Actually, the answer to the question of when the customer stopped being right is "somewhere around 1980." For those old enough to remember, there was a time when you pulled into a gas station and four guys would rush over to service your car. One pumped gas, another washed your windshield, the third checked your tire pressure and the fourth one looked under the hood and advised you whether you needed a quart of oil.
But then Gordon Gekko became the poster boy for corporate greed. When eating your young became the new business model, customer service was kicked to the curb in favor of not wasting money.
As a result, we are now living with an entire generation of disinterested store clerks, rude waiters, indifferent cable company operators and medical office staffs who frankly don't give a damn whether you ever cross their employer's doorway again.
Personally, I mourn for the loss of customer service. I long to be always right in just one aspect of my life. Yeah, there actually used to be a saying that "the customer is always right." Hard to believe it if you have a Chase credit card, isn't it?
Well, at least Peter Shankman agrees with me. Shankman, the founder of Help a Reporter Out, has a new company -- Shankman Honig, a customer service consultancy firm. He recently opined that businesses need to lose some of their cut-throatedness.
Actually, he put it less delicately: "They need to stop being assholes," is what he said. "That or they're going to keep losing tons of money."
And to what do we owe this pending customer service turnaround? Social media, of course. Whether the customer service was good or bad, we immediately share it with our friends and the strangers to whom we are connected on social media.
Shankman offered up a great example. Two summers ago he was flying from Florida to Newark Airport and, being kind of hungry at the time, jokingly tweeted how he wished Morton's Steakhouse delivered to the airport. Lo and behold, someone at Morton's corporate headquarters saw the tweet and when Shankman landed, standing next to his driver was a tuxedoed waiter from Morton's with said steak dinner boxed to-go. "We heard you were hungry," the waiter told him.
Shankman was floored, and his reaction was to do what everybody today would do: He immediately snapped a photo of the waiter and the steak with his phone and posted it to Twitter. He was thrilled and wanted the world to know about it. Within 48 hours of Morton's steak delivery to the airport, Shankman's post had gone viral and the story had made it on to the Today Show. There's no doubt that Morton's first-time customer numbers spiked, as well as their revenue.
Now you tell me: How much good publicity did Morton's garner for the price of a steak? Plenty.
We live in a world where an act of kindness toward the customer -- sure, call it a publicity stunt although Shankman insists to this day that it was not pre-arranged or cooked up -- draws a lightning bolt of love from the world.
Customer service is a lost art and I personally think it's worth finding.
Think about it: How impressed would you be with a hotel if they sent you a text message saying "We just checked your flight status and see you're running three hours late. No worries. We're holding your room for you." You'd tell everyone you met for the next month about the hotel texting you, wouldn't you? Or what if the airline offered you passes to its first-class airport lounge because the clerk realized it was your birthday? Compare how that would make you feel to how I felt when the rudest ever United reservations clerk wanted to charge me $25 to book my flight over the phone when the airline's online reservation system was down. (And her soul sister? The United flight attendant who screamed at my son and insisted he do the jiggle dance in the aisle for 15 minutes instead of letting him use the vacant bathroom three rows in front of us in first class.)
The list of businesses who have forgotten -- or never learned -- the old adage of "the customer is always right" is endless. And we all have our own bad customer service stories to tell, right? That's Shankman's point. We are now all telling them on social media and that fact alone is about to birth a revolution.
Thanks to the advent of mobile technology and our 24/7 connectivity, if you have a bad customer service experience, you can tweet it out in real time. Companies' "social media answer" has been to offer the wronged customer a discount coupon off their next purchase, Shankman said.
Old Navy has done this several times with me now. The problem is, it doesn't improve the shopping experience on my next trip when the clerks are just as slow and unhelpful. Perhaps most telling was when my local Old Navy store told me that the $20 off coupon i tried to use "wasn't valid." It had just come in the mail from Old Navy's corporate headquarters as an apology gesture for the clerk on my previous visit not being able to get my discount coupon to work; I kid you not! And now guess where I'm not doing my kids' back-to-school shopping? And yes, I sent out a tweet about that too.
"Sending an apology on Twitter is not a customer service strategy," Shankman said. "They still haven't fixed the original problem. It's not about giving someone a 10 percent off coupon because you mistreated them. It's about having your customer do your public relations for you."
Because when we get outstanding service, we tweet and Facebook that too. It doesn't have to be a free Morton's steak delivered to the airport. I loved the Riviera Maya hotel in Mexico that offered us cool drinks at check-in. I'm a Nordstrom loyalist because they provide free shipping both ways and have a hassle-free return policy. Zappos gets my shoe orders to the door so fast that I think they have a secret warehouse at my corner; I once ordered online at 8 p.m. and the goods were there the next day before noon.
And what did I do in every case? I used social media to tell the world about my good experiences.
Shankman has a formula that he shares with his clients.
Right now, he said, customers are used to crappy service. "If you offer them one level above crap, they will become repeat customers. But if you offer them five levels above crap, they will become loyalists who not only are repeat customers but will bring you 15 new customers."
Me? I'd just be happy with someone at the gas station occasionally checking my oil.
Whether you plan to bake cupcakes, be a consultant, or manufacture a product, the first questions you must answer are the same, says Chodos. “Who are my customers and do I have a product or service that they want and are willing to pay for in an amount that my sales will be greater than my expenses? Until you have a really solid sense of how your business will succeed, you need to keep answering those questions… Research, analysis, and testing beforehand is heading you down the path to getting it right.” Really hone in on what you’re selling. “Describe as precisely as possible what you’re going to sell,” advises Jeff Williams, CEO and chief coach of Biz Starters, a company aimed at helping people over age 50 start businesses. “Many people come to me and they want to sell two or three different things all at once. It doesn’t work. You need to be specific."
Many businesses today start from right inside your home without a lot of cost for equipment or rent. But there are other factors to consider, Chodos says. How much will it cost to start your business and to run it for its first year? Will you need to invest in inventory? What will the costs be for advertising? Is there equipment you need to purchase? Will your electric bill rise? Ask yourself what you’re willing to invest, what you might have to borrow, and how much you expect to make from sales. If you can’t answer those questions yourself, consult with an expert.
“This is the most important part of your business,” says Williams of biz starters. This plan must answer the questions described above, but it also must help you identify how you’ll find your customers. “Are they on mailing lists? On the Internet? In industrial listings? This is the usually the most difficult part for people, because if you previously worked for a corporation, the corporation brought you the customers. Now you must go out and find them.” Research, networking and word-of-mouth are your three key approaches. For information on how to write a marketing plan, check out this information.
“We’re all at square one when we start a business,” says business consultant Nancy Michaels, founder of "The Grow Your Business Network." “The great news is that by the time you’ve hit 50, you should have some connections in the world. Tap into that and let people know what you’re doing. They can help spread the word for you.” Start by announcing your business to all of your email contacts and a simultaneous announcement on Linked In, says Michaels. “Tweet about it, and put it on Facebook and maybe even make a video so you can post it on You Tube.” If your business warrants it, consider an open house to which you invite your contacts. Depending on your business, it might make sense to start locally rather than trying to reach a national market immediately, but first evaluate who and where your customers are.
If you are offering a service, you are more likely to be hired if people feel you know what you're doing. Establish a professional looking and accessible web site that boasts “strong, selling-benefit oriented copy,” says Williams. Have friends or business associates critique it and make sure that it highlights your accomplishments and abilities. And get the word out about yourself. Write articles and other content related to your business and post them on free article archive sites like Linkgrinder with a prominent listing of your web address, Williams says. He also suggests that you regularly send out publicity articles talking about key phrases for your business. Once you’ve done this, you can speak to civic groups or other organizations to further establish your expertise. Note: Approach trade shows with caution. Williams says it can be an expensive undertaking with not that much reward. Better: Once you have landed a few customers and feel the business is rolling, a trade show might be a good next step.
If your business is consumer-based (you’re selling cupcakes, for example), use Facebook to promote it, says Williams. If it is a “b-to-b” business, one that sells services to other businesses, use Linked In to promote it. You can use both platforms to make announcements about your business, to remind consumers you are there, or to hang out your shingle, so to speak, so that people passing by will notice it.
By the time you get to the six-month mark, if you’re not seeing some steady income, it doesn’t mean you’re an outright failure, says Williams, but maybe you’re not getting your message out. You’ve got to continue to tweak it. “If you are honest and accurate in your revenue model and you are not making money, then you usually need to go back to one activity--sales prospecting,” Williams says. “Ask yourself: are you doing enough of it and is it well-focused on the people you are trying to reach?”
Where to go for more information, to learn about free seminars, and even set up free one-on-one counseling for entrepreneurs? Check out: The Small Business Adminstration’s website Retirement Revised Encore.org Inc.com Entrepreneur.com
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Best Buy was in bankruptcy. That is not the case and the information has been removed. The Huffington Post apologizes for the error.
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