Treating Customers Like Investors

March 14, 2009 on 2:15 pm | In Customer Service | Comments Off

I was listening to something recently and cannot presently recall exactly what, when, or where, but the words that stuck with me were that you did not want to treat customers like investors. The premise was that among your stakeholders, there are very different interests and you have to treat each stakeholder in a unique fashion. It stuck with me because I was pretty certain I did not agree. So I’ve taken some time to think about it and have come to the conclusion that I absolutely do NOT agree.

I can see that SOME investors may be differently motivated than SOME customers, and I would further agree that this can vary greatly depending on your industry and market. Even though I am the owner of a small business, I am also a consummate customer. I know how I like to be treated, and I can easily identify when I have not been treated in a manner that I would expect. There are certain customer service absolutes that many marketers still violate constantly, such as using an auto dialer so that there is no one on the calling end of the line when the recipient answers their phone, or having customers press one for English. When I think of customers, however, I have constantly used the ROTten principle (See my articles for a fuller description of this concept, borrowed from Bob Lewis at IT Solutions) in marketing which means, simply, Relationships Over Transactions. I don’t want to just “sell” you something. I want to become part of your business, understand your business, and share in your success. I want to build a relationship of trust. If I treat you solely as a revenue stream, or an interference with my day, then I am not building that relationship.

Relationships are funny things and come in all shapes and sizes – just like customers. Jeffrey Gitomer will tell you that you want to develop customers who will sing your praises. This goes beyond loyalty. What I have found about relationships, however, is that they are unquestionably an investment. It is not an investment of money, necessarily, but it is an emotional investment. You invite your customers to become emotionally involved in your success, just as you are in theirs. For many people, emotional investments are far more valuable than financial investments, and given today’s economy, might be the only currency they have left to invest. They are not looking for fair-weather friends. They are investors, and they have invested their most precious commodity with you. Not cash. Not money. Not even time. They have invested emotionally.

How have you treated these emotionally invested clients? Have you respected their investment? Have you treated as if it were your own? Have you tried to multiply that investment and show them a return on it? If not, I suggest that you are not treating your customers as you should. Re-think some of your policies, practices, or sales documents. How can you modify them to show more respect for their investment? I can assure you, it will pay handsome dividends.

TSA Can’t Even SPELL “Customer Service”!

October 2, 2007 on 4:38 pm | In Customer Service | Comments Off

Customer service is a topic we touch on often here, and not just in the context of your government customer or your government contract, because in terms of service – all customers are the same. A customer is anyone who can affect your revenue stream – either positively or negatively. It continues to amaze me how, despite the obvious shift of our economy from an industrial one to a service economy, how so many companies and “service” organizations still just don’t get it. They do not emphasize customer service, they do not teach customer service, and apparently they do not expect their employees to provide customer service. The absence of it, and even the direct antagonism of your customers, is not something that warrants discipline. Maybe their management just never learned it themselves.

 

A recent experience highlights this. I was passing through the SEATAC airport after teaching a class at

Fort Lewis (home to many of our fighting soldiers who are paying the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedoms) and it was also the same day that the Stennis sailed into port after a seven and a half month deployment. As I proceeded through security I noticed that the stanchions extended for about 50 yards down the concourse in about seven layers, indicating that there were times when the lines at the security check points were amazingly long. On this day they were relatively short and moving fairly quickly. As I waited to unload my computer from its case, one of the TSA agents begins barking out (and I use that word intentionally). “Listen up!” he says commandingly, as if addressing a group of five-year-old little leaguers. “We’ve been telling you people for over a year now that you have to keep your gels and fluids to a 3.4 ounce container and that they have to be separated in a baggie. We keep telling you people this and you just aren’t listening. This is what is tying up the lines. You can’t bring sodas, jellies, or even peanut butter through here. You have to drink up or eat up before you get to the front of the line. This has been the rule for over a year now and you just aren’t paying attention. You will be stopped at the checkpoint and you will have to throw those items away. So pay attention!”

 

I may be paraphrasing slightly, but this just happened about ten minutes ago, so it is pretty fresh in my mind. While I may have some of the words out of order, this is pretty much verbatim what was said. So let’s take a look at this and see if this falls into ANY of the categories of providing good customer service.

 

First of all the “you people” he was addressing are not a unified lot. It was a Friday evening before a holiday, so I can assume that there were many people traveling who do not do so regularly. Perhaps he was not happy that he had to work on a holiday weekend; perhaps he is a man of little patience naturally. I do know that as a regular traveler, I didn’t need to be talked to like an elementary school student. I heard many comments through the line of “Who does he think he is?” “Why is he talking to us like that?” “Watch out, he’s got a badge; don’t screw with these guys.” “What does he think we are idiots?” “Why doesn’t he just shut up and do his job. That would make the line move faster.” And “What is he talking about – there isn’t any line here at all!” One of the scanners responded to one such comment, “Those are the rules!” as if he was certain that we were all idiots and could not be trusted to find our way to our departure gate unless he took us by the hand. Several people (me included I must confess) were so distracted by Richard’s rant (I later asked and found out it was Pastor Richard who was preaching to us that evening!) that they failed to clear all of their pockets of metal. I forgot the cell phone on my clip and had to go back through the scanner. These events, of which there was suddenly a rash, tied up the line more than anything else I observed. Yes, there probably were people who had not followed the “rules” and were being forced to part with their personal property. I’m sure they were not happy about that, and this is not intended to be a comment on the standards set by DHS/TSA although such a blog would be equally appropriate. But it is the TSA agent’s job to educate and enforce – not disparagingly preach and berate.

 

And any employee who simply states “those are the rules” should never be allowed contact with customers. Yes – rules exist for a reason, and in many cases they need to be followed. But a rational rule has a rational basis. The customers in line were not commenting on the rules, as the other TSA employee erroneously concluded, they were commenting on the rudeness and inappropriateness of Richard’s discipline toward his customers. It seems that the rules trump courtesy, at least to this group of TSA employees.

 

So back to Richard’s rant. He was addressing all of the travelers as if they were all similarly situated. They clearly were not. He was berating the entire concourse of people when clearly the vast majority of them should not have been the target of his ire. He spoke in a commanding way to people he was being paid to serve. He was not polite; he was not courteous, and despite his peanut butter comment juxtaposed against the jellies, he was not in the slightest humorous. And on top of it all, his comments did NOTHING to speed up the line; it had, in fact, the opposite effect. His speech, if it was to be given at all, was for people who had not yet gotten to the airport. What did he expect people to do at this point? You either were prepared to go through security or you were not. Unless you planned to guzzle a six-pack of water, or put 6.3 ounces of tanning gel on you and your traveling companions in the next thirty seconds, your choices were rather limited.

 

Customers do not need to be talked to in such a manner. Yes it is unfortunate when people do not know or understand the rules and it results in the loss of their property. They always have the option of getting out of line and finding a way to mail it to themselves, or leave it with a friend or family member who is not traveling. And when someone who wears a badge talks to people in such a manner unnecessarily – well it is pretty clear to most of us that they should not be wearing a badge. In fact, on that day in

Seattle, with the USS Stennis coming into port and my two and a half days around the noble soldiers ofFort Lewis, Richard was a disgrace to ANYONE in uniform or with a badge.

 

As the comment from the scanner monitor indicates, any TSA investigation of this will be a whitewash. After all – rules are rules. And in case any TSA people don’t yet understand this – courtesy is courtesy. I once filed a complaint with TSA because as my luggage was being inspected in plain view of the public (fortunately the dirty underwear was on the bottom), the inspector picked up a document from a stack of papers in the suitcase and began reading it. I’m not sure what he expected to learn, and he read more of it than he needed to in order to determine that it was not a terrorist plot, threat, or ransom note (it was actually the private business plan of client). He simply and blatantly invaded my privacy unnecessarily. My complaint to TSA received a pre-programmed “thanks for letting us know” response. And my follow-up was essentially ignored by coating it with non-responsive pabulum.

 

Richard did not serve the TSA well this day. Richard did a dishonor to his badge, his uniform, and to his co-workers. Richard caused about 100 or so people to think less of the TSA and to feel a need to fight back –to give them all just a little more grief; just be a little more uncooperative. Not to the point of causing a disruption, but certainly not going out of your way to talk to any one with respect when a person wearing their uniform has just dissed the general public – treating them as five year-olds, or as complete idiots. And all of this clearly with the full acquiescence of his co-workers and supervision. None of this serves the TSA customer well; we are free law-abiding citizens. When our government-sanctioned officials take an uncomfortable situation that already tramples on our liberties more than most of us like (but we grudgingly accept), and treats us with disrespect like this – we all suffer a little more and the terrorists believe they are winning. Overly dramatic? Perhaps, but in the final analysis most would agree that this is the direction toward which Richards pushes us.

 

So what can we learn from this about customer service? If you have a rant about your customers (yes they can be pretty thick-headed sometimes, but whose fault is that?) and you do it in their presence, they will not be your customers for long.  If you do not treat them with respect, your competitors will. And people remember these things for a very long time. TSA needs a better training program. TSA needs better discipline with its employees. TSA interacts with people who are stressed, afraid, and tired. Their usual clientele is not one you might naturally select. And their clientele, if given a choice, would avoid TSA altogether. The TSA employee’s job is a tough one, and it is absolutely NOT the right job for a lot of people. You need a special temperament; you need to understand verbal judo; and you need to understand how to meet your customer where they are – no matter the level of stress and confusion they (or you) may be feeling. You need to put the right people in the right positions when they will face your customer. And you need to treat your customers with a little respect. Richard’s rant did none of this. And once again I find myself called upon to appeal to the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain who said, “No one is a complete waste. They can always serve as a bad example.” Thank you Richard for being today’s bad example.

 

And no, I have absolutely no expectation that TSA will do anything whatsoever about this event – despite the fact that I saw four people request and receive comment cards. It seems to be the nature of the beast.

Talking Trash About Customers

April 16, 2007 on 6:30 pm | In Customer Service | Comments Off

Why would you ever say anything bad about your customer? I have advocated in the past that there are customers you should fire because they absorb too much of your overhead and do not contribute positively to the bottom line. This article appeared in Contract Management magazine and can be found here. But today I’m talking about going public with criticism of your customer. Suppose you have sued them, a matter of public record. Can they then retaliate against you and deny you a contract because you are “litigation happy” or have spoken to the press negatively about them? In the usual commercial setting, buyers can make commercial contracting decisions based on anything they deem important. Many companies will tell you that they will avoid doing business with any party they think likes trips to the courthouse too much. And there isn’t much you can do about that except improve your relationship with that buyer.
In the public sector, however, stringent rules require that decisions be based only on appropriate criteria. In a recent Texas case a city selected a contractor who was NOT the low bid solely on the basis that the low bidder had sued another city over a contract dispute. Although the state court initially sided with the city the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed. So long as the actions by the contractor were matters of public concern, the court held, free speech of a party can outweigh the city’s interest in promoting efficiency. (Case No. 05-10836, August 31, 2006).
So what is the lesson here? Generally the less said the better, but in matters of public procurement speaking out about the process and especially perceived errors or bias in decision-making causes the speech generally to be considered a matter of public concern and will be protected. This doesn’t mean that a company can’t get a bad reputation as a complainer, and contracting officers are human – challenge them too often and they will remember you negatively. But given the rules for government contracting, their ability to retaliate is very limited. Commercial companies, on the other hand, if they see you complaining too much, will develop their own opinions of you – and they can exclude you any time they want for any (or no) reason at all.
Balance what you have to say. Sometimes it is important to speak out and identify flaws in the system. Other times – keeping silent can be the best long-term approach. Whenever you speak, however, make sure you have your facts straight. Speaking out when you do not know what you are talking about will definitely give you a bad reputation!

Where did the week go?

March 31, 2007 on 3:34 pm | In Customer Service | Comments Off

Sometimes the best plans go astray. Hard to believe an entire week has passed since the last posting! Typical month-end stuff; pretty usual for the small business person, however.

What I want to talk about today is the importance of developing the relationship with your customers. There is lot in the business literature today about this topic, but it still seems to skim over the head of so many entrepreneurs. Perhaps it’s because of the influence of bad multi-level marketing (NOTE: Not all of them are bad, but too many of them are!) where they were taught it was all a numbers game. I have to generate 100 leads so I can qualify 20 prospects, so I can schedule 3 presentations, so I can close one sale. What an incredible waste of time!! Look, survey after survey after survey has shown time and again – people buy from people they like! So one of the biggest keys to success in ANY business (and Seinfeld’s soup Nazi notwithstanding!) is to be likeable!

Sure, you want to let anyone and everyone know what you are doing, and you do need to develop a great elevator speech, but more importantly you need to understand that your customer is a 24 hour person and you interaction with them might be only 5 to 20 minutes out of that 24 hours. You have about that much time to impress them, interact with them, and get them to like you – in a word, become memorable. If you are struggling with this, go read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. And if you HAVE read it, go back and read it again.

Become genuinely interested in people. Learn to ask outstanding questions. Keep a log of what you learn about people – it helps you remember things when you see them again. When you develop the relationship FIRST, the sale comes naturally, and when a problem arises, you have an excellent basis on which to talk through a solution. This is truly a win-win arrangement. And besides – most people are pretty interesting once you get to know them!

Travel to Some Hotels Sucks!

March 22, 2007 on 11:48 pm | In Customer Service | Comments Off

Spent the night last night in $250/nite room at an airport hotel – no free internet (they wanted an additional $10!!) and no free breakfast!! What a cheap place! Give me the old stand-by’s where you get free internet and free breakfast. It makes no sense to pay for all that “class-less class.” I won’t mention the name, but if you had a friend named “It” who you met on the street you might say, “Hi, It.”

Customer Service

March 20, 2007 on 10:32 am | In Customer Service | Comments Off

Much is said and written today about what makes good customer service. Every study ever done concludes that people will pay more for a product or a service if there is excellent customer service behind it. There is so much literature out there that tells us this it is sometimes a wonder that you continue to get poor service anywhere. Yet it is pandemic. Most business providers do not know how, or do not care to provide, excellent customer service.

We all have our war stories about an event where we got poor service. And those same studies tell us that a person who received bad service will tell an average of 20 people about the bad service. Those who get good service will usually only tell three. What makes good customer service when your customer is the US Government?

I published an article in the December 2006 Contract Management magazine that asks the question “Who IS the Government Customer?” In that article (available at http://www.governmentcontractingsolutions.com/CMJan06_p54.pdf) I suggest that there are actually three customers with very different interests representing the government. Just as when you market to the government, you must provide all three of these government representatives with outstanding customer service. These are the technical representative who defines the requirement and usually performs the acceptance testing, the financial manager who certifies the funds and issues payment, and the contracting officer who awards the contract and administers it through closeout.

We’ll talk more about these three in the coming weeks, but if you are a supplier to the government you have three distinct decision makers, and at least three “customers” to keep satisfied.

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