Monday, 17 December 2012 11:10

What’s the value of first impressions?

Most companies know the key to long-term growth is generating repeat business. Repeat customers mean greater brand loyalty, higher referrals and a steady stream of sales. Adding a new customer also costs considerably more than retaining an existing one.

But creating the kind of brand relationships that drive customers back again and again isn’t easy, especially for businesses that outsource their marketing and sales efforts to third-party call centers.

Smart Business spoke with Monica Ross, the vice president of training and development at InfoCision, on the value of first impressions and how to enhance customer relationships.

It’s about more than just taking orders

You don’t want your brand to get lost by having representatives who might treat a call with your customer as just another interaction. While they can help your customers make their purchases and answer their questions, it’s not creating a customer experience that is going to convert into future sales.

Companies need more than just order takers. To be competitive in this disjointed marketplace you need call centers that can build outstanding interactions by being as professional and connected to the brand as your own employees are. The order taker will process an order and get it done, but brand ambassadors will take it to a higher level to ensure the person feels good after the call.

You need to leverage the people on the phones if you’re looking to create outstanding customer interactions. Your call center is the voice of your company, so it's crucial to have mature, experienced professionals on the phones. The agents making and taking your calls are representing your company in front of your most valuable asset — your customers. Reputable call centers have highly selective hiring policies. At InfoCision, the average age of our Communicators is 42 years old, close to 80 percent are full time and almost 75 percent are their family’s main provider. Successful call center companies will also have robust recognition programs to retain and reward top performers.

Separate yourself from the crowd

With the trend toward multiple communication channels and a brand ambassador approach, an extensive training curriculum is essential. What separates brand ambassadors from typical call center representatives is their deep level of product and client knowledge, which can enhance the value of a call in a number of ways. Instead of just answering questions, brand ambassadors act as an extension of the brand they’re calling for, so they do a better job connecting with the customer from the first phone call. Brand ambassadors convey the feelings and voice of a brand. They are also comfortable enough with product and service lines to present other opportunities and upsell the customer and boost conversion rates.

Often, people are not 100 percent sold when they call in initially, and it’s going to translate into lost revenue. The phone call should be looked at as an opportunity to pin-point customer wants, answer questions and create need. Because of their training, a brand ambassador is going to know what questions to ask and what benefits their product or service offers. They will take this information and build on it to create that need for the customer.

Creating stronger brand ties

By enhancing brand value, brand ambassadors also add future value in customer retention. The real value of the brand ambassador comes after the phone call is completed: The prospect will have a stronger tie to the particular brand as well as a clearer feeling of who the company is and what it has to offer. Even if it’s a purchase of a singular item, it’s a company that the customer will want to go back to.

The success of brand ambassadors really comes down to the investment a company is willing to make upfront with time and training. The more involved they are in developing training materials and programs, the more ammunition they can provide to brand ambassadors. When those on the phone know the product and client, it’s going to positively impact the bottom line on that initial call. It’s about creating a better impression of who we represent. And, in this economy, where competition for customers is extremely fierce, strategic use of call centers can provide a company with far-reaching benefits that will help them to achieve goals, to enhance market position and to maintain their good reputation.

We’ve reached an age where technology is bringing businesses and customers closer together. Communication channels like teleservices, direct mail, Web allow for a customer’s diverse needs to be met. But it’s only as good as the person on the other end. By improving the quality of a customer’s experience, they will form a stronger bond with your organization and, as a result, increase your profit potential.

Monica Ross is the vice president of training and development at InfoCision. Reach her at (330-) 668-1400 or Monica.ross@infocision.com.

Published in Cleveland
Saturday, 31 December 2011 19:01

Jerry McLaughlin: Making memories

Type “customer loyalty” into Google and you’ll get more than 8 million hits. Search for it on Amazon and you’ll find more than 13,000 titles. Selling the concept of customer loyalty is big business in the business world. Call me disloyal, but I say customer loyalty is a myth.

Loyalty is being unswerving in allegiance, unwavering in devotion. The implication in business is that loyal customers should stick with a vendor, no matter what — even when they’re aware of better options.

Is that reasonable to expect, much less realistic? I don’t think so. Instead, it’s better to keep our eyes on the prize: profitable, reliable, repeat business.

It’s imperative to understand that the cornerstone of any successful repeat strategy is memory itself. It starts with your brand promise. You’ve got to offer something worth remembering — something unique that solves a specific problem or meets a particular need a particular way.

Yet being worth remembering isn’t enough. You also need to find a way to make sure that you’ll be remembered. After all, what’s the difference between you and a competitor who has never served your customer before? If your customer doesn’t remember you: nothing. You have to win the person over, all over again.

But if you do have an account in your customer’s memory bank, then you are with that customer all the time. The next time that person is in need of whatever product or service you offer, he or she already knows where to go. The best brands become synonymous with the service or solution they provide — think Kleenex, Xerox and Google. In a world of overwhelming choice, you can be your customer’s default setting.

And that is why memory belongs at the heart of your repeat business endeavors. If you want repeat business, your goal should not just be to make a sale but to make a memory.

But how? Here are four tools you can use to help ensure your product or service gets remembered. I call them the grand SLAM: story, leadership, alliteration and music.

Story: Our minds are hardwired for narrative. Wrap your offering in a story, and it will be easier for your customers to recall. For example, if I say, “turkey sandwich,” do you know what business I’m thinking of? How about if I say, “Jared”? Stories have lasting appeal.

Leadership: Being the original is an aid to recall. As market strategists Al Ries and Jack Trout once wrote, “It’s best to have the best product in your field. But it’s even better to be first.” If you’re offering something specific and unique in your category, then you can make a leadership claim. Authenticity beats imitation every time.

Alliteration: Repeating the sound of an initial consonant makes simple phrases stick. Think “Dunkin’ Donuts.”  “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”  “Every kiss begins with Kay.” Ever wonder why the Geico spokes-creature is a gecko, not a chameleon? Alliteration is pleasing to the ear. It rents room in your customer’s brain.

Music: Catchy tunes get replayed in our heads, helping messages take root. I bet most readers born in the 1960s like me can still sing all the words to the jingle, “My Bologna Has a First Name.” That commercial aired in 1973. Remember anything else from 1973? Set the words to music and help make the memory last.

Most importantly, to win repeat business you first need to deserve it. As Walt Disney once said, “Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” It’s no accident that Disney and his successors have positioned scores of shutter-snapping photographers around their theme parks. They’re creating enduring, take-home, share-with-friends-and-family souvenirs.

I’ll say it again: if you want repeat business, don’t just make a sale. Make a memory.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Published in Northern California

Would one of your customers recommend your company to a friend or colleague? In the telecommunications industry, client satisfaction is historically very poor. Ken Williams, vice president of client services at Simplify Inc., says the key to breaking that trend is to fill the gap and bring a high level of service to the customer.

“Client retention comes down to serving your clients well — putting your clients’ success first,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Williams about how to improve customer service and satisfaction.

What are the keys to improving client loyalty?

I think of them in two broad categories: job performance and behavioral competency. Job performance is the service you provide, the quantifiable, measurable actions a company is looking for in its telecom partner — the ‘hard’ skills. Behavioral competency represents the more qualitative, but equally important ‘soft’ skills: emotional intelligence, communication skills and interpersonal ability. Behavioral competency is driven more by the culture and values of the organization.

Every company needs both. They need quality, dependable service on all fronts and a truly professional partner they can trust.

What ‘hard’ skills need to be honed to improve customer satisfaction?

First is cost. All companies are looking to reduce costs in this extremely competitive, ever-changing business environment. Telecom costs can be a somewhat hidden goldmine of potential cost reductions. As the telecom industry faces constant consolidation and price reductions, a savvy consulting partner will find lower cost providers for its clients. But the partner must be vendor neutral. Consider the insurance industry. When an agent works with only one insurance company, you have no idea if you are getting the best pricing because the agent is only bringing one provider to the table. Companies looking to reduce telecom costs should look for a trusted adviser who is vendor neutral and sees their relationship as being with the customer, not a particular carrier. Look for an adviser whose fees are primarily paid by the carriers to avoid another layer of expense in your cost structure.

Second is speed. Enterprises who are starting new locations or moving locations cannot afford to delay openings. Consider a retail company that is opening 50 or 100 new stores a year. They sign a lease, put people on payroll, connect their utilities, start paying insurance on the location — so the quicker they get the store open, the quicker revenue starts coming in to recoup these expenses and generate a profit.

We see enterprise companies who consistently have openings delayed by 10, 20, 50 days — that’s a lot of lost revenue. Multiply that by 100 new stores per year, and it becomes a very substantial amount to the bottom line. So it is paramount to find a partner that understands carrier processes, has good installation processes, provides specialized software tools to manage the telecomplexity, and can be a productive part of a team with real estate, construction and project management to ensure facilities open on time.

The third area is responsiveness. If you are a multi-location service provider, or if your business depends on your data circuits, data network or voice lines, responsiveness is crucial. Say you are a multi-location auto parts store chain and you have a lot of repair shops calling in orders. If your phone lines go down, every minute that goes by is lost revenue. Mean time to repair for telecom services becomes incredibly important. If you want to minimize business downtime due to telecom outages, it’s important to find a partner who understands the carrier processes, has the volume to demand the best repair escalation paths with telecom carriers, and has its own team of people who work with the carrier to get issues fixed as quickly as possible. Businesses who attempt to simply go straight to the carrier for repair issues typically get lost in the morass of processes and departments and do not have insider contacts to expedite repairs. Businesses need a trusted partner to navigate that for them.

The fourth client satisfaction driver is accuracy. There are tons of horror stories of lines and data circuits being delivered to the wrong address, creating weeks or months of delays. Businesses need a partner who knows the potential mistakes that can be made, and has the processes and software in place to help identify the errors before they become critical and can catch them on the front end instead of on the back end.

What ‘soft’ skills can improve client loyalty?

First, trust is essential. Revisiting the insurance agent comparison, if you know the person works for one insurance agency, and only one, it’s hard to trust him. Is he here to help me get the best insurance I can at the best rate, or is he here to make a sale? You have to find someone independent, carrier-neutral, vendor-neutral, there to serve you and make sacrifices. When a company trusts its partner, client satisfaction goes up significantly.

Next is servant focus, which is the mindset that the biggest reward for a trusted adviser comes when its clients are doing well. Everyone claims to provide good service; not many will make sacrifices to ensure their client’s success. Of course, serving your clients will pay off in the end with solid client loyalty, but you need to start with a giving mindset and let the benefits flow back to you naturally.

Third is a sense of urgency. A business owner never wants to call a partner or carrier and tell them his store is down, the business is losing revenue every minute, and get a lackadaisical, ‘we’ll see what we can do,’ and ‘are you sure it’s our issue?’ finger-pointing. They want to hear that the carrier knows the business and has the connections to get this fixed as soon as possible.

Last is honesty. When it comes to telecom, like most technologies, most people don’t understand it. It’s easy to mask facts or place blame elsewhere. You want a partner that owns its mistakes. If they do something wrong, they will admit it and do everything they can to make it right for you.

Ken Williams is vice president of client services for Simplify Inc. Reach him at Ken.Williams@simplifycorp.com.

Published in Dallas