Communicating and Staying Connected

So much of business in both the for and non-profit worlds has changed over the past few months. It’s done some really good things for business/organization owners and it’s also added lots of challenges and forced them into things they hadn’t done before. We’re not done changing yet and we certainly haven’t seen the end of the virus yet, but to start the month off for the next couple of weeks I thought I’d share a few things that I’ve seen some companies/organizations doing that I’ve really appreciated, and some suggestions for how we continue going forward.

Today we’re starting with one of my favorite topics, and that’s communication and staying connected.  In the past I think many companies, especially the local/event businesses, took advantage of the fact that they didn’t really have to do a ton of work to stay connected with their customers, the customers just show up because the business is near where they live. Maybe they would encourage visits with frequent flyer discount cards or branded merchandise, and maybe they’d have a social presence that they updated occasionally, or send out a newsletter for Black Friday or the annual fundraising time.  But the past few months of customers not being able to do regular activities has been a big strain on many businesses and they’ve been forced into really working to establish the online presence and offerings that don’t require people to be as physically present as before.

Having a regular presence on social media is important and one great way to not only develop a relationship but also share information with customers and potential customers, but so is having your own website and email newsletter. People are frequently on social media, but you don’t have nearly as much control over social media as you do over your own website and email (and optionally print) newsletter. None of this has to be complicated (or overly expensive), but it does have to be consistent and very regular.

Over the past few months I’ve gotten more information and updates from politicians than I ever have, I’ve heard from more frequently authors and other non-profit organizations with all kinds up updates and support and encouragement, and even some businesses have adjusted their marketing strategies to include less promotion and more personal updates and more community support.  All of this connection effort shows your customers and supporters that you’re doing your best to be there for them and build a supportive and positive relationship with them.

Going forward what does all of this mean? It means that businesses really shouldn’t depend on customers just showing up, which means that they have to be more proactive about reaching out and supporting customers in a variety of ways, especially with updated information and ideas/support.  If you don’t yet have a regular social strategy, a regular e-newsletter (and optionally print as well), and an updated-as-necessary website, it’s past time to get on that.  How are you connecting with your customers and supporters? 

Time to be a Leader

I don’t know when we’ll get back to “business as normal,” when shopping, going to work, hanging out, traveling and more will be done without more than the usual smart safety precautions (don’t have money hanging out of your pocket, make sure to wear clothes, don’t forget kids and pets in the car, and have snacks in case of emergency), but there’s a big part of me as an active part of society that feels that we have to keep sharing our stories, keep supporting each other, keep the money flowing and keep making progress in our world. As much as great ideas can be created while sitting on the couch, and maybe a website or app or two, we’re not meant to live on couches for our whole lives.

Over the past few months as I’ve said before, we’ve seen some stellar examples of leadership, and we’ve also seen the true colors of some “leaders.” So I’ve postponed the blog post I was going to share today and instead I’m feeling led to share on the topic of leadership and 3 indications of what makes a good leader.

First, a leader is someone who listens. This is something that’s being done a lot right now, that more people than ever are truly listening to the brothers and sisters of all backgrounds that they share the world with. I wish people took time to truly listen to each other more often, because it would avoid a lot of confusion and would help all of us come up with solutions that are actually helpful instead of just what we think other people want. Of course, it has to be true listening, where you are trying to understand and not where you’re smiling and nodding just to pacify someone.

Second, a leader is someone who learns. We can learn from books, from TV shows, from the little children in our lives and that we see while out and about, from animals, from our significant others, from the people we work with and sell to, and from many other sources. Of course, it’s always better to learn true things, for example learning about how the earth is flat isn’t going to be too helpful unless you’re studying it to learn about the people who thought that, but we don’t always know what’s true or not until we’ve done more research. But as the saying goes, a day in which you learned something is a good day. I subscribe to lots of newsletters, read books regularly, listen to what others have to say, and make time to watch more educational programming on TV to try to learn something every day.

Third, a leader is someone who leads. Sometimes this means empowering your team to do work for you (and not micro-managing them while they’re trying to get stuff done), other times this means letting people go or stopping things from continuing, some times this means getting down and dirty with your people and physically getting in front and guiding the way, sometimes it means making extra efforts to communicate and/or encourage, and other times it means taking a stand against injustice or hurt/hate. Leading isn’t always about being in the front, doing all the work or being the loudest voice, but it does mean you step up and forward in whatever ways are necessary.

As we move into whatever the next stage of our lives and world may be, I encourage you to be a true leader in your business, your community and our world. Which leaders do you admire and learn from?

Dare to be a Leader

This month I read Brené Brown’s Dare To Lead. From the title itself we get a sense of where Brené will take us in this book, and that’s with a challenge and encouragement to up-level or do better than the average. Some people do great damage to the concept of leadership, they’re not truly the leaders we need them to be or they could be. Leaders should be those who are courageous and committed to caring for their people on every level, not just looking out for profit. Brené described leaders as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” It’s a book that I think anyone in a leadership position can benefit from reading, and I’ll look for more of her books to read in the future.

Something this book talked about a lot were emotions, and tied in with that what the next generation of business and leadership might look like, which would be a world where courage, connection, responsibility, meaning, commitment, vulnerability and communication help us have better work experiences, help customers have better experiences with our companies, and help our companies make a bigger, positive impact on the world. I frequently talk about how it all comes back to people: you may not think about the fact that there are very real humans making all the purchases from your company, but credit cards don’t act on their own. It’s one reason why you always have to stop and think about the experience you’re creating on all levels and in all ways, because people with all their problems, opinions, preferences experiences, and distractions are going to be the ones buying from you and working with you.

One of the biggest challenges that comes with incorporating feelings and being more human into leadership and the world of work is navigating the fears, feelings and feedback of others and the difficult conversations that people aren’t necessarily having but should be having if they really want to be leaders and businesses of the next level. Brené went through in great detail throughout the book how to navigate these difficult conversations, which depends on the situation, but always includes people being open and honest. Sometimes those difficult conversations just need a safe space and regular opportunity to happen. Sometimes those conversations need to be broken into sessions so that everyone has sufficient processing time so that nothing is said in haste. Sometimes those conversations aren’t real conversations, but about the leader asking “what does support from me look like?” Sometimes those conversations are being very honest and specific about what’s not working or what the issue is, leading into changing positions or jobs or responsibilities (or even letting someone go). Hard conversations are always hard and we’ll always have knee-jerk reactions during them, but they’re much more successful when we approach them knowing that we’re all feeling things and all committed to working it out without blame or shaming.

Finally, Brené talks about the importance of leaders being curious. I’ve always ascribed to the policy of being a life-long learner. I admit and accept that I will never know everything, and there’s always something more I can learn, even if it’s just someone else’s perspective on something. Curiosity supports us in our conversations and as leaders because it gives us the ability to ask questions and check in with people on how they see things progressing or what they see as a “finished product” or what they’re looking for, or what they’re expecting. It’s a lot easier to be a leader and be successful as people when we’re willing to listen and learn and be part of a team that works honestly together.

How would your leadership and life improve if you dared to be a better, more human, more courageous, more considerate leader?

Reflections on Reviews

This weekend I was using one of my Christmas presents and happened upon a piece of paper that came with it. The paper was a brief message from the seller of the product to the consumer/customer thanking them for purchasing the product, sharing about warranty information, and how to get help for issues. The paper also talked about something that all of us sellers deal with from time to time and that’s negative comments/feedback/reviews, and I thought the way they phrased it was interesting enough to talk about today. The relevant section reads: “If the product has any problems, please feel free to contact us. A negative comment won’t solve problems but communication will. A positive comment would be a great encouragement to us.”

First of all, I’m of the side of the business community that supports asking customers for reviews and feedback. I know some businesses feel like it’s pushy to ask customers to leave a review, but I don’t think it hurts to ask (especially if you do it nicely) and understand that the customer has the right to totally ignore your request or may not write one until they’ve used the product/service for some time.  It’s not a great practice to push for reviews repeatedly if a customer hasn’t published one, but if you’ve got an unobtrusive invitation as part of the footer of your newsletters or on your website, that’s OK.  

But back to the message from the seller, in some ways I do agree that a negative comment (review) won’t solve anything and that reaching out to a company gives both of you the opportunity to come to a better conclusion.   It may feel good to vent for a moment about a less-than-great sale, but it doesn’t help resolve the issue.  If you’ve tried to get help from the company and they’ve either been unresponsive or less than helpful, it’s certainly something you can include in the review you post, because the company clearly doesn’t care or has policies that other potential customers should know about.

That said, I think there is a place for mixed reviews, reviews that state both the challenges that the buyer experienced as well as the great things about the product/service and company, for instance how the company helped resolve what started as something not good/great. Mixed reviews are honest, and speak to the fact that the company has humans working there who work to make things right when they aren’t. They also help other potential customers know about limitations or preferences that they have experienced, which may affect the purchase decision that potential customer makes.

Stopping a potential customer from making a purchase isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually a really good thing if the product or service isn’t going to be right for them, therefore cutting down on returns and possible negative reviews in the future. Reviews also often provide those details that potential customers may have questions about that the company didn’t include in the product/service description, or are things that can’t be described like what it’s like to work with that person.  Yes, companies should give a customer all the information they need to know before purchasing an item or service, but if we’re honest, it happens less often than we’d like to admit.

We’ve been working in a virtual world for some time now, and it looks like even more people and companies are going to be diving in based on the challenges the virus has presented.  This makes it more important than ever to make sure that your company is presenting their best side to the world through the internet.  Reviews share the good, bad and ugly with the rest of the world, and they’re also one of the most important ways to convince someone to buy your product or service if they’re on the fence.  What are you learning from reviews customers have posted?

Responding to Crisis in Business

If you’ve been following the news lately, you know that over the past 3-4 months a health crisis has been developing around the world. It’s a concern on many levels, and for business owners that operate hovering closer to the red line than they would really like to, it’s especially stressful. With all of this in mind, today I thought we’d talk a bit about both good business practices and about reacting to a crisis or issue.

One of the things that this has taught all of us is not that it’s wrong to be social or be together, but that we’ve really been lazy about some of our health practices. For a local business, yes, the appearance that you present to your customers is important: no, they don’t want to see dried food or dust bunnies everywhere. But it’s also important to do your best to encourage other types of health practices like encouraging sick workers to stay home, wash hands more frequently, and cleaning/disinfecting surfaces and not just wiping them down with a rag that may not really be that clean. It’s not just about not being the business that got everyone sick, it’s about truly caring for your customers and team members. For team members, if they know that you want them to bring their best self to work, that you care about their well being, and that not only will their job will be there for them when they get well but that you offer considerate paid sick leave, they’re more likely to take care of themselves and others.

One of the biggest questions when it comes to a crisis, failure or major issue of any kind, not just the health type, is about communication. On Monday I got the first communication from a company regarding the health crisis. The company? My credit card company, with a very thoughtful and open email about their awareness and willingness to work with customers through this time. I have to say I was impressed. I was also impressed by the communication and response from my health plan, and a couple of the other emails I’ve gotten have been surprisingly personal, supportive and caring. That said, the not great communications far outweigh the good. Quite frankly some of them are at least a week overdue (grocery and big box stores with decisions to limit products etc.), others are unnecessary word-for-word repetition of what’s been shared through official channels, and one was laughably bad and it kind of felt like they said “we’re aware of the issue, wash your hands and good luck.” Not a response that inspires any type of confidence.

What made the difference in the communication between those that were helpful and made me think more positively about a company and those that were pointless? The things to focus on are repetition, details, emotion and time. Let’s start with time. While you never want to be the one to start a panic or anger customers, if something is known throughout your company (or the news) or you’ve got multiple issue reports about the same thing on a daily basis for three or more days, it’s time to make plans and make a statement. With something as serious as this virus, I would have expected a statement and action from some companies at the very latest at the end of February, not almost two weeks into March. The more serious an issue or the bigger the potential impact, the sooner you as a company have to make plans, prepare for demand (including both sides of increasing supply and limits on purchases), and/or prepare for increased customer service demands. You don’t necessarily have to send out/post a statement initially, but being proactive is essential for weathering the storm the best you can.

When it comes to the statement you choose to make, that’s where the repetition, details and emotion come in. Do your best to limit repetition, there’s no need to regurgitate what your customers already know at length. Instead, take the time to craft a thoughtful response letting people know how you’re going to work with them through the situation and action steps you’re taking or have already taken. Empathize with your customers in your communication, letting them know that you’re human too, but at the same time you are a leader and are filling the necessary leadership role on taking action. You may not be able to provide concrete details on when things will be resolved, but if people are hearing and hopefully seeing a change to go along with your statement, hopefully you’ll be able to minimize the damage that’s done to customer’s trust in you.

No business ever wants to face a crisis, but the reality is that things do fail or nature happens and we’re left holding the bag. It’s one reason why it’s so important to consistently build relationships with your customers (something I offer support on in my Customer Connection package), support your team well, have appropriately diversified offerings, and be responsive when problems do pop up. What are your tips for crisis response as a business?

Knowing You’re Loved

My partner is home recovering from what I hope to be his final knee surgery, so as I was in the kitchen cutting up strawberries I thought about the fact that I didn’t really know how he ate strawberries. Obviously, it’s not a big deal and so I just cut them as I thought he might like them, but it got me thinking about February and Valentine’s Day and the topic of love, and how we know if we’re loved.

Even back when we were kids we would pass notes around that said things like ‘do you like me circle one: yes/no.’ As simple as they are and as silly as they were, those notes were a great declaration of love or interest when the person replied in the affirmative, and great examples and opportunities of communication. This month you will hopefully hear and read some really great love stories, from those in articles and on news stories to books and even billboards. Every love story is different, and not all of them have a happy ending, but we can learn something important from each of them, just like we learn from these simple notes as a kid how important it is to communicate our love to each other.

Most of us aren’t professional writers, we don’t write romance books for a living, and every relationship has ups and downs (hopefully more ups than downs, of course). But do the people you love know that you love them? Yes, you can show them that you love them through a thousand different actions, but the words are so important as well. Beyond ‘I love you,’ it’s important to say things like ‘you matter to me,’ ‘I thought about you today,’ ‘I appreciate you,’ and ‘I’m glad you’re here.’

Do the people in your life like your significant other and your kids/family, know that you love them? Do you tell them and show them from the big gestures and words to small ways and simple moments? Make it your goal this month to let the people in your life know that you love them.

Cohesive Marketing Communication

This week I had someone approach me asking about their Facebook account and why they weren’t getting subscriptions from their ads or their page. I asked them to send me their links and I took a look and didn’t even have to get as far as seeing the ads to see some issues that could definitely be the reasons why they weren’t getting subscriptions. When they followed up on my feedback, they asked if they should just scrap their FB page and start over. My answer was that the issue really wasn’t with their FB, although there were things they could improve there, but with the offer they were presenting on their website and a lack of cohesive communication on their offer, and if anything needed to be scraped, it was the website.

I share this with you today because it’s not an isolated incident. I talk with companies on a too-regular basis that do absolutely have issues with their social accounts, but they have far larger issues with the offer they’re presenting and/or their website. You can send all the traffic you want to an offer on social media and then through to your website, but if the ad isn’t clear, if the ad doesn’t match what’s on the website, if what’s on the website isn’t clear and understandable, very little if anything is going to convert.

If I could encourage you to do anything with this new year it would be to review everything about your company online that you can get your hands on and make sure it all is current and lines up clearly. If you do this yearly, unless something big has happened, you’re probably going to just have a few small changes to make and it won’t take long. If you want an outside opinion, shoot me a message with your links. If you know after taking a look at everything that you’re due for an overhaul, I’d love to work with you on going through it all and making sure that you’re set up for your best year ever, and able to support more people in this new decade.

Balancing People and Technology

This holiday season has been an interesting one for shopping. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I’ve been quite surprised by some of the exceptionally pleasant, cheerful and helpful people I’ve connected with in stores. It’s been a shift from many other holiday seasons that were filled with grumpy employees and team members who clearly weren’t happy to be where they were or dealing in the holiday spirit. In the past couple of days I’ve connected with a few more helpful and cheerful team members who helped alleviate some issues and move things forward in different areas for me. I don’t think we should ever remove humans completely from business, I think they play an essential role that can’t be fully replaced by technology. Having people in business also is a good reminder for us that at the other end of every transaction is a human as well.

As a business consultant and coach I always advise my clients to provide as much online information as possible. There’s no way we’re going to go back to the way things were two decades ago and not be dependent on the internet and online world (unless a serious event happens that makes it impossible for us to of course). So if you want to succeed in business, provide your customers a great experience and resolve as many issues or questions as easily as possible, it’s essential to have detailed, up-to-date information easily find-able online. I’m amazed most days when I go online and do different things how easy it is to do or find out without talking with anyone, spending tons of money, or going way out of my way. You’re able to back up a show you’re watching by a few minutes if you missed something. You’re able to do returns and get customer service with just a few clicks at any time, day or night. We’re able to work just about anywhere at any time. All of this makes our lives easier, more productive, and gives us the freedom to do the things that only we can do, when we need to do them. I’m thankful for all that the internet allows us to do as customers and business owners.

However, I’ve also had some serious challenges over the past week that have shined a negative light on some brands too, both when it comes to people and technology/online information. In a couple of cases, there was a shocking lack of information or heads up that would have alleviated many hours of frustration and circling to try to resolve things. It costs a negligible amount to customize an email with the relevant information, to deliver an email on the day it should be delivered, to provide helpful how-to’s on the website that aren’t going to change regardless of a device or location or person, or to provide a number or email or support line that could connect you directly with a business location. These are things that could have helped along some or all of these things and would have avoided frustration for a number of people including myself and the employees I eventually spoke and worked with.

Many companies have come a long way with finding the right balance between real people employees and technology, but we still have a ways to go to make it all work as it could, and there’s no question that you have to have both excellent online and person-based customer service. What has your holiday season so far revealed about your customer service capabilities and issues? There’s no shame in admitting that you’ve got issues or that things are a work in progress, it becomes a problem when you don’t address the issues, or don’t accept that there are any issues in the first place. There’s still quite a bit of shopping and working to be done before the end of the year, so address the biggest issues now and make a list of what needs to be addressed and can wait until January. Don’t let poor online or in-person customer support be the reason you don’t succeed as a business.

Customers Have Questions

Every customer has a question they’re hoping you can help them answer. Sometimes that one question leads to more questions, but all questions start with asking whether or not you’ve got what they’re looking for or if you’re able to help them. One of your goals should be to clearly and succinctly communicate what you offer, both in general and for each specific product/service, because if in the first few seconds of their visit on your site or in conversing with you they don’t think you can help them (or they can’t figure out what you offer), they’re more likely to move on and try someone else.

So the question to you is “what do you offer”? That may be the whole question, but it also may be more specific as “What do you offer in this product?” or “What do you offer in this service?”. The answer to that any of those three questions should be a phrase or a complete sentence, and again, it should be easy to understand in the few seconds potential customers may give you.

Once you’ve established the big picture of your offering, then you have to consider what more specific questions people would have about that product or service. Some of those questions would typically be answered on the individual product/service pages, for example what does something look like, what sizes are available or what’s the cost or what colors are available or what are the measurements of the item or what are the time limits/commitments on the service or what makes this one different from similar ones like it. In too many situations these individual pages are insufficient and leave people with questions.

Beyond that are some questions that companies often answer on FAQ pages. If you have a lot of general questions it’s best to sort and group them by category with section titles.  Additionally, if you are only posting questions about one aspect of what you offer that for some reason you don’t want to post on the actual product/service page, you need to clearly communicate the purpose of your FAQ page at the top of the page so that you don’t confuse people.

Finally, as a last resort you should make it easy for people to ask their questions by providing them at least two means of contact such as an email address and web form, or phone number and social account or any combination of some/all and more. As I said you should answer as many questions and provide as much information as possible for them before they have to contact you, but some people have situation-specific questions that wouldn’t be answered by anything you would likely put on the site, but they’ve seen enough that they think what you’re offering might answer the question of if you’ve got what they’re looking for.

So does your business answer your customer’s questions, or do you just create more questions?

Finding the Words to Say

Today I’ve been dealing with a bit of writer’s block. I’m not talking about the writer’s block where I can’t think about what to write, but rather about the challenge of communicating that topic in a way that doesn’t sound like I typed a bunch of words and called it done, but makes sense and someone could apply to their life or benefit from. You may not experience this when writing, it may be something that you struggle with when you’re dealing with your significant other and trying to navigate a challenging topic or when your boss comes in to talk about a serious topic or issue.

One of the reasons I love writing is because I can use that little delete or backspace key to make changes without anyone knowing what I said. We don’t have that luxury when we’re talking with someone, once it comes out of our mouth we can’t take it back, we can only try to explain what we meant to say (or apologize for what we did say). There’s absolutely a place for honesty and just saying what’s on your heart, but often we need to use a little more thoughtfulness in our communications.

Part of the answer is practice, because the more you do something the better you get at it. Another part of the answer is listening and asking for clarification, because the more you can get from the other person or persons involved, the better contribution you can make when it’s your turn to speak. But I think there’s also value in time and hearing things out and then taking time before you provide an answer or share your feelings or share your suggestions. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not respond in the moment but rather come back around a little while later when tempers cool or you’ve had time to get over your reaction to whatever was said (or sent virtually). Sometimes you need that break to let your thoughts percolate a little before constructing a response.

In this often instant world it can be challenging for us to admit that we need time to think, especially when it doesn’t seem like we have time. But there is definitely a trend towards quality over quantity in many areas of life, so maybe you’ll actually gain some respect, not to mention do better work, if you take a little time and ask a few more questions before opening your mouth or typing away.