Thursday, May 31, 2012

CEOs, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Image courtesy of OhKyleL
"Put your money where your mouth is." Do you remember that tagline from a toothpaste commercial many years ago? Or am I dating myself? You know what that means, right?

Show by your actions, not just by your words, that you believe in something. 

What does that have to do with employee or customer experiences? A lot, actually.

Take for example my blog post from last week, where I mentioned that Stephen J. Cloobeck, the CEO of Diamond Resorts International, has his business card displayed at the front desk of every one of his properties. He encourages his guests to call him if they have issues or if they want to compliment someone.

Or look at Jim Tincher's post about his experience with Conversocial and the subsequent follow-up by Joshua March, the CEO of Conversocial. Josh left a comment on Jim's blog and included his email address for all the world to see!

Consider my blog post from earlier this week, where I mentioned that the CEO is the ultimate brand champion. That he/she needs to build alignment to the brand strategy through constant communication:  educate and inspire; teach employees how their actions impact the customer experience. 

This is where the rubber meets the road. Or the money gets put in his mouth. He needs to not only preach, but practice what he preaches... and be prepared to show that he stands behind what he preaches; that he stands behind his people, his product, and his service; and that the buck stops with him should any of those fail.

How many CEOs do you know that would do what Stephen and Josh do? Does yours? And if yes, does he or she actually respond to customers personally? That's the true test!

If your CEO puts his/her contact information out for the public to see/use (of if you know of a CEO who does) AND actually personally responds to customers, let me know. Add a comment below; it will be interesting to see how many there are!

To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest. -Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Achieving Brand Integrity

For the last couple of years, I've been fully engaged in the top social media platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+), but recently I added Pinterest to my list of social media addictions. And I've become obsessed with infographics! As you can imagine, the infographics that I've pinned all relate to customer experience, customer service, and employee engagement. Any time I find one that's worth saving and sharing, I pin it.

A couple of months ago, I came across an infographic that really spoke to me. It highlighted the 10 Truths to Managing the Brand Experience, and it was a different, yet insightful, approach to looking at the customer experience. I was so grateful to connect with the folks who created it: a small software and consulting company that specializes in culture change and customer experience design out of Rochester, NY, called Brand Integrity. (Make no mistake; they may be small right now, but they pack a powerful punch! They do great work!)  What I found was a group of genuine, smart, and fabulous people with the same passions that I have. And, they love Red Bull, too! Now that can't be a bad thing! (OK, occasionally I indulge in Monster Zero, but it's all good!)

A few years ago, Gregg Lederman, who is the CEO of Brand Integrity, published Achieve Brand Integrity: Ten Truths You Must Know to Enhance Employee Performance and Increase Company Profits. If you haven't read this book yet, you must; it's a great read! This isn't just another marketing or branding book; it is so much more than that. It's written in a fun style in which business books often aren't written, and it is packed with a ton of tips and a roadmap on how to, well, achieve brand integrity. The book devotes one chapter to each of the 10 Truths, and it really is a fresh way of thinking about customer experience, from the inside out.

What follows are some key ideas and learnings from this book. If you've been following this blog, you'll see very quickly why I love this book and the people behind it.

What is Brand Integrity?
This is key to what follows. I think Gregg hits the nail on the head when he says that Brand Integrity is both the journey and the destination.
"The journey is a strategy-building exercise for business leaders and their teams. The destination is a powerful brand."
"Brand Integrity happens when your company is who and what it says it is."
Are We Talking About Branding?
This is not branding in the traditional sense. Gregg compares two different types of branding, product and organizational. This book focuses on the latter.
"In product branding, your product does the talking with the way it operates and the benefits it delivers. Your people make organizational branding happen. Employees are the driving force behind the execution of a successful brand strategy."
The book highlights the importance of employees to achieving brand integrity. We know that engaged employees deliver exceptional customer experiences and produce results for the company. It's all about the people. But you need to set up your people for success, to create success for your company.

 The 10 Truths
Let's take a look at the 10 Truths. I know I won't do them justice in a short blog; after all, Gregg wrote an entire book about them! But I'll get you started... then go read the book.

Truth #1: A brand strategy is the ultimate business strategy. 
To understand that, you must first know what a brand is. Gregg defines it as "the sum total of all the experiences a customer has with your company." A brand strategy is "the process of aligning what we say with what we do, to positively influence what customers think." There's no better way to ensure that alignment than by hiring the right people, people who align with what you say, what you do, your purpose.

Truth #2: True branding is about being different, not saying different things. 
Your marketing message may be that you are the best at X, Y, or Z. But if your actions don't match your words, you are not believable or trusted. Your brand strategy needs to include a component of differentiation; just saying you are different doesn't make you different. Gregg outlines an exercise that you can do to help you uncover your points of difference.

(By the way, if you haven't read my last post, How Do You Test on Forgettability, go read that now.)

Truth #3: If you think you know your brand image, you are probably wrong. 
Do you know what your customers and employees really think about your brand? If not, then ask! Remember, perception is reality. What is your reality? Conduct brand image assessments to understand what employees and customers think about your company today. Gregg defines the four areas that influence what they think (attributes and associations, competitive strengths, concerns and weaknesses, and work culture) and says exploring these will help leaders prioritize their focus and the experiences the company delivers.

"If you don’t optimally define what your brand is and should be in the future, your customers will do it for you. And you might not like what they come up with!"

Truth #4: Only wimps and egomaniacs are afraid to investigate their company's reality.
Remember what I said above: "Perception is reality." Find out what your reality is. Ask. Internally. Leaders need to ask themselves and employees the tough questions.

"Powerful thinking occurs when you have the opportunity to explore various viewpoints."

Get those viewpoints in the form of internal interviews conducted by trained interviewers who can probe and drive the discussions to meet the objectives. You need to uncover insights on these seven realities of brand building within your organization. Are you...
  1. Achieving desired business results?
  2. Driving the desired culture?
  3. Knowing your target customers?
  4. Understanding employee and customer experiences?
  5. Recognizing the company's brand positioning?
  6. Implementing important initiatives?
  7. Marketing effectively to customers?
Getting input from every level within the organization is key. "No one is as smart as all of us."

Truth #5: Marketing and advertising can kill your brand.
This one is pretty simple: say what you do, do what you say. End of story. If you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. You know what that means. Dress it up any way you like, but if the product doesn't work, your service is awful, and the experience sucks, it's just that. Nothing more, nothing less. You must have the right people, the right processes, the right tools, the right culture, etc. to deliver the best experience.

"Branding is built from the inside out by people who use systems and follow processes to deliver amazing customer experiences."

Truth #6: Behaviors and experiences make the invisible visible.
So that your employees can live the brand, the brand beliefs must be communicated. Brand beliefs are the invisible, but (employee) behaviors turn those beliefs into reality. If employees are to act accordingly and be held accountable, they must know what is expected of them. If they don't know the beliefs, and their behavior hasn't been defined, they cannot operationalize the brand. Defining the concepts and the behavior drives the work culture and ultimately impacts the customer experience.

Beliefs drive attitudes --> Attitudes drive behaviors --> Behaviors drive (employee and customer) experiences --> Experiences lead to company success.

Truth #7: Employees Are NOT Your Greatest Asset
If you've read my recent posts about employee experience, you'll know that I loved this chapter. Employees should be the focus of your brand-building efforts. Gregg uses a bit of semantics here, but I have to agree with him: "The right employees who have the passion and knowledge to do the right things at work are your greatest asset." Not every employee... just the right employees. He calls out that there are typically three types of employees:
  1. The Good (your star performers), who account for 20%
  2. The Bad (your mediocre folks), who account for 60%
  3. The Ugly (your poor performers), who account for 20%
Don't settle for mediocrity. You want your business to thrive. Hire the right people. To help hire the right people, create an employer brand, which outlines what you want your company, as an employer, to be known for to (potential) employees.

Truth #8: Gaining Buy-in Is the Only Way to Execute a Brand Strategy 
Without buy-in from the entire organization, top to bottom, you will not achieve brand integrity. Gregg defines buy-in as Understanding x Commitment x Action. Employees must understand, commit to, and act accordingly to your brand concepts. A "duh moment" but a key to getting buy-in is ensuring that the brand concept, promise, and strategy are clearly communicated to employees. If leaders don't define what success looks like, employees can't be expected to deliver it.

Truth #9: Most Companies Suck at Capturing Successes and Recognizing People 
Rewards programs alone stink. They don't really work. They can be subjective and manipulated. In many companies, employees view them as a joke. Gregg advocates (1) acknowledging and rewarding employees for delivering great experiences; (2) using peer-to-peer recognition to motivate, retain, and empower; and (3) capturing and replicating the experience in action. I love the idea of the "I Caught You Living the Brand" recognition program that he outlines.

"Appreciation is the strongest currency in your corporate culture."

Truth #10: Only Leadership Has the Power to Ensure Brand Success
Communicate the "why" behind the brand, processes, actions, etc. Build alignment to the brand strategy through constant communication. Educate and inspire; teach employees how their actions impact the experience. Be patient and take a long-term view; remember, it's a journey. And maintain extreme focus. Focus on the destination!

The CEO is the ultimate brand champion! The CEO leads the brand. The CEO drives the communication and the culture. The CEO sets the tone. The buck stops at the CEO when the business fails.


Throughout the book, Gregg provides links to worksheets, assessments, and other documents on the Brand Integrity website to guide you on your journey. The book provides a framework for you to follow to deliver on each of the 10 Truths and, ultimately, to achieve brand integrity. Enjoy the journey and the destination!

Note: If you'd like me to introduce you to the folks at Brand Integrity, send me a note. I'm happy to make the connection.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How Do You Test on Forgettability?

Several months ago, I wrote about Delivering the Ultimate Customer Experience. I noted that three of the traits of the ultimate experience are that they are personal, memorable, and consistent. Today's post is on what it means to be memorable.

In a sea of sameness, how does your product/ service/brand stand out? Are you an original? A "me-too?" Are you unforgettable or forgettable?

If you know the movie Princess Bride, you know Inigo Montoya, a great character played by Mandy Patinkin. He is probably my favorite character in the movie, which happens to be one of my favorites. This is a fun and relevant quote from Inigo to get us started on a "memorable discussion."

"People don't remember me. Really. It's not a paranoid thing; I just have this habit of slipping through memories. It doesn't bother me all that much, except I guess that's a lie; it does. For some reason, I test very high on forgettability."

How do you test on forgettability? What do your customers think about their experiences with your brand, your employees, your products? Are they memorable? Does it bother you that your brand slips through their memories? That customers don't insist on your brand?

What does it mean to be memorable? As if you didn't know, "memorable" is defined as worth remembering, unforgettable, impossible to forget, noteworthy, extraordinary, etc. You can only hope that the experiences you deliver are defined as such!

What makes an experience memorable? I think it's the little things. I think little things mean a lot. I haven't written lately about any bad experiences, but I can say this, I certainly haven't had any memorable ones to write about either. Why not? Well, the companies, service providers, and products have done what they were expected to do. Is that memorable? No. Is that a bad thing? No. Well, as long as you're OK with floating in that sea of sameness.

Does memorable always mean good? No. Do you want that kind of memorable? No.

At what point is a customer experience so bad that what's expected isn't expected any longer and becomes the unexpected? Say that three times really fast! In other words, we have expectations of what an experience should be (and hopefully that's driven by the brand promise), right? What if we have so many bad experiences that what is expected is no longer expected - and suddenly what was expected is elevated to the unexpected? Make sense?

OK, moving on...

How can you ensure that your customers are having memorable experiences and not forgettable ones? You must start with hiring the right people. They must understand your brand promise and live it, breathe it, and deliver on it. You must have a purpose, your "Why," and your employees should know it; most likely they do and are already aligned with it, especially if you've hired the right people. You've heard me say it before: Employee passion drives results; but passionate employees are also the ones who will create memorable experiences.

Next, you must understand your customers. Without understanding your customers, you're just stabbing in the dark. Understanding your customers includes listening to them, creating a customer journey map, and using other tools that will help you understand who they are, what their needs are, what their painpoints are, and how you fit together. If you know customers well, it's much easier to meet, and especially exceed, expectations. It's great to do a little something extra, but wouldn't it be great if that little something extra was relevant, too?

And, finally, I think emotions play a huge part in whether or not something is memorable. Connecting with customers on an emotional level will certainly leave a lasting impression. Just like with employee engagement, you cannot force customer engagement. But, if the conditions are right, your customers will form that emotional bond and perhaps become your ultimate raving fans! Here are some thoughts on things that can facilitate that bond; your company...
  • Purpose aligns with who they are
  • Supports a cause that aligns with their values, their lives
  • Is local, localizes, and supports the community
  • Creates a community or a sense of belonging; customers feel part of something bigger
  • Doesn't brag, it just does what it knows is right
  • Puts the customer above all else (after employees); no distractions
  • Does those little extras that create surprise and delight
How does your company align with that list? How does your company test on forgettability?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We Shall Never Deny a Guest...

Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk
There's a lot of talk about going the extra mile to keep customers happy. But is there a point where the extra mile is going too far? Is there ever a point where you should just say "No?"

Lucky for you, I watch, er, I mean, my kids watch SpongeBob, and I can bring his perspective into my blog!

There's an episode of SpongeBob where Mr. Krabs turns the Krusty Krab into a hotel called Krusty Towers, an expensive hotel where the motto is "We will never deny a guest even the most ridiculous request." The motto was borrowed from a hotel he stayed at while on vacation; this is also where he learned that the hotel business is quite the lucrative business. (And if you know Mr. Krabs, he is all about money!)

No surprise here. During the episode, guests asked for things that were quite ridiculous, and Mr. Krabs obliged. The final request is the downfall of the hotel: a customer asks for the outdoor pool to be moved into his room; a sequence of events occurs, and the hotel is destroyed.

Why do I call out this completely unrealistic story/cartoon? To make a point, of course. Actually, two points. First, deliver on your promise. That's a no-brainer. But if your promise is to your company's detriment, then it might be time to re-evaluate your promise. Second, there are times when we need to say "No." There are times when we need to tell customers what they don't want to hear. There are times that saying "Yes" could lead to the downfall of the customer experience, which in turn will lead to the downfall of your business. There are times when "No" is the right answer.

Why? It's called "honesty." If customers hear you say "Yes" and "No" at appropriate times, that's believable, and it's real. It leads to trust.

But first...

I love it when a good story comes together, quite unintentionally. I already knew I'd be blogging on this topic today, as I try to plan ahead as much as I can. Last Friday, an old episode of Undercover Boss happened to be on, and as the episode unfolded, I was quite happy to realize that it was going to tie in nicely with my post today. The episode was about Diamond Resorts International's CEO Stephen J. Cloobeck. I won't go into the details of the episode but will bring up one scenario to make a point.

But first, Diamond Resorts (a timeshare/vacation ownership business) has a mantra, or a promise, they live by: The Meaning of Yes. There are a couple of things behind this promise, which is their commitment to a branded hospitality experience. What does that mean?

  1. Consistency: Regardless of the location, you will always have the same experience. The service, the quality of the grounds and amenities, etc. It will be the same from one to the next. It also means that when you call to book a stay, you will receive the same excellent service by phone.  So it also means consistency across channels.
  2. Culture of Service Excellence: Their employees are reliable and responsive, committed to exceeding customer expectations, dedicated to maintaining a professional attitude, and determined to build trust-based relationships.

I love it. This is all great stuff for those of us who live and breathe customer experience! But what about the "Yes?" Their website doesn't really speak specifically about "Yes," but I got some insights from the episode as well as from this video I found of Stephen's discussion with Frank Luntz during a Milken Institute event. (By the way, it's a great interview/forum; I would highly recommend that you watch it, if you have a spare hour.)

So, a little about the "Yes." Here's Stephen J. Cloobeck's philosophy and his approach to a culture of "Yes."

When a guest approaches an employee, he wants his employees to say "Yes," even before the guests open their mouths to ask their questions or make requests. He believes that guests aren't going to ask for something ridiculous, like moving a pool from outside to inside, but that they will have reasonable requests, requests that employees need to fulfill in order for guests to have the best experience. And, his words: You have to smile when you say "Yes." It's hard not to smile when you say, "Yes."

He would probably love this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Never allow a person to tell you 'No' who doesn't have the power to say 'Yes.'"

OK, so that takes me to the point where I wrap this up with the moral of my story.

We all know that overbooking happens much too frequently in the travel industry. It's a problem. It happens for the airlines, but it also happens with hotels. One of the scenarios in the Undercover Boss episode had Stephen working at the front desk (right next to a picture of himself on the wall!) with an employee who was passionate about her work and passionate about saying "Yes" to her guests. The thing she hated, though, is that her hotel is often overbooked, which means she then has the responsibility of telling guests "No." Actually, she ends up making up a story as to why a room isn't available. Of course, this doesn't sit well with guests, and it didn't sit well with Stephen.

Somewhere along the customer journey, someone (probably several someones) said "Yes" and shouldn't have. (Yes, I understand, sort of, why the travel industry overbooks, but they gamble for their interests and their shareholders' interests, not for the customers' interests.)

So it's not always good to say "Yes." If it's not in your customers' best interests or if it's not consistent with delivering an exceptional experience, then you need to say "No."

"A 'No' uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a 'Yes' merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble." -Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Changing the World, One Thank You at a Time

Image courtesy of Orin Zebest
With a background in a software industry that tends to focus more heavily on VOC than on VOE, I have been searching lately for tools that help companies make it their mission to focus on the employee first.

Note that this focus on VOC has not necessarily been a reflection of the vendors. I can speak for myself (as head of their Services departments) that my teams and I talked to clients about the importance of listening to employees and focusing on the employee experience; however, I felt like most companies didn't get it. (Many still don't.) The stance was often, "We'll listen to and focus on employees next/later; customers first." Wrong.

If you follow my blog regularly, you've probably noticed that I have written several posts about employee engagement and employee experience lately. I can't convey enough how important those concepts are to the success of your business.

Well, put all that together, and a few months ago I stumbled upon a company that I felt had a solid tool for amping up a culture transformation and putting the focus on employee experience, engagement, and appreciation. And then, lo and behold, just recently, I had the pleasure of meeting (virtually) the company's co-founder and CEO after he read and commented on my post, Employee Engagement is Not a Mandate.

In that post and in my post about employee passion, I describe the emotional connection and talked about how passion fuels alignment and results. But think about this: how can employees become passionate about your brand if they don't understand the vision or the purpose because it's not clearly communicated or if you don't have a culture to be passionate about?

A quote I used in my post about the lost art of thank you cards, which has become one of my most popular posts, supports the notion that communication is key and that appreciation needs to be shown and heard!

Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone.  ~G.B. Stern

There is a solution... or at least a tool that will facilitate all of that.

Curious yet? I'm speaking of Kudos, a company co-founded by Tom Short, whom I spoke with, and Muni Boga, both with backgrounds in starting and leading successful and innovative companies. It was a delight speaking with Tom. He's so passionate about about changing not only the employee experience and how employees are recognized and appreciated but also about creating this movement that results in, well, world peace. Hey, why not!

Tom took me through the history of the company and some of the things that inspired him to create this platform. One of the stories included a company of his that was growing so quickly that  people didn't know each other, the vision of the company, or much else about the business, for that matter. People were isolated, and he needed a way to bring them all together. As he noted, the #1 reason people leave is a combination of lack of appreciation and an understanding of how their contributions really matter.  Kudos solves that problem.

Hold that thought...

First, a couple of books that Tom mentioned that I believe are worthy of a read - if you're into that sort of thing, i.e., wanting to transform your culture and understand the framework for employee engagement.

Drive (Daniel Pink)
Fish! (Lundin, Paul, Christensen, Blanchard)
First, Break All the Rules (Marcus Buckingham)
and, most importantly...
Carrots and Sticks Don't Work (Paul Marciano)

All four books provided some of the background necessary to create a tool to support and facilitate employee engagement, but Dr. Paul Marciano's book really became the driving force behind the development of what Kudos is today. So impactful was his book that he now serves as a strategic advisor to Kudos. In a nutshell, as the subtitle notes, the book is about "building a culture of employee engagement with the Principles of RESPECT," which stands for:

Supportive Feedback

Honestly, how can you question any of those attributes?

OK, back to Kudos. What is it? It's a social recognition and communication platform. It facilitates networking, communicating, collaborating, and reinforcing corporate values and culture. It allows your employees to appreciate and recognize each other for not only a job well done but for other great things they might do. Kudos really supports and facilitates the spirit of RESPECT.

While I could have signed up for a free plan and taken a tour of the platform myself, Tom was my tour guide and showed me all that you can do with Kudos. I was thoroughly impressed. The UI is so clean and simple, and the platform is so user friendly.

I've used tools like Yammer before, and this is no Yammer. People get bored with Yammer very quickly. Kudos is more like the best of Twitter, Facebook, Yammer, Basecamp, and FourSquare all wrapped up in one - on steroids. And yet, it's incredibly easy to use! It's fun and engaging, and it's an amazing way to help your employees build personal connections in a global workplace. Today's teams aren't all sitting in the same office; they are spread across the world. Kudos is a great way to bring everyone together. I can totally see this as one of those apps that sucks you in and keeps you following and using day in and day out.

While Kudos allows teams to do so many things, the core of the platform is the peer-to-peer recognition tool. It provides an easy way to send kudos to a co-worker, either privately or publicly. Who doesn't like to be thanked for helping a teammate or for staying late into the night to complete a project? What pride could that elicit to see that your extra efforts were not only appreciated but also helped to land a big deal? Or what if you got a surprise Kudos from the CEO because he heard you did a fabulous job giving a presentation? The possibilities are endless. Remember their tag line: Kudos - Thank Different.  (TM, of course)

Kudos is a software company; there is no Services team to implement the platform (not needed) or to consult on execution. But having said that, Kudos is in the process of creating a guidebook to give you best practices and ideas on how to use the platform to drive employee engagement within your organization.

What's really neat, too, is that you can send Kudos to people outside of the organization. Shortly after our call, Tom sent me this:

I can click on the link in the email, create an account, and perpetuate the kindness. Have fun with it. Return the favor or pay it forward. Perhaps world peace is not that far off!

As Tom says, "Do big things by doing the little things."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Image courtesy of cursedthing
Did you know... when customers cancel their subscriptions or their memberships, it's not the end of your relationship with them? Clearly, it's not a stage that you ever want to reach in the customer experience lifecycle, but if you do get there, it doesn't have to be over. And more importantly, you don't have to treat the customer like it's over. It's not.

I know. I know. Breaking up is hard to do. But don't treat customers with anger and frustration if they decide to cancel or move on. Don't process their cancellations begrudgingly. As a matter of fact, be gracious, grateful, and make it easy for them to cancel, if they need to.

Why is this important? Two reasons:
  1. If their experiences have been positive to that point, they will continue to talk about your company and refer friends, even after they've left. (And imagine if you surprised them with an easy cancellation process, the great things they could say!)
  2. Given the opportunity, they could subscribe or join again in the future.
A good example of the second reason is gym memberships. Assume that the customer is canceling because he is moving to a different state. As long as he is moving to an area where you have a club, thereby allowing your club to be in his consideration set again, he could rejoin. But if you've made his cancellation experience difficult, you will likely have lost him for good. 

Design the cancellation process from the customer's viewpoint. To reduce the customer effort and to make it easy to cancel:
  1. Clearly outline your cancellation policy.
  2. Don't just make it easy to read; make it easy to find.
  3. Be sure your policy is sensible, too.
  4. Make your customer service number easy to find.
  5. When the customer contacts you to cancel, happily complete the transaction and thank him for his business.
  6. Completing the transaction means do it within the time parameters of your policy; if it's a membership with a 30-day notice required, for example, on or by Day 30, you must stop collecting fees.
  7. Better yet, don't require a 30-day notice; let customers cancel when they need to cancel.
  8. And don't charge a fee to cancel.
  9. Don't have a contract.
Some people might not like or agree with 7, 8, or 9; as for 9, I'm not sure industries with contracts are ready for that, though some are trying it, e.g., health clubs.  Regardless, I guarantee you, if you want to be different, this is the way to go!

If we don’t take care of our customers, someone else will.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The #1 Tool to Engage Your Customers

Today I'm pleased to share with you a guest post by Jim Tincher of Heart of the Customer.

You’ve gathered your customer insights and made the changes. Your website is streamlined and easy to use. Your add-on services are perfectly aligned with customer needs. You have invested in the finest training for your employees. Your IT upgrades ensure that your staff has up-to the-second information at their fingertips.

But somehow nothing is changing. Your sales are flat, and your customer experience scores are static. What’s wrong?

Tell me, how good are your line managers?


The employee-customer interaction is where the magic happens in almost any service-based business. Whether renting a car, shopping for groceries or eating out, the customer-facing associate makes the difference between a ho-hum experience and one that brings you back for more.

Gallup’s research found that the top two drivers of customer engagement in the fast food industry were “Being Treated as a Valued Customer” and “the Warmth of the Greeting,” both dependent on the customer-facing employees. Similarly, Great Clips discovered that the stylist’s smile had a huge impact on repeat customers. But the impact of an engaged employee goes way beyond this immediate connection.

Have you ever visited a store with carts strewn around the lot, or visited a restaurant with signs promoting an event that happened several days ago? These clues have a strong indirect impact on the customer experience – and never occur where employees are engaged. Engaged employees clear the parking lot, maintain signage, and even clean the bathrooms.

The trouble? Front-line employees in the service sector turn over regularly, making it harder to engage them from a corporate location. How do you ensure engaged employees without breaking the bank?

Chick-fil-A has found the answer. Have you ever visited one of their restaurants? If not, go out of your way to order a sandwich (make sure to go inside) to learn how to run an effective services location - even if it isn’t a restaurant. Their employees greet you with a smile, and go out of their way to make you at home, even bringing your food to your seat.

I met a manager at Pizza Hut’s corporate office who spoke lovingly about Chick-fil-A. She told me how a nearby Jimmy John’s offered $1 sandwiches for their grand opening. But the line at the Chick-fil-A next door was longer – even without a promotion! The company does not have Minnesota locations, so I had to wait until visiting St. Louis to give them a try. Sure enough, the experience was exactly as promised – smiling, friendly employees greeted me, and went out of their way to make certain I had a great experience.

How do they do it? It’s certainly not about their food. It’s good, but nothing spectacular. While Taco Bell tries to create revenue by creating new – yet surprisingly similar – food items, and Subway discounts their sandwiches to $5, Chick-fil-A puts its efforts into hiring the right management teams for its restaurants. It’s a long-term bet, but a good one. They know that the right line manager makes the right experience, so they invest their time and money here. Training is important – and they do train their managers well. But the company knows that you cannot train for management skills where no capability exists. So they focus on discovering the right talent in their hiring process.

Great service companies recognize that their investment needs to be on people before product. For a contrary example, witness the fall of Circuit City, which fired 3,400 of its most expensive salespeople to save on labor costs. They ended up with less-effective employees, their sales spiraled, and the formerly good-to-great company never recovered. Great, engaged employees pay for themselves – but the relationship is not always directly visible.

Best Buy serves as another cautionary example. When Apple began their rise as a consumer electronics retail juggernaut, Best Buy responded by cutting labor and training to compete on price. Not Apple. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Apple’s sales philosophy is “not to sell, but rather to help customers solve problems.” This focus on hiring enthusiasts has resulted in Apple seeing the highest sales per square foot of any national retailer - $6,000. Meanwhile, Best Buy cuts labor and management while teaching its staff to push service plans, and their numbers are 1/7 of Apple’s, and declining.

Hiring the right manager is your most critical step in creating the right customer experience. Great managers impact your employees by creating an environment where they feel valued and trusted. That feeling is then transferred to customers. It takes time for the financial impact of a manager to be felt. Reduced attrition saves money over time. Similarly, while a terrific employee may make more sales today, their greatest effect is when your customer comes back six months later or refers a friend to your store.

Cutting back on staff always looks good in the short run. Thirty days after the cuts, your sales are flat but your costs are down – a win! But it will catch up with you. Best Buy found that for every 0.1 increase in employee engagement (on a 5-point scale), each store increased profits by $100,000 a year. After a change in leadership the company stopped investing in its employee engagement program, and now sales are dropping through the floor.

Learn from Best Buy, Circuit City and (most importantly) Chick-fil-A. Take the long-term view. If your sales and customer scores are flat, look first to your managers, and then to your staff. Then invest in them for long-term success.

Jim Tincher is the Principal Consultant at Heart of the Customer and has more than 20 years of experience in driving customer engagement. Jim’s expertise has led to engagements as far-reaching as developing consumer tests at Best Buy, creating a Customer Insights capability at UnitedHealth Group, and consulting with clients ranging from global fast food companies to utilities to international manufacturing and service companies. Jim is a dynamic speaker, passionate about building a world-class customer-inspired experience that results in customers who come back time and again. Jim writes, speaks, and consults with companies to help them develop a great customer-inspired experience at

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Are Gratuities an Expectation?

Last week, Sarah Simon tweeted the story shown in the image to the left. The story is about a waitress who received both a two-cent tip and, literally, someone's "two cents worth" about the service delivered by her. In the closing paragraph of the article, the author asks:  "Is the note a teaching moment, or its author just a jerk?"

You know me by now... this got me thinkin'...

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I honestly thought/think that a tip is a reflection of the service you receive; and the amount you give is (a) a personal decision and (b) generally ranges from 0-20%, depending on the quality of service. It is not mandatory that you give 20%; you give what you feel is appropriate. And the amount you leave sends a message; it either says, "Hey, you took great care of me. Thank you." or "Wow. That was terrible service." or "Meh, that was OK, nothing special."

So I did a little homework and researched the origin of tipping.

Image courtesy of corrine klug
The stories about the origin and history of tips are as varied as the tips themselves, but the general consensus seems to be that tips were given as monetary rewards for service to servants perhaps as early as the 17th century (possibly even earlier). No surprises, there.

Tips did not make their way into American culture until the early 1900s and were quite the debated topic before they became commonplace here. And once they became commonplace, one of the things that happened is that they became an expectation; as such, employers often pay lower wages because they believe employees will "make up the difference" with tips.

Tips are rewards for the service delivered. And when they become an expectation, they are really no longer motivators for delivering great service, are they? They've lost their meaning, their purpose. As an expectation, they become no different from getting your weekly paycheck. Might as well do away with tips and just pay your employees more.

I get it. I'm not discounting what service professionals (wait staff, hotel staff, doormen, cab drivers, hairdressers, etc.) do. They work hard for their money. But, when you're in a service profession (before you even think about the fact that your income depends on it), deliver great service; otherwise, why are you in that role?

And for employers, I'll say it again: "Hire the right people. Hire for nice; train the skills." Nice goes a long way toward earning the tip, even if the rest of the experience sucked. One more CX cliche: "People buy from people." It's about connections. Take the time to connect. Again, even if the experience wasn't that great but you showed that you cared and tried to make things right, that's important.

Customers talk with their pocketbooks, and they walk with their feet. That means, if they're not happy, they're not going to pay, and they'll not return. So let this customer's two cents worth be a reminder to that employee, to all employees, to the management, that while this was just one incident, there could be others. It's time to up your game.

I agree with Sarah: this is the voice of the customer at its finest, speaking loud and clear. Second, I do believe this is a teaching moment.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Employee Engagement is Not a Mandate

I read an article last week about forcing the issue of employee engagement, as if someone could force that upon an employee. I'm not even going to link to the article, as I wouldn't share such misinformation. But I am going to blog about it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to remind everyone that you have to be careful about what you read on the Internet and that you can't believe everything you read.

(For a bit of humor, check out this Dilbert cartoon on employee engagement.)

Seriously, I had to reread the post a few times to be sure the author was serious. Based on his response to comments (with similar disbelief to mine), I assure you, he was. OK, sure, organizations can strive for 100% employee engagement, but it is virtually impossible. I don't even know if Zappos has 100% employee engagement. Recent research shows that the percentage of employees, in general, who are engaged is far south of that: Only 10% of employees are engaged. While this is just one study, there are many more that support this issue of disengaged employees.

Regardless, engagement cannot be forced upon employees or mandated, dictated, or declared. An employer cannot say, "You will be engaged!" and make it so. It just doesn't work that way. Engagement is so much more than that; almost literally, when the stars are aligned, there will be engagement!

Engagement involves a relationship between employee and employer; there's a give and take from both sides. When conditions are right, employees become engaged.

For a great definition, take a look at one that Bob Hayes mentions in his recent blog about Employee Engagement. Note item #3 under "Employee Engagement Construct," which states: "Employee engagement suggests absorption, dedication, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort, and energy on the part of the employee." I have previously written about employee passion and how it drives results. Passion is not something that can be forced upon you. Passion is an emotion; it comes from within you. Each of the items in that definition comes from within you.

Imagine if your manager walked up to you this morning and said, "I don't think you are an engaged employee. Let me coach you on how to be engaged. You have to be an engaged employee; it's not an option." 

I assure you: That will not happen any sooner than your boyfriend will fall in love with you because you told him he had to.

Yes, employee engagement is critical. But instead of dictating, employers can create an environment/culture that supports (helps build) and facilitates employee engagement. These suggestions on how to do that come from Jill Donnelly at Customer Service Experts:
  1. Create a work environment that is positive and employee-focused.
  2. Provide ongoing training, development, and opportunities to learn.
  3. Ensure processes are customer-centric and employee-focused.
  4. Develop a relationship with your employees; have frequent interpersonal contact with them.
  5. Guide your team with a vision and set standards that will enable you to offer employees consistent feedback and direction.
As I mentioned in my post, It's Time to Focus on Employee Experience, I believe the right people with the right tools at the right company with the right culture leads to employee engagement.

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Design the Experience from the Customer Viewpoint

Image courtesy of practicalowl
I'm going to ask you a really tough question about customer experience design. It's a challenging one, and some of you might get it wrong, so give it some thought and let me know what your answer would be. Here goes.

If I asked you to design a zoo for me, would you design it from the animal perspective or from the human perspective? OK, wait, that is a tough question. Let me rephrase it. If I asked you to build me a zoo - and after you made sure the animals were happy in their pens and enclosures - would you design your customer experience from (a) the animal point of view or (b) the human point of view?

How many of you would raise your hand for "(b) human?" Great! How many of you would raise your hand for "(a) animal?" O, you, over there in the corner. Yes, you, Los Angeles Zoo. Put your hand down.

Let me tell you why.

Over the weekend, I took my boys to your zoo. They are 7 and 10, and they love animals. We've been to the San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park, and the Aquarium of the Pacific many, many times. They've been to other zoos, as well. Recently they got a ball python for a pet, so they have a renewed enthusiasm about all things creepy crawly. So, as you can imagine, they were so excited to see the new "The LAIR" exhibit.

We arrived on Saturday morning, planning that if we got there right when the zoo opened, it wouldn't be as busy as it would likely be in the afternoon. This was the case, as there were far more people there when we left several hours later. But I'm no fool ... it was still a Saturday morning at a (Los Angeles) venue with a new exhibit... so I was expecting a lot of people. Unfortunately, I don't think you were. We waited in line for 25 minutes just to pay... and then we waited in yet another line to get into the zoo. That line was unbelievably long because you had two people at one turn-style taking tickets. Why do I have to wait in two lines? I went from one bottleneck right into another.

Customer Experience Design Tip #1: Plan ahead on staffing for heavy traffic times. This includes times when there are special events and promotions, new exhibits, and weekends.

Customer Experience Design Tip #2: Think about your traffic flow. Ensure that it is logical and expeditious.

When you enter into any theme or animal park, the first thing you see is someone wanting to take your picture to commemorate the trip. I love this. While I could just hand someone my camera to take a picture of all of us, I typically go for these pictures because I think it's a fun way to remember the trip; usually you have some cool frame or quirky pose you put us into, and it's a nice item to take away. Hold this thought for later...

After an hour-plus drive to the zoo, the parking, the two lines to wait in, etc., the boys were thirsty and wanted a snack. There were a lot of places to stop for refreshments, so that was well executed. We stopped at one of the snack stands to grab popcorn and some drinks. But wait! Whoa! Not so fast. You can have a drink, but you can't have a lid or a straw for your cup. "I can't what?" Nope, you don't put lids on your cups or straws in the drinks because, wait for it, "they could harm the animals."

I'm an animal lover as much as (or maybe more than) the next guy. I grew up on a farm and had aspirations of being a veterinarian. Well, until I found out I needed six quarters of chemistry to get into vet school. But I digress. Trust me... there are a zillion things that you can buy in that park that could harm the animals more than a straw and a lid.

If it was just me, it wouldn't have been a big deal. (Besides, I got a bottle of water, which, you guessed it, has a cap on it. Couldn't that harm the animals?) But it was my kids. Have you ever watched a 7 year old (or a 10 year old) stumble through a park with an open drink in hand? Well, no, of course not. That's because his mom had to carry the drink for him. So he didn't spill it on himself or your other guests or on the ground, leaving a sticky mess for the next person to step into.

Honestly, that pretty much ruined the experience for me because (a) my kids thought it was ridiculous, and they were annoyed, and (b) I had to carry the drinks, which meant that I couldn't take pictures, which I love to do when I take my kids to parks like yours. After all, parks like yours are about family, creating memories, etc. Right?

Customer Experience Design Tip #3: Think about whether your policies really makes sense before you implement them. Do away with policies that are nonsense.

Customer Experience Design Tip #4: Trust your customers.

Next we got in line to go into The LAIR. Because we were there earlier in the day, we only had to wait for three groups to go in ahead of us. We got inside, and it was rather disappointing.

The first part of the exhibit was dark and quite warm, with no air flowing through it. I understand that these creatures have to be warm, but honestly, I don't need to be that warm. I had beads of sweat pouring down my face and felt light-headed; it was hot outside; there was no ventilation or air circulating through the building; and there were so many people in there that body heat was adding to the conditions.

Customer Experience Design Tip #5: Forget about ambience if it hinders the experience. Or change the ambience to make it work for the theme and for the customer.

The reptiles were hard to see because the viewing windows were so small, and the tanks were dark. The signs on the tanks were white or light gray text on black, which were hard to read. The cave-like walls that you used made it really hard for multiple people to view critters at a time, so we were literally waiting in line (again) to see the animals. I appreciate that you are trying to create a theme or an ambiance, but honestly, all we want to do is see the animals. Why not allow for viewing from multiple sides. The Aquarium of the Pacific has this nicely figured out. Further into the exhibit, the viewing area opened up, but the first area had me concerned that the entire exhibit would be as cumbersome.

Customer Experience Design Tip #6: Remember your purpose. Remember what the product is supposed to do. Remember the customer.

As we made our way through The LAIR, I was in desperate need of a trash can. My kids had finished their drinks with no lids or straws, and I would have loved to have thrown the cups away, but alas, no trash can. I noticed this throughout the park: very few trash cans. You see, if you have more trash cans, I bet that trash is less likely to end up with the animals. And I bet you could then let your guests have lids and straws.

Customer Experience Design Tip #7: Provide tools, resources, and supporting items to help make it a great experience. 

At some point, we stopped to have lunch. The boys both had ICEEs, and as we sat down to eat, they both said, "How are we supposed to drink these without straws?" Good question. 

Well, about that time, after finishing all those drinks, we needed to find a restroom. Yes, you guessed it. That was a bad experience, too.  Really? When you designed your restrooms, you thought it was OK to put the row of sinks in front of the row of stalls, with no more than two feet between the stalls and the sinks. Have you ever tried to use your own restrooms? Have you tried to go to the empty stall at the far end of the row, while a row of customers is standing at the sink, washing their hands? No, I didn't think so. Because it's not possible. The entire row of hand washers would have to step aside or squeeze forward and lean into the sink in order for you to walk by. No, I'm not exaggerating.

Customer Experience Design Tip #8: Use your product. Shop your stores. Does it all make sense? Is it easy to use?

My 10 year old had read on your website that we could name or adopt an animal. We asked several employees about this, and no one seemed to know anything about it. We ended up going to the Administration Office, but there was no on there.

Finally, we'd seen all that we were going to see for the day and headed to the exit. As we neared the exit, I saw a sign that reminded me to get my zoo photo, which was (supposed to have been) taken as we entered the park. O, but wait. Our photo was never taken. Your photographers were busy standing there talking to each other. I wonder how many customers they missed.

Customer Experience Design Tip #9: Make sure your employees are: doing what they are supposed to be doing; engaging your customers; trained on all of your initiatives, programs, and promotions; and delivering the best possible - memorable - customer experience.

Customer Experience Design Tip #10: Remember that the little things matter. It might just seem like a piece of plastic to you, but one small detail can change the experience entirely.

Customer Experience Design Tip #11: Create a customer journey map. Think about the experience from the customer's perspective. Design it for your customers.

Interestingly, the Los Angeles Zoo website uses a tagline, "Nurturing Wildlife and Enriching the Human Experience." While I can't speak to the former, I believe the latter still needs a bit of work.