Customer Service is an Attitude

Today I am daring to mention that tender subject that makes every woman wince – the annual mammogram.  This is never fun, for any of us, but we do it.  The importance of this exam has been drilled into our heads.  We make jokes (To prepare for your mammogram, lie comfortably on the cold garage floor and have your husband run the car over your breast a few times…), but we still approach the appointment with trepidation.  What if they find something this time?

I took my mother to her appointment recently.  For her, it’s a bigger deal, since she has had breast cancer.  She has beat it and remains cancer free, but you can imagine her level of trepidation and the especially tender state of her breasts after surgery, radiation, etc.  We went to a local breast center, attached to a reputable hospital where her surgeon (a truly wonderful man and skilled surgeon) practices.  If only their attitudes matched his!

Speed and efficiency seemed the primary goals at this location.  Mother is handicapped and walks very slowly with a walker and we could sense the impatience all around.  Ushered to a thinly curtained booth, she was instructed – quickly – to strip from the waist up and put on the gown with the opening in the front.  Then, the woman split.  Mother didn’t hear a word (she’s partially deaf), so I repeated.  I also told her to wash off her deoderant (SOP since it distorts the image), which the woman had forgotten.  Mother changed, then took a seat in the tiny waiting area and I joined her.

The same woman eventually returned, and led Mother into the exam room.  Afterwards, I helped her dress, retrieved her walker and we left.  Once in the car, Mother commented on the technician’s manner during the exam.  For my male readers who have not experienced the joy of a mammogram, you need to understand that you have to assume a very awkward position for this xray, with your breast smashed painfully between a couple of plates.  My handicapped mother was having great difficulty getting into the position and the woman got impatient and angry with her!  Mother defended herself, explaining that she was physically unable to move quickly or into the position quite the way she was being directed, and the woman finally calmed down.  Mother was understandably disturbed by this.  I was outraged.

Now, let us recap.  You have an elderly, handicapped woman who has difficulty moving and hearing, and who had bilateral partial mastectomies and radiation just last year.  She remembers the pain and she is frightened.  If this were your customer, and a very typical one given your trade, how would you treat her?  If you were a manager, how would you direct your employees?  What would be the primary goal for your customer service?

Contrast this with my last mammogram experience, just a few months ago, but at a different breast center.  I was greeted with a smile, handed paperwork with discretion, and asked to take a seat.  Another woman came to get me, ushered me into another room and to a booth with a door, not a thin curtain.  I was given a short gown and directed to place my valuables in a locker, which was supplied with a key on an elastic bracelet.  The very pleasant woman asked if I was wearing deoderant, showed me where the wipes were in case I was, and left me to change my clothes.  While seated in the quiet waiting area adjacent to the dressing booths, another woman came, gave me pamphlets about breast exams and cancer and offered to answer any questions.

During my actual exam, I was handled with kindness.  The technician was efficient, but not rushed.  She was focused on me and making an unpleasant moment pass as easily as possible.  Her manner was professional, unhurried, friendly and reassuring.

What a contrast.  My only concern about all of this is what I will do if my test is positive and I have to choose between my breast center/hospital and Mother’s breast surgeon.  It will be a tough choice.

By the way, our test results were good.  We are both free of cancer.

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Voicemail with Verve: Think before you speak for professional results

Sometimes I think we speak more to voicemail systems than people.  In fact, I have been stunned to silence when the person I am calling actually picks up the phone!  I usually cover my confusion with humor, my normal coping mechanism.  The person I called laughs and we move over my verbal stumble to the purpose of the call.

If we are going to converse well with all the digital receptionists out there, we need to give the process a little more thought so we can convey an image of professionalism.  We may be sitting in a home office wearing a robe and bunny slippers, but our client/prospect/colleague will never know it unless we tell them, right?

So, how does one leave a good voicemail message?  Here are my thoughts.

  1. Start by identifying yourself and your company or organization.  (It’s amazing to me how often this critical first step is left out.)
  2. Speak clearly.  Enunciate.  Don’t speak too quickly.  (Have you ever noticed, with frustration, that many people speak at an excellent, easy to understand pace until they get to their phone numbers?  Then they rattle the number off so fast you can’t get it written down.  Aarrrgghh!)
  3. Leave a complete, but concise message.  Don’t keep rambling on.  The fine details are best left to the actual conversation.
  4. Don’t leave numeric or financial details on a voicemail message!  (My partner often comments about getting detailed financial data on a voicemail message as he drives down the freeway.  Save it!)
  5. Prepare yourself before you dial the phone.  If you know in advance what you want and need to say if you miss the person and get the voicemail, you are far more likely to be able to leave a brief, professional message without stumbling and feeling foolish.

Dennis got a call today from a woman probably intending to follow up on arrangements for a conference he is planning to attend, but he can’t be sure.  She identified herself only by her first name, never mentioned the organization, and simply asked if his registration was complete and his hotel arrangements made.  Then she left her phone number, speeding up to a tempo approaching the speed of light.  He had to listen to the message multiple times to catch the number.  Then he had to guess where she was from and why she was calling.  Not very professional, or even useful. 

The phone is frequently your first contact with a customer or prospect.  How you and your employees answer the phone and leave voicemail messages will leave an impression, maybe an indelible one.  How do you want to be perceived?  Think it through.  Then, once you work out how you leave messages, don’t forget to train employees so they can do the same.  Consistency, across your organization, will give a great impression!

There is a great cartoon, currently posted on our web site, that reminds us of the principle behind my comments here.  It’s from the New Yorker collection and says, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” 


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The Word Cop Pleads for Verb Variety

The Word Cop is back and shaking her head in despair.  This time she despairs over the fact that current popular vernacular appears to contain only 2 verbs.  Those two are “go” and “I’m like”.  That second one isn’t even a real verb, but a made up one.  It makes me cringe every time I hear it.

Come on, folks!  The English language is incredibly rich, allowing such precision and beauty of expression.  It’s fine to use simpler language for casual conversation, but aren’t we going a bit too far here?

Listen to the conversation of our young people to be guaranteed a quick example.  Even more appalling, these speech patterns have crept into adult conversation, both at home and (gulp!) at work.  That’s bad enough.  Then, I started hearing this more and more from people who make their living by speaking – media professionals.  One slip during a casual moment on the air is one thing, but when I start hearing people like Bill O’Reilly using such speech on a fairly regularly basis, I am left to wonder what the world is coming to!

Listen to the conversations around you and consider carefully what you hear.  The general flow will go something like this:

“He said (fill in whatever comment).  I go (fill in whatever reply).”

“She said (fill in another inane, but emotion-producing comment).  I was like (fill in whatever emotion was aroused).”

Whatever happened to “I said” or “I exclaimed” or “I opined”.  (Just trying to keep it pithy, since I mention Bill O’Reilly.)

How about “I felt” or “I was (something else besides “like”).  Try “I was angry” or “I was surprised” or “I was happy”.

Any of my suggestions is far more descriptive and useful in conveying real meaning to the listener.  Think about it and maybe try a different pattern of speech the next time you catch yourself overdoing it with “I go” or “I’m like”.  The Word Cop will be incredibly grateful!

What do you think? 

Posted in Rants & Raves, Words @ Work | 3 Comments

Stumbling economy? Keep it in perspective!

According to an item in today’s online Puget Sound Business Journal, Washington’s unemployment “jumped” from 4.5% to 4.9%.  Granted, any time a job is lost, it hurts.  Particularly if it’s your job!  I’ve been there and truly empathize.

However, we need to hang on to some perspective here.  According to Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee,  ”March was the 18th month in a row that Washington’s unemployment was under 5 percent. It is a phenomenal record, despite the rise in unemployment.”  

Even more telling, if we trouble to remember it, is that an unemployment rate below 5% has long been considered full employment.  The current angst seems a little extreme given these numbers and these facts. 

 In Washington, we are better off than the nation as a whole.  Nationally, the rate jumped to 5.1% in February, from 4.8%.  Even that higher rate is close to that full employment level, although there are areas of real job challenge in the country.  I was born and raised in Michigan where the state’s economic health goes hand in hand with the auto industry.  So they are far closer to a real recession than we are in Washington.  During my last visit to Michigan, seeing so many lakefront mansions in Grosse Pointe for sale, and languishing on the market, was something of a shock. 

Yes, we are facing some real economic challenges in this country, but let’s remember history and count our blessings.  I finished my college education in 1975 and hit the job market with an unemployement rate fluctuating between 8 and 9%!  I am not relying solely on my memory here.  I got those numbers from The Federal Reserve Board – a chart showing civilian unemployment rates from 1974 – 2007.  (Ya gotta love the internet!) 

About 8 years later, when I had saved enough to by my first house, I managed to get an FHA mortgage at 13.5% and thought it was a great deal.  (It was, at the time.  By the mid 1980′s, many of my friends and colleagues had mortgages of 17% and higher!) 

We may have something of a bumpy economic road ahead of us, but let’s not lose sight of the actual numbers.  We can hang onto perspective, and a great deal more calm, if we use real information and logic, not just emotion.

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Bailouts – good or bad for the economy?

Everyone seems to be in an uproar over the economy.  It has reached the point where some concern is certainly warranted.  The pressure is on our government to take immediate steps.  But is this the right approach?  Should our government dive in with big bailouts and big government programs?  Running up more national debt is not going to help our economy.  It will hurt in any number of ways, including further weakening of the dollar.

Over lunch today, I listened to reports and discussions addressing this subject.  Most of it was focused specifically on the mortgage “crisis”.  There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the poor homeowners who can’t manage their increased mortgage payments and may be faced with losing their homes.  Although I feel real compassion for anyone in danger of losing his/her home, I think the current discussion is taking place without adquate context.  That context is this.  Only a very small percentage (around 2% is the number I heard on the news today) of homeowners find themselves in this bind.  The other 98% are meeting their obligations, in spite of adjustable rate mortgages adjusting upwards.  So the crisis is really overblown, at least when considering people losing homes.  You’d hardly know this, to listen to the average newscaster, not to mention the politicians.

So is it right for that responsible 98% to bear the cost for the 2% who overextended themselves?  Because that’s who will bear the cost if the government starts buying mortgages or bailing out homeowners – we, the taxpayers.  I don’t think so.

Should we find ways to offer information, guidance and other support to help struggling homeowners wend their way through the mortgage morass?  Sure!  I’m all for education, coaching, and guidance.  That’s a far better way to deal with the current crisis.  It’s cheaper and more effective in the long run, since a better educated consumer will be more responsible with their choices in future.  Perhaps we can prevent a repeat.

Lest you think me hardhearted or lacking in compassion, let me assure you that I don’t think we should be bailing out corporations, either.  I would much rather see our free market and strong capitalism function without government interference.  It works better that way, ensuring a strong economy for all of us!

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Buying Your First Business – Avoid the 3 biggest mistakes

I’ve helped a lot of clients buy businesses over the years.  I’ve also been brought in after the fact to help fix problems in the businesses.  Suffice it to say that I have observed many buy/sell transactions during my career.  Buying a business and becoming a business owner for the first time is a big deal, the culmination of a dream for many.  Since it matters so much, and entails so much investment of time and dollars, it’s important to make the best purchase decision possible and be well positioned for business success.

The flip side of success is failure.  So why do some of these purchases and dreams of business ownership head south?  I typically see 3 big mistakes new business purchasers make.  Avoid these and you will have a better chance of ultimate success.

  1. Paying too much.  Every business owner thinks his/her company is worth more than it really is.  This is completely understandable, particularly if the seller is the company founder.  It is his/her baby, something created from scratch and built up with passion and extremely hard work.  So, as obvious as this concept is, it constantly amazes me that many business buyers take the initial offering price and go with it.  Do your due diligence!  Research and negotiate.  Delve deeper into the financial information offered by the seller.  Maintain a healthy level of skepticism.  In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”  You want to offer a fair price for the company, but if you pay way too much you risk burdening your new business with a debt load that could sink it.
  2. Buying a job, not a business.  This mistake is most common when employees buy the business from their former boss.  Running a business is not the same as working within that business.  From the time you begin considering the purchase of any business, you need to shift your mindset.  Think like a CEO and look at the business from that perspective or you will not be successful leading the company.
  3. Going it alone.  Sellers usually use a business broker, an attorney, or a business consultant to help them market their companies.  The buyer should also have appropriate assistance.  You are talking about spending a lot of money here, so don’t balk at spending some up front for expert help!  Viewed within the overall context of a business purchase, it’s a relatively small investment.  Don’t rely only on the seller’s attorney.  Have your own counsel.  Work with an experienced consultant to help you value the business, set a price, and negotiate the sale.  Remember Big Mistake #1.

Plan ahead, avoid these three mistakes, and your business purchase will set you up for success as an owner and CEO!

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Dennis, should I buy this business?

The title of today’s post is a question I have been asked many times over the years.  It generally comes from a client who already owns at least one business.  (Issues pertaining to buying one’s first business are quite different and will be addressed in another post.) 

I begin by asking a couple of critical questions.  First, does the company fit with your current business?  Consider the following:

  • Does the business produce a similar product or service?  In this case, it may make sense because you are essentially buying out part of your competition.
  • Is the customer base the same as yours?  This may indicate a good fit.
  • Does the company bring solid repeat customers with it, thus expanding your customer base?
  • Does the company make a complementary product?  One that fits logically with your offerings and expands your product set?

An acquisition will make more sense and have less risk if it fits with or complements your current business. 

The second big question is this.  What do you bring to the table that will make the company better and more profitable?  Additional profit is absolutely necessary to justify and recoup the purchase price, as well as support the debt usually incurred to make the purchase.

  • Do you have ideas to enhance the business that the current owner is not attempting at present?
  • Are there synergies with your business that will ultimately enhance results?  Economies of scale?
  • Can you bring a needed cash infusion to an otherwise good, but financially strapped company?
  • Do you bring additional industry knowledge, contacts, or management skill to the table?

Unless you can clearly articulate how you will make the company better and more profitable, don’t buy it.

Until you can answer these big, strategic questions, delving into the due diligence of analyzing the company doesn’t make much sense.  Once you have your strategic answers, however, you can proceed to look at the specifics of the business – its finances, market share, growth trends, management, etc.

Expanding your business through acquisitions is a great idea, as long as it makes sense strategically.

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Management ER: Can this employee be saved?

Years ago, I remember a column in a prominent women’s magazine, maybe Good Housekeeping, entitled “Can this marriage be saved?”  The story would be told from his point of view and hers, followed by analysis and counsel.  A bit sappy perhaps, but many people read it avidly.  I lost interest by the time I hit high school, but the title has stayed with me.

Recently, I heard from a client that he had fired a high level, long-term employee.  For some reason, the old column title popped into my brain.  I think it’s germain.  Let me tell you why.

When an employee’s performance slips, what should be the employer’s first thought?  Get rid of him/her?  Too often, that is the knee-jerk reaction of an inexperienced manager.  Of course, there are times when promptly “making the employee available to industry” is absolutely the right course of action.  But not always.  Not even most of the time.

So what’s an employer to do?  Take a step back and ask yourself a critical question first.  Can this employee be saved?

Finding and hiring good people is an expensive proposition.  The expense goes up with the level of employee you are trying to hire.  Add to that the cost of training an employee over time and the value of the institutional knowledge and experience he/she develops during the years spent with your company, and losing someone packs a financial wallop.  So, be aware of the  costs and be sure you can’t avoid the loss by addressing issues with the employee.

Consider the following:

  • Does the employee have a performance plan?  A clear understanding of the work expected of him/her?
  • Have you articulated your expectations clearly to your employee?  It is a constant surprise to me how frequently this isn’t done.  Employees are not mind-readers. 
  • Have you discussed your concerns about the employee’s performance privately with the employee, openly and honestly?  No one likes confrontation, but if you don’t clearly articulate your concerns and give the employee a chance to respond, you are doing the employee and your company a serious disservice.  (By the way, don’t forget to document these critical conversations!)
  • Did you provide all the tools and training necessary for the employee to accomplish the task? 
  • If the employee responds to your direction and counseling, will you and the rest of your team be able to continue working effectively with him/her?  The relationships can sometimes be strained beyond repair.

Ensuring that your employees have clear direction, defined jobs and tasks, and a full understanding of your expectations will go a long way to making your job as a manager easier and your company more successful.  Employees are your most expensive and valuable asset.  Make sure you take appropriate management action before resorting to firing one of them.

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The Word Cop is Listening – How’s your pronunciation?

Professionals have to be able to communicate, both in writing and in speech.  How we communicate gives an instant impression of our professional persona – good or bad – to colleagues, clients, and potential clients.  So how do you want to appear to these critical audiences?

I have quoted Professor Higgins, of My Fair Lady fame, before.  The basis of the entire plot of the play supports my premise here.  The professor makes a bet with a buddy that he can take a flower girl, with an abysmal accent and lousy English usage, and pass her off as a duchess at an Embassy ball simply by teaching her to speak properly.  In one of the great songs in the musical (lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, one of my heroes – what a writer!), he laments the fact that Englishmen and women are instantly classified by their speech.  “This verbal class distinction, by now should be antique.”  I agree.

So let me take a few moments here to plead with my fellow English speakers, especially Americans, to take greater care with their speech.  Make a better, more positive impression in your professional life – our 21st century equivalent of that Embassy ball.

Let me help by offering a few of my pronunciation pet peeves.

  • Etcetera – Okay, be honest.  How many of you out there pronounce this as “ek – cetera”?  That second letter is a “t”, not a “k”, and the word is pronounced accordingly.  The most egregious offenders here tend to be the people who use the word the most.
  • “Moot” versus “Mute” – These words are different, with different meanings and different pronunciations.  The first is pronounced just the way it is spelled, with an “oo” sound, like the sound of a cow.  “Mute” is pronounced “myoot”.  I can’t count the number of times I have heard the words confused.  “That’s a mute point.”  Huh?  That’s a point you can’t hear because it is muted?  Bad pronunciation clouds meaning.
  • Nuclear – President Bush has made this one infamous.  His is the classic, very annoying and way too common mispronunciation:  “Nuculer”.  What is so difficult about this word?  It is “nu-cle-ar”. 
  • Realtor – This one is similar to “nuclear”.  The common mispronunciation is “re-la-tor”.  Wrong!  It is “real-tor”.  If actual Realtors had to pronounce the word correctly in order to be licensed, more than half would be out of work.  They are the worst offenders.

Enough for now!  I am sure I will have more to share in future.  Please share your pronunciation pet peeves!

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Good Grammar Lives! Kudos from the Word Cop

I’ve aired plenty of beefs about crimes against the English language.  There’s certainly no shortage of material for ranting.  Today, however, I have a rave.  It’s a rare thing from me, so enjoy it.

My kudos today go to a local grocery chain, Quality Food Centers (QFC).  They’ve had their challenges in recent years, enduring two acquisitions by big grocery chains, Kroger being the most recent.  So the stores, at least the ones near me, had deteriorated quite a bit.  Simply put, QFC’s mission and market didn’t match Kroger’s idea of what they should be.  At least, this is what I have observed from the outside as a customer.

This situation has begun to turn around.  The stores are being refurbished, remodeled, and upgraded.  They are going more upscale, probably to compete with stores the like of Central Market.  I, for one customer, welcome the change. 

Last night, after a brutally busy day, I stopped by my local QFC to do some emergency shopping.  Some things you just can’t do without, and we were without.  I dragged my tired body around the store, locating most of what I needed and figured the heck with the rest.  Somewhat numb, I approached the checkout stand.

The stand right in front of me appeared to be closing, but the cashier gestured to come on.  She would take care of me.  I noticed that it was the express lane, and stated that I had more than 12 items.  She still indicated she would be happy to take care of me.  Then I really looked at the sign and stopped dead.

“Express Lane.  12 items or fewer.”

I don’t know how many times I have groaned over the ubiquitous signs with their equally ubiquitous errors in grammar – 12 items or less.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!

I turned to the cashier and congratulated her and the store for getting it right!  She looked at me as if I was somewhat addled, and proceeded to add up my grocery tab.  All right, maybe she was tired, too.

No matter.  Congratulations to the QFC management for removing one of the smaller annoyances that clutter my life.  There is no better signal of the store’s re-emergence as a Quality Food Center, at least to me.

Posted in Business Humor, Rants & Raves, Words @ Work | Leave a comment