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Small Business Saturday – a boon for local retail stores

chp1024Squeezed between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the second annual Small Business Saturday encouraged shoppers to show support for their local businesses. The campaign, started by American Express small-business unit has helped to advertise the advantages of shopping locally – personalized service, convenience, and the opportunity to promote healthy economics in one’s own neighborhood.  A survey done by American Express revealed one-half of the nation’s retail sales come from small locally owned businesses.

Statistically in the past 20 years, the 28 million small businesses across the United States have created 65 percent of new jobs. As more shoppers presumably come home to shop in their own backyards, the small guys will find more ways to appeal to more shoppers.

In Hawaii, small businesses make up 98 percent of the 30,000 businesses, and where huge retail establishments can beat prices and offer a wider inventory of products, most consumers still believe in putting money back into their own communities. Small businesses can answer their own phones instead of having to “press one” to begin the maze of customer service, as well as actually do hands on personal service for customers while they wait. For instance, a local jewelry store can tighten the clasp on a bracelet a customer purchased a year ago while she waits, a hardware store can show a woman how to replace a sliding glass door lock step by step when she calls up in a state of pure frustration, or a custom men’s wear shop can spend the time helping a recent college graduate build a professional wardrobe little by little.

In my own hometown of Palm Beach Gardens, the local stores were booming with shoppers this past Saturday afternoon. The local chocolate store for discriminating chocolate lovers was busily taking orders for holiday baskets, the local photographer was helping a family to prepare for a photo shoot at the nearby beach, and the teenage boutique – employed with local students had a steady stream of teenage girls flowing in and out of the store.

All in all, it seems like a positive holiday shopping season with merchants thinking positive thoughts. Let’s hope it continues.

photo credit: fsgm

Is your customer service “naughty” or “nice?”

Brown SantaConsumer Reports just came out with their holiday report card giving holiday shoppers some interesting facts Santa’s helpers will surely want to consider before buying gifts either at the mall or online. Consumer Reports does qualify their list as neither an approval or disapproval of an organization as a whole, but Tod Marks, the senior editor and resident shopping expert states it is about “specific policies regarded as customer friendly.”

Let us start with the “naughty” category and what customers are most likely to consider a bit underhanded and offensive. Who wouldn’t question why a return policy for the same online store would be 45 days, but the in store return policy is only 30 days? The same kind of question arises when an organization charges less for a product online than if you actually walked into the store? It seems the company could be shooting itself in the foot when charging more at the mall. Several companies on the “naughty” list advertise attractive discount prices for services from flying to grandmother’s house, to texting grandmother the weather might be delaying one’s arrival, but if you didn’t read the fine print you wouldn’t have noticed all the extra hidden fees for selecting that airplane seat (from $6 to $20 each way) to hidden fees for booking your travel, improving your boarding group position (who would have thought?) to extra fees if you have talked too long to grandmother. Just a brutal reminder to all of us to always make sure we read the fine print.

All is not lost however on the gracious perks afforded to shoppers by companies bending over backwards to make this a better experience for the “happiest time of the year.” There’s an organization who offers to refund the purchase price of a product if it doesn’t meet expectations, an entertainment promoter with a return policy, and even a popular credit card company that guarantees a refund on the full purchase price if it can not be returned. Then there are tech companies that offer around the clock support at no charge, a company that extends the manufacturers’ original warranties on televisions and computers and even a company that is asking for suggestions how to better package products so they are not so difficult to open.

Of course, the choice is up to the shopper whoever they want to use, but I bet after the list is readily circulated the organizations with incredible customer service are going to be recommended by those cute little elves.

For the complete list of Consumer Reports “naughty” and “nice” list, please click here.

photo credit: kholkute

Using mistakes to make memorable moments for your business

smiley face stress ballThere’s more to building a business than advertising, yet how many organizations spend more of their budgets on marketing and attracting new customers, while neglecting the importance of maintaining current customers and making sure their needs have been met? There is no doubt that every company is going to make mistakes, but how many companies lose the opportunities to build their brand by using those complaints to their advantage?

It’s not enough to just acknowledge a mistake – customers want organizations to make the correction, and they don’t want to be kept waiting. So much attention has been brought to the airline industry lately from truly disgruntled passengers who despite the airlines acknowledgement and apology in the media for keeping passengers locked in the plane on the tarmac for seven hours, no contact information for passengers trying to desperately find flight connections, or rude attendants, corrections are never established nor does anyone ever get back to the passengers affected by the inconceivably poor customer service.

In a time when people don’t want to be kept waiting when it’s obviously the fault of the organization and those very angry paying customers are feeling as if the company just doesn’t care, what do you think is going to happen? Unhappy customers tell their friends, relatives, and coworkers. Just supposing Susan Jones gets poor service from a company, and she tells six people who now tell six  more people. Keep multiplying and before long, the numbers can get staggering. While it may not make a significant lump in the throat of JetBlue Airlines, any small or medium organization can take a big hit out of their profit margins when the news of unhappy customers spiral.

So how do organizations mitigate issues and turn those frowns into smiles? Of course, we all know that mistakes are going to happen, and no one is perfect. The key to controlling the situation however is to apologize immediately and to apologize directly to the customer. Make the correction and do it immediately. Employ key customer service personnel who have been trained to deal with angry customers and who have the discretionary ability to appease the customer using whatever it takes (of course within reason) to show the customer the company really cares.

Those are the customers who will more than likely one day appear again as a brand supporter. People want to talk about good experiences, so instead of companies spending all of their money on advertising, try focusing on the customers. There should be no boundaries when it comes to pleasing those very people who have helped to make you a success.

photo credit: jetheriot

Amateur rap video presents an odd approach to Apple culture

Apple Store ShinsaibashiIt seems an Apple rap video was posted on Vimeo and performed by Apple employees in New Hampshire. Obviously the video didn’t last long; it was pulled from the Internet, but besides being somewhat amateurish and mildly ludicrous, the theory of presenting the proper solutions to customers based on their needs still rang through as truth.

Back in July, the Apple Store in the Hong Kong IFC building presented parts of their five-day course in employee training. It is called “Core Training.” On the first day, new employees learn about the company, gain technical training, learn how Apple systems work and the importance of the Apple culture. Days two, three and four teach employees how to interact with customers, teaches about inventory and progresses to the “complete solution” which is finding out what the customer needs, asking them what they need it for, and then proceeds to presenting the product that will satisfy their needs. Day five summarizes the past four days of training and shows employees how to access Apple systems.

So the rap video seemed a bit immature as compared to what Steve Jobs would ever consider acceptable no less proper, but the message came across as far as calling customers “promoters” which simply means happy and satisfied customers are the ones who promote one’s business by recommending, returning and thereby acting as the best word of mouth advertising there is. The “rap stars” spelled out APPLE as the following:

  • A – Approach (how to approach a customer when they walk into the store)
  • P – Position, Permission, Probe (initial questions and follow-up to best help a customer find what they really want and need)
  • P – Present (solution)
  • L – Listen
  • E – End

Perhaps the rap soundtrack could be seen as mildly offensive to some, but it presented an energized and interesting approach to teaching some very important principles of customer service. If one needs an acronym like AAA to remember “Acknowledge, Align, and Assure” to help recognize and handle acceptable standards and procedures that really work when an unhappy customer approaches or calls, and it happens to be chanted, rhyming lyrics that help employees to remember and do their jobs well – maybe it’s just not so bad.

photo credit: matsuyuki

‘Tis the season to rev up the customer service

Zurich General viewStatistics for the 2011 shopping holiday season look a little scary for merchants this year. According to a Price Grabber survey, 45 percent of consumers say they are going to spend less on holiday shopping compared to what they spent in 2010. Luckily 49 percent say they are going to spend the same amount. Only 7 percent say they are going to spend more. Considering many businesses depend on the holiday season to boost their earnings for the year, it would seem logical to bring out the heavy artillery to entice as many of those shoppers as possible for the year’s final hurrah.

What are some of the incentives businesses offer to maximize a customer’s buying experience? Shoppers will be looking for the best prices, discounts, free shipping, coupons, and blowout sales, however organizations that match the atmosphere with the merchandise will find an increase in buyers and an increase in sales. And what that means is the need of customer service representatives demonstrating those people skills that assure shoppers they are making good decisions. Buyers however are well-educated and sophisticated, so the merchandise has to reflect the quality, the grand selection, and the price, but the sales people need to be available to help customers select the best choices for their own particular needs and to assure customers they have made the best possible purchase.

The average holiday shopper will spend 15 hours this season shopping for presents. Walk into a store like Harry and David, and the scents and sounds already feel like grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. There’s Christmas music filling the store, and shoppers are already humming and singing that Santa Claus is coming to town. The irresistible aroma of hot apple-cider adds to the scents and sounds which all affect the moods of shoppers. The longer a consumer stays in a store, obviously the more money a person is going to spend.

But whether it is an online business or a store in the mall, making the shopping  experience easier for the busy consumer is of prime importance. As you walk into the store of Harry and David, gift baskets with one of a kind holiday designs already wrapped makes decision-making quick and easy. A personal assistant who offers to customize a gift basket for a customer, wrap it in festive paper and send it off to its destination and still stay within a shopper’s budget is the ultimate in customer service and a great way to minimize the hassle of shopping and shipping. Make it worth the money, make it convenient, and make the staff get out on the floor and help – then join in the joys of the Season.

photo credit: Zürich Film Office

Amazon.com still a leader in customer service

IMG_4777Amazon.com’s newest customer service facility opened on Friday with a fanfare of speeches and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The new 70,000 square-foot center in Kinetic Park, West Virginia was described as a “perfect fit” by Vice President of Amazon customer service Tom Weiland. The new site will provide the company with more flexibility to train workers and take care of customers.

There are approximately 500 employees, and Amazon is planning through a job fair to immediately hire 200 more innovators and problem solvers. The company states they look for candidates that know what needs to be done and then acts upon those tasks. Products sold and supported at the Huntington facility will be Amazon’s retail Kindle, Amazon Instant Video, and Amazon Prime. Service representatives will be handling phones, emails, and chat contacts.

Customer service representatives are recognized as valuable partners in the company’s success also. Creature comforts such as a quiet reading areas, game room with television, pool tables and ping-pong tables are available for some downtime.

So what makes Amazon so successful? After all the company is rated as one of the favorite online businesses customers want to use. The answers are obvious – Amazon makes everything easy. The company offers low prices, vast selections, fast delivery, and convenient buying and returning. The focus is on the customer experience and having everything the customer wants.

Amazon’s innovative ideas have resulted in price guarantees, alerts to rising and dropping prices, and through this builds consumer confidence – enough to be labeled as one of the “most reputable” businesses. Their product reviews have surpassed most other sites, and more people continue to use Amazon as a research tool. Even the company’s technological advances such as the Kindle e-reader, the Android app store and movie streaming service has set them apart from their competition.

In my own experience, my son just purchased a Kindle for my birthday recently, and not more than two-weeks later, the Kindle Fire was announced. I had already thrown most of the packaging away, but wrapped up the original one, sent it back, no questions asked and I am eagerly awaiting the new one when it is released on November 15.

When once asked what founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos thought about on his own time, he responded he was obsessed with customers and felt driven to become the most customer-centric company on the planet.  It looks as if that might be happening.

photo credit: Chrysaora

Passengers on JetBlue angry over poor customer service

JetBlue @ SeaTacJetBlue Flight 504 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Newark, New Jersey was diverted to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut at 1:30 on Saturday because of a freakish snow storm affecting the East Coast. Passengers weren’t allowed to deplane until 9:30 that night and were forced to remain on the tarmac and in the aircraft for seven hours with no food, water or working bathrooms.

The situation already reeks of terrible customer service, but the airline industry often has their own particular spin on egregious situations which somehow is supposed to explain any and all miserable experiences passengers are forced to endure – of course for the sake of our safety. When a dozen passengers called 911 hoping to get an answer why they were not allowed to leave, there were no explanations given. When an unidentified pilot called for help to JetBlue and asked his own company to provide a tug and a towbar, no one from the company responded with any help.

When the plane first landed the passengers were told the plane would de-ice, refuel and fly to Newark. During the seven hour debacle, no logical answer was ever given by JetBlue.

In 2010 the Federal Aviation Commission required that an airline has to provide water and snacks to passengers and the option to deplane after three hours on a domestic flight. If the government determines the airline violated the tarmac delay rule, the airline could be fined $27,500 per passenger. Consumers are not entitled to any of the fines. Pilots did not want police to board the plane until hours later when a taped recording stated:

“I got a problem here on the airplane. I’m gonna need to have the cops on board.”

The ordeal was finally over when police and firefighters came on board to attend to a diabetic person and a paraplegic flier who had difficulty with the circulation in his legs.

The JetBlue website boasts the highest customer service rating among low-cost carriers. According to JD Powers and Associates, the airline scored high grades for the seventh year in a row. The company offers free television, free snacks, leg room and “award-winning service.”

“JetBlue is also America’s first and only airline to offer its own Customer Bill of Rights with meaningful and specific compensation for customers inconvenienced by service disruptions within JetBlue’s control.”

In a JetBlue statement, the organization apologized and blamed the situation on an “unusual combination of weather and infrastructure issues.” The next day however passengers had trouble finding new flights – many of them decided to use ground transportation to get back to Newark and their final trip destinations.

So what could JetBlue have done? Good, bad, or indifferent passengers are entitled to the truth. Two-hundred passengers sitting out on the tarmac should have been enough of an impetus to alert an official who had the power to do something and make a positive decision. It was the airport that finally sent a towbar and tow to Flight 504. JetBlue couldn’t even get it together to help their own company.

photo credit: prayitno