No company or entrepreneur gets it right every time. As an angel investor, I have found that people claiming a perfect record are either lying to themselves, or they are not taking enough risk to enable a big payback. In the long run, your ability to thrive in business today is more about how you prepare for and handle the inevitable exceptions and failures, than shooting for perfection.
In trying to put a practical edge on this message, I found some help in a new book, “The One-Percent Edge,” by Susan Solovic. She has been there, as a serial entrepreneur, internet pioneer, attorney, and media personality. She offers some good lessons for every modern business and entrepreneur that I can paraphrase here, with insights from my own experience:
- Not every customer is predictable, so expect exceptions. Of course, it’s important to put standard processes in place for all transactions, returns, and service requests, but a policy of “no exceptions” is not competitive today. A special case handled individually can be your best advertising, through social media and this world of instant communication. For example, when a grieving customer informed a T-mobile customer representative that her husband had just passed away with a $2000 overdue bill, with all funds frozen, the customer’s account balance was forgiven. She was even offered unlimited minutes for the following two months. She shared her joy online, with over 29K views and likes.
- Train customer support personnel for complex situations. By the time a customer decides to reach beyond a front-line employee, the situation is already complex. The age-old approach of putting marginal or new employees in support is a recipe for disaster. Put your best employees in support, and continually enhance customer support satisfaction.
- Give employees the authority and incentives they need. Above all, employees must have your trust and empowerment to make exceptions where appropriate, and solve problems on the spot. One of the best approaches I have seen is managers providing rewards for problem solving, including visible public recognition for their peers to see. For example, the transport staff at the Staten Island University Hospital Radiology Lab has the tough and tiring job of wheeling patients around for testing. When an employee witnessed another solving a problem or going the extra mile, they would nominate them for a Go the Extra Mile (GEM) certificate. These make everyone more empowered.
- Respond to customer special requests in real time. For better or for worse, the Internet and social-media-based customer access have made consumers expect virtually immediate responses to their issues. I still regularly hear from customers that wait for days or weeks after submitting a web form, or get stuck in telephone queues for an hour.
- Offer a great customer experience, not just a product. Today lasting customer loyalty requires an experience that goes far beyond the initial product or service. This includes marketing, social media, the buying experience, as well as service. If that experience falls short of the mark, your business will suffer, no matter how great your service is. Many negative customer experiences can actually be turned into positives, if you quickly acknowledge the problem, resolve it, and spread the positive message before the negative one gets amplified. Don’t repeat the “United Breaks Guitars” experience, which now has been published as a book on what not to do.
- Be accountable, and admit and correct mistakes quickly. Successful leaders and businesses are humble and transparent enough with themselves and others to admit mistakes and correct them quickly. In this way, those around them, including customers, can benefit from their learning, and feel a positive relationship and trust.
- Learn from the companies that get it right. Etsy is an example of a company that has a tremendous reputation with customers. Every user gets a unique experience, and this gives them a feeling of being special and well-cared for. The team works hard to personalize the customer journey so that users feel more connected with the experience.
Remember, you don’t have to be perfect to outperform the competition. Only one percent above the rest is still the top. No quantum leap is required to get there – just make small incremental improvements in all areas of your business, and you too can avoid the pain of a radical overhaul (when it may be too late anyway), while increasing your agility and resilience.