The Seacret to Sales Success

seacret-productsEarlier this month, I met Adele. Not the Adele you’re thinking of – I’m not sure how well she sings – but this Adele can sell!

I had just left the Apple Store at Park Meadows Shopping Center in Lone Tree, Colorado when I approached a cluster of kiosks teeming with predatory salespeople sizing me up for their next sale.

“I’m all set,” I said to the guy who approached me from the sunglasses kiosk.

“No, thank you,” I said to the gal pitching fragrances.

“All set,” I said to the young woman at the Seacret kiosk as she held out a sample, smiling and making strong eye contact. But then, as I was passing by, she said, “Let me see your hand.”

I paused, turned around, and smiled – almost laughed – at her temerity. I knew then that I was going to buy something. And she knew then that she had made a sale.

As she took my hand, she introduced herself as Adele and asked my name. I complied before commenting on her famous name. She continued to smile as she opened the sample lotion packet and applied its contents to the top of my left hand. As she rubbed the lotion in with gentle, circular swirls, she asked me if I was from Colorado. I told her that I had relocated to Colorado from New York City in 1998.

“New York City?” she asked excitedly, “I was born in Brooklyn!” This led to a short, animated conversation about The Big Apple. At some point, I mentioned that my wife and I had just been in New York City over the summer to celebrate my 50th birthday.

Adele seized this opportunity to compliment me by saying, “You do not look fifty!”

About this time, she discontinued rubbing the lotion and asked me to feel the skin on the top of my left hand and then my right hand and describe to her how they felt. As expected, I told her that my left hand felt smooth and supple and my right hand felt rough and scaly. (I’m not sure my right hand actually felt “rough and scaly” but it was the first thing that came to mind as the opposite of “smooth and supple.”)

Adele validated the effectiveness of the product by sharing an interesting peek behind the curtain: “Seacret products are unique in that they contain several of the 26 essential minerals found in the Dead Sea, 12 of which do not exist in any other sea or ocean in the world. Some are known to have unique qualities such as promoting relaxation, nourishing the skin, and activating the blood stream.”

By now, I’m beginning to ponder what this product (containing rare minerals harvested from the Dead Sea) is going to cost me. I asked Adele, “So how much is this?” to which she replied, “The 1.7 fluid ounce container is seventy-nine dollars.”

My eyebrows went up as I countered with, “That’s too expensive. My budget’s only about fifty bucks.”

Undeterred, Adele noticing my Tag Heuer watch, observed, “Your watch is expensive. The lotion is not expensive.”

As I handed her my credit card, I immediately began constructing a mental outline of this blog post. Adele had made such a profound impression on me. I was delighted to have witnessed such talent on display – and to learn something in the process:

  • Persistence pays
  • Confidence is attractive
  • Engaging your prospect by requesting that he do something (as opposed to asking a question – especially a yes-or-no question) is an effective way to break the ice
  • By using names, you’re no longer strangers
  • Physical touch increases intimacy, warmth, and familiarity
  • Asking questions that lead to establishing commonalities increases rapport
  • Customers appreciate sincere and specific compliments
  • Effective demonstrations are convincing – and when prospective buyers are asked to assess the product quality themselves, they’re even more convincing
  • Sharing unexpected, unique product knowledge is interesting and memorable
  • When salespeople firmly believe in their products (quality, price, value for price paid, etc.), overcoming objections is second nature

And, just so you know, I have absolutely no buyer’s remorse. As I told Adele before I left, “If I could afford to, I’d hire you in a New York minute.”

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.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Why I fired Orbitz

dreamstime_m_10532639I will apologize in advance for the detailed account that follows of an Orbitz service failure. It’s my preference to avoid long-drawn-out accounts of customer service stories – whether chronicling heroic triumphs or abysmal failures. Let’s face it: we all have plenty of experience with both. And while the details of our stories may differ, the emotions experienced are eerily similar.

After an all-day presentation in Tallahassee on August 24th, I arrived at the airport at 6:00pm to check-in for an 8:08pm flight to Charlotte. At the ticket counter I was told by the American Airlines agent that the flight had been canceled months earlier – on June 5, 2016. When I asked her why I wasn’t informed about the cancellation, she said that it wasn’t American’s responsibility to notify me because I had booked the itinerary through Orbitz. I needed to take it up with them.

I knew then that if I was going to get home that night, I couldn’t afford to joust with Orbitz about why I wasn’t notified about the itinerary change. I had a full day of work scheduled in Denver the following day and I couldn’t afford to spend the night in Florida. I had to move fast to book the next flight out of Tallahassee to a major airport offering late flights to Denver. The American rep confirmed that she could get me into Miami but I’d miss the last flight to Denver. Since the Delta Airlines counter was located next door, I checked with the Delta rep to see what options she had to get me home that night. She advised that, while she could sell me a ticket that would get me into Atlanta, there were no connecting flights to Denver available on Delta until the following morning.

After checking other carriers, the Delta rep confirmed that there was a 10:00pm Frontier Airlines flight to Denver. She cautioned me that I’d only have about 45 minutes to deplane from my Delta flight in Atlanta, claim my baggage, purchase my Frontier ticket at the main terminal, clear security, and board the Frontier flight to Denver. I decided to gamble and bought the one-way ticket to Atlanta.

Later that evening after deplaning in Atlanta, I sprinted through the airport to baggage claim, retrieved my bag, raced over to the Frontier Airlines ticket counter in the main terminal and purchased a nonrefundable one-way ticket on the last flight to Denver. From the time the Frontier agent handed me my boarding pass, I had exactly 24 minutes to clear security and board the flight. (Of course, the TSA agent had to swab both my bags to verify that I was not transporting a bomb. Also, just to convey the Southern hospitality for which they’re known, another TSA agent confiscated my 11 oz. can of Foamy shaving cream. Nice.)

When I was finally permitted to clear security, I then had to run a gauntlet of towering escalators, endure multiple train stops, and make my way to the farthest gate in Terminal D: the dreaded D1A. I boarded the flight with four minutes to spare. Naturally, we then sat at the gate for an hour waiting for a maintenance issue to be resolved. In total, it cost me an additional $752.30 to get home from Tallahassee.

The following day I contacted Orbitz and, as expected, was on the phone for more than an hour with the rep as she investigated my claims. She contended that Orbitz had sent me an email notifying me of the itinerary change on June 5, 2016. The problem is that, although I have a record of 56 promotional emails from Orbitz from June 5 to August 24, 2016, I had no record of the email in question. Nor did my web guy, Larry. Nor did my server guy, Simon. When I asked the Orbitz rep to forward the original email to me, she said that she does not have the actual email; she only has a notification that an email was sent.

So, here we are. Although American Airlines and Orbitz each got paid on May 26, 2016 when I booked the original itinerary, neither will accept any responsibility for the service failure – and I’m left holding the $752.30 bag.

Lessons from losses: Let’s suppose that Orbitz did send an email (the one that I, nor Larry, nor Simon can locate) notifying me of an itinerary change. Orbitz is a large, sophisticated organization with robust technology. Why can’t there be a redundant verification process that, if unacknowledged by the recipient, would initiate another level of contact (that may include a second email, a text message, or a phone call)? Heck, even my dog’s groomer offers this feature when confirming Nugget’s grooming appointments. If I don’t acknowledge receipt of the appointment confirmation via text, they call to confirm the appointment. Come to think of it, so do my chiropractor and children’s orthodontist.

There’s an old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I was lead to believe by Orbitz that the itinerary I paid for in May would be honored in August. That didn’t happen and Orbitz refuses to accept any responsibility for the outcome. For that reason, I refuse to book another itinerary through Orbitz. Ever.

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.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Photo credit: © Brad Calkins

Profiting from poor service is unsustainable

An article titled Some Absurd Airline Rules in the August 18, 2016 Wall Street Journal caught my attention. What stood out to me was that each of the six rules highlighted in the article increased airlines’ ancillary revenues at the expense of overall customer satisfaction.

North America’s airlines charged nearly $11B in a la carte fees in 2015 and this number is only projected to rise. Meanwhile, services that used to be provided in the ticket price are being withheld. And I’m not simply referring to baggage handling and meals. Most airlines now charge at least $25 to buy a ticket from an agent over the phone – even if customers feel they need help with reservations that can’t be found online.

With all that added revenue contributing to record profits, why should airlines bother to consider the effect on overall customer satisfaction?

I have two thoughts regarding this question, both of which can be attributed to Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. My first thought is that airlines, cable providers, banks, insurance carriers, and other companies that willfully subordinate customer service quality to profits are in violation of principles – natural laws that are timeless and self-evident – such as justice, fairness, integrity, honesty, service, quality, and excellence. Of the principles contained in his monumental movie, The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. deMille observed, “It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.” Profits that are earned in violation of principles – natural laws – are unsustainable. (Think: Enron, Lehman Brothers, MF Global, Barings Bank, Martha Stewart, Leona Helmsley, Bernie Madoff…)

My second thought is rooted in Covey’s theory of Production (P)/Production Capability (PC) Balance. While the P/PC Balance theory may sound boring, it’s quite interesting – and quite true. Essentially, it’s the principle behind the popular Aesop’s fable of the goose and the golden eggs. As you may recall, the greedy farmer, in his attempt to achieve great wealth quickly, killed the goose (PC) that laid the golden eggs (P). Alas, there was no stockpile of golden eggs…only a dead goose.

Every business, including airlines, can take shortcuts to profitability at the expense of customer service quality and, as a result, perform better financially in the near term. Over time, however, companies that violate principles and exploit customers (PC) in their myopic pursuit of profits (P) learn, as did the greedy farmer, that this strategy is unsustainable.

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.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

Continue The Journey To Extraordinary…

9780692714096For years I have been an enthusiastic reader of business books. During my career as a hotel training director in New York City, on occasion I’d uncover a book that I wanted to share with a broader audience at the hotel. The simple solution was to just order everyone a book. But then there’s the challenge of having everyone read the book, discuss its contents, and apply its lessons in their real world of work. One option was to buy an off-the-shelf training program based on the book to provide a framework for classroom training, but these were seldom available. Another option was to develop a class from scratch, based on the book, to cascade the lessons throughout the hotel.

Have you ever designed classroom instruction based on a book that resonated with you? How did it go? How much time did you spend on the project? What was the cost (including the value of your time)? How was the training received? Were the learning activities novel and engaging? Were adult learning principles honored? In retrospect, how beneficial would it have been to have an affordable turnkey training product available, complete with learning activities, designed with adult learners in mind?

If Delight Your Customers has renewed your commitment to exceptional customer service, then the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide provides an effective road map to embed the book’s key learnings into the culture of your organization.

Many of my clients, having embraced the core truths and behaviors outlined in the book, have asked for a way to cascade these lessons to divisions, teams, and workgroups. To address this need, I collaborated with former colleague and service training expert Brian O’Neill to create the new Delight Your Customers Companion Guide containing a variety of active learning agendas that organizations can select and customize for maximum impact.

When your organization is ready to delight its customers, the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide provides ten customizable, actionable, and experiential learning sessions to help reignite and sustain your company’s commitment to extraordinary customer service. And it’s available right now; no instructional design time, effort, expense, or expertise required!

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.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Purpose-driven Q&A

dreamstime_m_5093705Q. Steve, in your latest blog post, you asked: “Do you have any employees who perform incomplete work or avoid undesirable work entirely? If so, consider ways to reframe the employee’s job assignments as contributions to a higher purpose.” Can you provide an example?

A. Sure. Let’s say you manage a supermarket where there is a need to periodically clean the public restrooms. When you approach the employee to assign the task, how does he respond? With enthusiasm or dismay? I’m certain that, given the option, most employees would prefer to stock advertised specials or bring shopping carts in from the parking lot. Even so, the restrooms still need to be cleaned.

Suppose the store’s purpose* is Everything Fresh. Now, “freshness” informs every decision that employees make – which is an excellent touchstone in a supermarket. After employees are hired, they acquire technical job knowledge and develop job skills through the completion of their onboarding and training processes. And because they’re working for a purpose-driven organization, they are also informed about WHY they do WHAT they do HOW they do it: Everything Fresh.

Now, when the stocker contemplates, “Why must I rotate the yogurt?” the answer is self-evident: Everything Fresh. Or when the cashier questions, “Why do I have to wipe down my station’s conveyor belt?” or the butcher asks, “Why should I add crushed ice to the seafood display?” or the employee asks, “Why do I have to clean the restrooms?” the answer is the same: Everything Fresh.

If the stocker fails to rotate the yogurt, over time the store will be offering expired yogurt to its customers. And expired yogurt violates the organization’s purpose. If the cashier neglects the conveyor belt, it will become stained and dirty. Customers will be reluctant to place their groceries, especially exposed produce, on the soiled conveyor belts. And if the butcher ignores the crushed ice in the seafood display, eventually the fish will be lying limply in pools of stagnant water. Decidedly unappetizing. It’s the same for the employee who is responsible for cleaning the public restrooms. If he neglects the task by doing a shoddy job or avoiding it altogether, he has violated a covenant with his employer, no different than if he failed to wear a name badge or arrived late to work. The unattended restrooms will become a poor reflection of the supermarket’s purpose: Everything Fresh.

Once an organization’s purpose has been defined and communicated, failure to honor it becomes a performance issue. Just as businesses hold their employees accountable to documented appearance standards, codes of conduct, and other policies and procedures, employees similarly must be held to service level standards that are aligned with the organization’s stated purpose.

The Mayo Clinic, for instance, has a purpose statement that reads: “The needs of the patient come first.” If a rogue employee decides to put his needs ahead of the patient’s by subordinating their care to expediency, indifference, or profitability, that becomes a performance issue, no different than if he neglects a documented policy or procedure.

* Disclaimer: This is not a trick, ploy, or tactic. Employees are observant, and they don’t miss much. If this supermarket has not bothered to define its purpose or the store’s leadership team appears indifferent toward it, then the above example lacks credibility and is irrelevant.

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.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Photo credit: © Monkey Business Images

Dispassionate About Poop

IMG_6677Yesterday, on the way home from the orthodontist, my 15-year-old son, Coleton, and I were discussing his plans for the day, which included a handful of household chores. One of those chores was to dispose of any dog poop that may have accumulated in the yard since the previous day.

After a pause in the conversation, Coleton expressed frustration, saying, “Dad, even though I have three siblings, I’m always the one who has to pick up the dog poop.”

I asked, “Doesn’t Cooper help out?”

“When he does,” Coleton began, “he doesn’t do a complete job and then I end up having to finish it.”

“Are you saying that Cooper doesn’t have a good work ethic?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not that,” Coleton conceded, “He applies himself toward things he’s passionate about. I guess he’s just not passionate about poop.”

That observation got me thinking about the importance of connecting to purpose at work. Clearly, Cooper is not passionate about picking up dog poop. Neither am I. I do, however, see the connection between completing undesirable tasks and achieving some desired result (e.g., a poop-free lawn). As Coleton and I continued our conversation, I had an epiphany: Cooper may never be passionate about poop, but he may feel passionate about making a contribution to the family.

When we returned home, I sat down with Cooper. I believe I opened with: “Cooper, you know how hard your mom and I work.” (As a newly-minted 13-year-old, Cooper’s body language conveyed that he’d already heard what I was about to say…) I continued, “Today, for instance, your mom’s day started at 6am. At 1:30pm she’s giving a speech to 400 attendees at a conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. She’ll land back in Denver at 6:00pm and be home an hour later. That’s a long day. And that’s just one illustration of how your mom contributes to our family.”

I explained to Cooper that contribution is a principle; a fundamental truth that serves as the foundation for a system of behavior. And I emphasized that, by ridding the lawn of poop, as opposed to simply completing a chore, he was making a contribution to the family – just like his mother and I do before, during, and after our workdays.

While it’s unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a teenager, to do an immediate about-face, Cooper has admittedly begun to view household chores less as (mandated) obligations and more as (voluntary) contributions. That’s a plus because the first step toward any behavior change is awareness.

Do you have any employees who perform incomplete work or avoid undesirable work entirely? If so, consider ways to reframe the employee’s job assignments as contributions toward a higher purpose.

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.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Stop Counting Paperclips!

luxardo_cherriesLast month, I returned to one of my favorite hotels in New York City. It was my first stay since the hotel completed an extensive renovation in 2012. I’ll withhold the name of the hotel because it’s not important. What matters are the observations below – which apply to countless businesses, lodging and otherwise, in New York City and beyond.

Let me say first that management made a lot of great decisions with regard to the renovations of the guest rooms and public space. And being that the hotel dates back to 1902, care was taken to capture and preserve notable aspects of the property’s rich history. And the majority of staff I encountered during my three-night stay was top-notch, expressing genuine interest in me and conveying authentic enthusiasm for serving guests.

What nagged at me throughout my stay, however, was the repeal of certain little “extras” that I’d come to expect from this hotel (and comparable hotels). For instance, at the bar I asked for a bowl of nuts and was told by the bartender that they no longer offer them.

“Cost containment?” I probed.

‘Exactly,” he replied, “We were spending $200,000 a year on nuts.”

Then I asked him why they don’t offer an upgraded bowl of warm roasted nuts with a generous supply of cashews and charge $12 for it? And because salted nuts make you thirsty, wouldn’t some percentage of guests likely order an additional beverage or two as well? (Heck, this may lead to an additional $200,000 in annual sales!) He treated my questions as though they were rhetorical and simply smiled while continuing to wipe down the bar.

Later, when the bartender served me a Manhattan cocktail with an ordinary maraschino cherry, I asked if he had any Luxardo maraschino cherries. He gave me that look of someone who wants to help but can’t, lamenting that while he used to stock them, due to cost-containment measures, they were no longer offered at the bar. This bar charges $18 for a Manhattan with ordinary maraschino cherries. For enthusiasts like me, upgraded cherries complete the cocktail and would definitely influence my decision of whether or not to order one. How would the drink’s profit margin be affected by adding a Luxardo maraschino cherry in place of an ordinary one? Might it be reduced by 2 percent? If so, charge 36 cents more. (Anyone who’s willing to pay $18 for an ordinary Manhattan will pay $18.36 for an extraordinary Manhattan.)

On two separate mornings during my stay I approached the restaurant hostess in the lobby and requested that a pot of coffee be delivered to a nearby table where I’d planned to work for an hour or so. On both occasions I was given directions to the complimentary self-service coffee dispenser located in a small alcove between the hotel lobby and bar.

Now, why is it that when I ordered water in the hotel restaurant the night before, I was given the option between complimentary tap water or a $9.50 chilled bottle of San Pellegrino water? The effectiveness of the pitch: “Would you prefer a chilled bottle of San Pellegrino water or New York City tap?” notwithstanding, it’s quite common for servers to upsell water. Why then would a guest requesting “a pot of coffee” be directed to a complimentary self-service coffee dispenser? Sell the coffee service for $10!

Here’s how: Assemble a lined tray with a stainless steel thermal carafe filled with high-quality coffee, a sturdy ceramic cup, a small pitcher of half-and-half, a variety of sweeteners, a coffee spoon, a cloth napkin, and, perhaps, an orchid or carnation in a simple glass or ceramic vase. Then deliver it along with a bill for $10. (Anyone staying in an upscale hotel who requests a pot of coffee will expect to pay for the coffee service – and will even pay a premium if the proposed flower adorns the tray.)

I once worked for a highly successful hotel general manager in the 1990s, now running a US$100M hotel in Hong Kong, who was fond of saying, “Stop counting paperclips and sell one more room!” Mark was always attuned to proactive revenue enhancement opportunities rather than relying on a sharp pencil and reactive cost-containment measures to achieve profit goals. Mark is not naïve. He holds an MBA. He doesn’t need to be lectured on the financial benefits of controlling costs. He gets it. And more importantly, he understands the correlation between cost-containment measures and reduced overall customer satisfaction.

Think about it: In what scenario is it desirable to tell a customer that you don’t offer the requested nuts or preferred cherries due to cost-containment measures? How does it support customer satisfaction or beverage sales to direct a customer toward the complimentary self-service coffee dispenser when he requested a pot of coffee be delivered to a nearby table in the lobby?

It is well-documented that customers are willing to pay double-digit premiums for exceptional product and service quality. And while capturing all that additional revenue, you will also see increases in overall customer satisfaction whenever customers can get what they want, how they want it, when they want it.

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.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Always prepare the soil before planting seeds

dreamstime_m_936477A colleague recently asked for my opinion regarding the skills that customer service representatives (CSRs) need the most help with. I qualified my response by saying that it assumes CSRs already possess a positive attitude and a willingness to expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice. If they lack these qualities, although capable of consistently executing the mandatory job functions for which they are paid, no amount of skill development will enable them to consistently delight customers.

In my work, I write about three dimensions of job roles: job knowledge (knowing WHAT to do), job skills (knowing HOW to do it), and job purpose (knowing WHY they do it). Most qualified managers can equip employees with job knowledge and job skills through onboarding, OJT, and ongoing training and development programs. As a result, these managers produce competent employees who are capable of reliably executing the mandatory job functions for which they were hired and are paid. Unfortunately, payrolls are filled with highly-trained CSRs who are capable of reliably executing an array of job functions but who lack awareness of job essence; their purpose or highest priority at work.

That being said, assuming employees have been screened using predictive software and/or behavior-based interviewing questions to validate traits such as initiative, optimism, and team orientation, I would advocate for skill-based training in the following areas: listening, empathy, and problem solving.

Listening: Too many CSRs fail to adequately listen. Two weeks ago, I called United Airlines to change a flight itinerary. After explaining that I was canceling the Wichita leg of my multi-city itinerary (Denver to New York to Wichita to Denver), the CSR said, “So you want to fly from New York to Wichita on Wednesday?” I’m not sure if she was preoccupied with handle time or what, but she had not been listening to me. During the same conversation, I requested the 2:59pm flight from La Guardia to Denver. A minute later, the CRS said that there were numerous flights available, beginning at 6:20am. Again, I asked for the 2:59pm flight that I had originally requested.

Empathy: The ability to empathize with customers is a key skill that separates competent CSRs from extraordinary ones. I recently launched a companion guide to my book on Amazon Advantage. Like most entrepreneurs, I was excited for the opportunity to fill an unmet need in the marketplace by creating and offering a new product. Unfortunately, my initial product page was riddled with inaccuracies causing me to open a case with Amazon support. A day went by without a reply. Then two days. Then three. Then four. On the fifth day, after submitting follow up queries from the Amazon Advantage support page, I took to Twitter. Naturally, I was disheartened to learn that Amazon Marketplace’s latest tweet was more than 15 months ago. On the sixth day, I received an obligatory reply that lacked any empathy or sensitivity. It was clear to me that my enthusiasm for my new product launch was not shared by the Amazon Advantage CSRs who, from my perspective, were busily executing the mandatory job functions for which they are paid with no attempt to reflect voluntary job essence by expressing genuine interest in me (as a new Amazon Advantage merchant/seller), demonstrating a sense of urgency, or conveying authentic enthusiasm for my new product launch.

Problem solving: CSRs are generally effective at following established problem resolution protocol. The problem is that a process, policy, or service model rarely contains the sentiment that a customer’s problem is your problem. When employees lack this mindset, their solutions to customers’ dilemmas are limited to what is on the screen or page before them – and this may not completely solve the customer’s problem. But when employees take ownership by adopting the mentality that a customer’s problem is also their problem, this enhances their ability to consistently resolve problems to the satisfaction, if not delight, of customers.

Last year, my family stayed at a lodge in Breckenridge over spring break. We checked out as the housekeeping crew arrived to clean the condominium unit. From the lodge, we drove into downtown Breckenridge for lunch and shopping. After two hours or so, we were on the road back home to Denver. Two hours later (four hours after checking out of the lodge) we arrived home and, while unpacking, noticed that we were missing a bag. When I phoned the lodge, the front desk agent said, “Oh, yeah. That bag’s right here.” Further questioning confirmed that the bag had been brought to the front desk hours earlier (while we were still in Breckenridge) but, remarkably, no one had bothered to problem solve and call us – although they had all of our contact information, including cell phone numbers!

So, while listening, empathy, and problem solving are a worthy skill set to develop, if CSRs lack traits such as initiative, optimism, and team orientation, then providing training in these areas may be analogous to throwing seeds on rock. Without fertile soil, rather than take root, the seeds will wither over time and blow away…

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.

New! Cascade the lessons from Delight Your Customers throughout your department, division, or entire organization. Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Photo credit: © Joseph Gough

The power of the frontline

employee-blinders-copyMy family and I stopped by the mall last week to pick up some last-minute items for my 13-year-old’s summer camp in New Mexico. We were tight on time as my wife had called ahead to add our name to the list at Yard House, where the hostess predicted that a table would be available at 8 o’clock.

As my son, Cooper, and I entered Vans, I made eye contact with an employee, looked at my watch, and playfully said, “It’s 7:59 and our table at Yard House will be ready at 8 o’clock. Hopefully, you can help us find a pair of shoes and some shorts in less than a minute!”

About that time, my son approached a wall of shoes that were on display. The employee, who was stocking socks and other merchandise from clear plastic bins, didn’t budge as she said, “Let me know when you find something you like.”

It was clear to me in that moment that I had approached the wrong employee. This employee, perhaps unwittingly, had decided to subordinate customer service quality to a job function: stocking merchandise. When Cooper found a shoe that he liked, I asked the employee if it was available in his size. Only then did she pause stocking in order to retrieve the shoes. Though it may not have been her intent, we were made to feel like an interruption in her work rather than the reason for it.

A couple of minutes later, she returned with the shoes, handed the box to Cooper, and went back to stocking merchandise. No smile. No attempt to confirm the style or size. No offer of assistance. Just a transactional, “Here you go.”

As it turned out, they were the wrong style and she had to return to the stockroom to retrieve the correct pair. In her absence, I located another employee, Khyanah, – who was a delight! She smiled, moved with alacrity, and assisted us in finding a pair of shorts and accessing a dressing room.

When I approached the register, Khyanah confirmed with a colleague the name of the employee who had assisted with the shoes (presumably to credit her for the sale). As I handed her my credit card, I thought it was ironic that the indifferent employee would be recognized for the sale but it was Khyanah who had expressed genuine interest in me and acted with a sense of urgency.

This could have easily been a critical post about the poor customer service quality at Vans. Thankfully, I encountered an interested employee who turned my experience around. It proves that a customer’s perception of service quality, for better or worse, often hinges on his one-on-one interactions with frontline employees.

What types of interactions are customers having with your frontline employees?

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Order the Delight Your Customers Companion Guide by Steve Curtin and Brian O’Neill.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen.

Customer service is the new selling

Coffee's For ClosersThe days of the boorish salesman portrayed in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross – where the mantra “Coffee’s for closers” was used to both recognize success and admonish poor performance – are gone. Certainly, there are still unscrupulous salespeople and gullible buyers. But it’s safe to say that today’s consumers are more sophisticated and better informed than their twentieth century counterparts who lacked the ability to access customer reviews, make price comparisons, and validate or dismiss inflated claims with ease from their smartphones.

It’s well documented that providing exceptional service to existing customers (as opposed to subordinating responsiveness to breathlessly chasing the next sale) results in more profitable customers who have higher repurchase rates and, ultimately, cost less to serve. Depending on the study and industry cited, “closing” a new customer is actually five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.

Of course, you still have to attract customers in the first place, but even customer acquisition is often tied to service quality. A relationship with one of my clients began as a panicked phone call in search of copies of my book to accommodate 200 managers at a regional conference the following week. The client had assumed that she could place the order through Amazon and have the books delivered within two days using her Prime account. Unfortunately, Amazon could only fulfill 30 copies leaving her 170 copies short for her conference.

I was able to involve my publisher, secure the books, and expedite shipping in order to accommodate her deadline. She was delighted and has since placed multiple volume book orders and hired me to speak at a regional conference. By moving the encounter from transactional (“Here’s a website or 800-number for you to order the books”) to relational (“Let me take care of everything and follow up with you”), I was able to make a lasting positive impression – and position future sales.

Aside from going above and beyond, another way that service quality produces sales is through referrals. Earlier this month, I was referred to a health care prospect from a client with whom I first began working in 2008. Aside from the periodic coffee and lunch meetings that personalized our working relationship, several years ago I mailed her a copy of Karen Kingsbury’s Let Me Hold You Longer after a conversation we had over coffee about “being in the moment” as parents because children grow up so fast.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you send clients pleasant surprises out of the blue with the intent to obtain future referrals. That’s not why you do it. There are no ulterior motives or strings attached to authentic customer service. You offer it because you genuinely take pride in your craft and sincerely relish the thought of making a client’s day.

Instead of chasing the next sale, why not schedule time to meet with a current client? Ask her about her experience with your product or service. What’s working? What’s not? How could you improve? Ask her about her industry, her competition, her own products and services, the challenges she’s facing, and her latest success.

Maybe the conversation will shift and you’ll find yourselves talking about pets or children. That’s okay. You’re not wasting time; you’re building a relationship – and just may be closing your next sale.

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.