Blog : Customer Service

The customer is always active

Welcome - the key is under the mat

With all of the digital tools at our fingertips, the field of Customer Relationship Management is exploding. Whether you’re talking about email marketing, social media, or cloud-based database systems, the value of relationships is sure to be at the forefront of the conversation.

I had two encounters recently, that clearly illustrate an interesting concept in relationship management. Both situations involved businesses that were very non-technical by nature; medical, in one instance, and brick-and-mortar retail in the other.

Situation A

Last year, I visited a local dental surgeon for an assessment about a fairly major (but optional) procedure. I was impressed with the home-like atmosphere of the clinic, the friendly faces, the smiles and comforting assurance.

After two visits, I was left with an armful of pamphlets, a medical insurance quote, and a major decision to make. I decided that, although the procedure was something I wanted to pursue someday, the timing wasn’t quite right.

During the last 12 months, the thought bubbled up from time to time. I read online forums, I spoke to others who have been in my spot. I’ve even mentioned it during several speaking engagements. For a big ticket purchase, I was exhibiting behaviour that I would imagine is typical for the buying cycle: I was taking my time.

Last week, I decided it was time to move ahead. This morning, I dialed the phone, feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement.

The receptionist took my name and paused. She broke a long silence with an unexpected response. We’ve marked your status as inactive – I’ll have to have someone dig up your record and get back to you later this week.

Situation B

I visited a local retail store five months ago, looking to make a fairly substantial purchase – not nearly on the scale of dental surgery in terms of cost or consequence; but still fairly expensive. The owner struck up a conversation, explaining the story of their family business. He gave me a card, took my name, and shook my hand. There were no comfy couches or crackling fireplaces, but the authenticity of the conversation achieved the same sense of comfort and familiarity I had felt in the aforementioned clinic.

I’m sure my name was never entered into a database.

I didn’t make a purchase that day, either. I chose something else, somewhere else and he never heard from me again.

Recently, I wandered back into the store. The conversation picked up where we had left off, many months ago. He knew my name, and he recognized that I had chosen to shop elsewhere after our first interaction. No problem – I’m so glad that gift worked out. I have a few things that I think you’ll love… let me show you.

Your customer owns the relationship

No matter how shiny or fancy your database might be, you never actually own any relationship. Any status you apply to a customer is ultimately just your best guess of their future actions; not a reflection of their true state.

It’s an odd juxtaposition: As technology has advanced for businesses to manage relationships, that same technology has put more power in the hands of the consumer; weakening any “ownership” that the business may have once had.

Your old signals might be broken

Once upon a time, a customer had to rely on the business for all information and consultation prior to taking the next step. Status was quite simple – the business owned the funnel, and could count the customers they had traipsing along the pipeline.

The game is different now, and the pipeline is full of holes. Your customer can look up any technical specs, access reviews, and comparison shop from the palm of their hand – on their own terms. Traditional signals of “inactivity” (aka: we haven’t heard from them in awhile) might not apply anymore.

Look for new signals

This is where our shiny new tools can come in handy. What’s the ROI of Facebook “Like”, Twitter Follow or Email subscriber? So often, people stumble here, debating dollar values. These asymmetrical, loose-tie relationships represent a juicy middle ground between the on-or-off customer status that businesses might have applied in the past. They symbolize I’m still here, just not quite ready. They allow you continue to educate. They also allow you to note new changes in a potential customer’s life; data that could very easily be factored back into a database system client status.

How are you equipping your potential customers to keep you on their radar? Do you have a communication plan for loose-tie connections, beyond “add them to email blasts?”. Be honest.

Open your arms for inactives

No one likes to walk into a room where no one knows their name. We like to fit in.

Perhaps, a less comfortable sensation is the thought that the room of people who once knew you might have forgotten you exist. We like to be memorable.

While Pareto might espouse the value of focusing on your top 20% of customers, you also need to pay close attention to those who might seem to be “inactive”. These represent relationships that are hanging on by a thread.

How do you welcome them back?

How do you ensure that they don’t feel like outsiders?

How do you make the next conversation feel like home?

Photo credit: alborzshawn

Remember your rookie season

Most of you have probably never heard of my favourite hockey player before. He wore #15 for the Montreal Canadiens. He stood 5’8″ and weighed in at a spritely 180lbs. In his NHL career, he tallied 31 goals and 80 points over 192 games, before disappearing into the depths of international leagues.

His name was Paul DiPietro.

Moments of attention, frozen in time

I’ve written before about how autographs are nothing more than souvenirs from moments of individual attention. This is a story about how that single moment can shape a relationship forever. This is a story about remembering the little things, if you’re lucky enough to become a big thing.

Hearing the name Paul DiPietro, will invoke dusty memories of the early 1990′s for hockey fans. The kid blazed into the league and sparked the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory in 1993; scoring twice in the championship clinching game.

Kodak Moments

I was probably one of the first fans to send him a letter asking for an autograph.

I know this, because there was no hockey card to send; he hadn’t been around long enough to have one.

I know this, because the response came back in a matter of days; he obviously wasn’t getting a lot of mail.

I know this, because the response I got was real: a hand-written letter folded around a photograph. A 4×6 photograph, signed with ballpoint pen, printed on Kodak photo paper – as if freshly developed from a roll of film (I’m sure it was).

It was so fresh, so real, so exactly what a sports-crazed-kid wanted. As we grew up, my friends went through phases of sports heroes; jumping on bandwagons, following trends. Although he disappeared from the spotlight as soon as he entered it, my favourite hockey player was locked in.

That photo hung on my wall for the next 10 years.

We were all rookies, once upon a time

There’s more here than a romantic tale about boyhood heroes – a lot more.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane; back to your rookie season doing whatever it is you call your job.

Think about your first sale. Think about your first satisfied customer. Think about the first email you received; your first phone call; your first opportunity to make someone’s day.

Think about what it was like when you were hungry; when everything was new, and every single person mattered.

Are you still there? Or has the daily grind transformed you into a grizzled veteran, with shortcuts to get things done faster, content just knowing the cheque is coming at the end of the month?

We desperately need more rookies. Keep your eyes open for the next potential kodak moment. You could gain yourself or your organization a new fan for life.

Bend the corners of your customers

Somewhere in my parents’ attic are boxes full of baseball cards. They sit there and they collect dust. Once upon a time, I put them behind hard plastic cases, shoved them in binders, and shielded them from sunlight, dust and fingerprints. In another box lie comic books, pressed against cardboard backings in carefully sealed plastic bags; some never even read. In my dark closet sit bottles of wine, that I look at and rotate, but never think of drinking.

These things all sit there because, by not interacting with them, I have been led to believe they will appreciate in value.

Your customers are not baseball cards

Somewhere in your organization are collections of your customers. They’re pressed into database tables like baseball cards. Like unread comic books, their stories remain untold. You don’t interact with them, because if you did; someone is afraid you might bend the corners or put a crease on the page.

By keeping them safe, perfect, untouched… you’ve been led to believe that they will remain valuable to you.

People don’t like being in collections

Give this a try. The next time you interact with a customer (or even a friend), ask them for their email address or phone number. Tell them “I’m going to add you to my marketing database, so I can extract value from this relationship when the time is right for me.”
That bristling sound you hear will be all of the proof that you need. People are not baseball cards. Confirmed.

Try bending the corners

Here’s an A/B test to run, and I hope someone gives it a shot.

Segment your database in half. Start a dialogue with half, via email, for example. Send them all a note asking what’s new in their jobs, what’s changed since you last saw each other, what challenges they’re facing these days. Ask them how you can help. Tell them you’re open to their suggestions as to how you can help them win.

Leave the other half to “collect value”, safely protected in their cozy database cells, and only bother them when you’re ready to cash them in.

Track the engagement of the two groups over time. Which group opens your emails? Which group engages with your offers? Which group buys more stuff? Recommends you to their friends? Who has the largest lifetime value?

As a customer, which group would you rather be in?

Photo Credit: Adam Glasgow

Open your hands

Sometimes life makes it feel like you should ball up your fists. Fight this urge with everything you’ve got. It’s far better to go through your life with your hands wide open.

An open hand can:

  • wave hello
  • say “welcome, nice to meet you, stay awhile”
  • show your cards and keep no secrets.
  • hide no agendas.
  • give everything away, and yet is perpetually ready to receive.
  • show you’re not a threat; that you’re ready for new ideas.
  • be ready when someone says “tag – you’re it!”
  • catch someone if they fall.
  • dig through the dirt, and catch raindrops, and shield your eyes from the sun
  • show your problems to the world where certainly someone will have a solution.
  • wave goodbye, and say “thanks for the memories, see you soon”

A fist can only fight.

What’s in a name?

The Beatles autographs

When I was younger, I wrote a lot of letters. Most of them were to professional athletes. The pattern was always the same: Write a letter, stuff a baseball card or photo into the envelope, send it and wait. I was after one thing: a signature.

The majority of those envelopes were met with silence. But some came back, with a name scrawled in glorious black ink across the image. What was once a piece of cardboard was now a work of art; its signatory transformed from an athlete into an idol.

What’s in a name?

What is an autograph? Why do we place such value on the signing of a name?

It’s not the scribble of a sharpie on the photo that instantly multiplies its value. Nor is it the signature, the shape of the words, or the style of the writing. In fact, if someone else were to make the exact same marking, with the exact same marker, the photo would be defaced and plummet in value.


The value of the autograph is not in the signature, the photo, or the marker. The gold comes from the fact that someone paid enough attention to participate in an experience.

While we’re on this philosophical trip, let’s take this a bit further…

You can’t duplicate authenticity

What if we wanted to duplicate our prized signed photo? Fire up the photocopiers and produce an identical clone. This one is easy and obvious – the copy is completely devoid of all value.

Yet if our super famous celebrity signed two identical photos, each is granted the hallowed magical status.


Collectors refer to this as authenticity. You can’t photocopy attention, you can’t duplicate a moment. The interactions have to be unique.

The moral of the story

All of the fuss that we make about autographs boils down to this:

We place incredible value on authentically unique moments of attention paid by individuals of perceived importance.

The value is entirely in the interaction. The actual signature simply serves as proof that it occurred.

Put your signature to work

Here are some thoughts on how to apply this to your business:

We’re all stars, sometimes. You don’t have to make movies or sing pop songs to be important. In the time of need… at the point of sale…in moments of confusion, your importance skyrockets. To someone whose cable was broken, Frank Eliason might as well have been a super hero.

Be on high alert – Keep your eyes and ears open for moments where your attention can increase your value. Twitter search and google alerts get all the fame these days – but giving people attention is equally valuable in your store or on the street.

Sign authentically. Every time - People can detect a fraud from a mile away. Even if you’re answering the same question for the hundredth time, don’t hand out photocopies. Value requires authenticity. Blue Sky Factory does a great job creating authentic customer experiences.

Grow more armsChris Brogan talks about growing bigger ears. But that’s only half of the equation. Signing autographs all day long takes energy. It takes strength. It takes time. To finish the play authentically, as the number of potential interactions increase, organizations have to grow more arms.

How much time and money is your organization spending on becoming famous?

Are you putting an equal amount of thought into what is happens when you get there?

Treating your customers like family

Did your mother ever insist you write hand-written thank you notes for gifts?

There’s a reason she didn’t encourage you to enter all of your closest friends and relatives into Salesforce and generate a template response with quick instant personalization.

By taking the time to put a pen on paper and craft a note, you demonstrated to the recipient that they had your full attention. It showed them that you cared.

A valuable resource

Getting someone’s full attention is an increasingly rare thing these days. Everyone is busy and under the influence of an increasing number of channels of information. Part of the selling points of social media is the ability to make things more personal. We fawn over the ability for an organization to send an @reply on Twitter, or to respond individually to a blog comment. We act as if technology somehow invented the personal touch.

A technology company that gets it

A welcome card from Blue Sky Factory I found it ironically awesome that I got a handwritten note in the mail today from of all places, an email marketing company. Blue Sky Factory understands how to build a community.

By stepping outside of the obvious social channels of “mass personalization” (which they also do very well), they distinguished themselves from the crowd.

Consider the impact. Your audience is being inundated with digital “social” requests. Follow us here! Subscribe to us there! Be our friend! Like us! How can you stand out as being genuine?

Remember how your mom taught you to send personal cards to your family? This kind of personal touch will build the same bonds between you and your customers.

Social media is a great way to personalize your customer relationships, but it’s not the only way.

How else can businesses be more personal in their interactions with you as a customer?

Does your reputation sell you or sink you?

A truck with "Google Us" written on the back
What if your reputation was all you had? Strip away everything else about your organization or yourself. Ignore your brochures, your slogans and trademarks. Ignore your resume, your degrees and certifications.

If someone set out to discover not just who you are, but what you believe, and why you’re so special…. what would they find?

Do you move at the speed of Facebook?

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I picked up the phone and called someone about their service. I didn’t visit their website, I didn’t search on google to read about their industry; frankly, I didn’t care what their digital presence was like. I needed the service they offered (insurance, in this case), and I realized that as a local business, they probably wouldn’t have the resources to build out a complex online footprint.

Picking up the phone is only the first step

I was greeted by a voice, friendly enough to make me feel like I had called the right place. However, when I asked my first (and very basic) question, I was quite surprised that she was unable to answer it. Instead, she took down my phone number and indicated that someone would be giving me a call to discuss their services. Thirty-six hours later, I have heard nothing.

Why does this bother me so much?

Google didn’t just change search

Search engines have changed the availability of information. This changes consumer expectations. If I can type a query into a machine, and get back hundreds of thousands of potential answers within a fraction of a second, then this speed and depth of knowledge becomes a part of my shopping and researching experience. When the receptionist I spoke to didn’t have any information to share with me, friction was added to the transaction.

Responsiveness isn’t only critical on facebook

Social networks and instant messengers have added a layer of speed that was never before present in asynchronous communication. When I was told that someone would get in touch with me, I didn’t expect that it would take days. While it is commonly stressed to organizations who choose to engage on social networks that they must be responsive within a much shorter timeframe, I realized that this expectation has now transcended digital communications.

In a world where Rogers Rob responds to tweets within hours, We will get back to you within two business days doesn’t quite feel the same anymore.

How to fix the disconnect

It is impractical to expect everyone to have a depth or breadth of knowledge to compete with a search engine. It’s equally unrealistic for small businesses to have instant responsiveness on all possible channels. But here are a few ideas on how businesses can succeed on this new playing field.

  • Know your business: Do your best to make sure that your staff understands as much of your business as possible. Your receptionists, who may have once simply been there to route calls, are now the equivalent of your homepage. How can you make them friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and trustworthy?
  • Know your competitors’ business: Google doesn’t just know what you do… it knows what everyone does. Assume that your potential customers have done their research before talking to you. You can’t achieve the breadth of knowledge that the search engines have, but you can do your best to know more about your competitors’ offerings than your customers do.
  • Leverage channels of convenience: A sales call can take awhile, and people are busy. I get that. But we’ve got more communication channels now. If booking calls is going to take awhile, get some more information from your potential clients. Grab an email address and start the conversation that way… What about a text message to arrange a convenient time for us to talk? Be creative.. just let me know that you haven’t forgotten about me.
  • Set expectations: When you have to get back to someone, set clear expectations about when and how they will hear back. Any lack of clarity here leads to unease. I know that there are more than a handful of other insurance companies within a few keystrokes … the longer I wait, the more likely I am to get in touch with someone else. If it is going to take a couple days to respond to me, say so.
  • Exceed expectations: Whenever possible, do better than you’ve promised. Set the expectation and then aim to shatter it. This is where humans stand apart from machines… when Google serves up the perfect search result, we don’t feel emotional about it. When a friendly salesperson goes out of their way to help you, you feel it. If your business involves more person-to-person interaction than person-to-computer, leverage the fact that you’re human! Aim to make those emotional connections.

A lot of this information sounds like common sense…. probably available in decades-old guides on basic sales and customer service practices. But in a world where access to information and conversation are continually accelerating, revisiting how you’re handling your communication is more critical than ever before.