The Macaron Nazi.

soupCraft a perfect image for your business complete with logo, tagline and mostly stellar online reviews. That’s great. You WANT all those things. But many businesses have a hard time getting their heads wrapped around the idea their identity is public property and that even though it’s your blood, sweat, tears and money that built the business, you have an unpaid marketing department.

They’re called customers and they notice every detail. And to make it worse, every one of them is an expert. The sooner you get comfortable that their “expertise” is perfectly valid and will be shared relentlessly, the better.

There is a French bakery in a neighboring town that I pass by quite often. Their macarons are sublime and I would put anything they do that’s vaguely pastry up against anyone. The couple that owns the place are as nice as can be…until something happens that they don’t like.

It can be a dog tied to a lamp post in front of the shop, a noisy group, a guy moving a chair from one table to another, someone who asks a lot of questions and, mostly, Yelp reviews that are anything less than 5 stars. Reading their Yelp replies is as horrifying as anything Stephen King has written. Anyone who offers the slightest criticism gets a faceful of “what culinary school did you go to?” In this day and age, if you have a sizable number of Yelp reviews (and they do), there is no need to panic over one or two mediocre reviews. But if you insist on ripping into customers on-line, you, yes YOU are the one tearing down your business. New potential customers don’t want to run the risk of running into Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. They’ll find somewhere else to buy a tart as I reluctantly did. I just could not reward their aggressive online persona with my money.

It’s natural to want to defend your business or your employees but keep a level head. Online reviews are generally opinions and opinions are highly subjective. Generating what amounts to a court transcript of a back-and-forth with a disgruntled customer can never be good for you. Your regular customers will most likely side with you and the other 99.9% of the population that makes up people you WANT to be your customers will not want to get involved. Maybe your regular customers will mention that they read the bad review and give you an “attaboy” for your crusty (see what I did there?) response but that doesn’t make the cash register ring. Cold solace I’d say.

Writing a defensive “it’s easy to hide behind the internet” response to a bad review should be given the same consideration as drunk texting an ex. Think about it. Think about it again…and then don’t do it.

So what SHOULD you do? Remember your three constituencies in this case:

  1. The reviewer.
  2. Happy customers who will most likely continue to visit in spite of the review.
  3. People reading the review who are not customers yet

Think of the reviewer. But think HARDER about #3. It’s perfectly acceptable to offer your email address and ask for more details on their visit. Let them know that their business in important to you. Heck, it’s perfectly fine to get more to the point and say that YOUR business is important to you and you want to make it better.You should want to understand what could have made their experience everything they’d hoped it would be.

Get the information if it’s offered and see if there is anything to learn from. If it’s helpful, see what you can change or retrain staff where appropriate. If the feedback is a corner case or not helpful, disregard it and don’t feel you have to explain why it’s not helpful to the reviewer.

Remember, it’s more important to grow your business than be right on the internet.

Customer Experience is Everything.

curry

Reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors seemingly has it all. He has money, fame, professional success and a wonderful wife and family. It all adds up to a likeability factor that’s off the charts. He shreds the NBA and then goes home to record a Dubsmash video of a song from “Frozen” with his wife to post on social media.

He’s at the pinnacle of his profession. Under Armor gave him equity in their company to get him to design a shoe for them. His jersey is the top seller. In the off-season, he goes to Tanzania to hang mosquito nets in areas ravaged by malaria. He doesn’t send money like most would. He goes there.

No wonder people really like him.

Remember Tiger Woods? Remember when he was at the top? He dominated the links, his face was everywhere and every blue chip company wanted to be associated with him. He had it all. But even before his fall from grace, there was something about him that rubbed many in the public the wrong way. It could have been his robotic interviews and the cold vibe he threw off.

His popularity was more a form of respect for his utter domination on the golf course rather than a genuine embracing of the man himself. When his game began to deteriorate, the mystique was gone. Even before his shameful indiscretions were made public, he was fading. He offered one thing and that one thing evaporated.

As a company, you want your Customer Experience to be more Steph and less Tiger.

Tiger’s “customers” (sports fans, consumers, etc.) showed that their Tiger Woods “experience” was not something that really resonated on any deeper level. Their grudging respect for his one attribute (excellence on the golf course) was easily unraveled. Admittedly, he made it pretty easy for them to unravel.

When your customer experience is one dimensionally focused on product excellence, you are a misstep or two from a perilous fall. When your product quality, corporate culture, efficient processes and excellent people combine to form your identity in the marketplace, you may find your customers will be on your side if one of those important attributes falters.

Customer experience is bigger than the value your product provides.

Customer experience is everything.

Don’t just stand there, manage something!

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I was just at my regular Starbucks. When I got there, it was the usual for a Sunday morning. Maybe six people in line at any given time with three baristas working. I sat at my usual perch reading my Kindle and drinking my dopio espresso macchiato. I also treated myself to some oatmeal.

After a while, one of the baristas went on break just as everyone in the entire Tri-Valley area came in for Frapuccinos. The line doubled and then tripled and then quadrupled. Ashley and Jasmine kept their heads down. Ashley ringing, pouring drip coffee and warming food. Jasmine making drinks that became more labor intensive as the weather heated up. Simple lattes became Fraps requiring blending and all those powders and syrups that pump the calorie count through the roof.

I was starting to wonder how this was going to play out. The looks of the folks in line got less happy. A few would-be customers walked in and out when the saw the line. But Ashley kept greeting people by name and asking if they wanted the usual and apologizing for the delay. Jasmine kept baristaing and taking the neverending order fine-tunings from the customers gathered around her station waiting for drinks. Throw in numerous requests for water, trays and bags.

I was thinking, wow, this is a scheduling nightmare. What would I do if I were a manager? Call someone in? Surrender revenue and start giving out free drink coupons as an apology? And then I realized that the employees were doing exactly the right thing. They didn’t start working at an exaggerated panicked pace. They didn’t get short with customers. They kept working quickly and smoothly. They continued asking Little Leaguers how their teams were doing and if drinks were made perfectly.

Eventually, another employee came on shift and took the register. Ashley then cleaned like a madwoman and asked Jasmine about stocking levels. Milk, cups, lids, syrups and powders got restocked. And just like that, it was over and order was restored.

While the manager-mind in me was racing to figure out what could be done to improve the situation, Ash and Jasmine were working the issue. They knew what they were doing and they did it. They trusted each other and went about their business in a way that I think would have made Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz proud. Had Howard been there (or some other “suit”), I’m sure it would have been a disaster of making moves for the sake of making them because that’s how the management mind is wired.

Do something. Improve. Suggest. Take command.

As a manager who manages in a completely different business that has nothing to do with coffee or retail, I learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing other than trust the team, trust the process and shut the hell up.

Customer Satisfaction Guaranteed. But who wants to be satisfied?

I’m of an age where I remember when the idea of buying water at the grocery store in little bottles would have seemed insane. Ditto $5 cups of coffee. Ditto paying $200 a month to have TV brought into your home. The list goes on and on. If you wanted water and you were under 12, you drank out of the garden hose because you were probably playing with friends in the front yard. If you were older, you turned on a faucet. If you wanted coffee, you made some unless you were at a doughnut shop in which case, you paid well under a dollar for a paper cup with coffee in it. Television came from a aerial antenna on your roof. If you were a fanatic, you had a little box that would rotate the antenna to get better reception on certain channels.

Now, not only do we pay for water, overpay for coffee and get out and out robbed to watch TV, these are considered highly differentiated products. Companies that provide products that were once commodities are now able to boast rabidly loyal customer bases. I know people who would drive past 4 Peet’s Coffee stores to get to a Starbucks. I also know people who would rather not have coffee than drink Starbucks. Not long before Starbucks came along, if someone would have asked someone on the street if he was satisfied with his coffee that morning, he would probably say yes and give you a shrug of the shoulders. If you asked him if he was delighted by his coffee, he probably wouldn’t know what to say. He’d tell you that it was coffee and walk away.

So, in days gone by, you were either satisfied with your commodity products or you weren’t. The same is probably the same today but it’s getting harder and harder to define anything as truly a commodity since advertisers and marketers work so hard to differentiate  every conceivable part of every product from the product itself to the packaging and anything else connected to it.

So if nothing is a commodity, being ‘satisfied’ is no longer satisfactory. Most companies set the bar too low. If a customer returns to buy more or if they call customer support and go away with their problem solved, they are presumed to be “satisfied”. You might even employ surveys and they may even TELL you they’re “satisfied” and you may take that as confirmation for a job well done.

Ask yourself if Starbucks would be Starbucks if Howard Schultz was trying to create “satisfied” customers. He was trying to create zealots. If he failed, he ended up with satisfied customers.

How high have you set the bar? I say that you can’t be too aggressive. If your goal is to have merely satisfied customers, you may as well take “We plan to barely stay in business” as your company tagline.

The Top Ten Rules for Building a Great Team: Hire carefully. Repeat nine times.

I write this blog as a personal endeavor. It is in no way connected to my work at Toolwire. Although I may write about Toolwire, the opinions are my own.

“Team spirit has the potential to increase the productivity of your organization exponentially: Your team becomes greater than the sum of its players; the organization greater than the number of employees on its payroll. Each individual revels in the glory of the group rather than the glory of the individual. “What can I do to help our team today?” replaces “How can I get ahead?”

—Coach John Wooden

No one built teams like John Wooden

Shortly after I started this blog, I began working at Toolwire as Director of Learner Advocacy. I talked about how I’d worked at Toolwire before and how hard I fought to get back. I talked about how I loved the product and especially the people. Since then, much has happened and I wanted to share that now that I’m three months in.

I started and inherited two great employees who embodied the Toolwire spirit I remembered so well. But that wasn’t enough. I needed to build what I called my “Charter Team” of senior people. Thought leaders. These folks would be the core of the attitude and spirit that would make this special. I immediately got lucky and was able to get an excellent recommendation from a Toolwire engineer. I knew the from the first millisecond of the conversation that the person he recommended would be beyond excellent. Even then, I pressed ahead with the interview process. All who spoke with her agreed that she was special and would take the Toolwire “Sparky attitude” and move it into our new LA Team that would encompass customer support and so much more. Since she would be working remotely, it was imperative that she have the smarts, attitude, work ethic and enthusiasm to thrive. Now that she’s almost three months in, she has all that in spades and more. My first hire would be the cornerstone to building the team that would take my vision of a world class organization and make it a reality. It’s safe to say that we’re not there yet but it clearly would have set things back a solid six months if she was not perfect. She has delved in from her first moment with the company and done her ‘real job’ as well as run point on our CRM upgrade and taken the role of lead on our QA initiative.

The next hire would be a little trickier. Being a small company, there are only so many recommendations to go around. The next candidate would be someone coming in from an ad. I had my trusted senior technical guy interview him to test his technical chops and he passed. All the interviews after that were based on attitude and enthusiasm. This job demands that someone be completely enthusiastic about creating an outstanding customer experience regardless of the scenario. It demands that you be completely personal yet take nothing personally. It demands an intellectual curiosity about our products and what makes them a revelation to our customers and learners. I’m flat out uninterested in cool professionalism that becomes rote.

Our second hire has been a wonderful addition. His interest in our technology and how it’s applied has been amazing. He’s perfectly happy taking shifts that end at 3 am and coming into the office the next morning with a smile on his face ready to tell me how the night went and asking what he can do between calls. Lesson learned. The resume and technical skills are the price of admission. Attitude. Enthusiasm. A feeling of ownership in the charter. THIS is what you hire on. Good enough is not good enough. I always knew it but it’s so easy to overvalue parameters that flat out don’t matter once the interview is over. I will never compromise on attitude and enthusiasm again.

I feel that I work in a part of the company that can be whatever the team and I want it to be and I refuse to get boxed in by what the tech world sees as customer support. I’m building this from scratch. If it isn’t the best possible thing I imagine, I lack imagination or the ability to execute. If that’s the case, shame on me.

Customers for life.

I love selling and I’ve seen it change over the years. Through internet bubbles, up economies and down, people have bought things in varying amounts for varying reasons but they have bought.

The last time I had a job with no tie to a number was 1976 when I was an area host at a local theme park. “Area Host” of course was one of the great euphemisms of my lifetime. I wore a poofy shirt and a bowler and swept up cigarette butts. When I got the job, my parents asked what I would be doing. I clearly remember telling them, “I’m not sure. I think I’ll walk around and make sure that everyone is having a good time.” That turned out to be true. It’s just that I swept up butts and hot dog wrappers and emptied garbage cans while  doing it.

I went on to go to college to get a journalism degree which in its own way helped me get into sales because the guy who had the job before me apparently couldn’t write a proposal or a territory plan. I never did use the degree for its intended purpose. I was in sales forever. In that time, one thing I learned was that for all the talk of  “sales cycles”, it’s really a buying cycle and the job of the salesperson is to use that buying cycle to his or her best advantage through a combination of skill, timing and hard work. Luck sometimes plays but not often enough to list on its own merit.

Sales is not an easy job and I respect it enough that I could never leave it completely. But as product cycles shrink, customer service is the way to make the organization the thing rather than a feature or function that gives you a fraction of the market window it did a decade ago. It’s selling from the rear. It’s differentiating your product or service in a way that can’t be easily replicated or stolen by a competitor. There is no patent, no one employee, no one good idea that can be had, one way or the other, by your competitor that will relegate you to the dustbin of corporate logos.

We’ve been reading books like Tom Peters’ “In Search of Excellence” for over a quarter of a century and all of those principles are still true. Product innovation is still as important as ever. But everyone is innovating. Selling is important and has been studied, optimized and improved in every conceivable way and while there is still a lot to learn and do, the low hanging fruit as been enjoyed.

Customer service and support and Quality Assurance lead to a stellar customer experience which means better customer retention, better customer references and a higher bar for anyone wanting to eat your lunch. And since it’s not had nearly the focus that sales has had for the last few decades, I challenge you to make the case that your company has turned over every stone to make it the differentiator it can be.

I recently rejoined Toolwire, a company I’d worked for as Vice President of Sales a few years ago. Toolwire is an amazingly innovative experiential learning company. I love everything about it. The people and  the products are great and the attitude is unique and infectious. The ability to meld art and science  make Toolwire a very special place. In my new role running their Learner Advocacy group, I have the opporunity to shape the experiences of hundreds of thousands of learners as Toolwire quite literally changes the face of online education for our customers. I’ll have the chance to work with a fiecely dedicated team to remake customer support and Quality Assurance as well as establish Usability Labs and Accessibility Labs so that our products can be enjoyed by everyone regardless of physical ability. It’s a unique chance to leverage my years of experience creating customers  and take it to the next level by making them customers for life.

I look forward to sharing some of that journey here. It won’t be the main focus of Words Rang True but let’s be honest. If the idea of doing something transformational isn’t interesting to you, Silicon Valley might not be your cup of tea.

It’s Time to Forget Rotary Phones.

When the internet really got going in the early 90s, it was first a curiosity and then a revelation. But it was not our ‘reality’. It was another way to do things. You had the ‘real’ way to do something and you had the internet way. There quickly became some things that were largely adopted by the general population. In the business world, Email would be an example.  Other things, at the office and at home, would take some time.

Everything suggested by the ‘internet bubble’ companies in the mid to late 90s was measured against the template of how we had been doing it. Dictionaries, Yellow Pages and encyclopedias were tentatively supplanted.  Restaurant reservations were made with a telephone. It was odd to meet someone online. If you did, for whatever reason, you would not disclose that unless pressed. Any training or education received online was assumed to be subpar or second class.

Fast forward to today. Anyone under 30 expects only one thing from the internet: Everything.

Forget all of that stuff about how funny it is that they don’t remember turntables, rotary phones, phones that had to be connected by a wire, the miracle of the fax machine, boom boxes the size of small refrigerators, not being able to heat up food in 30 seconds and the like.

It’s interesting to those of us who do remember those things. It’s not interesting to them. In fact, read the preceding paragraph to a 17 year old and they will give you an eye roll followed by a dead fish stare that will drop the room temperature by 10 degrees.

In the early 80s, I got a phone call from my grandfather . He was about 85 at the time and had gotten an ATM card from Wells Fargo and was very excited about it. While many were leery of the idea of banking with a machine, he was thrilled. While others worried what would happen if the money didn’t come out or what if they had a question or what if someone somehow stole their money, his attitude was, “this is how banking is done now.” He lived to be a healthy, great looking guy to the age of 99 and I think that attitude had a lot to do with it. That and walking the hills of San Francisco for all those years.

An online degree is a great thing. Rather than words on a page, there is rich digital media that brings the lesson to life. Meeting someone online is often preferable now. The internet is de facto. I don’t know anyone who would debate that. But men and women of a certain age must for their own good let go of those old templates. You’re marketing and selling to people who have new templates and new expectations that have nothing to do with your own.

This is how it’s done now.