Are you Customer Friendly?

Filed Under (OP Sales Training) by Don on 25-02-2007

I have often wrote about the “Customer Experience”.   I have also said that great customer service alone will not will not give you customer loyalty, it’s the overall “experience” that creates loyalty.  One of the key elements of this ‘Customer Experience” is arrived at by being “Customer Friendly”.  Some questions you need to ask yourself are: “Do I make it easy to do business with me?  Does the customer have to jump through ‘hoops’ before I deliver their first time order?  Am I easy to reach or access?  How do I answer the phones?  Do my employees have the authority to make decisions necessary  to completely satisfy the customer and are they held accountable for this action?  Have I spent enough time training them on how to achieve customer satisfaction and be ‘customer friendly’?  Have I personally taken the time to talk to our customers and see how satisified they are?”  I can probably add at least another dozen questions here that all lead to the same thing.  Are you “Customer Friendly?”

Having been in the office products business for over 22 years, and owned my own company for 17 of those,  I can say that being customer friendly isn’t always such an easy task.  As the sales rep I get excited when I get a new customer to start doing business with me.  As the business owner I get nervous because I’m wondering if they are a credit risk.  As the delivery person I wonder how difficult or demanding they are when recieving their orders.   As the warehouse person I’m curious how many returns they will have.   And so on.  However, if I make it too difficult to get credit or deliveries or credit for returns then I will have failed at being a customer friendly business.   When I first began my business I learned quickly that the customer was a wealth of knowledge if I took the time to ask the right questions and carefully listen to the replies, then take action on the areas that needed work.  I didn’t hesitate to query customers on how good or bad a job I was doing.  I sincerely appreciated constructive criticism, and still do.

Let’s look at a couple of real experiences I’ve had and learned from in years past.   A customer told me once that cutting the plastic bands of the copier paper boxes was such a pain for her that she always had to ask one the male staff to cut them for her.   I took that knowledge back to my delivery guy and instructed him to henceforth always cut the bands off the copy paper boxes and remove them from the office when he left.  It didn’t take but a couple of deliveries before the customer called and thanked me for being so thoughtful.  Is that customer service or being customer friendly?  We can easily say both but I prefer to say it is customer friendly.  I lost a good customer once because she wanted to do the majority of her business electronically.  She wanted to place her orders online, receive her invoices via email as well as statements, credits, etc.  She told me later that she was so busy she didn’t have time to chase down paper invoice copies, and the controller even preferred the electronic method because it was less papers to track and file.  I discovered this problem too late and lost her business.  It was several months later when I learned this after she had stopped doing business with me.  I thought I had all my bases covered and failed to ask her what special needs she had.  I eventually did win her business back but it took me nearly 2 years to do so and lost much revenue in the process.

I had a personal incedent regarding a credit for a product I had returned that took an absurdly long time to recieve my money back.  It took many phone calls and letters and over 2 months to get a credit.  I was highly irritated at the whole affair but it made me realize this was also of critical importance for my customers.   I didn’t really encounter a lot of return problems early in my business so I didn’t really have a policy in place.  It occurred to me that I needed to create a return a policy that was fair to my customer but also had some protection for the company.  I studied the successful habits of other hightly rated mail order businesses.  I chose these because they would have to make substantial efforts to win over wary customers such as I.  Most of my wholesalers policies were designed around the 30-day return window so I knew unless I wanted to re-stock the product or pay a hefty re-stocking fee this would have to be addressed.   Also how fast was I going to give my customer credit?  This was sticky because the wholesalers were not always very quick about credits either and this could potentially create another problem.  I decided to err on the side of the customer because in the final analysis if they lost, then I lost them and it takes a lot more work to win them back that it does to keep them happy in the first place!  So, here was my simple, no-hassle, customer friendly return policy:  The product needed to be in resaleable condition and in the original packaging (unless originally defective), returned within 30 days, no food products (breakroom snacks) could be returned (safety issue) and I would cheerfully give them full credit within 48 hours of my recieving their return.  I made certain the staff understood the policy and the credit memo’s were to be emailed, postal mailed or faxed promptly.  It was completely unfair of me to hold up the customer credit until I recieved my credit from my vendor because the customer held up their end of the sale and fulfilled my policy requirements.  The rest was up to me and my staff.  We had to promptly process the return and get the product back to the wholesaler.  I made it very clear to my wholesalers that I would be very proactive in the return process and voiced my expectations of them.  I rarely had any issues with returns because my staff was trained and understood the importance of this process.  If the 30 day window of return was near the end, then the account rep was responsible for picking up the product and getting it back to the facility quickly.  If they (the account rep) failed then the credit would be deducted from their commission statement but only if it could not be returned to the wholesaler or resold.  Exceptions can occur and those will have to be handled on an individual basis.  I received many compliments on my return policy and although returns were always, and I guess will always be, a PITA (Pain In The A!!) I knew with certainty that it would be a customer friendly experience. 

What else do you think creates a customer friendly environment?  How about a simple one, the way you answer your phones.   I am a fan of Zig Ziglar and when you call his company the greeter will answer “It’s a wonderful day at the Zig Ziglar Corporation!”  It does sound a bit hokie but I promise you that if all your employees answer their phones in a cheerful tone with the excitement of “It’s a wonderful day!” you will create an atmosphere of happiness and cheer with every call.  Don’t think your customers won’t notice either because the first time you fail to answer in this manner they will ask you what is wrong and where is the happy person that always answers they phone.  I used a similiar tone on my voice mail greeting and almost always the person leaving the message was capitvated by my enthusiasm.   I made a personal commitment many years ago that no matter how bad I felt or how bad a day I was having I would answer that “opportunity ringer” with cheer and happiness in my voice.  I still do to this day, my son even commented on this recently when he made note that when I answered my phone it was like flipping on a switch.  No matter what mood I was in or if I was under a deadline and feeling stressed, I would instantly turn into Mr. Happy when I answered.  “How can you do that?” he said.  I just smiled and said “You don’t get a second chance at a first impression.” 

I taught my customer service and delivery employees to take responsibility for the customer on every front.  To practice being proactive, not reactive.  To always treat the customer better than they would expect themselves.  There were times that the customer service person chose a method of satisfying the customer that would cost me money.  I would always put myself in that persons place and judge the action, not the person.  We would discuss the matter and see if a better, less costly solution had been possible.  I made a particular effort not to ridicule but only to evaluate and discuss.  Some times there really was not a better option but the most important thing to consider was the effect the solution had on the customer.  We can learn from our mistakes but we can rarely win back a lost customer due to poor service.  Actions do speak louder than words!  In those early days in business I had to make an impression in as economical way as possible and I succeeded, so can you.

One last note on being customer friendly.  If you’re the owner or occupy some senior management position in your company or business take the time necessary to go see the customers personally.  Senior management can be easily bogged down in paperwork, number crunching, meetings and other such things.  However, the perception you leave with the customer by making the time to sit in their office and listen to what they have to say is extremely valuable!  There is an opportunity to make an impression here that only a senior manager can do in a one-on-one environment.  Let those customers know that you care and this is evidenced by your presence in their office.

There is an old saying, “Kill ‘em with kindness.”  If we could only get everyone in business, all businesses great and small, to practice that little phrase it would make our world a great place to do business with! 

What Makes You Different?

Filed Under (OP Sales Training) by Don on 21-02-2007

I was in a non-business related meeting the other day and met several folks for the first time.  As we began to chat the usual, logical questions arose such as “What do you do” and Where do you work”.  One fellow seemed surprised when I stated that I worked in the office products industry and he continued to ask exactly what my position was.  After a brief description of my specific functions he asked the obvious question that I had really been waiting for, “Why do people want to buy from an independent?  What makes you different from your retail competitors?”  I always expect that question when I first meet new people and we discuss our jobs and industries of experience.  I am most often surprised at the actual sincerity of the question as many people don’t really take time to think about what really makes the independent dealer such a valuable business partner.  I use the word “partner” for several reasons.  Primarily because the independent dealer really plays that role with their customers if they actively pursue building a long term relationship.  I have wrote about this on a couple occassions but I still see that most people don’t really appreciate the value of that kind of relationship.   When you partner with a business both parties become equally dependent on the others’ successes or failures. 

It can be challenging to make someone really appreciate the significance of this partnership if they don’t hold an accountable position in the business, this is why it is very important for us to begin the relationship process with the managers, CEO’s and business owners.  These individuals appreciate the importance of someone who is committed to their success.  It is easier for us to make contact with the person who actually places the orders than it is to speak to upper management, however, it is worth the extra time.  The person to whom I had this conversation operated a small independent insurance company and was sincere in his question.  Like most people he sees the nice brick and mortar stores of our retail competitors and reads their weekly newspaper advertisements and assumes that because they “say” they have such great prices then they must.  Here are some points I made with my now interested “prospect”.

Honesty and Sincerity:  While the nationals chains claim to have all these deep discounts the truth has be shown over and over again that their average online discount is only ten percent.  Forty percent of Office Depot’s prices are discounted only ten percent or less while none of these national chains have an average discounted price of more than twenty-five percent.  Remember we are talking about all their products not just the loss-leaders.  They also have consistently shown much higher suggested retail prices than the actual M.S.R.P. thereby allowing them to claim they have higher discounted prices.

No Price Churn:  Most of the chains have prices changes on a near weekly basis therefore prices are constantly churning.  Why?  In order to retain favor on Wall Street public companies have to show profits.  You can only increase profits two ways, lower operating costs and/or increase the selling prices of your goods.  History has shown us that the chains have steadily increased their profits over the last ten years by consistently raising prices and utilizing “bait-and-switch” tactics to win contract business.  The nationals will quote an OEM product then after thirty days will substitute those products to house branded products that cost much less and give them much higher profits.  The good news is that as an independent dealer you exercise much more control over prices increases.  This isn’t to say that prices don’t go up, but they don’t change on a near weekly basis as they do at the national chains.  I am also extremely suspicious of anyone that “guarantees” their pricing for twelve months.  The truth will be in the fine print so read it carefully.

Integrity:  We (the independents) don’t have to use deception and “pass-throughs” to win business.  A “pass-through” is basically an independent that is a virtual storefront for a national chain such as Corporate Express(CorpEx).  It has been proven that CorpEx utilizes these pass-through storefronts to win big government contracts, effectively shutting out the small independent businesses.  Small, sometimes minority owned dealers will act as a front for CorpEx by bidding and winning these contracts and directing all order fullfillment and collections back to CorpEx.  So the winner here utilizes deception and clearly unfair practices to shut out small businesses from winning government supply contract that have been guaranteed by our lawmakers to be awarded to small business.  It is only a matter of time before operations like this will come under government scrutiny.  Don’t forget about the heavy-handed tactics and back room deals like the one made by Office Depot to give them the State of North Carolina contract in 2007.  They were clearly not the low price bidder so they made a back room deal and had the contract specifications changed so they were guaranteed to win.

Professional:  The last time you visited a retail chain and needed help with a product question or recommendation what response did you recieve?  Did you even find someone that really knew how to help you?  Doubtful.  We are professionals, we know our products and we train our staff.  We are not a group of teenagers with short hours and limited job skills.  We are dedicated and skilled in our area of expertise.  Need a sample for evaluation?  I dare you to ask that question at your local chain store.  When did you recieve a free product sample last?  We give them out weekly, free.  We are local if you call, not in Colorado or some other far away call center.  Our Customer Service really gives customer service! 

Commitment:  The independent dealer has a commitment to the local economy and local businesses.  Did you know that of the monies spent with your local dealer nearly seventy percent of that amount will stay in the local economy.  The money spent at the chain store will only leave less than forty percent!  The economic impact of the chains do no more than drive your money out of your locality to locations sometimes thousands of miles away.  If you have attended your local chamber of commerce meeting lately you will understand the importance of keeping those dollars in your local economy.  Independent dealers are also sincerely committed to the success of their customers.  If their customers go out of business they won’t have anyone to sell supplies to and eventually they will go out of business too!  If your business grows then the dealers business will grow also and that makes everyone happy and successful.

So, the next time someone corners you and says something like “What makes you different” or “How can you compete against those guys?”  You can smile and say “I’m so glad you asked me that question!  Let’s talk about your business and how our company can be a valuable partner in your success.”

Attrition Can Kill Your Sales

Filed Under (OP Sales Training) by Don on 07-02-2007

I wrote previously about customer loyalty and it remains a consistent problem for companies and employees who try to create and cultivate long-term customer relationships.  Refer back to my earlier post regarding the relationship and retention process and you will understand the importance of this approach.  Customers today have more leverage in the market in any category with multiple products, regardless of the industry.  This makes it even easier for the consumer to choose one over the other.  Considering the impact of the internet on business, the consumer has more information available to them today than ever before.   This allows them to make informed decisions on the companies they deal with and purchase from and directly effects the potential relationship with that company.  The most serious culprit behind the loyalty and retention problems are tied to companies’ lack of awareness or attention to the customer experience.  This ingnorance increases your attrition.

We also get caught up in pricing initiatives to get our buyers attention.  We assume their sole issue is price and immediately jump in and say we will meet or beat the competitions price without spending time to identify the real issue.  I’ve often made the same error.  Price is an excuse, not the reason they are not buying.  I hear the same thing every day, “our prices are not low enough”.  If you continue to reduce your price you are telling the customer that there is a better and cheaper way to do business, not to mention your commission check will suffer from the lower margins.  Always lowering the price tells consumers that you cannot add more value therefore you have reduced the competition to price, not service.  The customer may now suspect that you are overcharging them on a consistent basis and will shop you on every product causing a further deterioration in your margins.

I think the office products industry has largely ignored their attrition rates and especially now with the advent of online ordering.  It is more challenging than ever to create a unique experience among consumers who shop online and do not have the presence of a professional representative in their office for valuable face time.  If you are not talking or visiting your customer that is regularly buying you will have a difficult time recognizing the signals of potential defection.  It is necessary for you to notice the signs of attrition before they quit buying.  Be proactive when the warning signs occur and actively engage the customer to identify what changes need to be made.  These signs could be a significant loss of revenue, price shopping, return problems, missed payments and service inquiries.  These are solid indicators the customer is not content with a product or service and there is a high degree of probability that relationship will cease.    If that happens don’t immediately write-off the account.  Maximize the process by asking the customer why they stopped buying and leverage that information into your selling and or marketing processes.  Learn from your mistakes and recognize the need for change where necessary and make positive steps to prevent that from happening again and you will decrease your attrition levels.  What process do you have in place to contact your customers on a regular basis?  Do you have more than 300 customers?  If so, do you see all of them at least once per month?  If you don’t, then give them to someone that can because you are doing more damage than good.  Even with 300 customers, in an average month of 21 work days you will need to visit 14 accounts per day in order to see them all.  Do you really think you can effectively call on this many customers in one day and demonstrate any degree of sincere relationship building?  You will be so hurried that your visit will be no more than an insult on the customers time.  I would rather have 15o really good customers than 500 customers when I know good and well there is no way I will see them every month or even every two months.  I’m wasting their time and mine in a fruitless effort to be greedy and ineffectual.  Remember the 80-20 rule?  Eighty percent of your business comes from twenty percent of your customers.  That’s because you don’t have the time to see 100% of your customer base.  Do yourself and your customer a tremendous favor, give the account to someone who can effectively build the relationship.

Utilize training for your CSR’s and other associates to make sure the customer receives the most current, relevant information.  The customer interaction with your CSR’s in another critical part of this attrition reducing process.  Your CSR’s must have current information regarding the customers account.  Detailed history and purchasing requirements are a must-have in order for the customer to feel appreciated and respected.  If you have a CRM package available use it everyday, document everything, no detail is to small.  If you don’t have a CRM package or software, get one today!  No excuses, I will not accept “I don’t have time to enter all that information”.  That is nothing but C.R.A.P.  Criticism, Rejection, Antagonism, and Procrastination.  Fact is you can’t afford not to make the time to keep an accurate and reliable history of all your customer contacts.  Have the CSR’s take equal responsibility in the customer experience.  They are your front-line defense, utilize this tool at every step in the sales process.  Do not ever ignore or take for granted the importance your CSR plays in maintaining the customer and creating the experience.

A 2006 Accenture survey of 1000 U.S. consumers revealed that forty-six percent stopped doing business with a company as a result of poor service.  Respond quickly to customer questions and/or requests for service.  Avoid processes that make it difficult to do business with you.  Make your company and yourself easy to contact via phone, e-mail, or web.  Offer reliable answers, be honest and responsible and remember nothing travels faster than bad news.  The independent office dealer thrives on service while the ‘big-box stores’ service continues to degrade.  Unless you give stellar service and do an outstanding job of meeting the customer needs you will not keep your customer and your attrition rates will soar.

Defining the ‘Customer Experience’

Filed Under (OP Sales Training) by Don on 06-02-2007

Ask any seasoned sales rep what they think the customer experience is and you will get all kinds of wisdom and solutions.  But if all those “pearls of wisdom” were worth the time to explain then why do we hear daily about how annoyed and irritated customers, including you and I, are getting at the lack of a genuine meaningful ‘customer experience’. 

Let’s look a a couple of examples.  If you place a call to your utility company and they answer the phone with “Blah, Blah Energy Company, what is your problem or trouble ticket number?”  The first thing I want to say is “Good-Bye!”  I don’t know about you but that doesn’t give me warm and happy thoughts every month when I write them a considerable sum of money in the form of payment for services rendered. 

Here’s another example.  Nearly everyone knows or has heard of Cabela’s.  They are a large fishing and hunting outfitter that inventories over 280,000 items.  Years ago they made a decision that in order for their customer service/sales people to be effective in selling their products they had to have a thorough knowledge of the product.  Therefore, they make  every item in their catalog available to their employees to test and use.  When you call their sales department you talk to someone who has touched and seen and tried that item and can give you a first hand personal viewpoint.  I buy from Cabela’s and for over 20 years have never had a bad experience!  That speaks volumes about their commitment to the customer experience.

Reality check.  You think you know what the customer experience is.  My question is what does the customer really want that will guarantee them a meaningful ‘experience’ that will give you lasting loyalty?  I posed that question to myself and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t readily have the answer, so I decided it was time to define these customer benchmarks.  After some considerable reading and commiting serious grey matter to that task let’s look at the following factors.  There is a physical and emotional need and thought process that comes into play.  The only thing that will corrupt these factors is those who are dogmatic price-cutters.  In my opinion, the customer who is constantly beating me up over price is better off taking their business elsewhere and stop wasting my time.  My time would be best spent with the customer who has genuine need of my experience, knowledge and capabilities.  I’m going to present you with some general considerations, seven of them to be precise, so take the time to commit serious attention to the details of your individual customer interactions and see how these apply to you.

  1. Product Returns - Understand how your customer uses your products and services and what specific support you need to provide them in order to show your “genuine concern” for their well being.  The art is in knowing your customer.  Make it easy and effortless to send wrongly ordered and damaged products back to your office.  Take personal responsibility to follow-up with the customer and assure they get exactly what they need when they need it.  You have a huge advantage over the non-existent rep from the “Big Box” competition and their call centers.  USE IT!
  2. Problem Solver - I detest waiting and I don’t have time for problems.  I am a typical consumer.  We are rushed all day, every day.  So is your customer!  They want someone they can count on to solve their problems.  Become the problem solver!  Customers want support, advice and solutions.  What problems do your customers have?  Have you taken the time to sit and listen to them, to ask them specifically how you can help them run a better business?  Cut costs?  When was the last time you did a business review with them?  I still hate problems but I love to be the ‘fixer’ when it comes to solutions to ‘fix’ my customers problems because I become the hero!  Take the time to carefully examine how you can become a valued partner in their business and you will have a customer for life.
  3. Convenience - How easy is it to do business with you?  When the customer calls do they get a live person on the phone or do they get an auto-attendant?  Do you use or abuse voice mail?  If convenience isn’t important why do ‘convenience stores’ thrive and historically charge much higher prices?  Customers are willing to pay more for convenience and capabilities.  Customers want it quick, easy and a ‘feel good’ experience to satisfy their emotional and physical needs.  They want personal contact and to feel appreciated.  Any fool can offer a transaction but only you can offer the experience. 
  4. Reduce the Complexity - I don’t want 33 or 53 flavors of ice cream, I only want two or three.  Don’t get burdened by offering such a wide array of products and/or services that you can’t know them all or effectively sell them.  In the office products industry there are so many products that I can sell it is mind bending.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t offer a wide variety of products and service designed to meet your customer needs.  Warehouse supplies, Jan-San, printing and furniture are enough in themselves to stay abreast of, throw in machines and equipment and you have a lot to learn and a lot to sell!  If your customer is shopping for a new printer, examine their needs and allow for sufficient future growth and recommend two printers that will do the job, not just the one you make the most commission on and let them make a well informed decision.  The customer wants dependable information from a reliable source, someone they can trust.  They need information that is easy to understand and concise.  Not complicated and techie.
  5. Community – Customers like to feel connected to you and your company.  They want to be a part of your community.  Some of the best feedback I ever received to an e-mail newsletter I write each month was regarding a piece I wrote on the company employees in a costume contest we had at halloween.  I had photos and humerous captions of everyone involved and the customers responded with phone calls and e-mails about how much they enjoyed them.  My open and click-through rates more than doubled!
  6. Respect – Trust, security, value for the money, humililty and brand values are components of respect.  What do your customers expect from you?  What are your business values?  Does your customer experience these values when they deal with you?  What do you and your company do to earn their respect?  Does your customer consider you an expert in your industry?  They should.
  7. Customer Involvement – Customers want to be heard, their opinions noted and ideas acted upon.  You don’t want them to refer to you as “the office supply guy”, you want to be “my office supply guy” or “my supplier”.  This creates a sense of connection and direct involvement.  In sales, referrals are the sincerest form of flattery!  These are the people using your products and services expressing their personal confidence and trust that you can give someone else that same experience.  Ask questions, seek advice and listen to the response.  Create engaging conversations and you are likely to find they have innovative answers!

There you have it.  These are some impressions of where we start creating the experience.   Look at it from the customers perspective and you will understand these benchmarks and perhaps can add a few of your own.  Create the experience and culture the relationship and you will reap the rewards for years to come.