Creating memories … the Holy Grail of customer service

Fourteen years ago, my daughter Alex was seven years old and in 2nd grade. One day she had an after school activity. She was supposed to call me on the pay phone at the school when she wanted to be picked up. Alex brought seventy-five cents with her, three quarters. At thirty-five cents a call, we figured that would be enough – even if she messed up once and had to redial.

Well, at about 4:30 she tried to call me, but dialed the wrong number (as we planned for). That should have been no big deal since she had enough to make another call. Wrong!

Problem was – Pac Bell pay phones didn’t give change. The wrong number swallowed up two quarters – leaving her with just one, not enough to make another call. After about twenty minutes she found another quarter and finally got hold of me. She was visually upset though when I picked her up.

Now this is really no big deal in the whole scheme of things. But I just had problems with the fact the pay phone didn’t give her change on the initial fifty cents. So I went on a rant and called Pac Bell – all the way up the ladder to the head customer service in Northern California (we lived in the Bay Area). Carlos, the manager ,was sympathetic to my cause and agreed. In fact he was going to bring it up at the next managers meeting (not like anything would change – but nice gesture anyway).

What happened afterwards though, ended up being one of those stories I’ve told at least fifty times. Carlos hand wrote and sent Alex an apology note with two quarters taped inside along with his business card. Fourteen years later, my daughter still has that card … with the quarters still taped to it. He created a memorable experience for us, clearly when he didn’t have to. He respected the attention and time we invested in his firm – and did something about it.

No company or brand can do that – only a person!

Anyone who’s been in a relationship knows that much of the time things are rocky – arguments happen. Anyone married can attest to that. But there’s always those times, those memories that, well … are remembered. It’s these memories that cerebrally push aside all the “day in day out” squabbles. It’s the way our brain works. Synaptically, we cannot remember everything – it has to choose.

In a way, our relationships with our customers are really no different. We remember the out of ordinary experiences – whether good or bad. Our brain focuses on the fringe. We remember that waiter who arranged for us try out a new menu item before we took a chance on it.  We remember the time when we couldn’t return that item one day after the return period expired – just because it was company policy. And we remember bad situations made good, like Carlos and the quarters. We don’t remember getting our food on time. We don’t remember things going smoothly. Those things just fade away, a casualty of selective memory.

Why is it then most companies only concentrate on making sure things run perfectly without event – hoping nothing bad happens. But unfortunately we won’t have any good memories either. We’ll have no memories at all. Every firm wants to have relationships with their customers … but they don’t do anything to create the experiences that will be the foundation of these relationships.

But really, a company can’t have a relationship with you – only another person can. Pac Bell couldn’t do what Carlos did. And there’s no way to write that situation into a training manual. But how many employees are trained in making memories and remarkable experiences – and empowered to make them happen. I would guess not many. It takes an engaged employee to turn a bad situation into a great one – one that will be a building block of a long-term relationship between the customer and your firm.

Now imagine a company philosophy that focused on “making memories.” Imagine an employee training program that stressed using the element of surprise, creating remarkable experiences as a marketing tactic. Imagine a weekly employee contest won by the the most remarkable customer experience. You could be the Karma King (or Queen) of your company for the week.

Sign me up! I’ll can never have too many memories!


Please comment below and share with me the memories a company has given you … memories that has made you a long-term loyal customer.

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Buy local … or not

The chorus to “Buy Local” has become the new “Buy American.” This is especially the case with the corporate shenanigans going on. GE doesn’t pay taxes. The executives of Well Fargo and B of A should be in jail and Wal-mart is getting sued for discrimination by just about every woman who worked there in the last 10 years.  And even those companies, like the beloved Apple – make their computers and iPods in China with Korean parts.

The only way us common folk can fight back is to buy local. And it makes sense. Only 15% of the revenue from a big box store like Wal-mart or Target finds its way into the local economy – while the rest goes to suppliers, stockholders and c-level management to points unknown. Compare that to 45+% that stays in town with a locally owned store. Hard to argue with those numbers. You buy locally and you help your neighbor and probably yourself as well.

Main Street – Red Lodge, Montana

While buying locally may cost a few more cents on the dollar, I would hope that most us would be willing to help out fellow neighbors. And by patronizing local business, in theory you should get better service. After all – your neighbors know you and they can take advantage of that fact.

Technically local businesses should have an unfair advantage. In addition to their knowledge of their customers, they can adjust to local market conditions. In the time it takes for a big box store to even get market intelligence – their local competition is out the gate with a new product line and a promotion to match. Combine that with their superior customer service – any price premium should be discounted.

In theory, this should be the case. But such is not necessarily the way it is.

Recently, I’ve been helping out my parents in Montana. As with most people in their 70’s and 80’s, health-care is a constant issue. And central to elderly health-care is prescription drugs and their relationship with the pharmacy. Such is the case with my parents and their primary pharmacy – which is locally owned.

My parents have been very good customer of Pharmacy One, for twenty plus years. You would think that sort of relationship would warrant at the very least, good service. Rather than go into copious detail, lets just say … the help is rude, seldom is a prescription sent out when promised, and they charge extra to put something in the mail.

Yet this business will be the first to complain about the invasion of the corporate behemoths, Walgreen and CVS. “They can’t compete because of the bulk buying advantage the giants have. The can’t compete against their advertising budgets. No mention is made of the fact that Pharmacy One has been a member of the Billings community for decades, serving generations of customers. Nor is there any mention of the advantage they have because of their key location right on the ground floor of the main hospital in the city.

Their negative attitude is evident with of their employees. It’s as if they’re just waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to fall.” And they act, when that shoes drops, they’ll be waiting in line for a bed at the shelter on Montana Ave. They don’t say it, but it’s almost like it’s a requirement to shop there if you live in Billings. After all,  they’re a local business – and aren’t you supposed to support local business.

Here’s my conundrum . I am adamantly in favor of buying local. Personally I think by bringing the power back to Main Street we can retake our country and our lives from the unscrupulous corporate hacks that have hijacked our futures. This extra flow of money into our communities can go to help our children’s schools, our elderly, and our less fortunate – on top of it, our own wallets.

But all you local businesses – please help me out. I don’t want to spend my money at business only because it’s local. I’m willing to you give the first chance if your local, and I may even give you a second chance if you screw up. But you have to show me you want my business and you care about me. If you don’t already know me – take the time to get to know me. Then call me by my name – and remember what I buy. If you get a deal on something you know I like, let me know and let me share in your savings. Show me you’re part of the community and want to make it better, like the chain stores can’t. Make me part of your extended family – and I’ll do the same and I’ll be loyal. It won’t matter if I have to pay a couple of dollars more – you’re family.

But to justify those couple of dollars, you have to show it and meet me half way. I don’t want a “woe is me” attitude from your employees – or you. I want you to understand that having a business in my community, in my neighborhood – is not a right, it’s a privilege … a privilege that can be taken away by me, and my friends and neighbors. If you’re cool with all this – then you’ll have a great customer. You’ll have great customer that’s loyal and will refer his friends to you.

My conditions may seem a bit harsh, but they have to be. Owning a business isn’t supposed to be easy. But at least you know where I stand and you can act accordingly. Most people just defect and run to the big box stores without any notice. I’m laying my cards on the table.

I wish just being local was enough for me to be a customer “forever after.” But I think giving you the first (and second) chance, and being my default choice is more than fair.

Now the next move is yours.


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“The Death of a Salesman,” circa 2011

In 1949, Arthur Miller released his iconic play, “Death of a Salesman.”  The sales landscape of sixty years ago is eerily similar to that of today.  America, and world for that fact, isn’t creating sales jobs like before.  Of course you’ll see ads for them in newspapers and on job boards – but the position is not nearly as prevalent as it once was.

Willy Loman

Why is this and what are the ramifications?

Up to about ten years ago every product and service to be sold by somebody. You had to have either a “face to face” or at least “phone to phone” conversation to make a transaction, a sale.  This isn’t the case anymore.  With the internet you can buy virtually anything online.  You can even buy a house in another country by just going online and making an offer, let alone ordering a book or getting a picture developed and delivered to your house.  And all this happens with no salesman … just bits and bytes.

By cutting out the salesman, companies can hawk their wares cheaper.  In many industries, if you don’t compete online … you don’t compete.  Having a rock bottom price seems to be the basis to doing business these days.  But when your business competes on price, there’s little room for anything else – and that anything else is sales and service.

Anyone can tell you that customer service in 2010 is nothing like it used to be.  It’s not that companies are intentionally instructing their staff to treat their customers like trash. They just don’t have resources to hire the more and better people needed to perform better sales and customer service.  Try going to a big box store like Home Depot or Wal-Mart.  You have a better chance finding Bigfoot on the floor than a salesman.

This preoccupation on price has created a void of sales and customer service expertise.  The middle class used to be filled with salesmen and saleswomen of all types, all striving for the American dream.  Not so much anymore, these jobs just aren’t out there … or at least in the numbers they were.

What does all this mean?  Are we as consumers relegated to an existence of interaction with our computer screen for our fix of consumption?  Maybe not.

As a business person, you can take one of two paths.  You can follow the lemmings to the cliff, as most do.  All it takes is structuring your business around keeping costs low and selling low.  Hopefully enough people will see value in this strategy and you’ll make a “go of it.”

Or in the words of Robert Frost, you can take the road less traveled.  This road might very well revert back the business values of our parents – before the internet.  Now I’m not condoning getting in a time machine and going back to England in 1810 and joining the Luddites.  Technology is wonderful and it has it’s purpose.  But maybe the pendulum can swing back a bit.  Maybe there is a place for the salesman in today’s economy.  In fact, maybe this is actually what can set your firm apart … and make it remarkable in the eyes of your customers.

Ironically, the company most known for its customer service in today’s world is also at the forefront of technology, Apple.  If you go to an Apple Store, you’ll find no shortage of sales reps to help you (the blue shirts).  And no they’re not just customer service reps – they sell.  My daughter spent two years on the floor at an Apple store.  Their sales training is excellent and thorough.  And their service goes beyond just their retail stores.  You can actually talk to a person for tech support on the phone also.  How’s all this working for Apple.  At the penning of this post their stock price was $288, an all time high.

Again, what does all this mean.  In the case of Apple and its products, you pay a premium.  You pay for the service.  You pay for getting sold by a top-notch sales person.  You pay for better design.  You pay for being a member of the Apple tribe.  And all this costs Apple money.  But why can’t your firm do it this way. Is there anything saying you must have rock bottom prices – and with that the lack of the amenities … amenities like sales and service.  Don’t tell me you can do both – because with any consistency you can’t.

But undertaking a strategy of “taking the road less traveled” and providing a premium offering first means starting with a product or service that is worth paying a premium for.  Apple has, so they can build on it.  But building on it means creating an environment of  excellence throughout your firm where nothing else is accepted.  It also means hiring the best, paying them accordingly and making sure they stay.

I can’t tell you how to attack your market using the Apple methodology.  Only you know your market.  And it probably means only part of the market will actually be your market.  But considering the size of the “lemming pack,” your market should be big enough for you to not only survive, but thrive.

Just remember – you probably can’t do it without Willy Loman.  And if you look, he’s still out there looking to sell … and just maybe your customers want to see him.


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No … it’s our fault!

Back a year and half ago, Fargo, North Dakota (my home state) was going through a potentially devastating flood.  Associated Press reported a story about Fargo’s mayor,  Dennis Walaker – the hero of the Fargo flood.  Here’s an excerpt from the story:

“When an 8-year-old girl died after the car she was riding in spun out of control and was struck by another car, Walaker blamed the crash on a rut that the city failed to fix.  He thought it was important to let the driver — the victim’s 15-year-old sister — know it wasn’t her fault, and he wasn’t worried that it could open up the city to a lawsuit.”

When is the last time you or anyone else in your firm acted like this?


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Are you talking Swahili to a Frenchman?

Updated July 5, 2013: This post was written three years ago, but it seems especially appropriate right now. In the last few days we’ve seen the successful coup by the military in Egypt. The military with the help and overwhelming support of the youth, the Millennials – ousted former Egyptian President Morsi in non-violently, in only a few days. What I find interesting is way the two apparently disparate groups (the military and the youth) communicated. It was via social media. The military posted their position and intentions on their Facebook. In other words, they communicated with their allies in their language (medium).

The famous quote by Marshall McLuhan seems especially appropriate at this time: “The medium is the message.” This is something our American President Obama should take a lesson from. Standing behind a podium on network television will not endear nor communicate with the younger generations … the social media generations.

That sounds absurd, right.  Who would try to communicate to a Frenchman in Swahili?  Actually a lot of us do the equivalent of that – a lot of the time.

Communication is essentially “getting a message through to somebody,” with, in many cases getting them to act (i.e. take out the garbage, buy my product, etc.).

I don’t understand Swahili?

Communication can be broken down into four components:

  • Language: This is self-explanatory.  If someone doesn’t linguistically understand what you’re saying … what’s the point in saying it in the first case.
  • Content: A little more tricky and the fundamental issue in marketing.  Would you market diapers to a twenty something single guy?  It actually happens all time with mass media.  The key is to get the right message to right person.  Data base marketing can be the solution to this issue.  Grab the data and structure a message to reflect the characteristics of the recipient.  You market a crib to someone who has a kid on the way.  Presentation is also crucial (when dealing with the sight sense).  For example, the graphics have to correspond to the target.  A message targeted to a twenty year old has to look radically different from one directed to an AARP member.
  • Timing: Do you market Valentine”s Day cards in July … of course not.  But what you do do is get out a message to trade show attendee concerning the product or service they looked at, and getting it out the next day.  Or if you are a hardware store – you should know, for example, your plumbing clients, so you can notify them when you get a good deal on PVC pipe so you can pass it through to them.
  • Delivery mechanism: This is easily the most overlooked of the four.  If you send out a piece mail to someone and you nailed the above three components, your in, right.  WRONG!  If you”re twenty years old, you may not even check your mail every four days.  So much for timing.  Hell, I can’t even get my daughter on the phone … a text or a Tweet, she’s on it – and on it right now.

I read a blog last year, I wish I could still find it – but let me try to paraphrase the message.  This web page designer, excited about his newest project, forwarded the link, via email, to his sixteen year old son to look at.  After two days, he asked him what he thought of latest creation.  His son hadn’t looked at it.  He didn’t even know about it. “Dad, I don’t check my email, if you want to get hold of me … text me.”

Enough said … Swahili is still not the universal language.


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How to run a business in a recession … or not!

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my friend Jim Albany in Denver.  He mentioned he had taken his fourteen year old son and his scout troop camping in the mountains.  Now, we’re talking about camping in a tent at 7000 feet in Colorado in January.

Wow!  Now I’ve camped a lot – but not under those conditions.  I asked him what his son thought about it.  “Well he used to idolize me … now I think he hates me.”

The timing of this is interesting because I’ve heard many, many commercials on the radio featuring Barack Obama talking about being a good father and how making just a little effort could mean the world.  Well, I think this takes fatherly participation to a new level.  Our president would be proud.

Camping in the mountains

Since I’m a camping “gear head,” we talked equipment.  Jim and and his son had North Face.  North Face is generally considered to be about as good as it gets – expensive, but high quality.

What a great testimonial! Fourteen year old kids conquering below zero weather in North Face.  You couldn’t write a better script.

Well I called up North Face and talked to a customer service rep and told him the story.  I figured he’d share my enthusiasm, or at least, kind of.

Well he didn’t.  Not only didn’t he, he was downright aloof.  “We sponsor pro athletes and they give us all the testimonials we need.”  What gives?  Are there so many pro athletes out there that that’s all they care about?  The recession must have passed North Face right by.  We could all be so lucky.

I wasn’t going to quit though.  I asked for his supervisor.  “No, I can’t do that.”  What?  I was perturbed.  “OK, give me the name of your president – I’d like to talk him,” I said.  “I can’t do that either,” was his response.  I felt like Bill Murray facing Rick Morainas, the key master, in Ghostbusters.

I relented.  One can only go so far to help.

It wasn’t hard finding out that North Face is a subsidiary of VF Corporation based in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Their CEO and President is Eric Wiseman.  Maybe somebody else should talk to him – and maybe they could mention their wonderful customer service.

By the way … Bill did catch all the ghosts in the end.


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Hail Fargo!

The last couple of weeks have brought back a lot of memories.  I went to college in North Dakota at the University in Grand Forks.  Twice in the late seventies and early eighties, I fought floods not unlike the one Fargo is facing presently – filling sand bags, walking dikes and watching for looters (with a .22 or maybe that was Minot in 68).

Now, if you have never been to North Dakota, you probably think it’s nothing but snow, cows and wheat … which is pretty much true.  But one thing it is is work ethic, persistence and community.  Everyone bands together.  We all had a common adversary – the weather.  Nobody had the time to hate their neighbor – they needed them.

What’s going on in Fargo right now is “case in point.”  Your neighbor, your competition and you are all facing same thing –  and if  everybody doesn’t step up to the plate and succeed, everybody loses.

In fact, Fargo’s Mayor didn’t want the men of the city to evacuate, he needed them to look after the dikes.  A levy breach, no matter where it’s at, renders the the same result – disaster for everyone!

Now to be fair.  Fargo is in a unique position.  The resources in North Dakota are significant.  While there aren’t a lot of people – only about 650,000 – there’s more to success than just numbers.  Located in North Dakota are two Air Force bases (when was the last time you saw Preditor Drones doing surveillance for a weather disaster?) but probably more important are it’s U.S. Senators – Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad.  With a new administration in control of the White House, opportunities for states arise.  In fact, Conrad was the first senator outside of Illinois to endorse Barak Obama – a risky move considering Hillary Clinton was considered a “shoe in” for the nomination.

Well that risk has paid off – working smart.  Fargo is getting everything possible from the federal government and it’s working.  Fargo is beating the flood of history.  As of today, only five house have flooded – FIVE.

When all it’s all done and the water has subsided, I firmly believe that Fargo and North Dakota will win.  Its what we know.  Use all of our resources, work hard and work smart.

When I started this entry, I didn’t know what message I was trying to convey.  Teamwork, not giving up, expecting nothing less than success or maybe just pride in the homeland.

Take a lesson from Fargo.  Use one of the above messages or find your own.  With all the “bandwagon” talk of recessionary doom and gloom its easy to feel sorry for yourself.

The bandwagon didn’t stop in Fargo!  They have “bigger fish to fry.”

Wave the bandwagon by … be like Fargo and step up!


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