How to avoid a $255 million foul-up

You've no doubt seen the footage of the United Airlines flight where a customer was dragged off the plane. The fascinating customer service lesson is how a company the size of United was so oblivious to the ramifications of mistreating a passenger. As you know, airlines often offer cash incentives for passengers to take later flights. In this case no one took the $800 offer, so United ordered a random passenger to leave. What they didn't do was offer significantly more money. Do you suppose if they'd offered $5,000 then at least one passenger would have opted for a later flight? Me too. What you may not know is within 3 days of the social media frenzy United's stock value had dropped by $255 million! In other words, they could have spent 5k and saved $255 million. In today's world of social media, organizations can't afford - literally - to merely do what's legal. They need to focus on doing what's right.

Surviving Friendly Fire – 5 tips for dodging bullets when dealing with internal employees

Within virtually every organization, employees from different departments will have to interact with one another without having direct authority over them. That can easily create conflicts and bruised egos. That’s why, when I coach teams on how to enhance internal customer satisfaction, I remind them that it’s not just what they communicate to other departments, but how they do so. To ensure you and your team are seen less as interruptions, and more as value adding assets, keep in mind these five tips…

1. Talk in Person

Too often, we initiate communications to other departments in writing when we should opt for face to face conversations. When you have a new request or procedure that requires explaining, begin by talking in person to that department’s key influencers. Ask for their advice - literally. That word lowers their defenses and helps generate buy-in. Ask who else you should be talking to on their team – including any naysayers. Finally, when you decide upon the most likely to be accepted course of action, send a short written summary; more as a confirmation than as a proposal or directive.

2. Be a straight talker

Write the way you speak. Your communiques to coworkers should sound like a conversation; not a press release, essay, or legal document. Occasionally, sprinkle in some self-effacing humour. That makes you sound more like a real person and less like a bureaucrat.

3. Make your communications RACI

An engineer client of mine explained that on every construction project, team members from all departments agree upfront how the communications will be handled using the acronym R.A.C.I. The only people who will be copied on emails about the project will be: R - the one person who is Responsible for overseeing the project, A - the senior person who will be held Accountable for the project, C- people outside the project who may be Consulted for input, and finally, I - who should be Informed throughout the project. By clarifying how communications will be handled in advance, you reduce confusion and prevent others from becoming annoyed when you copy them (or don’t copy them) on a message.

4. Nix the self-promoting

Any announcement that remotely sounds like patting yourself on the back is going to be met with scorn and derision; the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. Instead, take the generous approach when announcing a success, and go to lengths to recognize others who helped make it happen. Ironically, the more you heap praise on others while leaving yourself in the background, the more likely you are to be appreciated and respected for your generosity and humility.

5. Forget becoming a BFF

It’s sad and slightly pathetic how some employees try too hard to fit-in with co-workers in other departments. A boomer-aged accountant in a suit will have a hard time being seen as “just one of the guys” with young millennials clad in coveralls out in the field. Nor should he try. He’d be better off viewing his role as the field department’s Trusted Advisor from accounting. He should be quick to express admiration about the amazing things that operations folks are doing in the proverbial trenches. His colleagues in the field will appreciate that he respects them while he’s also comfortable in his own skin. In fact, they may even become protective of him, especially when he arrives on site to talk to them in person. Sure he’s an accountant; but darn it - he’s our accountant.

Bottom line - Providing support and advice to internal employees requires not just competence, but also some street smart communication skills. The good news is with just a bit of training, co-workers can avoid preventable battles and instead become valued – literally, as trusted advisors.

Smaller Steps to Bigger Business

If you're ever involved in putting together proposals for internal or external customers, keep in mind the value of small steps. You may have a wonderful master plan for how your team can add massive value, but it's wasted if it sounds too complex or too expensive. That's why it's so helpful to suggest a phased in approach. Phase one and two are the essential products/services that get the project done with some post project support. Give a single group price for those first two phases. Then explain that, providing they are pleased with the first two phases, then phase three and four - briefly described - would also be available as a follow-on. Don't include any price on phase three and four at this stage. This approach gives customers a sense that they are making progress - even if in small steps - without over committing.

Ask for Competitor Compliments

To be valued by your customers and by your employer, it isn't enough to merely give customers what they ask for. It doesn't take much skill or imagination to fill an order. Your more valued role - literally, is pivoting customers toward your additional products and services. Perhaps the most common challenge is when customers say they're happy with their current supplier of those additional products/services. That's the time to ask for competitor compliments. Ask, "What do you like about them?" After they've said some positives, then ask if there's anything they aren't so thrilled about. The key is, once the customer compliments your competitor, then they become more comfortable telling you the truth about what's missing. At that point, as I teach in my seminars, there are just two more questions that pivot your customer toward your other offerings. The key is start by asking for a compliment about your competition.

Talk about Customer’s Context over Content

A friend and colleague of mine, David Irvine wrote about the importance of demonstrating caring before competence. We may know lots about our products and services, and have the best mousetrap. The problem is none of those things matter if the customer doesn't sense that we understand their circumstances. That means noticing and anticipating the customer's mood and energy level. It means asking questions, and most of all summarizing your understanding of their context. It's the cab driver who says to the exhausted business traveler at midnight, "Let's just get you home." It's the IT technician who says to their coworker, "Computer down? What a frustrating way to start your day! Let's get it back up so you can take care of those customers who pay all our wages." It's less about the transaction, more about the person. Talk about context over content.

Small Statement to Create Large Loyalty

Imagine how much money you may cumulatively spend as a customer as you add up outlays on transportation, shelter, food, clothing, technology, household supplies etc. Chances are it’s easily in the thousands of dollars paid to each business. Unfortunately, too often employees who interact with you focus on that single transaction, and treat you accordingly. What if instead, the employee glanced at their record for you and said, “Pat, I see that you’ve been doing business with us for 8 years. Wow that’s great – thank you so much for your loyalty!” Suddenly you feel like you’re not just a transaction. You have a relationship with this company and they care enough to point it out. It becomes obvious that they get it. They build stronger customer loyalty simply by letting you know that they understand and appreciate how valuable you are. Big return for a little staff training.

Is Employee Ownership Right for Your Company?

4 top excuses for not offering skin in the game - and why you should ignore them

I confess - before I became a father, I sometimes found other people’s kids to be annoying. Especially when they sat behind me on a plane kicking the back of my chair. Or throwing a tantrum in a grocery store lineup. Thankfully, my patience and empathy miraculously increased when my wife and I had kids of our own. That’s why, when my clients express frustration about how difficult is to get team members to really care about their customers, I ask whether those employees actually own part of the company. Just like with children, when a company is your own, you are genuinely committed to helping it succeed. Here are the 4 most common excuses I’ve heard from business owners as to why they don’t offer employee ownership, and why it shouldn’t prevent you from offering key employees some skin in the game.

1. We already offer commissions

The problem with carrot and stick monetary bonuses such as commissions is they actually prevent the kind of creative thinking required to set your company apart from the competition. You’ll find a fascinating internet video on the subject by searching, “Dan Pink, motivation” which refutes our traditional assumptions about money as an incentive. Keep in mind that if your company offers commissions, then it’s likely that your competitors do as well. If your employees figure they can make higher commissions working for the company across the street, then your commissions aren’t building any employee loyalty. Zero.

2. Owner doesn't want to share profits

It’s understandable if a business owner doesn’t want to give up a portion of what he or she has created, but it’s stepping over dollars to pick up nickels. One of my clients, Ralph Ward, Chairman of Scott Builders, explained to me that early on he decided that to help generate loyalty from his best team members, he’d offer employee ownership. The result - one of the most dedicated teams of employees in Alberta’s commercial construction sector. This is an industry that, aside from a few recessions, has had endemic shortages of construction professionals. Offering share ownership enabled Scott Builders to keep a skilled set of workers and managers, and establish a distinct competitive advantage in an industry where a talent shortage has been such a chronic problem. By sharing ownership, you’re not slicing the proverbial profit pie into more pieces – you’re making the company more profitable and building a bigger pie.

3. It's expensive to buy out employees when they leave

This is true, but it’s also expensive trying to recruit and train new employees who don’t have the depth of experience of your senior staff. One way to help postpone buyouts (often for decades) is offering shares in your company only for high performers who are willing to sign a non-competition agreement. In other words, to receive shares, they commit that if they do quit, they won’t start-up or hire on with a competing company for a minimum period (generally 3 years). That way, you’re giving star employees something enormously valuable. In turn, high performing employees are giving you their loyalty for the foreseeable future and three years beyond.

4. Offering shares is too complicated

Yes, it takes time (and legal fees) to set-up a share structure that includes employee ownership. However, that investment is more than offset by the rewards of making your company significantly more sellable. The harsh reality is if you are a privately owned company, unlike publically traded corporations, potential investors are not lining up to buy out your shares so that you can retire in comfort. For one thing, private company shares aren’t nearly as liquid as those of publically traded companies, so investors are more locked in. They therefore want to know that you as the senior manager will remain to run things so they can get a return on their investment.

On the other hand, when you set up employees as partial owners, you are also creating a succession plan. By the time you’re ready to retire, employees (particularly senior managers) will have hopefully built up equity in the company that can be collectively leveraged to buy out your shares. It makes for a smooth transition and creates an obvious potential buyer in house. The bonus is you retire knowing that your proverbial baby is in good hands.

Bottom line - look on any street and you can likely see which homes are occupied by renters versus home owners. Owners generally care more and it shows. That’s also true of businesses whose employees are partial owners. They care more, and customers can tell. Employee ownership makes working with your company more rewarding (literally) for all stakeholders.

Tear up your Relationship Scoresheet

The words Power of Sharing on a white billboard, banner or outdoor sign to encourage you to give, share, donate or volunteer to help provide relief or assistance others in need

One of life’s harsh realities is that some people will take advantage of your generosity. Perhaps you’ve put more into a friendship than you received. Or you’ve played host more often than you were hosted. At work, you may keep your commitments to customers and co-workers, while they seem to take it for granted. You may even keep a mental scoresheet; what you give vs what you get. The problem is people quickly sense when we are protecting our self-interests, and they become just as guarded. So my suggestion is to tear up the relationship scoresheet. Be generous with your time and talent without keeping track. Smile first. Others may not reciprocate directly. Your reputation however, will be enhanced and your disposition will be improved. I think the idea of manifesting wealth and abundance by merely visualizing it and putting a picture of it on your fridge is nonsense. Instead, give more of yourself and you will – often by virtue of your reputation – be handsomely rewarded.

Concerned customer? Say this.

dont-worryWhich is more important – acquiring customers or retaining customers? As a sales and service trainer for over 24 years, I’ve observed that the most profitable companies focus on keeping existing customers vs trying to find new ones. When you delight customers, they recommend you to others which organically leads to new business. That’s why, when customers express a concern, it’s important to equip your employees with tools to regain trust. Contrast two statements: Employee A: “Don’t worry, we’ll deal with it.” Employee B: “Rest assured, I’ll take care of it.” The first statement comes across as patronizing and bureaucratic. The customer is an adult and may not be worried, but they want you to be aware of an issue. The second statement is more positive, rest-assured. It conveys ownership using I, and implies humanity: take care of vs deal with. Could your employees be due for a tune-up on their customer retention skills?

We’re Number 18!

Ok, normally being Number 18 isn't something to brag about. In this case however, I'm thrilled and bragging. One of my articles was just name as one of the Top 99 Customer Service Posts for 2016 - on the entire planet! That doesn't sound like much until you note that a google search of Customer Service Articles will generate 83 million results. Now being #18 sounds pretty good.  Check it out at Absolute Best Customer Service Posts in 2016


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