Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Guest blog: Carol Roth on how Trader Joe's gets customer service right

It is a true privilege to have Carol Roth - a nationally-known business consultant who has helped companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 literally raise billions of dollars, grow, and get closer to their customers - share her thoughts about customer experience in this guest blog, which sprang from a recent conversation we had about one of our favorite stores. If you haven't seen Carol's razor-sharp wit and cutting edge business startup advice, you are really missing something: visit her online at www.carolroth.com.

If you follow me a bit, you may know that I love food and I love shopping. But when the two are combined into a task called grocery shopping, well frankly, that never really ranked high on my favorites list. That was until I was introduced to Trader Joe’s.

If you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby or have never ventured into one, it is a small footprint specialty grocery store. Their products are mostly their own label, sourced throughout the world, from wood-fired frozen pizzas to 73% Belgian dark chocolate nonpareils (they have lots of healthy stuff too, but I prefer the carb and sugar categories). But it is not their yummy offerings or even their natural ingredient focus that sets them apart. It is the customer experience.

While it can be intimidating to go into a different style of grocery store, the Trader Joe’s staff is beyond friendly. I have been to stores in at least five states and have found at every one that the staff says hello and offers help if you look confused or lost. If you need to find a product, they won’t just point somewhere, they will walk you to the actual product. You don’t even have to empty your shopping cart- they do it for you as they scan. The cashiers always seem ecstatic to be there; they are knowledgeable about their products and will comment on their favorite items from your order or make suggestions on other products you might want to try as they bag your selections.

These little gestures all add up to an enjoyable experience for something that, let’s face it, is really just a chore. And Trader Joe’s creates a premium shopping experience without premium prices (their prices are actually very good). I will contrast this with other premium natural grocery stores that have a god-awful customer experience. I won’t name names (*coughWholeFoodscough*), but there is one specialty store that is incredibly expensive, yet its staff always makes you feel as though they are doing you a favor by letting you shop there. This particular store has employees who are more focused on restocking shelves than helping customers. Often, I can’t even get to the shelves because the employees are blocking them (sorry to be in your way, Mr. Stockboy- as a customer, I hope I am not inconveniencing you by trying to purchase groceries) and once, an employee dropped several 16 oz. bottles of Metromint water on my foot because he was more concerned about restocking than letting me through the aisle.

Trader Joe’s proves that any business can make a customer feel special and create a great experience, regardless of industry, focus or price points. As we continue through the most competitive time for business in history, customer service will become even more important as a point of differentiation. Who knew that you could find great lessons in customer service by visiting a grocery store?

Note from Rich: Carol speaks for many of us. My sweetie and I just went to a Trader Joe's in the Philadelphia area, and people couldn't be nicer - from the woman stocking the shelves, who stopped what she was doing to explain the intricacies of the Kalamata olive oil we were buying, to the checkout clerk who cheerily asked about us as we were going through the line.

And sadly, my experiences with Whole Foods could probably fill another blog. Here's one: years ago I used to love their peanut butter (nowadays I'm allergic to peanuts, go figure). And I would visit one store on business trips and find them sold out. So they would tell me to call two days ahead next time. Which I did. Only to discover next time that, oh, now I'm supposed to call *more* than two days ahead. Not that they cared.

So ... what are *you* doing to brand your customer experience, and get everyone on board with delivering it?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to be stone cold self-employed, part 3: getting clients

Now we get to the fun part: where do your clients come from? How to get people to pay money for your products or services is easily the most-promised and least-delivered thing in nearly every book on the subject of self-employment.

To me, the best advice on getting clients came someone who wasn't even writing about self-employment: televangelist Robert Schuller. He asked a wealthy potential donor how to raise a million dollars for his ministry and got a one-sentence response: “How do you catch a moose?” He thought about this and realized he needed to be where potential donors were, and think like they think – and by putting that principle into action, he eventually raised his million.

When you are starting a business, the same principle applies: think like a moose. This means answering one simple question: How do your buyers already buy what you are selling?

-If you mow lawns or do landscaping, the point of first contact for most customers may be as simple as the Yellow Pages or the Pennysaver.

-If your employer finds its consultants through professional society contacts, speak and publish within that professional society (and P.S. do a great job!).

-If you last bought a specific product through web searching or direct marketing, there you go.

In short, doing what other people already do to get clients – and doing it better – is good, being “creative” or taking guesses at how to market yourself is usually bad. So before you drop money on a direct mail campaign, or start knocking on doors, or rent an aerial billboard, ask yourself honestly if you know at least two people who have bought your wares that way.

So how do I get my own clients? Glad you asked. When I was in corporate life, nearly every in-house training program was arranged by the human resources department. So, for the training side of my business, I contact HR or training directors in appropriate organizations, and build partnerships with organizations who serve these departments. (For example, I've taught communications skills training for my local community college's business extension for years now, and they farm me out all to organizations all over central New York.) Likewise, I also partner with people who broker content for things like white papers and webinars.

Another thing I do a lot of is speak for free. I call this "wheeling out the dessert cart," because when I show people up close and personal what I have and how good it tastes, they usually want some. When I get up in front of a group, and send them away knowing what to say in their most difficult customer or workplace situations, invariably a few of them go back and say, "we have to get this guy in our organization." So, in a very real sense, one of my best marketing approaches is lots and lots of me.

As for writing, both my own experience and national surveys tell me that word-of-mouth is most common way to get business, so I spread the word far and wide among people in my network about what I do - a network that includes people who hire writers. I also get a substantial amount of business from people who find me on the web, so I make it a point to have easily searched, high-content web sites with my specialties and home town in the HTML tags.

Finally, far and away the most important thing I do to get clients is totally blow people away with service and quality once I get a gig. Good marketing helped me get started, but referrals and repeat business forms the vast majority of why I am usually so busy.

So there you go: I've just told you more in one blog entry than most of the 40 kazillion books on self-employment I've ever read do about finding real clients - think like a moose. Happy hunting!

Monday, October 19, 2009

How to be stone cold self-employed, part 2: getting the money

There is this little speedbump that many budding entrepreneurs back up and drive away from. It is called living from paycheck to paycheck. SCSE’s wouldn’t know what a paycheck is – we live in a world of cash flow, not fixed sums handed to us by others. To leap from the first world to the second, you need to figure out some way to survive for – everyone swallow hard now – six months.

Why six months? Because that’s how long it’s always taken me to get from a standing start to being busy and fully solvent when – listen carefully – I am doing things people like and pay for. Here is why: first, few people accelerate immediately from zero to a full plate of clients the minute they go into business. Second, life is cyclical and so is business. Third, even the most successful self-employed person in the world usually has to work for at least a month, then bill or invoice their customers, and then wait 30 to 60 days to get paid.

Of course, there is an important flip side to this. Many if not most forms of self-employment pay a lot more per hour than your 40-hour-a-week job. So once you get *over* the speedbump and onto the freeway, you can be doing very well indeed. The dirty secret of self-employment is that no one cares if you starve, but no one cares if you make three or four times your normal salary in a month either. I have done both, and the latter happens more often than you think – once you get over the speedbump.

That six month buffer has an important spiritual quality to it as well. People who need to get paid tomorrow are desperate in ways that harm their business. Instead of focusing on building relationships and pleasing customers, they are always selling, upselling, or trying to collect – and in the process become tiresome caricatures of what they could be. One consultant I knew even showed up at a client’s house unannounced one evening asking to be paid, and the client was NOT impressed. So breathe deeply, smile, relax, and repeat after me: six months.

Now, before you shuffle away with that dejected look on your face – especially if the thought of missing even a single paycheck gives you the yips – let’s do a little brainstorming together on how you might survive for six months. Can you leave your job with a financial package or consulting retainer? Are there things you could *always* do more or less on demand, like temp work? And of course you don’t want to raid your retirement savings or home equity, but would knowing that a small slice of the interest from it could carry part of your budget in an emergency help you get started?

Notice I am not talking about *raising* money. There are two reasons for that. One is that the vast majority of businesses are self-financed. The second and more important reason is, who wants to owe money or equity to people? The more you lean on others for financing, the more your work looks like another job instead of being a SCSE. So if you are planning to start the next Google or open a plant somewhere, respectfully, this probably isn't your article.

In my case, I took my own unique steps to put six months between my job and reaching my goals. The first time I struck out on my own, as my company was about to lay people off, I said “oooh, pick me!” and left with a consulting contract that covered my first year. The second time, I wrote a popular book while I was still working and banked all of the royalties and speaking fees from it – and today, there are few problems in life that I don’t write my way out of. Whatever approach you take, make peace with a six-month buffer, start thinking in terms of long-term cash flow, and welcome to the world of stone-cold self employment!

Next up, in part 3 of this 4-part series, is the fun part: getting clients. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 16, 2009

How to be stone cold self employed, part 1

First, credit where credit is due: this article series was inspired in part by a conversation today with fellow speaker and business coach extraordinaire Carol Roth (http://www.carolroth.com/). If you find the lure of self-employment interesting, check out her website for some masterful advice delivered with a razor-sharp wit. While I don't coach entrepreneurs, long ago I put down on paper the things that made me successful, and I'd suggest this exercise for everyone - so here is my two cents:

Lots of people run small businesses or work as entrepreneurs: over 12 million of us, according to recent SBA figures. But I belong to a much smaller category, and have for much of the last 15 years: what I call the “stone cold self-employed.”

What defines the SCSE is that their self-employment is not a second income, a paying hobby, or a retirement supplement – it is a full-time career that keeps our households in kitty litter. In other words, we have met the boss and he is us.

Normally we SCSE’s are kind of like a secret fraternity. If you go to a typical small business networking meeting, those few people who seem comfortable in their own skin and aren’t desperately looking for clients – often their first clients – are probably SCSE’s. But for the most part, we tend to fade into the background and go about our business.

Except lately. With the economy the way it is, a lot of my friends and colleagues are now a lot more curious about this SCSE stuff than they used to. And good for them for asking, because I feel successful stone cold self-employment is a lot *more* secure than a single job that could be whacked at any time. So as a public service, I’d like to share what I feel are the four steps to becoming stone cold self-employed.

Step 1, which is today's blog topic, is that we do things that people pay for: I call this the “law of twice.” If you want to be SCSE, do something that you have – personally – seen at least two other people make a full-time living at. So the guy who does the lawns and landscaping for everyone on your block, does a great job, and has a shiny new truck is probably following the law of twice. So are the people who teach training courses, deliver day care, or write press releases. Conversely, the person who wants to start a consulting practice helping companies “empower their vision,” or anything remotely sounding like that, needs to look hard in the mirror and see if at least two other successful people they know personally are staring back.

I chose what I do – freelance writing and corporate training – because every company I have ever worked for has hired consultants to do these things, and I have seen several people make a good living at it. And the specialties I have developed over time within these fields, teaching communications skills and developing book projects for people, are natural outgrowths of these things. Not to mention that I love every minute of doing them.

The law of twice is frankly the single biggest success factor in being self-employed. Nail it and you can often stay out on your own fairly easily and comfortably - particulary if you do a great job and blow your clients away. Ignore it and you are toast. So, want to join that hot new MLM that your neighbor is pestering you about? Or are you gazing at a business opportunity in a magazine advertisement? Or do you want to turn your arcane job into an arcane consulting practice? Fine with me. Just find two real people who have been making a full time living at it for, say, three years, and you have my blessings.

Stay tuned for my next blog on step 2: where does the money come from?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

An attitude of gratitude

This morning, as I was making breakfast, I saw a large, gangly bug flattened at the bottom of the wet sink. It appeared to have drowned, but then I saw a slight movement in one of its legs. I took some paper towels and gently drained the water from around it, dabbed it dry, and then gingerly scooped it up on the counter - and then over the next half hour, I'd gently blow on it to dry it off further. Soon it lifted one leg, than another. Then one wing came free. And finally, it spread both wings and flew!

Right back into the wet sink.

After rescuing it *again* (and this time taking it outside away from temptation), I figured that there must be a blog in this somewhere. And sure enough, there is.

Do you know people who seem to be perpetually looking for a break - but once they get it, they don't appreciate it? For example, I remember a young man in my neighborhood years ago who was desperate for work and money. When I took pity on him and hired him to paint my basement, he never finished and did a half-baked job. Or the older professional who had been laid off for a long time, back when I was in corporate life, and swore up and down he'd appreciate the chance to "start over." As soon as I hired him, he moped around, complained about his long commute, and acted like the job was beneath him. I could go on, but let's just say there have been lots of "wet bugs" in my life.

Which leads me to a subtle but important difference I see in the really successful people I know. They almost never complain.

Do I ever have reason to gripe? Well, perhaps, at least on paper. Sometimes I have clients who demand urgent turnaround on a project, and then take a leisurely two or three months to pay my "net 30" invoice. I've had people promise me lucrative five-figure contracts that have turned into a pumpkin. And like most people, I could easily fill several blogs with all of the bad customer experiences I've had.

So how do I feel about these people? I love 'em all actually. The slow-pay client? Well, I do eventually get paid, and am thankful to have a big project with them. The projects that never show up? The same people have come through for me in the past, and may again in the future. As for the bad customer experiences? Grist for the mill in my writing and training. It's all good as far as I'm concerned.

Even during the worst slow periods in my years of consulting, I'd usually find myself feeling richly blessed to be in good health, wake up next to a beautiful woman every morning, and do what I love. If you asked me how I was doing during those slow times, I would usually respond, "Great!" And I believe, ironically, this is a big part of the reason I am successful.

Sure, once in a great while something bugs me enough that I'll say something. (For example, this recent blog entry about a very hurtful and aggressive fundraising call from my alma mater.) But in general, my "brand" has been all about staying positive and teaching skills, not calling out the sins of others. Now I realize this is a common success trait in lots of people I know, and a principle that goes all the way back to Dale Carnegie if not my Christian faith. So I'd like to thank that bug this morning for reminding me again. I'd say we're even.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Happy Customer Service Week - sort of

This week, Oct. 5-10, is National Customer Service Week, as established by a Presidential proclamation a few years ago. It was created to recognize that "highest quality customer service must be a personal goal of every employee in business and industry" in the United States.

So, as someone who makes a lot of his livelihood doing customer service training, and the author of a national #1 customer service bestseller, you would think I'd be all over this sentiment, right? Well, kinda sorta. I was recently part of an interesting and spirited debate on this point on LinkedIn.com's Customers 1st group, and if you are a member you can view it here.

You see, I am not just an author/trainer/speaker type. For many years I was a working customer service manager and executive, leading call centers on both coasts to dramatically "turn around" both our own performance and the company's. So I know what kinds of things work at improving customer service. And more important, I know what things don't.

Here is what doesn't work, in my experience: the kinds of slogans and banners you often see during Customer Service Week. I have been at many companies who go this route, only to be met with rolled eyes by front line employees. Not because they have a bad attitude, but because lectures to be "nice" generally last until your next bad hair day, and slogans won't change a corporate culture that preaches service quality once a year and shipping product twice a day.

Now, here is what does work: communications and coaching skills. For example:

-Knowing what to say to defuse an angry person, using the same kinds of techniques that hostage negotiators and psychologists use.
-Learning how simple changes to your words build strong connections with people in the first 30 seconds of a conversation.
-Understanding the mechanics of things like respect, empathy, and acknowledgement so they become second nature, no matter what your personality.
-And most important, learning how to coach people without ever putting them on the defensive.

This is my "schtick," and the reason I make a very nice living at it is that it works so well. As in clients writing me back a month later and telling me their customers AND employees are in fact much happier. That's why I'm so passionate about this.

So back to Customer Service Week. Too many companies frankly use it as a week of balloons, sloganeering, and motivational speeches, followed by a return to Business as Usual. But I also see some great organizations using it to celebrate the great people on their front lines, as part of a year-long program of skills and leadership development. Hope your Customer Service Week is a great one!