Telephone Etiquette

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What with high gas prices and time pressure, your customers and prospects are using the phone more than ever to get price and product information.  How you and your staff handle this important means of communication may well determine whether you ever get a chance at someone’s business.

Jeff Mowatt provides an interesting telephone test on the business know-how web site.  Questions include how long your phone rings before it’s answered, what you say when you answer it, and how you put a caller on hold, among others.

One point that’s very important is how you juggle a phone call and a customer who is actually in your store.  I recently waited several minutes, cash in hand to make a purchase while the person behind the counter looked things up for someone on the phone, never even making eye contact with me.  I eventually left and went to the competitor down the street.

You want to turn callers into customers, but you can’t ignore the people who have taken the time to make the trip to your store.  It’s a delicate balance, but one that can have a big impact on your business.

[This post originally appeared at Mine Your Own Business on October 2, 2006]

Retailing-My Top Five Business ‘Killers’

On Tuesday I pointed you to an article by the Retailer Owners’ Institute called “The Top Five ‘Killers’ of Retail Sales”.  As I wrote at the time, the information in the article was very good, but it was from a bean counter’s perspective.  Today I’d like to give you my top five list.  I’m not saying that my list is better.  Any item from either list could be a business killer.   In fact, the two lists combined would make a pretty good top ten.

5.  Unattractive place of business. People want to shop in a place that’s bright and cheerful, clean and neat.  Take a walk outside and view the premises with a critical eye.  Does the outside make a customer want to come inside?  Then walk in the front door imagining that you’re the customer.  Is your store inviting?  Is everything clean?  Do the displays look fresh and interesting?  Is there proper signage?  Would you shop there?

Be brutally honest.  If the answer to even one of these questions is “no”, you have work to do.

4.  Poor marketing. The idea of marketing is to get customers into your store.  No marketing = no customers.  It’s as simple as that.  Here’s the thing.  Good marketing doesn’t have to be expensive.  Many would argue that word-of-mouth is the most effective marketing of all and it’s virtually free.  The Internet, especially social media, makes it possible to reach out to our target audience at little or no cost.

If you don’t know what to do, there’s plenty of information right here on the web and there are a number of books that are excellent resources.  I recommend “Marketing Your Retail Store in the Internet Age” by Bob and Susan Negin and “The Profitable Retailer” by Doug Fleener.

3.  Poor Salesmanship. Even vending machines are designed to present the product in the best possible light.  If your staff isn’t knowledgeable about the merchandise, sales may be hard to come by.  Sales are made to people by people (with the exception of those vending machines).  In good times, products may fly off the shelf but in times like these, your staff must be able to convince the customer that your offering is the best.

2.  Poor Customer Service. This one goes hand in hand with number 3.  There’s no excuse for poor service and today’s customer won’t stand for it.  Follow the Golden Rule.  Treat customers the way you want to be treated, and mean it!  Someone once said, “Sincerity is everything.  If you can’t fake it, you’ll never be successful.”

You and your staff must genuinely want to make the customer’s life easier and better.  If your number one motivation is profit, people will see right through you.  You may make a sale but you won’t make a friend.  And friends are your best source of word-of-marketing.  Isn’t it funny how all these things tie together?

You may be thinking that great customer service should be number one and a lot of people would agree with you.  But, like I said, all these things work together so here’s my number one.

1.  Unhappy Employees. Unhappy employees will almost guarantee numbers two through five.  They won’t care how the place looks.  They won’t care about marketing.  They won’t practice good salesmanship and they won’t care about serving the customer.

While a happy, satisfied customer may be the ultimate goal, the quickest way to make sure that happens is to have a motivated staff.   Make the staff happy and they’ll make the customers happy.

As a small business you may not be able to offer the perks that a big company can.  But you can make your staff feel like part of the family.  You can offer them intangibles that your bigger competitors can’t like flexible hours and more control of their own career.  You can give them a voice in decision-making and make them feel important every single day.

Happy, motivated employees are the key to a successful business.

Customer Service–Washington Style

I consider myself a good citizen, certainly one who loves my country. But I have to admit that I have some trust issues with the current crowd in Washington, on both sides of the aisle. So, you can imagine my response when I received a letter over the weekend from the United States Department of State. I was born right here in the heartland of America, so I don’t think they can deport me.  It’s doubtful that the current administration would appoint me as ambassador to anything or any place.  So. I was a little apprehensive about the whole thing.

I opened the envelope and was relieved when it didn’t explode or spew any strange white powder.  In fact, it actually contained money–a money order for $8.48!

It was so long ago that I had almost forgotten it, but last summer, when I applied for a passport, to be blunt, they screwed it up.  My official US identification said that I was born in Hannibal, Maryland.  (MO vs MD)  It’s a simple mistake except for the fact that (1) there is no Hannibal, Maryland and (2) my previous passport had the correct information.

I had visions of myself returning to the US only to be told that my passport was invalid and that I would have to go back to Ireland (not an altogether unpleasant thought) but for the sake of my wife and kids, I decided I’d better get the thing straightened out.  So I sent everything back so they could try again.  The second time was the charm.  Of course I had to pay to have photos retaken and to mail everything back to South Carolina.

The letter I received this week was the government’s “mea culpa”.  Here’s what it said:

Dear Mr. Buckley:

The Charleston Passport Center deeply regrets the error that occurred during the processing of your passport.  Please accept the enclosed money order as reimbursement for your costs associated with this error.

We apologize for any inconvenience that you may have experienced, and hope that our next opportunity to serve your passport needs will be more proficient. [emphasis mine]

Sincerely yours,

Timothy M. Wiesnet


Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate the $8.48 and will put it to good use.  Obviously the government is trying to get its act together when it comes to customer service.  But they need to work on the time thing.  It’s been about nine months since the original mistake was made.

Fortunately for you and me, we can learn from others’ mistakes.  When we make a mistake, own up to it right away.  We should correct our errors in hours, not months.  Own up to it, apologize, do whatever it takes to restore the customer to their desired state (refund, replacement product or service, whatever it takes) and you end up with a loyal customer.  Anything less just isn’t good enough.

Of course, the next time I need to renew my passport I won’t be able to shop around.  The government is mother of all monopolies.  Give them points for doing something when they didn’t have to anything at all.  But, you and I aren’t that lucky. Our customers do have a choice.  We have to do everything we can to make sure that they choose us.

Just When You Think You’ve Heard Everything…

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to blog about poor customer service. After all, it’s everywhere. But here’s one that I couldn’t resist passing along.

First, the setup. My wife works for a service organization. While they do sell some products, the products are there to support the service which is offered to consumers. The company works out of hundreds of storefronts across the country. Recently they introduced a computerized record system with PCs and modems in all their locations. All employees were required to learn the system. Many of them, like my wife, are anything but computer geeks.

In order to complete the day’s business, the day’s transactions must be transmitted to the home office via the computer. The business day for most of the remote locations ends around 7:00 PM.

Monday evening around 7:30 I got a panicky phone call from my lovely and talented better half. The computer was displaying an error message and the modem wasn’t working. A call to the company’s “help desk” resulted in a recorded message advising her to “leave a message and we’ll get back to you.”

Here’s the thing. There are two women sitting in an otherwise empty storefront, on their own time, unable to leave until they got the computer working and the “help desk” was offering no help. Fortunately I know a little bit about this stuff and I was able to walk them through a fix.

What’s the lesson here? Most of us provide some kind of service and often that service is time-sensitive. Are we there when the customer needs us? If we aren’t, do we offer them an alternative?

I recently ended a long-term relationship with the company who serviced my garage doors when my car was stranded inside the garage and they had taken off for a Christmas vacation. My new garage door guy, found the old-fashioned way, from the Yellow Pages, was there within hours on Christmas Eve. (I told you, my wife’s not big on computers.)  My problem may not have been a big deal to my former company, but when you have to transport four adults, food, and gifts on Christmas day and your only accessible vehicle is a two-seat convertible, it’s a very big deal.

As service providers, it’s important that we see that our service is available when our customers need it. You may not want to work twenty-four hours a day. Who does? But an answering machine with an emergency number might not be a bad idea. Where after-hours service may be required, can you have someone on call? It’s entirely possible that the “emergency” can be solved over the phone, like my wife’s computer dilemma.

We’re in the midst of some trying times. We can’t afford to lose a good customer when it can be easily prevented. Look at your service offering from the customer’s point of view. Would you do business with you?

Episode 8

Welcome to Mining the Store, the podcast for small business owners who want to mine more gold from their businesses.  This is Episode 8.

There’s no “I” in podcast, so your comments are very important.  You can leave a comment here on the show notes page.  Or, you can email your comment to  If you’d like to leave an audio comment, you can attach an mp3 file to your email.

Skype users can leave an audio comment at mike.buckley3.

My Twitter ID is michaelbuckley and you can also find me on Friendfeed.

Mining the Store is a member of the blubrry podcast network,

The Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone

This episode we focus on bad customer service.  But first, notice our new blog page.  We’ve moved the show notes page from our podcast host, Libsyn to WordPress.  We hope you like the new look.

3:15  Poor customer service
4:25  Macy’s fails to deliver.
8:20  Zoli Erdos and expired Milka chocolate from Belgian Chocolate Online.
13:21  A hospital drops the ball when it comes to looking out for the customer.
17:25  Conclusion.  We have to put the customer first to survive.

Direct download: Episode_8.mp3

“They Like Me!”

Link: Small Business Trends ? The Rising Tide of Customer Defection.

Do you remember the 1985 Academy Awards when Sally Field won the "Best Actress" award?  She acted surprised when she said "You like me!"  I thought of that when Ii read Laurence Haughton’s article, The Rising Tide of Customer Defection."

When Bill Zollars took the top job at Yellow Freight in 1996, the company was coming off a $30 million loss the previous year.  He asked his top managers, "What do our customers think of us?" 

"They like us" he was told.

Zollars wasn’t so sure.  He asked his top managers to find out:

Did we pick everything up on-time?

Did we deliver everything on-time?

Did we keep everything in-tact?

Did we send the customer an accurate invoice?

It turned out that in 4 out of 10 cases, at least one answer was "no."  If they were failing to fill these basic needs forty percent of the time, how could the customers like them.  If you were in business in the ’90’s, you know the answer.  Chances are you didn’t like them.

It seems like there are two morals to this story.  First, don’t assume that your customers are happy with you.  Find out!  What are their expectations?  Are you delivering them?

Second, whatever your customers’ expectations are, make sure you deliver them each and every time.  Here’s what Zollars did at Yellow Freight:

1. He made sure everyone was crystal clear about “just what was expected.”

2. He took steps to make sure Yellow had the “right people” at every point of contact.

3. Zollars and his top managers got “enough buy-in” from everyone to overcome the law of inertia.

4. And Yellow reorganized their management to generate more “individual initiative” from every driver and at every depot.

They reduced errors from 40% to 4% and "Revenues and profits shot up."

The Art of Customer Service

Link: Signum sine tinnitu–by Guy Kawasaki: The Art of Customer Service.

Are you old enough to remember when our school rulers had the Golden Rule printed on the back?  "Do unto other as you would have them do unto you."  Who knew we were being subliminally trained in the art of customer service?

Since those words were first spoken, some 2,000+ years ago, business "experts" have been looking for new ways to say it.  If you want repeat customers; if you want loyal customers; if you want evangalizing customers; treat them the way you would like to be treated!   

Blogger Guy Kawasaki offers ten common sense tips for incorporating customer service in everything you do.  Tip number one:  it starts at the top. 

If the CEO thinks that customers are a pain in the ass who always want something for nothing, that attitude will permeate the company, and service will be lousy.

The nine tips that follow are more common sense, but a good read because we all need an occasional (daily?) reminder of who actually pays the bills and what we have to do keep them coming back and telling their friends.