Helping Your Customers

In July we’re taking a look at some things that have changed and/or become more important throughout the challenges, changes and transformation brought on by the virus and related issues. Last week we talked about how businesses can do a better job of working with customers, the first week we talked about communication, and this week we’re going to talk about being helpful.

I know, that may sound a little silly, but the reality is that not every business or business owner is truly in business to help others. Yes, as a business you should have an eye and ear to profit, but one of the best ways to guarantee that happening is when you are truly helping your customers. Why? Because if you’re helping them they’ll want to come back and get more help or share about you with others who need the same help. Of course, we’re not talking about just help in the sense of medical help or help fixing something, but about getting assistance answering questions they may have, resolving a problem, or meeting a need or desire. So being helpful may mean selling someone a 1000 piece puzzle, caring for (aka tiring out) their kids for an afternoon, providing a definition to a medical term, or selling someone a box of pasta and a jar of sauce.

You can absolutely have a business, even a successful one, and not make any real effort to care about being helpful. But, you probably won’t have lots of positive reviews, enthusiastic repeat customers, or anyone you could call a superfan or die-hard-enthusiast. These are the average or even the hated companies that people put up with primarily because they don’t have a choice or the penalty is too much to consider switching/moving/changing. Personally, I don’t think that’s the way to run a company, I believe businesses should train their people to be helpful, and always have the focus on their services and products helping customers and potential customers.

Being helpful doesn’t mean sacrificing our bottom line or our ethics, but it does mean being more helpful to your people, even if it means changing what you’re offering or how you’re offering it. There’s been a lot of pivoting we’ve seen over the past few months, and maybe what your people need most is for you to continue in that area. Maybe this means offering new products and services that are in line with the health crisis, maybe that means offering a smaller menu that will make it easier on your chefs and keep costs down, maybe that means letting your people work from home, maybe that means having more virtual or low/no-contact services and products that can be ordered online and picked up, or maybe that just means sending out a newsletter each week with some cheer and helpful insights.

This week I encourage you to consider how helpful you’re currently being to your customers and how you can continue to be just as helpful as they’ve always loved you to be, or become more helpful. I know that the rewards are there for companies and leaders who do take the time and make the effort to be helpful, because they have happier staffs and employees who stay with the company longer, fewer returns and refunds to deal with, customers who return and praise the company, and don’t have to spend as much on marketing and advertising because they’ve got great word of mouth and community advertising. How do you help your customers?

Working with Customers

In July we’re taking a look at some things that have changed and/or become more important throughout the challenges, changes and transformation brought on by the virus and related issues. Last week we talked about communication, and this week we’re going to talk about working with the customer.

I ordered a couple of things recently from a company that according to their website was in stock. A couple days later I got an email from them saying that one product wasn’t in stock so I wouldn’t be charged for it, and they were processing the rest of my order. They really didn’t have a great selection and I had to pay for shipping, so to not get part of the order, I was a little frustrated. But then I got the shipping confirmation email for the other product saying that it had shipped and I noticed that they weren’t charging me for the full shipping price, which made me feel better about my purchase and the company as well (BTW the product I did get is something I’m happy with). I thought that this company did a decent job turning a frustrating experience into a good one.

Of course there are many different ways you can work with a customer, from offering discounts, to offering free shipping, to delaying the fee, to offering spread out monthly payments, to offering multiple shipments when products are available or coming from different locations, to offering a series of auto-ship products at a lower price, to offering free returns, to offering free exchanges, to offering excellent warranties, to offering deals and discounts to long time customers, to offering fewer shipments to be greener. You can do any of the above, all of the above and some of the above: whatever works best for your company and customers, but the important thing is that you do your best to make happy customers, and sometimes that means you have to work with them.

In the purchase experience I shared about, they believed (rightly so) that I wouldn’t be happy paying the full shipping price when half of my order wasn’t going to show up, and they did a nice thing by only charging part of the shipping fee. I have no problem paying for shipping as long as it’s reasonable, but had I known that I wasn’t going to get both items I wouldn’t have made the purchase, and if they hadn’t discounted the shipping I would have been very cautious about buying from them again. So by doing something as simple as reducing the shipping fee, they’ve kept a customer for the future.

What are you doing in your business to work with your customers and keep them happy and coming back?

Bringing the Fun Back to Holiday Shopping

For many businesses they’re hitting some of their biggest shopping days this week and next, from Thanksgiving food shopping to Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday to Giving Tuesday. Is your business ready? I don’t think these shopping days ever become “old hat,” and many of us reach a point where we just throw in the towel and say that we’ve prepared as well as we can and just work our hardest through these days.

You may do a decoration switch if you did a big Thanksgiving spread and have to change it over before Black Friday and the unofficial start of the Christmas/Hanukkah season, but otherwise we are pretty much at the point that there’s nothing you can do except minor marketing or website updates; you probably can’t get in additional product before Monday, you probably can’t hire anyone else before Monday, and aren’t going to overhaul your store (online or retail) because you don’t want to risk screwing it all up.

So unless you’re planning a big decoration activity between now and Tuesday, there’s only one thing left to do, and that’s to encourage yourself and your employees to have fun. I was listening to Christmas songs the other day on YouTube while I was working and caught some of the video that was playing along with the song and the thought that popped into my head was that the artist looked like they were having fun! Yes, they were working hard to give an excellent performance, but they still were smiling at the band accompanying them and looked like they were having a good time.

It stuck with me that yes, much of this season has become about giving gifts to each other and buying stuff, but it’s also a ton of fun to sing songs, dress up with Santa hats and bells and reindeer antlers, decorate our houses inside and out, make special foods, and gather together. You can’t do anything about not having a product in stock anymore or about the long lines or how tired people are because of how early they got up, but you can keep your Christmas Cheer close at hand and welcome each guest with a smile and maybe even a bit of that joy, magic and giddiness that kids have on Christmas morning.

Go beyond being patient, courteous, helpful, and efficient this holiday season in your business and add some sincere celebration too. How do you spread Holiday Cheer in your business?

Subscription Service Smarts

Last week I shared about some confusing communications I’d received recently, this week I wanted to follow up with a discussion on something that many businesses, especially non-profits, rely on: recurring orders/donations. These are a fantastic way of having a consistent source of funds coming into your business that you can rely on as long as you’re offering what they’re buying or they need what you’re offering. These recurring orders can be simply items that people need on a consistent basis (i.e. paper towels and pasta), or a recurring package each month/week of items to try (i.e. beauty or dog items), or a regular subscription like meal kits or clothing outfits. It can also be a consistent monthly donation that goes into a particular fund or supports a particular individual.

If you want to improve the sign-ups and keep people signed up there are several things you can do, some that apply to some types of subscriptions and some that apply to others. One is to keep a good balance of new and top favorites as part of the subscription. Another is to make sure you’ve sufficiently tested the new items you’re sending out. Another is to send updates by email and/or mail so people know what’s going on with their donations or they could add to their order.

One of the biggest keys to keeping subscription customers is the ease of updating their information and their order(s), including what they’re ordering and any delivery information as well as their payment methods/options. The more challenging it is and the harder you make for them to find where and how to update the information, the more likely they’ll just cancel it all. Even worse, if they really struggle with changes, they may leave a nasty review about it online or suggest to friends/family who ask not to order from that company. Out of the 8 organizations that I had to update my credit card information with 3 were easy (at least one of which took quite a bit of navigating and effort to change the information), 4 required a phone call (something that shouldn’t be necessary if you can donate online), and for one the site refused to update the donation so I canceled the subscription and just made a one time donation (and will try again next month). Clearly there’s a lot of progress yet to be made with these organizations, and that’s just a small slice of all the organizations that you can do a subscription/donation with.

What about you? If you offer a subscription program do you make it easy for your subscribers to update their information and stay up to date about what’s going on and their options?

Doing Discounts Right

Last week I talked about the topic of discounts, about how we approach it as business owners and reasons for and against offering them. One of the places you frequently think about discounts is the grocery store. Grocery stores are well known for putting out circulars each week letting people know what items are going to be on sale and also what new items they may be carrying now. They’re not only an educational tool, they’re also a great marketing tool. Stores gain and lose customers based on many factors including overall prices, types items for sale, quality of products and physical proximity to someone’s location. The ads are a great way of letting people know many of those factors and even just reminding them that they exist.

However, if you’ve ever “shopped the circular” before you know that it’s not guaranteed that the products in the circular will be available when you get to the store, or that the specific store will have that product at all (even if they’re supposed to). Most people will say that of the circular items they were interested in buying, at least a handful weren’t available (out of stock or not available period) and another few didn’t look as promising in the store as they did in the circular. From the business side of things this is understandable because most sales/discounts are limited in stock. You’ve got x number in stock and that’s what’s available and all you’re going to offer, and when they sell out you’re done with that item/discount. However, this can be very frustrating for customers, even if it’s understandable from a practical and business perspective.

This past week however I had the exact opposite experience. A store was having a big 30 year anniversary sale, and when I pulled into the parking lot it looked like the week of Thanksgiving (I parked further that day then I did for Thanksgiving time shopping in 2017). So imagine my surprise when they had all the items I wanted from not only the special anniversary sale, but also the rest of the circular! And even though it was the evening and late in the circular week, they were more fully stocked than I sometimes see them, and everything was fresh. It’s a great opportunity for businesses who want to do discounts or do them to learn from.

The first lesson is that a happy customer is a good customer. Good customers buy more, buy multiple times and refer you to others. Second, fresh food is always good food. It’s not easy to have the quantities necessary for large sales, but if you can impress someone with the freshness of an item during a sale there’s a good chance they’ll buy that item again when it’s not on sale. Third, stock your products wisely. A physical store has limitations that an online store doesn’t, so there has to be a balance kept between variety of products and amount of stock. Finding that balance and keeping it keeps your customers happy and coming back.  Finally, sales and discounts can be a great way to bring in new customers, but if they don’t have a good experience with you (the products you say are on sale aren’t available etc.), they won’t shop with you in the future.

What lessons have you learned lately from your shopping experiences that could apply to your business?

Discount Dilemma

One of the questions that just about every business owner is asked is “do you offer discounts?” It’s a question that makes us groan sometimes because we work hard to serve our customers and create our products, and the fact is that we have to make money! Yes, most of us have a buffer or cushion between what it actually costs to create a product and what we charge, and there are people who offer similar services for less than we do. Yes, some of us do compete based on price, that’s one of the reasons people buy what we offer instead of a similar product/service. And yes, most of us do create special offers at some point in time, or offer regular discounts for certain people, like veterans for example. Not to mention that there’s a whole “bargaining” industry where asking for a different price than what’s listed is not only acceptable but expected.

That said, I don’t necessarily have anything against offering discounts. I believe it can be a way to recognize your faithful customers and offer them discounts for continued purchases. There’s certainly an opportunity in offering “introductory offers” at lower-than-normal prices, or coupons if you’re in need of an influx in customers. There’s also an opportunity to connect with people through clearance or close-out offers.  But there’s a reason that things are priced as they are, and it’s what people have determined is reasonable based on what results are possible or what’s being offered.

So how do we deal with the discount question? Personally I address it on my website. I make it clear that if there’s a discount to be had it will be announced on social media and/or in my newsletters and that it’s not something I do often. I also clearly state that I offer regular special pricing for pastors for one of my offerings and for veterans on all of my services (and how to prove you qualify). I also offer levels of service so that I can help people whether they can afford $20 or $2000, and some payment plans.

So what if someone doesn’t clearly state they do/don’t offer discounts but you really, truly can’t afford their prices, and you really want to work with or buy from them? As with so many other things in the industry these days, the best thing you can do is contact them and be specific about why you want and deserve a discount or special pricing. Saying things like “I’ve got tons of people I can refer you to” or “I’ll absolutely buy again in the future” aren’t valid reasons in my book. You have to give a good enough reason why you should be given a discount when [almost] everyone else pays full price, preferably a reason that can be backed up or easily verified. If they can’t offer a discount, maybe they’re willing to work out a payment plan, offer reduced hours/access, have something similar they can offer at the price you can afford, or can recommend someone/something that does fit your price range.

What are your thoughts on discounts and how do you handle it when (potential) customers ask you for them?

The Question of Customer Loyalty

As we head into what is the busiest shopping season of the year for many businesses, I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about customers and customer loyalty. As a business you have to have customers, otherwise you won’t be in business very long. The next thing to consider is whether most of your customers are repeat customers, or if you offer things that people buy once or extremely rarely. If you offer something, say heart surgery or roofing, you probably will ever work with someone once. But if you offer something like ice cream or hair cuts, and you’re not having repeat customers, something probably has to change. Here’s what one very successful entrepreneur had to say:

“Customers aren’t loyal. And it’s a waste of time trying to convince them to be….Life changes. Priorities change. Competition changes. In reality, almost no one is 100% loyal….Fact: 87% of a brand’s customers don’t stick to just that brand. They’re promiscuous at best. And if they’re offered something better, they’re gone.” Ramit Sethi

Those are some pretty serious percentages. So the question becomes: do we even try to gain customer loyalty? The first answer that comes to mind is that if you don’t give any effort to making your customers come back, few probably will. The second thing to consider is that it’s consistently proven to be cheaper in all ways to keep customers coming back than to gain new customers. The third thing to consider is that even if you have a service or product that’s purchased maybe once in a lifetime you can still gain loyal customers, it’s just not the same type of loyalty. Fourth, if you ask employees who really love your company about their favorite customers, they’ll often tell you that they enjoy connecting with the “regulars.” Fifth, loyal customers are those who share about your great products or services with their friends, and/or leave you nice testimonials you can use to get more customers.

One thing to remember is that everyone is human and everyone goes through changes in their life. So it’s really unrealistic to expect that every customer would stay with your business and your products and/or services for the full duration of their life (or their need for that product/service). But my answer is that we should work on making customers loyal, or at the very least, increasing the amount of times they purchase from us. Whether you use email newsletters, social media, events, physical mailings, a blog, a loyalty card or even just new products or services that are in line with those you already offer, there are tons of ways that you can build loyalty and encourage repeat customers. What are your favorite ways to connect with your customers and build relationships with those who are loyal to you and love you?

Just Another Sale?

If you’re really in business it’s important to make sales. There’s no two ways to put that. If you’re not making sales you’re either doing some kind of renovation, closed for some temporary reason or going out of business. If you’re offering a product or service and not selling it or making a profit from it, what you’ve got is considered a hobby, not a business. So without a doubt you need to have sales to be in business. However, what I want to talk about today is the idea that not everything needs to be a sales pitch.

If you’re like me you get a dozen or two emails every day from various retail companies who are letting you know about sales they’re doing, reminding you to repurchase products you may be running out of, trying to up-sell you based on previous purchases or letting you know about the latest and greatest products they’re now offering. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact sometimes it can be very helpful and even exciting to get those emails and see what’s new or at a great price you’ll want to take advantage of. Sometimes it’s good to send an email that lets your subscribers know that everything in a category is on sale and not really include specifics, but more often than not people want to be inspired and see some of the specifics that they could get as part of this sale.

But if you take the time to think about it, in most cases the sale or purchase is a very small portion of the customer experience with that product or service. For example, let’s say I spend 20 minutes researching movies that are out and texting with friends to decide what to see and another 5 buying my ticket. So the purchase portion of my experience with the movie is a total of 25 minutes. But then I go see the 2+ hour movie, I talk about it with my friends for an hour after, I go home and think about it throughout the next few days, and because I enjoyed it so much I’ll watch it whenever it’s on TV and maybe even invest another 5 minutes to buy it when it comes out on DVD. The point here is that I’ve spent a total of 30 minutes in the sales/purchase aspect of this movie, and invested well over 60 hours on my experience with this one movie, which means there’s so much more to your business than just getting the sale.

You want to create products that your customers will use, remember, enjoy, talk about and share for years to come. You want them to be open to products in the same line and even the next generations of the specific product they bought initially. You want your customers to feel comfortable with your brand, with your employees, and with your products/services. All of this means that you have to remember that there’s so much more to what you’re selling than just the sale. In many ways the sale should be just the beginning.

Which is why it’s important to take time to celebrate your customer’s birthdays, to share tips for using your products, to raise awareness for needs in the world like Hurricane Harvey/Irma, to celebrate the fact that spring is here and winter is over, and ultimately to remember that your customers are so much more than a cash machine. They have lives, families, dreams, interests, passions, purpose and even fears and issues that all can play into the purchases they make and don’t make. Don’t be so focused on the sales pitch that you forget that your customers are so much more than another sale.

In the Business of Helping

This month one of the topics we’ll be talking about is the topic of help. I believe that each and every business should exist to help their customers with something. Maybe that help is something that seems important like fixing a broken leg or maybe that help is something that seems trivial when compared with a broken leg like jewelry to give your young daughter for her birthday. Both of those are helpful, they’re just helpful in different ways and at different times.

I think that keeping the focus of your business on what you do to help people is one of the ways you can ensure your success. If you and your employees are aware of and focused on being as helpful to customers and potential customers as you can be not only will you have happier customers, you’ll also have happier employees and often you’ll have more opportunities for growth and contribution in your community and the world.

With a focus on helping your people you’ll work on designing systems, creating guidelines, marketing products/services, providing customer service, hiring, and even creating products/services that do more than just add to your bottom line. Yes, the bottom line is important, but if you’re keeping employees longer, keeping suppliers longer, and have happier customers, the bottom line will take care of itself.

There are unfortunately tons of ways that businesses are unhelpful, sometimes intentionally but all too often because the businesses and their employees are rushed, overworked, uninformed, overwhelmed, lazy or unhappy. Some things are more simple fixes like website updates and doing different marketing, but others are more challenging like product or employee changes.

But if you look at the well-known successful businesses, more often than not one of the keys to their success is how valuable (helpful) people find them. These businesses have legendary customer service, they have fantastic return policies, they offer products that improve people’s lives, they have happy employees, and they are well-known in their community. No, they’re not perfect businesses, and even if you implement a “help” policy at your business you’ll still have some mistakes and unhappy customers, that’s part of doing business. But, it could bring about the boost, passion and direction that you’ve been missing. How do you help your people?

Empowering Through Sales

It’s September so of course I’m thinking about lots of education topics and about the next generation.  Last week we talked about something that kids are known for: asking questions, but we talked about it with regards to building a better business.  Something that we may talk about in other contexts later this month or next month is the topic of bullying because it’s a serious topic that affects people of all ages, not just kids, but it’s most discussed with regards to kids.  What I want to talk about today is something that relates to bullying, is actually in some ways the opposite: empowerment.

The way I see it businesses are in the business of empowering their customers in one way or another.  Whether they offer a product or service they empower their customers through the solutions they offer to problems in their lives (darkness, coldness/heat, hunger, transportation, infertility, crazy kids, divorce, loneliness, sickness etc.).  The dictionary defines empower as “to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means, to enable or permit.”  By putting whatever you sell in their lives you’re giving them the power to overcome the challenges in their lives, to make living life a little easier or better, and you’re giving them the opportunity to make the right choices for their life.

So the question we ask often is how can we make our customers and employees happier?  Logic, systems, leadership, training, testing, communication, marketing, good people and customer service are all ways that we as business owners can give our customers and employees can make their experience with us better, longer, and more satisfying.  Make sure that what you offer and what you tell people make sense.  Make sure that you’ve got good systems, leadership, training, hiring practices and communication in place to support and guide your employees. Make sure that people can find you, know what you offer and are able to understand what you offer and how to use/apply it.  And make sure that the experience they have with you and what you offer makes them want to come back for more, even if their initial purchase with you isn’t the greatest.

By choosing to go the extra mile with preparing your products and services for customers, giving your employees the tools they need to be successful and support your customers and giving your customers an experience that reinforces the great product or service you’ve sold them, not only are you more likely to be more successful as a business, you’re empowering your clients and customers to solve their problems and enjoy their lives.

How do you empower your customers and/or employees?