You’re not entitled to a gratuity

September 17th, 2014

The Envelope PleaseEarlier this week, Marriott International announced a campaign, called “The Envelope Please” to encourage the tipping of housekeepers. Envelopes will be placed in 160,000 hotel rooms in the U.S. and Canada. The name of the housekeeper who cleans the room will be written on the envelope along with the message: “Our caring room attendants enjoyed making your stay warm and comfortable. Please feel free to leave a gratuity to express your appreciation for their efforts.”

[Full disclosure: I enjoyed a 20-year career at Marriott International.]

When questioned about how much to leave in the envelope, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson suggested $1 to $5 per night, depending on room rate, with more for a high-priced suite. Personally, I would have preferred he’d said, “$1 to $5 per night, depending on the quality of service received, with more for exceptional service quality.”

Consider these two terms:

Gratuity: something given voluntarily or beyond obligation, usually for some service

Entitlement: the condition of having a right to have, do, or get something

To me, when you attach a gratuity to a room night and rate, it implies that if you stay over as a guest of the hotel for a night or more, then you are now expected to place a sum of money in the envelope for the housekeeper – regardless of the room’s cleanliness or the housekeeper’s attention to detail. It becomes an entitlement.

This is a slippery slope. It suggests that guests who leave less than the recommended gratuity (or *gasp* nothing at all) – based on their perception of service quality received from their housekeepers – are “cheapskates” or worse… Or, guests are guilted or shamed into leaving an undeserved tip. (I can think of many last impressions that Marriott would like to leave with its guests, but “shame” isn’t one of them.)

My position on gratuities is that guests are not obligated to offer them and employees don’t have a right to receive them. Gratuities should be discretionary and based solely on the performance of the service provider. Attaching a sum of money to a room night and rate suggests an obligation for the guest and an employee’s right to receive an entitlement. The above definition of “gratuity” clearly states the opposite: Tips are given voluntarily or beyond obligation.

All of that said, I think the envelopes are a great idea. I just would have preferred that Marriott quietly place them in guest rooms as a prompt for guests to, at their sole discretion, offer a gratuity as a reflection of housekeeping service quality received rather than length of stay and rate paid.

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: AP Photo/A Woman’s Nation

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When it comes to social customer service, most companies are hacks

September 16th, 2014

Annoyed customer copyHenry David Thoreau observed: “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.”

I thought about how this quote applies to many companies’ social media strategy. These companies are breathlessly “hacking at the leaves” of customer acquisition with their social media strategies rather than artfully honing in and “striking at the root” of customer retention.

Over the past several years, a majority of my attempts to provide feedback to brands on Twitter – pertaining to a recent product or service experience – were completely ignored. According to this blog by social media strategist, Jay Baer, I shouldn’t be surprised. (In the article, Jay cites research by Maritz Research and Evolve24 that revealed, of 1,298 Twitter complaints, only 29 percent were replied to by the companies in question.) In my case, when I returned to the company’s Twitter page after not hearing back, I saw that while they ignored my feedback, they found time to post a promotional tweet about their exceptional product or service quality.

Whenever a company uses a social media channel like Facebook or Twitter to blast a promotional missive to its legion of anonymous fans or followers, it’s largely “hacking at the leaves” of customer acquisition. Will someone really click on the link, access the discount code, and purchase the product? Perhaps the company’s analytics suggest that, on occasion, someone does. But are the recipients of these marketing messages really qualified prospects or, better yet, actual customers?

You might say that if they’re fans or followers, then certainly they’re qualified prospects or actual customers. Otherwise, you reason, why would they choose to follow the brand’s account in the first place? But look at your own behavior. Are you a qualified prospect or current customer of every brand you follow on social media? I follow Ferrari but I assure you that I’m not a qualified prospect. I also follow numerous coffee, wine, and beer brands that I’ve never purchased. I’m a fan of fast cars, coffee, wine, and beer, but that doesn’t make me a qualified prospect or current customer of these brands.

Now, here’s the irony: In each case when I reached out to brands on Twitter, it was clear that I was a customer:

  • In one case, I expressed disappointment in the way a local Xenith rep failed to deliver pre-ordered football gear in time for the start of the 2014 season. What I expected: Empathy. What I got: Silence.
  • In another case, I brought the unprofessional behavior of a supervisor to the attention of Smashburger. What I expected: Interest. What I got: (imagine the sound of crickets chirping)
  • In a third case, I shared a photo of an improperly made pizza with Papa Murphy’s. What I expected: Problem resolution. What I got: Nothing.

I cannot stress this point enough: In every case, it was evident that I was a real, live, paying customer! And in one case, I even offered indisputable photographic evidence. Still, no one bothered to acknowledge my feedback.

It’s well documented that current customers are infinitely more valuable than the anonymous masses of prospective customers to which companies market. According to Gartner, 80 percent of future profits will come from 20 percent of existing customers. Research by Bain & Company revealed that increasing (existing) customer retention rates by 5 percent increases profits by 25 to 95 percent.

Additionally, existing customers are much easier to sell. Market Metrics determined that, while the probability of converting an existing customer is 60 to 70 percent, the probability of converting a new prospect is only 5 to 20 percent. It just makes sense that consumers are more receptive to companies they already know and trust as customers.

Even so, it seems that a majority of companies would prefer to bombard hoards of anonymous prospects with promotional messages than respond to their current customers’ feedback. With all the evidence supporting the value of existing customers, it’s mystifying that so many companies choose to squander resources “hacking at the leaves” of customer acquisition rather than directing them toward “striking at the root” of customer retention.

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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Does your company have a slogan or a purpose?

September 6th, 2014

CVSHealthMany companies have slogans that look good on websites, banners, and buttons, but often these slogans have little credibility among customers or employees. They are simply a set of words that originated at an advertising firm that usually offer more than employees are prepared to deliver, and less than customers expect to receive.

CVS Health has a slogan: “Health is everything.” Last Wednesday the company stopped selling cigarettes and tobacco products at its 7,700 retail pharmacies. Although the decision to remove tobacco products from its stores will cost them an estimated $2 billion in annual sales, CVS Health chose to stay true to its commitment to people’s health. It chose to honor its highest priority: health is everything. CVS Health reinforced its credibility with employees and customers alike by staying true to its stated purpose.

I love this example because it illustrates an important point I make during my customer service presentations: Without a clearly defined purpose, there is no exceptional customer service. Most companies ensure that employees possess job knowledge (WHAT to do) and demonstrate job skill (HOW to do it), but then leave job purpose (WHY they are doing it) to chance. Whenever you leave 1/3 of anything to chance, it usually doesn’t end well.

This explains why most companies provide ordinary, routine, and transactional customer service: Their employees are given something to work ON and dutifully execute the mandatory functions of their jobs, oftentimes producing satisfactory results. But extraordinary companies aren’t content to give their employees something to work on. Like CVS, they opt to give employees something to work TOWARD.

Zappos, the online retailer, gives its employees something to work toward by guiding their actions with the purpose: “To provide the best customer service possible.” And the behavior of employees of the Mayo Clinic is shaped by the purpose: “The needs of the patient come first.” These employees not only possess job knowledge and demonstrate job skill, they also reflect job purpose.

I’m confident that the great majority of people who read this post, can clearly articulate WHAT they do at work and, if asked, could demonstrate HOW they do it. I’m less confident that they will have the same clarity around their highest priority at work, the organization’s purpose – WHY they do WHAT they do.

If you’re skeptical, just ask your employees/coworkers. My hunch is that if you ask five employees with the same job role WHAT they do, 80 percent of their responses will agree. However, if you ask these same five employees WHY they do WHAT they do, 80 percent of their responses will differ. This exercise serves as a litmus test to determine whether your company has a catchy slogan or an enduring 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.

Watch the 90-second book trailer.

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The X’s and O’s of customer service

September 5th, 2014

Xs and OsWith the start of the 2014 NFL football season, I got to thinking about how customer service is like football.

Two nights ago, my 11-year-old son and I analyzed game film from his season opener last weekend. Our observations weren’t terribly surprising or original: Block until the whistle sounds on offense and, on defense, wrap up when tackling, contain the outside corners, and keep the receiver in front of you.

These observations could make up the pre-game instructions for any youth league coach or, quite possibly, a football coach at any level. These are really the basics – the X’s and O’s – of football. It’s widely acknowledged that even with all the bells and whistles (from fancy uniforms to elaborate playbooks), the team that does the best job blocking and tackling usually wins the game.

In face-to-face customer service, “blocking and tackling” consists of smiling, making eye contact, and adding energy to one’s voice. By doing so, service providers express genuine interest in serving their customers and distinguish themselves from those who are content to simply go through the motions, treating each customer like the last customer.

So, if you provide service to a customer (or, internally, to someone who does), remember the X’s and O’s of face-to-face customer service: smile, eye contact, and vocal energy. Doing so is a winning strategy that will leave a lasting positive impression on most customers.

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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Unique knowledge separates the best from the good

September 2nd, 2014

Bell1 copyVoltaire, the 18th-century French philosopher, said, “The best is the enemy of the good.” I love this quote because, to me, it highlights the distinction between extraordinary and ordinary, excellence and mediocrity, and exceptional and average customer service.

Earlier this year, I attended a conference at the InterContinental Hotel in the Buckhead district of Atlanta. The lobby bar, aptly named Boubon Bar, stocks 70 hand-selected craft bourbons. It was there I learned from the bartender that the Manhattan cocktail is traditionally made with rye whiskey and stirred rather than shaken.

Some time afterward, I came across an article that listed other interesting facts about bourbon and learned:

  • Bourbon distillers can only use their barrels once. Although barrels are reused to age other non-bourbon whiskies, they cannot be reused to age bourbon.
  • The official mint julep of the Kentucky Derby is not made with bourbon. It’s made with Early Times whiskey. Because Early Times is aged in second-hand barrels passed down from the Old Forester bourbon distillery, it’s not actually bourbon.
  • During World War II, bourbon distilleries were converted to make penicillin. Shut down during prohibition from 1920 to 1933, with the onset of WWII, bourbon distilleries were repurposed to manufacture penicillin.

It occurred to me that this is the sort of novel information that an exceptional bartender – particularly at Bourbon Bar – should possess. I refer to these facts as unique knowledge.

Unique knowledge is not the same as job knowledge. Job knowledge is necessary for an employee to be proficient in his job role. It is expected by the customer and, generally speaking, is transactional. The making of a Manhattan by following a standard cocktail recipe demonstrates job knowledge. The bartender has simply executed a mandatory job function (the making of a cocktail) by adhering to established protocol (following an approved recipe, using the appropriate barware, ringing up the drink, etc.). And there are plenty of bartenders who are proficient at following drink recipes, using the correct glass, and operating a point-of-sale system.

But fewer bartenders share unique knowledge. Unique knowledge provides customers with “insider” information that is unexpected, valued, and memorable. It creates opportunities to spark dialogue and engagement with customers. It is relational rather than transactional, and inspires increased spending, hefty tips, and referrals.

Although this post has featured bartenders, the concept applies to every job role. What customer-facing job role do you occupy or oversee? Look for opportunities to provide the “best” customer service possible by uncovering and sharing unique knowledge – rather than settle for “good” service quality by merely executing a set of predictable job functions.

While customers appreciate efficient employees, they value knowledgeable employees. And the more unique knowledge employees possess, the more value they can add to the customer experience.

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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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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