Six Strategies to Set Your Business Apart
It takes customer service and more for a small company to compete in today’s world of big box stores, and
C-Suite Leader Since:
Shep Hyken is a customer service and experience expert, researcher, and a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. Shep works with companies and organizations that want to build loyal relationships with their customers and employees. His articles have been read in hundreds of publications, and he’s the author of 8 books, including his latest, I’ll Be Back: How to Get Customers to Come Back Again and Again. He is also the creator of The Customer Focus™, a customer service training program that helps clients develop a customer service culture and loyalty mindset.
It takes customer service and more for a small company to compete in today’s world of big box stores, and
Some e-newsletters are sent weekly. Some are even sent daily, like an email I get from RetailWire.com, a publication that is read each day by thousands of people in the retail industry. This is the number one forum for discussions about issues that are important to their industry. Even though RetailWire.com focuses on the retail industry, many articles are relevant to virtually every business in every industry.
Here is an example: a recent article in RetailWire asked, “Will virtual reality make brick-and-mortar stores less relevant?” Just in case you haven’t experienced virtual reality, allow me to describe the process and the incredible results. After you put on a goggles-like device, you can see the most amazing three dimensional images and videos. Okay, let’s get back to the question. My response is that virtual reality and augmented reality are just enhanced ways of viewing and experiencing products online. That’s all. Sure, they will change the way people shop online, but that’s still “virtual” shopping. It’s not real! For example, you can’t actually touch the material to determine the quality of the suit or dress you’re looking at through a virtual reality headset. You can’t try it on either. So, how could this technology make physical stores less relevant?
Actually, the discussion of physical stores becoming irrelevant is not new but has been a topic of conversation for years. Do you know when the first online purchase was made? Nearly 23 years ago! According to a video produced by Shopify, an online shopping software program, the first online transaction was on August 11, 1994. On that date, a friend bought a Sting CD over the internet through Dan Kohn’s online startup company. Many people claimed though this radical way of doing business would never work. People would never buy online. Well, never say never. Shortly after that CD purchase, Amazon came into being.
How far have we come from there? Research from Adobe claims that last year’s Black Friday’s online sales were over $3 billion. And Cyber Monday’s sales, just three days later, were also over $3 billion. In fact, Forrester predicts that by the year 2020, just three years from now, online sales will exceed $523 billion!
So, should brick-and-mortar retailers be scared? Maybe … if they aren’t willing to change. There have always been companies in virtually every industry that haven’t been willing to change that have found a path to extinction. So, here is the lesson:
Business – in all industries – is changing. The old saying is true: The only thing that is constant is change. So, get used to it.
Will online stores kill physical stores?
Did ATM’s eliminate bank tellers?
Did “Video Kill the Radio Star” when MTV went live back in 1981?
The answers are no, no and no!
Yes, the consumer is migrating to do more shopping online. The result may make a physical store a little less “relevant” – but it certainly won’t make the retailer less relevant! A retailer, as anyone or any company in business, must adjust and change. A retailer won’t become less relevant simply because sales are moving from in-store to online. It will be because the retailer doesn’t adapt to the way their customers want to buy.
It’s the same for every business. Your customers buying habits are changing. Adapt or watch your business die a slow and painful death. To ensure future existence and profitability, you must be willing to change – as your customers change.
Would you like to own a really cool website?
Since my life’s mission is to help companies create a customer service experience that their customers would think is amazing, I thought that could be demonstrated well if I owned the domain name CustomerService.com. But then I also thought that certainly some company totally focused on their customers would already own it. So, I typed the URL into an Internet browser, and do you know what I found? The site was for sale! Nobody was currently using this domain.
I thought that it would be neat for my brand to be the owner of this domain. But how much of an investment would that require? Well, I found out that the investment would be substantial, at least by my standards. I would love to have an asset that would brand me to customer service forever. However, budget is an issue for me, and domain names like these sell for really big dollars.
Well, if I can’t own it, which other brands can you think of who would love to have their name associated with CustomerService.com? The first ones that came to my mind were the obvious shining stars in the world of customer experience: American Express, Amazon, Ace Hardware, Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton, Lexus, Zappos … The brands you know and trust for providing amazing service.
But what about a brand … like Comcast? Just a few years ago, a phone call from a customer to their support center was handled poorly and it ended up going viral across the Internet. Since then, Comcast has been working hard to improve their reputation. So, would owning CustomerSerivce.com help them along this path? If so, they better hurry before one of their competitors, like AT&T or Sprint, beats them to it.
Whomever does decide to buy the name should be prepared to pay quite a hefty price for it. The present owners will likely eventually sell the domain name, but for more than seven figures. For the right brand, though, it may be well worth the price. For example, who better to own Toys.com than Toys ‘R’ Us? In 2009 they paid $5.1 million for the site. And if you’re in the mortgage business, it seems like Loans.com would be a natural fit. In 2000 Bank of America bought the domain name for $3 million. Just imagine owning a URL that could help define who you are.
So, which brand do you think should own CustomerService.com? Why not you?
Hypothetically (or even maybe not), what if you did own the URL? To be authentic, that would mean you would also need to live up to “owning” customer service. Do you believe you are worthy of owning it? More importantly, do you believe that your customers would agree that you are worthy of owning it? If you did own the site, would you do anything differently than you’re doing now to live up to the expectation of a brand that owned CustomerService.com?
These are good questions. So, pretend you do own the URL. Take a few moments to answer the above questions as though you do own the name. Your answers may give you a few ideas on how to deliver to your customers an even better experience. The point is, whether you own CustomerService.com or not, treat your customers as though you do.
Do you remember the hit TV show M*A*S*H, which played from 1972 to 1983, and was based on the novel and movie by the same name? While you might consider the show a sitcom, many critics viewed it as a “dramedy,” instead of a comedy, because of its heavy dramatic setting, which was a medical unit during the Korean War. Sure, the show created a lot of laughs, but the message behind the show was very serious. But what does M*A*S*H have to do with customer service?
One of the characters of the show, Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, played by Gary Burghoff, actually was the customer service department for the M*A*S*H unit. Radar worked for Colonel Potter, who led the unit. It always led to laughs whenever Colonel Potter barked out a request for a file, only to have Radar walking into his office with that file, even before the Colonel had finished making his request. It was as though he could read his leader’s mind, or as his nickname indicates, as though he had radar.
This frequently-played humorous incident from the show reminded me of another incident – an interview I had recently with a potential employee who was applying to be my assistant here at Shepard Presentations. During the interview, I asked her, “What makes a good assistant?” She simply replied, “Radar O’Reilly.” When I asked her to explain this unexpected, brief answer, she said, “Oh, that’s the kind of assistant I want to be – knowing what you want before you even ask for it.”
I thought it was an excellent response. Whether you are assisting an executive or assisting a customer, one of the many attributes of someone who delivers outstanding customer service is the ability to anticipate a customer’s needs – like Radar, knowing what he or she wants even before they ask.
This doesn’t take E.S.P., Extra Sensory Perception, which is the ability to read minds. Instead, it takes what I call E.A.P., or Extra Awareness Perception, which is the ability to know more, because you are simply more aware and are paying closer attention than the average employee. That’s it. Just pay close attention to your customers, their behaviors, and their habits. When you begin to study your customers, and get to know them and their habits, you’ll be able to anticipate or predict, with uncanny accuracy, what they will ask for next – sometimes even before they know they need to ask.
So, as we think about Radar O’Reilly’s uncanny ability to anticipate Colonel Potter needs, see if you can also determine what your customers are going to ask for next. If you try it, you may find that your guess is more accurate than you think. Take the initiative and deliver a standard of customer service that would make Radar proud. The result will be … customer amazement!
Just imagine zooming all over the world in a private jet. Jordan Zabel, the Director of Sales for Jet Linx, a private jet company that offers their services to corporate and private members, could make that a reality for you.
As you can also imagine, Zabel deals with high-end customers who expect high-end customer service everywhere they go, because anyone that can afford that kind of service has very discriminating taste … and often along with it, sky-high expectations.
But Zabel knows how to do his job well. He knows that he needs to deliver the highest possible level of customer service. Further, once the sale is made, he knows what it will take to keep those customers in their seats, which is to maintain that same level of stellar service he demonstrated through the sales process, while maybe even increasing the altitude a bit.
As you probably expect, high-priced service usually is accompanied by an outstanding customer experience. Just think of the level of customer care that exquisite hotels like the Four Seasons provide. So what is the challenge for people like Jordan Zabel who deal with these high-end clients?
Zabel explains, “Too many times a company’s marketing propaganda just doesn’t match the customers’ experiences after the sale. It’s all just hype. Hot air. At Jet Linx, I always want my customers to know their decision to do business with us was a good one, anytime they think of us.”
To put it another way, Zabel wants to deliver the promises and meet the expectations that were initially promised in the marketing materials he handed his prospects-turned-customers. After the sale, he wants his customers to keep telling themselves that they made the right decision to choose him and Jet Linx in the first place.
As the customer goes through this process of self-confirmation, ask yourself, “What am I doing before, during and after the sale that continuously reinforces the customer’s initial choice to do business with me?”
If you have good sales skills, sure, that can get some people to come through the door. But what about getting those customers to re-enter that door, again and again? What happens after the customer’s buying decision is made is what really counts. That’s the key to continual success and a steady cash flow. You can help to guarantee that success by delivering consistent, amazing customer service after the sale.
Customer experience design speaker and trainer Joey Coleman talks about a concept he calls The First 100 Days. What happens during the first 100 days after the sale can confirm that the customer made a good decision to work with you. We want our customers, at any time, to always be self-confirming their initial buying decision. When they do, it will lead to the next sale, and the next. It will build a stronger relationship. It can potentially lead to customer loyalty and maybe, if we are lucky, even evangelism, where your customers share their positive experiences about you with their family, friends and colleagues. That’s the power of delivering a level of customer service that self-confirms a customer’s choice to do business with you!
It seems like everybody is using the term “customer-centric company.” But what does the phrase really mean?
Let’s start off our discussion by turning to the authority when doing online research – Google. When you Google the term customer centric (or centricity), you will find many definitions from many different sources, yet they all are remarkably similar. I like to use the term customer-focused instead of customer-centric. Most people would agree that a general definition of a customer-centric or customer-focused organization is one in which everything that is done is centered around the customer. In other words, before any decision is made, it is the customer who is foremost in each decision maker’s mind. The customer comes first in every new system being developed, every new line of merchandise being designed, every new location that is being discussed, every website change that is being considered – in one word, everything – will first merit a discussion about how it will impact the customer. In addition, all employees understand their role in creating the customer’s experience, even those employees who may never have direct contact with a customer.
Consider the following two examples.
After receiving multiple requests from its customers, a manufacturer decides to add a new splash of color to an existing line of merchandise. Why? It won’t cost much to set up for the new color and it’s a reasonable request. Thus, the customers are pleased because they now have an extra choice. The company’s decision was made easy because they knew their customers were asking for it. The company listened to their customers and then acted. The company knew that the decision to add another color to the line would make a positive customer impact. This one was easy.
But, what about a tough decision that a company knows will not be received well by the customer, such as a price increase? How do you make a decision like this while remaining customer focused?
Raising the price may not make the customer happy, but what might happen if the company doesn’t take this action? If the price doesn’t go up, something else may have to go down. Not raising the price might result in a drop in quality or service. The company may simply need to raise prices, even knowing the customer will not be happy. Or maybe the decision is about something behind the scenes that may be invisible to the customer, but may still may have a negative impact on the customer. An example might be a discussion to switch to an inferior supplier. If the correct decision is not made, it may affect the customer in an even greater way than a price increase.
Customer centricity shouldn’t be a concept that is just given lip service. It needs to be woven into the very fiber of the organization’s culture. The employees need to become the threads of the fabric, which is the culture that permeates throughout the organization. The best companies are like this. So, if you haven’t acted already, make the decision for your organization to be customer-focused. As a result, you will positively impact your customers, your employees and your bottom line.
Do you have policies or rules that are so strict that makes it nearly impossible for your employees to deliver the kind of customer service you actually want them to deliver?
In situations like these, common sense needs to prevail – especially when it comes to customer service – but following common sense is not always common, as evidenced by the following example.
Recently, I was sitting on an airplane next to somebody who was headed for a cruise ship vacation. The two of us started a discussion about how some employees are so set in their ways that they can’t think of creative ways to solve a customer’s problem. These kinds of people are so tied to their “systems” and the way they have always done things that they can negatively impact the relationships they have with their customers, even when common sense should prevail.
My fellow passenger has been on numerous cruises – and as good the customer service is on most cruises, he said you can always find a few of the ship’s employees that are more focused following the system or the process rather than on satisfying their customer. He then shared a few stories from his past trip about how some crew members lacked common sense. For some reason, I began to think of the Titanic and the story of how the eight-member band on the ship continued to play, even after the ship started sinking.
I wasn’t sure if the story of the band playing while the ship was going down was actually true, so I did a little research. Well, I found out that the reason the band kept playing was that Wallace Hartley, the band’s leader, had asked the band to continue to play because he thought it would help to calm the chaos that was ensuing all around them.
Maybe that was true, but to create a customer service lesson, I’d like to take some creative license and bend this story a bit. My fictitious version of the story has nothing to do with keeping the passengers calm. In my version, Mr. Hartley says, “Keep playing. We still have two hours to go in our set.” Meanwhile, the other passengers had already vacated the ship to save themselves, so the only sounds on that could be heard on the ship were coming from the band’s instruments. Yet the band played on … as they went down with the ship.
The point to the story is that, if common sense had prevailed, Mr. Hartley’s band would have stopped playing immediately and tried to save themselves. Like the rest of the passengers, the band should have headed for the life rafts. But, sometimes people are trapped in a rut caused by following processes and systems for so long that they disregard common sense … even when the ship is going down.
So, what does this have to do with customer service? The best companies hire people who follow the rules, but who are also smart, adaptive, problem-solving, customer-focused people. When it comes to preserving relationships with customers, they look for ways to work around having to say NO and come up with ways to say YES. They don’t get stuck on company policy. Yes, they work within the rules, but they also understand flexibility. They will do what’s right for both the company and the customer. In short, they use common sense, especially when the ship is going down – or when a customer is angry.
The problem lasted two and a half hours and caused 200 flight delays and six cancellations. No, this wasn’t just a single unhappy customer complaining to a gate agent at the airport. These were the results of a recent widespread computer outage at United Airlines. Thus, thousands of people were inconvenienced. I would describe a two-plus-hour delayed flight as a Moment of Misery™.
This outage resulted in thousands of passengers becoming angry. Yet, problems like this are seemingly unavoidable; just last year it happened to Delta and Southwest. Sometimes it may not be a computer glitch, but a weather problem that can cause airline delays. Yet every cloud can have a silver lining; this is an example of a mini-case study on how to handle a customer service crisis.
I did not witness what happened at the airport when passengers approached United’s gate agents for help, nor did I listen on the phone lines as passengers tried to reach their customer service representatives. I’m sure there were both long lines and long hold times. Those individual interactions turned out either good or bad because of the individual employees’ attitudes and how well they had been trained to handle such situations. Instead, what I am about to address is the overall response that United Airlines made, and how it was an excellent example of what to do in a crisis.
I teach a five-step process on how to deal with a complaining customer, and for those who follow my work, here is a short review:
1. Acknowledge the problem.
2. Apologize for the problem.
3. Fix the problem – or discuss how it will be fixed.
4. Do it with the right attitude – not just being nice, but acting accountable.
5. Doing all of this with a sense of urgency.
Well, you can extend how you should deal with an individual customer to the way you should deal with a service crisis that impacts thousands of customers.
First, United acknowledged and apologized for the inconvenience. They covered the first two steps. United responded to media inquiries and tweeted out to all of their followers: A ground stop is in place for domestic flights due to an IT issue. We’re working on a resolution. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Then they fixed it, accomplishing step three.
Step four was complete when they accepted responsibility. No excuses. Maddie King, a spokesperson for United, met with the press and told them they were working to fix the problem. In other words, United was owning the problem.
Finally, there was a sense of urgency throughout the entire process. Because United worked hard and fast, it took them just two and a half hours to fix the problem. The key to restoring confidence is urgency.
So, whether you have a single customer complaining or a major service crisis affecting thousands of customers, consider the five-step process, which not only fixes what is broken, but can potentially restore the customer’s confidence. And, done well, the process may even restore the customer’s confidence to a level higher than if the problem had never happened at all.
Shep Hyken is a customer service expert, keynote speaker and New York Times bestselling business author. For information contact or www.hyken.com. For information on The Customer Focus™ customer service training programs go to www.thecustomerfocus.com. Follow on Twitter: @Hyken
Everyone needs great customer service skills because every employee deals with internal and external customers, or both.
“But what exactly are the traits an employee needs?” a subscriber asked me recently.
“Are you asking about the traits that a support rep must have?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “I am hiring to fill an IT position.”
First, I told him, as you think of traits, they come in two categories: skills and attitudes. A skill is self-explanatory. For instance, if you’re hiring someone who will be doing a lot of corresponding with customers, you’ll obviously need someone with good communication skills – a command of the English language, as in punctuation, spelling and grammar. An attitude is the way you would describe someone’s personal characteristics. For example, he or she is optimistic, witty or a team player.
To determine traits, we do an exercise in our customer focus workshops. We set a large whiteboard or flipchart in front of the audience. Then we ask the audience to shout out the traits of someone who would be good at customer service. As you can imagine, we get lots of adjectives. A few of them are:
Confident, empathetic, engaging, friendly, funny, good communicator, good people skills, happy, helpful, honest, kind, knowledgeable, nice, outgoing, passionate, poised, polite, positive, responsive, sympathetic – and the list typically goes on.
As you closely examine the list above, notice how many are skills and how many are attitudes. You’ll find that most of the traits are attitudes while just a few are skills! “Good communicator” and “good people skills” are obviously skills. You can even argue that “knowledgeable” is also a skill. But we find that out of the twenty or so traits that are typically mentioned, only about three of them are skills. Yes, we could add a few more skills to the list to try to balance it out, but for every skill we could add, there are probably three or four more attitudinal traits we could add as well.
By doing this exercise of creating a list, we’re not trying to imply to the audience that skills just aren’t important. They absolutely are. For example, if a medical center needs to hire a skilled nurse, they are going to be looking for more than just somebody with a great attitude or somebody who really wants to be a nurse. Any serious candidate for the job will have gone on for continued schooling, passed exams, got a degree and became licensed. Without those qualifications, all of the attitude in the world won’t land someone a job as a nurse.
And this discussion isn’t meant to support the saying “hire for attitude and train for skill” either. That may work for some jobs, but for many jobs, a person needs certain skills just to get the job, such as that of a nurse.
Another example of a group of employees that needs specialized skills are those whizzes in the IT department. They can understand things the average human can’t easily comprehend. However, regardless of how strong someone’s technical skills are, without the right personality, as exhibited by many of the aforementioned attitudes, a single employee can potentially bring down an entire customer-focused culture.
So what are the traits of an employee capable of delivering a great customer service experience? More importantly, how can you determine them for a position that you are trying to fill?
My suggestion is to have a group of employees in your company go through the whiteboard exercise we just mentioned. List all of the traits you can think of that are both attitudes and skills. Hone the list down to the top ten core attitudinal traits needed to be customer-focused in your organization. Then add to the list the specific skills required for the job. An accountant needs accounting skills. A doctor needs medical skills. And, of course the IT department needs people with technical skills. When you add the ten attitudes to the needed skills, you may have found that next AMAZING person to work with!
For a company that provides a great product at a great price, and builds the value of that product with great customer service that inspires confidence among its members, look no further than The Dollar Shave Club.
Dollar Shave Club, in case you are not familiar, was started by Michael Dubin and Mark Levine in 2011. In 2012, they recorded a promotional video and posted it on YouTube. The video is so hilarious that it now has more than 24 million views! In the process, as you can imagine, Dollar Shave Club picked up members, thousands of them. This drove them from a start-up business to a success that would eventually attract the attention of long-established competitors. But sales alone couldn’t make them the success that they are today; they needed to have that good product supported by good service.
As their name implies, they sell a membership for one dollar. When you start your membership, you get your choice of one of their two-, four- or six-blade razors for just a dollar! And, that price includes the shipping. Then each month Dollar Shave Club sends you four fresh blades for as little as three dollars. That’s great value for the money. But great value, as in a low price, isn’t always accompanied by great service. Yet that is not the case with Dollar Shave Club.
Recently my Dollar Shave Club razor broke. The blade would no longer stay on the razor. Since they are an online retailer, I went to their website and clicked on “Contact Us.” I filled out the contact form and described my issue. In just a little while they responded.
Sorry to hear about the Handle! Thanks for letting us know. We trust you! I’ve got you covered and will send a couple of new Executive Handles on the house right away. Expect them within 3-5 business days and let us know if you need anything else in the meantime.
It was that easy. It was that fast. Just as easy and fast as when I signed up to be a member. Dollar Shave Club acknowledged my problem and apologized. Then they told me what they were going to do, which was send out new handles right away. And they did it. They didn’t make excuses, try to put the blame me or make it hard on me, such as asking me to return the broken handle. They just took great care of me. That’s what great customer-focused companies do!
So, how easy are you to do business with? When a customer has a problem, do you respond quickly, apologize, accept responsibility and immediately fix the problem, while making the process easy on the customer? Do you handle the issue in such a way that creates even greater confidence in your products and in your business? Everything Dollar Shave Club does creates confidence. Thus, confidence gives them a great reputation and loyal repeat customers – or should I say members.
Dollar Shave Club is the total package. Great value wrapped up with great service. And here’s some proof, they currently have over two million members, and recently, after just five years in business, they sold to Unilever for, are you ready? One billion dollars!