Service Stories: Own The Issue

Proactively monitoring customer satisfaction in your business improves everything.   We touched on finding complaints yesterday.  You can’t do enough of that work.

But how your organization reacts to customer complaints is even more important.   If you can’t get complaint resolution right, fold up your tents and quit or sell the company.  You must live by a culture of “every complaint properly handled every time”.  That does not mean robotic greetings and talk tracks that emphasize upsells.

Think of  a business version of The Golden Rule.

We recently saw both sides of the coin at our payroll company.  We love our payroll company.  They are always responsive, the price is reasonable and the service is easy to use.   But we apparently threw them for a loop when we hired an employee in another state.

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Service Stories: Getting It Right The First Time

Big Thinking’s week-long survey of service stories kicks off with this most important concept:

Understand where your customers are complaining.

I sat in a local government proceeding last month where a government employee asserted that there were no complaints about taxicabs in a jurisdiction serving more than one million people.  He finally acknowledged that there were likely issues, but that they didn’t bother consumers enough to complain.

The corollary is almost certainly true.   Consumers certainly received poor service and almost certainly complained about that service.  They complained to the companies involved, a different agency or to others who don’t record complaints.  But because those consumers had not complained in the way that the county dictated they should, county employees asserted multiple times that the county’s programs worked fine and consumers were pleased.

Such nonsensical thinking only occurs in bureaucracies where people don’t have to close the doors if they are wrong too often.  In a small business, pretending that unheard customer complaints mean everything is okay is inviting disaster.  Many indicators exist to tell you about your service or product:  revenue, repeat customers, word-of-mouth referrals and proactive market research.

That’s right:  go ask customers how happy they are.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that you can’t rely on your systems to tell your about service quality. Go where your customers share their experiences.  Listen.  Ask questions.  Repeat.  Ignore finding out about complaints at your own peril.

Customer service and consumer affairs contact centers are for problem resolutions.  The very best among them measure customer satisfaction, but that’s usually a market research function.  A small business leader wearing both hats should already be asking these questions.

Make Sharing Easy

Antivirus company AVG pushed a great report to me earlier today called a “Threat Report”.  You can see a copy at the bottom of this post.  The security company with the freemium model wanted me to give them credit for protecting one my computers from a series of problems.  It’s a smart, relatively passive way for the company to prove its product’s worth to a user who is a potential upsell.

Silver Beacon Marketing does a similar thing, showing clients their return on investment (ROI) for advertising campaigns or other goals from our search engine optimization efforts.  That is proprietary data that few would publicize, but I’ve lost count of the number of times a referral has quoted their friend’s ROI to me.

Bagging about the number of threats your computer stopped is something you might share with anyone.  The whole thing sounds like fun.  And even a small adoption rate can mean some great exposure.  Let’s say that the report showed your level of web savvy and a fun rating about your computer’s strength along with some Twitter and Facebook share buttons.  Your product gets valuable exposure every time someone sends that report to their Twitter or Facebook stream.

Enabling that sharing function is only a part of the battle though. Sharing has to be simple–absolutely frictionless–to get the best possible return.  And that’s what I experienced today when I reactivated a StumbleUpon account.

Signing up was easy–only four fields after I clicked “connect with Facebook”.  And the company was smart enough to ask, “Hey, since you’re recommending pages to strangers, how about recommending them to your friends?”

Why not?  That makes perfectly good sense.  And with each post to my Facebook page, StumbleUpon gets a big endorsement from me to anyone connected with me.

Asking that question is smart.  My Facebook friends might not have a StumbleUpon account, but all the work is done for me if I want to post a link to my Facebook page or other social media channels. That is completely  frictionless.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is to consider how your company communicates its real value to stakeh0lders.  Special bonus points if you make sharing that information easy.

AVG Threat Report shows that businesses value to customers

AVG Threat report - click to expand

Social Media Connections and What They Mean

Facebook is for people you used to know.
LinkedIn if for people from work.
And Twitter is for people you want to know.

That was the secret sauce of connection types using social media from television guru Jerry Ferguson at Fairfax County’s Channel 10.  We shared a laugh over it at the time, but as I continued using all three, they did seem to cluster that way.   There is overlap, of course, and a broom closet full of sweeping generalizations, but there is a lot of truth there too.

Jerry’s joke, shared during a committee meeting for a non-profit, made me think a lot about the way we use web services.  Reviewing The Social Network on a movie site we run, I wrote that it’s no longer enough to simply say that Google is the cluster of sites providing us utility (searches, email, maps, data) while Facebook is the site that provides fun (chats, messaging, games, apps).

Both companies are fascinating because of their attempts to diversify. Facebook already is a substantial search engine in its own right and is rumored to have a new communications platform ready to roll.  Google, meanwhile, is supposedly hard at work on socializing the organization even more after the failures of the standalone Orkut and integrated Buzz.

All of this brought my thinking to Big Thinking for Small Business and what this blog might be used for.  I talked with coaches and developers, equity holders and designers.  The issue really boils down to the audience for this blog, which is something Sara and I thought was defined a long time ago.

We don’t want to be your breaking news source although we will tell you when there is online marketing news that might change your organization.  And we don’t want to be a how-to primer either.  Many good sites do both things well.

Instead, Big Thinking for Small Business is intended for the very people Silver Beacon Marketing serves–small businesses and non-profits.  We write for our clients, partners and corporate friends. We write about search engines, online marketing, advertising and even some things that can help you earn more profit.

Starting March 1, we’ll integrate even more with Facebook and use their commenting section.  We’ll feature more guest bloggers, more reference pieces, more academic work and more content that will help you run your business.

Our WordPress tutorials, previously open just for clients, will be open to everyone.

We believe that any business can effectively compete in any market in the world.  Read along with us and we’ll show you how.   This is the next iteration of the Big Thinking for Small Business blog, Big Thinking 2.0 if you will, and we look forward to your comments and guidance on how it can help your organization.

Image: Shannon David French

Small Business Service With Groupon

Groupon is enduring some well-deserved criticism this week for its edgy Super Bowl commercial featuring actor Timothy Hutton that made light of Tibet’s struggles with China.  American consumers overwhelmingly rejected the ad while continuing to use the service (herein called The GoDaddy Effect) and the company best known for being the startup that earlier spurned $6 billion of Google’s money created another head-scratching moment.

But what impact does this company have on a small business, maybe your small business, when one of those 50% offers launches?

Almost all Groupon customers ask for a second promotion according to a video on the company’s website.   Local merchants now receive mobile applications, free marketing copywriters and tools like a capacity planner. But business owners often go online to complain about margins or are cautioned about exceeding capacity and cutting into margin.   WebProNews did a splendid piece about Groupon tackling the capacity issue head-on and suggested that Groupon should be able to help a small business plan for lots of new customers.

Capacity was the issue I experienced with local merchants.  The worst was a camera store with an offer that swayed me to convert some old film to DVD .  My son picked up the order and paid with the Groupon, which was about $6 more than the cost.  The cashier did not offer a store credit or offer to sell a second conversion an apply a $6 credit.  Nearly half of the $15 savings evaporated so I called the store.

Pause and reflect.

Groupon brought me in when I wouldn’t have looked around for that old birthday party footage.  Then the store had a chance to wow me with their services anf pick up a second conversion plus who knows how many more future orders?

Instead the clerk said no.  The manager went further, telling me that “Not everything is free just because you have Groupon”.  Those frustrated line staff comments are common on web complaint boards.  But now I had a mission so I called the small chain’s headquarters and was told there was no customer service department and “these questions”  were best handled at the store level.  But now I was more focused on the store manager’s attitude and I ended up in the voice mail of someone in store operations.  That person never called back even after a second message was left.

So the fallout for the store is even worse.  Now I’m not only dissatisfied, but when someone comments on the DVD, I tell them to buy online because the local chain has “awful service”.

That is the essence of a merchant’s Groupon dilemma.  The company says all will be well if the merchant is “honest” about their ability to handle big volumes and convert casual consumers to long-term customers.  Your takeaway as a small business leader is to think strategically, not about cash flow or other tactical matters, when considering any coupon service. If you don’t have an upselling, customer-centric culture and your business has tight margins, inviting a horde of discount-loving customers who have no loyalty to your business is an ineffective strategy.

Source:  ”“,, 1/26/2011
Source:  ”Hey, Ellen, Should We Do Groupon?” Restaurant Intelligence, 9/18/2009
Source: “Groupon Talks Managing Capacity…“, Web Pro News, 1/17/2011
Source: “Groupon Rejects $6 Billion Offer From Google“, MSNBC, 12/4/2010
Image:  Eugene Peretz via CC 2.0

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Elton John moaned the lyrics “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” three decades ago.

For many, the word appears to still be difficult.

You likely know about designer Kenneth Cole’s gaffe.  He tweeted from the company’s official account that crowds demonstrating in Cairo had likely gathered because of the company’s fall line.

An hour later, this tweet appeared.

Re Egypt tweet: we weren't intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment -KC
Kenneth Cole Prd

Kenneth Cole is a smart guy with resources.  He went to law school.  His brother-in-law is the governor of New York.   His company (NYSE:KCP) had revenues of more than $400 million last year.  A simpler message might simply have been “I’m truly sorry.  That post was in poor taste and has been removed.”  Or I’m sorry followed by anything.

In a personal situation, I responded to an survey with low marks and an explanation that the flowers were clearly old, looked bad upon delivery and did not last long.  The company thanked me for filling out a survey and wrote “We are sorry you were disappointed…”   The rest was meaningless boilerplate for the situation.  I wasn’t looking for a refund although a smart company might have dropped a coupon on me for a future purchase.  But by sending a token apology at the end of a direct transaction, the company acknowledged that my survey had been coded as “dissatisfied”, yet still failed to own the issue.  Had nothing ever happened, I would have simply assumed that the marketing research folks didn’t pass along my survey.

Your takeaway as a small business owner is to own your company’s mistakes and express regret by starting with a simple apology–”I’m sorry”. You should absolutely elaborate on how you’ll make things better and what happened if that’s appropriate to discuss.  But start with those two simple words and prepare to be amazed at the customer satisfaction that results when you sincerely accept a problem.

Source:  ”Kenneth Cole Egypt Tweets”, CNN Money, 2/6/11
Source:  ”NYSE:KCP Financials”, Google Finance, 2/6/11

Why Do Not Track Hurts Consumers

Chains wrapped around computer keyboardEveryone is hurt by “Do Not Track” and other well-meaning privacy initiatives that  hurt the economy, reduce the number of online options consumers have for news, entertainment and research and could even change pricing of mobile phone, Internet, television and other plans.

Most business leaders would agree that any short-term gains generated by compromising customer privacy would be offset by reputation damage and may eventually drive an organization out of business.  But consumers may not understand what happens when they install ad blocking software or take advantage of Firefox’s proposed “do not track” flag.

By informing companies that they don’t want their activities tracked or they don’t want to see advertising on websites or smartphones, consumers will block  the activity that allows organizations to provide free and subsidized services.   Google said that today that they would make code available for Internet developers to embed this opt-out mechanism in future browsers, but even The Washington Post conceded that doing so might cause repeated or less relevant ads.

Smart advertisers aren’t tracking you–they are tracking the activities of a computer session to serve better, more relevant advertising.  That tracking leads to better advertising targeting which means the companies sponsoring the information and connectivity are more profitable and can continue offering free services.  Imagine a world where  you pay a membership fee for access to a search engine or for Facebook or to watch a video.

Advertising pays for all of the services and more, including subsidized telephone services, broadband pricing initiatives and a global economy where a small business in Europe can compete with a multinational conglomerate in Los Angeles for the same consumers in South America.

You must know that companies have to be paid.  Someone pays the employees, pays for the lights to be on, pays for the things we all enjoy now free.

Forget free applications and consider how your daily surfing habits would change.  Email would likely remain free, but would probably have more restrictive sizes that wouldn’t allow pictures or files to be transmitted.  Even browsers are advertising or product supported.

Two popular browsers, Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome, are directly supported through donations from Google, an organization that creates almost all of its revenue from online advertising.  You don’t pay $29.95 to buy browser software as you were expected to during the web’s nascent days.  And that’s true in so many situations because online advertising is affordable and effective.

I know that because I help small businesses and non-profits generate more revenue from their online advertising efforts.  That profit means they can create new jobs, keep prices stable a longer time and fund philanthropic activities.  Today’s Wall Street Journal print edition featured a story about Mozilla’s “do not track” future capability on the front page of its Marketplace section.  Further inside the section and no coincidence was an article about The New York Times’ plans to begin charging consumers for access via Amazon’s Kindle and the Apple iPad.

The Journal called this “the biggest test to date of consumers’ willingness to pay for news they’re accustomed to getting free.”

Providing bandwidth, content and creating websites costs money.  When consumers realize that some of their favorite activities may now be unavailable for free, it may be too late to restore some of those services.  Online ads are effective thanks to the tracking mechanisms that make ads appeal to the proper audiences. If ads become random and less efficient, you just may pay for the privilege of telling law-abiding companies that you don’t want to be tracked while organizations who don’t follow the practice or are not based in the United States will do as they please.

Ad blocking and “do not track” initiatives are bad for America’s businesses and worse for America’s consumers who use free Internet services.

Source:  ”Web Tool on Firefox to Deter Tracking”, Wall Street Journal, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Times Prepares Pay Wall”, Wall Street Journal, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Google, Mozilla Detail New Privacy Procedures“,  Washington Post, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Do Not Track FAQ“, Mozilla, 1/24/11
Source:  ”Keep Your Opt-Outs“, Google, 1/24/11
Image:   Courtesy of Armin Hanisch

Segmenting Email

Many small business leverage the power of email packages from companies like iContact, Constant Contact and Mail Chimp.  All have robust messages builders, built-in analytics and subscriber feature sets.  If you’re like me, you receive emails from clients, partners, colleagues and vendors.

There is the invariable newsletter, a big sales announcement or notices of upcoming meetings.

But most small businesses don’t leverage the functions in those email systems by creating segments.  Almost every business I speak with has a big list that receives the same email once or twice each month.

Consider segmenting your customers and sending regular email through the system.  For example, one client has a great data product that has a daily update.  By segmenting the email lists into various customer segments, this company can use the analytics to understand more about their customer behavior.

Other clients can create a newsletter for their customers and easily swap out one or two text blocks for prospects versus customers or non-prospects, non-customers versus those who receive product information.

Whether you use Outlook, Gmail or something else, your takeaway as a small business leader is to use your email marketing system’s lists to look at open rates, identify interested prospects and avoid sending that horrible “notify sender when read” message.

Segmenting your email addresses is something anyone can do that provides flexibility and tools far beyond your normal email client.

Great Customer Service Mystery

I hit a dry patch while preparing a presentation over the holidays,  I needed examples of national brands the audience would immediately consider outstanding customer service organizations.

Many did a good job.  Some did pretty good jobs, but finding the company doing a great job was difficult.

Nordstrom is one obvious fallback, but has almost reached the level of cliche.

Customer service, like marketing, is science and art. But smart local businesses do both

Customer service advocates once tried using the Malcolm Baldridge Award as a proxy for a national customer service award.  That worked early when customer-centric organizations like the now defunct AT&T Universal Card and FedEx won awards for service.


Zappos’ service culture is revered, but the company is slowly absorbing into Amazon, a pretty good service company too, but better at logistics and making markets.  There’s not much there to make customers swoon.

Multiple elements create a world class service envrionment, but first among them is having a world class service or product offering.  Then the organization has to dazzle customers with every transaction, including full empowerment  down to the line staff level.

Ritz Carlton properties still have some of that cachet, but keeping a service quality culture at that level  is darn near impossible when you grow from 4 to 40 sites and sell out to Marriott.

Some companies–Amazon, FedEx,  Disney depending on who is talking–have great national reputations, but they are the exception.   The inability of most national brands to deliver great customer service is an opportunity for small businesses.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is to make customer service a differentiator. If you run a pizza parlor, you can compete with the chains by offering good quality food and great service.  Not every independent bookshop was squeezed out of business by Amazon.  Instead the national chains took a beating, just as Netflix was administering the same style of beating to Blockbuster.  But Joe’s Pizza, at the corner for two generations?   Doing just fine thanks.

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When New Employees Make A Public Error

A tough place for on-the-job training

If 22 year old football player Pat Riley of Stone Mountain, Georgia needed a proponent on this Monday following Thanksgiving weekend, there are few better choices than sports columnist Mike Wise.

Following America’s four day orgy of football, eating and shopping that marks the gateway to the holiday season, you may roll your eyes about a small business blog writing about football play, but the events are wonderfully illustrative.

The Washington Redskins were losing by four points near the end of yesterday’s game when rookie speedster Brandon Banks returned a Green Bay Packer punt for a touchdown that would have put his team in the lead.  As Banks celebrated, officials upfield were busy penalizing one of his teammates, our friend Riley, who blocked someone in the back.

The problem?  He had done the same earlier in the game.

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