customer service

presenting like a rock star

Rock and roll2Does anyone else go to concerts and try to figure out how to do your job better? No? A side effect of being a presenter and facilitator is that I cannot attend any training, speech, or event without noticing what is done well, what could be better, and what I can learn from it.

Eighteen months ago I wrote a post called “Rock and Roll Presentation Skills” after seeing one of my favorite European bands perform. As a presenter, this band inspires me more than any other with their stage presence, energy, and connection to the crowd. By sheer coincidence the same band was performing in Dallas the same weekend I was there to attend HRevolution and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see them again.

Reflecting on what I took from this performance, the presentation lessons hold true with what I learned from their last performance.

1. There is a huge, gaping chasm between “pretty good” and “great”. Three local bands opened up and they were pretty good. But there was a big contrast between the opening and main performances and, oddly, it had little to do with musical skills. Some of the local bands had outstanding musicians, but it wasn’t enough to close the gap. They did a “good” job, but not one that made me want to hear more from them.

That has me wondering what I need to do to leap to the next level. Obviously, a presentation has to be well written and delivered with reasonable skill. But, content and technical skills only get you to good. What are the components that move it to great?

2. ALL presentations matter.Although largely unknown in the States, the main band headlines festivals in Europe, playing to tens of thousands of people. In stark contrast, the show in Dallas was in a bar that held maybe a couple hundred people. They could have viewed Dallas an unimportant show and just gone through the motions.

Instead, they played as though it were the most important show on the tour. Full out, completely committed, pouring sweat, not an ounce of energy held back. Even with their relentless schedule of touring around the world they showed no signs of boredom, exhaustion, or the sense that it was just one more gig. Instead, they radiated joy and enthusiasm.

For me the big question is: How do I structure my life and mindset so I have the energy and focus to be at 100% for every presentation? How do I ensure I’m always treating every presentation as though it will define my career?

3. Engage the crowd. Rather than being the untouchable rockstars up on a pedestal, they interacted with the audience at every opportunity. The headlining singer continually and sincerely referred to the crowd as “friends”, showed off signs held by audience members, offered choices of what songs they’d play next, celebrated the energy of the crowd, and thanked the audience for coming out to see them. Sounds obvious, but the local bands did little of this.

What are the obvious things to connect with my audiences and classes that I’m not doing enough or at all? How can I better create a feeling where I’m speaking with the audience rather than at them? How can I connect with as many people as possible on as individual of level as possible.

4. Make it about the audience, not the presenter.The local bands kept mentioning the CDs they had for sale in the back, reasons they weren’t at their best, where they were playing next, blah, blah, blah. Any words between songs were few and focused on the band. In contrast, it would have been easy – almost expected – for the headliners to show up with rock and roll egos completely unchecked and gripe about the venue or small crowd. They could have bragged about the shows they normally do or made it clear a bar gig was beneath them. Yet, everything the headliners said – every single word– was focused on audience and how fun and great they were. It was clear the band was thrilled and grateful that everyone had showed up to see them.

Our words reveal our focus – as a speaker, is the concern for the audience and participants or for ourselves? This is a subtle, but really powerful difference. The audience knows and responds accordingly.

5. Keep it simple. One would think that less experience performers would keep it simple and focus on walking before they run, but it was the opposite. The local bands had five and six string basses and seven and eight (!) string guitars, using sophisticated techniques to play complex lines. The headlining musicians used a traditional instruments, straightforward techniques, and played comparatively simple songs.

As a presenter it’s tempting to show off with technology, complicated materials, fancy language, credentials, etc. But that’s all about the presenter. Complex is the lazy route. Simple is difficult, it takes more time to do, and it often feels unprofessional to the novice. What beginning presenters often miss is simple requires expert level judgment, effort, and refinement. Simple keeps it about the message connecting with the audience.

6. Have fun. It’s hard to travel day after day, connect with the audience, be grateful for any opportunity to get your message out there, and have a blast while doing it. Despite near continual touring schedule and the small venue the headliners were smiling, playing, joking around, and giving full effort like there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing. The headliners seemed to be doing their dream job, the local bands seemed to be showing up for work.

The differences between good and great are small, but significant.

It’s funny how the things that set us apart are often not all that big on the surface. Notice how none of this is about their musical ability. The gap between the opening bands and the headliner was much more about approach, attitude, and connection. Could the local bands have done all this? Yes. Did they? Not really. They were more than skilled enough, but in the end were no more memorable than the background music the club played over the PA between the sets.

It’s a nice reminder to continually step up my intention, focus, and connection. I need to make sure I’m creating a great user experience and not getting between my message and my audience.

For you, what’s the difference between a great presentation and one that’s merely good?

ignoring the success stories

There’s two kinds of business success stories that everyone talks about and then learns nothing from.

The first is the upstart business that is just doing things disruptively different. Their organizational structure and processes go against the cookie cutter business school best practices. Companies like Valve with its completely flat org chart and BrewDog with their “Equity for Punks” customer ownership program come to mind. We all marvel at their ingenuity and then insist that it’ll never work anywhere else or dismiss it as being only viable for startups. We think that putting meaning or innovation ahead of the Wall Street Quarterly Numbers Game is somehow poor business.

The other is the upstart that hits it big: Apple, Amazon, Google, Zappos. We churn out the stories about their cultures and benefits and all the quirks of their leaders and then promptly focus on all the wrong lessons. Tire swings in the lobby won’t give you Google’s profit margins. Being weird for the sake of weird won’t give you Zappos’ customer retention. And wearing turtlenecks and screaming at people won’t give you Apple’s innovation and iconic status.

Steve Jobs’ gift wasn’t for leadership. His brilliance was in his unrelenting focus on design and the customer above all else. He thought long term and insisted on getting right all the details that no one else realized were details. I believe the single most important lesson we can take from Steve Jobs legacy is summed up in a quote from him:

“If you keep your eye on the profit, you’re going to skimp on the product. But if you focus on making really great products, then the profit will follow.”

This could be re-written for Zappos, just replace “product” with “customer service”. Or for any of the businesses, big or small, that succeed doing things disruptively different.

The magic “different” is almost always a relentless priority focus on creating meaningful products or services that customers value, love, and rally behind. Profits are important but seen more as a way to keep the doors open and create better products and services versus the end all be all. Profits are a means, not an end.

We admire the innovation, the ingenuity, and – yes – their profitability and then we all go back to focusing on profits over products, dollars over meaning, creating unhealthy dysfunction and disorder.

Consider it this way. Elite athletes are thin, skinny even, but not because they want to look like runway models. Athletes aren’t lean out of fashion or vanity; they are lean out of necessity. Extra weight on an athlete isn’t unattractive, it’s a crucial few extra hundredths of a second, it’s reduced performance, it’s finishing second. Being lean is the byproduct of focusing relentlessly on fitness and performance; it’s the means, not the end.

But what if we, in our emulation of athletes, got it backwards? What if we just focused on being thin first and foremost and slashed our calorie intake to survival levels? If an athlete were to focus on being supermodel thin, their performance would drop immediately and drastically. They wouldn’t have the necessary muscle to perform and the muscles they did have wouldn’t be receiving enough fuel to excel or even train and develop.

Now, let’s look back at companies. We want companies to perform at the highest level, but so often we focus on profits as the end rather than the byproduct of performance. It’s when we get those confused that the problems start.

We start cutting expenses to the bone and don’t invest in the things we need to be profitable in the future. No athlete in the world would stop training because they were worried that the muscle they were adding would hurt performance. Yet, one of the first things cut in organizations is learning and development. When performance is down, we eliminate one resource that helps improve performance (whaaaa?). The next to go is staff – those people who create, deliver, and support the products and service the customer pays for). So we end up with fewer people who are less skilled and somehow consider that better than having more people who are more skilled. (Please show me one successful sports team that’s run this way. Just one.)

Or we start binging and purging with hiring and layoffs. We focus on the image in the mirror (or in the spreadsheets) instead of how fit and healthy we are. We get corporate liposuction by selling off assets or radically cutting costs, making the company look good temporarily but without addressing the long-term decisions and habits that made the company overweight or underperforming in the first place.

We start asking, “What costs can we cut?” instead of “What resources should we invest more in?” We ask, “What can we offer that we can charge the customer more for?” instead of “What would our customers really value?” We ask, “How can we improve our numbers this quarter?” instead of “What do we need to do to be a thriving company ten years from now?”

Company performance and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive. Done right, profits help us create even more meaning, leading to more profits. Done wrong, a singular focus on profits kills meaning and, ironically, hurts long-term performance.

It’s fascinating how we have examples of the philosophies and attitudes that help create standout companies. We study them, give them a hero’s status, and then quietly return to doing what everyone else is doing.

What thinks you?


no refund, no credibility, no business

I can’t give you a refund. I can only exchange it.”

Welcome to 1986, except that it’s 2013. Remember when things were difficult to return for a refund? You had to have the receipt, there were forms to fill out, and you had to deal with someone who was too bureaucratically rigid to do government work. And it had to truly be defective. You wouldn’t dream of attempting to return something simply because you (or your spouse) decided you didn’t want it.

All that changed when more and more stores realized there was a real long-term advantage to having you come to the store to return things. After all: 1) you were in the store and likely to buy more; 2) it created good will that made you want to return; and 3) the few that might abuse the return policy are more than countered by everyone else.

That’s one of the real secrets to Zappos. Make it easy to return or exchange items. Reduce the perceived risk of purchasing to almost nil. Never make the customer feel bad or stupid about their purchase. Actually, that’s not a secret at all. It’s right on display for all the world to see. And to ignore. And to wonder why Zappos is doing great while other businesses flounder.

In a rare family trip to the mall this weekend, my daughter purchased a curling iron from one of the booths in the middle of the mall. The salesman had curled a bit of her hair as a demonstration and she’d liked the results enough to make a purchase. But, it didn’t work as promised and over the next hour, the curl came out. We went back to return it and were told, “No refunds”. In fairness, there was a sign declaring “no refunds” and it was also stamped on the back of the receipt. Buyer beware.

Except, so what. Let’s look at the much bigger picture:

  1. Malls are struggling – that’s not opinion, that’s business article fodder.
  2. My pre-teen daughter is just a few short years from having a job, disposable income, and needing a safe place to meet friends.
  3. She now sees the mall as a place where businesses don’t stand behind their products. And that’s my nice way of putting it. I suspect she sees the mall as a place where businesses can rip you off.
  4. She already likes and is in the habit of buying books with her Kindle. It’s a small jump from books to other items.
  5. She is not alone.

That last one is the most important point. Dwell on it for a while. This isn’t about her, it’s about a pattern. It’s about establishing and building credibility and reputation or allowing it to be whittled away. It’s about missing the steady drip, drip, drip that becomes a river of movement away from an already troubled business model. Thinking about it, I’m actually pretty surprised that the anchor stores and the mall management allow smaller shops to do anything that might hurt their overall credibility and reputation.

Sure, the bigger stores can fairly and logically argue that they have nothing to do with the little booths. Except, so what? It’s guilt by association. Purchases are made with emotion, not logic.

Will anyone miss the malls when they are gone?



[Note: this may seem like a lot about one stupid curling iron. Except it’s not. It’s about bigger patterns happening in the world right now. It’s about Human Resources, sales, and customer service. It’s about retail, not-for-profit, and restaurants. It’s about business and humans. The world is changing quickly and reputation matters. Being right isn’t nearly as important as your credibility and the feelings your customer has toward you.]



We hear about “customer loyalty” and “employee loyalty” and I have trouble fitting these concepts into my brain. “Loyalty” – to me – is a very important virtue. It says I will support you even when it’s difficult for me, even when I don’t want to, even when it is against my best interest. Loyalty – again, to me – is two way: you bleed for me and I bleed for you. Perhaps it’s because I hold loyalty so dear I find it offensive when it’s watered down and treated as a one-way relationship.

“Customer loyalty” seems to mean that I simply prefer your products and services and choose them over others. Not much virtue in that. I might prefer your brand because of what I think it says about me or because of quality or price or because your business happens to simply be convenient for me. Calling it “customer loyalty” implies that the customer is at fault if they shop with a competitor. Yet, am I “disloyal” – is there infidelity – if I purchase elsewhere? No, I’ve made no commitments to you. No, oaths or vows. You provide a product or service. I exchange money for it. You make a profit and I gain a product or service I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide by myself. That’s the extent of our relationship.

I received an email a month or two ago from one of the universities I attended. They thought it would be swell if I thought I should send them a check. In fact, they thought it would be swell if I thought I had an obligation to send them a check. The email actually stated: “Your support of [X University] signifies your loyalty and belief in the university, its traditions, and the power of [X University] to impact the world.

I have a difficult time writing my thoughts about that sentence without using a lot of swear words. “Signifies”???? Signifies to whom? Who’s going to know? Am I signifying my loyalty to their accounting department? My “loyalty and belief”?!? Did I take a blood oath when I graduated? Was I knighted? Did I swear any kind of allegiance to the university’s traditions? What traditions?

Here’s the extent of my loyalty and belief in the university: I gave them money, they let me attend classes, and after a certain number of classes they gave me a degree. It’s a business transaction. An exchange of money for services.

I understand that some (many? most?) people feel a connection to the university they attended. It might even be a part of how they identify themselves, of how they think about who they are. Which makes that email all the more offensive. It’s preying off of people’s desire to be virtuous and loyal, yet providing nothing in return, not even a t-shirt or window sticker for their car. They want me to think I owe them something – that I must continue to prove loyalty –  because I chose to attend their university over a decade ago. That’s a manipulative one-way relationship and the very definition of servitude, not loyalty.

This was just an example, but how often do we do this and think our customers or our employees “owe” us something out of “loyalty”. They owe us money for our products or services, they owe us work for their paycheck. AND we owe them products or services for their money, we owe them a paycheck for their work. But once the debt is settled, it’s settled.

The best companies get this. The companies with the best reputation for customer service focus on better serving the customer’s need versus focusing on figuring out how to better get the customer to serve the company’s needs. That’s a key distinction. They know that if the customer was “disloyal” the problem is with the company, not the customer.

Hopefully our customers and employees stick around, but it’s up to us to earn their loyalty daily, not assume it or insist on it.

What thinks you?


screwing up giving the customer what they want

A couple weeks back I purchased an adapter to hook an iPad to the projector at work for an upcoming presentation. It turned out we didn’t need it so I brought it back unopened to return it. It turns out the store has a two week limit on returns and I was a few days past.

At that moment in time, the clerk has a few choices:

1) Hold to policy and deny the return.

2) Cheerfully accept the return explaining how normally policy wouldn’t allow it but because it’s unopened and close enough to the deadline he’s happy to take it back.

3) Point out the deadline. Act as though I’m trying to get something past him. Seem irritated. Stare at the receipt. Ask if I knew there was a deadline. Stare at the receipt longer. Seem more irritated. Proclaim that he’ll take the item after all in a but-you-better-not-try-this-nonsense-again tone of voice.

Unfortunately, he chose #3. Even though I got my money back, I would have been happier with #1. Rigid policy is silly, but not as blatantly stupid as being condescending to the customer. The $34 will not change my life. If he had stuck to policy, I would have been annoyed, but I would have understood because I did not follow the rules clearly written on the receipt. My bad.

If he had done the second option, I would have been thrilled. I would have understood this was something special and felt like he’d looked out for me and done me a favor.

Number three though… The sad thing about the option he chose was that I’m sure he thought he was doing the second option. He did take the return. I didn’t have to argue for it. He did bend the rules for me. He also made it clear that I was a thorn in his side, talked down to me, and left me feeling a bit of an idiot.

So close, yet so far.

It makes me wonder if I ever do that to my internal customers. Do I ever give them what they want but in a way that’s difficult, obnoxious, or makes them feel like an interruption? Do I confuse solving their problems with providing great service? Am I grateful for them or do I serve them begrudgingly? Do I ever almost give great service and then mess it up at the end?

I don’t think so, but that’s not quite as important as what they think, is it?

HR math: CX<EX

For all the talk of customer experience, very little is given to the employee experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge believer in creating a great customer experience. It’s crucial for any kind of repeat business and long-term success, it’s critical for word-of-mouth endorsements and buzz, it’s a necessity to differentiate from competing businesses. And so what?

It’s been said that the customer experience never exceeds the employee experience. I shorthand that into a simple math formula: CX<EX. If the employee experience is unpleasant, micromanaged, and rigid I can hardly expect the customers to receive a warm, open, uniquely customized experience. On a scale of 1-10, if the employees have a “1” experience, the customers will NOT receive a “10” experience.

It’s funny how we talk so much about creating the customer experience, but the employee experience seems to be an afterthought or we take a shotgun approach.  We forget that, no matter what our intentions, strategy, or CX metrics, it’s the employees who deliver the customer experience. Yes, work has to be done, high standards need to be met (exceeded), profits must be made. But somewhere along the way we get confused and think that work, standards, and profits are at the expense of the employee instead of because of the employee.

The great thing about employee experience is that it doesn’t have to be based on hope, chance, or luck. We can actually design it. We can give focused intentional thought to the experience we want them to have and how to create it.

We don’t often think about creating an intentional employee experience, so if you want an easy place to start ask yourself this: What is our ideal customer experience? How do we want customers to describe their experience with us to their friends?

Now build that experience for your employees.

easy to get right, easy to get wrong

A simple question: When is 2/5/13?

It’s not a trick question and the answer is more significant than it seems. Hold that thought, we’re going to come back to it.

Jim Rohn used to say that when something is easy to do, it’s also easy not to do. And that’s the problem. He’d point out that it’s easy to “eat an apple a day” for your health, yet  many people don’t because it’s so easy not to. It’s easy to put off until tomorrow and tomorrow often becomes never.

Likewise, you may have noticed that when something is easy to get right, it’s generally easy to get wrong. We put all kinds of processes and instructions and safeguards around the things that are hard to get right, but assume that the easy stuff will be done perfectly because, well, it’s easy.

So when is 2/5/13? It looks so cut at dried, but the answer is: it depends. If you’re sitting in Frankfurt 2/5/13 is May 2, 2013, but if you’re in Dallas it’s February 5, 2013. In an isolated world that’s ok, but in a globally connected world it matters.

I was watching a video from a Swedish band on YouTube the other day and noticed that there was a link announcing the band was playing at a local(ish) venue on February 5. How cool is that? Truly, if the whole tour schedule had been posted, I wouldn’t have paid it much mind, but as a snippet of the information most pertinent to me, it caught my attention. As I was marvelling at the wonders of this modern age and debating going to the show, I went to the band’s website and noticed that, yes they are playing that venue. On May 2.

Details matter. So easy to get right and so easy to get wrong.

Yesterday, I was digging into the data in our Learning Management System and was having trouble sorting it because some of the items were inconsistently entered. If someone signed up for but didn’t attend a class, the “Post-Status” field was either left blank, marked “incomplete”, or marked “no show”. All mean essentially the same thing, yet aren’t. Data consistency is so easy to get right and so easy to get wrong.

A friend works at a company that just switched payroll providers. Many employees discovered that their expense reimbursements were processed (and taxed) as income. The company that messed it up is a well-known and experienced payroll company who should never make such a simple mistake. It seems so easy to denote income and expense reimbursement differently. So easy to get right and so easy to get wrong.

Or what about the interviewer who swears they will call you with a decision by the end of next week, but never do. Or… or… or… How many examples of great / terrible customer service, HR, leadership, etc. come down to getting the little, simple details right?

So when is 2/5/13?

Your thoughts?

flashback friday: the world’s still shrinking

[This was originally posted on February 14, 2012 and seemed like a fitting flashback for Black Friday.]

More and more we are playing on a global scale. Even when buying from the shop on the corner, there’s nothing to prevent that corner from being in a different state, country, or hemisphere.

With a smart phone in hand consumers can quickly and easily compare prices while in the store. Love the product, but hesitant on the price? A quick picture of the barcode will turn up the best prices available. I’ve recently been seeing concern that people will use local stores to find the perfect item, size, etc. and then order from elsewhere. This has always happened, it’s just easier than ever now.

I recently upgraded the brakes on my mountain bike. I purchased an American brand of brakes (buy American!) made in Taiwan (buy American?) from a store in the UK (wait a minute…). This was the first time I’d purchased from a store outside the country, but I believe we’ll be seeing more and more of it. There were no currency issues  –  their website showed prices in US Dollars based on the current exchange rate and the credit card works everywhere. Unlike the big box store that made it seem like a major hassle to order an out of stock laptop they were running a special on, this store made it as easy as possible to purchase. Finally, on top of a great price, they shipped for free and it only took a week to get it once it shipped.

Yes, there are downsides. It would be a pain if I had to return anything, it took a little longer to get than if I’d ordered from somewhere in the States (in fairness, the holidays probably slowed things down a bit), and I’m not supporting a local business (but then, I still wouldn’t be if I’d ordered from an internet retailer in the US).

Would I purchase from them again? Probably. I enjoy variety and having access to quality brands that are uncommon in the US. I’m amused by the idea of shopping in a foreign store. More important, they are getting it right. Even five years ago it would have been a real pain to order internationally. Today it’s as easy as any internet purchase. Where other businesses would shy away from international business – dealing with currency, taxes, shipping, and customs on top of long-distance customer service – this business decided to become the largest internet bicycle retailer. They have the volume to offer better pricing and invested in the effort to sort the customer service side of things.

This isn’t about bicycle parts, foreign stores, or my desire to be a little quirky. This is where the world is heading. Competing on price is difficult because there is always someone cheaper somewhere. For most businesses, especially local ones, the differentiator is really understanding the customers’ needs, service, follow-up, convenience, a cool vibe or good feeling, great people, extensive knowledge, problem solving focus, etc.

Your business is now competing with every other business on the planet. You probably won’t win on price (though you do need to be in the ballpark), but what makes your business stand out is simply: 1) how easy and pleasant is it to shop and purchase from you; and 2) how good are your people at solving the customer’s problems? It all comes down to processes and people. What is your business investing in?


make it easy

Doug Shaw over at Stop Doing Dumb Things to Customers ran a post yesterday called “A Little Enthusiasm…” about his frustrations with businesses that didn’t seem to care when he was trying to pay them. It clearly struck a nerve with folks and generated plenty of comments as people joined in and shared similar frustrations.

It’s a shrinking world and the consumer can buy from almost anywhere. I discussed this back in February after purchasing mountain bike parts from a shop in the UK.

We all know the world is getting smaller, so it’s interesting how many businesses haven’t gotten the message yet. My wife and I both purchased cars in the past couple of months and had very different experiences. The dealer I bought from did ok, but was still stuck in the mindset that their cars are somehow special. I live within three hours of two of the biggest metropolitan areas in the US – no car is so unique that I can’t find it sitting on a lot relatively close or have it ordered in. When my wife was looking, they irritated her so much she kept right on looking.

My wife eventually purchased from a small town car dealer about an hour away. Here’s what they did right: they were patient as she test drove at least six cars, they were low pressure, they called back when they said they would, and when she told them that it would be several days before she could return to complete the deal they brought the car to her with all the correct paperwork including a generous trade-in on her old car made sight unseen. She signed some papers, swapped cars, and was on with her life in less than 30 minutes. They made the deal happen by making it as simple as possible for her to buy.

But wait, there’s more… My wife’s car is the same brand as mine. Guess where my car’s getting serviced from now on? So, my dealer screwed up selling to a RETURN customer, lost out on a SECOND sale, and lost out on all FUTURE maintenance/service business (where the profit margins are much higher than in car sales).

Businesses scream and yell for innovation, yet ignore that some of the most innovative products and services simply make it easy to buy and make it easy to pay. Strive for the example set by Intuitive site, one click purchasing. It doesn’t get easier.

HR spin

How easy is it for HR’s customers to complete transactions? How simple and painless is it to submit an application? How easy is it for hiring managers to understand the process and have all necessary paperwork in hand? Do document instructions make sense? Etc. etc. etc.

If your HR department’s customers had to pay money for HR’s products and services, would they? Could they? Would your HR department be the vendor of choice or would your customers get frustrated and go elsewhere?