Bring out your best.

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It’s been quite a year.  We’ve had a tweeting, self-obsessed President, tragic shootings and terrorist events, sexual harassment scandals, government impasse, protest at sporting events, racial tension, you name it, it seems we’ve had it this year, and so much of it infects us with negative energy and stress.  I heard someone the other day saying that the holidays feel difficult this year because of all of the negativity surrounding us.

My challenge for what’s left of this holiday season is to share something good with everyone you meet over the next few days.  It will be hard.  There will be things that get on your nerves and things that stretch your patience but do it, just do it.  When someone is pulling on your last nerve, find something kind to do.  Find the random act that will change everything.  Find a way to help.  Find a way to bring a smile.  Find what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” and just be the difference for someone.

These last few days of holiday shopping and socializing can be great times but they can also, ironically, bring out the worst in people.  Take the challenge and find the best in yourself to share no matter what.  Be someone’s reason to smile.

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Three Tips For Reducing Holiday Customer Stress

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Shopping during holiday season can be a test of even the best of us.  I think even the Dalai Lama might have his patience tested.  But this can be an opportunity if you think of it correctly.  Your business can use this challenge as a way to differentiate and provide a better experience for your customers.

The first thing we need to do is determine the cause of all the stress.  I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that it is largely a matter of time.  Everyone is rushing around trying to not only shop but also make it to all of the events and parties of the season while keeping up with the normal life of work and home.  Fitting everything in can be a big challenge and a big stress driver.  This makes time a highly prized commodity.

So here is your opportunity, get really efficient and make responsiveness and timeliness a priority.  Here are three things you can do now.

  1. If you have a call center, ensure you have a clear process for determining what issues get handled first and exactly who will take care of specific problems. Gauging urgency and getting the right person handling it immediately will save enormous amounts of time and provide a better customer experience.
  2. Empower your employees to handle as much as possible without the need for managerial support. This requires trust and clear guidelines but giving your employees the ability to use their best judgement will allow for fast, personalized service with fewer hassles and quicker results.
  3. Equip every employee in your company to answer basic questions particularly ones you know are asked regularly during the holiday season. Additionally, ensure all employees know where to direct customers when questions get too technical or detailed.  Having more people available for basic help as well as more direction for more expert help can be a big time saver.

Remember, the goal here is to save the customer time and reduce their stress.  By adding these ideas to your arsenal, you can help your customers to enjoy their experience with you and to better enjoy their holidays.

A Holiday Lesson From a Golf Bag

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The holiday season begins and people are out getting gifts for others.  Many times it seems people are just buying because it’s the thing to do rather than doing it because they really want to share something meaningful.

I like getting gifts as much as anybody but I find myself wanting less and less stuff and more and more meaning.  Have you ever thought about this as you are purchasing those gifts?  Have you thought about the meaning you are trying to share?  Is it just stuff or is it a tangible memory of a message you want to share?

I have a 15-year-old golf bag that is heavy by today’s standards and my friends often ask why I don’t get a lighter one.  I tell them that I can’t because it is the best Father’s Day gift I ever got.  My wife and kids surprised me with it and I just can’t let it go. It is a symbol of my family’s love and care.  How many holiday gifts do you get that have meaning like that?  How many things are just things and how many are things you can’t let go because of their meaning?  Think about what you are buying and giving.  Do your gifts have meaning behind them or are they just obligations?

Now think about your work.  All of our work is ultimately in service of others; this is just a fact of business.  We are all in business to help others achieve something.  Do you do what you do because you have to or because you want to?  The difference here makes a big difference for the giver and receiver as my gift giving analogy proves.

How about your employees?  Is the service they provide because they have to, because they’ll get in trouble if they don’t do it right, or is it great because they do it out of a genuine desire to help?

Authentic giving isn’t just a personal thing for the holidays; it can make your business stand out; especially in a holiday season where moving customers in and out like a cattle call is the norm.  What can you do today to inspire your employees to genuinely care for customers?  How can they make the holidays less of a hassle and more of a celebration of what’s good?

Furthermore, how can you do the same personally for friends and family?  How can you give the gift of genuine meaning rather than obligatory objects?

The holidays can be stressful but they aren’t meant to be.  They are meant to be a celebration of the best in all of us.  Take some time to make that happen.  Take some time to be authentic and give meaning rather than things.

Communication and Your Brand, a Vital Connection

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When  information isn’t shared with employees, they tend to fill the gaps with their own ideas and assumptions, and these are often worst-case scenarios.  Likewise, customers who don’t get necessary information like updates on repairs or shipping dates for example will fill the gaps with their assumptions, and, exactly like employees, their assumptions are often worst-case scenarios. This isn’t some fault in employees and customers it’s actually a natural human tendency having to do with our base survival instincts.  When we don’t have accurate information, if we want to survive, it makes sense to assume the worst.  Better to be alive when the worst doesn’t happen than dead because you assumed the best and were wrong.

Here’s how it works: Lack of information creates doubt which creates fear (not horror-movie fear, rather, the subtle subconscious kind) which creates discomfort which creates worst-case thinking.

Ultimately, lack of information subtly undermines and whittles away at trust, and it can happen unintentionally.  Around the office, simple things like a closed office door, a vague reply, an unreturned greeting as you pass in the hallway, or a canceled meeting with no explanation, all can create worst-case scenario thinking.  For customers, a long wait for a return call, no update on what’s happening with a repair, inexact time of arrival, all of these and more create worst-case scenario thinking.

You can easily prevent this problem though by proactively explaining things, sharing the whats, whys, and hows. Whether it’s with employees or customers, nothing beats timely, transparent honesty.

For example, if you’re a manager and there are changes coming, give your team a heads-up. They can start preparing and won’t be caught off guard.  In addition, they will be able to downplay the rumor mill.

With customers, set expectations by giving them timelines and updates all along the way in the process of their order, repair, or project.

You are not protecting customers or employees by keeping them in the dark. People find out things on their own through research or rumor and then make multiple assumptions that are often worse than reality. The information gaps you may be leaving chip away at trust, your leadership, and your brand, both your personal brand and your company brand. So, in every interaction, take the opportunity to over communicate, explain, and share information.

 

Grace, Every Day.

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Grace.  It means courteous goodwill and an attractively polite manner of behaving.  This holiday season is getting underway and grace seems to always come to the fore at this time.

But what about the rest of the year, why can grace not be part of our habitual behavior? What would it take to make gracious acts more the rule than the exception to it?

When Irma and Harvey were ravaging the South and Southeast earlier this year, grace was abundant.  No more was this evident than in the actions of Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale of Gallery Furniture in Houston.  He opened the doors of his business to give people shelter.  His story is the epitome of service over self and one that is particularly apt for the upcoming season if not for all time.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/houston-businessman-jim-mcingvale-opens-furniture-stores-to-evacuees/

The worst things happen and it can bring out the best in people.  We saw it on 9/11 and we’ve seen it after so many natural disasters.  People dropping their self-interest to reach out and help others.

This week we give thanks, and I plan to give particular thanks for people like “Mattress Mack” who inspire and challenge me to find the best in myself.  And I am inviting you to do likewise so that maybe, just maybe, we might take that inspiration and practice his spirit every day.  No, I am not suggesting that every day we demonstrate the extremes we see after disasters, but I am suggesting that we perform small acts every day, that we show others the best we can offer.

This Thanksgiving, I pray that I might not only be grateful for the many blessings I have been granted, but also that I might share some grace in whatever small way I can, all year long.

What’s Painted on Your Face?

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What’s your face saying?  Every day you send a message without saying a word and it’s painted on your face.

This face painting comes in many varieties and each sends a subtle message.  Think about the different messages that come across between a great big smile, a permanent frown, or a furrowed brow.

What’s on your face is the first impression you make and sends messages to everyone around you.

For example, a smile says several things, “I am happy to be here”, “I like you” and even “I am happy to serve you”.

A frown can say “Go away”, “I’m tough so don’t mess with me” and “I’m all business and no fun”.

Put this in a business context.  What messages are your customer-facing employees sending to your customers?  What message are the managers in your business sending to their direct reports?  What messages are all of your team members sending to each other and what are they saying about your culture?  It’s written on their faces.

No matter the context, the important thig here is this; we have complete control of the messages we send. Every day we can choose what we want to communicate.

What we paint on our face influences our emotions and the emotions of others, so don’t wait to feel good in order to smile, it’s quite possible that if you smile, you’ll start to feel good…and…so will those around you, it’s like a virus.  Think about the difference that could make in your workplace and with your customers.

So, how’s your face painted right now?  What message are you sending?  Is it the one you want to send?

 

If It’s Not Helpful, Don’t Do It

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I got an email from Amazon.  It was a reading pick list that was supposed to be for me but I never would have known it given the choices listed.  You see, I never, or at least very rarely, read novels, yet everything on this reading pick list was a novel.  I frankly found the missive in my mailbox annoying rather than helpful.

So what?  Why am I reporting this?  This is a great example of what can go wrong if businesses don’t take time to really get to know their customers.  Maybe they assumed I would like a diversion, maybe they sent the email with all of the right intentions, but my first thought was, “wow, given all of the business I’ve done with them, you’d think they would know what I like to read.”

Please be clear, this isn’t a slam on Amazon.  I think Amazon generally does a great job and is typically very customer focused and I am sure this was just a slip.  But there is a lesson here, get to know your customers and don’t assume things.  Take a look at their history, learn their preferences, learn their hot buttons, and share updates and suggestions only if they closely relate to what you know about them.  Don’t just email to keep your name and brand in their face, provide some value, some attempt to help.

Remember, the point of business is to help people not to bother them. So help people, add value, provide them with information that matches them, and if you want to stretch a little, make some connection to their history.  Make it clear that you are sharing because you sincerely thought it might be beneficial; in fact, explain the connection to their past purchases and how this new thing might help them.

Marketing is important, but useless marketing is irritating at best.  Make your marketing a service not an annoyance.

Two Keys to Great Teamwork

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Every business requires a team working well together in order to reach success. Even if you are a loner in a business with one employee, you still need to work with vendors and customers.  But what is essential to teams working well?

My son is a lacrosse player and when he first started as a young five year old, teamwork was not always so prevalent.  The kids tended to all want the ball; they all wanted to score a goal.  Once they had it, there was no passing, it was an all-out run to the net, usually resulting in the ball being checked out of their stick and picked up by the other team.  I am sure you’ve seen this before, whether soccer or basketball or lacrosse, the kids herd around the ball, moving in a pack and sometimes fighting their own teammates for possession of that coveted sphere.

But to win, team members must move beyond this selfishness and learn to pass the ball.  There has to come a time where sharing the glory for the benefit of the team must be paramount, but, alas, this is a lesson that is hard to learn.  In fact, even at the professional level selfishness rears its ugly head.  You can see it in games when a player takes low percentage shots when others with better positioning and higher scoring chances stand empty handed.  You can hear it in after-game interviews when a player talks about their disappointment that they didn’t get the ball much.  But as Leonard Nimoy as the character Spock said in the movie Wrath of Khan, “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few…or the one.”  This unselfish attitude is the first essential of teamwork and critical to being able to successfully work together.

The second essential, again, comes from my experience as a lacrosse parent.  Over the years, as I watched many hundreds of games, one thing other than more passing that has jumped out at me has been the amount of chatter on the field.  When the kids were young, they were largely quiet as they played with little talk between them.  This, however, doesn’t work well if you want to be a team, so, during practice and games you would regularly hear coaches yelling out to the players to talk to one another.  And by talk to one another, they meant to let teammates know when they were open or when there might be danger lurking from behind, etc.

In lacrosse, a key to communication is a very vocal goalie.  You see, when teams are playing defense with the goal behind them, they can’t see large areas and it is up to the goalie to consistently let them know what’s going on.  You can regularly hear the goalie yelling out what opposing player has the ball, who’s moving around behind the scenes, or who needs to move into another position to cover a new development.  The amount of yelling and chattering can be quite disconcerting to someone new to the sport.  I have had many a new viewer ask me why the goalie is constantly yelling things.

This is my second essential, over communication, not just communication, OVER communication.  The goalie may well be yelling out things that everyone knows but when the chips are down, those players need insurance and it’s better to hear it ad nauseum than to be caught unaware.  I have never heard a lacrosse player snap back at the goalie to say that they know it all and for him to pipe down, no, to the contrary, I usually hear players thanking the goalie for keeping them aware of everything that’s happening.

So there you have it, two keys to teamwork, 1) unselfishness and 2) over communication.

Now the question to you is how can this knowledge help your business?  Well, take a look around.  Where are people, departments, or groups hogging the ball and working for themselves instead of the good of the organization (the team)?  Where might you be hogging the ball instead of enlisting the help of others who could lend ideas or expertise to a project?  Where would some over communication help to keep teammates updated and on top of things?  Where are you holding onto information waiting to release it at “just the right time” even though the team might benefit from it now?  These are just a few of the questions to ask yourself and we could go on and on, but, overall, if you want to work better as a team, regularly look around and take stock of where selfishness might be infecting things or where people could use a hefty dose of over communication.

A business, much like a lacrosse team, is a group of individuals who must work for a common goal, work selflessly for each other and keep everyone informed of what’s happening at all times.  One selfish player or missed communication can result in the other team scoring that winning goal.  What can you do today to lead a winning team?

What’s Your First Priority?

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“The number one priority of our company is to make money.”  Thus spoke a middle manager while speaking to a group of his direct reports.  I was in attendance and bit my tongue.  This is just misguided thinking.  Making money should never be the number one priority, if it is, you should buy a printing press.

Now, if money isn’t it, what is it?  Well, we need to go back to some fundamental thinking in order to come to some conclusions.

First, what is the primary function of business?  It’s simply to help people accomplish something, whether that something is getting a product they want or need or a service they need because they can’t do or don’t want to do some task.  That’s it.  Helping people is the only reason businesses exist.

Second, getting paid for helping is how a business stays alive.  And, the better you do it, the more you can charge and the more people come to you and pay for what you do so well.

With all of this in mind, what do you now think should be the number one priority?  It should be making how you help people the best it can possibly be.  It should be making the process of working with you incredibly easy.  It should be making the experience with your people an enjoyable one.  And most of all, it should be about ensuring your customers are successful in getting the solution they need.  If you can make all of this happen consistently and at the highest level, you will make money, and if you can keep improving it, you will outlast any competition you have.

If making money is your first priority, do an about face and change your thinking by making helping your customers to the best of your ability the number one thing on the list.

The Process-Experience Loop

Imagine being a fan of a ball team (football, baseball, basketball, whatever) who loses much more than they win.  Their game plan is rarely good and the experience of their fans seems to work in tandem to that.  Before you know it, you are no longer a fan.  This is one example of what I call the Process-Experience Loop where the game plan (process) has a direct influence on what the fans (customers) experience.  A good game plan results in wins and loyal fans whereas a poor game plan results in losses and less loyal fans.  Let’s look at this in business.

For most brands, the main goal is to capture customers and get them to make a purchase. For this to happen, businesses create processes and systems for acquiring customers, selling to them, and getting products in their hands.  Below is a high-level view of the most basic kind of business process that moves from attracting customers to long-term support once they have the product.  Let’s break it down.

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BUSINESS PROCESS

Attraction

Attraction is typically thought of as marketing but it can manifest itself in a variety of ways that isn’t limited to ads or other “designed” communications.  It could be something as simple as a sign beside your place of business or word of mouth from a current or former customer.

Engagement

This includes 1) the initial contact that creates that all-important first impression, 2) your sales process whether it’s speaking with a sales person, perusing products on shelves, or reviewing a menu, and finally, provided things have gone well, 3) the agreement or contract to purchase.

Delivery

Whether it’s the customer walking away with the product, having it shipped, or experiencing the service requested, there is some sort of delivery required.

Support

Completing the process is the long-term support of the product or service where problems are solved, updates proffered, new products announced, etc .

Every business has a big-picture process like this and while many of these big steps may have smaller, more detailed processes within them, the essentials are pretty much alike from business to business.  For example, in your business’s engagement segment there may be multiple interactions with individual departments that all have processes with their own personalities, quirks, and details; nevertheless, it’s all part of the larger engagement piece.

However, regardless of the minutiae in these details, there is one truth that holds for all of these processes for any organization.  They all have an impact on customers which always needs to be considered.

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THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

Discovery

This is where the journey for the customer begins.  Marketing, word of mouth, and any number of other references to the business are the initial attraction elements that cause the discovery of the business.  It is here where the customer reaches out and the business starts to engage.  This is a crucial point for the business where an impression is created that either invites or pushes away.

Consideration

Assuming the impression is inviting, the ensuing sales engagement is where the customer begins to consider and evaluate the pros and cons of the product or service.

Decision

This is the culmination of the engagement/consideration stage where the customer makes a decision to purchase or not.

Usage

Assuming the customer purchases, the product or service is delivered and they take ownership.  From there, they experience whatever long-term support is available as needed.

Exit/Return

At some point, the customer has further needs or a desire to repurchase.  It is here where the quality and ease of the support provided has either built or diminished trust and thus influences the customer’s future choice to leave the brand or remain loyal to it.  Some key decision-making criteria here include:

  1. Was the overall experience easy?
  2. Was it enjoyable?
  3. Was I successful, i.e. did I get what I came for and did I accomplish what I wanted to accomplish?
  4. Do the answers to those questions compare favorably to the price?

So, what’s the point?

Three key insights come to mind.

  1. Every part of the overall process your business implements has an impact on the customer. Any part that is difficult, confusing, or redundant eventually affects them.
  2. The difficulty of the process isn’t only important to customers; it matters to your employees too. If the process is fraught with pain for the employee, you better believe it affects their attitude and happiness, and if your employees aren’t happy, they will find it hard to make customers happy.
  3. Difficult processes are usually inefficient and cost you more. These costs hit you directly in wasted time and indirectly when passed to customers as you get complaints that cause you to discount or worse yet, defection to your competitors which costs you not only the lost customer but also the expense of finding new customers to fill the holes.

Interested?  Begin examining your Process-Experience loop.

First, think about your customers. Do they seem to enjoy working with you and your teams? Do they think you are easy to do business with?  Do you know whether they feel successful with your product or service?

To get firm answers to these types of questions, you should be sending out evaluations and/or interviewing those who’ve made a purchase. Ask them about the effort involved.  Ask them if they feel successful.  Ask them if they enjoy your people. And most of all, ask them if they would return to do it all again.  If any of the responses are negative, make sure to enquire as to why things were difficult, not enjoyable, or what made them unsuccessful.

And it doesn’t end with customers.  Ask your employees about your processes.  Are there things that are difficult and time consuming?  Are there things that are redundant?  Are there unnecessary steps?  Ask your employees, they are the ones who have to deal with it all.

Then compare.  Compare the voice of your customers to the voice of your employees.  Look for holes, gaps, time-wasting or unnecessary steps, and genuine points of pain.  And then redesign things so they are easier, more enjoyable and lead to success for both employees and customers.

This should be an ongoing and constant pursuit.  You will never reach perfection here because needs and wants change, but by making this a constant in your organization, you will see more loyal customers and more loyal employees resulting in greater long-term business success.