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Making better business by exceeding customer expectations

More inn/B&B showings this weekend!Most of us are busy setting appropriate expectations for our customers. We have found that consistently great service, honesty, and integrity are very important priorities, and it’s always better to be consistently good rather than great just once in a while. Loyal customers are those who have stayed with organizations because of the high quality of their products or services over a continuous period of time.

In the service industry, expectations change, and of course with the addition of the Internet, customers and clients have many more tools at their fingertips. So how does this affect customer expectations?

In real estate sales, we don’t really sell a person a home; we help someone figure out what they need or what pleases them. Once we gain their trust, we offer customers and clients choices, and with our recommendations they decide which home they want to purchase. As part of our service, we often become the total solution provider. Working with our affiliates, we can help people determine how much they can afford, give them quotes for insurance, provide accurate information on schools, traffic, parks, beaches, shopping and even the proximity to airports. We can recommend a roofer, handyman, and landscapers – all part of the extra service a prospective homeowner can expect.

Of course, you don’t have to be in the real estate business to exceed customer expectations, so here are some solid suggestions to help any business or service to excel:

  • We treat each and every customer as number one.
  • We always leave our bad mood at home, and we provide prompt attention, reliability, knowledge of our product or service, and empathy.
  • We explain any difficult situation and try to figure out a compromise that leaves our customer feeling satisfied with the decision.
  • We listen carefully.
  • We offer suggestions and additional services to complement our services.
  • We strive for continuous excellence in our service.
  • We provide affiliates or recommendations to others who can provide expert services and professional advice.
  • We are not afraid to be creative and go well beyond what is expected of us.
  • We welcome customer feedback on our products and services so we can improve immediately, instead of waiting until our competition comes out with a better solution.

photo credit: Dana Moos, Realtor

Customer advisory boards help to gain valuable insight

Sachin Dev Duggal, Chairman, Nivio, India, at the 2010 Horasis Global India Business Meeting, on India's Technology PioneersThe more an organization understands how their company is performing and what works or not works can determine success or failure. What better way to gain an understanding of customer experiences and their relevant needs than by creating a representative group of customers who can offer advice on products, services, and a company’s future direction?

Customer Advisory Boards can test ideas, preview business plans with executives, and inform about strategic customer likes and dislikes while providing an excellent means of communication to enable executive teams to stay relevant with customer needs. Now the most important part, however of establishing a Customer Advisory Board lies with the choices of the representative group of customers. Ideally the panel should consist of eight to ten members and meet two to three times a year. Here are some ideas that you may want to consider:

  • When deciding on members for a CAB, choose your best customers. It’s that 20 percent of the customers who do 80 percent of the spending and obviously the customers you never want to lose. Those are the customers you want to nurture and find the common elements because they are the core of your business. Send special invitations to your best customers and praise them for giving you the opportunity to gain insight from their valuable contributions.
  • Each meeting needs to have a specific agenda. Meetings should focus on discussion debates, market trends, business drivers, service expectations, etc. Each CAB member should be provided with a detailed background of everything that will be discussed. Never use a CAB meeting as a sales event. Customers will see right through that as a ploy to generate sales.
  • The best meetings have a facilitator or effective leaders. The meetings begin and end on time with a strong agenda. The idea is to share important knowledge and keep the lines of communication open to discuss ideas as well as competition. Meetings can not be too long.
  • Meetings can not be confrontational, heated, or biased. This is the time when customers can interact with their own views and experiences. Companies have the opportunity to act on the information.
  • Reward participants of  the CAB. Many companies still have face-to-face meetings. Other companies use webinars, but no matter what the procedure, thanking people for their time, expertise, and opinions are important. Some companies send out gift certificates or complimentary dinners. Just by keeping your eye on your best customers and rewarding them for their loyalty, will serve you well in the future.
  • Make sure you act on suggestions. Don’t ask customers for their opinions unless you are willing to make changes. Even though the CAB is not a decision-making body, customers will want to know what changes you have made based on their meetings and their subsequent discussions. People want to know that you are listening.

photo credit: Horasis

Of car dealerships and customer service

pic48Jaguar of North America has just been recognized as a JD Power 2011 Customer Service Champion which means they have excelled in their own industry by delivering superior service to their US customers. Part of the criteria used to measure customer satisfaction were the “touch points” of people, presentation, process, product, and price.

According to JD Power, Jaguar is noted for standing out by satisfying customers with new-vehicle sales experiences. Doesn’t that make one wonder why every dealership can’t provide a similar kind of customer experience?

I remember reading a statement from the CEO of Hyundai who stated, “Americans would rather go to the dentist than visit a car dealer.” Fortunately the Internet has helped us as customers take control, rate dealerships, and even create our own reviews based upon our personal experiences. Since car dealerships are independently owned franchises, they are not entirely controlled by the automobile manufacturer thus there are going to be different concepts regarding customer service. Surprisingly statistics indicate that only 30 percent of car buyers negotiate online. People seem to feel they need to touch the product and do a face-to-face encounter with a car dealership salesperson. So what are the main complaints when shopping for a new car that brings shivers down our spine when we attempt to relate car dealerships and customer service?

  • Negotiations – Car buyers complain about being bullied and intimidated. Too often the process is meant to wear down buyers by bringing out more salesmen and managers.
  • Inefficiency – There is the wasted time while the salesman has to confer with his manager. There is an extended amount of time in the finance office, the contract preparation office, and finally the vehicle preparation procedures.
  • Transparency – There is nothing more frustrating than to feel you overpaid for a car. Too often the salesperson will present only the monthly payments which is an intentional method to obscure the true price of the automobile. Then someone comes over and begins the add-on expenses of extended warranties, insurance, manufacturing fees, transportation fees; all done with little explanation.

So does it have to be an expensive automobile like Jaguar for consumers to expect exemplary customer service? After all when I sell a house for $100,000 or one for $700,000 the service is the same. Customer satisfaction should be based on the salesperson, the efficiency of the deal, the delivery process, and the dealership’s facility. If in doubt while negotiating for a car, keep in mind the following:

  • Walk away if your first impression of a sales person is not positive.
  • Ask for a new salesperson if you feel at any time you are being bullied or “herded” into an uncomfortable situation in “turnover houses.” (wear down buyers until they purchase a car)
  • Speak to the general manager.
  • Ask to speak to someone over the general manager if you are still not satisfied.
  • Use social media to carry your message.

There have been positive changes, however in the car industry. GM brought in trainers from the Ritz Carlton to help Cadillac dealers treat customers royally. AutoNation shows customers how much they will pay for a car thus avoiding the add-on expenses after the deal is made, and has cut down the transaction time a customer actually spends during the process of buying a car. Maybe someday other car dealerships will realize how customers should be should be treated, and make car shopping a positive experience no matter what your budget.

photo credit: chuckoutrearseats

Check Sheet – Why Use a Check Sheet?

Check sheets (or tally sheets) are one of the seven management tools that organizations use to gather information to help monitor and improve quality. The beauty of using a check sheet is that it provides data (facts) about how a process is working and offers information about improvement opportunities. The check sheet collects data for the number of times an event occurs. By tracking the frequency of an occurrence, an organization can learn about a process.

Check sheets should be designed to collect information that is needed to assess a process or system. The data collected gives a quick glance at problems with the number of occurrences in a designated period of time.

Check sheets work best when a person can observe and document the number of times an incident occurs.

When deciding whether or not to use a check sheet:

  • Determine what process needs to be observed.
  • Determine the kind of information that needs to be collected.
  • Determine the period of time the data will be collected (days/weeks).
  • Designate a person or persons who have responsibility for collecting the data.
  • Make sure there is a good understanding of what information needs to be collected and the process for collecting it.
  • It is always wise to do a daily check on the collections to make sure employees are being diligent with collecting the information.

The following example shows what a check sheet looks like. In this example, the human resource generalist is tracking the kinds of phone calls she receives regarding benefits and payroll. You can see by the information gathered on this check sheet that this person got the most number of phone calls on Tuesday and most of the questions were about the paid time off benefit. This information is important in that it shows the busiest day of the week for answering questions but it also shows that there are a lot of questions about PTO.

The next drill down on this would be to have the generalist collect data on what kinds of questions are being asked.  This information can then be used to develop a FAQ list, updating the employee manual and/or additional benefit training.

This is a simplified example of a tool that can be used to identify all kinds of improvement opportunities.

Writer Bio: Kathy Clark is an MBA who is passionate about helping small business owners see their vision come to life by creating corporate infrastructures that support business development and growth through strategic customer focus. She writes for, and is the founder of http://thethrivingsmallbusiness.com.

Customer service representatives are heroes too

HDR image of Roberto Clemente Statue on Pittsburgh's North ShoreOn January 21, a customer service agent for 39DollarGlasses.com has been lauded as a hero after some quick thinking. Customer service representative Donna Petrosini was speaking with Karen Ford, a customer since 2008, when Ford began to slur her words and dropped the phone.

And 800 miles away, Karen Ford, a wheelchair bound Northwest Georgia resident was indeed in trouble. Little did Ford know, however that Petrosini had just informed her manager who in turn contacted the local emergency response team. Since the address was already in their system, Petrosini’s actions helped to save Ford’s life.

“I was on the phone with one of our long-time customers, and suddenly she was unable to respond to my questions. A moment later I heard the phone fall to the floor, and I knew something was wrong,” Petrosini stated in a recent local television interview.

Few customer service agents will ever be called upon like Donna Petrosini to actually help save someone’s life, but it does make you think. When the local news was lauding Petrosini as a hero, she said that anyone with compassion would do the same. Many of us have read about other customer service heroes who have helped to push cars out of snow banks, rushed pregnant women to the hospital or stayed on the phone while a child tried to help his seriously ill mother.

In the business world, stepping out of the box for another person’s benefit when it is completely unexpected is a natural high and booming accomplishment for any organization. Why not encourage all employees to find a passion? For instance, this evening several of us from Keyes Real Estate office in Palm Beach Gardens are participating in preparing a dinner for Quantum House which is a caring and supportive home designed to lessen the burden for families who have children receiving treatment in Palm Beach County with serious medical conditions.

Other businesses in my area volunteer for beach clean-up, senior citizen services, dog and cat rescue, or helping horses as is my passion. Reaching out to our neighborhoods and participating in humanitarian projects are part of doing business; the business of helping others without the expectations of a pay check. Still, the residual benefits come from knowing we are helping others. As Donna Petrosini stated, “anyone with compassion would do the same.”

I encourage every business owner, employee, family member and friend to get out there and do something positive for someone else. Everyone should strive to be a hero.

photo credit: BokehMojo

Customer satisfaction getting worse among large retailers

aw do we have to?The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) shows customer satisfaction dropping to a level on par with the recession of 2008. The ACSI scores organizations on a 1 to 100 national level in ten economic sectors, rating 45 industries and over 225 companies including e-commerce and e-business.

According to statistics, all economic sectors were down, but large companies still have the definitive edge simply because they can offer lower prices than their smaller competition. For instance, Barnes and Noble can not compete with Amazon. As an example, just by mere marketing and price competition the Kindle far outsells the Nook. Brick and mortar establishments get trumped by online companies because of wider selections, easier access, and lower prices.

So why do we think that customer satisfaction is on the downward slide? As business slows up, many companies are laying off full-time staff and replacing them with part-time workers. This cuts down on the overhead; no more expensive medical or life insurance coverage required, pensions, paid holidays or high salaries. Replaced by minimum wage earners who have little expertise as compared to the wealth of knowledge now forced to retire or face unemployment lines, customer service equally takes a nose dive. It goes back to the close interrelationship of employees with managers and all departments. Once morale is corrupted by notices of lay-offs and salary cuts, “cheap becomes expensive.”

Just concentrating today on retail, here is a summary of a few of the top contenders. Newegg, who used to lead the Internet retail customer satisfaction index in 2008 now lags behind Amazon and Netflix. Their drop is blamed on Newegg spreading themselves thinner with more products. Target, Walmart, and Sears – known for their low prices and no frills have fallen below Nordstrom. Even though Nordstrom has higher prices, their commitment to their personalized service is paying off.

Interestingly enough, discount stores like TJMaxx and Marshalls are scoring lower for customer satisfaction, and experts attribute that to their lack of an online presence. Young consumers are online shoppers. And in the retail grocery world, Publix and Whole Foods did better than SuperValu. Agricultural commodities continue to drive prices up, and the smaller stores can not compete.

So what is or isn’t good about all of this? For large companies as the sharks eat the little fish, there is bound to be less competition. That  changes the playing field, because without competition retailers can cut services to customers as options become limited. Let us hope that customer satisfaction doesn’t go the way of the dinosaur.

photo credit: ernop

Inexpensive customer surveys can provide valuable feedback

SurvsAt one time only large organizations could afford the expense of customer surveys. Third party companies would construct and conduct the questionnaire, send them out to customers and clients, and tally up the results. Unfortunately, by the time the results came back, the product or the service was outdated. Surveys need to provide immediate actionable information that can boost performance and build trust and confidence.

Surveys can be objective, informal, and utilize candid methods to help improve a company. It can supply critical information that affects sales, customer loyalty, and profit margins, but they must be designed to be short, target specific areas, and engage the customer’s interest immediately. A survey needs to focus in on one product, one service, one team, or even one agent, and the data collected and responded to immediately.

As an example, Mary Jones has a popular online website devoted to scrap booking crafts. She sells everything from stamps, stickers, albums, tools and inks to ribbons and die cuts and even transfers. A customer can spend anywhere from just a few dollars to hundreds of dollars depending on what they purchase, so how would Mary design a survey?

Survey tools are readily available online, and many are inexpensive and easy to set up. Suppose Mary wants to find out the popularity of her stamps and stickers. An online survey can provide feedback on her product in addition to giving her more detailed written comments since online stores have the disadvantage of not directly communicating with the customer (as in Mary’s type of business). One key to online surveys is not to have too many questions, tell the purpose, how long the survey will take, and always leave room for comments. Here is an example:

  • How likely are you to buy rubber stamps, stickers, and embellishments in the next six months?
  • How much are you likely to spend on these supplies in the next six months?
  • Where else do you buy similar supplies?
  • What other designs for stamps, stickers, and embellishments would you like to see made available for sale here?
  • What would you suggest we do to improve our service to you?

The survey should be left online for no more than a few weeks. Provide an incentive to encourage responses. Offer a discount off the next purchase, or offer all who respond a chance to win a gift certificate. At the end of the survey, make sure you publish the results prominently on your site, and tell your customers how their feedback is the best way to stay informed as to what customers want – both in products and services. If you ask the same questions each year, you can compare answers and compare business numbers; maybe it’s time to add new products or discontinue ones that are not selling. After all, as business owners we all strive to please our customers.

photo credit: Gustavo Pimenta

What we learn from customer review sites

The Village Blogger, after Albert AnkerThe other day I wrote about Tello, an iPhone app that customers can use to rate customer service. CEO Joe Beninato stated his reviews were primarily intended to thank employees for their excellent customer service. What happens, however when review sites become the venue for disgruntled and grudge carrying individuals or even competing companies?

Feedback on product or service reviews can actually help organizations to improve. Even if our feelings get hurt because we put our heart and soul into creating that pink and green leather purse, and several customers wrote reviews commenting how poorly the stitching was done or that the shoulder strap was too long, if we listened to the reviews, most probably the comments could make the product more desirable. If there’s a review on the lack of customer service for a particular organization concerning a poor follow-up or an unsatisfying problem resolution, couldn’t that kind of criticism lead to a better protocol in the future? That is of course if the organization pays attention.

Not too long ago I posted the story about Dimitris Papadimitriadis, a Greek physician who brought his Apple computer to SystemGraph for repairs. When the company did not repair his computer to his satisfaction, Papadimitriadis posted a comment on a public forum. The post wasn’t especially derogatory, but the company sued him for defamation and libel. That action probably has not helped the company, but where does freedom of expression end and libel begin?

With the new deluge of review sites, plus Facebook and Twitter, are customers, clients, and frauds taking too many liberties? We all know positive feedback helps, but when feedback goes nasty and is posted on public forums, how should organizations handle the bad press? Perhaps sometime in the near future, Facebook, and Twitter will have to become more responsible for libelous statements, but until then much of that isn’t controlled even though the Facebook and Twitter “police” have been known to delete unsuitable and derogatory comments.

Customer feedback and reviews need to be constructive. Bashing doesn’t serve any purpose. I tend not to even read those kind of posts because normally they are by anonymous posters. Who has any credibility when they post as an anonymous reviewer or critic? So what’s the acceptable protocol if your blog becomes a playground for negativity and abusive treatment?

Customer review sites need to have clearly stated rules and guidelines. We should not ban negative reviews, because that actually helps us improve and leads to authenticity of our organizations. Face the facts – not everyone is going to like your products or your services. Banning anonymous posters, deleting abusive language, and deleting defamatory remarks help to control the hit and miss mean spirited person. People should be required to register before they post. If a really bad review comes in, a moderator should be able to write back to that person and ask for verification. If it is a real person with a credible problem, an organization will want to follow-up; at the very least it provides another opportunity for a company to show they listen and work to correct problems.

It’s really easy to ignore criticism, and in some cases people just want to complain. If there’s nothing constructive to come out of the complaints, it might be the time to just ignore it since responding  could just bring more negativity. Do what you can to provide the best service and products; that’s still the secret to success.

photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

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