(This article was originally served in November of 2013. New links have since been added to revise and refresh your reader experience! Enjoy!)
It drives me crazy when a front-line employee can solve a problem, but can't.
They can because they see the problem, they see the cause, and directly observe the customer's frustration, as it happens. They can't, because they're not given the authority to fix it, nor incented to step outside of their area responsibilities to take action.
Here's a recent example, to illustrate what I'm talking about:
I was at an airport seated at the departure gate of a flight to Orlando, FL. The lighted sign above gate showed a different flight number, and a different city (Tampa). It was still about 40 minutes before my scheduled departure, when passengers began boarding.
Because it was still relatively early, and because the monitor still showed "Tampa" with the other flight number, I assumed that it was not my flight that was boarding. I was wrong, and so were several other passengers that were more focused on the sign at the gate, than the PA announcements telling us that the sign was incorrect.
The gate agent told me that the sign was "stuck" on Tampa; that the sign had not changed over the past two days. An easy solution, I thought, would have been for the gate agents to post hand-written signs with the correct information, next to or over the electronic sign. For whatever reason (lack of authority, lack of will or desire, etc.), nothing was done to address the root cause of the problem.
Instead, the problem persisted, because the gate agents didn't take the intiative to correct it. The result was two days of frustration for the airlines' customers, and the airlines' employees - the gate agents.
Here's the point:
Front-line employees ought to be given the authority and mindset to think and act outside their normal responsibilities to take action, particualry when that action will prevent a negative customer experience, or, create a more positive one.
There're some legendary examples of this in the business literature, like the FedEx driver in January in Minneapolis, on finding a FedEx drop box frozen shut, opted to back over the box to uproot it from the concrete so its contents would not be delivered late. Uprooting a drop box was beyond the scope of his employment, but doing it enabled his employer to live up to its promise.
There's the story of the Zappo's CSR having a pizza delivered to a "customer" at a hotel. Zappo's normally doesn't sell pizza, but this customer really wanted pizza, and the CSR got creative to make it happen.
There's the Ritz Carlton story of the employee that built a ramp so a wheelchair-bound guest could go down to the beach during his stay.
Yes, these are extreme examples because the employees were all trained to "do what it takes" to help the customer achieve the results they purchased.
These legendary customer service examples occuured, because their organizations nurture a culture of "doing whatever it takes" to correct problems, and create improvements to make for a more positive customer experience. And because the employees are encouraged, and given the latitude to take more drastic-than-normal steps to make it all happen.
Do your employees feel empowered to take steps outside their normal responsibilities, to deliver a better experience?
"One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man." -- Elbert Hubbard
We're living in an era where automation is becoming the norm. Business processes that were once performed by humans are more often performed solely by technology. If not already, human interactions will soon become the exception.
Within a ten-minute period this afternoon, I ordered a prescription refill from my pharmacy, got cash from my bank, and bought and paid for groceries at a neighborhood supermarket. That's three transactions at three different businesses without a single human interaction.
By automating those transactions, the pharmacy, bank and grocery store reduced their costs, but they also reduced my customer experience to its lowest common denominator. By removing the human touch, they eliminated an opportunity to trigger my emotions; they eliminated a chance to show me a competitive advantage.
Each time a business automates a customer touch point for efficiency sake, it should look balance the automation with a human touch for experience sake.
Think about a company like Zappo's. They sell a lot of shoes, and they do it very efficiently. But if you ask Zappo's what they sell, they won't say "shoes." They'll tell you they sell "happiness." And that happiness is created by the fun, engaging customer service reps that love to make a customer's day. In fact, these human interactions are the essence of the Zappos brand. Sure, the company runs a very efficient e-commerce business, but they don't forsake the human touch for more efficiency.
Here's the point: Before automating a customer touch point, think about how the automation will impact the customer experience. Will it remove an important point of emotional contact, and a competitive advantage?
If it does, then look to either enrich an existing human touch point, or create a new human touch point that adds value and emotion to the customer journey. A good example here is the Trunk Club...
The Trunk Club is a men's clothing service where a personal stylist handpicks a trunk of high-end clothes and ships it to you, so you don't have to shop or worry about selecting the right styles. It begins as an on-line experience that could certainly remain 100% on-line, but the Trunk Club adds a human element: After providing some After providing some information about yourself and your preferences, you're assigned a "personal stylist" who serves as your concierge. The stylist then calls you directly, to begin a human-to-human customer relationship.
Is this human conversation required to complete the transaction? Of course not. Many on- line retailers avoid this costly step for efficiency sake. But the Trunk Club uses these additional human interactions to create the emotional bond with their customers clicks can't do.
In his 1981 best seller, "Megatrends," John Naisbitt presciently advised us to balance high-tech with "high-touch" to preserve our humanness. This advice is more applicable today than it was 34 years ago, because technology is more prevalent, and more challenging to our humanness on a daily basis.
What are your competitive human touch points?
Where can you add more?
"Would you hire this person to work for you?"
That was the only question that I had to answer after a phone call with Delta Customer Service; that was the entire survey. And it was a very good one for two reasons:
Delta didn't waste my time. A one-question survey that can be answered with one word takes very little time; so little in fact, that I liked Delta more after completing the survey, because I flet they respected my time. Long surveys can actually do more harm than good by alienating customers. Show your customers some respect, by keeping your surveys short. Nobody likes a lenghty interrogation.
Delta got a lot of value in return. They asked me a very "pithy" question that drove right to the heart of the matter: The quality of Customer Service is a function of the quality of the people delivering the service. And if you ask me if I'd actually hire the person that served me, I can't hide behind a "nice guy" feel-good response. I'm put in a position to give you an honest answer - or tell an outright lie (highly unlikey for most customers, especially when they're givng the answer by tapping a number on their telephone keypad).
Too many surveys ask light-weight questions like:
"Was the representative courteous?"
"Please rate your experience on a scale of 1 to 5."
Questions like that let the customer off easy; they skirt the real issue. And the real issue is: Did the service experience leave the customer feeling like they're buying from a first-class company? (Customers never stop buying from companies they consider to be first-class.)
Don't hesitate to put your customers on the spot, because we customers don't mind telling you what we really think. In fact, we prefer it. And so will you, because you'll have feedback that's more meaningful, and more useful. And that's why you're doing the survey in the first place, isn't it?
"It's a competitive world. Everything counts in large amounts." - Depeche Mode, 1983
When it comes to the customer experience, everything counts.
Everything you say and do makes the experience better or worse. There are no neutral touch points.
There's a neighborhood bakery that I love to go to; the smell of the fresh-baked breads, the display of all those warm bagels in baskets, and soothing classical music constrasted by the cocophany from the kitchen: It's all part of th experience. Yes, buying bagels can be a pretty cool experience.
A week earlier, a different cashier had said, "Enjoy your day, and especially those bagels!"
One cashier kept the experience sharp, while another dulled it. One was memorable, while the other was as forgettable as the toll collector on the highway.
The point is this: the words you use matter. They're like the script in a play. The right words, well-chosen, can enrich the customer's overall experience.
Eliminate all trite, cliche phrases from customer-facing dialogue, and replace them with something more creative and relevant to the product or service.
The words you use in delivering the product are every bit a part of the experience as the product or service itself. Use words with a purpose.
If you want your words to improve the customer experience, then "No problem" is a big problem.
What do you say to your customers?
"I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion." -Jack Kerouac
Have you ever asked a sales person a question, and their answer left you more confused? Why does this happen? The answer lies in the way people "package" their answer.
Some people will deliver a brain dump to answer a question; they respond with a pile of information that may indeed contain the information needed to answer the question, but the information is presented as a large pile of raw data; too much information to comprehend in a single answer. As a result, the customer feels more confused than confident. What causes this?
Markman takes this a step further, by saying we should "respect the Role of 3" when designing a presentation, by organizing the information you'll be presenting into 3 Key Ideas.
Here's the point: Every time we engage with our customer, we're presenting. It may not be a formal presentation with a slide deck and a projector, but we're still providing information. The key is to provide that information in a way that will make it easy for the customer to understand while you're sharing it, recall it later, and to accurately pass on to someone else after that. The most effective way to do that is to organize the information using The Role of 3.
Let's look at an example:
Say you're trying sell a friend on the idea of exercising regularly, and he asks you why he should bother . You could do what many sales people do, and launch into a data dump by reciting the top 25 benefits of regular exercise.
Or, you could apply The Role of 3 by organizing many of those reasons into 3 clear, compelling (and memorable) topics:
1. Controls Weight
Exercising can help with weight gain or loss depending on your individual needs; the more intense the activity, the more calories you will burn.
2. Prevents Certain Health Conditions
Regular physical activity can help prevent or manage many health conditions including high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, and obesity.
3. Improves Mood and Energy Level
Physical activity stimulates your brain to help you relax, while your heart and lungs work harder during a workout to give you more energy and endurance!
Communication is a big part of the customer experience. And communication often involves sharing a lot of information at once. By organizing that information in a way that makes it easy for the customer to ingest, digest and remember, we're delivering a better experience. Respecting the Role of 3 will help us get there.
Where can you apply the Role of 3 in your sales process?
"What does your company do?"
That can be a hard question to answer, because the question itself is vague.
Too many companies spend too many resources trying to keep customers that they should never have sold to in the first place. Many of those companies would be better-off shifting resources from trying to retain customers that are a poor fit, and use those resources to more carefully target and acquire customers that are a better fit for their offering. These ideal customers value the offering more, and are therefore less likely to leave in the first place.
But sales reps can be quick to ignore the ideal customer profile and sell to any prospect with an ability and willingness to pay. An why shouldn't they? A sale is a sale, a dollar is a dollar, and a commission is a commission, even if a sales rep sells a round hole to a square peg.
But here's the problem: It takes time, money and effort to adjust a round hole to accomodate a square peg. But if you only sell to round pegs, there's no need to adjust the hole, and those resources are freed-up for more productive and profitable purposes - like sales and marketing intiatives to attract more round pegs).
So how to solve the problem?
Re-focus your sales qualification from "Can we sell our product to this customer?" to "Should we sell our product to this customer?" The traditional qualification process answers these four questions:
Adding a fifth criterion - Fit - will change the focus enough to assure that you're selling to the right customer:
5. Fit: Does the prospect match the criteria we've defined for our ideal customer?
By properly selecting each customer, you'll have happier customers and more advocates. You'll also spend less on implementation, customer support and customer retention. And that means more resources for attracting more of the right customers.
Why should you waste the effort driving square pegs into round holes, when a round peg is a better fit for your offering, and for your bottom line?
Have you ever been to a party full of strangers? Was it easier to have an enaging conversation with some people, and more awkward with others? Who asked you more questions? The easier people or the awkward people? Asking questions - good, thought-provoking questions - trigger deeper, engaging conversations, even with total strangers.
What works at a cocktail party also works in building customer relationships:
Asking people questions about them makes them more willing to spend time with you.
Asking people challenging questions causes them to think more deeply. When people think more deeply, they become mentally stronger.
Asking questions leads to answers which lead to new ideas.
Asking questions leads to discussion which leads to new knowledge.
Be the person that builds better relationships, spends time wisely, causes people to think deeply, come up with new ideas, and creates knowledge.
Be the person that asks good questions.