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

Is There A Fiery Flight Attendant On Your Staff?

Stress.  Worker burnout.  Customer service rage.

All of these may have triggered JetBlue’s Steve Salter to scream profanities at his company’s customers, illegally deploy the aircraft’s emergency chute and run away.

In a world rocked by inflation, wars and sociological changes brought on by increasingly fast technology shifts, Salter hit a raw nerve with folks, especially online.  Alternately lauded as a hero for some previously sated proletariat or the expression of rage for service professionals, Salter is neither.

Worse, his crimes were not victimless.

He damaged the people who own JetBlue stock.  That might be you or your loved ones if you look carefully at your retirement plans and other savings.  He damaged the JetBlue brand and thousands of employees and their families.  And he created an unsafe ramp-area environment for JFK employees on the ground. Peter Finch played a character having a meltdown in Network (clip below NSFW)

But Salter is not Finch’s Howard Beale nor is a hero.   He is a burned out employee who created an international sensation by flaming out in a highly visible way.
I’ve had two Salters in  my career leading people.  Both screamed obscenities–one at a customer and one at her manager in front of dozens of people.   Many might think their situations warranted drastic action and been inclined to forgive them.

They were wrong, just as this flight attendant was wrong


As the person leading them, I was more wrong.

There had already been conversations in one of the instances I related where the manager and I had discussed the employee’s growing resentment of him and the firm.  We saw the burnout signs and tried to muddle by.  In the other instance, I was a young manager and knew in my heart of hearts that the person didn’t belong anywhere near customers.  This employee didn’t care about the company, co-workers or customers.  With just a little more seasoning, I would have taken action before she screamed at a client in a retention-driven business and slammed the phone down.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that you already know where your potential employee issues loom and you need to act now.

Some will undoubtedly take everyone, including you, by surprise.  But if you are compromising now and there isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime emergency situation in your organization, you must act fast before your employee blows and slides down your company’s emergency chute.

Action can be anything from time off to different schedules or job assignments to termination.  But if you know today that the employee is at risk, and you are not actively working to protect your organization, their failure is yours.

Delighted By A Doctor

If you can make a customer look this delighted, your business will enter hypergrowth

A doctor asked me to obtain a medical record from another doctor who had seen one of my children in 1997.  A toddler then, my son is about to enter his senior year in high school.

Leave the flowers and “blink of an eye” stuff to Father’s Day.  1997 was a long time ago.

First I had to find the doctor.  I found him practicing with someone else in another town.  He was on vacation when I called, but had private voice mail so I was able to detail the situation for him.

His follow up and his recall were the stuff of service legend.

His first call buzzed my office phone at 9 a.m. on Monday the day he returned.  I had started work, but had gone for coffee.  We played phone tag and he called me a second time before 10:30.

Vendors I pay lots of money to don’t follow up that fast.

“I don’t have easy access to records that old,” he told me, and I immediately began thinking about how I could meet the new doctor’s requirement.

Then the original doctor astonished me.

He told me where I had worked when he first saw my child.  It was a new job, he remembered, and I groaned because I must have really gone on a lot for him to remember that. Then he told me about my two other children.  He got their sexes and approximate ages correct. When he told me we had been house hunting, I almost accused him of having a chart there.


He got a couple of facts close but wrong.  But he clearly remembered his patient from 13 years ago.  He placed my life in context then–something I hadn’t been able to do as well in the new situation.

And then he offered to write a letter describing his original impressions and confirming that he had treated my son. That letter arrived less than 3 days after we spoke.

He did all of this–the lightning fast phone calls, the letter writing–free. There is no hope for repeat business, little chance of a referral that far away and certainly little upside in making these return calls a priority on his first day back in the office.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is to consider what it would take to delight people so much they write a blog about you.

Our world continues a frantic pace of interconnected information.   What used to be called “user generated content” in the dark days of two years ago is now simply one of thousands of local review sites.

If you delight people, not just customers but anyone interacting with your business, your business will grow faster than any other way imaginable.

And you get to like what you do.  Because only people who love what they do can pull this off and not burn out before next Thursday.

This is more than word-of-mouth.  It’s delight.

Customers Are Not Dishes – Bad News #2

By now your repast is complete if you’re in North America.  Thanksgiving, day of gluttony, football and planning visits to buy stuff for the next holiday, is in your rear view mirror.  Except for the cleanup.

Soaking dirty dishes doesn't clean them.  Ignoring customer issues doesn't work either.

Soaking dirty dishes doesn't clean them. Ignoring customer issues doesn't work either.

And as you put away the good table settings and decide whether you should have turkey sandwiches for lunch or dinner, the four days many businesses take off during this week are a great time to remember potential festering customer problems.  In my family, our three sons — two of whom have actual restaurant experience — are infamous for “letting dishes soak”.   Water works on the yucky stuff at the bottom of pots and pans, they argue, and magically loosens burned, baked-on gloop.  Their idea is to let dirty dishes soak for a day or two in the sink in the hopes that said dishes are then clean enough to risk to the dishwasher.

Dad, meanwhile, is infamous for cooking two or three courses of a meal and washing each pot and pan as the food is prepared, even when they’re still warm to the touch.  That’s the secret, I insist to them. Cool down the dirty dish or pot enough to handle it and attack the grime then.  The cleaning is actually easier and you get the benefit of sitting down to a meal knowing the worst of the cleanup is done.

But many businesses treat their most problematic customers like my children dirty dishes.  They put them in a pile in the sink, squirt some dish-washing detergent over them to hide the worst of the appearance and hope that time and apathy will make the later work easier.  Inattention is the wrong way to handle cleanup and certainly the wrong way to handle customers.

In Big Thinking’s series on Communicating Bad News, we wrote that businesspeople had to be honest about the rules.   Ignoring  issues in the hopes that time, chemistry or dancing fairies with magical candy canes fix the issue  may not be dishonest, but it’s disingenuous.  By openly communicating, we keep clients a lot longer than search agencies serving small businesses.  We admit to errors, and we tackle them immediately and openly, just as my sons should do with their dirty dishes when they prepare a meal.

You need to do the same in your business.   This is the day after Thanksgiving.  Your business may or may not be open today.  That doesn’t matter.   Send a simple email right now to the customer with whom you have the biggest unresolved issue.  Explain that the business is closed today, but that you will personally take responsibility for reaching out to them Monday morning and tackling the issue.

Then go do that.

You have nothing more important on your calendar.  There is no other customer matter, no appointment, no internal matter, nothing — more important than that customer problem.  The businessperson who doesn’t realize that issue is on the path to failure.  Go tell Bill Marriott or Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs that some big finance deal is more important than a customer.  Tell them that Monday’s show and tell manager’s meeting is more important than keeping a customer happy.  If you do happen to tell them, my friends who run a job search site can help you out after.

Customers are not dirty dishes.  Go take care of the issues that really pay the bills and prioritize them accordingly.  Go do it now.  We’ll be here later to talk about other business issues.

Get Your Happy Customers Online – Guest Blog

Image representing Yelp as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

Since my blog “The Internet is one more reason to focus on Customer Service”, I have gotten a ton of emails and calls on this topic.The fact that I got emails and calls and not postings on this site highlight how many small businesspeople are uncomfortable with comments on the web.
The most common question was, “So how do I get customers to leave feedback on the Internet?” It might sound hard – but it’s not.

Try out these ideas:

  • Do you have a sign hanging up with a positive quote from a local newspaper or magazine? Well – right next to it post a sign with a positive quote from a review site – and include the web site name and URL. Most of your customers don’t have the ability to write newspaper reviews – but they can write Yelp reviews!
  • Next time your favorite customers visit, ask them to write a review for you! What’s the worst they can do – say “no” or say “yes” and then never write it. But if they say “yes” and do write it – that could be the cheapest advertising you will ever get! Hey, a maybe you give them a coupon – guilt them into writing!
  • Do you have comment cards that lie unused on a table somewhere? Update the cards and include the web site names and URLs for a few review sites.
  • On your web site – do you ask for comments or testimonials? If not, then start. Or you can even just link to one or two review sites.

Could you encourage a few negative comments – sure. But, if you are running a good business, you are more likely to get many more positive comments – free search engine marketing!

I have a friend who wrote this blog about Ameriprise. It was a scenario where part of their service was not working – and he was still happy because of the positive customer service. He was even happier when Ameriprise posted a link to his blog on their Intranet and he had over 1000 page views the next day! But that example also shows how Ameriprise understands the value of these comments.

I’ll repeat how I ended my last blog – use the power of your satisfied customers to turn around the old saying into a 21st century adage – a happy customer can tell 1000 people about their good experience!

–S. Dag

Free Search Tools Underscore Understanding Gap

A relative once told me that his name showed on a Google search engine result page (SERP) whenever he looked at my name.  He was simply typing my name in to the query box rather than using quotes around my name so if my first name appeared anywhere on a list that also had his name, the search displayed a non-relevant result.

This is a key issue, one I always share with my online marketing brothers and sisters.   An empty text box next to a button invited input.  Surely this massive computer thing, this Internet, could figure out that a first and last name meant he was looking for the person.  Here is the key:  he had no interest in learning the best way to get relevant results.

He entered data in a search box and wanted the computer to know what he typed.   I often hear the same things from clients and today witnessed the behavior at an online community to which I belong.  The community is international and consumer, not business, focused.  One of the members shared a link to a well known site listing all types of SEO tools.  Some are free, others are trials and some are quite expensive.

The community members eagerly started comparing notes about the free tools and embarked on a mission of comparing perceived facts.  These very same tools trip up professionals who aren’t closely watching the results, are often inaccurate and easy to misinterpret.

The final incident came when someone in the next office suite told me in the hallway that he heard on the radio that General Motors honcho Rick Wagoner earned $100 million last year.  He verified that “fact” on the Internet.  For the record, Wagoner earned about $1.5 million in salary in 2007 and an additional $12 million or so in other compensation.  And while 14 million dollars is a lot of money, anyone with that much money will tell you the amount is nowhere close to $100 million.

Examples of this type of information misuse abound around the web.  Medical information sites can be the bane of a physician’s day, even if the site is a trusted authority such as The Mayo Clinic.  Lawyers have the same issues, as do car mechanics, plumbers, chefs and other professionals who use information in their practice.  There is no need to crusade about their use, but remember when someone starts talking in a somewhat authoritative tone with you that there may be a bad search engine result or web site that publishes facts without fact checkers.

The understanding gap continues to grow.  Help your clients and customers gently get to the actual answers and try not to feed into the information frenzy.  And now I’ll need to stop because my medical research tells me that my congestion, backache and fatigue are signs of an exotic disease I picked up traveling through rural Europe as a young man.  Or a cold, but I’m betting on the exotic every time.

Veteran’s Day Plans and Recognition For Small Businesses

You can’t say you’re against the war, George, but that you support the troops.  They’re over there asking ‘Why are we dying if the people for whom we fight don’t think this cause is worth supporting?’

Pfc. Guy Barnes on duty in Iraq, Nov 2008

Pfc. Guy Barnes on duty in Iraq, Nov 2008 (photo by Staff Sgt. James Selesnick)

A retired U.S. Army colonel who spent enough time in Vietnam and other places to be given a stage for his voice whenever he cares to comment on war said those words to me nearly a year ago.

As a nation priding itself on some measure of freedom of speech, our feelings about war as a concept and the two open wars in which the United States is fighting ranges across the spectrum.  But I absolutely understand what this retired officer was saying, and it makes a lot of sense.

Give us resources, support our efforts all the way, let us go win.

He expressed those sentiments to me that night, and I remain intrigued at how much they mirror a business plan.  Execute against your strategy.  Once you embark upon that strategy, saying to colleagues, “Well, I like John, but I don’t support his R&D strategy,” isn’t going to endear you to the board.

That’s not to say that you should blindly follow any strategy, but supporting the players while being vocal about not supporting their efforts — be they in board rooms or in battlefields — is a bad tactic.  Once your organization embarks upon a new direction, you’re either in the tank or outside the tank.  And, frankly, Chinese protesters aside, tank beats human just as effectively as rock beat scissors.

Dealing without tanks would be great, but once they roll, pretending they’re not out there is the same ostrich philosophy that killed many great businesses when disruptive technologies surfaced.   So think today about how your business may be suffering from too much discourse or a success-freezing split between people and strategy.  If both aren’t aligned, your business is in trouble.

As for Veteran’s Day, the mail won’t run (unless it’s Express Mail), the banks won’t be open and government offices (usually state and local too) are closed.    The schools will be open.  Most private sector workplaces will be open.  Stores will certainly be open as they announce more sales.

So rather than spouting patriotic slogans wrapped around this holiday before your business segues to Thanksgiving and then the secular “winter holidays”, how about taking a moment or three out of your day tomorrow.  If you have a customer or vendor or other colleague that served in the armed forces, send them an email and simply acknowledge their sacrifice.  If you know lots of vets, put their addresses in the bcc section and tell them you’re writing to multiple people at once.

This is a tactic you can certainly endorse no matter what your feelings are about U.S. military action.  As of last week, more than 4,100 U.S. military personnel have died in action. Another 30,000 plus have been wounded.  Stop saying you support the troops, and start figuring out how you as a businessperson can thank them while your country is at war.

Linked In Support: Try Switching Browsers. If That Doesn’t Work, Kick It

Like many businesspeople, I consider LinkedIn my “main” business network.  The site is my first stop for research, my first to look up a new company and maybe even ask a question or browse the past questions for ideas.   But a little bug somewhere was causing an error when I added new connections.

No problemI have a premium account.  I’ve been a member for more than 5 years. They’ll take care of things.

Not exactly.

First came an auto-responder that read strangely like the actual response.   I immediately saw that LinkedIn is using a customized version of RightNow, my favorite customer service email software, so I held out high hopes that my problem would be quickly solved.

Not exactly.

The guts of my initial complaint were this:

I invite someone, type their email and am prompted for a password. I enter a password and error out.  So then I invite a colleague with the auto-matching function. I click send and error out.

What’s the solution to that question?

Yes, change browsers.

Are you done laughing yet?   I won’t use another browser unless I’m testing a site, but the first part of the canned response says reads exactly like this, “At this point, if you are using IE, try to use firefox, if you are using firefox, try to use IE. You can simply download firefox at”

Really?  You expect a Firefox user to fall back to IE to make your site work?  Or you expect someone comfortable in their Microsoft space to try one of those weird and geeky open source things?

I was then told to flush the cache and blow away all the cookies in my new browser.


The letter was well-written for the most part, but assumed too much customer engagement. Remember:  your customers don’t know your space like you do, and unless you are providing mission critical services for them, they have no intention of switching anything for you.

How many people get that same message and simply leave the site, muttering, “It just doesn’t work right?”

Now think about your own customer interactions, either one on one, on your site or in your collateral.  Are you looking for too much engagement?  Did you presume that your customer or prospect would go the extra mile to make your product work the way they thought it already should work?  And if so, how many are just silently leaving because there aren’t enough hours in their day?

Helping Beta Users Feel Special and the Art of Egoboo

Beta users are typically your best brand envagelists.  First in to your site or to use your product or service, they provide amazing feedback that you will never get until you launch and turn your baby loose on the site.  The upside is huge, there is little downside unless you’ve launched too early, are defensive about feedback, or worse, simply ignore feedback.

Fanbase is a new social network site for sports buffs.Fanbase, a new sports site in closed beta, is a startup from the folks who launched Epinions and have big experience at other Internet brands.  After logging in to what looks to become a solid social network for sports fans, I was separately greeted by the CEO and the Community Manager.  Both were montioring the site on a Saturday evening.   Both posted notes to my profile.

Here’s the best part and why I think Fanbase can get big by doing the intangibles well:  I’m a “Founding Member”.

No, I don’t know what that means either, but the designation makes the site already feel different.  I’m not a beta tester.  I’m a founding member.  Epinions did an amazing job with egoboo – the ego boost that comes online from providing recognition and similar tools.  Now in the eBay umbrella under, Epinions was a social network and a review site pioneer on the web.    The team missed sometimes — what team doesn’t? — but they often worked egoboo magic on members.  Those who drank the Kool-Aid stayed for years and contributed dozens, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of reviews.   There was some minor revenue sharing, but users often seemed more interested in their rankings or recognition on the site.

On Fanbase, the team that brought egoboo to the web review world is already making their beta users feel special.  What is your business doing today to make customers feel special?