Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


February 2018
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Customer Service

It’s more than just ‘Wandering Around’

I’ve written before about the importance of getting out of the office and this article by Wally Bock has some great tips on how to make that time truly valuable. You’ve got to do more than just visit your communities. You’ve got to do something to make each trip worthwhile for them and for you. Otherwise you’re just killing time.

Too many people think this is only a ‘management’ technique. Think of it as a learning opportunity. A chance to stretch your legs and your mind. A mental stimulation break. A (self) motivational moment. There’s a big payoff waiting just outside your office door.

The catchphrase is “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA) but to have value it’s got to be more than just ‘Wandering’ around!

55-38-7 Is this an accurate gauge of presentation impact?

I shared a ride to the airport with one of the attendees from a conference where I had just delivered a presentation on exceptional customer service. One of the points I made referenced the 55-38-7 ‘rule’. I put the word ‘rule’ in quotations because that’s the term that is usually used but I personally think it is a bit misleading. ‘Guideline’ would be better. 55-38-7 means this: when making a presentation, 55% of your impact on the audience is related to visual things…the setting, the speaker’s dress, AV aids, etc. 38% of the impact is related to tonality as it relates to both the actual sound and the accompanying emotions. (Does the presenter speak with conviction, resolve, passion, etc.) The final 7% of impact relates to the words themselves.

Now there are plenty of arguments out there that this entire idea is a bad misuse of the work originally done by Professor Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D. of the University of California back in the late 1960′s. Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. has an article on this topic that is worth reading. My travel companion raised another issue that deserves consideration. He questioned whether these percentages would be the same if measured today and if they would differ by age groups. Since we now do much more communication via email, twitter and even blogs like this one, aren’t there likely to be changes? An interesting thought and one that I would love to see researched.

But I think we’re missing the real point here. It’s not the actual percentages that are the main issue. It’s the core fact that each of these three areas, ‘visual’ ‘tonal’ and ‘words’ contribute in their own way to effective communication. Remove one or more of them and something, perhaps even a great deal, is being lost. My concern is that we are not doing enough to make up for those losses especially as more of our communication is being done electronically as opposed to face-to-face or even by phone.

Email is a prime example. With the loss of visual and tonal impact we should be spending a lot more time making sure that the ‘words’ are the most effective that we can find and that they are being used correctly. Unfortunately the reverse seems to be the case. Too much is being done in haste and most of it is being done badly to boot.

To provide Exceptional Customer Service we need to do all we can to make each encounter as personal and as effective as possible. That’s why I recommend that associations and businesses include photos of their staff members on their websites. Customers want to deal with PEOPLE and not faceless entities. Exceptional Customer Service is almost always related to a  memorable moment involving an encounter with a real human being. Photos and bios go a long way to help make that happen. Even Twitter gets it by making it possible to include a photo or personal icon along with your message.

So don’t worry about the relative percentages. It can be 55-38-7 or 33-33-34 or whatever. The importance is in understanding that there are many contributing factors and that when we lose even one of them we need to be making extra efforts to compensate. Exceptional Customer Service is too important to be relegated to words only.

Room on the Plate

Innovation can be challenging. It’s easy to say, “Think outside the box” and then try to come up with new ideas. There are lot’s of techniques and processes that can help. Heck there’s a whole shelf of books promoting great methods to help you and your business become more innovative. And the exciting fact is that many of them work. (My personal favourite over the years has been “Storyboarding”.) But the one topic that no one seems to ever address is this, “Where do we find the time and resources to implement these new ideas?”

Yep, one big glaring omission from the process and an obstacle bigger than Megatron. (My daughter took me to the new Transformers movie yesterday so I couldn’t resist.) Oh, I know what the supervisor, company president, committee chairman, Mayor or other grand pooh-bah in charge will say. “We’ll all have to just work a little harder, but it will be worth it. If everyone gives 110% we can make these changes happen.”

Gag me with a spoon. Let’s just ignore the fact that 110% is impossible in that stupid cliche. The real insult is that this attitude supposes that everyone is currently slacking off and adding new ideas and responsibilities won’t really pose a problem. There’s a real morale booster. Now if the PIC (person-in-charge) is talking about adding staff to handle the new stuff that’s a different story…a story we don’t usually hear, especially in challenging economic times. (And they are ‘always’ challenging economic times.)

So what do organizations that want to try new things without adding staff do to deal with this obstacle? Here’s one suggestion that is usually overlooked. Call it the Two-Thirds Rule for Innovative Success. At the beginning of each planning period every organization should conduct a complete evaluation of current activities and rank the effectiveness and importance of each to the organization using the mission statement as the ultimate measuring tool. (You do have a mission statement, don’t you? If you have to dust off a copy or send someone to find one you have problems not addressed in this post.)

Once you have these activities/tasks ranked, draw a line two-thirds of the way down the list. Everything below that line is expendable. They can, and probably SHOULD, go away. Spend your valuable time and resources on things that make up the top two-thirds of your list and then spend time developing and implementing new ideas that will keep your company, community or organization fresh, exciting and growing.

Here’s an innovative thought. Recognize that change and new ideas can’t be implemented until you make room on the plate!

It’s Not the Numbers…It’s the People!

All too often we judge the success of things we do based primarily or even solely on the number of people involved. Hold a meeting…how many people showed up? Hold an annual conference…did we have more attendees than last year? Conduct a training session…how many were registered? And on and on.

While I understand the power of numbers in each of these situations and I certainly understand the necessity of ‘paying the bills’ that are tied to making some of these things happen, the numbers should NEVER be the only factor determining the success of anything we do. Note, I said the ‘only’ factor. Yes, they count, but they aren’t everything.

Case in point, I just spoke to an Entrepreneur and Inventor’s Club in Black River Falls. It certainly wasn’t a big crowd but that’s OK. These types of groups rarely draw ‘big’ crowds because of the simple fact that at any one given point in time there aren’t hundreds of people actively seeking to start a new business or bring a new product to market. The important thing to keep in focus is the fact that each of these individuals in attendance is important and worthy of the attention they are receiving.

I’ve been involved in civic organizations all of my life and I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard the president or chair person start the meeting by complaining about how few members are in attendance. Great way to fire up the troops. Let them know that you aren’t as important to him as the folks who didn’t attend. And since there aren’t enough people in attendance we can’t expect this to be a productive meeting…I can hardly wait to get to the rest of the agenda. Not! All too often we let numbers drive what we do and what we offer and in rural areas in particular this can mean people who need our help get left out. ‘Not enough people to make it worth it!’  Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

So what do we do when there are small numbers? You can start by letting each person who DID show up know that they are important and that they matter. You then proceed with the same quality program that you would have had if the place were overflowing with attendees. Actually you can take this opportunity to give them an even better program because you can customize things to fit those who are there and spend much more time developing individual involvement.

Years ago a good friend of mine, Marcella Finder, related this story about Patrick Lucey. Both were involved with the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Marcella was the long-time secretary of a small county group and Pat was involved in developing a stronger statewide organization. Pat had been invited out to a small community in Marcella’s county for the monthly meeting. There was a near blizzard that evening but Marcella bundled up her two kids and drove 15 miles to the meeting place. Pat drove all the way from Madison, some 70 plus miles and none of it was interstate (they didn’t even exist back then). Come meeting time they were the only people there. Marcella said that if Pat was disappointed he never showed it. In fact, Pat made Marcella and her kids feel like they were the most important people on earth. Marcella never forgot that and it was obvious when she told the story that she was tremendously impressed with Pat’s attitude and there was no doubt in my mind that Marcella would do anything for Pat Lucey. Well, the Democratic Party went on to become the dominant party in Wisconsin and Patrick Lucey served two terms as Governor and later was named Ambassador to Mexico. 

And I truly believe that it was because he never lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t the numbers that were important…it was the people that mattered.

Being who you really are.

Just finished reading an old “Across the Fence” column by Howard Sherpe in which he talked about jack-o-lanterns and how they didn’t really come to life until you placed a lighted candle inside them. He said the same thing was true about stained glass and people too. No true beauty until the light within was allowed to shine through.

That column brought back thoughts of a couple of experiences I had during my economic development career. In the first one we were entertaining company officials from France. They had spent a good part of the day with us learning about our community and what we had to offer as a location for their potential North American facility. They were staying over for the evening so we had the chance to take them to supper. When we were planning this the community mayor and I discussed our choices. One was a good local supper club. Our other choice was one that chance had provided us. Their visit coincided with the annual community chicken bar-b-que. This was a well attended and well lubricated event that drew a huge crowd each year and lasted well into the night. Not knowing our guests we decided to go the safe route and take them to the supper club. We showed up in suits while our French guests had gone casual with blue jeans and polo shirts. During the course of our meal we discovered that the president of the company had spent a year hitchhiking across the United States with no money, just a knapsack and a guitar.

Our evening was OK, but I always wondered what stories they would have told had we taken them to the bar-b-que and shown them the folks we really were. My guess is they would have all had a rip-roaring good time and we would have made a real connection with them.

Another related experience happened several years later. Another community was having a day-long follow-up visit with the main person from a major company considering a manufacturing location there. He would be staying the evening and we of course wanted to take him out for an evening meal. In this case the community did not have a traditional supper club. We discussed what to do and the leader of the local community ED group felt very strongly that we shouldn’t go to another community for the evening. We looked at our local alternatives and he decided that the local pizza parlor would be our choice. So the company rep was invited to join four or five us for beer and pizza. Best ‘business reception’ I have ever been a part of. Casual, relaxed and real. We had great pizza, a few pitchers of beer and an absolutely wonderful time. 

It wasn’t fancy. We didn’t put on the dog. We were just ‘us’. In the end the company chose our community and today is a major employer providing some of the best manufacturing jobs in the region.

I learned a big lesson from those two experiences. Our best impressions are the real ones. Letting our own light shine from within is the wisest choice. Trying too hard to impress others is tempting but the real winning strategy should center on being who you really are.

Who’s in Charge?

One of the hallmarks of exceptional companies is employees who are trusted and expected to make decisions. It’s one of the keys to exceptional customer service that companies like Disney, Lands’ End, Nordstroms and others not only know, but practice.

The thing that I find most amazing about this secret to success is that these companies don’t keep it a secret. Maybe they should.  If it were treated like a secret then other companies would pay more attention to this when they ‘discovered’ it and rush to practice it. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

I got another lesson in how helpless front line employees can be recently. I placed an order with Amazon and in filling out the shipping directions I included both my street address and P.O. Box number as part of my address since I didn’t know how the item would be shipped. (My local post office doesn’t offer home delivery, just boxes, and they insist on a P.O. Box number according to a nasty letter I received from the USPS a while back. More on that some other time.) I later got an email from the company providing the product stating that they didn’t ship to P.O. Boxes and that my order had been cancelled.

I promptly called their direct ‘customer service’ line and after a brief wait I was actually talking with a real live person. Ned was pleasant to talk to and after giving him my order number he promptly had my order on his computer screen. So far so good. I explained what had happened and he agreed that he could see my street address on my order. Problem solved, right? Ah, not so fast.  You see, Ned wasn’t authorized to do anything about it other than to write up a report to send to someone else in his company to see if something could be done. No explanation of how it was not going to be possible to just ship the item to the street address that I had provided and that he could plainly see. No ability on his part to just delete the portion of the line that referenced the P.O. Box. Just a report that would be sent to someone else and I would hear back ‘sometime’. This for a product I needed right away.

‘Sometime’ arrived in the form of another email that gave me the location of yet another form I could fill out about my order. Pathetic.  So I did what you would expect any good customer to do. I ordered the same product from another company. Problem solved and in less time than I had spent talking with Ned. They lost a sale and all because their customer service rep wasn’t authorized to provide even the simplest of customer service.

Who’s in charge? The customer is and none of us can afford to forget it. Ever!

Welcome to……..

I never cease to be amazed by how easy it is to miss the basics. I was recently reminded of this on my last visit to Wal-Mart. Several years ago when they were new to our state, a Wal-Mart came to a nearby community and everyone had to go check it out. And when folks came from their first visit what do you think they were talking about? The size of the store? The low prices? The tons of merchandise? Nope. Everyone was talking about the greeter and how he welcomed them to the store when they walked in.

Wasn’t it sad that this simple courtesy had become such an unusual occurrence in our lives. Wal-Mart gained a big advantage over many local businesses by starting with the basics.

Well guess what? Wal-Mart is losing that edge. I’d like to say that all the other businesses got the lesson and now extend a friendly greeting to all who visit their stores but no, sadly it seems to be working the other way. Wal-Mart’s greeters are still there but the smile is gone and the greeting is perfunctory at best. I can almost see the replacement ‘Welcome’ sign coming to those sliding doors.

But our desire as customers to be greeted with a smile and an enthusiastic welcome hasn’t gone away. Last I checked it was stronger than ever.

And here’s another place we can use this simple courtesy. A while ago I talked about the importance of economic developers getting out of the office on a regular basis and personally visiting the communities they serve. Well, one of the best things you can be doing on those visits is to stop in to welcome the folks at any new shop or business you encounter. Sure the Chamber may have already had a ribbon cutting or presentation of a ‘first buck’ plaque, but that doesn’t mean you can’t welcome them as well. And bring the mayor or village president along. She may have been at the ribbon cutting but another visit to ‘see how things are going’ will be appreciated by the new business. (And by the mayor as well.)

Powerful, powerful tool. And it doesn’t cost you a dime.

The UNIQUE Factor

Sometimes we forget what makes our communities and businesses special. We get so accustomed to what we have that we either don’t notice it at all or we think that every community or business has the exact same things to offer. When we try to market ourselves we trot out the same brochure, the same webpage and the same trite phrases as everyone else. Oh, the photos and logos differ but that’s often about the extent of it. Then we wonder why our clients fail to see us as special. From their viewpoint we all end up looking pretty much the same.

Had a couple of reminders of that recently. I worked with a community center that is trying to expand its use by community members. We did a quick listing of advantages the center had to offer and I think most people were actually surprised by the length of the list.

I was also able to contribute one or two that others may have considered unique due to my experience as a trainer and speaker. The place has great acoustics and hearing a speaker is easier there than at almost any other venue in the area. That’s something I notice because of my personal background and am even more conscious of as I begin to suffer some of the hearing related issues that go with the aging process. If we hadn’t done the list would their attempts at promotion focus on what can really be quantifiable differences from the client’s perspective or would the group wind up doing the ‘same old, same old?’

Yesterday I took a drive to a nearby community that is on the Mississippi River. I stopped along the river dock and noticed an excursion boat about to take on a load of passengers. I asked if they had room for one more and after paying my fee I was off on a beautiful relaxing 2 hour river trip. Not a big deal but I’m sad to admit that I’ve lived relatively near the Mississippi for over 20 years and this is only the third time I have been on it. One of the greatest rivers in the world and I just take it for granted, rarely thinking of it as an asset to the area. The rest of the passengers were all from much farther away and were amazed to get close looks at five Bald Eagles and a falcon during our voyage. I see them all the time and I’ve forgotten what a thrill it can be.

Several years ago we had a client in from Germany. We were in the middle of the standard tour of industrial parks, buildings and communities when I asked if there was anything else we could show them. They immediately asked about the Mississippi River and whether it would be possible to see it. The river was only a half mile from where we were standing and there was a road that led out on a peninsula extending to near the center of the river and offered a stunning view. Our resulting trip out there ruined my schedule but provided our client with the most memorable part of his visit.

To them it was unique. A once in a lifetime experience. To me it was commonplace and I had never even thought to mention it. Duh! I made the mistake of not remembering to look at things from my client’s perspective.

Are you identifying the real unique factors that your business or area has to offer and more importantly, are you taking advantage of them? Or are you trying to sell the same stuff as everyone else? Guess which approach will make you unique in your client’s eyes?

Communication – Up Close & Personal

It’s real easy to think of communication only in terms of email, newsletters and phone calls but none of these are as effective as face-to-face meetings and especially one-on-one meetings. Sure, no one has the time to meet personally with every client or customer on a daily basis but never getting togehter with them is a huge mistake. In fact, it can be the biggest mistake you will ever make.

This is especially true in the field of economic development. Every ED professional should make it a practice to spend at least one afternoon or morning each week out in the field visiting a community or business. Call up the mayor or village president and take her on a tour of the community so she can show you all the things that are happening in town. And make it casual. An advance call to set up lunch or a tour is all you need. You don’t need a specific agenda and for heaven’s sake, don’t let it turn into a ‘meeting’. Everyone has enough of those already. You want to use this time to get to know your contacts better and to let them know that you really care about them and their business or community.

If the only time they see you is when it comes time for an annual donation or renewal of dues they’re not going to be too impressed no matter how much activity your organization may be having.

Yes, this takes time. But it’s the best time you will ever spend and you’ll learn more during those visits than you ever will at your desk. (Besides the inbox will still be there when you get back and half of that stuff probably doesn’t really matter anyway.)

Communication – The Serial E-mailer?

Last time I talked briefly about how often to communicate. Now let’s look at who we need to communicate with. My suggested answer is, “More people than you think but not everyone.” But wait, wouldn’t it be easier and safer to communicate with everyone? Hey, send out a broadcast e-mail to everyone in the agency or company and we’ve covered out butt. No one can claim they didn’t know.

Seems logical at first blush but let’s take a closer look. We’ve all been the victim of serial e-mailers. Our first reaction after reading their first e-mails and determining they are not essential to our success today is to immediately discount any future e-mails we receive from them. They’ve lost credibility and even if they say something that could be critical to us in the future we’re not likely to even read it. Or if they are presenting in person, we nod our heads but completely tune out the message. After all, they’ve never said anything of value before. Odds are this report won’t be any different. Right?

So what can we do to keep people informed but not suffer the fate of the serial e-mailer? Step one was mentioned in my last post…..determine who needs to know and then divide that audience into sub-groups and determine how often each group to receive communication. One size does NOT fit all.

Second, really review you message for substance and clarity. Stick to the facts and ideas that are essential and don’t dump the whole load. In today’s world it is easy to provide a link from your concise summary to the complete text for those who want that level of detail. 

And that means that, third, you need to write and re-write your message. And with each re-write it should become shorter, not longer. Too many people do a general word dump and expect the audience to sort it out. Folks, we live in a world that just doesn’t have time for that. If you don’t put the time in upfront to craft a precise message, and that means customizing it for each audience, then your attempts at communication will be wasted.