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Brick and mortar retailers can compete with their online competition

SucrerieThere is a lot to say about the convenience of sitting down in front of my computer at 11:00 at night shopping for a little black dress I happened to see on a movie I was watching with my friends. Not that it matters what I’m shopping for, since online shopping has grown exponentially.

The most popular products selling online are computer software, electronics, digital books and magazines, yet other online retailers have also taken a notable place in the wallets of American shoppers. When you think of the convenience that online stores are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days per year, it can certainly make that July 4th celebration where area stores close for the holiday inconsequential, because if you feel like shopping, just hit any key on your computer. Even if you’re bored, there’s no need to get dressed, warm up your car, find a parking place, or wake up your spouse to tell him you’re going shopping.

There are, however in this alleged perfect world of online shopping, distinct disadvantages that all brick and mortar retailers can take advantage of to increase their businesses while building customer loyalty so these very same customers will want to return to your store at a specific street address. Let’s face it – internet shopping is impersonal, dispassionate, and detached. As a brick and mortar establishment, it all adds up to improving and perfecting customer service. Here are some suggestions:

  • There’s nothing more motivating to a shopper than being captured with the “experience” as she walks into a store. Have you ever walked into the Apple store? Even my son has to pull me out to tell me it’s time to go. Make the store experience relaxing, interesting, show plenty of displays, use interactive displays if the product is applicable, and use senses and sounds.
  • Make me feel important when I walk into your store. Have in-store promotions and special sales or previews for customers who have been loyal and continue to shop in your store. Do you do home deliveries? Do you do free alterations?
  • Stay in communication with me by direct email, newsletters, interesting guides, and trends pertaining to your product or service and individual thank you notes and gratitude cards. I never get tired of receiving good news in the mail; it’s a refreshing diversion from mortgage payments, electric bills, and car repair maintenance. When I lived in New Jersey, I used to shop at a boutique in Spring Lake called The Spot. The owner, Isa would always send out something personal in order to stay connected with her customers. It’s a fool-proof and endearing method for staying in touch.
  • Have special occasions in your stores. Internet companies can only display special occasions on their websites, but brick and mortar stores can bring in refreshments, champagne, wine and cheese, and make the experience personal and fun. I don’t especially remember which website was running the anniversary sale, but I remember the champagne Isa served and the fun we had at her boutique when we collectively celebrated her tenth anniversary of her store.
  • Do something very special for your customers. It’s not always about running a sale and trying to compete with the discounted prices of your competition on the Internet. It’s more about you doing something special for your clients. Perhaps buy one and get something free? Perhaps buy a certain amount and receive a certificate for ice-cream at the store two doors down the street? Just make it special so your customers will remember you.

photo credit: besopha

Create a training plan that helps customer service representatives succeed

IMG_6914Front-line customer service representatives impact our everyday lives. Whether we are returning sour milk to the local supermarket or our new car with only 6,000 miles has been in the repair shop more than it has been on the road, representatives who deal with the public are significantly important to each organization. Why then, are service people often treated as among the lowest paid in many organizations? After all, business owners and senior management need customer representatives to make a positive impact on “social media-savvy customers.”

Customer service representatives often bear the brunt of a customer’s anger; therefore it’s mandatory to hire agents with excellent dispositions so they are able to maintain the helpful attitude needed to resolve problems. We want our agents to show genuine interest and concern when helping customers and clients, and take the initiative to solve problems; not just turn the problem over to another department. We want an experienced customer service agent to “own the problem,” and thus convey to the customer they have the capability and responsibility to see the task through for a satisfactory resolution.

Unfortunately there is no magical solution to prepare agents to be exemplary at their professions. Organizations that help their employees succeed don’t judge their agents by how quickly they get people off the phone or the number of calls they handle within an eight-hour shift. Here are some suggestions an organization might consider:

  • Have a training program that helps customer representatives deal with people. Help new agents incorporate people skills with their technical knowledge.
  • Be watchful of social media, however Twitter isn’t really the way to solve customer service issues. Of course, it can have an immediate detrimental effect on an organization, and customer service agents need to be familiar with customer engagement so as to neutralize negative publicity, and contact the customer to resolve the situation in an appropriate manner.
  • Give customer service personnel the authority and training to resolve conflicts. Praise jobs well-done and new initiatives that were successful. Use positive experiences to help other professionals learn.
  • Employ personnel who genuinely like their jobs and who want to progress in their careers.
  • Offer competitive pay packages and compensation plans to attract the best candidates. You do get what you pay for.

photo credit: CUS Visual Media Team

The attitude of customer service

Time to change our attitudesAccording to Winston Churchill, “attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Projecting the right attitude when delivering exceptional customer service makes a big difference. When I do business with someone, I am going to remember that company by how well I was treated, how the people who served the company treated me, and how well the company fulfilled my needs or my wishes.

My initial impression most likely will be affected by the friendliness and kindness of the customer service agent; whether it is my first experience on the phone, by email, or in person. When I call another realtor to set up an appointment to see one of their listings, I always begin with ” How are you today?” Immediately I can sense a relaxed attitude. It just makes people nicer when we are nice.  Follow up the friendly greeting with an enthusiastic attitude about your position, your job, or the service you are offering. For instance, I’m excited when I shop to buy new shoes. I like it when the salesperson shows that same attitude of enthusiasm as she helps me to choose the perfect pair.

Then there is the attitude of respect that shows customers how we appreciate their business and how we are willing to do everything we can to make their experience the best we can offer. That attitude of respect is what wins us a customer’s loyalty. For those customers who need to be thrifty and for those clients who have the economics to be frivolous, our attitude of respect for all customers can make a difference. When we use the attitude that we genuinely care about others, even if they can not afford the most expensive product our company offers, we build up trust and appreciation. Today when I scheduled new Internet, phone, and television service, the customer service agent started with the most expensive package Comcast offered. I wanted something more economical, so we amicably worked our way to my more specific needs.

And finally we need to include the attitude of being thankful, and to never underestimate the power of saying thank you to our customers. Let’s face it – you would never visit someone at their home and eat dinner there without saying thank you to the hostess. Then why wouldn’t you want to thank a customer for spending their time and their money at your company? Never forget to show how grateful you are because there’s always some other business out there who would love to step in and say it for you.

photo credit: Identity Photogr@phy

The great debate on handling customer complaints

42-15232843As customers we want to choose the companies we do business with based on personal recommendations, reviews, and past performances. Unfortunately, when it comes to telecommunications, most of us are still somewhat limited as to our choices, but still that is absolutely no excuse for poor customer service.

Two days ago I called AT&T to order two new land line phones for my new home. The customer service agent was polite and helped me to plan what I would need and arranged the install date for a few weeks from now when I moved. Unfortunately, he mistakenly canceled my main land line at my current home, which in my line of business has a very negative impact on my business day. With the obvious fault being that of  AT&T, my perception of reality was to be for the company to immediately turn my service back on; eight-hours later, three-and-a-half hours on my cell phone speaking with customer service and an endless parade of rudeness, ineptness, and excuses – finally service was restored.

So let’s make this a serious attempt to explain why customers complain and how any company can and should improve their customer service with a better proactive approach. Perhaps the most frustrating part of a company mess up is the slow response time. Again, a customer’s reality is judged how well a company resolves the problem. The apology is of course necessary, but if the problem isn’t rectified, what has been resolved? A company like AT&T  can not have a customer service agent get on the line and  simply say the service a customer expected is temporarily unavailable.

The unprofessional behavior by employees can quickly become viral when a customer relates their experience to others on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. No matter how angry the customer is, the agent’s job is to listen. Of course, no agent is expected to put up with any kind of verbal abuse, but a customer’s anger for an organization’s error that is costing a customer loss of business or loss of money is justified. (barring abuse of course) It’s when there is a lack of available management, and everyone assures a customer of a realistic resolution and it doesn’t happen, then the failure of the company’s customer service becomes a tragedy.

So what is the great debate how to handle customer complaints? Start with making promised services available, and when a company makes an error, reward customer loyalty with an expedited resolution to the problem. In my case, a supervisor should have been called immediately to resolve the problem before it became an eight-hour ordeal. After all, customer loyalty should never be ignored. There is nothing more disappointing than to feel that lack of appreciation. Rectify the slow response time, and realize a company is judged by properly trained and informed employees. Eliminate unprofessional behavior of employees; more training, more role-playing, and more supervisors available at peak hours of business. And finally – every company worth their weight needs to show their long-time customers the profound advantages of having been with a company for an extended amount of time and give them priority treatment.

And to think I don’t move for another few weeks!

photo credit: gcoldironjr2003

Don’t call them complaints – call it “feedback”

Friendly neighborhood in CACustomer feedback should be revered by business owners. What better way to find out if you are continuously meeting the needs of your customers in the most efficient and best respected ways? It’s a rare business that never has a complaint, but the negative connotation of the word tends to bring down our spirits, so why not use the positive spin and label it “feedback?” After all, it’s not to be taken as a criticism; it’s meant to keep us informed and help us improve.

Of primary importance is not to get defensive. Take notes and ask questions. Find out what frustrated your customer because if you don’t, how will you ever be able to elicit more positive feedback? Of course, you don’t want to offer excuses or blame. Customers really don’t care why it happened; they just want you to fix it. Start with apologizing, and take the responsibility for moving past objections by finding a solution. You want to recognize the customer was hurt, and you want to assure someone you will do all that is possible to correct the problem.

Recently I asked some of my colleagues for examples of what not to say when dealing with customer “feedback.” See what you think:

  • Don’t ever say, “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” According to Rebecca S., manager of The Limited, a clothing store, that kind of statement translates into telling a customer you don’t care they’re unhappy. Rebecca changed that statement to say, “I’m very sorry this happened. I will correct this problem for you.”
  • Don’t ever say, “We’ve seen worse.” You might as well be waving good-bye to your customer. Address the problem immediately, and make sure you have apologized. How you are going to remedy the situation is the solution; not that your staff has done worse.
  • Don’t ever say, “This has never happened to us before.” Margie M., owner of a shoe boutique received an Italian designer shipment of expensive shoes. She sold a pair to a new customer, and within a week the customer was back because the entire side of the shoe had separated from the platform.  “It never did happen before,” Margie said, “but I told the customer how sorry I was, went into the back and gave her a replacement pair. I didn’t want to make excuses; I just wanted her to be happy. My boutique is extremely upbeat, and I actually love that designer. Mistakes do happen, but I thought discretion was the better part of my sales presentation.”
  • Don’t ever say, “I can’t do anything about it.” Again, just wave good-bye as your competition greets your previous customer at the door.

In the end, thank your customer for the feedback. Since 90 percent of customers never complain, and just don’t come back, feel privileged someone has taken the time, and let them know you appreciate how they have gone out of their way to help you do better. If you want to keep your customers and build customer loyalty, don’t let your customers down.

photo credit: La Citta Vita

How emotional intelligence can help the customer experience

Delta cancels over 800 flights from AtlantaEmotionally intelligent people are able to know and control their emotions to produce higher sales, better productivity, and assume better leadership roles. Not to be confused with an individual having a great personality which could be  fun or outgoing with a  great sense of humor, emotional intelligence has more to do with how people think in particular situations and decide using clear and sound judgment.

How a customer feels when they interact with an employee can make the difference in sales and customer loyalty. The ability to provide an exceptional buying experience rather than just another sale affects profit, so a customer representative who can respond appropriately to emotions can have a positive influence on customer satisfaction.

Emotional intelligence, according to Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence” has five basic principles necessary to become a leader. They are self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy, and the nurture relationships; all necessary ingredients so to speak to engage customers and maintain their loyalty. As an example, an American Express customer care person will commonly engage a client in conversation pursuant to a client’s mood. When I needed to rebook my flight because my traveling companion became ill, I needed the help immediately. The agent could tell I was stressed, and she accommodated me in what I considered to be ‘double time’ in order to reschedule and reconfirm my flight. She was able to procure new car services for us once we landed, medical assistance at the arrival point, and the agent’s empathy towards a serious situation played an integral part in how I was able to better cope with the emergency.

Therefore when hiring customer service representatives, the ability to respond appropriately makes the difference between acceptable and exceptional. Emotional intelligent representatives know how to make suggestions according to a customer’s desires. While a customer representative can’t tell any customer what they should buy or even how they should feel, they can help customers by being clear and concise communicators.

Maybe John Doe has the greatest personality in the entire organization, but will his errors in judgment lose an organization business? Emotional intelligence imparts a clarity in thinking and the ability to keep one’s composure in the most stressful situations. It helps us to manage our behaviors, moods, and impulses.

“Check that bad mood at the door before you meet a customer.” states Joe W. who runs a local fishing store in West Palm Beach. “I want all of my employees to recognize their own moods and employ mood management. I want them to respond with courtesy, consideration, and respect to everyone that walks through these doors. Even if they’re in the worst of moods, I count on their emotional intelligence to help all customers and resolve any complaints or problems.”

photo credit: nesnet

How customer engagement transcends the sale

haunted oldhouseThe relationship an organization has with a customer ideally transcends the sales transaction. After all, we know when we have satisfied a customer with our product or service because they have what they want. Now does that necessarily mean they will use your services or buy your product again? There is no guarantee that any customer will stay with you or your company forever, but with that very subtle blend of excellence, dedication, perseverance, and hard work, you will have created an emotional bond we call customer engagement.

Why should an organization strive for an emotional bond or a relationship that transcends the one way road when someone enters your company to purchase a product or a service? In the real estate industry, those are the customers who will recommend me to their friends and relatives, purchase from me in the future, and provide me with beneficial feedback to help me enrich and serve future customers better. It helps me to build short and long-term customer engagement which in turn helps me to turn my customers into actual ambassadors for my services. Selling someone a home isn’t just about bringing up a three bedroom, two bath house with a garage and pool in Jupiter, Florida on my local multiple listing service. It’s the entire process of buying a home; qualifying for financing, finding the right neighborhood, finding the right school system, proximity to required services, and the list goes on. One can’t help but develop an emotional bond with clients when purchasing a home is most often the largest financial and emotional investment a family makes in their lifetime.

So here are my suggestions to help build long-term engagement:

  • Be eager to serve: Be prompt and begin any customer relationship with eye-contact and a smile. From the very beginning, listen to what your customer is saying. If you listen closely, they will tell you what they want. I just worked with a couple who insisted they wanted to purchase an old farm; it didn’t matter about the condition of the home. A customer wants you to bring a solution to the table, so be eager to serve them by knowing your product, being realistic, and working with customers to fulfill their total experience the best way possible.
  • Work on excellence: There is a profound difference between doing a job and doing the job excellently; it just takes more time and more work. Sometimes being excellent might even cost more money, but think of the benefits when that particular customer recommends two, three, or fourteen new clients your way because of your integrity and that extra mile you ran to ensure your client you are here to serve them.
  • Don’t be rigid: Never say, “I can’t do that.” Find a solution, make a compromise, and plan for the future so you become an advocate for your client or customer. It’s not always easy to see a situation through the “lens of a customer,” but chances are that customer will remember your kindness, your proficiency, and how you helped to solve their problem.
  • Create the total experience: Do something special for your customer. For instance, in my business, I often leave a fruit basket on the counter for my new buyers the day of their closing. Sometimes I send a gift certificate to the mall or their nearby favorite casual restaurant; it’s thoughtful and people don’t forget the kindness. And after the sale, I always check in with them every so often; no one tells me that I have to do that, but I’m the first person they think of when it’s time to sell, buy, or recommend me to someone else.

photo credit: dmott9

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

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