This column marks a milestone for me. This is my 250th column for the family of Business Journals under the American City Business Journals banner. My first column was published in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal on April 18, 1997; sixteen years ago. If any of you have a copy of the original column, please keep the accompanying photo of me to yourself, I get enough grief from my nine-year old stepdaughter as it is. It is typical for an anniversary like this to hold greater importance for the person experiencing it than for those reading about it. Garrison Keillor, author and creator of the radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, said it best when he noted that longevity is less about quality than it is about length.
My wife Kanitta and I are typical American consumers. We shop at our standard stores for food, clothing, and such. Every now and then we venture into the unknown, usually at the urging of a coupon or a friend who says, “You gotta try this place!” We invariably return to our stand-bys. We were talking recently about why we chose the stores to which we remain most loyal. It was no surprise that location was high on the list. Sadly, the pace of life these days has people opting for poorer quality in exchange for close proximity. The problem for the stores that rely on location as their chief advantage is they are the most at risk of losing customers as soon as a more convenient option becomes available. Look at what happened to book stores when Amazon.com became a bookmark on everyone’s web browser; or the auto shop where no one knows your name no matter how many repairs you paid for now having to compete with a brand new—and friendlier—shop that opened five blocks away.
“If you take care of the small things, the big things will take care of themselves.” Our parents drove that point home so often as we were growing up, most of us think they invented the phrase. It is actually a quote by the 19th century poet, Emily Dickinson. I wish I could tattoo that phrase on every C.E.O.’s forehead so they could see it in the morning when they shaved or applied make-up. I think of the phrase often because I have to pay attention to customer service, either to write this column or to improve my own company’s performance. Luckily, doing what I do for a living affords me daily reminders about the little things.
If you are reading this, then you made it through the end of the world—predicted by the Mayan calendar for December 21, 2012. Congratulations. If you are like me, you played it safe and held off on a bunch of work for the few days leading up to the 21st. Who wants to be the schmuck that spent his last days on Earth returning e-mails and updating spreadsheets? Now that we’re all still here, I suppose it is time to get back to work. After all, we don’t want to survive Armageddon just to drive over a fiscal cliff.
Recently I entertained at a holiday party for a law firm. I provided entertainment for a number of law firms over the holidays so if you think I’m talking about yours; maybe, maybe not. We got into a discussion about image. Public perception being as important as it is, a company’s image is top-of-mind for smart executives. I commented on the photos of the lawyers on the firm’s website. I noticed that most of the headshots made the attorneys seem angry. Everyone was posed looking directly at the camera, eyes fixed, with a grimace that said, “You want me on your side, not your competitors.” A lot of them were holding big law books as if to say, “I read this whole thing.”
I mentioned this to one of the staff members at the event. She said that clients looking for a litigator want someone who looks like a bulldog because that is how they want the lawyer to behave on their behalf in court. I got to wondering about how true that might, or might not, be. I am sure there are plenty of arguments to be made on both sides, however, my assumption is that the claim about the client’s preference is an assumption, not a verifiable fact. If you read my last column (and if you didn’t, shame), I wrote about the practice of successful organizations—namely, they rid themselves of assumptions and behave based solely on facts. The facts are determined by asking clients what they want and putting your ego aside to fulfill those wants.
What if the clients of a law firm were surveyed and asked about the image of the firm? To be fair, I would assume most clients would rather see a photo of a lawyer standing next to a stack of legal texts than of a guy in sports gear hitting a tennis ball. But I wonder how willing the lawyers would be to change their photo if they did discover the client was attracted to a different image. What if an engaging smile and casual posture worked better at attracting new clients? What if such a photo put the potential client more at ease? I’m not saying this is the case, I’m just wondering how willing the lawyers would be to change their image if they discovered that is what the client wanted.
That’s the hard part about getting client feedback—you have to use it. You have to put your assumptions and ego aside and do what your customers want you to do. You have to act in accordance with what you sell. A long time ago I answered the phone at our company (I answer all our calls. I don’t want someone else speaking for me). I don’t like long, drawn out greetings such as, “Stevie Ray’s Improv Company, this is Stevie Ray speaking, how can I help you today?” (I also don’t like calling a company and hearing, “We’re having a fantastic day here at Bob’s Body Shop! How can we make your day a great one too?”) By the time I get through listening to some greetings, it takes so long I forgot who I was calling in the first place. And here is a tip, if you have twelve people’s names in your company, only use the first two in your greeting. This would let me know it is not a one-person shop without having to hear everyone’s name who ever clocked in. When I hear the greeter run through every person’s name, I think two things. One, that I pity the poor person has to repeat that a hundred times a day whenever the phone rings. Two, those twelve people must have huge egos.
Be that as it may, I simply answer the phone with “Stevie Ray’s.” I get no complaints. Except once, that phone call I answered years ago. My tone that day was a bit curt; I was pretty busy. Luckily, the caller was an acquaintance of mine. He said, “Wow, for a guy who sells fun you sure don’t answer the phone that way. I might as well be calling the DMV.” Fortunately for me, this guy happened to be in marketing, so I got a quick lesson in branding; for free.
He told me that all products and services are marketing must have a brand emotion, which I knew. He also reminded me that every single person in the company must behave in ways that demonstrate that emotion. Nothing gets sold unless an emotion is attached to it. This is because of a principle that guides all marketing and advertising, people buy with emotion and justify with fact, not the other way around. Our brains are wired to react to input in a certain order. The parts of our brain that react emotionally receive the input first. Only after it cycles around for a while does the input make it to the critical thinking part of the brain (the Right Pre-Frontal Cortex). By that time, emotion has taken over. If we feel like, we buy. If we don’t, no amount of information will change dislike to like.
Your product or service must fit one of five main emotions: Trustworthy, Competent, Sophisticated, Exciting, or Rugged. Whether it is a car or a pair of jeans, tech services or roofing, it is either branded with one of those five emotions or it doesn’t sell. The easy part is making the product fit the emotion, the hard part is having the staff live the emotion. I certainly wasn’t living the emotion when I answered with a dull, “Stevie Ray’s.” Our brand has always been fun and excitement and I have to live that every day, not just when I am delivering the service.
I have even had clients push me in that direction. At one event I was the keynote speaker, so I was planning on being competent. The client, however, wanted excitement. Just before taking the stage I asked for a final confirmation from the client about her objectives. I always ask, “What is it you want these people to leave with?” I expected her to say skills related to competency; communication, leadership, teamwork. Had she said any of those, my ego would have been satisfied. I could have been important guy delivering important information. She said, “We just want people to have fun.” Once again, a client reminded me of what I should have remembered all along, the brand is more important than my ego.
Now I answer my phone with my brand in mind. I have fun. My clients love it. Some companies live their brand in every detail. A well-known company, Martin Bastian, produces corporate events (entertainment, speakers, audio/visual needs, etc.). Although this type of service needs to be competent, and sometimes sophisticated, it really hinges on excitement. Excitement equals fun, and people crave fun. People need competence, but nobody really craves it. When you call the offices of Martin Bastian, if you get put on hold you get the most fun hold message I have ever heard.
Over the usual background music, a voice says, “As our 100th caller today you win the grand prize of being able to listen to our wonderful hold music. Please enjoy!” After a short period of music, the voice returns with, “Martin Bastian appreciates your patience. Please refrain from tapping your fingers, humming along with the music, or doodling while on hold.” After another interlude the music changes to the theme from The Twilight Zone while the voice-over says, “You have entered another dimension, a dimension where time seems to stand still. With the push of a button and the flash of a little red light, you have entered The Holding Zone.” People have actually called Martin Bastian and asked to be put on hold. The colleague who told me about the message has played it on speaker phone for his fellow staff members. If you were looking for a company to work with, which one would pop immediately to mind?
Truly living your brand goes beyond slapping a label on the product and calling it a day. It takes paying attention to the client. It takes setting aside your ego and living the brand personally, every day. And not one staff member can opt out. Even employees who never speak to a customer must live the brand. If they don’t, they infect others and the emotion is lost. No company survives without emotion.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If someone forwarded this article to you and you would like to have Stevie Ray’s column sent to you each month absolutely free, click here.
Help your employees learn firsthand the techniques Stevie Ray has gained from working with corporations around the globe. Click here right now to go to the web site for Stevie Ray’s Improv Company and see what he can do for you
If your company is planning an event and you need entertainment so this one doesn’t feel just like the last one, click here.
Learn to deliver powerful presentations, think on the spot, and other valuable skills by clicking here and ordering one of Stevie Ray’s books.
I was talking to a client the other day as we planned a workshop for his sales team. At one point he said, “If I could just get all of my sales people to act like my nine-year old daughter, our sales would go through the roof. When she wants something, she pursues me relentlessly until I finally give in. No matter how hard I try to deny her request or distract her, her train of thought remains focused only on what she wants.”
Tuesday was not a good day. I was driving to a client meeting and was almost certain to be late. I was raised to believe that you are on time if you are ten minutes early. It looked as if I was going to arrive exactly at the appointed time (which means I’m late). I left my office with plenty of time to spare, but forgot that summer is the time most cities in America decide to tear up perfectly good roads and rebuild them exactly the same as before. So two-lanes become one-lanes, and every other driver on MY road doesn’t seem to understand that they are in MY way. I believe what George Carlin once said, “Every other driver who is driving slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac.”
My wife and I were at the airport the other day standing in the security line waiting to have high-intensity laser beams shot through us in the body scanner. A middle-aged woman in front of us was in the process of placing every possession she owned on the conveyor belt. Each time she thought she was done, she walked to the TSA agent at the body scanner, who promptly sent her back to the conveyor belt to remove yet another piece of jewelry or clothing not allowed in the Star Trek Transporter device.
I have always tried to live by the philosophy that, if you are discussing an important issue, you should try to imagine a loved one being in the same situation. If you are either for or against a particular law, how would you feel about that law if it was your son or daughter who was affected? I feel the same way about customer service. When dealing with a customer I try to ask myself, “How would I feel if this was my mother on the phone?” Of course, sometimes the answer would be, “Stop bothering me mom, I’m trying to work!” Apparently a lot of companies don’t teach their employees that philosophy. And what a week it has been for discovering that fact.
The following is a phone conversation I had with the customer service department of a company that sold me bookkeeping software. This is the most popular software for home and small business bookkeeping in the country. After the US government changed the regulations about Social Security payments, my software got confused. When I tried to enter a payroll transaction using the new amounts, the program gave me the same look my seven year-old stepdaughter gives me when I sing in the car.
It was a weekend of fun with the six-year old stepdaughter. One day involved a trip to the neighborhood water park, just after a day at the big metropolitan amusement park. You know the kind of amusement park I mean? The kind where the managers take revenge on the younger generation of employees by making them wear uniforms that looked like they were designed for the 1930s? The theme-park owners just have to know that the employee’s teen-aged friends are going to see them in uniform. It’s a sure bet that many young dating relationships are permanently damaged by such a sighting.