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Building New Business through Customers as Partners

Shaking HandsPeople don’t buy products and services; they buy the expectation of benefits and solutions which they deem valuable. And, bundled with that value today is a long-term relationship, not a short-term transaction. Organizations that treat prospects and customers as partners leapfrog their competition leaving them behind still pushing features and overcoming objections.

Who’s your banker, your insurance agent, or your mortgage lender? If your answer is an institution, not a name, you are dealing with an enterprise that has elected to replace an important bond with a clerk or a call center. All that might be just fine until your need is unique or your problem outside their script. Then, you are left on your own and finding yourself cursing your way to the exit. Organizations that care only about the transaction cost quickly lose market share to those focusing on the relationship value.

When customers are viewed as partners, magic follows. They are more forgiving of error. With a vested interest in your success, they spend more, they purchase a wider array of stuff, they assertively advocate you more and they offer suggestions for how you can get better. Unlike the price driven buyer only hunting the best deal, customers as partners recognize there is much more to value than simply the charge.

Sales professionals with a knack for building partnerships having little trouble getting in the door of a prospect—their network has already greased the skids for them. Prospects, always suspicion of a sales agenda, move more quickly to joint exploration of needs and hopes when they read a relationship objective. They trust more quickly, reveal more readily, and decide with less resistance. Without a relationship driving the sales call, the focus can end up being one laced with arguing over specs and bickering over terms. Prospects remain skeptical and sales people pile on more proof. All this contention is completely unnecessary with a partnership approach.

What does it take to create a partnership relationship with customers? It takes using the exact same protocols that make marriages and friendships work:

  • Expect the Best: and, let the self-fulfilling prophesy help your relationship soar.
  • Assert the Truth: note the word, “Assert” not just “Tell.” There’s a big difference.
  • Keep Your Promises: and, if you can’t, renegotiate early, not at the last minute.
  • Be All, There: you can’t light a fire with a wet match. Be a source of energy.
  • Honor your Partner: if it’s all about you there is no room for it to be all about “us.”
  • Stay on Purpose: relationships should be purpose-full and resilient. Don’t give up.
  • Celebrate the Partnership: affirm successes; they show faith in your future.

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away:  How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: Aidan Jones

Customer Service: Better or Worse?

Gap en Cimes 2009 photos Josette (2)The ‘50’s version of Dilbert was a very popular comic strip called Mutt and Jeff. The clever “tongue in cheek” style made many a reader chuckle over their eggs and bacon before rushing off to the office. One strip had Mutt and Jeff enjoying a bit of verbal sparring.

“If everyone saw like I did,” boasted Jeff, “Everyone would want my wife.”

“If everyone saw like I did,” quipped Mutt, “No one would want your wife.”

It provided a humorous lesson on the “eye of the beholder” side of understanding relationships and experiences. When someone asks us, “Why has service gotten so bad,” we think of that comic strip.

Remember the scene in the movie Back to the Future when a customer pulled into a gas station and two squeaky clean attendants cheerfully washed the windshield and carefully checked the engine fluids? Audiences laughed at the obvious spoof.

Was that great service? We do not remember thinking it was back then. It was typical neighborly care by local employees with plenty of time to leisurely serve one customer at a time. They worked for an enterprise with reasonably healthy margins, friendly competition; and without the scrutiny of regulators, the screams of litigious consumers, or the impatience of shareholders. They served customers with limited choices, relatively low expectations, and plenty of time to wait.

Perhaps the gap between good and bad service is less about how far the bottom has dropped and more about how high the ceiling has been raised. As customers, we are a lot smarted than we have ever been. Recall buying your last car? You probably had more information than the sales person had tactics. Additionally, we customers have witnessed great service in pockets of our lives. When the FedEx or UPS delivery person walks fast, we assume the postal service person should do likewise. When we get a company to answer our phone call quickly with smart people we can understand, we get irritated with all those who provide us with less.

It is true that as the landscape of business has changed from the sixties. And, some companies have given us a glimpse of the global economy up close and person by outsourcing call centers to foreign soil with operators who struggle with English or requests that deviate from the script. There are companies that have cut the budget for the frontline, leaving customers to spar with an overworked, indifferent idiot. But a growing number of companies have learned that happy employees make happy customers and are zeroing in on cultural enrichment to increase employee morale.

More and more companies are getting better at communicating with customers so their expectations are more realistic. They are finding better tools to gather customer intelligence so they can be more precise in their offerings. They are helping customers become more knowledgeable customers. And, they are using service hiccups as tools for learning and improvement, not just as alarms for cosmetic damage control.

The payoff is as unmistakable as the message is clear. Look at the bottom lines of Nordstrom, Target, Publix, Amazon.com, Zappo’s.com and Costco. As customers rave about the great service they receive, investors rave about increasing business growth and profits. Companies in the top 20% of the American Customer Satisfaction Index conducted by the University of Michigan outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 93%, Standard & Poor’s by 201%, and the NASDAQ by 355%. These companies yielded an average return of 40%.

So, has customer service deteriorated or gotten better? It depends on whether you are asking Mutt or Jeff!

Writer Bio: Chip Bell and John Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away:  How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers.  They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: akunamatata

Gratitude – A True Measure of Your Service Warmth

“Thank you” are the two most important words in the English language. Yet, how often are you served and end up the only one in the equation doing the thanking? It is always important and never more so in today’s tough economy to make sure customers know unmistakably that you never take them for granted. If all your customers exited tomorrow (which they certainly could), how well would you fare the day after tomorrow?

The goal of an effective “Thank You” is not simply the expression of a statement but rather the conveyance of a feeling. We have all been on the receiving end of “thanks” knowing there was little sincerity. Thanks means communicating gratitude in a fashion that makes customers feel your authenticity. Most customer relationships don’t end in dispute; they wither away from disregard and neglect. Remember: customer relationships are fueled by affirmation, attention and care which are critical elements of service warmth. Also remember most customers do not feel obligated to let you know they are unhappy much less they are leaving! Research tells us that only 4% of disappointed customers will even bother to complain!

Great service leaders show the same gratitude to employees they expect them to show to customers. One call center rep put it this way: “The big deal service award ceremony with all the ‘hot dogs’ from mahogany row that we never see except on special occasions is nice, but not necessary. All we need is for senior leaders to occasionally walk through our areas, show interest in what we do, spend time understanding what we are learning from customers, and thank us for our contribution.”

Great customer service is not “rocket surgery!” It’s simply focusing on what’s important to customers, not boxing them into absurd boundaries, carefully managing the details to keep the experience simple, and letting them know they are valued. Service warmth comes from a strong demonstration of gratitude to customers. It is great to provide a sincere “thank you” but a true measure of the warmth of your service comes from a thank you laced with generosity.

Tacqueria del Sol, a four unit chain of affordable Southwestern fare in Atlanta surprises its regular customers with a “holiday meal” every year during the December holiday season as it’s thank you laced with generosity. Staff members together identify their restaurant’s regulars and treat the regulars to a free “holiday meal” with no limits. I have frequented one location at least weekly for years yet I am always pleasantly surprised to receive the honor of a free “holiday meal”. Their generosity has at times extended to my entire family of seven! I have observed many customers expounding the virtues of Tacqueria del Sol, its great food, great service and especially its generosity.

How are you warming up your customers experience with an appropriate thank you? Does your gratitude to customers include a strong dose of generosity? In today’s rough business climate we need to forge a “steel-like” bond with our customers. Gratitude and generosity warm up the experience to help you create devoted customers who are loyal advocates for your organization.

Writer Bio: John R. Patterson is a sought after speaker on customer experience and a customer loyalty consultant. He is the co-author with Dr. Chip R. Bell of the national best selling book Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. He can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

Stained Glass Service

My son and his fiancé elected to get married in a large antique church in mid-town Atlanta. Their choice of church was driven in part by the magnificent stained glass windows in the sanctuary. Just at the “I do” part of their late afternoon ceremony, the setting sun suddenly showered through one giant stained glass window sending a mosaic of bright colors over the wedding party. It took our breath away!

Stained glass windows decorate many churches, cathedrals, and significant buildings around the world. The art form goes back a thousand years when craftsman using metallic salts added to the glass during its manufacturing to create a special colors. The glass provided a palette that enabled an artist to turn panes into pictures. It is a powerful metaphor for remarkable service. What if customer service was like a stained glass window?

Arched, Not Square
Most stained glass windows are shaped different than other windows. Instead of following the traditional square or rectangle lines, they are often arched or round. Great service does not follow a tradition approach. It is distinctive and bold. It is:

  • Remarkable
  • Colorful, Not Plain
  • Handmade, Not Cookie Cutter
  • Story Maker, Not Perfunctory

Remarkable customer service evokes a remark—commentary on an experience. When that level of commentary reached anecdotal level, the customer is imbedding a poignant memory in the mind of the listener. As customers, we forget others accolades and recommendations, but we remember their stories.

Stain glass windows tell a story. Those in churches and cathedral often have a history behind them and depict a scene worthy of its own story.

It would mean service that is arched, not a plain square or rectangle. It would be distinctive and very colorful. It would be handmade and special, not cookie cutter like an ordinary window. And, it would create a story-to-tell in the memory of the recipient. How are you bringing a stained glass experience to your customers?

Writer Bio: Chip R. Bell is the author (with John R. Patterson) of Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. He can be reached through www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: lvm15

Is Your Service Edgy?

fireworksThe weather was the type that drives you indoors on a Saturday afternoon. It had been a hard travel week and I needed some unwind time; perfect conditions for two back-to-back Academy Award winning best picture movies. The first was the 1995 winner – Braveheart; the second was the 1996 winner – The English Patient.

The order of movie viewing was a big mistake. I only watched 2/3rds of the second movie. Now, before you play the “Guy Movie” card, you should know I actually prefer movies with more plot and less gore. But, Braveheart was so “in your face,” heart-pounding edgy that The English Patient seemed plain vanilla by contrast. The first movie made me ready to go out in the front yard and charge something; the second made me ready for bed.

I was on the Zappos.com website buying my wife a pair of shoes. I needed to get a bit of help from their call center smart person. The experience was terrific … and, a lot of fun. Then, I tried to order a shirt from another well-known e-tailer, including a conversation with their call center helper. The second experience was as unexciting as The English Patient.

Customers are generally bored with service these days. They long for Braveheart edgy. They want sparkly and glittery; a cherry on top of everything. And, when they get edgy, every other service provider is compared to that memorable experience.

So, what are you doing to stimulate all your customer’s senses? Think of the service provider with the most passion, most pizzazz, or greatest boldness. What if you invited them to reinvent your service experience? How can you decorate your customer’s experience in a way that makes it exciting, original, fun, entertaining, unusual, special, different, amazing, or any other descriptor that can take your customer’s breath away?

Writer Bio: Chip R. Bell is the author (with John R. Patterson) of Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. He can be reached through www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: E. Bartholomew

Imaginative Service: Going Beyond the Basics

“When Business Week picks Amazon.com as the #1 best service company– an on-line fulfillment company—it’s proof good old fashioned service is dead.” The comment sounded like a “kids are going to the dogs” statement someone’s grandfather might make. But, it was coming from a non-computer savvy physician in one of our client focus groups.

Suddenly others in the room jumped into the discussion with jubilant praise for Amazon.com. “Their website is so easy,” “I always get what I order,” “Their prices are the best,” and “Returns are a breeze.” Their comments reflected excellence at the basics—the core expectations of all the shoulda’s and oughta’s. Then, someone told the story of a customer ordering a used book through Amazon.com, not getting the book expected, with zero success contacting the used book company. Amazon not only refunded the customer’s money before the flawed book was returned but took on the rogue used book dealer on behalf of the customer. Even the naysaying doctor was impressed.

Imaginative service creates devoted customers. However, imaginative service only works if the basics are met. Great service providers like Amazon.com provide only as much service as is needed—until more is required. A routine order and you get exactly what you hope for, no more no less. But, if there is an exception or problem, you witness greatness and creativity. We all like service with a cherry on top. But if what’s under the cherry disappoints, the cherry won’t matter. Are you focusing on sparkly service and letting solid service slip?

Writer Bio: Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. They can be reached through www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

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