Make no mistake: Employees choose whether or not to serve

August 26th, 2014

employee-blinders-copyDo you work hard? When questioned publicly, an overwhelming majority of us will respond that, yes, we work hard. I’m not sure what the percentage is, but I bet it’s close to the percentage of us who, in the presence of others, would claim to be excellent drivers who observe posted speed limits, consistently use our turn signals, and come to a complete stop at stop signs.

But what is the actual percentage of us who really work hard? A study by Yankelovich and Immerwahr reported that, when confidentially surveyed, fewer than one in four employees (23%) say they work at their full potential. Nearly half (44%) report that they do the minimum possible and only work hard enough to keep their jobs.  And three quarters of employees surveyed admitted they could be significantly more effective in their jobs.

Want to see these statistics in action? Check out this video Exposing Bad Customer Service by Jack Vale Films.

What stops these employees from closing the discretionary effort gap between what they are prepared to do and what they actually do? Experts name several causes, including:

  • the quality of the work environment
  • the organization’s culture
  • the nature of the employee’s relationship with his immediate supervisor, organization, and coworkers

While I agree these causes influence the amount of discretionary effort employees are willing to expend, I disagree that they determine it. In other words, regardless of external influences, employees have the freedom to choose their response to any given stimuli – including customer inquiries.

Here, I’ll reference Stephen R. Covey’s perennial book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Now, before you judge this post as passé due to the book’s 1989 copyright date, recognize that Covey got it absolutely right when he wrote: “there is a gap or a space between stimulus and response, and the key to both our growth and happiness [and, I would add, our effectiveness at work] is how we use that space.”

Covey claimed that, as human beings, we have the freedom to choose our response in any situation. He did not qualify his assertion by saying “in certain situations,” for instance, when the quality of one’s work environment is superior, or the organization’s culture is inspiring, or the nature of one’s relationship with her immediate supervisor, organization, and coworkers is healthy. He said, “in any situation.” Employees who blame having inadequate resources to do their jobs, bemoan the organization’s service culture, or cite apathetic coworkers or surly bosses as justification for their indifference are merely rationalizing their poor performance. In reality, they are forfeiting their freedom to choose their responses within these situations.

Dr. Covey identified what he referred to as four human endowments, or gifts, that people can access “in the moment of choice” to choose their response and, in so doing, improve their effectiveness (i.e., how they manage the space between the stimulus and the response):

  • Self-awareness: conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires
  • Imagination: the ability to create in our minds beyond our present reality
  • Conscience: awareness of right and wrong
  • Independent will: the ability to act based on self-awareness, free of all other influences

Had the retail employees in the Jack Vale video recognized that their behavior was a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feelings, the video would have had a dramatically different outcome.

For instance, if the featured employees exercised their self-awareness to recognize their personal standard of performance, regardless of the standard deemed acceptable by the store’s culture, then it’s likely they would have taken the initiative to properly serve the customer. And if they had chosen to use their imagination to improvise in the event that they felt constrained by inadequate tools and resources to do their jobs, then it’s likely they would have solved the customer’s dilemmas. If these employees consulted their conscience, certainly they would have concluded that their actions were wrong. Finally, had they recognized their ability to perform independent of others’ behavior or the established norms, they could have challenged the status quo by choosing to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice.

Make no mistake: Employees choose whether or not to serve. Although factors such as work environment, culture, and relationships with coworkers can certainly influence one’s performance, they cannot determine it. Between the stimulus and the response, employees have the freedom to choose their response. The extent to which they exercise and develop the four human endowments empowers them to realize their unique potential and provide exceptional customer service, regardless of their circumstances.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Keep working for the referral

August 11th, 2014

Promoter Color copyI know a successful Denver web designer whose mantra is: “Keep working for the referral.” In other words, even after he gets the business, he continues to work hard to deliver a breathtaking design to his clients in order to delight them – and inspire their referrals.

But what impresses me even more about Jeff is that, when the business doesn’t go his way, he continues to keep working for the referral. He is intentional about keeping in contact with clients/prospective clients and subscribing to their e-newsletters and blogs, regularly adding value by chiming in with comments and ideas. And he attends networking events where he’s likely to encounter them, often leading to conversations about their web successes or challenges. He sends clients (as well as prospective clients who turned him down) a holiday card containing a personalized, handwritten note in order to foster relationships into the New Year.

Less effective businesspeople tend to marginalize the value of prospects that say “no” (under the assumption that only paying clients are valuable, worthy of their time and effort, and capable of offering referrals to grow their clientele).

While Jeff’s efforts are occasionally rewarded with web design projects, they’re regularly rewarded with referrals. In fact, the activities listed above constitute most of his annual marketing budget and account for the majority of his firm’s new client acquisition.

His example serves as a great reminder to me that win or lose, always keep working for the referral.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Never apologize for your enthusiasm

August 9th, 2014

Enthusiasm new copyOnce, while I was sharing a retail example of exceptional customer service during a seminar in New York City, a participant interrupted to say, “But what if you don’t want the cashier to act all phony—like she’s your best friend? What if you just want to make your purchase and get the (heck) out of there?”

Knowing that such a question has the potential to steer the presentation into an unproductive debate between the two of us (while causing other participants to look at their watches, fold their arms, and check-out mentally), I posed the question to the larger group. Their comments ranged from “You can’t please everyone” to “It’s the cashier’s responsibility to read her customer and adjust accordingly.”

While I largely agreed with the comments shared during the ensuing discussion, it bothers me whenever genuinely enthusiastic service providers are labeled as “phony” or “goody-goodies” or worse… Instead of their passion and enthusiasm being seen as sincere, it’s viewed with suspicion—as an “act”—to earn a bigger tip, get mentioned by name on a comment card, or gain favor with management.

To all those truly enthusiastic employees out there who look forward to going to work and serving their customers, this post is for you. Jaded skeptics may question your authenticity but you know otherwise. Never dull the edges of your enthusiasm in order to fit in with apathetic or indifferent coworkers or to appease tenured employees who are content to simply go through the motions at work, relying on their seniority to insulate them from having to take initiative or expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice.

There’s nothing phony about genuinely serving others. Exceptional customer service is not about masking your true feelings. It’s about actualizing them.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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We have met the enemy and he is us

August 4th, 2014

Apathycigarette copyIn 168 BC the Greek ruler Antiochus led an attack on Egypt. Before reaching Alexandria, his path was blocked by a Roman envoy who delivered a message from the Roman Senate directing Antiochus to withdraw his armies from Egypt and Cyprus or consider themselves in a state of war with the Roman Republic.

Antiochus said he would discuss it with his council, whereupon the Roman ambassador instructed a soldier to draw a line in the sand around Antiochus and said, “Before you cross this circle I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate” — implying that Rome would declare war if the Greek ruler stepped out of the circle without committing to leave Egypt immediately. Weighing his options, Antiochus wisely chose to withdraw.

The above story recounts the origin of the “line in the sand” metaphor depicting confrontation, adversarilism, and ultimatum. And, while this conflict took place more than 2,000 years ago, similar showdowns between service providers and customers occur daily in a variety of forms. (Here’s one particularly egregious example from a disillusioned supermarket employee.)

Customers are not the enemy. Instead of fostering an adversarial service culture by refusing to make exceptions, admonishing customers, reacting defensively, and enforcing customer-unfriendly policies, service providers should embrace customers for who they really are: the source of their incomes, group health insurance, and retirement nest eggs. (Don’t kid yourself. All of these benefits — in addition to the last pair of shoes you purchased for yourself or your child — were made possible by your customers’ spending.)

The next time you detect a line in the sand between you and your customers, consider inviting them across. That way, you can be on the same side.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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What kind of marketer are you?

July 29th, 2014

SpyingMarketers have increasingly been using acquired intelligence about their customers to tailor pitches to match customers’ unique buying patterns and preferences and to attract their future spending. And while marketers hope for consumers to respond favorably to their tactics, that’s not always the case.

My local supermarket asks for my “loyalty” card (it’s really a “customer acquisition” card, but that’s a topic for another post…) before applying discounts on select purchases. It then uses that information to tailor monthly coupons that are mailed to my home. Whenever I review the set of coupons, nearly all of them apply directly to personal preferences that I have willingly shared. And because the coupons reflect those preferences, I have a powerful incentive to return.

But when a retailer abuses personal information that it has speciously obtained, this may produce a very different response.

Lately, a variety of retailers have requested my email address – ostensibly to forward an electronic copy of my receipt rather than print a hard copy at the register – only to begin spamming me with unwanted marketing messages after auto-consenting my email address into their marketing databases.

Marketers that use acquired intelligence about their customers in consensual ways that are mutually beneficial draw customers in, whereas marketers that abuse such information drive them away.

What kind of marketer are you?

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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How apologies influence consumer behavior

July 21st, 2014

Annoyed customer copyEarlier this month, I read a Wall Street Journal article titled The Art of the Airline Apology. The article features a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Nottingham’s School of Economics in the United Kingdom that found apologies can be more valued by customers than compensation.

In the study, more than 600 customers of the German eBay site who posted neutral or negative reviews of a transaction were sent an apology or compensation of under $7 to withdraw their online evaluation. Nearly 45% of customers who received the apology withdrew the evaluation, compared with about 21% of those who got compensation.

The study concluded that firms apologize so much because apologies do indeed influence customers’ behavior.

Although the article doesn’t reveal the content of the apologies, we can assume (being that customers accepted them) that they were effectively written. So what distinguishes an effectively written apology from the alternative?

  • Avoid corporate-speak in favor of empathy
  • Avoid boilerplate responses in favor of conversational language and tone
  • Avoid excuses in favor of sincere apologies
  • Avoid being coy in favor of being direct
  • Avoid managing the situation in favor of resolving it

Except for a very small percentage of customers who are trawling for perks or discounts, customers who complain genuinely feel wronged. And since most customers who feel wronged do not complain, when the (relatively) few choose to air a grievance, embrace it.

Use the critique to get better and, assuming the feedback produced a concrete action such as a policy revision or process change, convey this outcome within the apology to the source of the complaint. This will validate her feedback and, unlike a dismissive check, is likely to cement the relationship.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Frontier Airlines’ service heroics

July 13th, 2014

FrontierPizzaMartin Luther King, Jr., said, “Everyone has the power for greatness, not for fame, but greatness, because greatness is determined by service.”

To deliver service heroics is to go the extra mile, to go above and beyond what a customer might expect given the employee’s job role. In short, it’s to deliver greatness.

Delivering greatness doesn’t always come easy (or cheap), and it doesn’t happen every day. Fortunately, it’s also rarely required of an employee. It’s the exception, not the rule. But when the situation calls for it and an employee goes out of his way to serve a customer, it makes a lasting positive impression that reaffirms the customer’s importance and reinforces the relationship.

Just last week, a Frontier Airlines pilot was in the news for delivering service heroics to 160 hungry and agitated passengers. After a multi-hour delay due to severe weather in Denver, Frontier Airlines Flight 719 from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was diverted to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where it landed around 9:45pm local time.

While the plane was being refueled, the pilot made an announcement over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, Frontier Airlines is known for being one of the cheapest airlines in the U.S., but your captain is not cheap. I just ordered pizza for the entire plane.” And within 30 minutes, 35 Domino’s pizzas were delivered to the plane and served to delighted passengers.

Delivering service heroics doesn’t have to be as dramatic (or expensive) as this illustration. Oftentimes, it simply requires being attuned to customers’ needs and preferences and then taking the initiative to fulfill them.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Photo credit: Logan Marie Torres

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You don’t really know unless you ask

July 6th, 2014

unique-knowledge-copy1My wife and I recently hosted friends who were in town from Sonoma County in California’s wine country. One evening, the four of us dined at a trendy, upscale restaurant in Denver’s LoHi district. Being that our friends work in the wine industry and have uniquely informed opinions about pairing food and wine, I passed the wine list to Christopher.

Chris has held executive-level positions with Cakebread Cellars, Foley Family Wines, and Hanzell Vineyards. He has traveled the world to learn first-hand about nuances such as terroir – loosely defined as the physical environment in which the grape vine grows – and assemblage – the French term for the art of blending wine from different varietals. And his wine knowledge has been confirmed, having received certification from the Master Court of Sommeliers.

We were in very capable hands.

After several minutes discussing the entrees we planned to order, he identified a 2011 Château Musar ‘Jeune’ which, he explained, was from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and was a blend of a unique set of grapes: Cinsault, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

About that time, we were approached by the restaurant’s wine steward who, noticing Chris with the wine menu, quickly introduced herself and immediately began spewing information about wine varietals, food and wine pairing, and her personal recommendations.

When she paused, Chris indicated that he would like to order the 2011 Château Musar ‘Jeune’ to which she responded, “That’s a good choice. It’s from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and is a blend of a unique set of grapes: Cinsault, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.”

After she left our table, I asked Chris how he felt about their exchange. As I presumed, he felt patronized by the wine steward who failed to qualify her customer’s wine knowledge and made assumptions about his experience and background.

He said to me: “Steve, if she had just asked two questions: ‘What do you like?’ and ‘Why do you like it?’, it would have been a completely different experience for me.”

What I appreciate about Chris’s recommended questions is that they are specific enough to invite an expert to share his knowledge and experience, but vague enough to not expose a guest who has little familiarity with wine. Either way, the server will have qualified her guest.

Additionally, these questions invite guests to become active participants in an exchange that will result in a richer, more memorable dining experience for them and increased wine sales for the server/restaurant. Everybody wins!

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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Delivering the sunrise

July 1st, 2014

Wet WSJLast weekend I emailed the following complaint to the customer service department at The Wall Street Journal:

Our Wall Street Journal delivery person has a gutter mind. Let me explain.

Ever since we moved to our new address in January, with annoying frequency our morning paper is tossed in the gutter rather than our driveway. As you can see in the attached photo, the gutter fills with water in the early morning hours as homeowners water their lawns. The driveway, however, unless it rains, is bone dry.

My wife and I have been subscribers since 1996 in New York City when we had the Journal delivered to our apartment building on the Upper East Side. We used to divvy up sections of the paper to read during our morning subway commutes. We’ve always looked forward to waking up to the Journal – especially the weekend WSJ Magazine insert – and reading its many insightful articles.

There was a beautiful sunrise this morning in Denver. It would have been a delicious morning to sit with the paper and a cup of steaming coffee on the deck while the sun rose. But, alas, our delivery person (for perhaps the third time this week) had not thought to expend the discretionary effort required to toss the paper beyond the gutter and onto our driveway.

Please instruct this individual to pull his mind out of the gutter and focus instead on the pleasure his customers will experience by reading a dry morning newspaper with a cup of steaming hot coffee as the sun rises to the east.

Okay, so I had a little fun with this complaint. I’m not bitter, just disappointed. I know the delivery person could do better than to apathetically toss the paper into the wet gutter and drive on to complete his route. Beyond his daily mechanical job function, he must recognize the essence of his job – his highest priority at work.

His supervisor must convince him that, from his customer’s perspective, he’s not just delivering a bound clump of paper. He’s delivering the sunrise.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

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Valuing customers is a choice

June 18th, 2014

TextingEmployeecolorDo you recall the last time you waited in a long line at the supermarket to buy a handful of items with no express lane or alternate cashier in sight? Chances are you scanned the visible personnel to see whether or not an employee might step forward and say, “I can help you at register five.”

When that does happen, how does it make you feel? Pleased? Relieved? Valued? But what about when it doesn’t happen? How do you feel then? Annoyed? Frustrated? Devalued?

Yesterday, I was that customer. I approached the checkout lanes with two gallons of milk and noticed that one lane had a line of customers four deep, each with a shopping cart. A second cashier had placed a CLOSED sign on her conveyer belt in front of the last few items she needed to ring up for her current customer.

My options were to join the long line at the lone OPEN register or see if the gal at the CLOSED register would make an exception for me. I chose the latter presuming the cashier would decide in favor of the customer and quickly ring up my two gallons of milk.

Having placed the milk on the conveyer belt, I waited for the cashier to make eye contact with me so that I could smile and say something clever to address the situation, but she never looked at me. A minute later, as she completed the transaction ahead of me, I said, “Do you mind taking one more?”

She had the expression of a teenager who was mortified by something her father said in the presence of her peer group. I expected her to say, “What-ever…” but instead she said, “Oh-kayyy…” (drawing out the last syllable for effect) as though I’d just told her that I hoped to be president one day. No smile. No eye contact. Clearly I was the difficult customer who had ignored her CLOSED sign by asking her to ring up two gallons of milk.

Detecting her irritation, I said, “At the other register, I would have been the fifth customer in line.”

Nodding in the direction of a woman sacking groceries at the other register, she replied, “She is open.”

I said, “She’s sacking groceries.” Then I called over to the woman, “Are you open?”

She shook her head “no.”

Begrudgingly, the cashier rang up my two gallons of milk.

This experience illustrates a fundamental choice employees have during their interactions with customers: They can choose to view customers as adversaries – questioning their motives and treating them with contempt – or they can choose to see customers as valued partners in the success of the enterprise. This requires that employees reserve judgment and, when the opportunity presents itself, decide in favor of the customer.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

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