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Service with a Smile

Seth wrote an article this past week about companies that have lost their ability to deliver functional customer service. It reminded me that I needed to talk about a few companies that I have read about or been exposed to that have gone the extra mile.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to have the opportunity to meet Bo Burlingham, an author and former editor at Inc. Magazine.  He wrote a book a few years back called Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. As a result of his talk, I reread the book and found a few nuggets.  The premise of the book is that there are some companies that have remained entrepreneurial and have decided to be great companies without reaching out for the siren song of growth forever.  Bo looks at a total of 14 companies in depth and examines the decisions that the management of each company makes to be the best they can be without uncontrolled growth.

One of the companies that he profiles is CitiStorage, a records management and retention company based in Brooklyn, NY.  You can’t get much more pedestrian than this business.  They take boxes of records from companies, store them in a huge warehouse and deliver them back to the customer when requested.  Yet, even here, a savvy business owner can make a difference.  Norm Brodsky, the CEO of CitiStorage, is a crusty, exerienced and by the books manager. Yet he understands the power of customer service. The book recounts a sales interaction with a potential customer:

The prospect was to meet with Brodsky at the end of the tour.  As they were sitting in his office, Brodsky asked the man if he was considering other vendors.  “Yes, two,” he said, and mentioned the names of CitiStorage’s major competitors.

“Did you see any differences between them and us?” Brodsky asked.

“Yes, I did,” the prospect said.  “Everyone of your employees was smiling, and they all said hello. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  They really must be happy.”

“I hope so,” Brodsky said. “Thank you for noticing.”

“Because of that, in fact, I’ve decided to give you the business.” the prospect said.

This was an important exchange.  First because the prospect noticed that the people who worked at CitiStorage were happier and showed it. Second, due to this, the prospect make a business decision based on his interactions in an hour that usually took several weeks.

In the past several weeks, I have noticed a couple of other companies that have gotten the message.  First, I have been to two Chicago Cubs games and every employee from the ticket takers to the ushers have had a great attitude, smiling and conversing with the patrons.  It is a big change from previous years under the Tribune ownership.  I think that this is an intentional customer service posture that is required by the Ricketts family, new owners of the team.

Second, I had the opportunity to participate in a company tour at S&S Activewear, a company that sells apparel to companies that will further customize them for end users. They had the requisite big, sprawling warehouse with forklifts and conveyors, but they also had a difference in how things were done.  Again, it was evident in the way their employees interacted with us. Everyone from the president (who gave the tour) to the order picker was helpful and displayed a genuine excitement about the work that they were doing.  Yet you think that this is an outlier due to the company tour, my contacts who deal with this company report that every interaction with the company is treated this way.  Due to this fact alone, they have consolidated all of their apparel purchasing to S&S.

Going back to the Seth article, I flew four flights on American Airlines in the past week.  They have gotten to the point where the only time that I really have an interaction with them in person, is when I leave the jet and the pilot is standing there waiting for us to get off the plane.  Otherwise, it is use the website and the automated check-in, swipe your credit card to pay for checked baggage and yet again for an overpriced package of chips or a pillow. They have squandered any potential opportunity for delivering a positive customer service experience and thus made the choice of airlines for this consumer to be a random choice, rather than an informed choice.

Don’t let yourself fall into this trap.  Sure it is cheaper to let a web site do your customer service, but in the end you do your business a disservice if it is the only (or even primary) method of interacting with your customer.

It doesn’t matter if you are big or small. Be like CitiStorage, the Cubs and S&S. Ensure that your team provides customer service with a smile.  It will pay off in the long run.

Sethx2, The Brain and Microsoft

I haven’t done a recommended links post is a while and so here we go:

Seth: This week Seth Godin directed me to two very cool web resources that I urge you to take time to read and view.

The first is the video Lemonade.  It deals directly with folks in the advertising agency business who have been laid off and how they found their next steps.  Some people feel that it is talking about the need to start a new business, but my take is that it shows that you really can make Lemonade out of lemons if you pursue your dreams.  The video is well made and totally engaging.

The second is a free e-book on pricing.  How exciting can that be, you ask?  Well, the author, Todd Sattersten who has developed the business book review site inbubblewrap, clearly explains the components of pricing, costing and especially margin.  He also delves into the concept of free.  All in all a very quick and information packed presentation.  And the price is right!

The Brain: Harvard Business Review had a nice article on how the middle aged brain (of which I am the proud owner) has some inherent benefits as it relates to businesses.  It is good to hear that while we sometimes can’t remember names, we have built other skills that can help us in the business world.

Microsoft: Microsoft’s perception in the marketplace has changed over the past 25 years. The New York Times has a nice article on what the company has done to put itself in their current market space. This is a good warning to Google as well as any other company that goes through significant growth.

Seth, IRS, Taxes, Customer Service and Clips

In time for the holiday season (well, actually too late for Hanukkah) I give to each of you the following links:

  • Seth Godin provides a free e-version of his latest book, What Matters Now, a compilation of short essays on single topics by a raft of 70 big thinkers.  People like Chris Anderson, Jason Fried, Arianna Huffington, Kevin Kelly, Dan Ariely, Gina Trapani and Tim Sanders.  Absolutely worth every penny 🙂
  • Amazing story about how the IRS terrorizes audits a young mother who makes $10 per hour because they can’t believe that she can support herself on that income.
  • Mark Cuban has an interesting idea on how to fund some of our most pressing problems.  I think he is on to something.  This type of tax has the benefit of being a very small amount on a huge number of transactions and will be almost invisible.
  • Customer service and large companies.  Go hand and hand like a horse and carriage?  Not so much at American Airlines.  See what happens when an employee reaches out to a customer who has some issues with their web site.
  • If you ever have to give a big presentation and you want to add video clips of famous sayings from movies, you have to catch this site.  There are over 12,000 clips and they are approved for use by the studios.

Funding, User Experience, Logic and Marketing

I was reminded recently that I haven’t done a links column is a while, so here goes for a few good reads:

  • Seth Godin writes about funding for a business.  The typical methods are debt (loan) or equity (stock).  He proposes a third way that might make some funding sources happy.  I am intrigued.
  • Dustin Curtis writes about the science of entrepreneurship.  This article was fun to read, but take a look at the rest of  the articles on his blogazine.  He is a talented User Experience designer and each article is beautiful and thoughtful. Also to be read are the two articles about American Airlines and their user experience. By the way, American Airlines fired the AA designer who wrote to Dustin.
  • Fun logic test here:  Are you a cognitive miser?
  • For entrepreneurs out there who are having problems with marketing, here are over 100 marketing questions that will help you get started thinking about how to market your company (or yourself).

Entrepreneurship links

Entrepreneurship: A few  start-up related posts.  First the twenty things that I wished I had known before I started my business. (Hat Tip: JL)  Then, from a genuine internet star, Jessica Hagy, The Start-Up Checklist.  Are you an entrepreneur or a hobbyist? Lastly, not exactly start-up specific, Seth has a good pithy blog post on Jello.

Entrepreneurship, Strategy, Behavior and Turkey Fun

Entrepreneurship: Think the inner city can’t be a place to start a new business?  Think again.  Given that there is a whole lot more real estate out there available, albeit some with bank branches and auto dealerships.  Smart entrepreneurs are going to be looking for ways to make a business around these sites.

Strategy: Another Seth Godin gem. Knowing how to ask is more important than the ask itself.

Behavior: Dan Ariely, author of the terrific book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, spoke at a recent EG conference. EG is an offshoot of the TED conference. Dan’s topic was about how we make decisions. Besides the usual visual games, he discusses some of the reasons that we make decisions and how options that have absolutely no value often distract us in our decision-making process.  Marketers are using this information today to get you to move on their buying process.  In fact, as Dan describes, it could be a matter of life and death in a medical setting.

Fun: I was one of the unnamed friends at Kristin’s turkey (and other assorted goodies) fry-off last weekend.  Pictures and recipes are included in her blog. I admit that I was unsure about the whole deep frying bit, but man, these treats were wonderful.

What’s Your Niche?

Way back in the good old days (circa 1984), when I was just a young whippersnapper, my wife and I started our business.  Well, actually to be correct, she started it and I joined in after about a year.  We were a small (4 person) company focused on developing solutions for IBM minicomputers.  We had an expertise in an ERP product on that platform and we were looking to grow. An opportunity came along from IBM to join a Marketing Assistance (or Partner) Program. We joined up and dutifully went to the first few meetings.  We had the requisite skill set on their hardware and operating systems.  The IBM partner coordinators asked us, what is your specialty?  How can we determine who to send to you?  Being the smart marketers that some of you know us to be (NOT!), we said “We can work with any customer.  We know the programming language and the operating system.”  Of course, for the next 6 months, the only sound not coming from our office was the ringing of the phone from our partners at IBM.  There was, however,  wailing and crying and asking “What is wrong with us?”, mostly from me.

We went back to our IBM partner advocates and told them about our prowess with Distribution Systems, including a product that they sold. We talked about our technological expertise and then about some success stories helping customers solve distribution issues.  From that point on, we finally got some leads from IBM.  Over the course of the next 13 years, I would venture that this distinction allowed us to book over $3M of revenue.

We had a common problem.  Our problem was not that we weren’t good at what we did.  We were and we had revenue paying clients to prove it. Our problem was that we had to get over the fact that we couldn’t be all things to all people.  We needed to put a line in the sand and proclaim to all that solving distribution software problems for companies were what we were best at.  Once people (clients, partners, recommenders) have a hook, they can then help you get to the next step.

Most young companies don’t want to skinny down the possibilities, afraid of closing doors. My recommendation is not to worry about closed doors. Worry instead about making your open doors a clear priority, with an easy to understand differentiator and a clear value proposition.  Oh, yeah, it helps if you are really good at that niche.  But to paraphrase Seth Godin, Be Remarkable.  You can’t be remarkable if you say you can do everything for everybody.