Category Archives: Customer Care

The velocity of change and new customer expectations

And when I die, and when I’m gone, there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on, to carry on.

— “And When I Die,” by Laura Nyro, performed by Blood, Sweat & Tears.
As we know, change has been the one constant of existence on planet Earth. Each generation gives way to the next, so that over time fire became electricity and the wheel morphed into a computer.
For most of the history of the marketplace, change progressed at a pace slow enough to allow the creator of a model – a product, strategy, skill, etc. — to make a living with it for a lifetime, possibly even passing that model on to his children. But within the past century this paradigm began to shift.
During the second half of the 20th century, the life expectancy of a typical model generation was compressed into a calendar year. So while you were delivering the current year’s model to customers, you had to simultaneously create and prepare next year’s model to be ready to launch January 1.
That was a nice trip down memory lane, wasn’t it? Buckle up.
Since 1993 (the year the Internet became available to the public), an unprecedented confluence of innovations has further compressed the time between model generations. This compression produced high anxiety and frustration for any business that was in love with its model. Indeed, the life expectancy of a model that not so long ago would have been a calendar year was now measured in terms of an Internet year, which is 90 days — or less.
The headwaters of this increased velocity of marketplace change is innovations that are driving new customer expectations. And these innovations have become so seductively elegant and seamless in our lives that customers often don’t even realize their expectations are changing at all, let alone how fast.
But what about your business’s anxiety and frustration? Well, even if customers know, they don’t care. Because they worship at the throne of WIIFM. What’s In It For Me?
I have good news! You can avoid anxiety, frustration — and failure — if you know what your customers’ evolving expectations are, which you can determine by asking them these five questions – every day:
1. What do you want?
2. How do you want me to tell you about it?
3. When do you want it?
4. How will you use it?
5. How do you want it delivered?
Comparing the answer to these questions with what customers told you yesterday will provide all the information you need about current and future products, service and technology, including — especially — your social media and mobile strategy.
Let me put all of this in one sentence: If you want to know what your business should be doing tomorrow, next month and next year, ask your customers. They already know. And if you do what they tell you, you’ll be able to sing these new lyrics without any blood, sweat or tears:
“And when our model dies, and when it’s gone, we’ll produce a new model in this world to carry on, to carry on.”
Write this on a rock … Customers will tell you about their changing expectations – let them.

The power of building customer communities

Incredibly, in 2017, here’s a question many small business owners ask: “We have a website, do we need a social media strategy, too?”

The answer is the same as for why you have an email address even though you have a phone.  It’s not either/or, but rather both/and. Because as outstanding and handy as your website may be, there’s one increasingly important capability you need that most websites aren’t good at: community building.

Once customers find you, returning to that beautiful website of yours will be of decreasing interest to them. It’s not that your new stuff – products, how-to information, order status, special offerings, etc. – is no longer of interest to customers. It’s just that they don’t want to have to come back to your website to get it. More and more, customers are saying to businesses, “I like what you offer, but I won’t be returning to your website much, because I’m very busy. Why don’t you follow me home with the new stuff?”

This is what customers and prospects mean when they join your community by giving you permission to connect with them and send them offers and helpful information by email, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, etc. They just want the new stuff, including updates to your website. Even when they return to buy something on your e-commerce platform, they expect to enter your website through the offer page you sent them, not from your homepage.

Building online customer communities – and getting permission to follow customers home – is how a small business transcends being competitive and achieves the pinnacle position: relevance. As you may know, I define a business social media strategy as building customer communities. But by my definition, social media is much older and more comprehensive than the online platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Your customer community strategy includes everything you do to build, connect with and serve those communities, including: email marketing, customer loyalty programs, the new social media activity, and, of course, the original social media: face-to-face.

In the old days – way back in 2003 – your customer list was just names on an accounts receivable report or sales forecast. Today, those customers are part of your business’s community, which also includes prospects who’re just becoming interested in you. But unlike the passive customer list of old – and visitors to your website – this community is functioning and dynamic, with fast-evolving expectations you have to meet or they’ll defect to another community.

Another important component of building customer communities is allowing prospects and customers to see your corporate values. Increasingly, prospects will turn into customers, and customers will become loyal, because they’re attracted to what your company stands for, which is evident in the values you demonstrate, including online. For example:

1. Are your brand elements – brand promise and image – all about you and your stuff, or do they sound like something that would benefit your customer community?

2. When delivering information, is it all about you, or does it contribute to the community?

3. What’s the tone of your marketing message? “Tone” is how brand messages are incorporated as you serve the community, from crassly commercial to almost subliminal. You should strike a tone balance between serving the community and making a sale.

Notice all of these demonstrate values that favor relationships more and transactions less.

In a world where everything you sell is a commodity, value – product, price, service – is the threshold of a customer community, but values are the foundation. Value is easy to find these days. But when community members are attracted to your values, they keep coming back and bring their friends.

Write this on a rock … Build and serve customer communities with a website and social media strategy that demonstrates your values.

Welcome to Amazonia – third rock from the sun

Eeep—Eeep—Eeep —Eee

“Uh! Yes, Echo. I’m awake.” Walter’s answer stopped the noise and prompted this message from inside his pillow:

“Good morning, Walter. It’s 6:30am in Amazone 3, Monday, March 8, 2087.  Current temperature is a crisp 11 degrees Ama-Cius. Have a nice day.”

Walter Wallace had received the same wake-up notice every morning of his life since 2060, the year he turned eight. That was the year planet Earth, third rock from the sun, became Amazonia, wholly owned by Amazon.com.

By the middle of the 21st century, the world economy became dominated by Amazon and a few other online retailers and tech giants, like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. For decades the megalomaniacs of those firms pursued shared goals of influence over sectors such as the global consumer goods supply chain, the content origination and curation universe, the global 24/7 news cycle, big data mining/consumer manipulation, etc. Ultimately, planetary control was complete as their long-held geo-economic dominance coalesced with their nascent global political influence.

In 2053, Amazon moved its headquarters from Seattle to occupy the entire lower third of the island formerly known as Manhattan — now called New Bezos, after the company’s late founder. By then, most Earthlings received whatever they needed in life – including employment – from some combination of the tech giants. By 2057, a final merger resulted in absorption of the other tech behemoths by the ultimate powerhouse, as Amazon controlled every function of society, commerce and governance.

Walking to his job as an Amazonia community planner, Walter no longer noticed the constant buzzing of the Amadrones, the iconic device for how the company gained global control, as they delivered goods. The internal nomenclature was “unmanned delivery and surveillance platform,”
or UDASP, because they doubled as aerial spies. Everybody knew that. But Amazonians had long since suspended any expectation of personal privacy or self-determination.

Walter’s parents had told him stories about a diverse marketplace that included something called small businesses. But the same year the planet became Amazonia, the last one closed in what was once Lake Station, Indiana, now part of Amazone 4. Louis Lukedic, Jr. finally gave up the fight against the UDASPs and closed Louie’s Dry Cleaning, the 60-year business his father founded as the new millennia dawned. Besides, Louie Jr.’s children had all been assimilated by Amazon.

Walking to work in what was once Cincinnati, Ohio, all around Walter were Amazon branded buildings, including commercial structures for doing the corporation’s business, and high rises, to house Amazonians. Just last year, Walter, his wife and two children moved into one of the newest buildings. His parent’s generation were the last to experience home-ownership.

Every morning Walter stopped at an AmaMac SDD (sustenance delivery device) to procure a green breakfast wafer that tasted better than it looked, and coffee-flavored liquid. As a holographic scan confirmed whose personal Amaccount to debit, a strange noise came out of the SDD.

Eeep—Eeep—Ee —

“Wazzat?”  Walter grunted loudly, as he slapped the snooze button. “Where am I?”

“Honey, are you okay?” Walter’s wife, Wilma asked. “I think you had a nightmare.”

“Boy, I’ll say,” Walter exclaimed, wiping the sweat from the back of his neck.  “I dreamed Amazon had taken over the world. I tell you, Wilma, it was awful — they owned everything. There were no small businesses anywhere. All the people had blank stares on their faces as they went about their lives. Even me.”

Opening the morning paper at breakfast, Walter felt a chill as he read this very real headline, “Retail Ice Age advances as Amazon and other e-tail giants transform Main Street.”

In his small business later that day, Walter thought about his nightmare, the newspaper headline and another dream of his — the one about passing his business on to his children. In a meeting that morning, Walter vowed to fight back harder than ever as he encouraged his staff.

“We must stay focused on what customers expect from us,” Walter continued, “which is our special sauce of combining a certain level of high tech AND the high touch only we can deliver. We’ll combine both to achieve higher margins with what customers want – customization, and leave the commodities – what customers need – to Amazon.”

“And here’s Breaking News: Amazon is 100% digital, but customers are 100% analog. Amazon may deliver dozens of different back scratchers, but it can’t scratch one back. Only a Main Street business like ours can reach that analog itch that’s unique for every customer. Amazon can’t beat us if we keep customers focused on that advantage.”

Write this on a rock … Deliver the small business special sauce and you’ll have nothing to fear from Amazon.

Beware the Barbell Effect, unless you’re a small business

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away – in Internet terms that’s about 10 years ago – a small business owner didn’t have to worry too much about macro-economics. Well, that was a nice trip down Memory Lane.

Today, Main Street business owners have to operate every day in their micro-economy, while keeping an eye on what’s happening at the macro level. Alas, macro-economics isn’t easy to get your head around when your highest priority on Monday morning is to cover payroll on Friday.

Here’s a handy macro-economy metaphor: the Barbell Effect. Essentially, this phenomenon occurs when natural forces – new technology, innovations, shifts in demographics and behavior, etc. – disrupts entrenched, legacy practices of an industry. The disruptive pressure squeezes industry players who fail to adapt causing them to contract into the bar. Those who adapt find their way to the bell ends, where there’s room to expand.

At the macro level, the barbell doesn’t exist prior to the disruptive pressure – it’s the result, not the cause. In the marketplace, the energy causing the disruption is customers empowered with new expectations. This will be on the test: When customers are empowered, businesses are disrupted and barbells are likely.

There have been many examples of the Barbell Effect – some small and local, and some even global. I read recently about a housing barbell in one city where units on the high and low ends – the bells – were selling well, while the ones in the middle – the bar – not so much. The American banking industry has experienced its own Barbell Effect this century. As big banks got bigger on one end of the barbell, community banks hung in there on the other end, while medium-sized banks experienced financial claustrophobia as the bar got thinner and thinner.

Right now, the Barbell Effect is creating an existential reaction that can literally be watched by Main Street small businesses from their front doors as no-longer-relevant retail giants are closing hundreds of stores at a breathtaking pace. Here are some numbers: As of this year, 200 Sears stores closing brings their numbers down 60% in the past 5 years, while K-Mart is shuttering over 100 locations. Macy’s is closing 100 stores, and JC Penney is projecting 300 store closings. And besides these big guys, many medium-size retailers are also making the acquaintance of the bar between the bells.

The pressure creating this retail barbell is arising from new and evolving customer expectations, which increasingly means higher adoption of e-commerce – online shopping/purchasing. But the new expectation isn’t about unique products, lower prices, or better service, it’s the most powerful relevance advantage in The Age of the Customer: saving time. Technological innovations and customer care practices – easier mobile shopping and electronic payment, plus free delivery and easy returns – are saving customers enough time to change their shopping behavior and create a barbell.

As we witness the disruption – if not the end – of traditional, big box retail, let’s remember the good news about the Barbell Effect: It has two fat ends – the bells. On one end of the retail barbell are disruptive companies like Amazon, Google, and any other purveyors of the online retail model. On the other end are small businesses that understand that the online, digital model cannot fulfill all of the expectations of their analog customers. Indeed, the current Barbell Effect is producing a customer experience vacuum that will be filled very profitably by small retailers who deliver the special sauce of the both/and business model: traditional, analog retail (High Touch), combined with online, digital capability (High Tech).

In my next column I’m going to reveal what it takes to maintain occupancy of the fat ends of the barbell, and why this current retail phenomenon is great news for small business CEOs who see the micro-impact of the macro-economy.

Write this on a rock … Blasingame’s Law of Business Love: “It’s okay to fall in love with what you do; it’s not okay to fall in love with how you do it.”

When trust is a best practice, profit margins increase

Few contemporary prophecies have stood the test of time better than this one by John Naisbitt, from his 1982 watershed book, Megatrends: “The more high-tech, the more high-touch.” I call that, “Naisbitt’s Razor.”

The reason for Naisbitt’s accuracy is simple: High tech, by definition, means digital. But you and I are not the least bit digital; we’re 100% analog. And our analog nature manifests as a desire to connect with – or as Naisbitt says, “touch” – other humans. So the value of touch increases proportionally with the increase in the velocity of our lives.

Digital is fast; analog is not. We may transport ourselves virtually at the speed of digital, but once there, we touch -eye, ear, hand – at the speed of analog. So how do we reconcile the fact that as high-tech consumers who desire and eagerly adopt each new generation of digital, we’re still, and will always be, analog beings? One word: trust.

Nothing is more capable of accelerating with high-tech while simultaneously governing down to high-touch than trust. Naisbitt didn’t directly address the concept of trust in his book. But I interviewed him twice on my radio program and I think he wouldn’t mind if I expanded his razor to: The more high-tech we have, the more imperative trust becomes.

In another of my favorite books, Built On Trust, by co-author and frequent guest on my radio program, Arky Ciancutti, M.D., I found this: “We are a society in search of trust. The less we find it, the more precious it becomes.” For millennia, customers did business with the same businesses because they wanted to deal with the same people. We trusted the people first and the company second. In an era where erosion of the high touch of trust is often lamented by customers and employees, there are still places where it not only exists, but was actually born. Where, in contrast to the rest of the contemporary marketplace, trust is still found in abundance. Those places are almost all on Main Street in the form of small businesses.

With trust now more precious than ever, build the foundation of your small business’s culture on it. And when you can deliver on trust as your North Star, you’ve earned the right to go to market with it. Here’s an example:  Reveal the combined industry tenures of your leadership team (101 years), or the average tenure of your staff (18 years). When prospects see those numbers, they hear T-R-U-S-T.

In one interview on my show, Arky said, “An organization in which people earn one another’s trust, and commands trust from customers, has an advantage.” Since contemplating that, I’ve maintained that being devoted to trust is not only the right thing to do, it’s a business best practice. Let me explain.

As the velocity of the digital marketplace increases, our business has to move faster, and our stakeholders – employees, vendors, etc. – have to keep up. As one of my vendors, if I can trust you to keep up, that’s a relevance value worth more to me than the competitive price of a low-bidder I don’t know. You just converted trust into higher margins.

In the greater marketplace, where devotion to trust is no longer ubiquitous, small businesses have been handed a rare gift. And all they have to do to claim it is create and leverage the relevance advantage Arky means when he says, “The advantage trust gives your organization is there for the taking, waiting to be harvested. It’s not even low-hanging fruit. It’s lying on the ground.”

You may have heard me say that the Price War is over and small business lost. Well, the Trust War is on, and small business is winning.

Write this on a rock … To claim that victory you must operate at the speed of trust.

Small business lessons from big business mistakes

Here is a true story from which several business lessons can be learned.

A while back, I needed to reach a friend who worked in the local office of a national company. Searching online, and yes, even the phone book, I found only a toll-free number that connected to an answering system for the entire company. That’s right – this business didn’t publish a number for the local office. And incredibly, the automated system did not offer an option to connect to any local branch or person. I’m not making this up!

Lesson 1: Don’t create barriers to customers. Even if you think you don’t have barriers, look anyway, because you might. Ask employees and customers to help you find them.

Undaunted, I finally acquired the local number (yes, they had one), but the person who answered said my friend, who was in sales, had been laid off. It turns out, this publicly-traded corporation was losing money, so in order for the CEO to impress Wall Street analysts, who influence the stock price, almost 2,000 employees across the company were told to hit the bricks.  Never mind how valuable these employees were or if those cuts would hurt the company’s long-term performance; the quickest way to increase profits was to cut payroll.

Lesson 2: Performance goals are important for planning, but customers don’t always buy on your schedule. Don’t let short-term expense pressures cost you sales, and worse, long-term customer relationships.

I learned that my friend had been a top producer, but since he was the last one hired he was the first to go. He’s no longer a payroll drain on his former employer, but one of their competitors quickly snapped up this winner.

Lesson 3: In the 21st century, seniority doesn’t trump performance.

So what if this big business CEO had simply installed a phone system that made sure customers could connect to his local offices? The answer is that my friend and several hundred others may not have been fired. And who knows? By simply eliminating one customer barrier, this company might actually have needed to hire more salespeople to handle all the business that would not have gone elsewhere.

Lesson 4: How you run your business – including people, systems, technology and policies – is not more important than the fast-evolving expectations of prospects and customers.

By the way, that big business that taught us these valuable lessons is no longer in business. Big surprise.

Write this on a rock … Think you don’t have customer barriers? Neither did that big business CEO.

Three important people you want to be close to you

Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you.

In 1970, the brother/sister act, The Carpenters, took these lyrics and the rest of the song, “Close To You” to the top of the charts. Velvet-voiced Karen sang lead, with brother Richard contributing lyrics and sweet harmony.

Out here on Main Street, small businesses should hum that tune every day to remind themselves about the three most important stakeholders they want to be close to.

Customers
Every business, large and small, longs to be close to its customers. But getting customers to return the favor is the challenge. Time was, when a business was a critical link to certain products and services for customers. Longing to be close to us, customers – and their loyalty – weren’t so illusive. Today, almost everything needed by customers can be purchased within a few miles of your business from competitors that didn’t exist when the Carpenters topped the charts. Throw in the Internet and e-commerce and what isn’t a commodity today?

The good news for Main Street is that small and nimble increasingly trumps big and strong. With few exceptions, we can’t compete with the big guys on price, selection, or brand intimidation. But we can make customers want to be close to us is by scratching an itch the big boxes can’t always reach: customization.

If you want customers to suddenly appear, find out what keeps them up at night. And don’t expect the answer to be a burning need for your product or service. If you deliver a customized solution, customers will long for your business because you added unique value they can use. And here’s the silver bullet of customer longing: Help your customers help their customers.

The other good news is that customization justifies higher margins than off-the-shelf offerings. If it’s truly focused on the customer’s solution, they’ll pay for it and come back for more.

Vendors
Once-upon-a-time, a vendor was a company from which you purchased inventory, raw materials, and operating supplies. Today, if a vendor isn’t longing to be your partner, you’ve got the wrong vendor.

Of course, we’re at once a customer to vendors and a vendor to customers. Consequently, we have to find vendor-partners as well as be one. In these roles, it’s important to understand a concept that has become part of the romance between 21st century vendors and customers: seamless.

In a world of outsourcing as a management strategy, the goal is not merely to reduce in-house staff. If outsourcing is to work, products and services MUST be delivered so seamlessly to us by our vendors, and by us to our customers, that operating efficiencies actually improve.

Small businesses have a greater opportunity today to accomplish the hand-in-glove level of closeness required for seamless delivery. And we can’t deliver seamlessly to customers unless vendors long to be seamlessly close to us.

Employees
Back when the Carpenters were belting out hits, the employer/employee relationship was based largely on the Dominator Management Model, which is to say, not much closeness. Employees longed for the perceived job security and benefits of a paternalistic employer. But in the 21st century, employees are drawn closer to leaders.

Today, employers must be able to show employees that we long for them. The best way to demonstrate our longing is to close the gap between what the company needs and what employees want. This means finding and keeping employees who become stakeholders.

If you want employees to long for you, you have to suddenly appear as a partner longing to support their professional and personal fulfillment. And no one can do this better than small business.

Write this on a rock … Find and keep customers, vendors, and employees who long to be close to you.

Four marketplace truths about your customers

Spend time in the marketplace and you’ll have many close encounters of the third kind with the most interesting species in all of nature: the human being. And as we have learned, the nature of humans isn’t much different from other animals: All need to breathe, eat, drink, procreate and survive.

But there is something that clearly sets humans apart from other fauna: sentience. And one of the manifestations of being self-aware is that beyond what humans need, they also want.

Every human who owns an automobile will need to buy new tires. But what they want is to keep the family safe while not spending a Saturday buying tires. So if you’re in the tire business, should you advertise tires, which are commodities that the Big Boxes can sell cheaper than your cost? Or should you develop and market a customer loyalty program that combines peace of mind for your family with pick-up and delivery? How about this tag line:

Let us worry about when you need new tires and get your Saturday back.

Basically the hairless weenies of the family animalia, human beings need shelter, but we want a home. So if you’re a realtor, should you focus on the obligatory list of residential features, or how the physical setting and interior space fit what you’ve learned is your customer’s sense of a home?  Try this on:

Mrs. Johnson, countertops can be replaced. What I want to know is how much will you love seeing the sun rising over that ridge as you enjoy your first cup of coffee every morning?

Humans, like thousands of other warm-blooded species, need to eat every day, whether they get to or not. But unlike other animals, only humans want to dine. If you own a fine dining restaurant, do you emphasize the food, or the potential for a lasting memory? Check it out:

Long after you’ve forgotten how wonderful our food is, you’ll still remember that table for two in the corner or the booth next to the fireplace.

Small business success requires understanding these marketplace truths:

1. What customers need are commodities driven by price.

2. The price war is over, and small business lost.

3. What customers want is anywhere from a little bit more to everything.

4. Customers will pay more for what they want – charge them for delivering it.

As a small business success strategy, delivering what customers want or selling commodities they need, is as Mark Twain said, “like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Write this on a rock … Find out what humans want, deliver it, and charge for it.

Relevance is the Customer’s new prime expectation

When describing what influences the behavior of individuals as they pursue their lives, you would likely include concepts associated with goals, plans, passion, desire, ego, personality, etc. In matters of human interaction as we meet, love, and work together, there is often an abiding struggle between my passion and your ego, for example, or your goals and my plans. Indeed, successful long-term personal relationships are based more on my tolerance of you today and your forbearance of me tomorrow. Give and take.

But in the marketplace, affection and sentiment give way to performance and contracts, because tolerance and forbearance are usually subjective, often inefficient, and sometimes even unproductive. Consequently, a very powerful concept has developed over the millennia that is the nucleus of how marketplace participants minimize conflict and find common ground. In classically efficient marketplace style, I’ve reduced this concept to one word: expectations.

For example, the most important thing for you to know about someone with whom you’re negotiating a contract is that party’s expectations—especially that one, true, uncompromising expectation, beyond which they won’t go. But nowhere has the quest for expectation clarity been more in evidence than between Seller and Customer. Because the quicker a Customer’s expectations about value and values can be determined, the quicker the Seller can find a way to fulfill those expectations and make the sale.

For 10,000 years, during the Age of the Seller, Customer expectations were driven by consumption created by innovation. And all of this was around products and services produced and delivered by Sellers to Customers who essentially became passive recipients of the next innovation. Think of all of the new things Customers have acquired for the first time in the past century: cars, kitchen appliances, radios, televisions, personal computers, and iPods, just to name a few.

But now, in The Age of the Customer, expectations are less about new things and more about new empowerment. Rather than anticipating a brand new product, Customers are more likely to get excited about a new smartphone app that helps them find, review, compare, pay for, and take delivery. And increasingly, Customers are eliminating Sellers at this level of relevance, which is often before they know about competitiveness.

A Seller’s acquisition and retention of Customers is now more about being relevant to their influence and control over the acquisition process, and less about what’s being acquired. Let me say that another way: Customer expectations become less about what you sell and more about how you make a transaction handy, convenient, time-saving, on-demand, pre-appraised, on multiple platforms, in multimedia, etc. This is a big part of the definition of relevance, and it’s the new prime expectation of Customers.

An expectation of relevance is the new coin of the realm. Disregard this Age of the Customer truth at your own peril.

Write this on a rock … The original prime expectation was competitiveness. The new one is relevance.

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.

Leave the Age of the Seller behind for the Age of the Customer.

Your customers kn