Customer Service #101: Buddy, Can You Spare a Sandwich?

I had an experience last week I feel compelled to share. It was Friday night, the end of a long week. After fighting construction traffic for 45 minutes, I stopped at a national fast-food chain. I ordered three sandwiches. Mind you, I didn’t order drinks, chips or dessert, just three sandwiches. The bill came to $27.14. Since I didn’t have much cash on me, I handed the salesclerk a credit card. I was informed their “system” only allowed credit card charges up to $20.

Since I have previously  bought takeout from this chain many times without encountering this problem, I’m not certain whether it is a new corporate policy, a misguided rule imposed only by this franchise, or if the employee was simply mistaken.

Regardless of the reason, it points out a common business failure. The problem is creating unnecessary obstacles for people who might otherwise become loyal customers.

I have written many times that competition is based on price, product or service. Those are your only three choices.

Perhaps spurred by the current slow economy, price competition is clearly the most promoted basis of competition. It is especially prevalent in the food service industry. Witness Applebee’s “Two eat for $20” or Pizza Hut’s “$10 any pizza, any size, any toppings” campaigns, just to cite two.

Low prices are completely objective, easily communicated and quickly adjusted as necessary. Unfortunately, while coupons, discounts and sales may bring more customers through your door, they always cut into your gross profit. You simply cannot consistently sell a product or provide a service for less than your cost and survive!

Price competition also presents a more immediate challenge. In a high-tech world where any customer with a Smartphone can quickly determine if your competition is offering a better price, the strategy is certainly no guarantee of marketing success. The risk is escalated if low-price guarantees are common in your business. Furthermore, if someone purchases only because you are the cheapest available option, he or she is unlikely to develop any customer loyalty unless you are always the low-price provider. Few businesses are large enough or profitable enough to be in that enviable market position.

Competing mainly on product also carries risks. Even if you think your product or service is unique, the reality is there are probably countless options that are close enough to serve as a substitute for customer needs. A classic example is the difference between a Lexus and a comparably equipped Toyota that sells for thousands of dollars less. Product competition is also complicated by the widespread availability of on-line shopping and free shipping.

That leaves service as the only basis of competition on which your business can truly distinguish itself. It is also the only one that doesn’t have to increase your operating costs, or cut gross profits. A friendly smile and prompt, courteous service cost nothing! More importantly, superior service cannot be instantly matched by the competitor up the street.

Superior service encompasses the entire customer experience, starting with the moment they enter your facility or contact you. It continues until the product or service produces the level of satisfaction the consumer expected. It includes point-of-sales services such as allowing credit cards, answering questions, gift-wrapping and perhaps even walking packages to their car. It also includes after-sale services like satisfaction guarantees, generous refund policies and warranty service.

What’s the lesson here? Ask yourself two questions. First, are your policies and procedures primarily designed to make your life easier, or to increase customer satisfaction? Secondly, are your employees adequately trained in those policies and procedures, and are they consistently delivering a customer experience that will keep shoppers returning year after year?

I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He summarizing the essence of Customer Service # 101 with this, “Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customer buying from them, not you.”

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Dear Diary, I Lost Another Customer Today

It is easy to tell when my car needs gas. There is a gauge on the dashboard. If I am not paying attention, a light comes on when the fuel level gets too low. Finally, the car will simply stop when the tank is completely empty.

However, my car (unlike more sophisticated models) gives no warning when I need an oil change. Even if your car displays remaining oil life, you must first remember to scroll through the display periodically to check it. Jiffy Lube, Kwik Kar and other oil change franchises solve that problem by putting a small transparent sticker on my windshield to remind me at what mileage I need to change oil.

Doctors, dentists and veterinary clinics have long sent reminders when annual checkups are due. Same principle!

Most consumer products that require periodic maintenance or replacement give no obvious warning. Filters on furnaces and air conditioners, and batteries in smoke detectors and watches all come to mind. Many things around the home and office including HVAC equipment, computers, alarms systems, pool equipment and so on all need periodic service for optimum efficiency.

If you sell replacement parts or service on products that fall into this category, create a diary system, a sticker or something to remind customers to schedule a service call.

Here are some additional thoughts to keep customers coming back to you for maintenance and service work.

  • Have the customer indicate how they want to be contacted for a reminder when they initially purchase the item or sign up for service. Provide several options such as email and phone calls. Both are cheaper and more likely to solicit a favorable response than mailing a card. Whatever diary system you choose, it is sure to improve customer retention.
  • Create a sense of urgency by including a limited-time special offer with the reminder. A 15% discount, a free month of service or other incentive will discourage customers from procrastinating or purchasing services elsewhere.
  • Everyone who subscribes to magazines has received next year’s renewal notice within a few months of renewing the current year. In some cases, the marketing strategy may be to hope the subscriber forgot they still have 10 months remaining on the current subscription. However, the publisher usually offers substantial discounts to renew early, especially if pre-authorized to charge your credit card at renewal.

The same idea applies to remind clients to renew annual contracts, maintenance agreements and so forth. Do not wait for the customer to contact you, and do not risk losing a sale simply because you forgot. Again, offer customers a discount or an extra month on the contract if they renew by a specified date.

Enjoy the long weekend as we celebrate the unofficial end to summer and our 118thannual Labor Day. Thank you to our Canadian neighbors who came up with the idea ten years before Grover Cleveland copied it!

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 

It’s Nice to be Lucky

Someone recently asked why I prefer consulting to corporate positions. The truth is I am not sure I do. However, the question got me thinking. That got me writing, so here I go.

A number of years ago, family circumstances forced me to leave the corporate arena, where I had established a 25-year record of success. Consulting offered the only viable opportunity to feed my family.

Back then, the World Wide Web as we called it was still in its infancy. Only large companies had websites. E-commerce was virtually nonexistent. Facebook would not be introduced for another four years. My personal computer provided email access. However, many people still lacked an email address, especially at home. I cannot recall whether I could attach documents. I suspect not. Cell phones typically cost hundreds of dollars per month, largely due to a now antiquated practice of assessing “roaming charges” for long distance calls. Blogging? That sounded more like something my Rottweiler does after she eats grass than a mass communications tool.

I did not have a marketing clue, let alone a marketing plan!

What I did have was a telephone. It attached to the wall with a long wire. You may remember the device, having seen one in your grandmother’s house or perhaps a museum. It could serve as a fax, but only if the recipient also had one. Although it sometimes seemed to weigh 500 pounds, I was occasionally able to muster the strength to use it.

The third phone call I made landed a million dollar client. It also launched what became a 15-person consulting firm. You can choose to characterize the call as pure dumb luck, divine intervention or anything in between. I will find no fault with whatever label you assign. The bottom line is consulting supported a comfortable life style for several years, while allowing me to address challenging family issues.

A decade later, circumstances beyond my control again forced me into consulting. Since then, I have defined my value proposition (I had no idea what that was 12 years ago) by offering cost effect advice to small and medium sized businesses. My advice is usually very specific, lengthy and often somewhat technical.

Today I will depart from my recent path. Instead, I will present two brief and decidedly nontechnical suggestions. I share both from very personal experience.

1. Mr. Tom Lewis, an online marketing consultant from “across the pond” put the whole concept of small business marketing in a rather interesting and concise perspective. He said, “All these new media buzzwords like social networking and technology like LinkedIn are just new ways of complementing (some would say avoiding) personal contact. Get out there and get your face known! Pick up the phone and call some potential clients. Speak at some networking events. Knock on some doors.”

As Mr. Lewis’ quote insinuates, there is a significant difference between merely communicating and actually connecting with customers and prospects. I can instantly communicate with thousands of people with the click of a few buttons. Yet even with the myriad of now common “high tech” options, the only better way of really connecting with someone other than the lowly telephone is in person. Unfortunately, that option is often unavailable.

My first suggestion is therefore quite simple. Include some “low-tech” tactics in your marketing plan. Pick up the phone and start dialing. Your next large client may be waiting at the other end! Mine was.

2. As of July 2011, 13.9 million Americans (9.1% of the civilian workforce) were unemployed. Over 6 million people are deemed long-term unemployed, Washington-speak for out of a job over six months and desperate. Motivated by a lack of alternative employment opportunities, large numbers eventually migrate into their own business or consulting, as I did. Unfortunately, many are fundamentally unprepared for the operational and emotional challenges that line the road to successful self-employed. Nevertheless, they are more in need of a simple word of encouragement than business advice.

I end with a quote by Thomas Edison. He said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” That is as true in today’s difficult economy as it was in 1879 when Edison perfected the light bulb after experimenting with over 10,000 different filaments.

That leads me to the shortest and most basic suggestion I have ever dared offer. Hang in there!

Until next time, I wish you good fortune in all your business endeavors. Let me know if I can be of assistance.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You are Invited to my Party

Small business coach and author Robert Gerrish said, “For many, one of the greatest moments in business is the joy of attracting a new customer or client. In such circumstances, it is easy to get so caught up in the excitement that we forget to spend time on realizing the value of one of our business’s best assets, our existing client base.” For example, you may have heard banks criticized for offering free checking to new customers while charging existing customers for the same service.

As Mr. Gerrish suggests, all too often promotions only target new prospects. Show your appreciation of existing customers by holding promotions and events designed exclusively for them.

  • A special after-hours personal shopping event or trunk show, complete with entertainment, refreshments and “invitation only” discounts is an example. If your products typically require sizing or fitting (such as clothes), allowing a two day presale can create additional excitement. Customers select their purchases in advance, which you hold until the actual sale. This procedure also requires customers to visit your facility at least twice.
  • The luxury day spa I spoke of earlier invited my wife and I (did I mention she is one of their most loyal customers) to an art exhibit by a nationally recognized concert pianist. The event also included a wine tasting.

Another way to demonstrate your appreciation for existing customers, suppliers and employees is to hold an open house or reception. This is a great way to display your operations. It will also strengthen relationships between customers and staff that have not met. If your facilities do not include a suitable physical location, host it at your home, a nearby restaurant or under a tent on the front lawn. Moreover, while your open house or reception must be memorable, it does not have to be expensive. Class is not measured in dollars.

  • You may find network contacts are willing to help cater the event, print programs and menus, provide entertainment or other useful services at substantial discounts in order to promote their products and services to your customer base. Always take full advantage of your network and be ready to reciprocate by supporting and promoting their events.
  • Avoid scheduling functions on weekends or when likely to conflict with numerous holiday events. Use all of the communications tools and options previously discussed to ensure good attendance. There is nothing more discouraging than hosting a party when no one shows up.

A final caution about special event promotions is that in order to be truly special, you cannot hold them too often. Any promotional tool that is used too frequently runs the risk of creating customer expectations that will cause them to avoid full price purchases in anticipation of a sale or event that may never happen.

Next week, I will present an exciting 3-part series on my ongoing love affair with SlideShare.net. It picks up where a June series on this topic left off. I think you will enjoy it. Until then, stay safe and enjoy your weekend. You earned it!

 © 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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