What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

It seems like I’m on a roll these days with rants about customer service. And this one is a doozy. A few weeks ago my wife and I were flying to Las Vegas where I was to speak at a conference. We were supposed to fly from Kansas City to Phoenix and then to Vegas. It was a Sunday morning and when we arrived at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, the trouble began. Apparently some joker decided to leave a locked vehicle unattended at the curb outside one of the terminals. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone was late for a flight and didn’t have time to take the car to the off-site rental car return and simply dropped it at the curb and figured he’d deal with the flak later. Well flak there was.

As we got off the plane, we were told that the terminal was closed due to a “security issue.” Passengers were not allowed to move down the concourse with TSA and the Phoenix Police Department enforcing this edict. Shortly thereafter, we were quickly herded to an adjoining section of the terminal where even more passengers were gathered. The line of demarcation was just short of the restrooms and very quickly the scene turned ugly. People were chanting and a full-scale riot was minutes away. Fortunately, someone in authority decided that letting people go to the bathroom might be a good idea, so they began creating bathroom lines and allowed ten people at a time to step under the tape and head single-file to the restrooms – all the while under the watchful eye of those in “authority.” Finally, they allowed the mob to move deeper into the concourse where everyone had access to the restrooms.

This situation persisted for somewhere between three and four hours. And not once did law enforcement provide any information whatsoever. I was able to watch some video on my phone from a local television station that enabled me to understand what was happening. Eventually (I was told), the bomb squad decided they needed to blow something up, so they blew the trunk of the car and the passenger doors to find . . . nothing. I guess I can understand how cautious we need to be in this day and age. But it was absolutely inexcusable that everyone was kept in the dark through the entire ordeal. A public affairs representative for law enforcement should have provided updates every 15 minutes on the overhead PA system as well as on social media along with an estimated time for resolution. Phoenix PD and the TSA did nothing to help their image with this display of arrogance. It was equally inexcusable that the decision was made to cordon off the terminal at a point where the restrooms weren’t accessible. From a practical standpoint, we’re talking 30 or 40 feet – and eventually the decision was made to move the cordon anyway.

Of course a number of flights were cancelled including ours. I received a text message from the airline (I’d “love” to say which one but I won’t) informing me that our flight was cancelled and to click on a link to re-book . . . except the link didn’t work. So, shame on the airline. Eventually we made a standby flight to Los Angeles that took us on to Las Vegas. But of course our luggage was MIA. The one bright spot in all of this was a very delightful lady named Lori at the airline’s lost baggage department in Las Vegas who really cared about our situation and said she’d do everything she could to see that we got our bag ASAP. And later that evening our bag did arrive. Kudos to Lori! Unfortunately, this airline – which is supposedly known for its technological prowess – has still not deployed a bar coding system for baggage. Another major airline we fly sticks a bar code on our luggage and we can look at a phone app and know exactly where it is in the country at all times. So another pox on the airline we used that Sunday for not getting with the bar coding program.

Things can really go wrong for us as entrepreneurs and sometimes they do. We can learn from experiences like this and avoid the mistakes that others are making. Above all, continual, clear and honest communications is paramount as long as the train is off the rails. And it’s also important to make sure all systems and processes are working and that common sense prevails. If we do it right, we can actually score points with our customers as they weather the storm with us.

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 119 – Good or Bad Signals?

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 Entrepreneur Who Cried Wolf

Harkening back to my childhood days, I remember a wonderful Aesop’s Fable called The Boy Who Cried Wolf. As the story goes, a little boy had a tendency to sound a false alarm that a wolf was attacking a flock of sheep. After doing this repeatedly, the villagers eventually stopped taking him seriously. Then when the wolf actually did eat the sheep, the little boy’s cries fell on deaf ears. In some versions of this story, the wolf also eats the boy. I believe that this fable is more apropos for our society today than perhaps at any time in recent memory. The current state of political affairs comes to mind as a perfect example of how over-the-top proclamations about how our country is doomed are being bandied about on a daily basis.

We can expand a modern-day Aesop’s Fable to include entrepreneurs – more specifically, entrepreneurs who engage in lying and distortion. There’s a distinction between puffery and lying. Puffery involves hyperbole which by definition is “obvious and intentional exaggeration not intended to be taken literally.” For example, if we say that our widgets are the “best,” there’s no objective way to measure this claim and the public generally understands the context to contain a degree of hyperbole. On the other hand, if we say that 99% of all our customers agree that our widgets are the “best,” then this is a factual claim that can be verified. And it becomes a lie if this fact is manufactured or we can’t prove that 99% of all our customers agree with our statement.

Where this gets really dicey for entrepreneurs is when the integrity line is crossed. Alex is the CEO of a start-up company and is pitching a group of investors for funding. During an interview with the investor group, he says, “Our firm has 35 customers and we’ve generated $500,000 in revenue.” What he doesn’t reveal is that he doesn’t really have 35 paying customers. He actually has 25 prospective customers that are using a beta version of his product for free; five current customers that are currently paying for his product, and five former customers that quit because they had issues with the product. What he also neglected to say is that his company has been in business for three years and $500,000 is the cumulative revenue generated during that time period. Did Alex lie about his company’s progress or did he engage in a form of puffery? While it’s not quite the false cry that a wolf is eating the sheep, Alex has definitely crossed the line through omission of key facts. Any savvy investor will drill down and quickly learn that Alex has misrepresented his situation – which will probably cost him the investment.

As entrepreneurs our integrity is our most valuable currency. When we go to the bank for a loan, it’s important that we put our best foot forward, but in an honest manner. We should be fact-based with our approach and present a true picture of our operations. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with sharing data trends that portray our company in a growth-mode. When we are reporting to our investors, we share the true, unvarnished facts. If things aren’t as rosy as we’d like, we provide an explanation about the issues we are experiencing. We have a real estate fund and write a quarterly report for our investors. Periodically I like to include a section called, “What’s Not Working.” In it, we discuss some of the challenges we are facing and what we are doing to overcome them. We’ve had feedback from investors who appreciate the fact that we’re not always trying to sell them on unicorns and rainbows.

Another problem area for entrepreneurs is that of overpromising and under-delivering. In fact, we would be much better off doing the opposite. We would do well to find one of the most skeptical members of our team and have him or her help set expectations. It’s likely that our optimism would be dialed back to a more realistic degree. Overpromising once may be forgivable. But if it happens over and over then we’re probably moving past the realm of hyperbole and into the arena of deception.

We all want to win which is a critical element of entrepreneurship. Doing so in an honest and forthright manner may not be the easiest path to take, but it will likely keep us from being eaten by the wolf.

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 106 – A Boomer’s Advice to Millennials.

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.

Liars

Here’s a set-up question. What do you think of companies that aren’t honest with their customers? The answers range from, “That’s terrible” to “It happens every day.” Unfortunately both answers are correct. What’s particularly irritating is when those companies beat their chests about how much they care about their customers. There’s a disconnect between words and actions which is pretty disturbing and serves as an excellent lesson for entrepreneurs.

Allow me to tell you a personal story. Each summer we look forward to spending a couple of weeks at a beautiful destination spot in the mountains with enormous trees, blue skies and a fabulous lake. We fly into a nearby airport, collect our bags and head to the car rental counter where we’ve previously made a reservation. After checking in we venture to the car pick-up area – and every single year, bar none, our vehicle is never ready. We’ve waited anywhere from 20 minutes to as long as 45 minutes. The attendants smile and promise that “They are just cleaning up the car as we speak – it will only be a few more minutes.” Fifteen or twenty minutes later they smile again and disappear to go “check” and see where things stand. Sometimes we go through the same drill with two or three more attendants – they seem to work in a tag team sort of manner. Finally, someone tells us that “They’re bringing around the car right now.” Any reasonable person would conclude that would mean the car would arrive in two or three minutes. But it never happens. Eventually we may get the car we ordered. More often than not, we end up with a different vehicle – sometimes better and sometimes worse. Adjustments are made to the price and we’re finally on our way.                                                                                                                                                                                Here’s what’s so bothersome about this experience. We are never told the truth. The attendants are friendly enough. They explain that they’ve been slammed with returns and pickups. But the string-a-long routine is always the same. Yes, I know. I should probably use a different car rental company – though I’ve encountered similar issues elsewhere with other firms. With this particular car rental company, on their website they make a big deal about how they focus on the customer. Part of their mission statement extolls their desire “To exceed our customers’ expectations for service, quality and value.” Elsewhere we’re told that, “Take care of your customers and employees first, and the profits will follow.”

This situation is emblematic of a pervasive problem in the business and entrepreneurial world today. Sometimes we’re so afraid of disappointing a customer that we’d rather try to give them hope while we juggle difficult circumstances. We say things that aren’t quite true and eventually we’re in worse shape than if we would have just been totally honest. Lying doesn’t usually end well. I learned this as a kid and have watched others suffer the consequences as an adult. What should the car rental company have done? For starters, they have a very sophisticated IT operation and could easily have collected data from every hour of every day at every location. Then they would know from my stated pick-up time that there usually is a 30-minute wait and set my expectation accordingly. But we all know that sometimes things unexpectedly go wrong. Training their employees to have empathy in such situations and be totally honest would go a long way.

In a circumstance like this, here’s what I would rather have someone say to me. “We had 50 cars returned within a 30-minute timeframe. Normally we never have more than 20 cars returned in such a short period of time. We’re running at least 45 minutes behind. I’m going to give you a 15% discount for the delay and recommend that you come back at 3:30. In the meantime, here are some drink coupons for the bar inside the airport terminal. Please accept our most sincere apologies.” This statement is pro-active and wrapped with empathy, honesty and realistic expectations. The customer may not be pleased, but at least the company can’t be criticized for not doing everything possible to atone for a bad situation.

We need to ask ourselves whether or not we set honest and realistic expectations for our customers. When we do, we’ll have a much greater chance of solidifying customer loyalty – even when things don’t go as planned.

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 8 – The E Factor.

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.

Pinnochio

Tasty Crow

Crows are remarkably intelligent and can live as long as 20 years. They typically have a wingspan of more than three feet and weigh nearly three pounds. A crow can fly up to 60 miles per hour and have been found as high as 14,000 feet in mountain ranges. Being smart, fast and able to fly to great heights make them particularly hard to catch. Recently I had to catch one so I could eat it . . . metaphorically speaking of course.

To be a successful entrepreneur we must have an acquired taste for crow. We’ve all heard the saying “to eat crow” which connotes humiliation and having to admit the making of a mistake. Sometimes our ego gets in the way and we do everything we can to avoid admitting that we made a mistake. We may point the finger at others. Or we may try and cover up the mistake hoping that its results will somehow vanish into thin air. I can tell you that all of these tendencies are mistakes.

One of our companies is involved in acquiring apartment properties across the country. We sold two such assets within a much shorter holding period than we had initially projected because of an opportunity to generate substantial profits. Members of our team prepared a detailed spreadsheet that showed how the sale proceeds would be distributed. These were large and complicated transactions with several tranches of equity provided by different investors. I was pleased to call two such investors to deliver the good news that they would be receiving a significant multiple of their original investment. Needless to say they were thrilled.

Within days, I received a call from my partner who oversees our apartment acquisition business unit. Apparently there was a bust in the calculations and these two investors would be receiving less than what I had told them. They were still receiving a substantial gain on the sale, but not quite as much as the expectation I had set. The mistake was honest and unfortunate but it still had to be acknowledged. Thus, I went about the task of eating crow.

I called both investors and said the following, “I’m sorry to tell you that the distribution figure I provided the other day was erroneous. We made a mistake in calculating the sale proceeds and your new amount is $X. Happily your profit is still much greater than we projected when you made your investment three-and-a-half years ago. I wanted to get back to you as soon as I learned of the error and I hope that you will still be interested in looking at future investments with us.”

Because we are a team I did not point a finger at the person who was responsible for the calculation. Instead I said that “we” made a mistake. I did not make up an excuse for what had happened. Simple but painful. The result was an expression of understanding on the part of both investors. I’m sure they were disappointed but there were no angry words and in both cases, an indication of interest in looking at the next deal.

Relationships are built on trust and can be strengthened in situations where things don’t go as planned. But this happens only when honesty and transparency are the top priority.

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.

crow

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

Why Do They Quit?

Question: In this day and age of heightened customer service awareness, why are there still businesses that deliver such a lousy customer experience?

Answer: You are so right about this observation. For a number of years we’ve seen a barrage of books and articles about how companies are more focused on delivering top quality customer service. But for some reason, on a regular basis there’s still a disconnect between the theory and the practice.

For more than 20 years my wife and I went to the same dentist – every six months like we’re supposed to do. During my final encounter with this dentist I asked him to do some minor cosmetic work on my front teeth and inquired as to the cost. He quoted an amount; we scheduled an appointment, and the work was performed. When I received the bill I was in for a shock. It was double what he had told me. Because he is so hard to reach in person during the day, I sent him an e-mail explaining the situation. His response was, “What I quoted was for one tooth.” Now I don’t know about you, but I liken this to having the brake pads replaced on your car and the mechanic gives you a quote for one brake pad. I told the dentist how disappointed I was that he had not made his pricing clearer. He responded that in the future, each patient would receive such a quote in writing to eliminate any confusion. What he failed to do however, was apologize to me and knock some amount (any amount would have been fine) off my bill. As a result, he lost two patients forever. How simple it would have been to show a bit more consideration by simply acknowledging the mistake and making a minor financial adjustment.

Here’s another 20+ year story. A certain pool company has received thousands of dollars from me over that timeframe through opening and closing our swimming pool as well as replacing the liner two or three times and servicing our hot tub. This year the pool was opened on schedule. Normally the cover is removed, chemicals dumped in the water, the pump and filter are started and the crew comes back a few days later to vacuum and finish the clean-up. We’ve had a wet spring and as a result the company fell behind on its schedule and never came back to finish the job. Of course they weren’t hesitant to send me a bill which I quickly paid. I placed several phone calls during which I was told they’d “take care of it.” An e-mail went unanswered. Finally a month later I hired someone else to finish the job and sent a letter to the owner of the pool company terminating their services. Ironically, the same day the opening was finally finished, the pool crew showed up only to realize their job had been completed by another party. To this day I haven’t heard a peep out of the owner of the pool company. And of course he wasn’t honorable enough to refund a portion of what I had paid.

It is important to remember that when serving others the key to keeping a customer happy is honesty and communications. We humans will tolerate an awful lot as long as we feel that we are being treated fairly and have expectations communicated to us in a clear and timely manner. Lack of these elements shows disrespect and is the main reason we quit companies that serve us. Yes, we want performance and quality products. But the way we are treated is equally important if not more so.

There’s a very simple yet powerful adage to remember that will ensure that we will keep our customers happy. It goes like this. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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.

customer-service