Profiting from CustServ: Know Your Customer

This post is from Penni Wells, our Leadership Quantified Expert in internal and external Customer Service - and, particularly, how to profit from the big and little things that you can do...starting now.
Today I forgot to bring lunch to the office, so I wandered over to the 7-Eleven convenience store on the corner. It was there I was reminded, once again, that effective customer service - which is even more profitable in the long run - is the result of people in tune with their jobs and with their customers. The rest just comes naturally. 

Purchasing my favorite tuna sandwich and a bottle of water from the gentlemen who I often see at the counter, I took my change and said “Thank you”.  As I was turning to leave he said “Thank you, mija.”* 

I couldn’t help but smile.

First, at fifty-mmfph years of age, I am nowhere near a mija, but I had been in the store with friends a few weeks earlier when the same man was at the counter. He had referred to me then as "mija." I had smiled, remarked how pleased I was that his eyesight was so poor and thanked him for making my day. We all laughed and left the store.

Although I'm quite sure I'm not the only one who receives such flattery there, it was clear today that he remembered the exchange and me. Even more compelling was that I saw actual children making purchases, yet he did not refer to any of them with any sort of label. 

I walked back to my office marveling at how smart this is! Adults like to feel younger and children like to feel older, no matter how old we are. But the respect shown in NOT referring to the kids as mija/mijo and the obvious flattery of a ‘mija’ tossed in my direction was not only fun for me, but good for business.

Here’s how I know –
Although early in the day and late in the afternoon the store can get crowded with kids from the nearby middle-school, it never seems overrun or out of control. People of all ages seem to be there and everyone gets helped.  
There are three other establishments within 50 feet that offer many of the same or similar items, and two of them are often empty when I walk by.
Our office is near a corner, but can be a little tricky to find. When providing directions we have a tendency to say “the third building over” or “next to the Café” (an establishment we all frequent as well). But I find myself saying, “Two doors down from the 7-Eleven.” True, it’s an obvious indicator, but I use it as a landmark because of the sense of connectedness I feel with this particular store.
So what does this mean to you, as a small business owner - or, for that matter, anyone who works with the public? Stores in this particular chain are franchise owned. Although they are identified with 7-Eleven, Inc. each has to make its own way to gain market share in their area. And even the busiest store can suffer losses (in merchandize, time, return customers) if the climate and the culture are not tuned in with its constituency. 

I have no idea what kind or extent of customer service training 7-Eleven, Inc. provides its franchise owners or their employees. I do know that in 2006 there was a shift in company culture to "Servant Leadership" with the “I C.A.R.E. About People and Teamwork” program - but I don’t know how much influence this had or has on our particular store on the corner.

What's more important - and is very clear - is that the behavior of the staff and the culture in this store are not the result of a corporate initiative, campaign or contest. The management and staff of this store understand their client base and manifest that understanding through engaging with customers, respectfully, exactly where they are. 
* Slang of the Spanish phrase mi-hija or little daughter. Used as a term of endearment for young women. Mijo is the male equivalent.

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Customer Service: Increase Profitability by Evaluating Your Customers

I'm a great fan of Penni Wells, our Leadership Quantified Expert specializing in customer service - both internal and external. No matter what industry or sector your organization is in - or how old or what size, for that matter - her insight is always on target and directly applies as much to customer contact through your call centers and front line staff as to your dealings with suppliers and all your internal relationships. 

I'm happy to announce that Penni will be contributing posts to the blog every other week - starting now. Enjoy!
Have you ever wondered why your customers are visiting your place of business? It's safe to assume that you have something they need or your presentation - b2b or b2c - was so compelling that you garnered their interest enough to find out more.

The question then becomes: How do you turn that initial level of interest into a sale?

That's the secret of really good customer service. It's what makes customer service a profit generator rather than ill-defined, passive and reactionary.

It's all about evaluating and knowing your customers' needs - before they ever walk in the door - then training and deploying your staff to fulfill those needs in a way that fits your customers' needs and preferences.

The easiest way to explain is to use a retail example - but this works for any sales opportunity.

Case Study - Customer Demographics and the Christmas Gifts

Last Christmas, I was shopping for one last gift for each of my two adult sons in a clothing store they both particularly like that caters to men in their 20's. I hadn't shopped in the store before and although I had the basic parameters (i.e., their sizes and color preferences), past that I was clueless.

What really perplexed me was the merchandizing. I love to shop and am all about displays and presentation, but on entering the store, I was flying blind! The "looks" were displayed in ways I couldn't make any sense of.

I gave up trying to find something for one son and began searching for an item for the other. Finally - success! A baseball-sleeve type shirt to match his blue eyes! Perfect!!

Then I realized the "M" didn't look so "M."

Upon closer inspection I saw the tag read: "Medium - Women." I had stumbled into the Ladies Section - which was really strange because looking at the store as I walked in, I would have sworn there was no Ladies Section at all!

I hastily put the shirt back, looking around sheepishly as if someone might have seen my error. It was then I noticed a few other parent-types who looked as confused as I, wandering among the perfectly happy, younger shoppers the store was designed for.

By this time I was curious to see how long it would take for someone to offer to help me. A few moments later a woman, who seemed far more frustrated than I at that point, was noticed by a sales associate who came to help her. Within a few seconds I was approached by an extremely kind young man who offered to help me – which took me by surprise at first because he was dressed like the shoppers in the store and had no name tag or store identifier of any kind. Thankfully, he understood what I was looking for, was quick to help me and I was able to make my purchases and leave with a sense of success.

So what’s the point of all this? Is it that:
  • Stores should merchandize differently so that older relatives can find stuff?
  • Women's sections should be easily identified?
  • Sales folks should wear name tags?
No. It’s actually none of these. It’s about maximizing productivity and customer satisfaction by training and deploying sales staff to achieve the greatest, most profitable results.

So, to go back to our example, here’s how management could have evaluated the customer base along with the actions/deployment they could have assigned their staff:

The Primary Market: Men my sons’ ages. They know what they want or they’ve already bought it on-line and are there to pick it up.
  • Action/Deployment: None. They don’t want or need help.
The Secondary Market: Women in the same age group. They also know where they’re going because they’ve visited the store before or are there with a friend.
  • Action/Deployment: If they need help, they’ll ask. Otherwise, if they’re there simply to browse or hang out, leave them to it. No action necessary.
Anyone Not Within Those Groups:  Anyone who looks like a parent, comes in with a parent or has small kids in tow is part of this group. Trust me. We’re there to buy something, exchange something or return something. We can tell you what we need in 30 seconds and be out in 10 minutes - but we need your help. 
  • Action/Deployment: Train staff to acknowledge people as they come in the store. This DOES NOT mean saying the same rote greeting to everyone who enters. It DOES mean acknowledging each customer as they enter – because then staff can do that quick assessment and will know what to do next: i.e. smile and nod; say a friendly ‘Hello’; or immediately approach the customer and offer help.
Make sure staff who are re-stocking or otherwise on the floor are on the lookout for this group and that all employees have name tags - because otherwise, the staff look like customers and the real customers don’t know who to ask for help unless the employees are standing at the counter.

This kind of evaluation and management action results in:
  1. Customers served in ways that best suit their needs,
  2. Employees increasing and improving their own experience and skill-sets in serving different customer types, and
  3. Increased morale and motivation for employees based on job satisfaction and, where applicable, increased commission.
Simultaneously, the company gains:
  1. Happy customers relating their positive experiences to others
  2. Successful salespeople who get better at their jobs with each customer interaction
  3. Staff who have the skill and energy to repeat great service time after time...
...all of which leads to higher productivity, sales per employee and profitability.

After all, you’re using the same number of sales staff but ensuring their time is well-spent targeting those customers who will generate sales as a result of the interaction.

This store is part of a successful chain with over 20 stores. They carry quality merchandise, their prices match those of their competitors - and it was Christmas, when the competition is particularly fierce. Had the staff known how to evaluate those of us in the store and interacted with us accordingly, faster sales and more cheerful customers would have been the result.

I expect that a number of sales that they lost wouldn’t have walked out the door either.

It’s worth taking the time to do the kind of evaluation described here - and to train your staff to look at who your customer groups are, why they most likely came into your establishment and how best to fulfill their needs. That way, the minute they walk in the door, they’ll be met with a customer experience they won’t expect - and will never find from your competitors.
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Company Morale: Whose Job Is It Anyway?

One of the biggest, seemingly amorphous, challenges that business owners and executives face is how to create "high company morale." The problem is, very few know exactly what that is ('we'll know it when we see it' really doesn't work) and even fewer know how to create and maintain it.

Penni Wells, the Leadership Quantified Expert in Customer Service, not only weighs in on this issue but gives you a very clear, behavioral path to high morale...from an unexpected source.
Given my line of work I'm particularly interested in the subject of company morale. That's because a company’s morale is a barometer of its dedication to its primary Internal Customers: its employees – ALL employees –  from the most senior, senior executive to the most recent new-hire.

So, I want to start with a two-part working definition of morale - a definition that applies to and involves everyone. Morale is the:
  1. Emotional manifestation of the overall culture of a company set by those at the top which, at any given moment...
  2. Can be and is a part of everyone’s responsibilities.
Here's an example of how I know - and how you can change what the morale looks and feels like in your organization right now:

Many years ago I was making the rounds during a company holiday party. As I approached one table to greet a friend I noticed that at her table were, among others, a new department manager and another staff personal nemesis.   

The table was large enough that I could greet my friend and even introduce myself to the new manager without addressing anyone else, which would have been fine with me! My nemesis and I had known one another for over a decade. Although we saw one another rarely and only worked together on the odd committee, 95 percent of the time we just rubbed each other the wrong way. We would invariably end up in an argument over something trivial making everyone in our presence roll their eyes. The only vindication I had was that there were many in the organization on whom he had the same effect. 

So what was he doing at this table? And how was I going to avoid being gracious to him?

As I chatted with my friend, making small talk with the new manager, I caught a glimpse of my Moriarty...sitting across the table alone and scowling. Just sitting there, scowling.

And suddenly I realized I had the opportunity, at that moment, to do the right thing. 

Finishing up my conversations, I walked to the other side of the table, tapped him on the shoulder and spent a few moments chatting with him. Seeing his face when I spoke to him, I knew I had done the right thing. His scowl turned to a genuine smile as we recalled other holiday parties.

And not only did he smile, but the feeling around the table ramped up as well.

The fact is, I could have left the table without speaking to him and it wouldn’t have seemed rude to anyone else. Even he wouldn’t have found it unusual. But by seeing the opportunity and following through, it made for a bright moment for both of us - and, by extension, for the others, too. It was good for his morale, for mine and for the organization’s.

We still never agreed on much and he remained my organizational nemesis. But it brought home the impact we all have on one another.

And that's how you begin - now - to change the morale in your organization to what you want it to be.

Morale is the embodiment of tolerance and civility.

It's demonstrated and maintained by expecting, recognizing and rewarding professional thoughtfulness despite differences, competition and the natural impact of downturns and upswings. 

This doesn’t mean treating everyone the same, particularly in an organization reliant on hierarchy. It does mean respecting every position in the organization – even if the person in it doesn’t match your style. 

And as challenging as it first may seem, the benefit is an organization that functions more smoothly and maintains a steadiness that is difficult to acquire any other way.

How to Lose Customers in One Easy Lesson

Today I was talking to my oldest friend in the world, Lori, bemoaning the state of customer service these days.

Why? Because both Customer Service Representatives and their Supervisors are liars.

Who were we talking about in particular? For me it was Kohl's and the Daily Journal. For Lori it was Chico's. For both of us, it decided us that we weren't going to bring our business back to those organizations.

Where did these problems take place? Ah. Now that's a very important part of this story. The problems all took place online and on the phone.

What happened? Without boring you with all the details, what it came down to in all cases was that we:

  1. Made a purchase - both in person and online - with which we subsequently had a problem
  2. Used the various organizations' online and telephone customer service solutions - from "Live Chat" to live people
  3. Eventually spoke with a Supervisor because the Customer Service Reps were unable - or unwilling - to solve the problem for us
  4. Got a promise from the Supervisor that the problem would be solved to our satisfaction
  5. Nothing happened - whether the Supervisor made note of the conversation or not.
What makes these experiences even more ridiculous is that each purchase that Lori and I were discussing was under $100. If the companies involved had a brain cell working, they'd simply empower their Customer Service Reps to be able to solve the problem on first contact for up to that amount.

Why don't they? Because their management is scared. They don't trust their employees - which means, in fact, they don't trust their hiring processes, their training or their managers to supervise.

It's not about the employees. It's about the management systems.

And from a competitive perspective, as a result of those policies and practices, they're actively reducing profitability, shareholder value and market position.

The truly fascinating part - and the one their management would never admit - is that they believe they exist in a vacuum. That they're the only place that a customer would want to go to find whatever it is they offer. That customers have no other choices.

Not only is that thinking wrong, it's short-sighted and, frankly, stupid.

But, based on the way they treat their customers, they don't seem to be worried that their policies leading to customer frustration and dissatisfaction have no impact on their bottom line.

So, when you see that you're losing customers, take a quick look at your customer service policies and practices - because it's a good bet that that's where you're losing them. In the customer experience.

And, as you can see from Lori's and my experience, no matter how long-standing a customer we may have been, it only takes once - and we're not coming back. 

Innovation and Culture: Lessons Learned from a Women's Prison

Did you know that if you combine face cream and coffee, you can make a mock-mascara?

Or that, using that same cream combined with some grape juice and a bit of the wax from the inside of the juice carton stirred well, you can make a workable lipstick?

I'll bet you didn't.  Why would you?  After all, you can just go down to your local store and buy what you need.  There's no reason to make it from scratch - and particularly not from such an odd combination of ingredients.  Not for you.

But for women in prison, this is how they create makeup.  They may be living in someone else's "house" during their incarceration - with rules that say 'no makeup allowed' - but, because they want to look and feel as good about themselves as possible, they find a way.

Even more than that, they teach each other the 'quality of life' tricks they've learned - even orienting the newbies who come in unprepared for all that this particular version of an off-site will have to offer.

Why, you may be wondering, am I telling you about makeup in women's prisons?

Because what you're looking at is, in fact, the culture you want manifest in your organization.

Take the emotion-laden part out of the story and what you see is people who:

  1. Want a particular outcome and find creative ways to make it happen,  
  2. Do so within a system that doesn't support innovation in any form, and
  3. Share it with others so that the benefit of their creativity grows exponentially.

That's what you're missing in your organization.  Those are the lost opportunities that are going on around you all the time.

Everyone likes to talk about an "innovation culture."  They (and I include myself in this) toss around examples like Google and Apple to show just how innovative an organization can be and how you can adopt and adapt their innovative techniques in your enterprise.

And that's true.

But when you take it down to its foundation, it's about the people.  Your people and the ideas they have, every day, about how to make their jobs - as well as your products and services - better.

It's also about how they 'share' those creative solutions - all without you knowing (or wanting to know).  As a result, your organization isn't benefiting in ways that build success.

I have a friend who has spent a good portion of her career trying to bring civility to women's prisons.  She talks of creating a learning environment so that the women have the opportunity to improve themselves and their lives while they're within the prison system and - particularly - when they leave.

But what she doesn't talk about - and I'm not sure she even realizes or knows - is that the women are finding their own way of doing exactly that.  By their definition.

Organizational systems are like transparent prison walls.  Employees do things a certain way because that's the way they're done.  If they're good at working within the walls, they get rewarded with promotions and bonuses.

But if they're really good at what they do, they leave an organization whose walls are just that bit too confining.  Because what they know is, there's another entity out there whose walls are either more permeable or wider than the ones from which they just came - and that those organizations want them.  A lot.

The lesson learned for you is to recognize that you have people - your people - who are finding and sharing wonderfully creative and innovative ideas and successes every day...all within your walls.

Your job - now and on an ongoing basis - is to find those people and support them while determining where you have built your transparent prison and taking action to tear it down.  By doing so, you free everyone from those walls, leaving all your stakeholders with unlimited access to all that creativity and success.  Every day.