Anticipate Customer Needs

That was the mantra uncovered with each of the hotel concierge interviews we conducted a couple years back. Anticipating need is an excellent model for the customer relationship. It inherently means that the service provider – account manager, waiter, concierge, project manager – has a deep understanding of their service. Deep enough to know what clients need when by instinct or the subtlest clues.

I remember the story of a concierge-in-training responding to a guest’s request for coffee. He delivered the coffee and a single cup to the room – containing 2 guests. In this case, the lack of a second cup is more irritating than its inclusion.

Kevin Salwen from Worthwhile relays an interesting, unintrusive model for signalling need. Though it feels like training wheels for waiters, it supports a far better experience than multiple staff members continually interupting conversation.

Try Before You Buy

Even today, with all the Internet offers, shopping is often purchasing a product without first-hand experience with it. Our customer research has proven time and time again that if the product can be handled – it’s more likely to be sold.

Until now, it was nearly impossible for customers to actually try out a product without purchasing it and returning it.

The Washington Post recently published In-Store Testing, an article about Maytag, Best Buy, Whirlpool

As part of a new program, the company is encouraging consumers to test-drive appliances before buying them. Shoppers can throw in a load of laundry, wash dirty dishes and bake their favorite dinners. There’s even a package of cookie dough on hand in case people forget to bring their own

And [Raymond R.] Burke, the Indiana professor [University’s Kelley School of Business] , warns that mock rooms take up valuable retail space in a store. “There are serious costs associated with it,” he said.

Yes, formatting stores and products to support use requires a shift from an inventory-focused mentality to a customer-focused mentality. Products that can’t be seen, touched, and experienced cannot be sold. If you use your products as a way to facilitate a conversation with your customers, they’ll be more committed to you.

…estimates sales in the larger, interactive store are twice those of the older one. The biggest difference, he said, is how many appliances consumers buy. “Instead of buying one range, they buy the range and the refrigerator, and maybe the dishwasher, because they see how it works together,” he said.

Taking Ownership

Clients, customers, collegues don’t care why there’s a problem. They just want it fixed and to move on. To do that, each person approached with a client issue needs to take ownership of problem and feel they have the authority to deliver a satisfactory solution quickly.

Take this Ritz Carlton experience for example:

At exactly 7:00 p.m. I returned. I was there, but dinner wasn’t. At 7:11 I called Gloria…she immediately apologized and said a rush would be placed on my order. At 7:22 there was a knock at the door….”Mr. Blackman, Gloria and I once again apologize that your dinner has arrived late. Tonight, your meal is compliments of the Ritz.”

Gloria didn’t need to check with her manager – the Ritz trusts each and every employee to solve their guests issues effectively. All organizations need to trust their employees to take this level of ownership.

McDonald’s Learns From Best Buy

In the Star Tribune’s recent “Best Buy Copes with Costs” article, they report that Best Buy’s customer-centric format roll-out (and here) has been scaled back 40%.

The customer centricity strategy has its costs. Operating expenses as a percentage of revenue were 2.2 percent higher at the test stores, the company said. But the test stores’ sales and gross profit rates also outpaced traditional locations.

That’s right – even with slightly higer operating expenses, Best Buy has dramatically increased sales by focusing providing an excellent experience to specific customer segments.

In a related development – McDonald’s has also declared that one brand experience doesn’t fit all

“…no single ad tells the whole story,” Larry Light, McDonald’s chief marketing officer.

He continues:

“We don’t need one big execution of a big idea. We need one big idea that can be used in a multidimensional, multilayered and multifaceted way.”

There you have it – 2 big names declaring mass marketing is not longer effective and moving their organizations to a more individual customer experience model. Is this the end of mass marketing and the return of local specialization and identity as Seth Godin recommends? I hope so.

Defining On-Stage & Off-Stage

On-stage; where employees are likely to bump into customer.
Off-stage; where they are not.

It’s one of my favorite ideas from The Experience Economy is that of on-stage and off-stage.

Preventing off-stage behavior from occuring on-stage is the key to a good customer experience.

My wife has a recent example of where the two collided for a poor customer experience:

The Starbucks was busy when I got there. As I was standing in line, I overheard the barista on the phone:

“It’s real busy right now, I know I scheduled you for 6pm, can you get here by 4?….Hey, I don’t need that kind of attitude from you – especially over the phone.”

She hangs up, turns to me and smiles, “How may I help you?”

How large is “on-stage”? Big. Pine and Gilmore relay Jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn’s advise that law counselors to drive minivans because, “You never know when a juror is going to see you getting in or out of your car.”

UPDATE: Perception Analyzer has also noticed inconsistencies in the Starbucks experience.

A Polite Response is Reciprocal

Recently, I’ve noticed an impolite practice from some of our vendors. When you connect with a person in customer service, this is the initial exchange

“Hello, I’m Steve. May I have your account number?”

Rather asking me to reciprocate and introduce myself – as is a common and expected practice in our culture – they immediately ask for information I’m unfamiliar with, frequently not ready to recite, and may not be relevant to the forthcoming conversation.

Then they ask for my name.

From my perspective – the customer – this starts the conversation off disrespectfully. By simply flipping the order of the statements, a more polite, customer-sensitive interaction is promoted. I submit:

“Hello, my name is Steve. Who am I speaking with?”

“Hi Steve, this is Garrick Van Buren.”

“Mr. Van Buren how may I assist you?”

“Steve, I’d like to update my billing address.”

“I can assist you with that. To start, may I have your account number?”

This is the customer service equivelant of small talk, same as talk radio callers starting with “thanks for taking my call”. These statements act as a buffer, setting the expectations for the upcoming interaction, and getting both parties on equal footing. Without them, we’re worse than machines, for even computers have handshakes.

As you go about your day, be conscious of the small communications that start up successful transations: a smile, eye contact, a simple “How are you?/Well Thank you.” These are simple tools here to make our every day easier.

A Best-ter Buy

Yesterday the Strib announced Best Buy’s new customer personas. According to the article, $50 million is dog-eared for reformatting 100 stores to improve the shopping experience of these 5 archetypes.

It seems to me that Ray, Barry, and Buzz already love shopping at Best Buy. Jill on the other hand, can’t stand the place. Perhaps the biggest win is Best Buy formally acknowledging Jill’s aversion to their stores.

The article reads as if prototype stores will be created to specifically focus on these archetypes. An interesting proposition – a $50,000 facelift per store to focus on developing a better relationship with a handful of customer archetypes. It’s that kind of commitment that will drive customer loyalty.

Customer in Training

While a number of supermarkets and discount stores offer “customer-in-training” shopping cart as their primary method of keeping children occupied while their parents shop, Wegmans – a Woodbridge, N.J. supermarket chain – goes one step further offering W Kids Childcare centers .

The videos, toys, and playground equipment found at these centers is part of a larger effort to improve the parent’s shopping experience. Other initiatives include: check-out aisles without candy and changing booths in both the men’s and women’s restrooms. Because of this, Child magazine declared Wegmans the most ‘Family-Friendly’ chain in America.

Improving the customer experience often has little to do with the primary service or product offering, but more with successfully managing our interpersonal relationships.

UPDATE: Marginal Revolution has an excellent article on the experience of shopping at Wegman’s.

Lunch is the Most Important Meal – Redux.

As a follow-up to my earlier post on lunches, I submit this announcement from Duluth, MN’s mayor Herb Bergson.

Bergson plans to visit one classroom each Friday and take a tourist to lunch that day. He also wants to meet with different small-business owners each Friday to see how the city can help them grow.

A very public effort to see his city through its citizen’s eyes. Kudos. If you’re planning a long weekend in Duluth, give Mr. Bergson a call.