The Entrepreneur and Internet Flamers

Social media has many advantages for the entrepreneur. It’s a cost-effective way to reach large numbers of potential customers and can be a key element in building a brand. Online stores can be a huge advantage to sellers who wish to bypass the traditional bricks and mortar channels. However, there is a dark side to the Internet and entrepreneurs must be ever mindful of how it can rear up and bite us at any given moment.

We experienced the “dark side” on a small rural apartment community. Our maintenance technician had a serious health issue that took him out of action. After several weeks he informed us that he would not be able to return to work. During his absence, we were covering the property with a maintenance technician from a property in another town, 42 miles away. The on-site property manager was also located in another town and traveled between three properties within this 42-mile radius. Unfortunately, there were some maintenance items that were slow to be resolved as well as a lack of adequate communications with the residents. There’s no question, we dropped the ball with these issues.

One day while visiting my LinkedIn page, I noticed that a woman had “flamed” me and our company. Apparently, she was the daughter of one of the residents of the apartment property previously mentioned. She made several allegations in her post that were incorrect. Threats were made to contact the state housing agency. But here’s the kicker. Never once did she attempt to reach out directly to me and make me aware of the issues. Instead she simply offered her inflammatory post for all to see. Several individuals (they must have been her LinkedIn connections) jumped on the bandwagon. One person wrote, “horrible.” Another wrote, “What a disgrace!” Still another posted, “Just awful! I hope this post results in his immediate actions and corrections.”

I posted a brief explanation of the situation along with a full apology for what had transpired. I tip my hat to one individual who wrote, “Before you plastered this on this Internet, have you contacted Lee Harris directly? The man has had this business for 44 years . . . hard to believe there isn’t a back story to these issues.” I am most appreciative that this gentleman offered this comment. While the mob mentality was in full mode, at least there was a single voice of reason.

The danger of social media is quite evident in this experience. The daughter of our resident decided for reasons unknown, that she would rather attempt to shame (and flame) us on LinkedIn than to contact me directly. She published inaccurate (and untrue) information on a public forum. She found my LinkedIn page and could easily have called or e-mailed me – but didn’t take that approach. She posted a follow-up response to a comment from one of her connections, “We are now able to articulate the issues and have a direct line with the company – and will be working to create true delivery on brand promises.” Does that seem a little bit smug to you? She could have articulated the issues and had the same direct line with the company had she picked up the phone and called me.

As entrepreneurs, we understand that there are people who literally live their lives on social media. They share everything – large and small – that they encounter. Our businesses are now fishbowls more than ever before. We’ve had people write lousy Google reviews that were well-deserved and correct. And we’ve had disgruntled residents who have been evicted, and team members who were terminated, write ugly reviews posing as upstanding victims. Whether it’s Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or any of the other social media platforms, there is always a mob ready to pounce and shriek about the purported injustices that are being posted. I wish this wasn’t the way of the world, but it’s a condition we must live with.

Here’s what I have learned. There’s no point in trying to rebut a flamer. A calm response that offers a sincere apology is the most appropriate course of action. Hopefully someone will speak up as a counter to the mob. Most importantly, we must make certain that we are always delivering the highest quality products and services as possible.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Cumulative Effect of Little Things

Customers quit all the time. Many entrepreneurs work extremely hard to prevent the big screw-ups that alienate and enrage customers. Yet, even with this effort, there are still customers that leave and don’t come back. What’s up with this?

Consider this scenario. An entrepreneur has opened a new restaurant and works 24/7 to develop a loyal clientele. Over time the restaurant grows and enjoys success – it’s even profitable! But then its trajectory levels off. It’s not growing like it was and some of the regular faces aren’t there anymore. The entrepreneur studies his operation but can’t find anything glaring that is causing this trend. His puzzlement and frustration grow. Why isn’t he winning like he used to?

Had the entrepreneur taken a much closer and more granular look, he might have discovered the root cause of his problem. Had he followed one of his oldest customers – we’ll be original and call him Mr. Smith – he might have observed the following occurrences. On one occasion, Mr. Smith made a reservation in advance, but when he arrived the time was wrong. The hostess apologized profusely, but it did cause minor inconvenience to the customer. In another instance Mr. Smith’s credit card was declined. After an embarrassing moment for Mr. Smith, the server found that the credit card terminal was on the fritz. A few weeks later Mr. Smith was in a hurry to leave for a business appointment and his lunch was delayed due to a mix-up in the kitchen. Another time his steak wasn’t properly prepared. In still another instance, one of the side dishes he ordered was forgotten.

These seemingly small and inconsequential issues continued to occur over a period of months. Mr. Smith did not encounter problems every time he ate at the restaurant. But they happened often enough that he began to feel as though this eatery wasn’t the bright and shiny object that it had once appeared to be. Gradually Mr. Smith came to the restaurant with less frequency. The final straw came on a day when Mr. Smith noticed he had been charged for an appetizer he hadn’t ordered. The bill was corrected, but that was the last time Mr. Smith ever patronized the restaurant.

I call what happened here The Cumulative Effect of Little Things. The entrepreneur who owned the restaurant was prone to look at each minor problem on a stand-alone basis. And when viewed in this manner, it’s a mystery to see how a slightly undercooked steak here or a credit card snafu there could be enough to chase away a customer. He was looking for and trying to prevent, much larger issues. What he failed to understand is that the small stuff contributes to an overall customer experience. If Mr. Smith had visited the restaurant only once, he probably wouldn’t have given much thought to the fact that his meal arrived four minutes before that of his dining companion. But Mr. Smith was a regular customer and his impression of the restaurant was driven by an accumulation of experiences.

We can keep The Cumulative Effect of Little Things from causing our customers to quit. How? There are two ways. First, we must be sticklers for the small details. With the right systems, processes and team member training, we can eliminate the small mistakes that seemingly happen every day and yet are excused as too minor to matter. Second, we must be joined at the hip with our customers. It’s crucial that we know what they are experiencing at all times. Continuing with the restaurant example, when the owner or general manager shows up at my table at some point during the meal; chats briefly with me and asks (genuinely) what can be done to make my dining experience better, then I know I’m dealing with someone who really cares about me as a customer. I generally don’t ever encounter problems in those restaurants.

Customers leave more often than not as a result of The Cumulative Effect of Little Things rather than a major malfunction. Caring about the little details AND the customer will go a long way to creating a loyal following.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Sinful Service

Customers are the lifeblood of an entrepreneurship. And yet, many entrepreneurs have or condone a rather cavalier attitude about their customers. I’ve written before about the Net Promoter Score (NPS) which is one of the best measures of customer satisfaction. A poor NPS is a pretty good indication that something has gone awry with how customers are being treated. Comcast has a -5 NPS. Bank of America and Honda USA have an NPS of zero. By contrast the NPS for Amazon is +62 and for Apple it’s +72. For more information on the NPS, link to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_Promoter.

There are several surefire ways to drive down a Net Promoter Score. Explained another way – there are a number of errors that are made that drive away customers. Let’s look at a few sinful service flubs that are all too common.

  • It’s not my job. I’m sure we’ve all encountered someone who tells us this. The implication is that this person really could care less about me as a customer. It’s more important to him or her to color inside the lines and take no responsibility for helping me with the bigger picture. By contrast, I’m pleased to report that I recently visited a Bed Bath & Beyond store and asked a salesperson where to find a certain obscure product. Not only did she tell me exactly where it was, but she escorted me across the store and helped me find the right item. Maybe that’s why Bed Bath has a +44 NPS!
  • I’m going to give you the royal runaround. The “it’s not my job” approach leads to a far worse malady called, “the royal runaround.” This happens to me frequently when I’m calling a customer help line. First, I have to spend several minutes punching my way through the automated attendant to eventually get to the right person. I don’t know about you, but when I call for service, I don’t want to listen to a recording. I want to talk with a live person. Sometimes when I finally succeed in this quest, the person is friendly and solves my problem immediately. But in other instances the person may tell me that he or she can’t help me and I need to be transferred to another department thereby increasing the chances of being disconnected, or finding out that the next person is also going to shuffle me to still someone else.
  • I’m just following policy. This one is just lovely. We try to understand why the defective item we purchased at a particular store cannot be returned to that store, but instead must be sent directly to the manufacturer. “I didn’t buy the item directly from the manufacturer; I bought it from your store,” I explain. “That’s just our policy and there’s nothing I can do about it” I’m told by the customer “service” representative at the store. Makes me wonder why I need to pay a mark-up to the middleman if I’m going to have to deal with the manufacturer when the product fails.
  • My job sucks and I’m going to treat you like dirt (or worse). It’s easy to tell when someone who interacts with the public hates their job. I once had an encounter with a person who worked for a large company. I went to the office of this company and was ushered into an inner waiting area. The person I was to meet was sitting at a desk across the waiting room. She had a permanent scowl on her face and refused to acknowledge me. She fiddled around with a variety of menial tasks and finally at ten minutes after my appointment time she motioned me over. Not once did she make eye contact. She asked a couple of perfunctory questions; stamped a piece of paper, and shoved it back across the desk without saying a word. Her loathing of her job was palpable.
  • I may be smiling, but I’m still lying to you. This is pure poison. When a customer can no longer trust the company with whom he or she is dealing, then all is lost. Here’s the scenario. We are talking with a customer service representative for a consumer products company. We’ve had an issue with one of their products. The representative is most pleasant and assures us that the issue will be resolved immediately. Days pass with no resolution. We speak with the representative again and are told that the problem is being resolved. More time passes – still no resolution. Finally we speak with a different representative and learn that there is no resolution and never was to have been. We were fed a pack of lies from the very beginning.

As we grow our entrepreneurial endeavors, we must be ever vigilant to ensure that our customers are completely satisfied and we avoid the pitfalls of sinful service.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link –

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Disaster to Brilliance

In the old days if a product was lousy it was hard to get the word out to the general public. Short of taking out a full-page ad in the newspaper or standing in front of a store handing out flyers, there really wasn’t an effective way to inform unsuspecting customers about a flawed product or terrible service. Social media has changed all of that in a good way for the most part.

Do you ever read online product reviews? Smart companies give customers the chance to rate a product or service and write a short statement about their experience. And smart companies constantly monitor the ratings and reviews and take immediate action to resolve issues as they arise. I don’t know about you, but I have been paying more attention to ratings and reviews when I make purchases on Amazon and in other internet stores. Social media provides entrepreneurs with a terrific opportunity to “up their game” so to speak. Failure to deliver top quality or resolve customer problems can have severe consequences. In an instant the whole world can learn about a bad experience. And when too many bad experiences are chronicled online, an entrepreneur can lose business in a big way.

I purchased a battery-operated handheld drink mixer for use in mixing a supplement I take daily. The device worked quite well for a few weeks. And then it became temperamental and would only work intermittently. Eventually it stopped working altogether. I had tossed the packaging, so I wasn’t sure how to contact the manufacturer. The easiest thing was to simply post a review on the website from which I had purchased the item. I stated that the product was flawed and presented the facts about my experience.

Within 20 minutes of the posting I received an e-mail from the owner of the manufacturer. He expressed genuine concern that I wasn’t satisfied and said he would send me a full refund, send a replacement product or provide tips on how I could get the unit to work properly. Apparently my issue was fairly common and the fix was relatively simple. I liked the mixer and told him I’d take him up on his tips which he quickly sent to me. He also reminded me that his product had a lifetime warranty. I was able to use his tips to get the mixer working properly and have been able to keep it running ever since. I quickly wrote an updated review congratulating this gentleman on his customer focus and endorsed his product.

This entrepreneur did it right. He smartly monitored his reviews. When he saw a negative one he quickly reached out to his customer with the singular objective of doing whatever it took to make the customer (me) happy. There was never any hint of defensiveness in his responses. His lifetime guarantee is impressive. What he did was turn a potential disaster (bad review) into a stroke of brilliance by getting a positive re-write of my review – by the way, he never suggested that I do this. Better yet, the way I re-wrote the review recounted my initial dissatisfaction and all that the owner did to resolve my issue. Potential customers reading my review should take comfort in knowing that this entrepreneur stands behind his product and only wants his customers to be totally satisfied.

No matter how hard we try, things can go wrong. Stuff breaks. Customers can be cranky. Social media has created an environment where we are very vulnerable as entrepreneurs. Committing to move with lightning speed and doing whatever it takes to ensure total customer satisfaction will help keep us out of the ditch. The Pony Express days of customer service are over. This is as it should be.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 33 – Swivel Head.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

drink-mixer

Go Away – We’re Closed

Once upon a time there were entrepreneurs who cared about their customers. They understood what it took to make their customers happy and keep them coming back. Then their businesses grew and grew until one day they weren’t small anymore. Instead they became large behemoths that cared less about the customers and more about bureaucracy, CYA, policy and how to squeeze more dollars out of their customers. In the process, a number of their customers had experiences that were unacceptable and downright maddening. In this blog, I would like to relate several stories about encounters I’ve had as a customer of several larger companies. The names of the companies are irrelevant. What is instructive are the lessons we can learn as entrepreneurs and especially what we don’t want to emulate.

Let’s start with the airlines. The large domestic carriers are consistently stepping in it with their customers. One summer we made flight reservations on a major airline and then a few weeks later needed to change one leg of the flight. The airline’s website was impossible to negotiate to figure out how to make such a change. So I called the customer service line and got into the queue. Thirty minutes later they called back and were ready to assist me. I was informed that because I had a “special” fare, I would have to pay the difference of $173 plus a $200 change fee. I protested and pointed out that the special fare was still being advertised on the flight to which I was changing. And I also said that I found it unreasonable to charge a $200 change fee for a couple of minutes of re-booking. The representative wouldn’t budge. I said that I would leave the original reservation in place and in the future, find another airline to fly with friendlier policies. The “haughty” young man representing the airline said, “All of the legacy carriers are charging the $200 change fee.” Wow! Of course we know this is true, but a statement like this sounds like blatant collusion. The message to me, the customer was, “We’re going to screw you and so are the other major airlines.” Lesson #1: Never use the “everyone else is doing it” explanation when interacting with a customer.

My wife and I were in Washington, DC and made reservations for dinner at a major national steakhouse chain. It was a Tuesday evening and when we placed our order we naturally wanted – you got it – steak. Well, steak wasn’t an option at this restaurant. They were out of every cut of beef with the exception of a low-end sirloin. When I spoke to the assistant manager she said that there had been a delivery issue. Seriously? They do have grocery stores and meat markets in Washington, DC. My entrepreneurial instincts caused me to wonder why someone hadn’t simply gone to the store and purchased enough steaks to cover until the delivery arrived. I’ve been to other restaurants where the server or the manager has literally made a mad dash to the store and purchased something I wanted and they didn’t have. Lesson #2: Never tell a customer “we’re out of that.” Do whatever it takes to ensure that the customer gets what he or she wants.

Here’s a classic. A national chain store closes at 8:00 PM. I arrive at exactly 8:00 PM. What do you suppose happens next? The store manager won’t allow me to enter and says, “Sorry, we’re closed.” So here I am, a ready, willing and able customer and the store representative doesn’t want to serve me. Adding insult to injury, I’m told to come back the next day when they reopen at 9:00 AM. But what if that’s not convenient for me? In this case it’s apparently more important to avoid inconveniencing the store employees than the customers. Lesson #3: Always remain open for business until the last customer leaves. And if someone else wants to enter and it’s after hours, by all means accommodate him or her.

Finally, here’s another one that I’m sure will sound familiar. I made an appointment for an MRI at a large chain of imaging centers. I arrived 15 minutes early to make sure that all the paperwork was completed prior to my appointment time. Then I waited, and waited, and waited. About 20 minutes after my appointed time I asked once how long it would be and was told, “We should get to you soon.” After another 15 minutes I inquired again and the receptionist said in exasperation, “Sir, I have no idea how long it will be before we will get to you.” I left. Lesson #4: Never tell a customer that you have no idea when he or she will receive service.

As our businesses grow it’s critical that we make amplify our efforts to maintain customer focus even if it costs extra to do so. The additional investment will more than payoff when our happy customers continue to return and refer other customers to us as well.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 9 – Mistake Prone

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Closed sign

A Warm Blanket

I was waiting for a flight and a lady came to the ticket counter from an adjoining gate and asked the attendant if an announcement could be made about the status of the flight from that gate. Apparently it was past the departure time; the monitor revealed nothing, and there was no airline person at the gate. A few minutes later an announcement about the delay was made, but not after several moments of irritation on the part of the passengers waiting for that flight.

Why is it that so many companies communicate so poorly with their customers – especially when things aren’t going quite right? Common sense tells us that communications should be amplified in such instances. And yet it seems that there is a bit of a “run and hide” mentality when the train runs off the tracks. Airlines may be the worst where this is concerned – we all have more airline stories than we can remember. But this malady is shared across the business spectrum. While visiting a resort community in California, I walked past a grocery store that had a sign on the door at midday saying, “Closed – Computers Down.” Customers were trying to open the locked door and shook their heads after reading the sign. What a missed opportunity!

There are a couple of reasons why this happens, neither of which are good. The first is a cultural issue. If a company adopts the philosophy that the customer comes first, then its response to anything going awry impacting the customer will be immediate, complete and ongoing communications. Anything less is contrary to a customer-first culture. We entrepreneurs must decide if we are going to embrace such a culture and if so, determine the steps that we are going to take to ensure that come hell or high water the customer will always be wrapped in a warm blanket. Which brings us to the second reason why many companies fail at communicating effectively when things go wrong.

A company may have every intention of effectively communicating with its customers through thick and thin. But unless there is a clearly defined strategy that translates into actionable steps for every member of the team, there’s no way that successful implementation can happen. Take the airlines for instance. I have trouble believing that they don’t have great customer service as an intention. However, there’s no other explanation than there’s a disconnect somewhere between their strategy and putting it into practice.

In our respective organizations, we can make certain that our strategy and implementation are seamless through simulation. This involves identifying every possible mishap that could occur, causing issues for our customers. Next we can create a step-by-step process for dealing with these problems while maintaining a constant focus on how we smooth the way for our customers. It will require a combination of urgency, honesty, straightforwardness, empathy, clarity and frequency. In other words, we’re going to quickly tell our customers what has happened in clear and concise terms. We aren’t going to lie – if the airplane is broken, we’ll tell them that the airplane is broken and not make up some other excuse. We will apologize for any inconvenience and take the necessary steps to make things as painless for the customer as possible – even if it costs us some money. And we will continue to communicate early and often until the situation is resolved. Every member of our team will know exactly how they are supposed to make this happen and we will practice, practice and practice some more.

If we truly care about our customers, our bottom line will be the better for it. Thus, we should do everything in our power to make sure that the customer has a positive experience even when we have trouble delivering our products or services.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

electric blanket

The Kelly Factor

My wife and I ate dinner at an old 1960s vintage diner while on vacation recently. Our server was Kelly and she was absolutely terrific. In fact I told her she should come and work with me. Why was I so impressed with Kelly? She was genuine and authentic. This translated into her being very personable. Not only was she friendly but she clearly was very interested in providing us with the best dining experience possible. Kelly checked on us regularly, was witty and her countenance literally beamed.

It was obvious from the minute we sat down that Kelly was fully invested in her job. She had “skin in the game” so to speak. She greeted every customer that walked in the door, even if she wasn’t their server. And when a customer departed she acknowledged them similarly. There is a great lesson here for us entrepreneurs. When someone throws themself into their job like Kelly did, it not only is obvious but it is infectious. My wife and I both left the diner feeling more upbeat than we did when we walked in.

While sitting in the booth listening to some great old rock and roll tunes (from the 60s of course) I got to thinking about what makes Kelly tick. As Simon Sinek would say, what is her WHY? It was pretty apparent from what she said and her demeanor that Kelly is all about building trust and lasting relationships. Thus, everything she does for her customers is foundational in this respect. At one point she stopped by to see if some barbecue sauce had been delivered – it had not. She ran off to the kitchen and got it. When she returned, she explained that someone else was bringing it and then there was a minor disaster in the kitchen that caused the sauce to get waylaid. The fact that she felt a need to explain what had happened told me that she really wanted to earn our trust.

As entrepreneurs we need to have “skin in the game” as do all of the people we work with. It’s pretty evident when someone is simply going through the motions. While on the same vacation, we ate at another restaurant where our server was nice, but it was obvious she was just doing her job. She made no effort to engage us in conversation and build a relationship of any sort. Our experience in this restaurant and with this server was fine. But it serves in stark contrast with our Kelly experience.

Skin in the game means doing whatever it takes to make the customer happy. Skin in the game means going the extra mile for everyone involved – customer, company and other team members. Skin in the game means taking the wins and losses personally. Skin in the game means sometimes doing something that is less advantageous for us and more advantageous for someone else.

We know when we’ve become fully invested in whatever we’re doing. The results will be evident when we see that everyone involved had the kind of WOW experience that we did with Kelly.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

waitress