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Mobile Communications and Customer Service

I do love gadgets. I just got an Amazon Kindle and thoroughly enjoy the ability to carry several books in such a thin device. My Palm Treo is always at the ready for reading or sending emails, checking the news, and updating my calendar. I’m pretty sure that I’m just a few days away from trading in the Treo for an iPhone, which seems like the ultimate gadget.

But I think it’s important to recognize that while these gadgets certainly increase our connectivity with others, they also have the potential to make our communications appear impersonal. What I’m really talking about here is the email function on whatever smartphone we’ve chosen. And in particular I’m talking about using the smartphone email function to communicate with customers – whether it’s replying to their emails, setting up meetings, forwarding a document, etc.

Because it’s more challenging to draft an email on a small, handheld device as opposed to a full-size keyboard, there’s a tendency to make our communications brief and to the point – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But too often a smartphone-generated email morphs from brief to curt, or even rude. While not intentional, our attempts at being instantly accessible to customers and colleagues can sometimes backfire, creating ill-will or confusion – “Is she mad at me?” – because of an overly-brief communication. My guess is that you’ve been on the receiving end of such unintentionally brusque emails, causing you to wonder if you had somehow upset the sender.

That an email was sent from smartphone isn’t always obvious. Yes, sometimes the email will state, “This communication was generated on my Blackberry…”, but I think relying on that is a copout. Our customers don’t necessarily care how an email was generated, nor should they, and I don’t think it’s worth the risk of a misunderstanding in order to save a few keystrokes.

No matter how we interact with a customer, it’s important to see the communication through their lens. Just taking a moment to review an email before sending it (with the customer’s lens in mind) may make you reconsider the tone of the message. Does it really convey the tone it should?

I’m not talking about creating long, flowery communications for the sake of being nice. I have enough trouble hitting the right keys on my Treo as it is. I’m simply talking about the tone with which we communicate with customers. Tone is important. And most smartphones even have instant insert buttons for the words “please” and “thank you,” so we can even use technology to be efficiently courteous.

I remember reading somewhere that when sending an email you should think about what your grandmother would think of the wording. While that may seem a bit extreme at first, it’s really not a bad idea to ask “What would Grandma think?” before hitting the send button.

Enough of my rant on the subject. I’m fully aware that some of my friends, upon reading this post, will send me smartphone-generated emails entirely in shorthand or the opposite, prose-filled, memory-busting tomes. I’m okay with it as long as this post makes some readers at least think about the email they’re getting ready to shoot off to a customer.

Customer Service and Right Fit Talent

Every job requires a special blend of skills and talents if the job is to be done masterfully.  At the Starbucks near my home, one of the “baristas” epitomizes the concept of right fit talent.  While all of the baristas do a fine job, James stands out through his uncanny knowledge of customer names and their favorite beverages. 

While Starbucks emphasizes this in their training, James takes it way beyond what can be trained.  He prepares beverages for customers even before they walk in the door, having seen them walking in from the parking lot.  He knows the names of customers’ family members and keeps up a running banter even when it’s busy, including just about everyone in the discussion.  Talk about right fit talent.

There are bad, average, and outstanding coffee shop employees, engineers, dentists, accountants, custodians, and presidents.  The outstanding ones not only possess the necessary skills for their jobs, they appear to be born for their roles.  Excellence seems to come naturally to these individuals, and everyone around them can see that someone special is at work.  The trick is to discover the qualities of these special performers and find other people just like them.  Unfortunately, these special qualities are different for every job and for every company’s culture, so you can’t simply develop a single set of job criteria and apply those criteria to any position.  Through observation and analysis, however, you can discover the unique talents possessed by outstanding performers in a particular role. It’s certainly worth the effort.

The Power of Presence

Several of my previous blog posts have focused on the differences between employees who do their jobs with a “task mentality” versus employees who do their jobs with an “experience mentality.” I stress this topic so heavily because it is at the heart of what separates great service providers from the rest of the pack. Those employees who focus on creating great experiences make customers feel welcome and valued. Those who focus on merely completing tasks make customers feel processed.

The word that bridges the gap between a task mentality and an experience mentality is presence. In order to create a positive customer experience, an employee must be present for the customer and, at least for the moment, that customer only. Then, and only then, can the employee notice the customer’s body language, tone of voice, word choice, facial expression or any of the hundreds of other possible signals the customer may be sending, thus providing clues for delivering personalized service.

Employees who are not present for the customer don’t catch those signals; they just go through the motions of completing the task. They’re thinking about the next customer, the previous customer, their spouse, the paperwork, their supervisor; anything but the customer they’re dealing with at that moment. And the customer perceives the employee’s attitude as one of indifference.

A couple of nights ago my family was having dinner at a very nice restaurant. The food was great as was the restaurant’s atmosphere, but our server was clearly more focuses on completing his tasks instead of creating a memorable experience for his guests. He would look at one of his other tables as he served us, whisk by without comment as he dropped off or picked up our bread basket, comment to another server while he refilled our water glasses, and headed to the kitchen as he wordlessly set the check on our table.

As I observed this server’s performance, the word “presence” popped into my mind. That’s what was missing – he wasn’t present for his guests. He certainly performed his tasks efficiently. He was prompt, he delivered the correct orders, and the food was terrific. But for the prices we were paying, we deserved more. We deserved his full attention for those relatively few moments that he was actually interacting with us.

It wouldn’t have taken much for him to have created a very different impression. A smile while filling our water glasses, a comment on our meal selection as we ordered, eye contact as he set down the bread basket; any of these gestures would’ve take no additional time, but would’ve made a world of difference.

I mentioned my restaurant experience to a participant attending one of my presentations this week. He asked if my experience would keep me from returning to that restaurant and I had to admit that no, it would probably not keep me from returning. But if we do go back, it won’t be because of the service, it will be in spite of it – and that distinction is important.

In today’s economy, businesses of every type need to set their sets higher than just delivering service that doesn’t drive customers away. All of our businesses need to focus on giving our customers excellent reasons to definitely come back and to sing our praises to friends, family and colleagues.

If we want loyal customers, we have to be present!