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Is your business on the Highway or the Byway?

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=highway+signs&iid=259699″ src=”0256/8cc02d39-2a22-43c0-ba77-ab28011c1391.jpg?adImageId=8890792&imageId=259699″ width=”234″ height=”158″ /]We all can admit that 2010 is going to be an uphill climb for businesses of all kinds and sizes.  Doesn’t matter if you are a solo-preneur or a global conglomerate with 20,000 employees…it’s an uphill climb.  And maybe now, this week, maybe even today, you decide on which road you will travel: the highway or the byway.

The highway is a main public road that connects one town or city with another.  It’s an artery connecting people one to another making commerce both possible and efficient.  The byway is a little out-of-the-way side road.  It is little traveled and isn’t really meant to be a commercial artery.

There was a feature story in my newspaper’s business section this morning that showcased a small family business that I believe is on the highway.  To me, some of the signposts of being on the highway are:

  • a dream and passion for the business
  • determination to make the business work
  • great customer service
  • offering added value

The article by David Morrill, Contra Costa Times, is titled “Vacuum center owner on job 7 days a week,” [different title in online version].  In reading the article, I find that Mr. Raees Iqbal’s business, Western Vacuum & Sewing Center, is not only traveling on the highway, Mr. Iqbal carries all the signposts. [from the article]

  • a dream and passion for the business – “…‘It’s great to be able to offer something that every single house needs,’ he said. ‘We give them good dependable vacuum cleaners to help keep their homes clean….'”
  • a determination to make the business work – “…Raees Iqbal keeps the doors open seven days a week. And he works nearly every day…’Right now we are just trying to hang out here and make it work,” Iqbal said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep it going….'”
  • great customer service – “…Iqbal knows his company needs to be on top of the industry. Every vacuum cleaner brand that comes in, he needs to be able to fix. If a customer needs a part, it has to be on the shelf.…”
  • offering added value – “…’We have to treat everybody like they’re VIP,’ he said….”

These signposts of being on the highway are no guarantee of success certainly.  They are, however, indicators that the business is making every effort to be alive and vibrant.  Just like Mr. Iqbal is quoted in Mr. Morrill’s story, he’s willing to do what he must to keep his business going.  The article is not a long or comprehensive one, but Mr. Morrill gave a pretty clear picture of one small business owner’s strategy for 2010:

  • be available to customers – keeping his store open 7 days a week is one way
  • provide needed services onsite – keeping up-to-date on his industry and keeping his shelves stocked with parts
  • have a customer-centered business – in his own words, “…treat everybody like they’re VIP….”
  • keep the dream alive – “‘…make sure that you are really passionate about what you want to do and have a whole lot of patience.…'”

Not to put too fine a point on it and turn this into nothing but flowery prose I think what’s important for all of us who own businesses and wish to remain in business this year is to determine what we’re going to be willing to do to stay on the highway and off the side roads: defining the dream and vision; knowing our industry and products and services inside and out; offering customers quality care and added value…and hanging in there.

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Let’s make Courtesy the Hallmark in Business for 2010

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=new+years+++ball+2010&iid=7442881″ src=”8/a/6/2/Ball_Drop_In_dc39.jpg?adImageId=8778463&imageId=7442881″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]A hallmark is a distinctive characteristic or attribute.  Kind of like a stamp used on gold and silver coins to mark them for purity and excellence.  If you get a gold coin with this hallmark, then you know it’s pure.

Courtesy, in a simple definition, is a polite gesture.  You say “thanks” when someone picks up the coin you dropped on the floor at the cash register or you say “no, you go first” when approaching a door and the person next to you has their hands loaded with packages.  Simple courtesy.

Since we just finished the major shopping season of the year for 2009 and most of us braved the stores amid madding crowds I wonder if you can recall moments of simple courtesy?  How many business people extended courtesy when the crowds were at their crush-iest and most demanding?  And, did you return courtesy for courtesy?  One example I participated in was to allow a pedestrian to cross the lane in a busy shopping center…I could have just plowed ahead pretending not to see this woman standing there hoping for a break in traffic.  But I reasoned that if it were me, I sure would appreciate having a car stop so I could cross…so I stopped.  She not only acknowledged my effort at courtesy, she returned it by saying loudly, “thank you so much.”

Last year, 2009, wasn’t a fun year in business.  Not a jolly year for the economy.  Too many people suffered job loss and paycheck shrinkage.  2010 may not be much better.   What could be better, however, is our combined efforts at being kind one to another.

  • sales staff people could acknowledge shoppers with a smile and a “how is your day?”
  • counter staff people could say “thank you for your business” and “is there any other way I can be of service today?”
  • on-site managers could both be kind to the employees and the customers – give the employees much needed positive reinforcement such as “you did a great job on that report,” or “I appreciate how you handled that situation with that customer,” or even “is there anything I can do to make your job easier?” [in some cases this could be a better chair or new keyboard or some added training]; the on-site manager could come out of his or her office and help customers…in a retail setting, the manager does not get sales compensation and shouldn’t take anything away from the commission-earning sales staff, but maybe the manager could help to tidy up the sales counter or do a little stocking of shelves to help
  • business leaders could literally lead in this effort by making courtesy a hallmark of doing business this year: acknowledge that raises may not come this year and no one might get a bonus, but that doesn’t mean that positive reinforcement needs to dry up.  Business leaders could do everything within their current budget creatively to make their businesses a positive place to work for the employees and a positive place for customers and clients to do business
  • solo-preneurs [single person businesses and home-based business owners] can also adopt the hallmark of courtesy in their relations with clients, customers, suppliers and competitors

What about the consumer? I’m not leaving them out either.  We’re all consumers, every one of us.  We all shop at the grocery store and gas station.  We all purchase food for our pets and visit our health care providers.  In every instance we can say “thank you for taking your time,” and “I appreciate your finding this,” and “yes, please” and even “no, thank you.”

Simple courtesy practiced and perfected by all of us on both sides of the business plate just might make this New Year a bit more pleasant for all.

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Once again great customer service added value

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=kittens&iid=5151228″ src=”d/a/a/7/closeup_of_a_31e6.jpg?adImageId=8348152&imageId=5151228″ width=”234″ height=”185″ /]This story of great customer service with a huge dose of “added value” involves cats.  And purchasing Christmas gifts.  And it is the antithesis example of the bad customer service I received from a vendor at an event recently.

We were attending a three-day event at the county fairgrounds – there were actually several events going on that weekend at the fairgrounds.  One of them was a cat show, the All Breed Cat Show presented by Fog City Cat Club.  During a break on one of the days I decided to drop into the cat show and see what it was all about.  Admittedly I’m a bit allergic to cat hair, well, I always thought I was “a bit” allergic previous to this because both my daughters have cats and when I visit my nose gets stuffy and my eyes water some.

I paid my entrance fee into the exhibition hall and saw that the vendors were situated right at the entrance area.  So, I browsed.  There was art – paintings, prints, notecards and jewelry; there were sweatshirts and teeshirts with cat images; there were items for cats: scratch posts, beds and food dishes; there were gift items too – coffee mugs, teapots, socks, bags…lots of merchandise.  One vendor had quite a nice collection of items and I saw a few things I thought might make good gifts for Christmas for my daughters.  Before shopping however, I was curious to get further into the building and see all the cats.

Good grief, I got only two rows in before my eyes began watering, my nose got very stuffy and my throat scratchy.  It hit me like “I should’ve had a V-8” in the forehead that I wasn’t just a bit allergic to cats – I am very allergic to cats.

I turned around and made my way directly to the vendor with the gift ideas I wanted to look at again.  The sales person answered my questions and helped me to make my choices.  She began to get concerned for me because the longer I stayed in the building the worse my allergic symptoms were getting.  Both she and I were hurrying by the time I paid for my purchases using my credit card…in fact, I could barely see because my eyes were watering so much and I sounded very funny saying “Thag you berry muj” as I hurried out of the building.

Now here’s the added value customer service:

  • as she packaged up my purchases, she gave me a gift just for me: a necklace with a charm formed as a bird – I had told her that, whereas my daughters were cat people, I am a bird person
  • she had remembered during our conversation that I was an attendee at one of the other events and could be found at a particular booth…in the scurry to get me and my allergy free of the cats, she had neglected to return my credit card to me [and I to get it back]…she came and found me to give it back

When talking about customer service and giving added value we sometimes forget that the added value can be as simple as courtesy and as expansive as returning someone’s credit card to them.

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Starbucks and iTunes and artists-added value excellence

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=starbucks+coffee&iid=6110000″ src=”9/d/e/2/Starbucks_To_Raise_f2ab.jpg?adImageId=7988679&imageId=6110000″ width=”234″ height=”154″ /]I know what you’re thinking – “Linda, you are so behind the game! This is old news!” Well, as I’ve said before, I get excited about something that is new-to-me and I think this is terrific.  It’s added value up the wazoo!

Sometimes regular good customer service gets taken for granted:

  • You walk into a retail shop and the clerk acknowledges you with a smile or “hello” – this is good customer service.
  • While looking over some merchandise the sales person offers to show you another color or something similar that might interest you – this is good customer service
  • When you pay for your purchase the clerk thanks you and asks if there is anything else he/she can do [offer to carry out to your car a large item, or double-bag a heavy item] – this is great customer service

Added value in customer service comes when:

  • while shopping you stop into the restroom and not only is it clean and supplied properly, it is decorated attractively
  • there are live plants, well tended, decorating the establishment and the background music is pleasing
  • an attendant or clerk goes before you to open the door as you leave [often Applebee’s does this] wishing you a good day
  • a wireless hotspot that costs you nothing to use and actually works

These are all examples of added value…something added to your experience that didn’t cost you a penny.

I’m not a frequenter of the Starbucks solo locations as I often get a latte at the in-store Starbucks booth at my local Safeway grocery store [which is, itself, an added value service on the part of both Safeway and Starbucks].  However, last Friday morning, I asked my husband to stop at the location adjacent to the freeway as we were heading out of town.  While standing in line I noticed a stack of business cards with the title “Pick of the Week” and was curious.

It became clear that this is a collaboration between Starbucks,  iTunes and music artists [this card had a song by James Yuill]…a collaboration that does these things:

  • for me, the customer, I’m introduced to a musician whom I don’t know yet or I’m being treated to a free download of a tune of an artist I’m familiar with; in any case this card represents a free download from iTunes
  • for me, the customer, if I’m not acquainted with iTunes, this is a great introduction – a free down-loadable tune
  • for iTunes this is a chance to intrigue a potential new customer and give added value to a current customer
  • for the music artist is is an opportunity for exposure to many new fans
  • for Starbucks this is a great way to fulfill one of the things I think every customer wants: a reason to return

Yes this is all “advertising” and “publicity” and “promotion.”  These companies and the music artist wouldn’t engage in this collaboration unless there was a reasonable expectation of return [customers/clients/profit].  However, it is an imaginative and creative way to give customer service added value.

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2 things you ought to expect in customer service

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=salesman&iid=3751540″ src=”2/2/4/c/Consumer_Confidence_Index_c98c.jpg?adImageId=7966807&imageId=3751540″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]Let’s set a situation: a three-day event that includes an area with vendors booths.  You are an attendee to the event eager to purchase from several vendors who carry the merchandise you’re looking for.  This scenario is quite common:

  • cat and dog shows: cat and dog owners hope to garner ribbons and awards for their pets and vendors sell a variety of goods that have something to do with cats or dogs – sweatshirts with cat/dog images, cat/dog-shaped teapots, paintings, notecards, scratching posts, dog beds…a huge variety
  • model train expos – besides model train displays, vendors carry train cars, display setup materials and a host of items for sale that model train enthusiasts look for
  • outdoor art shows and festivals – these offer people the opportunity to view and enjoy art, much like an art museum experience, and also the chance to purchase art from the artists with booths at the show

There are plenty of other examples.  The point of this post is to explore what you, as a consumer, ought to expect in the way of customer service from a vendor.  Vendors are businesses.  The person in the booth either is the business owner himself or is a representative of a parent company.  In either case their desire is to sell merchandise.

As a customer entering a vendor booth you look around, look over the merchandise and make a selection.  What might you expect in the way of customer service from the vendor?  At minimum, in my opinion, the vendor should provide:

  1. attention– this is a golden opportunity at the point of sale between the vendor and the customer.  The customer has the potential of representing many more prospective customers.  Don’t rush the encounter.   And don’t pressure the customer.   Try to have the customer feel as though they are valued and not just another “sale.”
  2. respectbe gracious and courteous. Your customer has value to your business and deserves the niceties of please and thank you and is there any other way I may serve you?

Both of these expectations might not be what you thought I’d say.  Usually I say these things about customer service:

  • give your customers quality and value
  • give your customers enough information to make an informed decision as to whether to purchase the service or product

I mention attention and respect because this past weekend I did attend a two-day event which had many vendors selling a variety of merchandise in which I was interested.   The vendor in one of the booths had quite a bit of interesting things but I couldn’t get the person to give me the necessary information I needed to make a good purchase decision.  In fact, I couldn’t get the vendor to even acknowledge my presence.   There were only two vendors selling the merchandise I was looking for.  And in this booth especially were some items the other vendor didn’t have.  And I had cash money.  I was a paying customer.  Here’s why I left without buying:

  • no attention – the vendor stood talking with the only other person in the booth – who was the vendor of the adjoining booth…not even a customer
  • no respect – basic courtesy should have brought the vendor out of his stupor and to my side asking if I had any questions.  I actually had a couple pieces of merchandise in hand, but when it became clear I was going to get no service, I just put them back down and left the booth

Made me wonder if some business owners, whether with tiny businesses or huge businesses, feel they have an entitlement...entitlement to commerce if-you-will.  Some business owners convey an attitude of not needing any one particular person’s business because they have so many other customers.  I think this is a dangerous attitude to have for longterm business health.  Why?  One of the “rules” of commerce:

  • an unhappy customer or client is guaranteed to tell someone about his/her dissatisfaction…that alone could lose the unlucky business current and prospective clients and could hurt the business’ reputation

One thing important to remember, again my opinion only, is that our customers are the lifeblood of our business…it is basic mathmatics:

  • customer plus cash equals sales equates to profit equates to business health and future longevity in the marketplace

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What do Chevys, Paula Deen and Walmart have in common?

From time-to-time I write about what customers want. I’ve written about the 3 Key Things Customers Want and I’ve written about having enthusiasm for your own product – are you aware that there are small and home-based business owners out there trying to peddle products and/or services about which they are not excited nor passionate?  How can you give a personal testimony about something you don’t like or use yourself?  But I digress.

[picapp src=”3/a/f/c/Salad_with_a_e0d9.jpg?adImageId=7117953&imageId=5067630″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]I’m a customer and today I’m writing about three new-to-me products that I find have – for me – quality, value and give me a reason to go back:

1.  Chevys Fresh Mex restaurant – a new salad, the “Grilled Wedge Salad.”  I couldn’t find a description on the website’s menu so I phoned my town’s location.  The price in my area is $8.99 and if you want chicken with it, it’s one dollar more.  A fellow named Bruce helped me and said this is a special that’s only been out a week or two.  We happened to stop in our Chevys this past Saturday and I was intrigued enough to try it…it was delicious!  I very seldom brag on the products of other businesses unless they happen to greatly impress me.  For whatever reason this salad did…so much so, I went back on Monday and had it again.  I didn’t have chicken with it; rather, I asked for a side of 4 ounces of grilled shrimp.  OMG – it was very good.  The idea seems to be to take two hearts of romaine and lay them on the grill then top them with various condiments and put the whole thing on a light pond of Ranch dressing.  That plus some chips, salsa and iced tea made for a great lunch.

For me this salad met my definition for quality – the salad ingredients were fresh and very tasty; value – what I received for the money I paid was reasonable; and as you can already see, I did return.

2.  Paula Deen 5 qt. Covered Saute – The story here is twofold: (1) I’m of an age that my kitchen cupboards are filled with an archeology lesson’s worth of old pots and pans; and (2) I’ve just re-discovered my love of cooking.  I’ve been cooking since age 8 when I began helping my mom in the kitchen and have gone through periods of both loving and loathing my kitchen.  There have been days when the very thought of having to think up one more menu was more than I could take and I phoned for pizza delivery.  However, something this past year has reawakened my culinary creativeness and I’ve been having rather a lot of fun trying new recipes.  But there is something sad about trying a new recipe using beat-up pitiful pots and pans.

I regularly used this old, dented quite large wok-type pan for just about everything.  But last week I took a good look at it and realized it was probably doing more harm than good to my cooking efforts so off to the store I went to find a replacement.  Because I was also in the market for a new slow cooker – mine went on the fritz and would only cook on high – I went to my local Walmart.  Found the slow cooker I wanted at a good price.  Then I began to peruse the cookware.  I haven’t purchased any new cookware in a great many years.  I may want to get a cast iron fry pan one of these days and Walmart had some already seasoned, but not this visit.  There were several brands of cookware and in prices ranging from the very economical to a range of $30 to $50 per piece.  And then I saw it: a large, covered pan in a really pretty blue color.  The brand was “Paula Deen,” one of the many famous cooks I’ve seen on cookbook covers at the bookstore.  I saw that Walmart offered a selection of single items as well as boxed sets of this brand.  My budget this week only allowed one item so I chose the 5 qt. covered saute in a pretty blue.  I’ve already used it three times since Saturday.  It meets my qualifications for quality and value and I will go back and get more Paula Deen-branded cookware.

I did do some research on the internet about this cookware and the only negative comment I found was someone’s displeasure that the cookware is made in Thailand.  And, yes, right on the cardboard sleeve for the piece I purchased it says: “Manufactured in Thailand for Meyer Corporation One Meyer Plaza, Vallejo, CA 94590.” [Meyer Corp. also manufactures the Rachael Ray brand cookware.] I’m all for things made in the USA, but I also believe we live in a global economy.  One of my next door neighbors was born and raised in Thailand.  She goes back every summer to visit her family and has told me wonderful stories about her country.  Her mother came out one year, she speaks only Thai, but she and I managed to connect over the fact that we’re both grandmothers.  So, I don’t have a problem with the fact that the Paula Deen cookware is manufactured in Thailand.

3.  Puritan brand solid twill shirt –  Coincidentally, my third product of mention that is new-to-me I also found at Walmart.  Funny, my dad used to say “We’re going to The Wahl Mart.”  For dad this was a trip right up there with visiting the tool section at Sears.  I have certain items I purchase at certain places and, like any other consumer, I comparison shop and I look for bargains.

On this particular day I was just wandering around in the store.  I’ve never previously visited the men’s clothing section of Walmart as I purchase my husband’s clothing at other retailers.  But this day I was drawn into the department because I caught a glimpse of a striking color shirt…a deep reddish burgundy.  I like to wear a man’s long-sleeve shirt as a light jacket or overshirt and thought this might be a great color for my own wardrobe if the quality was okay.  I’m not going to disparage Walmart and its brands here, but I don’t go into a discount store expecting high quality in clothing.  Having said that I was very surprised at the quality of this shirt.  The brand is Puritan, which I learned on Wikipedia, is one of the brands that Walmart carries.  The shirt is made of solid [cotton] twill – a heavy-duty fabric that holds up well to wear.  I liked the look of the shirt, it appeared to be well made and came in several colors.  I tried one on and the fit was good for my needs.  I bought two.  That evening I had my husband try on one and he liked it so I returned the next day and bought three more.  This item met my definitions of quality – in manufacture and materials; in value – the shirt was $9 – I almost ignored it because the price was so low; and I had a reason to return – to purchase more.  I’ve already washed these shirts and they came out just fine.

Their purchases notwithstanding, customers want for their money quality, value and a reason to return.  Give your customers those three things…as well as the added value of good customer service and your business will be ahead of the curve.

 

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Best point of sale customer service at a KFC

Who knew that I’d observe the best example of point-of-sale customer service at a fast food place?  This past weekend I was traveling and stopped off the freeway at Sacramento [California].  I wanted to call my husband, rest for a short while and have a quick snack.  The Kentucky Fried Chicken/A&W place was easily the best choice to allow me quick back-to-the-freeway access.

KFC/A&W Del Paso Rd in Sacramento, CA

KFC/A&W Del Paso Rd in Sacramento, CA

When I entered the establishment, there was just one fellow ahead of me in line.  He was ordering for three and not sure of his choices.  Waiting on him at the cash register was a friendly young woman.  Now, at first, I didn’t pay any attention to the sale going on before me…I was thinking about my day and staying on my travel schedule.  I began to tune in though because of what I was hearing.  The sales person was patiently giving the young man explanations of the differences between the various ways in which KFC’s chicken is cooked; she told him what the specials were and pointed out the new beverages [I ended up with the limeade – it was good].  He changed his mind a couple of times, but she didn’t miss a beat.  She exhibited all the traits of a truly skilled and competent sales person:

  • provided enough information about the choices for the customer to make an informed purchasing decision
  • her smile was warm and genuine
  • she was patient…she treated him as though his purchase was important
  • courtesy was in every sentence…she used “please,” “thank you,” referred to him as “sir” and looked him in the eye
  • she made sure his order was exactly what he wanted before concluding the sale and then thanked him for his business
Sheba, salesperson extraordinairre

Sheba, salesperson extraordinairre

After the young man left the register and it was my turn, I told this young woman that I was very impressed with her friendly professionalism.  I explained that I wrote a business blog and was going to write about this with her permission.  I also asked if I could take her photo, to which she agreed after checking with the on-site manager, Robert Greenlee.  Her name is Sheba and she said, “I try to do my best wherever I am.” With customer skills like this, Sheba has a bright future in my opinion.

To be fair, when I was seated at a booth and finishing my snack before heading back onto the freeway, I observed a young man at the register who was also helping a customer with polite consideration.

What really struck me, though, in this experience is that I don’t enter a fast food establishment with the expectation of receiving this level of customer service.  Actually, I’m quite happy if the counter person gets my order correct.  We should ask the question: should there be “levels” of customer service dependent upon the ticket price of the merchandise? If I spend $100 on an item of clothing, or if I eat at a restaurant at which entrees begin at $25-30 I expect to get good or even great service.  Shouldn’t I also expect good or even great service when my total ticket is $3.78?  I think the answer is yes. It’s important for any business, regardless of industry, to remember that a happy, satisfied customer is going to tell others.  A business’ reputation is built, in part, upon what its customers have to say about it.

What do your customers say about your business?

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