Systems and caring

Do you have a system in place that helps you let your customers (donors) let you know that you care?

What I see more often is that people either:

  1. Care about customers (donors) but don’t have a system
  2. Have a system but don’t really care (or don’t succeed in sending messages that communicate care)

That is, you want your customers to experience how much you care, and need to do this in a way that prioritizes the most important customers and doesn’t suck the life out of your communication or your relationship.

Usually what happens is either that people care tremendously but feel that a systematic approach will somehow undermine the purity of that relationship, or they figure that efficiency is really important so do things like send the exact same message to 20 people, which all 20 people see through immediately.

The tough part thing is that really caring doesn’t actually scale all that well, so your list has to remain shorter than you might like so that the roots can grow deeper.

The right time

There is a right time to have that direct, elephant-in-the-room conversation with a respected colleague.  The one where you say out loud what both you and she have been thinking.

That time is now.  Right now.  Today.

Conversations swirl around in every which way, between everyone but the two people who need to sit down and talk.  As if that truth is somehow not really out there if we don’t look it in the eye.  As if we can get anything – anything – of substance done if we don’t get this out of the way first.

I promise, it will be a huge relief to everyone to talk about this – that thing that matters most, that thing that’s keeping you from getting from here to there.

These conversations need to be rife with respect and dripping with caring.  You can’t fake wanting the other person to succeed.

And you can’t wait another day.

We are living in a Thank You Economy

I just finished Gary Vaynerchuk’s book, The Thank You Economy, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who’s trying to make sense of what’s going on online right now, anyhow who has questions like: do Twitter and Facebook really mean anything?  Should I invest in these tools to build my business?  Can I really use these tools to stand out and to build strong relationships?

Gary’s vehement answers to these questions are: YES, YES, and YES!!!!

His forceful, compelling argument is that the game has changed forever.  Business used to be a small-town endeavor, where word of mouth spread quickly and where you had to treat all of your customers right – even the elderly woman who never bought much, because the hammer would fall on you if word got out that you treated her wrong.  Then big companies and mass marketing and TV advertising on 3 channels came, and for 50 years it made perfect economic sense for businesses to be impersonal and not to care.  And now we’re back to a world in which the only way to succeed is to build powerful, one-on-one relationships with our customers – the elderly woman has morphed into the person commenting on Yelp, posting to her blog, or tweeting to her 100,000 followers about how great or terrible your product or service was.

I found the book to be incredibly optimistic – Gary’s breathless enthusiasm is contagious, it is filled with enough practical examples to be actionable, and he pulls the lens back just enough to let you see that there’s something bigger going on than people uploading twitpics of their grilled cheese sandwiches.  One on one communication is back, it’s still in its infancy, and folks who wake up to this fact now will have an incredible lead on their competitors.

Gary’s case studies bring things to life.  He shares how, for a while, restaurant-reviewer Zagat’s missed the social media boat and, in so doing, allowed Yelp to build a site with 25 million unique visitors in December 2009 (to Zagat.com’s 270,000); this same month Yelp turned down a $550 million offer from Google and a $700 million offer from Microsoft (Zagat tried to sell for $200 million in January 2008 with no takers).  He describes the over-the-top efforts of Joie de Vivre hotel employees to make guests feels at home and special.  He surprises with stories of a dentist in San Francisco named Irena Vaksman who built her practice through online marketing; and a lawyer (a lawyer!) named Hank Heyming whose firm let him tweet and blog under his own name, and in so doing he became a leading startup lawyer in Richmond, Virginia.

The point of the book isn’t that you should passively stare at your Twitter and Facebook feeds for hours a day and call that work.  That ain’t work – that’s being a spectator.  This is a new undertaking requiring, first, a new attitude (caring like crazy about your customers), and then a specific strategy for building genuine relationships with these customers – in a way that blends online and offline experiences to create something exceptional.

Whether you’re someone who directly employs online tools or someone who has people asking for permission to do more online, this book will help you make sense of what’s going on out there in the big bad web 2.0 world – most importantly, by demystifying it and bringing it back to the simple, powerful notion that we can, finally, get back to the business of caring about and taking care of our customers.

Out (f-cking) care the competition

I just learned last week about Gary Vaynerchuk from Seth Godin’s Domino Project (great post, Ishita), another great example of someone who pokes the box (you mean you haven’t read Poke the Box yet?  What are you waiting for?  It’s a top 100 book on Amazon, for goodness sake, and it will help you see that you don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission.    OK fine, I’ll write a review soon).

Then just yesterday a colleague told me that Gary’s talk at last weeks’ SXSW-Interactive was one of the top three at the whole darn conference.  Besides the entertainment value of Gary’s, uh, colorful vocabulary, (2 minutes and 4 seconds without dropping the “f-bomb”) Gary’s main message was that companies are going to win and lose based on who can “out care” their customers.

Speaking of caring (and not caring), the other night I was at Magnolia Bakery, which helped start the NY cupcake craze and which shamelessly charges nearly $3 for an (admittedly delicious) cupcake.   But service is slow.  The store is set up Disney-land style (pick your cupcakes here, walk down the long counter for the chance to buy more stuff, pay at the register at the end) which might work when there’s a throng of customers but makes no sense when you’d rather just drop six bucks in a jar and walk away with two cupcakes.

I was running late for a show, so I noticed when it took me (and the other six other customers in the store) nearly 10 minutes to buy cupcakes (two cupcakes per couple, so really three customers).  Bad enough, but much worse because there were 8 Magnolia employees chatting, working, and doing everything but notice that their empty shop had a logjam.  I even asked one of them if I could just pay and go, and she said she wasn’t assigned to the register.

“Too cool for school” might be an OK customer service approach when your shop is flooded with tourists looking for a “real NY experience,” but for the rest of us chickens it’s time to think seriously about out-caring the competition.  If you don’t believe me, read the blow-by-blow Zappos story in Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, and remind yourself again and again: this is a billion dollar company with rabid fans who buy SHOES ONLINE.

While last week’s post about new humanism generated a lot of interest, some comments said that David Brooks’ arguments are old hat.  The ideas may not be new, but they’re certainly not mainstream (in business, in economics, in how we teach our kids), and I think it’s high time that changes.  It’s much more than a tweak to the old models….if you really take it seriously you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and start afresh.

For example, the old way of thinking about customer service says that customers want the best product for the best price, and oh, yes, they want to good customer service too (read: nice-to-have, sort of like “soft skills”…can you hear the derisive sneer?).  The Zappos way of thinking says that creating an off-the-charts customer experience is the ONLY thing that matters.  For Zappos, it’s the end-all be-all.

It may be that Magnolia Bakery can ignore out-caring the competition because they serve up enough sugary, buttery goodness to anesthetize their customers (or, more seriously, because waiting forever confirms the story of cupcakes you flew across the country to try), but for the rest of us, it’s time to start out-caring the competition.

That means real relationships, every time.  It means you actually care, you don’t just act like you care.  It means you put emotional effort into everything you do.  It’s not easy to copy, which is why if you do it with abandon, you win.

Frankly my dear…

At a NYC Middle Eastern place where I sometimes grab lunch, I get to-go plate with some stewed chicken and vegetables, beans or okra, and brown rice, all for $6.50.  This is the steal of a lifetime in Manhattan.

They pack it in a round, aluminum takeout container with a plastic top, and place the container in a paper bag within a plastic bag  (it’s a lot of wrapping).

Today, a sunny day, I took the bag, walked halfway down the block, and sat down outside to enjoy a little sun with my lunch.  When I went to grab my food, there was a pool of sauce at the bottom the bag, and the container was dripping wet.  And, for once (when it has to do with spilling things), this wasn’t my fault: the container had been put into the small paper bag on its side, and everything drained out immediately.

This might have been a small mistake by a new person at the cash register, or it might have been how they do things every day (it’s happened before).  What it feels like is that they’ve gotten things 90% right but haven’t actually taken that last step to understand the full customer experience.  They’re incredibly nice, they treat customers right in the restaurant, they clearly make their food with care…but when I spill broth all over the place just trying to eat my lunch,  repeatedly, it feels like they don’t care about their customers.

That’s the kicker: you may care passionately about your customers, but they might not know!

They easiest way to fix this is to ask them what they think.  In person.  And listen to their answers sincerely.  For example:

  • If you’re a teacher, could you call up a parent and asked what she and her son or daughter think about the class you teach?
  • If you’re a customer service rep, can you go off script and ask the “Did I solve your problem today satisfactorily” in a sincere way, with a follow-up question?
  • If you work at a nonprofit, could you call up 10 of your donors and ask what they really think about the organization, and what their experience is as major supporters?
  • If a regular lunch customer comes in, could you ask how their sandwich was last week?
  • And if you’re a blogger, could you email the five people who comment the most on your blog and ask them for some feedback?

If you give this a go, and you’re genuine, at the very least your customers will feel more valued and they’ll know that you actually care.  More likely still, you’ll probably learn at least one thing you could change that will make big a difference to a lot of folks.

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