.

And in case you are wondering, I did respond to the first salesperson the next morning as planned, expressing disappointment his guest experience was not the positive one our entire service team is committed to providing and extending an invitation to share his concerns with me personally. To date, there has been no response to my email.

Then I called Debbie to get her permission to mention her by name at a future date, knowing at some point a blog would be written.  She graciously agreed.  I look forward to our next conversation.

What is your Priority – Product or Service?

Motivational concept image of a hand holding marker and write What is your priority isolated on white

There is a restaurant here in Winnipeg that has the talent in place to create and plate a ‘to-die-for-good’ meal.  My husband and I had plans to dine there one evening.  Then I heard and read many comments regarding the arrogant, sometimes verging on abusive, service from people who’ve gone to that restaurant… once and only once. Some of these comments have come from people I know personally and whose opinion I trust.  That restaurant is now off my list of places to go.  There are many other restaurants to go to in Winnipeg that create and plate amazing meals and just as importantly, provide friendly, attentive and professional service,

In the service industry, dinner is never just a dinner and a hotel room is never just a hotel room. It is the entire experience wrapping up the basic need for food and shelter that is important and sets one business apart from another.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the hospitality industry.  We are all in business to meet and address a specific need.  So are our competitors. Even if a business offers something totally unique, it won’t be forever.  At some point, that unique product and idea will be replicated and if customers have been putting up with lousy service because there wasn’t an alternative, as soon as there is one, they are gone!

Product quality is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. Back up the great product with great service.  That’s what brings customers back more than once, creates referrals and brings new customers through the door.

Four Customer Dissatisfaction Categories

thumbs-down1Years ago, I was in Prince Edward Island facilitating a customer service workshop. When we started discussing the question “What are some things that make your customers angry?” one of the participants said “Snowstorms and I have no idea what to do when someone yells at me because the roads and airports are closed and they can’t get off the island.”

There are times when our customers are angry and upset because we messed up.  And then there are the times our customers are angry and upset because of something we have absolutely no control over, like the weather.  When it comes to knowing how to manage those moments, start by taking a moment to list as many causes for customer frustration as you can think of.  Next identify which of the four following categories they fall under:

Unrealistic expectations:  Sometimes our customers come to us believing we provide a product or service that we don’t.  Now ask yourself, “Why don’t we offer this product or service?  Is this something we can do?”  If the answer is yes, make it happen.  If the answer is no (and sometimes it is), who does offer this product or service? Then be prepared to send your customer there.

Policies and procedures:  I had a friend walk into a restaurant about 11:00 am.  He ordered the Denver omelet. The server said “We don’t serve breakfast after 10:00.” So my friend flipped to the sandwich section and ordered a Denver sandwich.  No problem with that order!

Take a good, long look at your policies and procedures.  Who are they designed to protect … you or the customer?  Do they make sense to the customer? Chances are they might not, for the simply reason your customer doesn’t understand all the ins and outs of running your business. So have some fun or be prepared to offer an alternative.  I imagine my friend would have shared the above story from a whole different perspective if the server had said something like “We don’t serve from our breakfast menu after 10:00 am, so how about I ask the cook to make you a Denver sandwich, with the bread on the side?”

Human error: This list could get long.  Focus on the errors that happen most often or have the most significant impact on the overall customer experience. Ask yourself “Why are they happening and what can we do to prevent it.” Then take action.

External factors:  There are some external factors that come at you out of the blue.  Your customer may have had a fight before leaving home for the day or had terrible, horrible, very bad day at work or just received some difficult news.  There are some external factors you can pretty much count on.  Plan for those.  For example, if you run a business in PEI, chances are pretty good that at some point in any given year, bad weather will hit, roads and airports will be closed and customers will be stranded.  Work with your team to recognize the frustration and teach them how to respond with empathy. What can you do to help them pass the time?  Perhaps some games or a quiet room for them to read or get caught up on other work.  Who will keep them up-to-date on travel updates?

When you and  your team view complaints positively, instead of looking at them as a negative, they provide clues on how to improve the service you and your company provide. Changing the focus from a negative to a positive helps you be in the right mind set to successfully manage those moments when they arise.

(Excerpt from “Customer Service from the Inside Out”)

Are You and Your Customers on the Same Wavelength?

Friendly young businessman showing ok signBain & Company surveyed 362 companies.  They spoke to people within the companies and asked them “How often do you deliver superior customer service?”  The answer: they believed they delivered superior customer service 80% of the time.  Unfortunately, when customers were asked “How often do you receive excellent customer service”, their response was only 8% of the time!  That’s a huge disconnect and in the end, it’s the customer’s perception that matters.

One potential reason for this disconnect is that as business owners, managers and service suppliers, we are faced with the daunting and challenging task of hiring, training, scheduling, coaching, mentoring, ordering, reporting… the list goes on and on.  Supplies are late, weather is bad, someone calls in sick and yet, somehow, in spite of all the challenges, the business is open and customers are coming in the door.  We give ourselves a lot of credit for the challenges we overcome on a regular basis.

Go ahead, pat yourself on the back.  After all someone has to! Just don’t expect your customers to do so. They’ll pat you on the back, give you figurative high fives, maybe even the occasional real one, if and when their expectations are consistently met and exceeded.

From the customer’s perspective, you are there to serve them and they’re not wrong. They chose your business to meet a need and they expect it to be met, regardless of the logistical challenges behind it.

Sometimes Bad News is Better than No News

The bad newsAbout two weeks ago, I woke up, checked my emails and learned the phones went down at the hotel sometime during the night. Nobody could call in or out. I immediately went in.  Our night audit team had called our telecommunications company and they reported the problem was not on their end.  That meant it must be our phone system.  I called them and in less than an hour a technician was at the hotel.  Long story short … the problem was with our telecommunications provider, not the phone system. There were large scale outages being reported and equipment was being replaced.  About five hours later, the phones came back on line.

Two nights ago work called just after 1:00 am.  The internet was down at the hotel, again a disruption to business.  Not as severe as if it had happened in the middle of the day, but never-the-less, something that needed to be looked into.  Once again, the staff working the desk had called our telecommunications provider and been told the problem was not on their end.  So I got up and went in to work.  I called the 24 hour service line for our telecommunications company thinking … “they were wrong last time, maybe they are again”.  After waiting for quite a while for my turn to talk to someone, I went through the drill, sharing our account number, business address and description of the problem.  I was also told that all systems at the hotel showed green on their end; therefore the problem was on our end. At which point, I very nicely shared with them the story about the phone incident in which we were told the problem was on our end when in fact it was theirs and asked if there was any way they could dig deeper.  Less than two minutes later,  I received an apology and was advised that yes, in fact the problem was on their end.  Outages were being experienced, equipment was being replaced and all should be back up and running within the next five to six hours.  It was back up again in less than two hours.

Why am I sharing this story with you?  Because it’s such a great example of how to frustrate customers!  When the phone system was down, I would periodically check the companies website to see if any status updates were being provided to customers.  Nothing.  The only reference to the outages I found on-line were by frustrated, angry customers, with part of the frustration attributed to not having any information and being stuck waiting to talk to someone at a call centre only to be told …nothing.

Which brings me to the call / service centre.  Is the service team trained to look beyond the quick and perhaps usual reason for the problem?  In scenario two, I asked the person to dig deeper, he did and in no time at all, recognized his first response was incorrect. If I had accepted his first response, additional calls and needless searching for the source of the problem would have resulted in wasted time and even more frustration.

Beyond the training question, I have to wonder why the outages were not reported to the service centre.  While knowing when and how to dig deeper for an answer to a customer problem is important, wouldn’t it be better to give them a heads up so that when a frustrated customer called, they would be able to immediately respond with accurate information?

Of course, it’s not just telecommunications companies that fall down when it comes to managing bad news or frustrated customers.  When something goes wrong, when customers are going to experience service disruptions, say so. Be upfront, acknowledge the frustration, apologize for the inconvenience and share information on when they can expect service to be restored.  If you can, and this doesn’t apply to all businesses, let your customers know of alternative places to get the service they need in the interim.

Share all of that same information with the people who are responsible for responding to reports and questions from customers.

Outages happen. Stuff happens. Whatever the disruption is, understand that your customer is inconvenienced.  It may or may not be because of an error on your end.  It doesn’t matter whose fault it is.  Whatever the reason, know what information your customer needs and be prepared to share it. Acknowledge their frustration, keep them informed and if possible, provide alternative solutions.

In many cases, how you manage the service disruption has a bigger impact on a customer’s continued loyalty than the disruption itself.