Archive for the 'Customer Care' Category

The velocity of change and new customer expectations

And when I die, and when I’m gone, there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on, to carry on.
– “And When I Die,” by Laura Nyro, performed by Blood, Sweat & Tears.

As we know, change has been the one constant of existence on planet Earth. Each generation gives way to the next, so that over time fire became electricity and the wheel morphed into a computer.

For most of the history of the marketplace, change progressed at a pace slow enough to allow the creator of a model - a product, strategy, skill, etc. — to make a living with it for a lifetime, possibly even passing that model on to his children. But within the past century this paradigm began to shift.

During the second half of the 20th century, the life expectancy of a typical model generation was compressed into a calendar year. So while you were delivering the current year’s model to customers, you had to simultaneously create and prepare next year’s model to be ready to launch January 1.

That was a nice trip down memory lane, wasn’t it? Buckle up.

Since 1993 (the year the Internet became available to the public), an unprecedented confluence of innovations has further compressed the time between model generations. This compression produced high anxiety and frustration for any business that was in love with its model. Indeed, the life expectancy of a model that not so long ago would have been a calendar year was now measured in terms of an Internet year, which is 90 days — or less.

The headwaters of this increased velocity of marketplace change is innovations that are driving new customer expectations. And these innovations have become so seductively elegant and seamless in our lives that customers often don’t even realize their expectations are changing at all, let alone how fast.

But what about your business’s anxiety and frustration? Well, even if customers know, they don’t care. Because they worship at the throne of WIIFM. What’s In It For Me?

I have good news! You can avoid anxiety, frustration — and failure — if you know what your customers’ evolving expectations are, which you can determine by asking them these five questions - every day:

1. What do you want?
2. How do you want me to tell you about it?
3. When do you want it?
4. How will you use it?
5. How do you want it delivered?

Comparing the answer to these questions with what customers told you yesterday will provide all the information you need about current and future products, service and technology, including — especially — your social media and mobile strategy.

Let me put all of this in one sentence: If you want to know what your business should be doing tomorrow, next month and next year, ask your customers. They already know. And if you do what they tell you, you’ll be able to sing these new lyrics without any blood, sweat or tears:

“And when our model dies, and when it’s gone, we’ll produce a new model in this world to carry on, to carry on.”

Write this on a rock … Customers will tell you about their changing expectations - let them.

Beware the Barbell Effect, unless you’re a small business

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away – in Internet terms that’s about 10 years ago – a small business owner didn’t have to worry too much about macro-economics. Well, that was a nice trip down Memory Lane.

Today, Main Street business owners have to operate every day in their micro-economy, while keeping an eye on what’s happening at the macro level. Alas, macro-economics isn’t easy to get your head around when your highest priority on Monday morning is to cover payroll on Friday.

Here’s a handy macro-economy metaphor: the Barbell Effect. Essentially, this phenomenon occurs when natural forces – new technology, innovations, shifts in demographics and behavior, etc. – disrupts entrenched, legacy practices of an industry. The disruptive pressure squeezes industry players who fail to adapt causing them to contract into the bar. Those who adapt find their way to the bell ends, where there’s room to expand.

At the macro level, the barbell doesn’t exist prior to the disruptive pressure – it’s the result, not the cause. In the marketplace, the energy causing the disruption is customers empowered with new expectations. This will be on the test: When customers are empowered, businesses are disrupted and barbells are likely.

There have been many examples of the Barbell Effect – some small and local, and some even global. I read recently about a housing barbell in one city where units on the high and low ends – the bells – were selling well, while the ones in the middle – the bar – not so much. The American banking industry has experienced its own Barbell Effect this century. As big banks got bigger on one end of the barbell, community banks hung in there on the other end, while medium-sized banks experienced financial claustrophobia as the bar got thinner and thinner.

Right now, the Barbell Effect is creating an existential reaction that can literally be watched by Main Street small businesses from their front doors as no-longer-relevant retail giants are closing hundreds of stores at a breathtaking pace. Here are some numbers: As of this year, 200 Sears stores closing brings their numbers down 60% in the past 5 years, while K-Mart is shuttering over 100 locations. Macy’s is closing 100 stores, and JC Penney is projecting 300 store closings. And besides these big guys, many medium-size retailers are also making the acquaintance of the bar between the bells.

The pressure creating this retail barbell is arising from new and evolving customer expectations, which increasingly means higher adoption of e-commerce – online shopping/purchasing. But the new expectation isn’t about unique products, lower prices, or better service, it’s the most powerful relevance advantage in The Age of the Customer: saving time. Technological innovations and customer care practices – easier mobile shopping and electronic payment, plus free delivery and easy returns – are saving customers enough time to change their shopping behavior and create a barbell.

As we witness the disruption – if not the end – of traditional, big box retail, let’s remember the good news about the Barbell Effect: It has two fat ends – the bells. On one end of the retail barbell are disruptive companies like Amazon, Google, and any other purveyors of the online retail model. On the other end are small businesses that understand that the online, digital model cannot fulfill all of the expectations of their analog customers. Indeed, the current Barbell Effect is producing a customer experience vacuum that will be filled very profitably by small retailers who deliver the special sauce of the both/and business model: traditional, analog retail (High Touch), combined with online, digital capability (High Tech).

In my next column I’m going to reveal what it takes to maintain occupancy of the fat ends of the barbell, and why this current retail phenomenon is great news for small business CEOs who see the micro-impact of the macro-economy.

Write this on a rock … Blasingame’s Law of Business Love: “It’s okay to fall in love with what you do; it’s not okay to fall in love with how you do it.”

Two reasons quality service can take you down

Successful customer service is the process of delivering value to customers in exchange for payment.

Surely this is the prime directive of any business. But that process isn’t truly successful unless the relationship can be sustained, and only quality produces sustainability.

But what kind of quality?

“Quality service” is a 20th century term that businesses use to declare a commitment to diligent customer support. But customers typically associate it with, and businesses too often tolerate it as promptly addressing a problem. Unfortunately, here’s what quality service often sounds like:

“We’re sorry we delivered the wrong size part. But we’re committed to quality service, so one of our trucks will be there in an hour with the correct part.”

It’s true. Sometimes quality service like that impresses the customer – and businesses even like to brag about delivering it. But while prompt attention is admirable, it’s not optimal because it has a negative impact on sustainability in at least two ways:

  1. The customer was inconvenienced by inaccurate service – you screwed up!
  2. Allowing an avoidable problem to occur is the worst kind of profit-eating inefficiency.

In the 21st century, successful small businesses have converted their problem-fixing “quality service” to the profitable and sustainable “quality process.”

Put simply, executing a quality process is serving customers correctly the first time. Accomplishing a quality process ranges from the very basic, accurate order filling, to the more complex, integrating into your operation only those vendors that share your quality process commitment. It shouldn’t be breaking news that your large business customers have been doing this for a couple of decades, to eliminate weak links in their supply chain.

The optimal goal of your quality process is sustainable customer relationships. That means 1) you did it right the first time; and 2) you made a profit and didn’t squander any of it on mistakes. Such sustainability is in evidence when customers return to find your profitable business still there, ready to serve them again with your quality process.

So why would anyone live with profit-eating quality service instead of managing with a quality process? Because cash is a drama queen and profit isn’t.

Delivering quality service is practiced by crisis managers. The crisis comes when you could lose a sale – possibly even a customer – because an order was filled incorrectly, creating a hit to your cash flow so quickly and dramatically that it takes your breath away: “OMG, get out there right now and fix this!”  Lots of drama for everyone.

Having a quality process is a commitment to profitability, requiring disciplined, long-view professional management. You’ll recognize it by the sound of no drama experienced by you or your customers … crickets.

Professional small business CEOs know that focusing on a quality process – doing it right the first time – takes a commitment to quality hiring, efficiency training, and a focus on what customers want, not just what they need. These practices produce sustained profitability and, in time, will eliminate your noisy cash flow drama.

Remember, the quality service you’ve been so proud of may seem admirable, but when delivered in response to something that was avoidable, it assaults profitability, threatens sustainability and ultimately will put you out of business.

Write this on a rock … Convert quality service into the more profitable – and sustainable – quality process.

Small business lessons from big business mistakes

Here is a true story from which several business lessons can be learned.

A while back, I needed to reach a friend who worked in the local office of a national company. Searching online, and yes, even the phone book, I found only a toll-free number that connected to an answering system for the entire company. That’s right – this business didn’t publish a number for the local office. And incredibly, the automated system did not offer an option to connect to any local branch or person. I’m not making this up!

Lesson 1: Don’t create barriers to customers. Even if you think you don’t have barriers, look anyway, because you might. Ask employees and customers to help you find them.

Undaunted, I finally acquired the local number (yes, they had one), but the person who answered said my friend, who was in sales, had been laid off. It turns out, this publicly-traded corporation was losing money, so in order for the CEO to impress Wall Street analysts, who influence the stock price, almost 2,000 employees across the company were told to hit the bricks. Never mind how valuable these employees were or if those cuts would hurt the company’s long-term performance; the quickest way to increase profits was to cut payroll.

Lesson 2: Performance goals are important for planning, but customers don’t always buy on your schedule. Don’t let short-term expense pressures cost you sales, and worse, long-term customer relationships.

I learned that my friend had been a top producer, but since he was the last one hired he was the first to go. He’s no longer a payroll drain on his former employer, but one of their competitors quickly snapped up this winner.

Lesson 3: In the 21st century, seniority doesn’t trump performance.

So what if this big business CEO had simply installed a phone system that made sure customers could connect to his local offices? The answer is that my friend and several hundred others may not have been fired. And who knows? By simply eliminating one customer barrier, this company might actually have needed to hire more salespeople to handle all the business that would not have gone elsewhere.

Lesson 4: How you run your business – including people, systems, technology and policies – is not more important than the fast-evolving expectations of prospects and customers.

By the way, that big business that taught us these valuable lessons is no longer in business. Big surprise.

Write this on a rock … Think you don’t have customer barriers? Neither did that big business CEO.

Relevance is the Customer’s new prime expectation

When describing what influences the behavior of individuals as they pursue their lives, you would likely include concepts associated with goals, plans, passion, desire, ego, personality, etc. In matters of human interaction as we meet, love, and work together, there is often an abiding struggle between my passion and your ego, for example, or your goals and my plans. Indeed, successful long-term personal relationships are based more on my tolerance of you today and your forbearance of me tomorrow. Give and take.
But in the marketplace, affection and sentiment give way to performance and contracts, because tolerance and forbearance are usually subjective, often inefficient, and sometimes even unproductive. Consequently, a very powerful concept has developed over the millennia that is the nucleus of how marketplace participants minimize conflict and find common ground. In classically efficient marketplace style, I’ve reduced this concept to one word: expectations.
For example, the most important thing for you to know about someone with whom you’re negotiating a contract is that party’s expectations-especially that one, true, uncompromising expectation, beyond which they won’t go. But nowhere has the quest for expectation clarity been more in evidence than between Seller and Customer. Because the quicker a Customer’s expectations about value and values can be determined, the quicker the Seller can find a way to fulfill those expectations and make the sale.
For 10,000 years, during the Age of the Seller, Customer expectations were driven by consumption created by innovation. And all of this was around products and services produced and delivered by Sellers to Customers who essentially became passive recipients of the next innovation. Think of all of the new things Customers have acquired for the first time in the past century: cars, kitchen appliances, radios, televisions, personal computers, and iPods, just to name a few.
But now, in The Age of the Customer, expectations are less about new things and more about new empowerment. Rather than anticipating a brand new product, Customers are more likely to get excited about a new smartphone app that helps them find, review, compare, pay for, and take delivery. And increasingly, Customers are eliminating Sellers at this level of relevance, which is often before they know about competitiveness.
A Seller’s acquisition and retention of Customers is now more about being relevant to their influence and control over the acquisition process, and less about what’s being acquired. Let me say that another way: Customer expectations become less about what you sell and more about how you make a transaction handy, convenient, time-saving, on-demand, pre-appraised, on multiple platforms, in multimedia, etc. This is a big part of the definition of relevance, and it’s the new prime expectation of Customers.
An expectation of relevance is the new coin of the realm. Disregard this Age of the Customer truth at your own peril.
Write this on a rock … The original prime expectation was competitiveness. The new one is relevance.

The oldest profession is not what you think

Contrary to what you’ve heard, selling is the oldest profession in the world, because “In the beginning,” the serpent sold Eve the apple. You might say she bought wholesale and then sold the apple retail to Adam. And as we now know, that was one expensive transaction.

One characteristic that clearly separates humans from the other animals identified in Genesis is ego. And while ego can be a beneficial motivator in selling professionally, in order to sell successfully, we must do something that’s in direct conflict with our ego — we have to let someone else talk.

Imagine you’re on a sales call. What are you doing? Are you telling the prospect about your products, pricing, etc.? If that’s what comes to mind, your selling career could be doomed.

Of course, it’s important to deliver your company’s message. But if you talk about your stuff before you know what the customer wants, you’ve put the cart dangerously before the horse.

So, if the gold we seek is in the head of our prospect, why do so many salespeople spend so much time in front of so many prospects running their mouths? It’s that conflict thing again. Sadly, the mouth — not the ear — is the ego’s tool of choice.

The Blasingame Mint has once again struck a new axiom and a handy acronym to go with it: Shut Up - Listen - Sell! SULS. Tattoo those four letters on the palm of your hand, because that’s your first job.

Here are four important steps to remember when practicing SULS.

1. Keep Them Talking.

Even prospects who aren’t egomaniacs like to talk about themselves, their businesses and their pain. Remember, the gold you seek is in your prospect’s head. You need time to mine that gold, which can only happen when the prospect is talking – not when you’re talking.

2. Maintain Eye Contact.

The most valuable thing your prospect can do for you is talk about what’s on his mind. Nothing stops this flow of golden information quicker than when it appears you’re not listening. And here’s a gender tip: Women prospects have a keener inattention antenna than men.

3. Concentrate.

Concentrate on your prospect’s every word and expression. Don’t think about what you’re going to say next. (The next tip will make this easier.).

4. Wait Three Seconds.

While the prospect is talking, train yourself to wait three seconds after you think the prospect is finished talking before you say anything. Waiting three seconds will help you concentrate on what is being said instead of what you’re going to say, you’ll still have time to think of your next question, and you’ll never commit one of the cardinal sins of selling: interrupting the prospect.

Successful professional selling happens when the prospect does most of the talking.

Write this on a rock … Selling is as simple as SULS.

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.




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