Last year I attended my Chamber of Commerce trade show and talked with Bob Sherrill, the owner of Northwest Gold Tours. He owns and operates two 14-passenger motor coaches (and notice that Bob calls his vehicles motor coaches and not mini-buses). The more we talked, the more I realized that Bob's business is not just transportation. It's customer service, and not just ordinary customer service.
I could see that Bob had a different outlook when it came to servicing his customers. Later I continued to think about it and realized he intuitively understood his customer's needs. He has a knack for understanding what his customers need before he's asked.
In this article I'd like to look at specific examples of what intuitive customer service really is. You don't have to be in the same business as the companies I mention. No matter what industry you are in, I want you to deeply consider the needs of your customers, to put yourself in your customers' shoes, walk in those shoes, and then fulfill their needs before your customers ask.
CAN CUSTOMERS FIND YOU?
Along with unsurpassed customer service, we all must make our product or service easier to find and then easier to use. Let's start here. If you make your product easier to find and use, then you will have the opportunity to dazzle customers with your service. If they don't find you in the first place, offering the best customer service in the world won't help you at all.
Many window coverings retailers are small operations and don't have mega advertising budgets and storefront operations to draw clients to them. We often resort to less conventional means. Networking is probably a prime sales funnel for us. Look for ways to sharpen your networking skills. If you see others who are successful networkers, ask them for suggestions. Be realistic about the requirements for successful networking in different groups. Make sure you have allocated sufficient time to be a successful networker. Be sure the networking opportunity coincides with your internal clock. Be at your best when networking with others.
Referrals are another excellent source of business. This is an area we all need to cultivate. If you want a referral, you must have the goal always in mind that the experience of using your product or service is so complete, so delightful and so pleasant, that customers will come back and refer their friends and neighbors.
I know of a company that has a very nice look and feel to it. If you don't have any problems or glitches, it has a good product. But as soon as you need to resolve a billing or technical problem the trouble begins. Its customer service is neither delightful, nor pleasant and it ruins the entire experience for customers.
You won't hear anyone recommending this company to their friends. The company really doesn't seem to care because it is so large it doesn't matter if it loses some customers. Could you afford to have someone think about your company in such negative terms? Never!
PUT A RING PULL ON IT
Let's look at the food packaging business. I've noticed Del Monte has changed how the top of its vegetable cans open. You don't need a can opener anymore. The company put a pull tab on the can top to zip it open. We don't know if this change was intuitive or by customer request, but the change makes its product easier to use. I don't like using a can opener. The pull tab looks easier to use. I'm going to continue to buy the Del Monte product.
Minute Maid has added a ring pull to the old collar on its frozen orange juice containers to make it easier to open. It's a huge improvement. I like the new pull collar with a ring. I'm going to continue to buy the Minute Maid product.
These companies have made their products easier to use. They are going to sell more product.
Now, I challenge all of you (figuratively speaking) to put a ring pull on your company organization. Make your product or service easy to use and consume. Make it a pleasant experience. Make it so memorable that customers will come back again and refer you. Your goal when working on each project or job is for that client to ask to be on your referral list.
INTUITIVE TOUR HOST
Let's look at some other examples of intuitive customer service. When my friend, Bob Sherrill, looks in the interior mirror of his motor coach and sees someone bundling up a bit, he offers to turn up the heat without being asked. If he's carrying on a conversation with a passenger and they seem to be waning in interest, he stops talking and remembers to listen more. If he's on a wine tasting tour, Bob makes sure he has a corkscrew and ice bucket on board. Then there's the morning paper, warm bagels, beverages from the electric cooler, and so on.
Bob carries a cell phone on his motor coach. He makes sure the restaurant reservation is secure by calling ahead. If the road is blocked with traffic, he calls his office to look for an alternative route. When asked the height of Mt. Hood and he doesn't remember precisely, he calls and provides exact information to his guest. And more and more.
INTUITIVE INTERIOR PROFESSIONALS
An interior decorating professional I know, Linda Principe, of Linda Principe Interiors, was setting a follow-up appointment with a new client. The client looked at the proposed day in her schedule and said in a low voice, "Oh, my birthday," then told Linda, "Daytime would be fine." Linda remembered the birthday comment and when she arrived for the appointment she presented the client with a long-stemmed rose. That set the tone, and it helped close a sale that day of almost $4,000.
Linda was working on another project where the carpet was on order. The color was a slight concern in relation to other decisions. No samples were at the house to see. Before her next meeting with the customer, Linda went out of her way to pick up a carpet sample to set the client's mind at ease. Having the sample on site eliminated all concern. Linda's extra work did not go unnoticed by the client.
Dian Garbarini, of Designs by Dian, serges together a set of fabric swatches from the various textile products she has just installed in a client's home. At the end of the project Dian presents it to the client for future reference.
Deborah Keedy, of Deborah's Interiors, goes prepared to her job site when she's hanging draperies. She carries a spray bottle of Rowley Co.'s "Crease Away" to smooth wrinkles. Then she leaves the bottle with the customer as a gift. And if the drapery needs more coaxing the next day, the customer is more than happy to use the Crease Away spray. But the customer knows they can always call Deborah.
When I go into a customer's house I remove my shoes and put on special inside moccasins. While the window coverings are on order, I offer to install free temporary paper pleated shades for the customer. When I come back for the installation, I wear the moccasins again. If I'm working on a ladder and need to wear sturdier shoes, I cover my street shoes with hospital shoe covers.
Individuals who deal with financial services probably have to know a lot of personal data about their clients. How should they treat that data? How do their clients perceive they treat that data? It can make the difference in whether they do business with them or not.
When financial professionals meet with clients for the first time in their offices, they should know intuitively that divulging financial data is an uncomfortable process. They should find ways to ease their customers' concerns.
Can clients see records of other clients on the financial specialist's desk? Will their files be laid out in the open, too? "Yikes, let me out of here!" they say to themselves.
Is the interview area private or can others hear everything that's being said? If it's not a private area, they are not practicing intuitive customer service. I was in my bank last week and was surprised at what I could hear. There were no walls and the acoustics were marvelous.
Bank tellers are taught to count out cash quietly. How would you feel if the teller loudly counted out your money, "$800, $900, $1,000"?
When I'm working with a client's referral, it's about the same difference if I were to divulge how much money their friend spent on a project with me. If I divulged the amount to this new client, he or she will assume I will be as free with their private information.
Sometimes when I'm working with a client a neighbor or friend drops in. I have to find a way to keep the bid private. My client doesn't want the other person to know how much they are spending. If they do, let them say it out loud. Intuitively, I must understand that finances must be kept private or I'm not going to be as successful as I might be.
The more personal the service, the more critical becomes the privacy issue.
SET A NEW STANDARD
Intuitive customer service goes way beyond the obvious of being nice, showing up on time, delivering a good product and handling warranty claims. To deliver memorable customer service worthy of referrals, you must intuitively understand the unspoken and maybe unexpressed wants, needs and desires of your customers. To deliver this level of service makes the experience of dealing with your company memorable and sets you apart from the crowd.
Your customers want attention. They want to be noticed. They want to be personally respected. They want their property to be respected. They want their opinions and beliefs to be respected. Instead of waiting for your customers to demand a higher level of customer service, you should raise the bar. Give them what they want today. And do it before they ask.
SCREEN FOR SUCCESS
You can't always be successful. Some customers are really impossible to please. Hopefully you've screened them out before you accepted them as a client. Will my friend Bob be able to provide a Northwest Gold-type tour for a client who wants him to drive wildly around downtown Portland with 10 of his best drinking buddies on board? Of course not! Bob won't take them as clients. Screen your potential customers. Make sure you have a shot at providing them with your level of intuitive customer service that will be recognized and appreciated.
How can you tell if a potential customer is going to be trouble? Sometimes it's just a gut feeling. Sometimes it's visual. Once a chamber of commerce member recommended me to his sister who was in the final stages of completing a new residence. I didn't know this until later, but he referred to his own sister as the "Wicked Witch of the West."
The carpet wasn't installed yet as I walked through the house with her. The husband and wife were bickering constantly. She pointed here, she pointed there. Every contractor had made mistakes, she said. All over there were filled holes in the floor where heating registers had been moved. Every contractor made mistakes? It's all their fault? I could tell most of the problem was the owner. I did give her a bid, but it had the "problem job" factor built into it. I was not a bit sorry I didn't get that job.
STEP INTO YOUR CUSTOMER'S SHOES
Here's an exercise that could be helpful. First, put yourself in your customer's shoes and then write down the answers to these questions:
1. What is it that your customer really wants/needs/desires?
2. Are these wants/needs/desires verbalized? Yes or no?
3. What can you do to fulfill those wants/needs/desires before they are expressed?
SOMETHING TO REACH FOR
The ultimate goal is to convey your uncanny ability to deliver unexpected and unsurpassed customer service to prospective clients, those who don't know you, at the point where they are still comparing you to other companies. If you are able to convey this without sounding boastful, it will allow you to set yourself apart from the crowd before you have delivered extraordinary customer service.
This is not easy to achieve. I have been working on this for years and probably will always be working toward this goal.
I hope you've been challenged to think deeper than you ever have about customer service; to consider what your customer needs and to fulfill those wants, needs and desires before you are asked. I challenge you all to practice intuitive customer service.
Steve Walton is the owner of Shades Of The Future, Inc., a window coverings retailer based in Beaverton, OR; www.shadesofthefuture.com.