The Quality Of Your Customer Experience (As Measured By The Way The Door Closes)

I invariably find (in my work as a customer service consultant and corporate culture speaker) that the littlest details can tell the most about an organization.  And can teach other organizations the most as well.

Here’s an example.

A friend of mine was halfway down the (very long) hallway at a Four Seasons hotel when he realized he’d forgotten something he would need later in the day.  Walking back toward the room he had just left, he was surprised to see someone from engineering had his door open and was adjusting it.

Being the curious lad that he is (and in the hospitality industry himself) he asked what was going on.  The engineer told him, “The housekeeper servicing the room next door noticed that when your door closes, it closes more with an indeterminate gentle closing sound, which is a little bit less definitive than the ‘click’ we prefer, so she called down to engineering to have us come up and zero in on the closing mechanism.’”

This, gentle reader, is amazing.  Amazing.

We can divide its amazingness into three parts: three standards that comprise a customer service system.

  1.  (most obviously, probably):  A standard for how a guestroom door should sound when it is closed. Four Seasons actually has a standard for how they like the door to close.  They don’t like it to close with a bang, and they don’t like it to close with a whimper: they want a definitive yet subtle ‘click.’
  2. (less obvious, and at least as extraordinary) A reporting standard: someone from housekeeping, whose “job this isn’t,” in fact thinks it is her job and has all of her awareness attuned to those details.
  3. (probably even less obvious):  A scheduling/ customer-non-interruption standard: The hotel doesn’t schedule repairs at the hotel’s own convenience. In fact they do it in the absolute least convenient way for them as an organization (but the only way that provides true service):  on the schedule of the guest.  They did not call my friend and say “when do you think you’ll be leaving your room so we can do some maintenance?”  They didn’t wait until the room was turning over anyway.  They found a way to take care of the issue during his stay (so he would have the benefit of the clicking door) and yet in a way that should not have affected him in any way at all.  In spite of the fact that this required an elaborate choreography of the housekeeper noticing he was gone and slipping engineering into the mix at exactly the right moment.

Now, this is a pretty extraordinary set of standards.  And maybe it strikes you as being a “we have all the money in the world and we can waste it how we like because we’re Four Seasons” scenario.

But let’s apply the pieces to your business.

  1.  Auditory awareness: the door closing sound standards.  Inferior businesses think their job is simply to deliver their product or (as they define it) their service.  It’s not.  It’s the entire experience: what the customer hears, feels, tastes, even (for better or worse) smells.  If you don’t look at/hear/feel/smell your business the way a customer does, you’re failing your customer — and, ultimately, your bottom line.  (In the case of the door sound, it is a functional sound that creates an emotion of wellbeing: The click means something to your guest: it means security, the ability to know without even looking back that the door has securely closed.)
  2. Cross-functional, purpose-driven behavior by your employees (the reporting standard):  If you focus your employees only on their functional function [sic], you are not only doing a disservice to your customers, you’re doing it in a way that is mystifying to them (they don’t know your org chart and they don’t give a shi tzu about it even if they are aware of it) and in a way that wastes the human potential of the employee you are paying good money to employ.  A housekeeper can be so much more than a vacuumer.  She or he can also be a force for safety, security, and so much more.  And this is true of every employee in your organization—whom you will keep much happier and retain much longer by involving the use of more brain cells rather than fewer.
  3. The scheduling/discretion standard: What schedule are you following in your business: The schedule of the customer or the schedule that suits you and inconveniences the customer?  I was at a restaurant last night where every time they fill the water glasses, they ask the customer if the customer wants the water glass filled.  Thus interrupting us maybe 45 times an evening (if you add up all the inquiries times all the people in our party).  And don’t even get me started on the Artie Bucco Syndrome, which I named based on the cluelessly gregarious chef on The Sopranos who would come along and tell you about the fresh mozzarella’s port of origin at the very moment you were proposing marriage to your girlfriend.  While he is an extreme example, the number of times waiters have interrupted me in mid-burger-bite to ask me how my burger is are nearly infinite.

Examples of customer-antagonistic scheduling from life-and-death industries such as healthcare are much more serious and brutal.  Think about the under-resourced (and under-thinking) hospitals that gather the mammograms they have shot all day to “efficiently” have them read all at once at night—at which point they may actually have to go back to the patients (16 hours after the initial “shoot”) to tell them there was an error in the films and they need to be re-shot.

To summarize, what Four Seasons has built in the course of getting the click right on your door is what I would call a Customer Service System.
A Customer Service System is any action, or set of actions, that a business executes consistently over time to emotionally engage the customer and make the experience of doing business with them warmer, faster, easier, or better.

In the case of Four Seasons, it is a customer service system built through the cross-utilization of discipline and awareness, to bring something remarkable to bear upon the mundane.

What are your customer service systems?  And are they in need of a tuneup?  Food for thought.

[Author’s note: I’ve changed one nonmaterial detail in this article to protect the privacy of a particular hospitality professional.]

 Micah Solomon is a customer experience consultant and keynote speaker on the customer experience, corporate culture, and customer service.

Change Your Cultural Story, Change Your Corporate Results

In the course of working as a consultant to mend corporate cultures (I’m a consultant on company culture and the customer experience and service)  I see a lot of universal mistakes. (In other words: Unhappy companies are often unhappy in similar ways and for similar reasons, Tolstoy notwithstanding.)

The happy part of this means that there are some universal solutions as well.

Let’s look at a cultural problem (and solution) that applies equally to the customer experience and to patient satisfaction in a hospital or other healthcare environment.

But first: What is the point of a mistake? What do you do with it?

I want to ask a question first: What do you do with a mistake? What, to put it a bit oddly, is the point of making a mistake?

The ideal thing to do with a business mistake is to learn to fix the system that lies behind the mistake.  And to learn while fixing the system, as the knowledge you gain there is often applicable to other fixes you’ll soon find you need.

It’s an employee, by and large, who makes the mistake.  But it’s not an employee, by and large, who is behind the mistake.  The system (even if, sadly, sometimes the problematic system is your hiring process), lies behind the mistake.

Systematic storytelling

Now, sometimes, a “system” doesn’t look very systems-like.  Stories, for example, are systems.

In each of the two examples below, what was the system behind the mistake?  In each case, the problem is, in essence, a system of stories, or, really, a lack of systematic storytelling.  Letting the wrong stories dominate in your organization. The stories that should be told around your organization should be about moments where  you found a way to do something extra for a customer (or patient), not the moments where a customer (or patient) “pulled a fast one” and took something as a customer that they weren’t entitled to.

Retail Tales

I was working with a retail organization recently where the company leadership had a sincere desire for employees to treat customers well, to treat them generously. [Note: Details here are, of course, disguised for discretion.]

However, the company CEO, who was also the founder, didn’t realize that she was sabotaging this at every step.  How?  With war story after war story — colorful, well-told, but still — about how this customer or that had ripped her off at one point, kited a check, tried to get two for one, had asked for a discount they didn’t deserve.

The CEO is a great woman. And generous, personally, to a fault.  But these episodes have rankled her in her career, and as a result she vocally shares her frustration.  Which means that the green employees she hires only hear these stories, and think “boy, I better not let any customer get away with anything.” 

Which is exactly the wrong attitude to spread unless you’re a bank auditor.

The company’s core mission — building customer loyalty – just won’t get through if it has to fight against such odds.

Stories matter.  And that’s what was you need to fix here.

One of the clearest gauges of your company culture is how your employees act with customers  when you’re not around.  Sometimes, of course, employees willfully avoid acting the way you want them to, especially when you’re not looking. This happens to companies with weak cultures.  If people were only hired by you for technical skills or because they look the part or because they’re cheap; if they only do your bidding because of intimidation, if you don’t treat them fairly as an employer, then the moment you’re out of the shop is the moment when things will fall apart.

But the problem we’re talking about today is different. It’s the problem of employees who want to do their very best, but who misunderstand their mission. I think this kind of well-intentioned but off the mark behavior is responsible for as many business errors as the willful, intentionally destructive kind.

The solution has a variety of parts, but all of them — for example updating your onboarding process and training, empowering your employees to assist customers, or better defining standards throughout the company — lead ultimately in one direction: fixing the stories a company tells to its employees, and the stories, even more importantly, that they tell to themselves.

*****

Get the good stories in the air early in your organizational history. 

Culture matters.  And stories are one of the ways you get there.  Get the good stories in the air early–if possible, at your startup or microbusiness stage. It will save you time, heartache later.  Less war, more peace.

Micah Solomon is is a customer service consultant, corporate culture consultant, trainer, and bestselling author.

 

There’s More To Patient Satisfaction Than HCAHPS Customer Service Scores: How To Improve Both

In hospital and healthcare settings, many of the questions I get as a consultant and speaker are about HCAHPS and how to improve those scores through training and other means. (I work in a variety of settings, including healthcare, as a  consultant and keynote speaker on customer service and the customer experience, which in this case means patient satisfaction and the patient experience.)

Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon.

Providence Portland Medical Center

(Quick sidebar for the civilians reading this article: HCAHPS are patient satisfaction scores that some government payments are partially tied to. These scores are based on questions–mostly on specific subjects: whether it’s quiet in the hospital, whether your doctor listened to you, and so forth. They also include a couple farther-reaching question, most notably: Whether or not you’re willing to recommend this hospital to others.)

I do like working on HCAHPS. The specific issues covered are not trivial: For example, one question close to any patient’s bladder:  “did you get help in getting to the bathroom or in using a bedpan as soon as you wanted?” And another one that any patient can appreciate: “was the area around your room quiet at night?”

Let’s talk about this second question. Noise is a serious source of stress for patients: It can cause sleeplessness (obviously) as well as increase heart rate and blood pressure. And it also causes stress to an institution when your patients rate your poorly on your HCAHPS score in this area.

Remediation of noise requires a concerted effort on multiple fronts: Building real ceilings on your exam rooms,  fixing that doggone squeaky wheel on the cart, posting “Use Your Inside Voice” or “Patients Sleeping” signs, rethinking your supply deliveries and your shift-change routines. Providence Portland Medical Center is a hospital that has made progress on the issue by installing a system of lights at the nurses’ station: When the noise level rises a light flashes red and an alarm chime (softly) sounds.

But even a hospital that makes itself as quiet as possible and as responsive as possible to impatient patient bladders, the ultimate goal isn’t really to do well on these specific scores. You will fail both with HCAHPS and as an institution if you try to pattern your initiatives and behaviors too closely to HCAHPS without understanding your overall goal.

Here’s The Big Institutional Win

What do I mean? How can I be a fan of HCAHPS and also profess caution here?  What I mean is this: The big win in HCAHPS is if you do well on the question: “Would you recommend this hospital to your friends and family?” Not because it matters disproportionately in the survey’s scoring, but because it holds the key to your institutional future in these days where customer service is truly the new marketing.

Think of the best hospital you can, anywhere in the country.  What comes to mind? Do you think to yourself:
“It’s the best hospital in the country:  It’s quiet there at night!”
“It’s the best hospital in the country: They helped me go to the bathroom when I needed to!”

I doubt it. You think of it as a place where miracles happen, in a medically accurate and humanely compassionate way.

Mayo Clinic

Take Mayo Clinic for example.  They score a bit higher (odds are) than your local hospital in every one of the HCAHPS categories.  But only a bit.  Not a difference so great that they’d be tempted put it on a billboard. However, their scores are night and day better on “willingness to recommend.”

And,  their scores in the real world in terms of recommendations are even more extraordinary:
• 91% of patients who have been to Mayo actually recommend it to others
• On average each patient (of this 91%) makes their recommendation to 40 other people
• Of whom an average of 5 actually consummate the referral receipt by self-admitting to Mayo
And presumably recommend, ultimately, Mayo to 182 additional prospective patients [5*40*.91]

I’m happy to concede that these referral numbers are probably imprecise. They’re not my numbers anyway — I borrowed them from the great Leonard Berry and then extrapolated — and I’m not in a position to defend their accuracy. But as even an approximation, they allow you to see at a glance that Mayo isn’t going out of business any time soon , even if they chose to never spend another penny on marketing.

A Halo Around Your Brand

They’ve achieved the ultimate institutional win:  a halo around their brand.  A halo that comes from a variety of factors. I would argue that great medicine, visible compassion, and extraordinary customer-centered efficiency are among the biggest. And I will also say that a confluence of wins in smaller categories do combine to contribute toward this halo, in a way that patients will not be consciously aware of, but that matter all the same:  exam room and public space design, use of language when addressing a patient and a patient’s loved ones, and much more.

But the halo is only achieved — and casts its light over the entire institution — when an institution knows what its ultimate goal is, and works backward to determine how to achieve it.

A Culture Where The Patient Comes First

The issues measured in HCAHPS matter, but as part of a larger whole: A culture where the patient comes first. If HCAHPS comes first and the goal of a patient-centered culture comes second, the patient-centered culture will be slow to arrive.

Micah Solomon is is a customer service consultant and a customer experience speaker, trainer, and bestselling author. He works inside and outside of healthcare environments

Building a Customer Service Initiative–With the Help of Your Employees

The goal of a customer service/ customer experience initiative – what you can ultimately hope to accomplish – is to learn what your customers appreciate, tolerate, and actively dislike, and to creatively redeploy your attention and resources in ways that help you win customer loyalty and improve your bottom-line success.

In other words, it’s all about getting your company to think like a customer.

If you want to try this on your own, you need to mobilize your employees as an army of consultants. This takes, approximately, two steps:

a) Make it clear throughout your company that it’s your goal to learn everything you can about what life actually looks like to a customer during the time the customer spends with your company

Then:

b) Work with your employees to think systematically about how to improve on your customer’s current reality–moment by customer moment, interaction by customer interaction..

You’ll be impressed at the kinds of issues, and solutions, you’ll turn up in the course of your initiative.

From Taco Bell to Charlie Trotter’s

Here are four colorful, highly non-technical examples (examples, in other words, that I’ve chosen specifically to avoid boring you) of learning to identify with customers, and the subsequent solutions this can lead to.

1. Consider the plight of someone who comes in to dine alone at a restaurant. Surrounded by chatty couples, groups, and families, the lone diner can feel socially awkward and a bit, well, lonely. Time passes more slowly. Food seems to take longer to arrive. What might make things less stressful for a guest in this situation?

Well, one thing you may notice is that those dining alone often bring, or hungrily grab, any available reading material. Bill Bryson recalls getting to the point in a diner of ‘‘reading restaurant placemats, then turning them over to see if there was anything on the back.’’ Therefore, a thoughtful restaurant might establish as procedure to offer a choice of reading material, perhaps a newspaper or newsmagazine, to everyone who comes in to eat alone.That’s a simple, considerate service rule that everybody on staff can implement.

2. It’s the middle of summer,and the customers who are entering your Atlanta boutique are escaping 95-degree heat. What would such customers likely want? Wouldn’t they be pleased to find ice water with lemon slices on the counter when they walk in the door? You can easily establish this procedure as part of a daily weather-dependent setup.

3. Consider those signs that read: ‘‘If this restroom needs attention, please let us know’’ or, worse, the ones you see on airplanes that say, ‘‘It is not possible to clean up after every customer’’ and go on to suggest you sop up the basin with a hand towel as a courtesy to the next customer? The best procedural approach to restroom cleanliness probably isn’t to install similar signs that put the onus on your customers for maintaining a clean facility.

Here’s a unique solution (in an admittedly rarefied setting): the late Charlie Trotter’s famed restaurant in Chicago decided the only way to ensure its restrooms met the restaurant’s standards, rather than leaving the next guest’s experience at the whim of the last, was to themselves discreetly check the towels and soaps after every use.(I don’t necessarily recommend this extreme approach for you, except as a thought exercise; it’s obviously a nonstarter if you run a crowded pub, for example. However, another proactive procedural approach—perhaps an attendant on busy nights—may be worth considering in such a situation.)

4. What if you work for Taco Bell, and want to increase the comfort and happiness of your customers nationwide? Although your brand’s roots are So-Cal, if you’re thinking like a customer, you’d fit watertight overhangs over your drive-through windows in most other locales. Customers in Sacramento might not care, but in Seattle don’t you think they would prefer to skip the side order of soggy elbow and damp power window electronics?

*****
Post-initiative, it’s important to build in mechanisms to ensure that company employees are frequenting your own physical and online facilities, because nothing is quite like the feedback you get this way. We’ve all been to places where it seems no employee has ever eaten the food, attempted to reach the ill-placed toilet paper dispenser in the customer washroom, or noticed the way that items you’re trying to purchase seem to vanish from the website’s shopping cart. To avoid being one of these companies, institutionalize the internal, systematic use and testing of your own services or products. Offer deep discounts or comps for employee purchases, but with a string attached: If employees use your services, they must take detailed notes and—if this is realistic— remain anonymous, so they experience the same service other guests would.

Building procedural anticipation of customer desires and needs requires ongoing, daily effort. It requires managerial vision, judgment, and persistence. But it brings you closer to achieving customer loyalty, and sustainable bottom-line success.

Micah Solomon is is a customer service consultant and a customer experience speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

The Importance Of B2B Customer Service: A Consultant’s Viewpoint

B2B Customer Service Is Mission-Critical, even though it’s sort of unsexy: For vivid anecdotes that everyone can relate to,customer service speakers and consultants tend to stick to examples featuring household, consumer brands: AppleLexusStarbucks-JetBlue and the like. As a keynote speaker and author on customer service, I understand the impetus for this very well: B2C is good, vivid stuff.

Which is why much of what you read and hear about customer service and the customer experience comes from retail, the hospitality industry, restaurant and other foodservice industry scenarios, airlines, automotive industry showrooms, and so forth.

But customer service is of utmost importance in business to business (B2B) as well.  Even though it rarely makes headlines.

The impact of customer service is in fact magnified in B2B:

• In B2B, the individual sale is often bigger

• In B2B, the per-relationship value is almost always large

• Most of all, in B2B, customer service invokes a multiplier effect, for better or for worse:

Consider a supplier, a manufacturer, a vendor, operating at the wholesale level.  The damage caused by poor service — failure to understand, support, and go the extra mile, wherever and whenever needed — can be devastating, due to this cascading effect.

If a subcontractor fails to support its customer, catastrophe can result for the end user, who is purchasing something far more expensive and publicly visible than what the subcontractor at the beginning of the process provided, or failed to provide.

In the B2B environment, we are each a part of the puzzle, a single puzzle piece.  But a puzzle that is missing a single piece is an unsightly, unsalable puzzle.  And all those other puzzle pieces, and the end buyer of the puzzle, are counting on us.

So, even though B2B customer service may not be as sexy or invoke household names as often as B2C, I have at least as much respect for companies that do yeoman work in customer service in manufacturing.  In the construction industry and the building trades. Fabrication. Plumbing supply.  Automotive supply. Information Services and tech support.

A great customer experience here isn’t just a preference.  It’s mission critical.

Micah Solomon is a customer experience consultant, customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

Millennial Customer Consultant Will Ferrell, And What He Can Teach You

I know it’s been a while since Christmas Past, and this article will work best if I start with a quick cinematic recap: In the movie “Elf,” Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a Santa’s Helper now landed in Manhattan after a sheltered North Pole existence.

One day, Buddy spots a sign at a downscale NYC café claiming to be the home of the WORLD’S BEST CUP OF COFFEE.

“You did it!” he tells the startled restaurant workers. “Congratulations! World’s best cup of coffee! Great job, everybody! It’s great to be here.”

Ferrell returns later to the café to share his discovery with his love interest, played by Millennial-generation (born 1980) actress Zooey Deschanel.

She tastes the coffee, gives Ferrell a look, and tells him it tastes like a “crappy cup of coffee.”

The thing is, most of your customers–and certainly most of your Millennial-generation (Gen-Y) customers–aren’t Will Ferrell. Unlike Will’s Buddy-The-Elf character, your customers didn’t grow up at the North Pole. They grew up, instead, being bombarded by advertising claims since they were in utero. And your customers not only don’t believe bold advertising claims, they’re suspicious of companies that make them.

Seattle’s Best Coffee (a brand now under the Starbucks umbrella) has a real-life issue similar to the NYC eatery in “Elf.” Is it really Seattle’s best coffee? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We’ll never know, because by baldly claiming superiority in their name, they’ve done enough to put the more jaded native or wannabe native Seattleites off its brew.

Understatement is one of the secrets of branding, marketing, and advertising in our post-credulity, social media-saturated, millennial (Gen Y) -influenced world.

Understatement in itself isn’t enough to sell something. But it allows room for the customers in your market to feel that they can discover your brand for themselves.

And this room for discovery, for co-creation, is where the magic happens.

Marketing, in other words, isn’t exactly dead. But it works interactionally with the customer experience. And excessive marketing claims can actually affect, negatively, the customer’s impression of that experience. In other words, buzz and respect for a brand online, in social media, and IRL (In the Real World) tend to follow what I call the Reverse Will Ferrell Principle.

Here’s an example from a recent hotel stay at a location in Florida that I will, out of mercy, leave undisclosed. On the one hand, the service at this hotel was pretty much fine. And much of the food was highly edible. Yet I was peeved from the moment I got there. 

Why?

 The website’s copy that had enticed me to book the reservation in the first place.

Here, let me quote from the hotel’s website:
• “Minutes from the airport” (it was thirty minutes — a $38 cab ride — from the airport)

• “and minutes from the beach” (it’s 35–thirty-five–minutes to the beach; I couldn’t afford the cab ride so I never went)

• “Located on a lush nature preserve” (the nature preserve had been closed three years earlier because venomous snakes bit too many joggers–a situation that sounds ripped from a novel by the great scribe of Floridian chaos and kitsch, Carl Hiassen)
• 
”Incredible landscaping” (the landscaping is apparently all in the above-mentioned nature preserve; other than that, there’s concrete and fencing and signs warning me not to feed the raccoons).

You can imagine the, uh, colorful hotel review I started writing in my head. It would have been a notably different mental review if I hadn’t been lured to the hotel by false marketing premises. 
 
Over-promises are a heavy load for any brand, no matter how good, to carry.
___________

Here are three understated approaches that are more skeptic-friendly, more Millennial friendly, and ultimately more buzz-friendly:

“Coming Soon-ish (A window poster for an upcoming –or upcoming-ish — Potbelly restaurant in Seattle)

“Probably The Best Beer in Town” (signage for Carlsberg in downtown Copenhagen)

And perhaps my favorite, because it tells it like it is (sorry, I don’t have a photo): A huge Miller Beer billboard I saw near an underpass in Chicago, with the copy “Ready For A Nice Macrobrew?”

___________

There’s a lot more to marketing to skeptics, millennial or otherwise. But that’s enough for today. I’m going to settle down with a nice, virtual macrobrew.

Micah Solomon is a customer experience consultant, customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

Corporate Culture: Consulting The Customer-Centric Approaches Of The Greats

“People tell me my employees act differently when there aren’t any managers watching over them.”

As a corporate culture consultant and as a speaker, I hear clients frequently voicing this concern. And, it’s a concern that is absolutely on the money.

Without a consciously created culture, your business leadership won’t last past the moment that you leave the building.  Any vacation – or even lunch break – that you take is an invitation for disaster.

But with a great company culture, employees will be motivated, regardless of management’s presence or absence.

A strong, consciously developed pro-customer (and pro-employee) company culture is a business advantage that will serve you for years—and inoculate your brand against competitive inroads.

And unlike other business advantages, a strong company culture is almost entirely knockoff-proof.  Why?  Your competitors can be 100% relied on to not take the time to focus on the long-time-frame commitment needed to build one.
Consider for a minute Southwest Airlines and the lengthy list of would-be category killers that have tried to imitate it:

United Airlines’ United Shuttle.

Continental Airlines’ Continental Lite.

Delta’s Delta Express

US Airways’ Metrojet

And the one with the cutest name of all, Ted, a tiny little division of United (get it?)

What did these competitors lack: Money?  Name recognition?  Hardly.  They lacked Southwest’s relentless focus on culture, something that none of these pop-up competitors was willing to slow down to emulate.  And all are now, of course, out of business.

Here’s why a focus on culture is so powerful in ensuring success with customers:

• The number of interactions at a business between customers and staff is nearly infinite, and only a strong, clear pro-customer culture gives you a fighting chance of getting the preponderance of these interactions right.

• The current technological revolution amplifies the problems of not having the correct culture:  Employees not acting in their customers’ best interest will end up having their actions broadcast over Twitter within minutes.

Business realities are continually changing, and only a strong culture is going to help you respond to, capitalize on, and drive forward these changes in order to serve customers and show your business in the best light.

How to make a customer-centered culture happen

Here’s a list of 7 straightforward steps toward creating a customer-centric culture, also featured in my book,  High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service.

1. Articulate your central philosophy, in just a few words if possible: a few meaningful words. That’s right: a company’s culture can begin with words, but those words need to represent a decision—something you actually stand for, a decision then expressed in the clearest, and ideally fewest, words. Find a central operating principle.  Think of the Ritz-Carlton’s “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” or Mayo Clinic’s  “The needs of the patient come first.”

2. Elaborate on your central philosophy with a brief list of core values — a list short enough that every employee can understand, memorize, and internalize it, yet long enough to be meaningful. Your core values should cover how customers, employees, and vendors should be treated at all times.

3. Reinforce your commitment to these values continually. You may want to go as far as to devote five minutes every morning you stress one value, or an aspect of one value, at your departmental meeting. (This is what the Ritz-Carlton does.)  If that’s too often for your business reality or sensibilities, do it weekly. But don’t save it for the annual company picnic. Annual anything is the enemy of ‘‘core.’’

4. Make it visual. The Ritz-Carlton has ‘‘credo cards’’— laminated accordion-fold cards that each employee carries during work hours. The brand’s entire core beliefs, plus shared basics of guest and employee interactions, fit on that card. (Horst Schulze, the legendary founder of the modern-day Ritz-Carlton, says people chuckled twenty years ago when he said ‘‘laminated card’’; they’re not laughing now.) Zappos highlights one of its core values on each box it ships out. And sometimes ‘‘visual’’ doesn’t mean words at all. One way that FedEx shows that safety is a core value is via the orange shoulder belts in its vans: Everyone can see—from twenty-five yards away—that the driver’s wearing a belt.

5. Make them the focus of orientation. That way, if safety is one of your core values and you stress this at orientation, on day two, when the new employee’s coworker tells him ‘‘In this restaurant, we stack the high chairs in front of the emergency exit when we need more room to do our prep work’’ [This is a real-life example, unfortunately], the new employee will experience cognitive dissonance and work on a way to align the actions of the company with the core values they’re supposed to reflect.

6. Train, support, hire, and, if necessary, use discipline to enforce what’s important to you. A core values statement is two-dimensional until you bring it to life—with the right people and energetic guidance. ‘‘Maintaining a culture is like raising a teenager,’’ says Ray Davis, President and CEO of Umpqua Bank, a the Pacific-Northwest-based  U.S. retail bank that’s consistently top rated for service. ‘‘You’re constantly checking in. What are you doing? Where are you going? Who are you hanging out with?’’ And, sometimes, you have to use some tough love when that teenager is acting up in ways that don’t support the culture you’re working to build.

7. Finally, include the wider world: Your people want to be part of an organization with a sense of purpose. Pizza parties and overtime pay (and even, believe it or not, stock options) only go so far. More inspirational: A version of a corporate  “triple bottom line,” such as Southwest’s “Performance – People – Planet” commitment and annual report card. Or Ritz-Carlton’s “Community Footprints” social and environmental responsibility program. Or the story Umpqua Bank Regional VP Michele Livingston told me recently, about her employees visiting the homes of disabled customers to help them fill out their paperwork.  Now that’s really something.

Micah Solomon is a customer experience consultant, customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

Customer Service Recovery Tips For How To Compensate A Customer

No matter how superb your product or service is, everyone in business eventually needs to find the answer to this question:

“How should I compensate a customer for a service or product failure?”

And the answer to the question is this: It depends. Customers have diverse values and preferences, varying even from day to day as well as from customer to customer—so your employees working with disgruntled customers need to be given enormous discretion.

Still: There are principles that almost always apply:

1. Most customers understand that things can and will go wrong. What they don’t  understand, accept, or find interesting are excuses. For example, they don’t care about your org chart: Your mentioning that a problem originated in a different department is of no interest to them.

2. Don’t panic. With most customers and in most situations, customers’ sense of trust and camaraderie increases after a problem is successfully resolved, compared to if you had never had the problem in the first place. This make sense, since you now have a shared experience: You have solved something by working closely together.

3. Avoid assuming you know what solution a customer wants or ‘‘should’’ want. Ask. And if a customer makes a request that sounds extreme or absurd, don’t rush to dismiss it. Even if it seems on its face impossible, there may be a creative way to make the requested solution, or something a lot like it, happen.

4. Don’t strive for ‘‘fairness’’ or ‘‘justice.’’  Creating, or preserving, a customer’s warm feelings for a company isn’t about fairness or justice. It’s about being treated especially well.

5. Learn from customer issues, but don’t use them as an opportunity to discipline or train your staff in front of your customer. This may sound obvious, but it happens quite often. Watch out for this flaw, especially when you’re under stress.

6. Don’t imagine you’re doing something special for a customer by making things how they should have been in the first place. Time cannot be given back—it’s gone. The chance to get it right the first time? It’s gone. So re-creating how things should have been is just a first step. You need to then give the customer something extra. If you aren’t sure which ‘‘extra’’ to offer a particular customer, just make it clear you want to offer something. If the customer doesn’t like red lollipops or doesn’t eat sugar, she’ll let you know. Then you can decide together on a different treat.

7. …And always, always, keep an eye on the lifetime value–directly and as a vocal supporter–of having a loyal, engaged customer. A loyal customer is likely worth a small fortune to your company when considered over a decade or two of regular purchases, not to mention that customer’s “network value”–the value of her or his recommendations online and off.

Perhaps in your business this number is a few thousand dollars, or perhaps it’s hundreds of thousands. It’s well worth figuring out that number and keeping it in mind if you ever feel that temptation to quarrel with a customer over, say, an overnight shipping bill.

Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant and a customer experience speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

sorry we're open signage © Micah Solomon - micah@micahsolomon.com

 

A Customer-Centric Approach To Shaking Up Your Corporate Culture

Clients frequently voice the same concern to me, in my work as  a corporate culture consultant and as a speaker:

“People tell me my employees act differently when there aren’t any managers watching over them.”

This concern is absolutely on the money. And you as a business leader should be worried about the same thing yourself.

Don’t take that lunch break

Without a consciously created culture, your business leadership won’t last past the moment that you leave the building.  Any vacation – or even lunch break – that you take is an invitation for disaster.

But with a great company culture, employees will be motivated, regardless of management’s presence or absence.

A strong, consciously developed pro-customer (and pro-employee) company culture is a business advantage that will serve you for years—and inoculate your brand against competitive inroads.

Knockoff-proof

And unlike other business advantages, a strong company culture is almost entirely knockoff-proof.  Why?  Your competitors can be 100% relied on to not take the time to focus on the long-time-frame commitment needed to build one.

Consider for a minute Southwest Airlines and the lengthy list of would-be category killers that have tried to imitate it:

Ted Airlines logo

Ted Airlines Logo (RIP)

United Airlines’ United Shuttle.

Continental Airlines’ Continental Lite.

Delta’s Delta Express

US Airways’ Metrojet

And the one with the cutest name of all, Ted, a tiny little division of United (get it?)

What did these competitors lack: Money?  Name recognition?  Hardly.  They lacked Southwest’s relentless focus on culture, something that none of these pop-up competitors was willing to slow down to emulate.  And all are now, of course, out of business.

Here’s why a focus on culture is so powerful in ensuring success with customers:

• The number of interactions at a business between customers and staff is nearly infinite, and only a strong, clear pro-customer culture gives you a fighting chance of getting the preponderance of these interactions right.

• The current technological revolution amplifies the problems of not having the correct culture:  Employees not acting in their customers’ best interest will end up having their actions broadcast over Twitter within minutes.

Business realities are continually changing, and only a strong culture is going to help you respond to, capitalize on, and drive forward these changes in order to serve customers and show your business in the best light.

How to make a customer-centered culture happen

Here’s a list of 7 straightforward steps toward creating a customer-centric culture, also featured in my newest book,  High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service.

1. Articulate your central philosophy, in just a few words if possible: a few meaningful words. That’s right: a company’s culture can begin with words, but those words need to represent a decision—something you actually stand for, a decision then expressed in the clearest, and ideally fewest, words. Find a central operating principle.  Think of the Ritz-Carlton’s “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” or Mayo Clinic’s  “The needs of the patient come first.”

Mayo Clinic Plummer Building (seen from Mayo B...

Mayo Clinic Plummer Building

2. Elaborate on your central philosophy with a brief list of core values — a list short enough that every employee can understand, memorize, and internalize it, yet long enough to be meaningful. Your core values should cover how customers, employees, and vendors should be treated at all times.

3. Reinforce your commitment to these values continually. You may want to go as far as to devote five minutes every morning you stress one value, or an aspect of one value, at your departmental meeting. (This is what the Ritz-Carlton does.)  If that’s too often for your business reality or sensibilities, do it weekly. But don’t save it for the annual company picnic. Annual anything is the enemy of ‘‘core.’’

4. Make it visual. The Ritz-Carlton has ‘‘credo cards’’— laminated accordion-fold cards that each employee carries during work hours. The brand’s entire core beliefs, plus shared basics of guest and employee interactions, fit on that card. (Horst Schulze, the legendary founder of the modern-day Ritz-Carlton, says people chuckled twenty years ago when he said ‘‘laminated card’’; they’re not laughing now.) Zappos highlights one of its core values on each box it ships out. And sometimes ‘‘visual’’ doesn’t mean words at all. One way that FedEx shows that safety is a core value is via the orange shoulder belts in its vans: Everyone can see—from twenty-five yards away—that the driver’s wearing a belt.

Ritz-Carlton Logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5. Make them the focus of orientation. That way, if safety is one of your core values and you stress this at orientation, on day two, when the new employee’s coworker tells him ‘‘In this restaurant, we stack the high chairs in front of the emergency exit when we need more room to do our prep work’’ [This is a real-life example, unfortunately], the new employee will experience cognitive dissonance and work on a way to align the actions of the company with the core values they’re supposed to reflect.

6. Train, support, hire, and, if necessary, use discipline to enforce what’s important to you. A core values statement is two-dimensional until you bring it to life—with the right people and energetic guidance. ‘‘Maintaining a culture is like raising a teenager,’’ says Ray Davis, President and CEO of Umpqua Bank, a the Pacific-Northwest-based  U.S. retail bank that’s consistently top rated for service. ‘‘You’re constantly checking in. What are you doing? Where are you going? Who are you hanging out with?’’ And, sometimes, you have to use some tough love when that teenager is acting up in ways that don’t support the culture you’re working to build.

7. Finally, include the wider world: Your people want to be part of an organization with a sense of purpose. Pizza parties and overtime pay (and even, believe it or not, stock options) only go so far. More inspirational: A version of a corporate  “triple bottom line,” such as Southwest’s “Performance – People – Planet” commitment and annual report card. Or Ritz-Carlton’s “Community Footprints” social and environmental responsibility program. Or the story Umpqua Bank Regional VP Michele Livingston told me recently, about her employees visiting the homes of disabled customers to help them fill out their paperwork.  Now that’s really something.

Micah Solomon is is a customer service consultant and a customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

The Movie ‘Elf’ Can Teach You Secrets For Marketing To Millennial Customers

 

Will Ferrell In "Elf"I’m a keynote speaker and consultant on customer service and marketing and, often, on where the two meet. (In other words, I don’t do movie reviews.)

But I know it’s been a while since Christmas, and this article will work best if I start with a quick cinematic recap: In the movie “Elf,” Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a Santa’s Helper now landed in Manhattan after a sheltered North Pole existence.

One day, Buddy spots a sign at a downscale NYC café claiming to be the home of the WORLD’S BEST CUP OF COFFEE.

“You did it!” he tells the startled restaurant workers. “Congratulations! World’s best cup of coffee! Great job, everybody! It’s great to be here.”

Ferrell returns later to the café to share his discovery with his love interest, played by Millennial-generation (born 1980) actress Zooey Deschanel.

She tastes the coffee, gives Ferrell a look, and tells him it tastes like a “crappy cup of coffee.”

The thing is, most of your customers–and certainly most of your Millennial-generation (Gen-Y) customers–aren’t Will Ferrell. Unlike Will’s Buddy-The-Elf character, your customers didn’t grow up at the North Pole.  They grew up, instead, being bombarded by advertising claims since they were in utero.  And your customers not only don’t believe bold advertising claims, they’re suspicious of companies that make them.

Seattle's truly best coffee ? by Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

Image ©  Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

Is It Really Seattle’s Best Coffee? We’ll Never Know.

Seattle’s Best Coffee (a brand now under the Starbucks umbrella) has a real-life issue similar to the NYC eatery in “Elf.” Is it really Seattle’s best coffee? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We’ll never know, because by baldly claiming superiority in their name, they’ve done enough to put the more jaded native or wannabe native Seattleites off its brew.

To Be Great, Understate

Understatement is one of the secrets of branding, marketing, and advertising in our post-credulity, social media-saturated, millennial (Gen Y) -influenced world.

Understatement in itself isn’t enough to sell something.  But it allows room for the customers in your market to feel that they can discover your brand for themselves.

And this room for discovery, for co-creation, is where the magic happens.

Marketing, in other words, isn’t exactly dead. But it works interactionally with the customer experience. And excessive marketing claims can actually affect, negatively, the customer’s impression of that experience. In other words, buzz and respect for a brand online, in social media, and IRL (In the Real World) tend to follow what I call the Reverse Will Ferrell Principle.

Do not feed raccoons sign florida

Image © Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

Fawlty Towers of Hotel Hype

Here’s an example from a recent hotel stay at a location in Florida that I will, out of mercy, leave undisclosed. On the one hand, the service at this hotel was pretty much fine.  And much of the food was highly edible. Yet I was peeved from the moment I got there. 

Why?

 The website’s copy that had enticed me to book the reservation in the first place.

Here, let me quote from the hotel’s website:
•  “Minutes from the airport” (it was thirty minutes — a $38 cab ride — from the airport)

• “and minutes from the beach” (it’s 35--thirty-five--minutes to the beach; I couldn’t afford the cab ride so I never went)

• “Located on a lush nature preserve” (the nature preserve had been closed three years earlier because venomous snakes bit too many joggers–a situation that sounds ripped from a novel by the great scribe of Floridian chaos and kitsch, Carl Hiassen)
• 
”Incredible landscaping” (the landscaping is apparently all in the above-mentioned nature preserve; other than that, there’s concrete and fencing and signs warning me not to feed the raccoons).

You can imagine the, uh, colorful hotel review I started writing in my head.  It would have been a notably different mental review  if I hadn’t been lured to the hotel by false marketing premises. 
 
Over-promises are a heavy load for any brand, no matter how good, to carry.
___________

Here Are Three Understated, Buzz-Friendly Approaches

Potbelly buildout window sign: "coming soon-ish" ©micah@micahsolomon.com

Image © Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

probably the best beer in town - carlsberg signage

Image © Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

Some understated approaches that are more skeptic-friendly, more Millennial friendly, and ultimately more buzz-friendly:

“Coming Soon-ish (A window poster for an upcoming –or upcoming-ish — Potbelly restaurant in Seattle)

 

Probably The Best Beer in Town” (signage for Carlsberg in downtown Copenhagen)

And perhaps my favorite, because it tells it like it is (sorry, I don’t have a photo):  A huge Miller Beer billboard I saw near an underpass in Chicago, with the copy “Ready For A Nice Macrobrew?”

___________

There’s a lot more to marketing to skeptics, millennial or otherwise.  But that’s enough for today.  I’m going to settle down with a nice, virtual macrobrew.

Micah Solomon is is a customer service consultant and a customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.