Customer Service / Online Marketing – One Rock at a Time

How to move mountains – eCommerce & eMarketing strategy for success!

Excuse the play on title words, that have a very (very) loose tie in to ice cream in any shape or form. Though Ben & Jerry’s features on the periphery of this blog post, I am discussing rainy day wins and fails, specific to my day at Universal Studios Hollywood.

To quote another song badly, to say “It never rains in California” is an obvious misnomer… because rain it did during a recent day out in Hollywood. But it wasn’t a complete failure because Universal got it right!

In my continuing search for “living” customer service (not just talking about it) – I found the epitome at Universal where they have a ‘rainy day’ policy whereby there’s a hot chocolate table set up in the park giving free hot chocolate to errant tourists like myself who decide to brave the LA drizzle.

I never complain about free… it was a really nice (and unexpected) touch—customer service wins are all about the unexpected.

Small fail and big win... Although it was raining, rain ponchos were only available as a paid item. I’m not complaining given many of the other considerations, but what about giving a poncho “free” at the park entrance?

BIG WIN (capitalized because Universal definitely gets it) – as I’m leaving, the gate keeper hands me a rainy day pass. Free one day admission to the park within the next 30 days! Wow.

Now thinking about the economics… my family and I’s day out – aside from park admission – probably $120.

For Universal – Incremental revenue, good will, and happy customers, priceless!

Nice to have a great customer services story. Well done Universal Studios Hollywood!

20 years and a couple of lifetimes ago, I arrived in Cancun, Mexico with a couple of bags, boyish excitement and a bundle of energy.

I was a GO, Gentile Organizateur a hotel worker in Club Med, part teacher, part drinking buddy, part host, part companion. I had no clue.

I was recruited in New York, an English rebel, just off a summer working in Canada and 2 years before that going ‘walk-a-bout’ in Australia. The Club Med stint was recommended by a coworker in West Australia who said I would “love it.” So here I was.

I was far from the traditional British ‘stiff upper lip’ so approached the group of young, tanned and good-looking individuals and announced myself – “Grant, new sailing guy.”

They all started talking, chatting, pumping hands, laughing. There was only one word to describe it. “Family

It was an amazing first day introduction, there was no ‘status dance’, no pretence, no anything but warmth, free speaking, respect and a common bond of employment.

20 years later, I still marvel at the enveloping culture of the Club Med GO team at that time. And the amazing thing is that it wasn’t unique to that venue. In the following 4 1/2 years I spent as a GO, every team, in every Village, in countries around the world had the same feeling, a culture of  like-minded individuals with a common goal – giving the customers (GMs) the vacation of their lifetime.

Are you having this much fun at work?

And this, I’ve found, is the common thread of strong corporate cultures, a clear, understandable and achievable goal that employees can rally around and revel in the shared success.

Forget mission statements and empty positioning that can only make sense to the Chief Marketing Officer, a company’s culture needs to be simple enough to be measured against, whilst easy to communicate both inside and outside the organization.

When I started my own company in 2001, I wanted to provide a “Club Med” style experience to my clients. And this wasn’t about pareos and cocktails, this was more about an attitude of ‘yes’. Leveraging the power of “I can” as opposed to a culture of negativity, I managed to grow from one client, to over 140, including a fortune 500 list of industry leaders. I would never say I was the best at what I did, but my staff and I were enthusiastic, listened and got the job done. Our mantra was ‘size doesn’t matter’ – a dig at ourselves, a small company consulting with some industry giants, and also pushing the fact that any project can be successful with the right resources and execution. It was Club Med experience that taught me that… In the Club we really did do the impossible, and made it look effortless.

Simplicity isn't always effective :-)

I tried exactly this at my last company, a large timeshare organization whose employees were wallowing in years of uncertainty, and management that had lost the desire to communicate honestly. I was VP of Brand Communications and was tasked (amongst other things) with creating an internal culture that would take this company to the next level of service and profitability.  I created a ‘battle cry’ for the employees, “Delivering brilliant moments” that got down to the core of what we should be doing for our guests and played off the corporate branding. Employees loved it, top management thought it too simplistic, over-analyzed it and ended up publishing a 3-sentence mission statement that was launched with much pomp and ceremony, and died on everyone’s lips within a week. It  lacked an important component of any successful corporate culture. Fun.

Fast forward to today, I’m fortunate to work at a progressive online agency that has the flexibility of size, stability of a great client portfolio, and resources of venture capital. We’re creating an environment and culture that empowers individuality whilst building team spirit. It’s unique, it’s in it’s infancy, it’s almost working.

We’re looking at industry leaders like Zappos, folks that have proven service is a differentiator, employee fun a retention tool, and the power of a corporate ‘family’ a tool in moving everyone in the same direction, onward to company success.

Zappos’ innovative employee induction process, cool work environment and willingness to share their secrets, makes them a company worth emulating.

At my current employ there’s still lots of work done to build a Zappos-like culture, we’re not thinking it’s a trivial task but, most importantly, we are having fun building it.

Before I’m accused of being naive in thinking beach bums can correlate to a Wall Street business environment, try substituting the traditional definition of ‘fun’ for something even the Brooks Bros. crowd can appreciate. “Good attitude”.

Try it!  Even the guys in the suits will be amazed how far a little Club Med Culture can move an organization forward.

I’m a Wells Fargo customer (as well as having other bank accounts) and I like their online banking because it’s obvious they put a lot of thought into the customer experience.

Usability is key to customer satisfaction, and in the case of online banking, key to customer confidence.

With all the offline ‘crap’ going on in the financial world, it’s nice when a company makes little gestures to reassure.

Wells Fargo adds this little message on login:

Wells Fargo "one moment please" messaging

Is it really necessary? Of course not. A blank screen would suffice from a technology standpoint. But incremental reassurances are good practice and good customer service.

My other bank, who shall remain anonymous, but rhymes with a killer whale at Seaworld, throws the customer right into their account (at least they did last time I checked) – same for my credit card company.


Wells Fargo even sends you to a sign out confirmation page when you’re done. With simple observation, you’re out… if you want back in you’re going to have to login again. And it gives you a link back to the sign on page.

Good usability. Good reassurance. Good bank.

My cup doth not runneth over… and neither did my bowl the other night at California Pizza Kitchen.

To my regular readers who may think I’ve turned all “culinary” due to some recent posts’  focus on food and cuisine – I offer no apologies, I am guided by experiences in real life, and we all need to eat, don’t we? (Don’t answer if you’re on one of those body-flushing binges of pureed slop and green tea enemas, I don’t want to know. Seriously.)

Any hoo… this happened last week here in beautiful downtown Encino, at the local CPK, a mixture of California cuisine (whatever that is) and Italian pizza house, with a distinct twist of “whatever we can get away with“.

I love their split pea and barley soup. It’s pea-y and has lumps of carrots and barley and is (normally) thick enough to be filling and hot enough to “warm the cockles of your soul” – it’s that good IMHO.

So I order it and it arrives.

As the waiter puts the bowl down on the table, I immediately see something is wrong.

Whereby in “normal” circumstances my “bowl runneth over“, in this particular case, the ‘soup line’ was a clear 1/4 inch below the rim of the bowl.

Being the loud-mouthed Englishman I am, I immediately said to the waiter “Are you guys cutting back on the soup, or what?”

To which… he laughed. He LAUGHED! He freakin’ laughed

As I’m used to misunderstandings and certain blank stares due to my accent, I passed it off as “he-didn’t-understand-I’m-pissed” and asked to talk to the manager.

Manager comes over, and I ask him if they’re offering smaller portions of soup, due to the economy, an unannounced pea shortage, or a smaller ladle...

He said “No, but make sure next time when you come in they fill it to the top.”

Now I must add, I had taken a few spoonfuls, but the ‘soup line’ was still obviously ‘volume challenged’ and this manager appeared to understand my English fine.

I was out for a quiet dinner with my mother-in-law, so didn’t want to make too much of a scene.

Ate my soup. Came home. Called CPK customer service.

The well-trained customer service rep was suitably aghast at my lack of soup fulfillment and promised to look into it and get back to me. I’ll update with any update or resolution.

Lesson of the day.

The best solution to good customer service is often the simplest. Fix the problem. Then and there.

Offering to fill my bowl, or give me another bowl would have saved my ire (though, arguably given me nothing to blog about).

Online, it’s not always easy to fix a problem as it happens. Most interactions are live but without life (human interaction). The next best thing is to offer a toll-free support number, and actually have someone there to answer the calls when they come in. After that, as far as email support, set an expectation and exceed it. i.e. post you respond within 2 business hours and get back to them in 1 OR call them back.

Let my soup experience be a learning experience for better customer experience.

Fix a problem as soon as you can. Don’t leave your customers high, dry and starved for soup!

I tend to write a lot about customer service because the web is inherently a faceless communications tool where customer service is often lacking, but can be enhanced through usability, simplicity and truly knowing your visitors.

Offline examples of good / bad service offer great learning opportunities. One such lesson occurred Christmas evening when my family went out for a dinner.

As you can imagine the choice is somewhat limited on Christmas and were expecting a little wait. We ended up at Jerry’s Deli in Encino, a popular and ‘famous’ (in their own words) traditional New York deli experience, with a bit of Encino attitude thrown into the mix.

Surprise (not) it was crowded. Actual surprise, there were about 50 people waiting for tables, the list about 20 party long “30-40 minute wait”

A few real surprises:

  1. Every time the door opened, the ice cold wind blew in, arousing curses and complaints from the Encino crowd (not known for their patience). The hostess was shivering, dressed as she was. Not a great environment for a waiting area as we waited for the hostess to come down with pneumonia!

  2. I walked into the restaurant area to find > 15 tables / booths open. Absolutely empty. When I asked the manager “What’s up?” she said that they didn’t want to “overwhelm” the kitchen. Yep. Much better to underwhelm the waiting customers.

  3. I asked the manager if she could serve some hot chocolate to the crowd of cold, patient and ‘growing rapidly restless’ patrons. “That’s a great idea. We don’t do it. But it’s a great idea.” No. A great idea is one you implement and find out it’s even better than you expect it would be, to actually demonstrate true unexpected customer service! Surprise We care!

It didn’t get much better, as by the time we reached our table (50 mins after we arrived) the service was slow, the food cold (what was available as they were ‘out’ of lots of stuff) and the apologies of the waitress were lame as they provided little in the way of empathy, only excuses.

It doesn’t take much to exceed expectations. Seriously.

A cup of hot chocolate, a bit of holiday cheer, and hot food isn’t too much to ask, is it?

As it turns out, I think Jerry’s has finally lost us as customers, we’ll go to Fromin’s down the road, who at least welcomed us will a smile and excellent service this morning.

Cost of a mug of hot chocolate (bulk – one serving, including dishwasher) = 25c

Lifetime value of my patronage – $40×12 times / year x 10 years = $4,800

Online it doesn’t take much to meet or exceed expectations either. Offering something as a surprise or something unexpected (free upgrade on shipping? smoother checkout?) can often tip the balance, changing an online visit into an online experience.

Don’t think of the sale as a one time event, think of the customer experience as a lifetime relationship, one in which all parties involved profit.

Complimentary hot chocolate when you’re cold and waiting? That’s just one way to start a relationship.

Coffee shop brands are arguably more susceptible to passionate followers than most other high street brands.

As a regular Coffee Bean (CB) customer I will pass a few Starbucks (SB) on my search for a CB store and – horror of horrors – settle on SB if a convenient CB store cannot be found on my quest for the perfect cuppa tea.

Although my thirst and caffeine cravings may be quenched by either stores’ offerings (or Peets, Seattle Best, Einsteins, Dunkin’ Donuts, any other coffee shop) I tend to feel less satisfied if I don’t get to buy from my Coffee Bean brand. I curse Coffee Bean for not being more convenient, I lament the proliferation of Starbucks and I begrudgingly drink my SB cup of tea with slight disappointment.

Fast forward to today. I’m in Westwood (home of UCLA “fight, fight, fight!”) and I pop into a convenient SB near Wilshire and join the long line to order my ‘cuppa’.

The time in line gives me the opportunity to observe the 6 baristas behind the counter moving ensemble; greeting, fulfilling and serving the continuous stream of customers.

It’s awesome to watch!

No matter what the brand, or what my brand preference, one has to admire the seamless and confident way this team handled a hectic and potentially toxic workflow. Toxic? Not in the poisonous sense, rather the potential for upset, irate and / or dissatisfaction is high. One busy executive getting the wrong concoction, one tired student unhappy with their brew…

What impressed me about this workflow is how closely it mirrors a website experience.

Presentation: As I walked in, the level of excitement and energy was palatable… it made the first impression comfortable and welcoming.

Environment: The music, the subtle cross-sell, the display of food items (except for the breakfast sandwiches!), the economical use of space, contributed to the perception of a smooth passage of time as opposed to the 7 minutes wait it was.

Efficiency / usability: The ‘order taker’ baristas made certain what I said was repeated (to ensure it was correct), was exact (what I wanted), and was relayed to the fulfillment side of the business efficiently, and all this with a smile. No conveyor belt salutations or canned responses “have a nice day” was notably absent (thank you!). The process was simple and almost fun.

Delivery: Quick, efficient and correct. It’s not brain surgery to meet a customers’ expectations. Many businesses fail, simply because they complicate the process. Welcome – ask – confirm – produce – deliver. Easy.

Experience: All these facets of seamless and seemingly effortless service contributed to a great experience.

At the end of the day, no matter the product, customers seek an experience that meets or exceeds their expectations in delivering a product, service, or information that satisfies their needs.

A Starbucks may be a great offline example due to its focused product, consistent environment, brand messaging and solid in-store programs, but these elements are easy to duplicate online to create an exceptional and consistent online experience.

Stop into your local coffee shop and see how aligning an exceptional experience with your online goals can create the kind of experience your site visitors expect.

An orange spice with one equal for me, please.

The Best Analytics Program in the World is

Your ears.

Talk to your customers, elicit input, provide mechanism for feedback, test vigorously, beta updates to internal and external audiences, listen.

Analytics isn’t just about seeing who visits your site, it’s about ensuring the experience when someone arrives exceeds their expectations.

By consistently polling your customers, site visitors and prospects, you’ll have much of the information you’ll need to support your online success.

My son and I just got back from a prescreening of the Dreamworks Pictures movie, “Madagascar 2 : Escape from Africa” a fair flick, rated 71/2 out of 10 by both my son and I… “We like to move it, move it” 🙂

This was a press / focus group event at the Rave Motion Pictures in Town Square Las Vegas (nice venue) my son and I won through the local radio station.

Ticket said to “arrive early” so we got there at 8:45am for a 10am show – side note: this is the day after Halloween and it was obvious most kids and adults were suffering from a sugar-induced crash.

We were about 10th in line, and after about 30 mins the line had doubled, people were being herded and a few of the ‘wranglers’ arrived to give out theater entry tickets.

Some folks in front on us (and some folks behind us) were pulled out of the line and taken into the theater, so I asked one of the 20’s something wrangler why they got to go in (and we were still waiting), “Oh,” she said, “They’re on the list.”

Being the kind of customer-focused guys I am, I decided to pursue this (it’s fun too)...

Me: “Um, but we were on a list too”

Her: “Yes, but, they were on the other list”

This gets more interesting..

Me: “So how can I tell the difference between my list, and their list”

I swear to you, with a straight face, she said, “Because their list gets in first.”

Okay, I didn’t pay for these tickets, but I was just made to feel like a second class citizen, and then supplied with an explanation that was based on ‘fuzzy logic’ to say the least.

Are you treating your online customers the same way without realizing it?

Don’t assume that users / visitors know what they should and shouldn’t be doing and what they should and shouldn’t be entitled too in your model, make it clear and obvious and at best understandable by a 4th grader.

And if you do have a subscription model with different tiers, let users / visitors “peek behind the curtain” with trials or tours to show them what they could get if they paid / upgrade i.e. free 14-day offer

Treat everyone equal at the start of the goals tunnel, and you’ll find more will be with you at the end = conversions and loyalty.

And Madagascar 2? Go see it for the penguin and monkeys negotiating, if nothing else…

Back in the theaters with spit and grit