Maintaining Your Referral Machine

There are good experiences and bad experiences. People are good at remembering both, but unfortunately, the human psyche is such that we like to complain and tell others about our bad experiences more than we share our good experiences. That's why I've said before that the average customer makes a "bad referrer," hence the reason you need a process to capture the testimonials from your customers instead of waiting for them to just happen.
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There are good experiences and bad experiences. People are good at remembering both, but unfortunately, the human psyche is such that we like to complain and tell others about our bad experiences more than we share our good experiences. That's why I've said before that the average customer makes a "bad referrer," hence the reason you need a process to capture the testimonials from your customers instead of waiting for them to just happen.

In my opinion, the hardest part about the entire sales process isn't "making" the sale to any one customer. The hardest part is creating a "jubilant customer" and then getting them to buy from you a second and then a third time. There is a big difference between selling something to a person once vs. getting them to buy from you again and again when there are clear alternatives available. For this to happen, one must strive to eliminate the bad experiences delivered to customers, ultimately leaving only good memories about the interaction with your company. The companies that recognize this fact and systematically, over time, set up processes with the best people they can find to make every interaction with a client be a "great experience" will be able to charge more than their competitors. Better yet, they will still be in business 10 years from now.

I recently had a bad experience that involved a post-Christmas flight with my two teenage daughters on an airline whose identity I will protect. This airline (let's call them Mississippi River Flatland or MFL for short) made a series of errors that ultimately created an "anti-referrer," maybe even for life. In keeping with the thought that there are no real "mistakes" that one can make, only "lessons learned," I have created a checklist that you can use based on my adventure in the hope that it will help you eliminate all the bad experiences you might be delivering to your customers.

*Listen to your inner voice and avoid doing stupid things that you know are stupid. I had originally scheduled a 5:45 p.m. flight on December 26, out of JFK for the three of us while my wife, Julie, continued our holiday stay in New Jersey with her parents. Flying out of JFK the day after Christmas was, in hindsight, not the brightest of ideas, but I was drawn in like a moth to an open flame by the incredibly low one-way fares to Florida for three tickets. My inner voice called to me and said, "Look idiot, there is no way that this flight will leave on time, and if you get stuck, you're going to be in up to your ears with two unhappy teenage daughters." I had an entire Thursday night through Sunday itinerary planned to spend with my kids, and not a lot of room for error. We didn't leave JFK until the next day.

We all know that our instincts are normally correct. Whether it is telling you not to take on a potential pain in the neck client, or not ship out a system that has only been 75 percent rack tested, or believe in a delivery date that you feel is too optimistic, listen carefully to the voice of common sense. You will be right more often than you will be wrong.

*Don't lie to your clients because when they find out, it will be hard to gain their trust again in the future. MFL tells me via their website that the flight is delayed one hour. Upon calling the airline, I am told it is "due to weather," but according to the news and the Internet, flights have been running on time out of JFK pretty much all morning. Why do I care? Here may be the most important piece of information in this article. FAA Rule 240b states that an airline with a delayed flight is obligated to attempt to rebook you on any other available code-share flight that will arrive at your originally scheduled destination earlier than the revised (delayed) arrival time, providing that the delay is not weather related. I must admit that I have never seen an actual copy of this rule, but it must exist because multiple airline personnel have told me about it. Plus, whenever I've thrown it around like I know what I'm talking about I always get re-booked on another airline's flight.

Anyway, MFL continues to push back the departure time to 8 p.m., then 9 p.m. still insisting it is due to "delays from the previous days weather," preventing me from invoking Rule 240b. Later on it became clear that earlier in the day MFL Flight 2302 from West Palm Beach to JFK had a ground delay of several hours (leaving at 5:53 p.m. instead of 2 p.m.) because the earlier Flight 2311 from Newark to West Palm also had experienced ground delays that were not weather related. Using side discussions with other airline personnel and www.webflyer.com accessed via my Internet-enabled phone I was able to confront them with the truth and got what I was looking for at the time: a hotel room and dinner for three. By that time, however, they had lost my trust and faith.

How often has someone on your company done the same thing? What starts out as a small white lie can easily snowball into a series of lies that get out of control. As an example, when an installation can't be finished on time because a key field engineer or technology technician is ill, don't tell the client it is because the manufacturer can't ship their products. While at Lutron I took more than one call from upset homeowners that would innocently inquire as to how quickly they could get their HomeWorks system delivered if they gave their installer an order today. Keep in mind that the only repeatable story is not a story, but is what really happened.

*Accept appropriate responsibility for when things don't go the way your client expected. "Look everyone, we didn't cause the bad weather, so just sit right back down and we'll let you know when the plane arrives." That's the message delivered by the MFL gate agent sometime after 8 p.m. to get the crowd around the ticket counter to disperse. While I'm sure the airline employees were flustered, their attempt at diverting the blame to the weather was a mistake, especially later on when I found out about the real cause of the delay. Teach your employees to acknowledge when bad things happen, and where appropriate, take personal responsibility. It will go a long way to making your clients feel better that you will eventually get things resolved.

*Make sure you have procedures established to deal with when bad things happen, and make sure your employees follow them. Sometime soon after MFL's latest announcement I meandered over to a nearby counter and said to the lady working the desk, "I feel so sorry for those gate agents; the other passengers are really irate. We heard that the crew was late and the inbound plane had mechanical problems. Did both of those things really happen?"

The gate agent immediately looked up the information and confidently announced that it was simply a ground delay due to late arriving equipment, and whoever was saying that the flight was late because the crew was late was sadly mistaken. Clearly, either there was no procedure that established the gate agent in charge of the late flight as the only person who was authorized to give out information about the flight, or this particular agent did not know the rule or chose to ignore it.

Do your employees know what to do when an irate client shows up at their home and starts screaming about some aspect of their project? The next time you have all the field technicians in for a meeting, make a list of all the major problems that have ever occurred where a client got involved and make sure each and every person knows how to handle the situation. Do the same thing with your outside sales force as well.

*Anticipate problems before they become problems. Once we began to board the plane at 9:15 p.m. we all thought we were set. In fact, our problems were about to get worse. Pilots can only be on duty for so many hours before they "go illegal." Apparently, our crew was approaching the time limit such that if we didn't take off relatively soon they weren't going to be allowed to take off. Knowing this information a few hours earlier and knowing that it would be a close call, did MFL start to look for an alternate crew? Of course not, we did not take off on time because the airline double-booked two people in the same seat and the person sitting in the seat refused to leave. A small amount of anticipation by locating a backup crew starting at maybe 7 or even 8 p.m. may have prevented the ensuing melee when we disembarked.

This is one of those examples where having established procedures lose out to simply having hired the right smart people in the first place. When evaluating prospective employees, do you place more weight on their experience and skills, or on their intelligence and common sense? If I had to choose, I'd pick intelligence and common sense over experience and skill every time. What's your backup plan if the piece of electronics you are desperately awaiting for to complete a project doesn't show up on time? Make sure your company becomes excellent at recognizing potential problems before they become big problems and you'll significantly reduce the number of bad experiences your clients will encounter with your firm.

*When there is a problem, throw a lot of people at it to make people feel like they are important and you're listening. So now we all are forced to leave the plane. There is complete pandemonium. A woman will now miss her mother's funeral. A 17-year-old boy's parents had already left the airport, mistakenly assuming that after waiting three additional hours their son will be able to visit his uncle. The plane was completely full; some people needed clothing and personal effects that were packed in their luggage. How many MFL gate agents were standing by to offer their assistance to the 180-plus passengers as we disembarked? Two, initially, then later one more for a total of three people.

When you have a problem, throw a lot of people at it and try to get it fixed quickly. One firm that I know has a meeting with their client and grabs anyone and everyone in the company to sit in on the meeting, even if they have no involvement or knowledge of the problem. Make sure everyone takes notes. Your goal is to make your unhappy client believe that the entire resources of the company are now focused on solving his/her problem. Better yet, actually get the problem fixed quickly.

*It's better to acknowledge that you don't know something than to give out potentially inaccurate information. One of the first things that the gate agents told us was that we should plan on sitting in the exact same seats and we could use our existing boarding passes to board the plane the next morning for a 7:30 a.m. departure. Yeah, right. Our flight naturally left late the next morning for several reasons. One of them being that people showed up late at the airport actually believing they could use their old boarding passes to gain access to the secured area of the airport. As a suggestion, make sure that whenever someone in your company doesn't know or is unsure of an answer to a question, their reply is always universally the same: "I honestly don't know, but I'll do my best to find out and get back to you". And then make sure that they really do get back with an answer.
*Treat people fairly when you screw up. Everyone at the gate should have been given a hotel and a dinner voucher. When I nicely informed the gate agent that I knew why we were late (it wasn't weather related) and I knew what the airline was supposed to do, they escorted my family and everyone within earshot to a counter far away from everyone else. They then proceeded to give us what we were entitled to and literally pushed us out the door to the baggage claim area so we wouldn't talk to anyone else.

Everyone makes mistakes. Manufacturers deliver late or defective products. Custom installation firms are late completing projects. Project engineers put down the wrong dimensions on a drawing. Software gurus miss bugs. When your company makes a mistake, admit it, and do what is right. You'll know what "right" means for any situation. Treat people fairly and you'll normally end up looking okay at the end of a project.

*Set the right expectations by always being explicit about what you do and don't do. One of the things we received from MFL was a dinner coupon voucher at the hotel good for dinner for a party of three. I called the hotel to make sure the restaurant was still serving, and they were. We had dinner, and upon leaving the restaurant I was told I owed $49 for a buffet dinner for three people. As it turns out, even though the voucher said, "Payment of actual services up to a maximum amount herein specified is guaranteed by [MFL] Airlines," with no amount listed as the maximum, the actual maximum was $10 per person for dinner in metropolitan New York.

I had an expectation that the voucher would cover dinner. It didn't, and I was annoyed. How well does your company establish expectations for your clients? Do you properly outline what you do and what you aren't responsible for, and when it will be completed? If not, I would suggest that you review your sales presentations and contracts and eliminate any ambiguities you might have.

*Don't "angel schedule" and rely on divine intervention to determine who will take care of an issue. The promise of a 7:30 a.m. departure sounded great at the time when we heard it at 11 p.m. Unfortunately, when MFL made that commitment, they had no idea if they could even get a crew to fly the plane the next morning. How did I know? When the crew arrived late, the pilot immediately made an announcement that while he understood that everyone was a bit upset and probably didn't get a good night sleep, his crew's sleep had been interrupted as well. It turns out that they got a 5:30 a.m. call that morning asking them to fly the plane, so they had to rush around and get ready to leave when they were originally scheduled to leave later that afternoon.

One of the greatest challenges in our industry is scheduling jobs. Our businesses are neither steady nor predictable, causing logistic hiccups all the time. Whenever you schedule your crews at 100 percent or greater capacity, you are sure to have problems, because you have left no wiggle room for unforeseen events or last-minute unscheduled problems. Leave room in your schedule for unforeseen events, and don't schedule a job to be completed when you don't know who will complete it.

*Follow-up with something nice that replaces the bad memory with a good memory. MFL could have recovered at least somewhat from everything that happened by issuing everyone on board a free flight voucher or something else of value for the inconvenience the airline had caused. Instead, they did nothing other than to arrive late once again the next morning.

When (not if) your company messes up with a client, do something nice. Acknowledge your mistake, and share with the client that your goal is to create an extremely happy if not "jubilant" referrer of future business. Offer to do something that hopefully costs you little but goes a long way toward making your client appreciate that he picked your company over all the other firms in the area. In any case, end the process with a "good" experience and hopefully you'll turn your disgruntled client into a future advocate.

What about me? Will I ever fly MFL Airlines again? Probably, because I will invariably be forced to, because of flight schedule or cost reasons. Your customers, however, are not faced with having to do business with your company again if they don't want to. Remember the old rule that happy customers tell one additional person while unhappy customers tell 10. Sometimes, they even tell tens of thousands.

Rick Schuett (RickS@acousticinnovations.com) is vice president of sales and marketing for Acoustic Innovations.


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