Customer service Engagement Marketing

How to (Gently) End a Customer Relationship

good-bye blue-1477872_960_720When I asked other business professionals when it’s best to lose a customer or client, the reasons boiled down to the customer’s lack of respect and not being fully committed to the working relationship. Examples cited included:

  • difficult interactions with or mistreating customer-contact employees
  • being unresponsive and uncooperative
  • paying late or not at all.

The question then is how do you actually end such a business relationship in these situations? The best advice on “how to fire a customer” comes from customer-loyalty consultant and best-selling author, Chip R. Bell:

“Firing a customer is a bit like disarming a bomb; ‘very carefully’ is the operative term. The goals is to subdue animosity without scattering aftermath. Sometimes customers are so incensed at losing a favorite punching bag — even though it’s actually you who’s ‘lost’ them — they can move quickly from anger to vindictiveness, seeking opportunities to punish, not just put down. You can limit your chance of such backlash by handling firings in cool-headed but still sensitive ways.”

When terminating a business relationship based on the first two examples — when the customer has become abusive or difficult to deal with — Bell cautions against taking an angry, defensive, or otherwise emotional approach to avoid fueling the customer’s anger at ending the relationship.

” … a rational explanation for why a continued relationship will harm your business—how harsh treatment of service reps impairs productivity, or how a difficult relationship steals time from other deserving customers—should be your modus operandi here. The goal is to give the customer a signal that he or she is unwelcome if the unwanted behavior persists.  ‘Ms. Jones, I must ask you to leave. The morale of our associates is critically important to their well-being and to the well-being of our organization. While we are by no means perfect, our employees must not be repeatedly subjected to actions that demean them as people.’

Bell also advises a rational approach when the issue is based on the bottom line, such as the client not paying.

“[Emphasize] how a continued relationship will negatively affect the business, not on how a parting of ways will make your long-suffering staff feel like it’s just won the lottery.  ‘Mr. Jones, we’ve greatly appreciated your business for the last year. We have elected to apply our limited resources in a new direction and will not be soliciting your business in the near future. Should you want to continue our relationship it will likely need to be at a (higher price, greater volume, faster cycle time, lower cost, etc.).’

Granted, none of this is easy in a competitive and challenging marketplace. But it is essential to stand up for your employees and organizational principles. As Bell explains:

” … courageously ending relationships with customers who continually turn the blowtorch on the front line, or who over time siphon more funds from the bottom line than they return, sends a message about what you stand for as an organization.”

[Note: above excerpts cited with permission from Chip Bell’s book, “Wired and Dangerous,” co-authored with John R. Patterson.]

Customer service Engagement

Extending Thanks Giving

Regardless of when you observe Thanksgiving, the holiday encourages us to give thanks for all we have … and for all that we don’t have (e.g., difficult circumstances). I’m all for expressing sincere gratitude during the season; I just wish it was given more frequently.

A friend of mine shared her experience with a Salvation Army volunteer bell-ringer, a man she recognized as a bell-ringer from the previous year. As she put money into the red kettle and received his thanks, she smiled and thanked him for his commitment to helping the Salvation Army. He also recognized her and told her she was one of the few who took the time to make eye contact and speak with him.

Another friend, who’s slightly disabled, described how she always thanks the store clerks who help her: “They are lovely in all the stores I go to and always help with opening doors for me or reaching an item on a high shelf or asking how I am if I haven’t been in for awhile. It goes beyond what they have to do so I am writing thank-you notes to let them know I appreciate the service and their help.”

Gratitude is a powerful form of acknowledgment, and it’s as critical today as ever.

“At a time of vast and troubling uncertainty, in a world that is being reshaped by technology, small acts of connection take on outsized importance. It’s strange to think that a winning smile from a cashier or a flight attendant, or a nod of recognition from an employee who has seen you three times that week, might matter to the person receiving it — or to the person doing it. But I believe it does matter, both in terms of creating better human experiences and building more valuable organizations.” Bill Taylor, excerpt from an HBR article written three years ago.

Let’s be generous with our gratitude today and every day. Thank you!

[Image courtesy of Pixabay]



Customer service Engagement Training & Development

Hey, Wells Fargo: You Should’ve Followed Aretha Franklin, Not Gordon Gekko

I’m saddened and shocked, but not surprised, about the recent Wells Fargo sales scandal that lead to bank employees opening bogus customer accounts in response to intense pressure to meet unrealistic and aggressive sales goals.

I was once a sales manager for a local bank. It was some 30 years ago when the banking industry was trying to build sales into its service culture. At the time most of our customer service reps (CSRs) were not comfortable with cross-selling. The attitude was, “If I was interested in sales, I would have gone into retail. I got into banking because I didn’t want to sell!”

Integrating sales in a service environment
Aware of this mindset, my bank was careful and deliberate about changing the culture. Our approach was sales was part of service and that “suggestive” and “consultative” selling provided a better customer experience than just being “order takers.” It wasn’t the customer’s job to know about all the products and services our bank offered; that was the CSR’s, teller’s and branch manager’s job. It was branch team members’ responsibility to educate customers about additional products/services that might better meet their needs for savings, credit, and convenience. We used extensive training and a formal incentive system to support branch sales efforts and reinforce this new service & sales culture.

What I remember most about that time was the role of respect in the sales process — respect for both our customers and employees. It was part of the CSR’s job to suggest additional services, and if the customer declined, that was OK. This was based on my issue with fast food’s “Would you like cheese with that?” approach. As a marketer, I understood that the counter person at MacDonald’s was trained to cross-sell cheese with its hamburgers. But as a consumer, I sometimes became annoyed because if I had wanted cheese on my hamburger, I would have asked for it! Understanding and respecting the customer’s needs took precedence over “sales for the sake of sales.” That was the service & sales culture my bank’s leadership supported.

Wells Fargo brand damage
My former boss in branch administration, who endured several bank mergers, used to joke that the operational metrics in the large banks were so extensive, they probably tracked how much toilet paper was used in the employee restrooms. That’s why I find it hard to believe that Wells Fargo management was unaware of what was happening. The banking giant’s meet-your-sales-goals-numbers-at-all-costs-if-you-want-to-continue-working-here culture created a lose-lose-lose situation for its customers, employees, and brand — the result of greed, not respect.




Customer service Training & Development

When It’s Best to Lose a Customer or Client

Despite the best intentions, there are times when it’s necessary to give up a customer or client. The reasons vary, as I learned when I asked colleagues why they stopped working with customers.

In their own words (and in no particular order), here’s what they said about terminating customer/client relationships.

It’s time to cut a customer/client loose when …

  • “Every time we did work for this one company, the marketing director would go out of her way to find 40 things wrong with the project to try to get it for free.” Ad agency executive
  • “1) The client/customer becomes abusive to you or your staff, 2) lies to you, and 3) doesn’t pay his or her bills. Not always in that order.” Marketing researcher
  • “You’ve lost enthusiasm for them.” Ron Strauss, Founder and CEO, Brandzone
  • “1) Project after project, year after year the business isn’t profitable. 2) They don’t respect your team — meaning they take advantage of the client/vendor relationship and always are mean, disrespectful and basically just not nice! This leads to a heavy toll on your team and usually means more turnover.” CEO research supplier

It’s time to cut a customer/client loose when …

  • “Your work together is no longer fun or engaging for both of you, lacks mutual respect or when there is a mismatch of values.” Jane Wells Schooley, Executive Leadership Coach and Educator
  • “The relationship has deteriorated to the point that it is affecting staff morale.” Marketing Consultant
  • “They are asking you to do something that goes against your ethics or your professional judgment.” Dennis Fischman, Chief Communicator, Communicate! Consulting
  • “They are not ‘all in.’ Meaning they are not doing the work, engaged in conversation, or showing progress.” Meridith Elliott Powell, Business Growth Expert & Keynote Speaker
  • “The thrill is gone; i.e., when I’ve lost enthusiasm for the project due to any number of circumstances including (a) the client is never satisfied; (b) the client is unresponsive and/or uncooperative; (c) the client hasn’t paid for work I’ve already done; etc.” Writer/editor

It’s time to cut a customer/client loose when …

  • You find you can no longer serve their interests in good faith and are on the border of losing your professionalism.” Senior Communications Consultant with a 20+ year history in consulting
  • They’re yanking your chain. When a client does not provide the necessary information for you to be able to complete their work in a timely manner. I understand ‘what can happen will happen’when it comes to business. However, I also know when they’re procrastinating with the tasks at hand. Client satisfaction travels on a two-way street.” Chuck Holder  LLC, Business Consulting
  • “They say ‘your competition is saying they can do it for $X.’  The reason that is a ‘move on’ statement is two-fold:
    1. They’ve already been talking to my competition to get a price which means they don’t see me as a partner anymore but simply another ‘vendor.’ Normally, if you’re a partner, they would address pricing way before they get a quote from a competitor and may even tell you they will be checking to see what the market is showing for your services. That is normal. Doing it behind your back shows a lack of respect for the relationship.
    2. They’ve decided what you are providing is a commodity and can be bought on the open market. Somehow your ‘unique’ value-add that got you the business (assuming you didn’t buy it in the first place with the lowest bid) is no longer unique nor value-add. You’re just another line item.
      These two things combined typically mean you’ve moved past a collaborative, supportive, reciprocal business relationship and have entered the dreaded ‘vendor zone.'” Paul Hebert, Senior Director, Solutions Architecture, Creative Group, Inc.

Respect and trust matter in professional business relationships — among service providers and their customers/clients.

Special thanks to the business professionals who shared their responses here. (Names or general titles listed by respondent preference.)


Customer service Engagement

Companies Get Lucky (?) with Partial Engagement

“I love working with my customers. They’re what keep me engaged. Can’t say I feel the same about the company I work for.”

“I’m upset by the lack of professionalism in my office. Co-workers dress sloppily. They curse in the office and don’t seem to take work seriously.  What keeps me going are the conversations I have with my counterparts in other offices.”

These highlight discussions I had recently with business professionals in different fields. I’ve heard similar sentiments from employees who stay engaged for the satisfaction of working with their customers and/or co-workers. According to a TINYPulse study on engagement and organizational culture, “Peers and camaraderie are the number one reason employees go the extra mile … not the money. Camaraderie plays the true motivating role in encouraging employees to outperform expectations.

Enjoying their work with co-workers and customers is key to employees being engaged, but it’s not enough. Total engagement happens when employees connect on three fundamental levels:

  • with the organization itself  – when employees understand the organization’s purpose and strategy, including knowing where they fit in and what’s expected of them.
  • with customers – when employees know who the customers are and what is important to them so employees can better serve them.
  • with fellow employees – when employees also understand and respect how everyone’s work is interconnected in achieving organizational goals.

The people I spoke to acknowledged they’re not disengaged, just partially engaged. How fortunate for their employers. But I can’t help wondering how much better they and their respective companies would be if they were fully engaged on all levels.

As Meatloaf sang, “two out of three ain’t bad.”  Or is it?




Customer service Marketing

The Three Most Important Questions You Need to Ask in Marketing

A brilliant marketing colleague of mine taught me the three most important questions that need to be considered based on the customer’s perspective. These apply to both product and service providers in B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) organizations.

  1. Who cares?
    To better understand who needs the company’s products/services, and how it matters to them.
  2. What difference does it make?
    For insight on how the company’s offerings solve the customer’s problem or fills a specific need (rational and/or emotional).
  3. What’s in it for me?
    To understand real and perceived benefits and the degree to which the customer feels the solution is worth paying for – in terms of money, time, and convenience.

Why are these marketing questions important?
Because they’re what your customers are asking themselves as they consider whether to do business with you or your competitors.

How do you learn the answers to these questions?
Your customers will tell you based on their experience with you, and they’ll tell others as well. If you’re not listening and responding to your customers — via feedback from front-line employees, customer surveys, complaint tracking, social media, etc. — then it’s time to start.



Customer service Engagement Marketing Training & Development

Best Quotes on Customers

Customers – love ’em or sometimes hate ’em – if you’re in business, you can’t live without them. True customer-focus means understanding, respecting, and serving customers as the basis of your business rather than considering them a necessary evil.

Following are several of my favorite quotes about customers and their importance. Think of them as customer-focused words to live by. You can also incorporate them in your customer service training.

“Consumers are statistics. Customers are people.” Stanley Marcus

“If you respect the customer as a human being, and truly honor their right to be treated fairly and honestly, everything else is much easier.” Doug Smith

“You can forget about an over-satisfied customer, but an unsatisfied customer is one of the most expensive problems you can have.” Jan Carlzon

“Anyone who thinks the customer is not important should try doing without him [or her].” Unknown

“It’s very easy to think that you are the expert on your own product. But in many ways, that’s a myth. The true experts are your customers.” Jamie Wong

“Customer feedback is free until you don’t listen, then it gets very expensive in the form of lawsuits, poor word-of-mouth advertising, and adverse publicity.” John O’Malley

“Isn’t it really ‘customer helping’ rather than customer service? And wouldn’t you deliver better service if you thought of it that way?” Jeffrey Gitomer

And when it comes to hiring and training the employees who serve customers:

“The customer-facing organization with the fewest assholes wins.” Olivier Blanchard



Customer service Engagement Training & Development

5 Tips to Keep Employees Engaged During the Holidays

The last few weeks of the calendar year can be stressful in the workplace as people become distracted preparing for the holidays. Employees can be overwhelmed with year-end reporting and planning deadlines just as everyone else seems to be using up the last of their vacation days. And those at work may be so into the holiday frenzy that they’ve mentally checked out.

Here are five ways managers can help employees stay on-task and engaged during the holiday season.

  • Keep employees mission-focused, customer-focused, and connected.
    Respectfully remind employees how year-end projects and planning are critical to your company’s mission and goals. Make time to recognize employees’ individual and collective efforts in taking care of customers and each other as the year winds down.
  • Acknowledge and alleviate seasonal stresses.
    Consider what you can do ahead of time to minimize year-end pressures such as starting your business planning cycle earlier (if feasible) to avoid a planning crunch when fewer people are at work. Or schedule the employee holiday lunch or dinner party in January when there are fewer social activities; this also gives employees something to look forward to after the holidays.
  • Ask employees to share their ideas.
    Go to the source and solicit suggestions from your employees as to what might be done to improve productivity during this time of year — whether in a special discussion at staff meetings or as a project for a designated employee task force.
  • Inspire and de-stress.
    • Invite employees to share with each other how they cope with seasonal work stress … the funniest holiday situation they’ve encountered at work … how they successfully defused a difficult situation with a customer, etc.
    • Give-back to the community by volunteering time as a group to work in a food bank or collect gifts for needy families. To keep such an activity from creating more stress, however, employee involvement must be voluntary with no management or peer pressure regarding time and financial contributions.
    • While bringing holiday sweets to the office is welcome by many, also consider healthy ways to reduce stress. For example, a licensed massage therapist can be hired on-site to provide 10-15 minute back massages for employees or a yoga instructor can lead mini-meditation sessions.
  • Patience, patience, patience.
    Keep in mind the end of the year can be a challenging time for everyone: you, your customers, employees, colleagues, and business partners.

Try one or more of these ideas to help get through the season. When you find what works, you can apply it next year when you go through this all over again. Happy Holidays!

Customer service Engagement Training & Development

Great Customer Service Quotes for Training

“It’s risky to underestimate the benefit of exceptional [customer] service; it’s equally risky to overestimate the level of customer service that you are currently providing.” Unknown

I often use this quote in the beginning of my customer-focus workshops to engage attendees on the impact of customer service in their organizations. Discussion is based on addressing these questions: Who defines quality customer service? How is it measured? To what degree is your company truly customer-centric? etc. learn_and_share

Another approach to foster discussion and idea-exchange is to add the words “How do you …?” at the beginning of each of these customer-centric guidelines from Diana LaSalle:

  • See who you are and what you offer through the customer’s eyes.
  • Consider the well-being of the customer in all decisions.
  • Train and trust employees to care for customers in the moment.
  • Anticipate customers’ needs by continually striving to improve their experiences.

You can also use the following quotes as a springboard to talk about the importance of taking care of customers:

  • “The easiest way to turn a service into an experience is to provide poor service – thus creating an memorable encounter of the unpleasant kind.” B. Joseph Pine II and James H. GilmoreThe Experience Economy
  • “Customers care about the degree to which you respect and value their business … If you provide customers with clues that you don’t value their business, then all the customer satisfaction in the world won’t help you.”  David C. Lineweber
  • “Technology has evened quality; hardware is all the same. The difference is how you treat customers. If you treat them well, they’ll love your product. If you treat them poorly, they’ll find 100 things wrong.” Lee Iacocca

I welcome your favorite quotes and suggestions for using them in staff development.




Customer service Training & Development

A Customer Never Forgets–3 Customer Stories and What They Mean

Impressions of customer service — good and bad — can be long lasting as these three stories illustrate. In this post my marketing colleagues and I share special situations we experienced as customers more than 20 years ago.

“A legendary service experience that touched my heart”
From Toby Bloomberg: “I walked into an Eckerd Drug Store to buy a sympathy card. Before the clerk even rang up the purchase, he took a silk rose from a display at the counter, presented it to me, and said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss. I hope this will cheer you up a little.'”

Toby’s takeaway: There were no dramatic gestures, no casts of thousands, no high cost involved. Simply an elegant approach to ‘service’ between two people. And when you get right down to basics, isn’t that what “legendary service” is all about — people who go the extra mile to connect to the customer?

Take care of the customer and worry about the details later
From Chris Bonney: “It was a Saturday around noon at the Hyatt Woodfield in Chicago for an AMA (American Marketing Association) chapter leadership meeting. Just as our people were sitting down to lunch, the first alarm went off. We were quickly hustled outside by the staff and stayed outdoors for the better part of an hour due to a water emergency.

“A couple of weddings were scheduled to take place at the hotel later that day. One of the brides arrived that morning and, not finding a closet hook high enough to hold her wedding gown off the floor, she hung it on a fire system water sprinkler. The weight eventually broke the sprinkler head, spewing rusty water all over the gown in her room and other rooms on the floor that were linked on that sprinkler water line. The water also leaked through to rooms below the bride’s floor. The hotel could have easily blamed the bride for her misfortune and the inconvenience caused to everyone else in the hotel. But instead they summoned a limousine, took the bride and her mother across to the Nordstrom’s at Woodfield Mall to buy a new dress.”

Chris’s takeaway: I don’t know if the hotel was insured for this kind of thing or not. But they knew that it was cheaper for the bride to get a new dress so that her wedding could proceed and worry about the details later. They recovered the situation without embarrassing the bride and her family. (Perhaps as a result, hotels posted warning signs to not use sprinkler heads as hangers.)
Helping a customer in a difficult situation

This is my story: My husband and I were traveling to Boston to attend a conference for his work when I had a medical emergency on the plane. Upon landing at the airport, I was immediately taken off the plane in a special ambulance gurney and we were whisked away to the hospital. While filling out our medical forms in the ER, my husband and I suddenly looked at each other to ask, “What happened to our luggage?!” given we left the plane in a hurry.

My husband took a taxi to the conference hotel while I was in surgery and explained our situation. The Marriott Copley Hotel staff called Logan airport to find and place a hold on our luggage. They also arranged for a hotel courtesy car driver to take my husband back to the airport to collect the luggage, drop him off at the hospital to be with me after surgery, and then place our luggage in the hotel room for when my husband returned.

My takeaway: In our situation, we were guests who arrived at the hotel with a problem that had nothing to do with the hotel itself. Yet the front desk staff showed their compassion and concern by going the extra step take care of us.

My colleagues and I had different customer experiences that share a common theme: a favorable impression made by customer service providers who were empathetic to their customers’ situation.