The importance of the customer experience

There’s a world of difference between delivering a service and a providing a great experience. Decent service is what we expect (although we’re often disappointed). But when the provider goes beyond what’s reasonably expected…that’s a great ‘experience’.

I have a thing about cafes. As a mobile worker I’m in them all the time and although the COFFEE is often fine, the experience is frequently poor. And it’s mostly down to the staff. Take this recent visit to a cafe in Lytham St Annes with my mother:

We walked in and were not greeted.

It wasn’t clear whether we ordered at the counter or someone would take our order at the table.

The table was dirty even though there were two (young) staff on and very few customers.

After enquiring, I ordered two coffees at the counter, but the machine was broken. Tea it was then. “That’s £4 please.” (no attempt to upsell – we were hungry too). I ordered some cheesecake and a caramel slice (we have sweet teeth). More money taken, I sat down.

The waiter (hardly an apt description) brought the food and some cutlery but plonked them down without so much as a word. The tea arrived, same treatment. As we left the waitress walked past us to clean the table, made eye contact but didn’t say goodbye. I looked back again, but no engagement.

It was the end of the day, they were probably fed up and bored but the ‘experience’ was negative. Nothing to do with the drink, the food, the furniture or the decor. Everything to do with the staff.

Maybe it’s just me but this thing about engaging with customers is so important. My 10 year old son had a milkshake with me the other day and observed how he’d had “good customer service” (bless him). You can spend what you like on the infrastructure but it’s the people that make a business what it is. That’s the essence of ‘the experience’.

The ‘less is more’ principle

I love the principle of ‘less is more’ – it applies in so many walks of life (a bit like the 80:20 rule) and certainly has a place in business. Take presentations, for example. What works best – a 40 minute long Powerpoint slide-fest with 10 bullets-per-page or a well crafted story backed up with some powerful images? Well if you’re not sure, think back to how you felt when you sat through a previous version of either. So many presenters think that by cramming in more they’ll really, really get their point across. But the audience glazes over and takes nothing in. Far better to narrow the focus to simple themes delivered in an engaging manner.

In sales it’s very tempting to pile on the reasons why someone should buy, but for the prospect it becomes overwhelming and they begin to switch off. It’s preferable to give them only so much and get better at gauging their buying temperature.

You see ‘less is more’ in the movies too. Horror films are much scarier when you can’t see the monster – when it finally appears it’s a bit of a disappointment (think Alien and Jaws). When the director leaves something to our imagination we become more engaged. Minimalist wins vs over-the-top. Remember the final scene in Lost in Translation…Bill Murray whispers something to Scarlet Johansson, but we don’t know what it is. In the final scene of Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman is finally reunited with Tim Robbins on a deserted beach, but the camera pulls way back as they approach each other – no voyeuristic close up of their embrace, but a moving moment that’s left to the imagination.

Embrace the ‘less is more’ principle. Go for quality over quantity. As Red (Freeman) says in Shawshank, “Some things are better left unsaid.”

What we can learn from Tom Watson

What a wonderful spectacle it was to see 59 year-old Tom Watson come within a whisker of winning the biggest golf championship of them all – The Open. Despite pre-tournament odds of over 1000-1, the American legend so nearly added a sixth Open to his current tally, an achievement that would have gone down as one of the most extraordinary in the history of ANY sport. The man with the artificial hip showed just what is possible if you exhibit skill and nerve and use your experience. Sadly the fairytale didn’t quite have the happy ending we’d wished for, with Stewart Cink spoiling the party with a late charge (has there ever been a less wanted champion?).

What can we learn from Watson’s remarkable effort? Well how about these…

  • There’s no substitute for class.
  • Keep faith in your own abilities.
  • Ignore those who say you can’t do something – they don’t erect statues in honour of critics.
  • Keep things in perspective – defeat hurts but you can choose how you respond. Learn from it and move on.

So “Well Done Tom”.

Why customs officers would make great sales people

I read a terrific story in the Manchester Evening News about a lady who was caught smuggling drugs by eagle-eyed customs officials. Actually, it would be better to call them ‘eagle-eared’ as it was some subtle questioning that unearthed the illegal cache. It seems the lady had a set of golf clubs with her, and the customs officer asked her what her handicap was. The woman looked a bit puzzled, and replied that she was perfectly able-bodied and fully functional – not quite what the official meant of course! Suspicions were aroused by such ignorance of a common golfing term, and the woman was soon rumbled.

It struck me that this was a classic example of probing through conversational questioning, something great salespeople do in the quest for business. This kind of engagement reveals valuable information about the ‘target’ and if the questions are posed in a friendly and natural manner, you tend to get responsive answers.

So get engaged, ask great questions and listen out for the nuggets that could give you what you want.

Making your business remarkable

Seth Godin’s wonderful book The Purple Cow has one principal theme – the importance of being remarkable. Let’s face it, a cow that’s purple would certainly stand out from the crowd, and as far as the New York-based marketing guru is concerned, the best way to do that is to go the extra mile, delighting your customers by exceeding their expectations.

This theme came up yesterday in the Ambition Club conference, an event organised by Wilds Accountants in Radcliffe, Manchester (UK). We were asked to imagine a taxi service taking clients on a regular route from the airport to the financial district. We’re in a recession and there’s pressure to reduce prices, but you decide to add value instead, providing a ‘remarkable’ service that’s less price-sensitive (because it’s different and better). The question posed was, “How would you make your service more remarkable?”

Working in teams (you get some great ideas this way), some of the following suggestions came up…

  1. become a tour guide, providing information as you drive
  2. provide newspapers
  3. ask the client what type of music they’d like to listen to
  4. install a mini TV in the headrest and ask them what they’d like to watch
  5. tell great stories or jokes or give philosophical nuggets
  6. arrange special discounts or offers through third parties

Some great ideas, and all perfectly achievable. All it needs is the will and the imagination to come up with something that sets your service apart and adds value. Do you have a Purple Cow lurking in your business?

Pitfalls of Storytelling

If you have ambitions to be a good business speaker you have to develop the art of storytelling. I was talking about this to a business owner the other day and he mentioned he’d heard someone telling a story as part of a presentation – and it was apparently rather dull! The story concerned Sylvester Stallone and his inspirational experience of getting the Rocky movie off the ground. My friend told me the presenter ‘went on’ for 20 minutes and quite obviously didn’t inspire this member of his audience.

This struck me as rather odd because that Stallone story is one that Tony Robbins tells…and it’s a great tale! Why then did it fail on this occasion?

I’d make 2 points here. First, there’s a big difference between telling a story and telling a story with skill. It’s an act and the best storytellers are spellbinding. I remember watching John Houseman tell a creepy story at the start of the John Carpenter movie The Fog – wonderful stuff. And of course those of you of a certain age will remember comedian Dave Allen, perched on a chair with a cigarette and glass of whiskey, delivering marvellous anecdotes. Ronnie Corbett had his own rambling style during his seated story-slot in The Two Ronnies, and study masters like Peter Ustinov and Peter Cook (again a YouTube search will unearth treasures).

The second point is you have to be careful using someone else’s story. Robbins explains that Stallone told him this story personally (that’s his connection). Audiences like authenticity and if the story really has nothing to do with you they’ll question your right to deliver it. Generally speaking, stories that relate to you personally work better. Perhaps one justification of using someone else’s story is as part of an analysis of storytelling?

Storytelling should be part of your presentation tool-kit, but be careful what material you use and develop the skill of telling it with aplomb.

Getting referrals

I’d like to thank my pal Rob Buckley for introducing me to a brightly coloured animal – The Purple Cow to be precise. It’s a book by American marketing guru Seth Godin and it’s essentially about being remarkable (a cow that’s purple would certainly stand out!).

We all want more referrals in business, and it’s a great deal easier to get referrals if you get people talking about you. By and large, people will talk about your business for one of two reasons – firstly, if you gave bad service, second if you did something remarkable. Consider the meaning of that word – worthy of ‘being remarked upon’. Of course, they’ll have a moan about you if you screw up, but you can’t expect people to talk about your business if you’re just good. Loads of people do ‘good’, it’s not worthy of being remarked upon.

But if you do something really special, something beyond all reasonable expectation, you’ll crop up in conversation – for all the right reaons. Trouble is, too many people settle for good.

Selling vs Order Taking

Years ago I used to market commercial golf & leisure clubs. I recall giving countless tours around the venue I was promoting to membership prospects, one after the other. And therein lies the problem – you get comfortable, reeling off a standard spiel and thinking you’re a smooth operator with a silky patter. Hopefully, the prospect signed up and you congratulated yourself on a great selling job.

But it’s really just order taking! The prospect had probably decided to join before the tour, and all you did was avoid messing it up. The real skill lies in the things you didn’t say – or rather the degree to which you asked questions of the prospect and listened to the answers. “Where did you hear about us? What kind of work do you do? How do you think you’d use the club? Was it different from what you expected?” These questions give you valuable information about how your venue is viewed in the market place, and allow you to leverage the maximum value from the member you’re signing up.

This is the skill of engagement. It’s nothing more than a chat but represents the difference between a real salesperson and an order taker.

How to be more expressive

Are you an expressive speaker or a bit of an Andy Murray? To put your communication skills to the test, try this:

Strike up a conversation with a friend, but there’s a rule – you have to speak in gobble-de-gook, not normal language! The results are hilarious, but insightful. You find that it’s perfectly possible to convey meaning without using real words. You naturally compensate by using more body movements, facial expressions and vocal dynamics.

There’s a lesson to be learned here in business. Firstly, communication is less to do with what you say than HOW you say it. Second, unless you convey enthusiasm for your product or service it’s unlikely you’ll win a sale. And how do you do that? By the WAY you say it. The important thing is for the words and the STYLE of delivery to be congruent – “we have a great solution to your problem” just won’t sound convincing if you deliver it flat. Successful communication is about the all-round package – words + style of delivery.