Archive for the ‘Business’ Category


BUBL: The Secret of Successfully Invading a Customer’s Space

Baby and mom with soap bubbles

Bubbles – (c) Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

About this series: This series of articles from Nextiva will help you grasp of the essentials of customer service: the principles and guidelines that will serve you well in any era, regardless of trends, changing technology, and a constantly evolving customer base. Our guide is Micah Solomon, customer service and customer experience consultant, author, and speaker.

Those customers who look so normal–to the untrained eye–as they wander around your establishment are actually each surrounded by a transparent protective bubble.

To be able to provide great customer service, your team needs to be aware of this phenomenon and be conscious of the extent to which a customer’s individual protective shell is open or closed at any particular moment. Learn to recognize when and when not to venture into the customer’s protective bubble–the invisible sanctuary within which the customer has expectations of solitude–and for how long.

Learn and remember the principles of this human force field by using my acronym “BUBL.”  

The BUBL method for starting, pacing, and concluding a service interaction

  • B Begin Immediately
  • U Uncode the guests    messages and pacing
  • B Break your schedule
  • L Leave room for more interaction

Let’s take these steps one by one.

B – Begin ImmediatelyThe guest expects service to begin the moment she comes into contact with the employee      

(Busy employees: Sometimes this needs to be accomplished even if you’re speaking with another customer; you may need to learn how to work with one customer while visually acknowledging the presence of a new arrival.)

Determining whether or not the customer actually considers contact to have been made for the purpose of soliciting service is a subtle part of this step. For example, if a guest catches a server’s eye, it may be merely accidental, but if the guest holds the server’s gaze, it usually means he’s expecting to be offered assistance.

U – Uncode: Decode the messages the customer is giving you about pacing, about their level of happiness or distress, etc. and adjust appropriately to their mood and timing. (This isn’t only detectable in person, by the way: such cues can be discerned on the phone, in live online chat, via videoconferencing, etc.)

(Yeah I know: I had to invent a word–“uncode”–to make my acronym work.  If I had stuck with D-Decode, the acronym would have been BDBL, which is actually fun to say, but maybe not so memorable.)

B – Break your scheduleYour customer has let you into their sanctuary for this moment. Drop what you’re doing and work on what they need. True service can never be slave to your checking things off in a predetermined order from a to-do list. Attending properly to a customer means adhering to the customers schedule, not the other way around. 

L -  Leave room for moreIs this really good-bye? Check before you conclude the interaction

It’s the service professional’s responsibility to ask if anything additional is needed, and, if not, to graciously thank the customer before leaving her in the sanctuary of her bubble. This is an important final principle: the ‘‘closing’’ of service. Too many service interactions end with a cold and impersonal ‘‘Bye,’’ or ‘‘OK,’’ or, far too frequently, nothing at all. The closing of service is as important as the opening. It is the last touch point, and it needs to be handled properly. Again, this principle can be applied in a chat sequence, a series of emails, or on the phone, as well as, of course, in person.

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This is subtle stuff.  But its important stuff.  It needs to form a module of your training, with role-playing and reinforcement, and a significant part of your mindset when interacting with (or considering whether to interact with) your customers.


When It’s Time to Break Up With Your Partner

????????????????????Not every business partnership is meant to last forever. Some partnerships start off well, but as the company evolves, it outgrow its usefulness. Here are the typical bad signs of an impending breakup:

1. Respect and trust are fading.

The basis of any partnership is respect and trust. You may no longer respect the skills your partner brings to the company. You may no longer trust your partner to deliver the results that are needed to be successful. You may be hearing things from other employees about what your partner is saying behind your back. 

2. Your skills are no longer complementary to your partner.

You may have gained their skill or other employees in the company may have picked it up and excelled at it. Either way, your partner’s talents no longer seem so critical to the success of the company.

3. Communication has broken down.

You no longer talk to each other. It seems like the only conversations you do have are via email, text or through other intermediaries.  The talk keeps moving away from the goal in your business to one that is getting too personal. Every conversation with your partner seems to end in an argument. 

4. You disagree on how to spend money.

You and your partner now want to invest company resources in different things. Perhaps you want to reinvest in growing the business and he/she wants to harvest by taking much of the profit out.

5. You want to work on different things.

You no longer agree on the strategic direction of the company and it keeps the team divided. In fact, more and more there seems to be two teams inside the company- yours and his/hers.

6. You think you work harder than your partner.

In the early days, it was the two of you all the time. You continue to grind away at the business, but it seems like your partner is kicking back a bit too much and is never in the office.

How to transition:

Breaking up is always hard to do. Start by communicating the obvious and review the six points above with your partner. Discuss privately each other’s view on the problems. Agree to keep employees, customers and vendors out of this private conversation.  Look for resolutions. Consult your shareholder agreements for buyout procedures and other remedies. Go to an advisor that you both trust to help with the transition.

How did your breakup go with your partner? What were the first signs?


4 Tips for Building Your Network Before You Start Your Business

Many would-be entrepreneurs think they’ve got to wait until they start a business to begin building a network of contacts and potential customers. Not so. 90 percent of all small business owners get business from referrals, so the sooner you start — both online and off — the sooner you can forge connections with people that will help you create a sustainable business. You also want to position yourself as a resource so that you can make connections that are meaningful. So don’t wait to start networking! Get started today.

Tip 1: Find Your Industry Peers Locally

?????????????????????????????????Depending on how large a city you live in, there may be networking or support groups for businesses in your industry. If that’s the case, begin your networking efforts there immediately. Join professional organizations or simply attend a few meetings so you can get to know the big (and small) players in the space where you want to do business.

How this will help you: Networking in person helps you assess what types of businesses you’ll be competing against, as well as provide ideas for how you can better serve your target audience. You can look for strategic partnerships. If you plan to only offer Service A, you can find others who offer Services B, C, and D, and by working together, you can reach more customers. And finally, you can find a mentor who can provide you with guidance through your journey into entrepreneurship.

Tip 2: Start Getting Social Online

Social media provides you with the fabulous opportunity to brand yourself and your soon-to-be business. You can create profiles for yourself now and start sharing content that will make you known in your field, before you even have a website for your company. Start by following people that fit the mold for the types of customers you’ll want for your business, and you’ll have an instant audience when you do launch.

How this will help you: Once you start your business, you’ll need an audience for your content. Social media is the ticket to getting more readers for your blog posts — and thereby more customers on your site. And being known as a thought leader will also net you plenty of followers.

Tip 3: Attend Conferences

Another spot rife with networking opportunity is industry conferences or local business events and workshops. Wherever people in your industry — or for that matter, your ideal customers — gather, you want to be there too. Collect business cards. Run your idea by people. Just get your name out there.

How this will help you: Not only do conferences provide great learning opportunities, but you can observe your competition closely. You can also bounce your business idea off of other people to see if it’s even got viability. You may find you need to tweak your strategy before you launch — by getting feedback from others now, you save the time and money of not launching a bad idea.

Tip 4: Join LinkedIn Groups

An even more specific social networking strategy, especially useful if you’re relatively new to an industry or owning a business, is to participate in LinkedIn groups that cater to that niche. Just like with other types of networking, LinkedIn provides access to smart folks who can give you ideas for your business, as well as let you get feedback from them before you start yours.

How this will help you: There’s plenty to learn from others, if you’re open to it. Read the articles and discussions, jump in where appropriate, and take plenty of notes. You’ll need them for your business.

Networking opportunities are abound, if you know where to look. It’s better to start your relationship-building now while you’ve got the time, because once you launch that business, you’re going to be really busy!


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: What Happens When Employees and Customers Clash?

???????????????????????????????????????????????Remember the classic scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where Brad (actor Judge Reinhold), working at a fast-food joint, loses his temper at a rude customer, gets yelled at by his boss in front of the customer and gets fired? The customer may have been satisfied (temporarily), but the fast-food restaurant lost a good employee (check out this clip).

When an employee clashes with a customer, how should you handle it? If you don’t want to lose good employees or alienate good customers, the answer is “delicately.”

1. Separate the combatants. If an employee has blown his or her lid at a customer, your first step should be to remove the employee from the situation and deal with the customer yourself. Tell the customer you’re sorry for what happened and you will talk to the employee separately.

2. Get the customer’s side of the story. Take notes so you can remember clearly.

3. Make it right with the customer. Find out what the key issue is. For example, is the customer upset because he can’t get a refund? Or has the refund been given, but the customer feels the employee was rude during the process? Deal with the business issue first (i.e. the refund), then soothe the ruffled feelings.

4. Get the employee’s side of the story. Again, take notes. Go over what the customer said. Keep in mind both parties may not give you a full or correct account, but at least you’ll have a handle on what happened. If other employees were present, you may want to get their eyewitness accounts separately as well.

5. Assess the damage. Depending on what you learn, you’ll need to handle the situation in different ways. Did an employee with multiple behavioral issues admit to badmouthing a customer, with four eyewitnesses corroborating it? If so, you need to take disciplinary action. Was a stellar employee accused of something by an irate and seemingly irrational customer she and four eyewitnesses deny? If so, you may actually want to let that customer know you won’t tolerate their behavior.

6. Talk to the employee. Most situations fall somewhere between these extremes. In that case, talk to the employee to figure out how she could have handled the situation differently and better. The problem may lie in her responses, in which case you need to educate her about how she’s coming across and standards for interacting with customers. Or the problem may lie in your company’s systems—maybe you need clearer guidelines about returns or more empowerment for front-line workers to make their own decisions.

Ultimately, working through customer/employee clashes will let good employees know you support them, let good customers know you’re committed to providing standout service, and make your business better every day. 


Mondays with Mike: 7 Crazy Ideas To Turn Your Customers Into Raving Fans

The far reach of social media has fundamentally altered the way in which we interact with one another.  Things happen lightning fast, and it’s commonplace to get moment-to-moment updates on what your friends are doing.  While you may believe that it is – in fact – possible to OD on never-ending selfies, the prevalence of digital photos and tweets that reach millions of followers is a huge opportunity for savvy entrepreneurs who are able to enlist their customers in building their brands.  Here’s how to convert your customers to your biggest fans:

  1. Have your clients do some of the work.  If you can find a way to let customers make doing business with you a unique and personalized experience, they’re far more likely to tell their friends about you.  The best recent example of this principle are the number of business popping up that provide detailed art instruction for a group of people to gather at a bar or restaurant and paint their own picture.  You see Facebook posts of smiling faces and proud amateur artists.  They’re selling the experience to their friends.
  2. Play hard to get.  The American Express Black Card is the best example bar none.  It’s obscenely expensive, but people fall all over themselves, coveting an invitation to open one, and only a few customers ever receive that invitation.  Creating a sense of exclusivity makes your product that much more desirable.
  3. Deny your own existence.  One of the reasons there was so much buzz about the Amex Black Card when it was created was because Amex refused to confirm the card’s existence.  They relied on the excitement of gossip and speculation to generate interest.
  4. ????????????????Encourage tattoos.  I know this tactic may sound extreme, but when folks start permanently applying your logo to their bodies, you’ve officially arrived.  Associating your brand with a lifestyle and developing a great logo is a good start.  Think no one would ever ink a logo?  Look around you at the beer labels, band logos, and Harley Davidson tattoos that are out there.  It’s possible.
  5. Go underground.  Throw exclusive parties for your very best customers – parties that they must be invited to attend.  Offering special perks for invitation only rewards clubs makes customers crave that favored status.
  6. Put your customers through boot camp.  The idea here is to have a series of steps that customers have to go through in order to achieve a special status.  Give them special status and reward them with exclusive offers that are available only to the elite customers who’ve been dedicated enough to reach your upper echelon.  Give customers a shirt or a car magnet that boasts about their status, and you’re generating interest everywhere your customer goes. 
  7. Create an annual event.  Start a tradition that anchors your company as a valuable member of your community.  Whether you sponsor a fall festival or a public Easter Egg hunt, giving your community something to look forward to creates lasting, positive associations for your company.

So the real secret of all of these techniques is what happens afterwards.  By creating loyal, dedicated fans of your brand, you’re inevitably creating brand ambassadors who will Tweet, Instagram, and Facebook about your company, spreading the word with every like, share, or comment.  That’s why these raving fans are so valuable – they become your cheerleaders and enthusiastically help build your brand.  


Are Smart Phones Killing your Employees’ Soft Skills?

?????????????????????????????????????????If anyone tries to convince you that the abbreviated language known as “social media slang” is appropriate for business, DBTS (translated: don’t believe that stuff).  I’m not saying that it has no use — it might be helpful if used judiciously in a tweet from your company Twitter account or in a quick text message.  But anyone who represents your company needs the capacity to write correctly — and exercise a degree of courtesy and respect during face-to-face communication.  Unfortunately, smart phone mania may be robbing younger workers of these abilities, known as “soft skills.”

Of course, during a time when customers want everything right now, employees with 24/7 connection via smart phones can be major assets to your business. But just as you have to train them about the processes that they need to know to do their jobs, you may need to include a little education in soft skills as well.

Re-teach the Basic Writing Skills That They Have Forgotten from School

These days, no one expects electronic messages to be error-free.  In fact, now that many email messages are written on smart phones, many people put a tag at the end, warning, “Sent from my smart phone.  There will be typos.”  But when typos, misspellings or grammatical errors make it into formal business documents such as bids and proposals, your business can be significantly affected.  At the very least, unprofessional wording can alienate prospective customers.  Even worse, your business can take a major financial hit when an unclear sentence is misinterpreted to your company’s detriment.

Everyone in your company needs to adhere to basic writing standards.  They also need to understand that spell check is an absolute necessity, but proofreading is equally important (unless you have managed to remove every dirty term from the word processing dictionary).  For formatting and overall tone, you can provide them with samples of great documents or even a style guide for documents.  But until they have your complete confidence, have a designated person with strong writing skills review all documents and have the employees make corrections so that they can learn from their mistakes.

Texting Does Not Replace Face-to-Face Communication

The brevity of a 140-character tweet or a text message does not lend itself to highly courteous communication.  Tweets in particular are known for their often-snarky tone.  But when your employees interact with the public, you don’t want anyone to flash back to a certain soup seller from Seinfeld. Your employees may need a few verbal communication lessons in a safe environment before you release them to represent your company in the real world.

Role play sessions can be fun (or at least tolerable) and educational for employees.  Whether you set up activities in lunch sessions (you bring the pizza) or as part of company meetings, everyone can learn something new about interacting with others.  You can run the gamut of scenarios — from greeting customers at the door to cold-calling prospective customers.  Then, encourage group discussions to gain benefits from the viewpoints of a variety of people with their own personalities and sensitivities.

Everyone Benefits from Feedback

You have probably heard the old adage, “praise in public, criticize in private,” but well-placed public critiques can help improve the communication skills of your entire work force.  Unless every employee is a Miss Manners fan, there may be occasions when you receive a valid customer complaint.  Of course, you don’t want to gather the troops together to announce that Customer A complained because John said this or Mary did that.  But complaints can point out the need for more finesse in one area or another, and everyone can benefit from this type of feedback.  By all means, make it public.

Soft Skills Begin in the Workplace

Putting a group of employees in close quarters for 40 or more hours each week can add stress to the environment.  Unless you want your workplace atmosphere to resemble a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner, everyone in your company will benefit by learning how to communicate effectively.  AAMOF (as a matter of fact), they may be 4ever gr8ful.


Tips to Effectively Manage Remote Workers

I may not be Captain Kirk, but my extensive travel schedule makes it imperative that I meet my business responsibilities while remaining connected to my base.  Some of your employees may have the same needs.  Sales territories keep your reps far from your home office, but even local workers may need to work from home during inclement weather — or even just because they prefer wearing fuzzy slippers from 9 to 5.

Remote work can make sense, as long as your employees have the resources that they need to excel at their jobs wherever they are.  But it also takes disciplined workers and supportive managers.  Here are some tips on how to decide which employees will be effective remote workers and how to ensure that they provide professional representation for your company.

Identifying Good Remote Workers

If an employee that reminds you of Ferris Bueller or Dude Lebowski asks for the opportunity to work from home, just say no.  Self-motivated employees, on the other hand, are likely to be even more productive when they don’t spend time commuting to an office where distractions and interruptions typically exceed those that workers might find at home.

Still, employees who want to work from home need to show that they have an appropriate, interruption-free work area.  For example, they probably need to send the kids to daycare or hire a nanny.  But just as important, look for employees who already display dedication, as evidenced by the following traits:

  • They consistently meet or exceed deadlines, even if it means coming in early or staying late;
  • They take work home while still putting in a full workday, particularly when that work requires unfettered concentration;
  • They keep you informed of progress without the need to prompt them;
  • They are good problem-solvers on their own, but they know when to seek your help.

Remote Employees Must Maintain a Professional Image to the Outside World

No customer, vendor or other outside party should ever see the laundry basket in an employee’s living room and seeing the inside of a coffee shop is no better.  In other words, business contact must occur outside of the home in professional surroundings.

You work hard to develop a professional image for your business and your employees need to maintain it, no matter where they are.  I count on Regus (who, for disclosure is a client of mine, and whose services and locations I have used as a client of theirs for years), one of the largest providers of flexible workspaces in the world, for the professional image that I need. 

Using professional remote workspaces allows you to rent anything from office space to meeting rooms on an as-needed basis, but if you regularly provide remote workers with access to flexible facilities, a resource like Regus’s Businessworld card can help keep costs under control while providing a professional working environment.

Technology Creates a Bridge between Workers and Home Base

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Most remote workers use a computer in some capacity to do their jobs.  It doesn’t matter if 

they carry a company laptop back and forth between home and office or if they use their own computer — as long as they have access to the right functions.  But once you take employees out of the office, you often need additional technology such as the following to keep them connected:

  • A reliable Internet connection;
  • High-quality and secure access to your office computer network, including email, using collaboration suites like Office 365;
  • A quality phone system, like those provided by Nextiva;
  • The ability to attend interactive meetings and video conferences online.

Having appropriate technology makes it seamless for you to collaborate with your team or even your vendors from almost anywhere in the world.

Avoiding the Isolation of Remote Work Environments

I know someone who was forced to work from home during her first months with a new employer simply because her office computer did not work.  She would come in to the office for meetings, but she lamented that the delay in getting to know her co-workers made her feel alienated from the team.  Years later, after she formed a bond with the team, she started working from home several days a week.  She enjoyed her time at home, but she always felt a sense of renewal when she returned to the office.

All employees must feel a close connection to the company and their co-workers, and it is your job to make sure that happens.  By conducting regular one-on-one and department phone meetings, you provide them with vital information relevant to their daily activities, but face-to-face contact is incredibly valuable as well.  You should make it clear that you expect local employees to come to the office on a regular basis, and even workers on the other side of the country might be able to travel in for the quarterly company meeting or other major events.

Everyone would enjoy the chance to wear fuzzy slippers and PJs during their work day, but this is just one of many reasons why studies have shown remote workers to be generally happier and more productive.  Still, it is important to make sure that a remote workplace does not equate to a remote connection with the company team.  With your guidance, employees who receive this benefit will earn your trust every day — especially if those fuzzy slippers have your company logo embroidered on them.


Good, Better, Best: How to Be the Best Leader for Your Small Business

Stocksy_txp4741dc94fC8000_Small_17003Like it or not, as a small business owner, one of your primary roles (if you’ve got employees, that is), is that of leader. If you haven’t had a lot of experience in the past in leading people, you might need a few pointers for polishing your skills. Not to worry: even if you’re not a born leader, it’s something you can improve with a bit of effort and education. And don’t be afraid to sign up for a leadership course.

The Qualities of a Great Leader

While everyone’s got their own opinion about what makes for killer leadership skills, most can’t argue that the following are qualities that can help you manage others with grace:

  • Solid listening & communication skills
  • Striving to help employees succeed
  • Empowering employees to make decisions
  • Striving for self-improvement
  • Learning from mistakes

How many of these qualities do you possess? If you need a brush-up, here are tips for expanding your abilities on each point:

  • Listening & Communication: Let your employees speak without you interrupting them. Pause before responding, and really consider what they’ve said.
  • Help Employees Succeed: If an employee comes to you with a problem, don’t just listen; act. Show him that you keep your word by making change to help him overcome his obstacle.
  • Empower Employees: Show your staff that you trust them to make decisions without your constant approval. They’ll blossom if you let them.
  • Self-Improvement: Realize that good leaders never assume they’ve reached the top, and keep striving to better their skills.
  • Learn from Mistakes: Just like anyone, you’re fallible, so rather than try to deny your errors, take them as valuable lessons.

Why You Should Strive to Be a Great Leader

Do you really need to improve your leadership skills? If you care about keeping your staff happy (and at your company), you should care. As Eric Jackson quotes the old saying in this Forbes article, people quit their bosses, not their jobs. Do you really want to be the reason you keep losing good talent?

Your staff looks to you for guidance on how to conduct themselves, as well as how your company is run. A good leader inspires her staff, not makes them cower under their desks.

Owning Your Leadership Style

If you’ve been to business school or any kind of leadership training, you might be familiar with Lewin’s Three Leadership Styles. These date back to 1939, and while others have been identified since then, these styles of leadership still ring true today:

  • Autocratic: You make decisions on your own without the input of your team, and your word is law. You’re not open to suggestions from your staff, which may make them fearful of you, and may cause employees to be difficult to motivate or keep on board.
  • Democratic: You involve staff members in key decisions, though you still have the final word. Employees feel more vested in the company when they are encouraged by you to provide input.
  • Laissez-faire: This style of leadership isn’t always effective. You put the responsibility of decision-making in the hands of your employees, which may cause your team to feel confused and without strong guidance, since that’s not a laissez-faire leader’s strong suit.

Each of these leadership types (as well as others) has its benefits and drawbacks. The key is understanding which comes naturally to you, as well as which your staff responds best to. For example, if you identify with the autocratic style, but your staff seems afraid to come to you with ideas or issues, try on the democratic hat for a week or two and see if results change. It’s better to align yourself with your staff’s needs than stick to what’s easiest for you.

The better the leader you are, the happier your employees will be. And a small business with happy employees makes for a successful company.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: How to Get Control of Your Email

Is your email out of control? Are you constantly checking it on three different devices and feel like you never get out from under the avalanche? If your emails seem to be multiplying like rabbits, don’t despair—there are ways to get a grip and get back control of your life. Not all of the following tactics will work for everyone—but some should work for you.

  • Avoid checking email first thing in the morning. If you find that email sucks up your time and keeps you from accomplishing big projects, try designating the first hour of your day as email-free. Just be sure you use that time to work on key tasks that are crucial to your business—not busywork or checking Facebook. By dedicating a solid hour a day to focused effort, you’ll be amazed how much more you get done. (Disclosure: I offer this advice because so many time management people put it on their lists of must-do’s. Personally, I always check email first thing in the morning. To do otherwise seems counter-productive to me.)
  • Turn off email notifications. If your computer or smartphone dings every time you get a new email, no wonder you’re going nuts. Turn off notifications so you can focus instead of being interrupted every two seconds.
  • Set times for checking email. It’s human nature to seek out the new and exciting. When we’re bored or stressed, it’s natural to check our email to see if anything more interesting has come along. You’ll get more done if you set a few specific times of day for checking email—for example, one hour into your day, right before lunch, early afternoon and near the end of the day. If you let your team know about your email habits, they won’t panic when you don’t respond immediately.
  • Use filters, folders, rules and other tools. Whether you use Gmail, Outlook, Apple Mail or other program, investigate the tools available on your email program to help manage email. Spending a few hours now learning how to automatically sort emails into folders, set rules for what to do with emails and using filters to ensure you don’t miss important emails (and don’t waste time on pointless ones) will save you hours each day in the end.
  • Automate and delegate. If you frequently answer the same types of emails, such as a certain kind of customer inquiry, creating templates with stock language you can edit quickly will save you time. Or delegate these standard replies to an assistant (real or virtual).
  • Pick up the phone. Sometimes we spend hours going back and forth on email when a simple phone call would solve the issue in a flash. Never minimize the value of in-person communication.

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