Listening: Giving the Customer Control

Listening:  Giving the Customer ControlListening patiently to a customer gives them a feeling of control. Customers want to know they are uniquely important and their specific needs are being attended to. They don’t want to feel trapped because you are trying to sell them something. After all, selling is not about offering customers a long list of inventory, but discovering what the customer wants.  How to achieve that goal?  By engaging the customer in a meaningful and personal dialog. If you spend the time to listen, you will give the customer that special feeling they come first.

Listening Pays Big Rewards

Joe Girard is the world record-holder for selling cars. He began in 1963 at a Chevrolet dealership in Detroit and retired in 1977. While the average salesperson sold seven cars a month, nationwide, Joe sold six automobiles or trucks a day. He bested himself with a whopping eighteen cars sold in just one day! Joe gave such special attention to each customer that soon there was a line outside his office with people waiting to see him. He finally started making appointments to ensure each customer would get his undivided attention.  Obviously, Mr. Girard’s attention was worth the wait.  Joe said, “people may have had to wait for an appointment, but when I was with them, I was with them body and soul.”

E-mails: Listening In-between the Lines

Our firm conducts various types of best-in-class research projects for our clients. One company wanted to know how their service and support for email responses compared to those of twenty other companies, each customer service leaders in their respective fields.  Ten different email inquiries were developed to send to the target companies and the speed and specific responses were measured.

In one scenario, the test email began, “I just had a baby and have a question about your product.” Only one of companies said “Congratulations on the birth of your child!” Obviously the underlying emotion was ignored.  It is even easier to pay attention to an email than a conversation. You have an opportunity to re-read the email. It’s less awkward than asking the customer to repeat what they just said. Another test email asked, “My dog accidentally chewed and digested part of your packaging.  Do I need to worry?” Several of the companies answered almost instantly with a reply, “please take your dog to a veterinarian.”  Good reply.  Two of the companies responded with that same message, but not until two weeks later.  Listening is not just listening. Listening is acting upon what you have heard.  In this case, offering such a slow response to a potential emergency might actually communicate less caring on the company’s part than if there had been no response at all.

What Listening Signals are You Missing?

Anyone remember the great Groucho Marx show, ”You Bet Your Life?”  Any contestant who mentioned the magic word of the day would be rewarded with a prize and a rubber duck falling from the ceiling celebrating the moment.  When I was doing research for my first book, I would frequently make a statement, a “magic phrase” to determine if a sales associate was a good listener.  It’s an opening to engage the customer.

  • This is my first time in your store
  • I just moved into the neighborhood
  • My friend suggested I might like your merchandise
  • I’ve never used your website before
  • This is the first time I have called your contact center
  • I have been buying this since I was a teenager

A representative who answers with just an okay, that’s nice, or says nothing at all, has missed a golden opportunity to start a dialog critical to securing repeat business.  You never know where the conversation may lead.  Maybe the person just moved from your hometown.  My son, Mike, is in the restaurant business and likes to engage his guests. A customer came into his brasserie and after being greeted by my son, both realized they remembered each other.  The gentleman was the little-league coach from our hometown.  They had a great time catching up the last twenty years.  If Mike had not bothered to say hello, they would have missed the chance for a special encounter.

Listen with your ears and your heart.  Then respond.  Make the customer feel respected and important.  When you pay attention you can hear the underlying emotion and then establish a human-to-human connection that has the potential to last a long time.

What are some ways you show your customers that you’re listening?

The Smart Phone: A Blessing or a Curse for Customer Service?

Get off of the phone, you're in customer serviceBrands have capitalized the smart phone and can provide customers with more personalized and real time service.  Customers receive alerts on their phones about an upcoming promotion, an actual coupon or that a store just got in that must have new item.  So what’s the downside?  Has the mobile device contributed to the ruination of customer service?  It seems that too many front line associates are more concerned with their own social media world than listening and communicating with a customer.

When was the last time you walked into a restaurant, bank, or store and didn’t see a person on their phone who should have been paying attention to you? Even at check out counters, a clerk, while busy scanning your items, is even busier on their phone making plans for the evening.

Customers are actually guilty too; paying for items or following a hostess in a restaurant chatting away with their friends, kids, or making a dental appointment.  The phone is mobile, that is the point.  However, I cannot imagine my father who had a retail clothing store when I was growing up, on the phone while he was selling one of his customers a new sweater.

The problem is evident and obvious.  When a frontline associate is looking at or talking on a mobile device, it is impossible to provide full attention to anything else, including a customer.  How can anyone answer a question or ask how they can help if they are doing something else?  It is a scientific fact that the brain can only focus on one thing at a time.  Therefore, multitasking is actually impossible.  When a customer is not being given complete attention from an employee it is an automatic signal of disrespect.

So, how do we solve this problem?  Everything comes from the top so the resolution starts with management.  They, too, cannot be on their phones.  Additionally, policy protocols must be put into effect.  Maybe there needs to be more timeouts/coffee breaks so everyone can text, search the internet, or post the latest photo.  There must be a paradigm shift; first priority has to be customer service.  We all understand that frontline associates need to communicate with the outside world but there is a time and place for everything.  It’s not a punishment, but a good way to bring back neighborly customer service.

I’m searching for recommendations to share with business owners and executives.  What have you implemented that works?

Welcome Customers As Guests in Your Home

Welcomer customers as guests into your homeWelcoming a customer is first and foremost. When a customer communicates with your contact center, visits your website, or walks into a store, it’s as if that person were coming into your home. The contact center, website and physical store are, in fact, the home of the company.  Welcoming a customer on the phone or in person is really no different than if you were inviting a friend or neighbor into your own home, especially if it’s the first time.

When I lead customer service workshops and introduce the concept of welcoming, I have the participants break off into small groups and role-play. The scene is a block party and each individual takes a turn as the host. The goal is to share ideas of what they would say or do to make new guests feel welcome in his or her home.

Some suggestions from the groups have been:

  • Smile and say hello
  • Offer to hang up their coat
  • Bring their guest a drink
  • Give a tour
  • Show family photos
  • Ask questions about their guest – where did they grow up?  How long have they lived in the neighborhood?

These are all ways of showing a person you want them to feel welcomed.  Jeff Bezos of Amazon said, “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”  This way of thinking just makes sense.

So why do some companies create an environment where customers dread calling them? Even with a simple question, customers fear the automated voice message with ten menu options or a surly associate who may have no idea how to help.  Doesn’t it make sense to realize that if a customer is calling, they have an interest in your company?  If the customer feels welcomed during the conversation, there is a better chance of them doing business with your organization and buying your products.

The other day, I overheard two women talking with each other.  One of them had just called a doctor’s office recommended by her neighbor.  She was telling her friend that the receptionist was so friendly and nice and that in her experience, it meant that the doctor would also be sympathetic and caring.  How important was that first interaction?  It made all the difference in securing her business.

Everything about the first impression should give the customer hope. Making people feel comfortable is the first step in establishing an emotional connection, which helps create a relationship for continued business.  If you establish that first impression by making the customer feel welcomed into your home, you are sure to foster a lasting relationship.

What are some ways your company welcomes your customers?

My 2015 Customer Service Wish List

2015 Customer Service Wish ListA new year brings resolutions and wish lists and here are my wishes for customer service in 2015:

  1. When someone answers the phone or greets me in a store, they welcome me, just like they would welcome me into their home.
  2. If I call Customer Service and am put on hold, I am given the estimated wait time with an additional option of calling me back.
  3. Whenever I have a question, don’t tell me “no” or  “can’t.” Rather, let me know how you can help.
  4. When I go into a store or restaurant, every employee gives me his/her full attention. That means not being on a cell phone or talking with a co-worker.
  5. Check-out counters are sufficiently staffed so the wait is no longer than five minutes. If I have to wait, an associate will make eye contact, say hello and tell me that he/she will be with me soon.
  6. I will never receive another email that says, “Do not reply.”
  7. When I give a company my email address, I will not receive emails every day or even every week.
  8. Customer service representatives will not only be friendly, but able to educate me about products and services.
  9. I will be noticed and acknowledged either as a regular or first time customer.
  10. Companies will do something to show that my business still matters days or weeks after I purchase something.

What wishes do you have for better customer service in 2015?

Should E-Commerce Sites Open Physical Stores?

Should E-Commerce Sites Open Physical StoresThe answer is yes, if you are Warby Parker and have a developed a successful online business model.

I read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Business Section everyday; both papers have excellent articles.  Front page of the Journal a few weeks ago was a story by Douglas MacMillan focused on Warby Parker, the popular fashion eyewear manufacturer.  The company was a startup in 2010 and only an ecommerce site until 2013 when their first store was opened in New York City.

Warby Parker was new to me.  Our friends told us about their website when we complimented their new glasses one night at dinner.  They were excited about Warby’s business/service model and explained about the home “try-on” program allowing customers to select five favorite pairs and wear them for five days.  Then one or more frames can be selected and ordered with a customized prescription.  Our friends were impressed with Warby’s donation of one frame to charity for every pair they sell.  We discussed their mission to be socially conscious and creation of good will.

Reading The Wall Street Journal article further piqued my interest.  My focus is customer service so several things stood out and got my attention:

  • By having physical stores, Warby Parker is able to significantly reduce costs for shipping and handling.  The retail store locations have been selected in cities that match their target market. That makes sense.
  • Brick and mortar stores have the potential for more personalized service. Retail consultant, Bruce Cohen, from Kurt Salmon, says “Consumers want to be talked to in a personal way – Once you get a good retail Sherpa – your curator of good taste and fashion that knows you- you become incredibly loyal.”
  • Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal, the original Warby Parker founders, learned early on that customers wanted to try on frames before they bought them. When the company first started, the two invited customers into Mr. Blumenthal’s apartment, where they laid out glasses on the dining room table. “They loved being able to touch and feel the product” providing the foundation for online choices and brick and mortar store locations.”
  • Their newest store in San Francisco will have sales people, called “advisors” who will roam the showroom “in designer jackets and fine-tuned spectacles.”  I’m confident these sales associates will not only look good, but know their merchandise and customers too.

Amazon plans to open its first physical store in New York any day now. I know they will learn from their successful online retailer counterpart.  Warby has focused on personalizing service and giving the customer what they want, no matter the channel.  Warby Parker is in the eyewear business and has its eyes focused on creating the best customer experience.

What the Coffee Shop can Teach Us

What the Coffee Shop can Teach Us  I love to go into a neighborhood coffee shop, stand back and observe.  Watching the interactions between regular customers and the staff behind the counter tells a wonderful story.  There are big smiles in every direction and the associates know each customer’s preferences: how the coffee should be prepared, really strong or not, little milk, half and half, natural or artificial sweeteners. The best and most important thing is that everyone knows each other’s names.  Most towns have more than one coffee house; Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Mary’s Bakery, Harry’s Deli but more often than not, customers will drive that extra mile to get their cup of joe and make sure that their own special person behind the counter will be there to start their day. The coffee shop has created a customized customer experience.

There is more to generating customer loyalty than customer satisfaction.  A critical component of loyalty is creating a human connection. The more automated our society becomes, the greater the need to determine how, where and when that human connection can be made. Technology has made our lives easier, more productive and yes, more fun, but we miss out if we don’t take time to smell the roses. What’s the point, if we don’t take a moment and reach out, literally, to touch someone?

How does this translate to customer service?  I think that our human spirit cannot be removed and customers are not happy with endless robotic encounters.  In my first book, The Welcomer Edge:  Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business, I tell the story about working in my dad’s clothing store when I was young.  It’s where I learned my passion for customer service.  My father saw all customers as people first, customers second.  He would never ask first, “ How can I help you?”  He would find out about their weekend or recent vacation, if their son is doing well in college.  My dad was much more interested in the customer’s state of mind than their method of payment.  If my father was alive today and still had his store, I know he would be successful even with the competition of large retail malls, cool websites and the technology revolution.

Create your own learning experience.  Stop by a local coffee shop and survey the landscape.  Watch what’s going on.  You can learn a lot about the customer experience, perhaps even more than reading the newest best seller on the subject.

15 for 2015 – Customer Service Trends

Customer Service Trends for 2015A new year is approaching and time to tap into what’s here and now.  What should your company focus be to make it the best?  All businesses, any size, any industry should examine some of the trends I see.

1.    Chat is here to stay

More brands than ever before are offering chat as an option to ask questions and discuss issues. This doesn’t mean that fewer consumers will be emailing or calling; it indicates that companies will now have the opportunity to interact with more people who would have not contacted them at all.

2.    Customers expect help when they need it and that means 24/7

Customers have the expectation of around the clock service.  Whether or not you’re a global organization, sunrise to sunset service is what’s in. Corporations may need to extend hours or outsource their calls for after-hour support to accommodate this growing desire for 24/7 service.

3.    Reward your employees who reward your customers

It will be a vital component of every business model to calculate the ROI of frontline associates and determine those who should be rewarded.  Businesses are developing targeted programs to recognize employees who are instrumental in creating and maintaining customer relationships. Since loyalty can begin and end at the employee level, these reward programs are essential to success.

4.    Brick and mortar and online retail is blending

Companies recognize that shopping online and in the store must not only be consistent but integrated. Whether the initial interaction was online or at the retail store, the experience should be seamless. Every interaction must be easy, personalized and coordinated to meet the needs of the individual customer.

5.    Customers want to be brand loyal, but will quickly jump ship

It’s simply human nature to resist change.  Therefore, customers are predisposed to loyalty but will seek out the competition if they are not welcomed, listened to and treated with respect. It’s almost impossible to get customers to return once they feel unappreciated.

6.    NPS, Customer Effort Score, and CSAT are all valid but…

One measure is not enough when it comes to customers because one size doesn’t fit all.  It is vital to evaluate the customer experience. Obtaining specific feedback and using it to improve is golden. One number doesn’t always tell the whole story in spite of what any proprietary research may show.

7.    Response time has become just as important as the actual response

This is a critical piece of the puzzle.  A major indicator of an organization’s efficiency and commitment to customer service is the lag time between a customer’s question and the answer.  The longer it takes to respond can directly impact how a customer feels about your company.  Make your customers feel important and respond timely.

8.    Establish customer service guidelines, not rules

Inflexibility breeds unhappy customers.  Creating adaptable, thoughtful guidelines and eliminating stubborn rules is a cornerstone of good customer service.  Empowering your employees to make decisions within those guidelines completes the package.

9.    Text messaging is the new business tool

The banking and airline industry have been leaders in leveraging text messaging to proactively service their customers.  In 2015, more businesses will begin to follow suit.   But beware of going too far. Use your judgment and utilize text messaging wisely.

10. Customer reviews are king

Where are customers getting their information about hotels, restaurants, etc.?  They look at reviews on sites like Trip Advisor to evaluate where they want to stay or eat.  More establishments are concentrating on increasing their reviews in all business arenas. But be cautious, consumers are wary of paid ads on review sites that tout doing business with certain recommended establishments.

11. Invest in technology to improve the customer experience

Even budget conscious organizations are finding the need to invest in technology to enhance the customer experience and create seamless service delivery for an integrated channel approach. Spend the dollars to differentiate yourself.

12. “Please call us” responses in social media are so 2014

When consumers post a question or complaint on a brand’s social media site, the days of asking them to call you are coming to an end.  Consumers expect a response in the same channel of communication.  If your brand has a Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. page and you invite consumers to interact, then companies truly need to respond; that’s the definition of interaction.

13. Once you opt-in, you can never opt-out?

The answer is NO.  I can’t stress this enough.  Customers expect it to be as easy to opt-out of communication as it is to sign up. Having a transparent and simple way to opt-out for all channels; text, email, and phone will eliminate frustration.

14. Engage your employees to get the competitive edge

According to a recent Gallop survey, 63% of global workers are not engaged and 24% are actively disengaged.  Employee engagement, creating an environment of participation and involvement goes a long way to generating a competitive edge and research has shown a positive impact on customer satisfaction.

15. The customer experience continues after the transaction

Last but certainly not least, it makes good business sense that a transaction does not end when the cash register closes.  In fact, it’s only the beginning. Customers must be shown they are still relevant when the transaction is complete.

Competition is stiff and companies have to be on the cutting edge.  2015 is around the corner and the choice is to rocket and climb or just maintain. Which option does your company want to choose? Here’s to a great new year!

Would Your Customers Work for Your Company?

Would Your Customers Work for Your Company?Content and satisfied associates make happy customers. When I shop, it’s easy to know if employees are being treated well.

An article was written in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Morath, detailing that many retailers are using their Twitter feeds to find prospective hires.  According to Kelly Purves, VP of Human Resources at BevMo, the strategy is helping to attract customers that “have the passion for the products” and that passion is wanted in employees as well.  Kevin Knapp, Container Store’s head of recruiting, says, ”Our customers are huge proponents of our brand.  If they’re not looking for an opportunity (to work) they might pass it on to someone who is.”  Carter’s Inc., began advertising seasonal jobs this year through an email blast, asking customers to be a “holiday helper.”

With the understanding that it is the holiday season and additional employees are required for the short-term, it is important to recognize the underlying theme of hiring people who have a passion for your product.  Passion produces engagement, which in turn creates satisfied customers.  Years ago, my wife was working for a large company that sold fabric to the Garment Industry.  She travelled a great deal and used National Car Rental because she loved the service and the people at the counter who helped her.  When a position for an Account Manager became available at National Car Rental, she immediately applied and was offered the job on the spot.  If a customer wants to work for a company they do business with, that’s a real feather in that company’s hat.

My son started a successful business called Peace Love Tacos. He sells tacos at large music festivals such as Bonnaroo, Coachella and Electric Forest.  This September he was a vendor at the Maker Faire in Flushing Meadow in New York so we had the opportunity to see his operation up close.  The tacos were delicious!  His staff worked hard and they all were lively, happy, singing.  Almost tasted like the food was infused with their enthusiasm.   I knew his frontline associates were a strong, satisfied team and I was very proud of my son for creating such a positive working environment. His long line of customers were glad, too.

Executives should ask themselves the question: “would our customers want to work for us? “ The answer should be yes, during the busy holiday season and every other day of the year, too.

Selling Beauty Products: The Customer Experience in Reverse

Selling-beauty-productsIn the lucrative cosmetics business, it has been documented that many customers first go online to look for products and then travel to the store to find real experts.  Nancy Hastings, Vice President for Sales & Education for Tom Ford Beauty, said the company sells double the items per transaction at the beauty counter as it does online.

Bee Shapiro (no relation) recently wrote an article in The New York Times, sub-titled, “with technology and star talent, brick and mortar stores offer perks to compete with online retailers.”  Beauty products that enhance always hold great allure for both men and women and many high-end retailers are investing in the customer experience at the store.  “Customers, perhaps inspired by how-to videos, now expect better-trained counter staff,” and many companies are complying.  Alexandra Papazian, the Senior VP for marketing at YSL Beaute says, “in some ways the lines between the department store beauty shopping and e-commerce are blurring. A customer might notice something on a website first and then go to the store. You need to excel in both areas.”

All retailers should take note. Brick and mortar can still flourish and be profitable but experienced, tenured employees are a must.   Communicating with a live chat agent while visiting a website is helpful, but when it comes to selecting products for your skin and face, there is no substitute for the personal touch.

Does this concept only apply to those companies selling pricey cosmetics that have equally pricey profit margins?  No, personalized service by an experienced and service-oriented associate helps sales today and tomorrow no matter what the product.  Building customer loyalty takes multiple steps.  It requires a welcoming attitude, listening to what the customer needs and inviting them to return.

According to the article, customers reported, that, “gentle guidance, more instructive than the old-fashioned hard sell is worth the trip to the store.” If retailers want to survive and be successful it is necessary to make every customer feel that traveling by car, train, bus or subway, taking the time to go to the store, is worth the journey.

6 Reasons To Pay Your Frontline Associates More

6-reasons-to-pay-frontline-associates-moreKip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store, a home-organization retailer, says frontline associates should be paid more. Although Container Store sales and stock recently took a hit, he has no plan to change his employee compensation philosophy or policy, according to a Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Fentzeig.

I think Mr. Kip Tendell’s credo regarding his employees is sensible; in fact what he espouses just makes good common sense.

  1. One Person is Worth Three: Kip says that a foundational principal of The Container Store is that “one equals three;” one great person can be as productive as three others.  He goes on to say that if a company believes in that rule then by definition an employee can be paid 50 to 100 percent above the industry average.
  2. Let’s keep our super stars: The Container Stores wants to keep good people. That makes sense too. With services and products becoming so much more complex, consumers relish experience and want to interact with confident frontline associates.  In The Container Store paradigm, employees are given large annual increases based on their individual contributions.  In other words they are rewarded on their ROI.
  3. Provide Employees Quality Feedback: Employees are reviewed on an annual basis and their managers spend four or five hours not only providing feedback, but discussing each of the performance criteria in detail. This allows the manager and employee to study the overall assessment and create improvement plans that work.
  4. Motivate Entry Level Associates: Entry-level associates are reviewed and given increases after the first three months. While everyone appreciates a salary bump, Kip says getting a raise when first starting a career is a great motivator. It’s another way that The Container Store attracts good people to apply for positions within the company.
  5. Employees Recommend Future Co-Workers:  The Container Store does not rely on Human Resources for the employee pool but encourages current associates to recommend individuals.  This system has worked well. There are no rules about relatives not being recruited.  Kip’s wife, Sharon, is the Chief Merchandising Officer.  Certainly this is thinking outside the box.  Associates have suggested interviewing a waiter they met at a restaurant whose customer service skills were great or a friend who they know would be a good fit for the company.
  6. Maintain Your Principles During Good Times and Bad: When asked about the recent stock decline, Kip states emphatically that he will not compromise his principles even when same-store sales are lower.  There is always fluctuation and bumps in the road.  Doing what a company believes is right is the constant.

Kip Tindell will become the new incoming Chairman of the National Retail Federation in a few months.  It will be interesting to see if his leadership will influence those retailers who are satisfied with paying frontline associates either minimum wage or slightly above to meet the P&L. The Container Store epitomizes “Penny-wise, pound foolish.”   Kip understands “you get what you pay for.” I’m looking forward to reading his new book, Un-containable. I know it will be an interesting read and a great tutorial for all retail establishments.