Why consultants need to say NO

Often a client is hiring a consultant to validate a decision they have already made. While in many cases the client is correct in their assessment of what might be broken in their organisation, they are probably not as well versed on the best way to reach a solution as the consultant likely is.

Consultants get hired because they have been exposed to multiple scenarios that occur in the same industry or vertical. They have met business challenges with different approaches and learned along the way what works, doesn’t work, and where the risks are. That knowledge is why businesses engage with consultants.

As consultants, we need to balance customer service and our desire to have repeat business with doing the right thing for our client. Sometimes that requires us to say NO.

Why no isn’t a bad word

As a client hearing no with the right logic and a contrary approach isn’t a bad thing as long as good judgment and reasoning are there. If an alternate solution is safer, faster, better for long-term growth, employee satisfaction, or fill in the blank, they will hear you and respond accordingly.

Actually client X, I see the correct approach as blah, blah, because of logic blah and blah. At alternate client Y we had success using this approach, because blah, and learned the following blah.

However, this means that we as consultants need to think before we speak. You cannot just blurt out the fact that the client’s approach is wrong; you must craft your response with evidence and examples. Once you have shared your reply, they should be at least considering your irrefutable proof. If they still refuse to follow your route, you have offered them a solid reason for how they should approach their challenges and that is where you are valuable.

When the client ignores your advice

Accept it. Move on, and think carefully if you want them as a client in the future. Logos on your client reel aren’t worth badly implemented programs so make sure that if you are going to do it their way, you can make the execution a success.

No fee or client logo is worth a black mark on your reputation.

Why you need to check your sources

Cite your sourcesI know, it’s boring to go out and validate that Wikipedia page or tweet, but it’s crucial to ensuring your content is correct.

More importantly, because I know you aren’t convinced I came up with a list of reasons why you need to care.

  1. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing: Just because they are getting their content from a meme, doesn’t mean you should. (See your memory of your mom asking you about the bridge)
  2. It’s your reputation: I get that thousands of content producers out there are producing more stuff faster than you, but they don’t have to answer for the wrong content to your followers. You do
  3. Nobody else is doing it: That means that the volume of incorrect content floating around is getting higher everyday. If you do just a little bit of research, your chances of becoming a credible source go up immensely. Suddenly your well researched and cited articles will gain momentum and you are the accepted expert.
  4. Bad content spreads quickly: Incorrect content can easily be shared across the internet in minutes. More often than not before you realise a mistake, your content has already been seen by hundreds, if not thousands of readers. The magic of our ability to share is also a responsibility to those who follow us.
  5. The internet is a place where people will relish in your error: Trolls are everywhere and the likelihood that someone will see and make note of your mistake is high. They also are likely not to be very nice about telling you about your error.
  6. Someday you may want to go back to school: Executive programs follow high levels of ethical standards, reviews, and checks against the content that you produce. Being in the habit of giving original sources credit and double checking that you have your facts right will never be time that is lost
  7. It saves you time later: When those trolls jump all over you and tell you what you have done wrong, you will need to rewrite your post anyway. Doing a good job now will save you time in the long run that you can use to create NEW posts.

So, I get it. This is a boring topic that none of us want to do, but we need to take responsibility as creators and push high quality information out to the universe. Next time you write a post take 10 seconds to Google that quote to see if it really was said by the author you are quoting.

The power of “I don’t know”

So often people are afraid to look unprepared in a meeting and because of this will make something up rather than just admitting that they don’t know the answer. These ad hoc answers are often incomplete at best and completely wrong at worst and do nothing to move the business forward.

It’s not worth the risk…

Many years ago I worked on the sales floor of a Home Depot store.  This is a place where the wrong answer can cause a customer to be electrocuted from bad wiring advice or see their basement flooded from bad plumbing directions.  This is where I learned to say that I didn’t know.

The risks of the wrong answer were just too high to take, so instead you offered “I’m not sure, but let’s find out together”.

In the end I learned as the customer learned and was better prepared to answer the question the next time a customer asked me.

Changing my habits

A few years ago I started to implement this in my work life. If I didn’t know the answer I said so and would do the research and follow up with the correct response as the information became available. This meant that I became a resource that learned the answers in many categories because I was spending a great deal of time researching each vertical.

At first I was afraid that saying I didn’t know would make people think I was unprepared, but it became quite the opposite. People discovered that if they added questions into the meeting notices I would come armed with as much information as I could and realized that if I gave an answer it was because I had the research to support it.

Challenge the desire to know everything. There is no person who can possibly know everything.  Experts in all categories reference their research and that of others before they make a claim.

So if you don’t know, don’t bullshit. Accept it and start digging up the answers.

Cold calls don’t need to be clammy

Please stop spamming my Linkedin profile.

I understand, its the end of the year and as a sales person you have quotas that you have to meet.  I’m not judging you for using your premium account to search out people like me that may need your good or service, but don’t let yourself think I’m not judging your approach.

“Dear Sir,”

Your first failing: I am plainly a female and would have preferred that since my first AND last name are already on my profile you would be best to address me as Erin, Ms. Burrell or even the slightly more annoying Mrs. Burrell. It would have only taken a moment to edit that form letter to incorporate my name. A clever person may even find a method to automate the Linkedin message to include a pull of the name I have displayed.

“It appears that my (fill in the blank good or service) may be of use to you or your company”

Can you get more generic? It appears to me that you did not take the time to READ my profile or do any research about where I work or what I do. Had you taken the time to read my info you may have realized that 1) your service might not actually be relevant to me,  2) I am actually responsible for providing the very service you are selling, or 3) This girl needs what you have to sell… tell me more!

I’m not saying that I dislike cold calls. They are sometimes a cost of doing business. You as a sales person need to create relationships, but ask yourself: Would you approach a potential future spouse this way?

Google just told me there is a guy that has the following tags associated with him: #job #car #doesntliveinparentsbasement.  He’s perfect!

Dear Sir,

I think that you and I would be a great fit since I want to marry someone who does not live in their parents basement.

Please reach out to me soon to discuss our upcoming marriage.

Best,

Random Girl

416.XXX.XXXX

randomgirl@youhaventmetyet.com

What?  You think that is a bad idea?

Some of my best professional relationships have been started with a well-researched cold call, but I can’t tell you how much more likely you are going to be to get a reply if you at least know why you are reaching out to me. Figure out how your goods/service would best fit my organization/role and use my name and that of my organization in your message.

If you spend the time to do at least that, I will read the rest of your message and likely even send you a reply. If you cannot take the time, I am afraid that neither can I.

Is Social Media the Answer?

Erin Burrell-Is Social Media the Answer
Defining strategies for social media in business

Each day I come across businesses that are trying to grow their engagement with their customers and employees and the first thing they come to the table with is the need for a Social Media Strategy.  I love and believe in social media, but I don’t believe that it is the best channel for every business or employee relations challenge that you are presented with.

In order to validate if a social media approach is right for a specific business challenge I have started to ask a few specific questions that help to get each brand on the right path.

Is the customer you are trying to reach in the demographic that uses the particular platform?

If you create a Twitter feed for a group that are loyal to Tumblr you may be wasting your time. Social media is a great tool to grow your business but you have to be relevant.  If the platform is not a match to the customers, then don’t bother, but if the answer is yes keep going.

Are you going to commit resources to write content and respond to questions or posts that arrive on the different platforms?

If the answer is no, then maybe you should re-think the idea of being in social media.  Responses that aren’t timely can turn into PR nightmares quickly on most platforms so what could have begun as a question about hours of service could spiral out of control and become damaging to your brand.  It is better not to be in the social space, than to do it badly.

Are you hoping to engage internal employees?

If you want to have an associate Facebook page and they can’t access Facebook from your internal network, you have likely created an obstacle to your own success.  Make sure your team can access your content from their workplace.  Hoping that they will go home and like your brand after a long day is a lot to ask of anyone.

Additionally, if your business includes employees that may not have great internet and/or cellular coverage because they work in remote locations, you may be spending time talking to yourself.

Ok, so you are going to staff the venture and you are committed to making sure everyone can access the content in the channel that fits them best, so what next?

You likely need a social media strategy.  Before you move forward and invest in the project make sure you know what you want to accomplish, and are willing to test it for a reasonable amount of time.  Most social media projects need at least six months to really build up steam, and don’t really hit their stride until at least a year of content and customer engagement has been completed.

When building your plan, include key milestones that will define success of the program as it builds and grows.  Try to be realistic about followers, circlers or likes that you want  for the first few months of the program.  Remember, just because you now have a presence doesn’t mean that everyone will seek out your page tomorrow.

Social media may have what seems like an immediate return on your investment, but you need people to care about what you have to say, before they will trust you with their time.  Be engaging, whatever your platform of choice and make sure that your social brand stays true to your existing non-social customer.

What happens when there aren’t any sales?

I have talked about customer service and how to keep customers coming back.  I have even talked about sales hiding your mistakes, but what do you do when you don’t have sales?

How do you hide your mistakes when the customers are not coming through the doors?

Erin Burrell-What Happens Via bavidbingham.com
Image courtesy of bavidbingham.com

It is hard finding the motivation when the sales just aren’t there.  When the sales are down, hiring freezes kick in.  With a hiring freeze each employee is asked to pull more than their own weight.  Everyone is so busy they forget to say thank you.  Those missed opportunities for leaders to say thank you lead to the remaining employees starting to feel overworked and underappreciated.

Then they quit.

So how do you stop it?  Controlling the spiral takes a lot of effort that most big organizations don’t take the time to make.

Finding motivation for employees who just had their hours cut takes talented leaders.

Years ago I had the chance to work with such a leader.

To set the stage:

Store sales were in the toilet and associates that had been working 30-40 hours a week were cut down to 4-8 (I was one of them-barely paying my rent while going to school), full time associates were “encouraged” to take half days of vacation or unpaid off without penalty to save payroll and spirits were low.

So this leader hit the sales floor and turned customers into a challenge.  Each associate (including our normally office bound leaders) in the store was tasked with being a personal shopper to those few customers we had.  Tasks were second to being the best customer care associate you could be.  If that meant walking them to light bulbs and helping them chose, you did it.  If it meant debating the power of this saw versus another, you did it.  If it meant escorting them to the bathroom you did it.  You stayed with that customer and made sure they found everything on their list and more.  You got a ladder and pulled the box off the top shelf for them.  You adventured through the chaos of receiving and into the back room to get the colour they wanted. You made sure they knew your name when they left.  You made sure they knew people would help them when they came in.  You made sure they were going to come back.

Then, when the floor was dead we went back to tasking.

It took a few weeks. They were hard weeks with more tasks than staff, but sales started to turn around.  Average ticket went up.  We got more hours on the floor giving us more time to do tasks, and we just kept helping people.

The customer came before getting the stuff put away, and the stuff still ended up getting put away because when someone needed something you were right there to get it for them and leave the rest on the shelf for the next customer.

In the end, we can live without all of the tasks “we think are important” being accomplished, but those tasks don’t matter if we don’t help them buy the stuff in the first place.  Sales can be powerful, but when sales aren’t as high and customers aren’t crashing your site with traffic or blocking your aisles to get to the register, sales are still out there if you focus on the customer’s needs before your own.

Sales Hide All Sins

This is an old adage that comes from my home in the retail world.  My entire career has been focused on getting customers to buy stuff in one form or another, whether it comes via driving them through a conversion funnel online or motivate them with the right price in a flyer to come into a store and lay down their credit card.

A little while ago I talked about customer service and how sometimes you have to break up with bad customers.  While I believe this is true, I still think you need to love and support your customer or client through your entire relationship.  Their dollars pay your bills.  You get to do fun user experience tests and cool projects with YOUR brand because of THEIR dollars.

Sales hide your mistakes.

When you make (or have made for you) a bad buying, pricing or inventory choice those high turning, high selling items balance the scales and hide your mistake.  The business P&L still appears balanced and all is right with the world because there are items offsetting your error.

If there are no sales those mistakes become magnified.  There is nowhere to hide the mistake and you are left with what could be a career ending issue.

Sales motivate your team.

Sales are like a drug.  Each dollar, transaction, swipe of a credit card is its own little high for you and your team.  It makes you want more.  You become motivated to find a way to get more sales or to drive the average ticket.  If there are no sales, it becomes a sad hollow shell of a team.  They slow down, stop caring, pay less attention and sooner than you think have less desire to produce.

Sales put hours on the floor.

There are no staffing hours if you don’t make sales.  In the small business community this is the time that the owner ends up on the floor.  In a big retail store the shareholders don’t often pick up a broom so you end up with staff left disengaged because they are trying to do three things at once without any support to drive profit into someone else’s pocket

Hours on the floor help you sell more stuff.

When there is someone there to read the box to the customer they are more likely to buy it.  When there is someone there to ensure the customer leaves with a complete project of items (eg: brushes and tape with paint) they spend more and are less likely to spend at your potentially closer competitor.  As a perk they often also come back because you treated them well.

Hours on the floor make everyone feel like they aren’t alone.

Even if an associate is run off their feet they will keep going when they see others doing the same thing.

Associates helping customers drive more sales.

It always comes back to this.  In ecommerce great product content, a good FAQ list, quick response to a help email or actually answering the 800 number mean that the customer feels like you took care of them.  They complete their transaction.   In a retail store it can be about being willing to get the ladder, or walk them to the product that makes them engage.

In the end we know that sales make us feel better, but it is taking care of the customer that truly drives sales.

Retail success both online or in store is about a few simple tactics.

Select an assortment that fits your customer’s needs

Be in stock

Be priced competitively

Take care of the customer

You don’t need to have the sexiest system, the best floor plan or website.  You have to know what they are looking for and work to fulfill those needs.

That means that sometimes you might need to sweep the floor or move the box to get the sale

What does a happy customer mean to your business?

A happy customer is so much more than one that doesn’t complain to you.  Happy customers tell stories and recommend you quietly to their friends.  They renew contracts and look to you as a leader in your industry.  They are a revenue and PR source for your business, but they are not the only customers you have.

Everyone has had a customer complain and demand things.  Everyone knows that there are also unhappy customers out there that just seethe quietly and wait for the contract they have to expire.

BUT… this is your chance.

Today.

Make them happy.

Change their minds.

I’m not talking about offering them discounts on the next chunk of money they need to spend with you.  I’m talking about improving what they already have with you.  Possibly improving what they have already paid you to do.

If you are selling a service, don’t sit comfortably on your laurels.  Improve the service.  Ask for feedback.  Implement the feedback.  Thank the people who gave you this chance-publicly if possible-for giving you their opinions that were able to improve your business for others.

Ok, you also know that there are customers who are unhappy and complain.  Some people are just complainers, while others really have a valid issue.

Over the span of my life I have experienced complaints of all kinds.

  • The complainer with no friends:

This is a person who really just needs someone to hear their beef and tell them you understand.  They aren’t really looking for discounts or freebies, they want to voice their issue and be offered a solution if one exists.  I find these are also the same customers that want you to read the box to them when they are looking to make a purchase.  Do your best to help them; even if it means telling them to unplug the system and restart; they are likely to become overnight advocates.

  • The complainer looking for solutions:

This customer really just wants you to fix their problem.  They usually have a valid point that needs correction.  Likely they have already read your FAQ’s and looked over your site for a way to fix their own issue and have only complained as a last resort.

Note:  These are customers you can turn into ADVOCATES if you are good to them.  Take care of their needs and use their issue as a way to improve your business.  If you can implement some of their changes make sure they know you learned from their criticism.

  • The complainer with a cause:

Their cause is 100% themselves.  They want something for nothing and are willing to threaten you to get it.  Likely you have all heard the “I have a zillion twitter followers and they are going to boycott you” threat.

I have a mixed opinion about how to take care of these guys, but have settled on a three step approach.

  1. Always listen to their feedback.  Do unto others…think of your karma.
  2. Validate their complaint as though they weren’t opening with a “What are you going to do to take care of me?”  Beyond their desire to gain from a challenge, there may be a chance for you to learn from this.
  3. If you can fix their issue do so, if you can’t because it is from the land of unicorns explain that and offer them a refund.  Void their contract.  Do what whatever you have to do to end the relationship NOW (I can hear your shock and awe).  In the long run breaking up with a customer is sometimes the best thing you can do.  Their only public complaint when you follow this process is “They couldn’t make me happy so they gave me back my money.”

This isn’t a real complaint.  Their zillion twitter followers won’t care, and in the long run you won’t deal with a barrage of complaints from the land of unicorns on a monthly cycle because they want their free stuff fix again.

Each and every customer complaint is a chance to improve your product or service.  Don’t approach them as something that you have to avoid.  Look to them as something that will make both you and your business better.

Getting new customers and clients is hard (and expensive) work.  Put the same level of effort in making your existing customers happy as you do in new customer engagement and you are going to have more business than you know what to do with.

I have talked about great online service in the past you can hear about my awesome rollergirl.ca experience here.   Service so good I’ve gone back more than once and personally talk people into buying from them.

Why Customers Come Back… or Don’t

I have been in eCommerce for well… a long time.  We work hard getting a customer to that first purchase transaction and it is definitely not easy to push them all the way through their first purchase, let alone a follow up purchase.

Great looking sites and navigation can only go so far, but amazing customer service has unlimited ripples for any site.

The goal of any eCommerce site is to surprise and delight their customers for two main reasons:

1) so that the come back and spend more money

2) so they tell their friends to shop on your site

This week I had an incredibly positive first time shopping experience at rollergirl.ca.

My order went as follows:

Friday

9:00am

I created an order and asked for sizing confirmation in my special request box.

9:05am

I received a confirmation email stating my order was received and I would hear back from someone to confirm my order sizing.

11:37am

I received an email with the details regarding confirming my sizing supported by a link to the site with additional information and pictures.

Pictures are always key to doing a good job of measuring for any apparel or footwear purchase.

12:52pm

I responded to the sizing questions via email.

1:01pm

rollergirl.ca confirmed their recommendations via email with a detailed listing of suggested sizes by item description and a list of validations for each change to my original order

1:04pm

I confirmed via email that they should go ahead as suggested.

1:07pm

rollergirl.ca let me know that I would recieve a shipping notification from Canada Post shortly.

1:09pm

I received the first of three notices from Canada Post with my tracking information on behalf of Roller Girl

Monday there was a notice for pick up from Canada Post.

Monday night I had my skates and accessories in my hands complete with the addition some instructions on care, a cheeky rollergirl.ca sticker-I am still five years old and love stickers-and some Double Bubble Gum (comic and all).

This is the example of surprise and delight.  I had gone to rollergirl.ca because they had a richer assortment than my local Toronto store.  I really wasn’t expecting to get anymore out of the experience than the particular size and model of skates that I wanted.  Instead what I received was the definition of customer service and I will  continue to shop there because I was blown away by the speed and quality of my service over and above getting my product of choice.

Now let’s be honest, not every scenario plays out quite this quickly.  I really wanted my skates and was refreshing my email like crazy while waiting for the feedback from Roller Girl, BUT… that is what makes it even more special… they responded pretty much right away every time.

Hmm.. you say that there was a couple of hours between my order and them confirming sizing… not really.  The store is Vancouver based and they weren’t even awake yet when I created my order.  Formally the store doesn’t even open until 10:00am PST time (1:00pm EST) and I really wasn’t expecting to see a response before store hours.

This is what fills a customer with surprise and delight.  I was surprised at the service on Friday.  I am delighted with the perfect sizing today and will continue to shop and be an ambassador for the store forever based on this experience.

Well done rollergirl.ca!

eCommerce is Hard

We live in an environment where every known fact is up for a new release any day.

If we were high school science teachers the only significant change in the space of an entire career is the fact that a new element was added to the periodic table, or a planet is no longer a planer.

Instead today in eCommerce we have items like HTML5 and CSS3.  Named as such because they had predecessors and are guaranteed to have shiny new versions in the near future.  You as a digital professional need to know (and accept) that you can never know everything, and if you aren’t willing to upgrade your own knowlege and skills, you too will become outdated in less time than you think.

We choose eCommerce because of and not in spite of these facts.  They keep us humble.  They inspire agility and lifelong learning.

Sometimes they require us to accept failures.  We can’t always plan for volume, demand, customer engagement.  Sometimes we have to apologize for making mistakes.

In light of the holiday season I am proud of some retailers saying the simple words “We’re Sorry”.

Black Friday is hard.  Cyber Monday is harder.

If your merchandisers did their job you have the right assortment.

If your marketers did their job you have the right traffic.

If your technical team did their job your site can handle the volume.

If you can say yes to all of these statements I congatulate you.  You are rare and precious.

What the reality is for most is that one or two of those statements are true and you are left with one broken item.

Your site went down from volume.

Your traffic sucked because your message wasn’t clear.

You didn’t sell anything because your assortment/pricing weren’t on target.

All of these leave you with two options:

Option 1-Own the issues, apologize to your customers and learn from your mistakes for next year.

Option 2-Pretend they didn’t exist and hope your customers don’t hold it against you.

Most retailers hide under the guise of Option 2.

Today I would like to credit Ann Taylor for choosing Option 1.  Their site couldn’t handle the Black Friday volume.  They tried again and still couldn’t handle it. After a couple of tries they sent their customers an email saying they were sorry and offering an additional discount.

In the end what I will remember as a customer is not the outage, it is the apology and more importantly the discount.  They have pushed my loyalty up a notch just by being honest.

What makes the inner merchant in me happy is the fact that they have also managed to stretch the short window of Black Friday/Cyber Monday offers into an extra few days of sales making next years comps easier to plan for.