Monday, May 28, 2012

Manager Mondays: Repairing The New Gap in Customer Expectations

Welcome to Manager Mondays, this busy little blog's weekly feature on workforce messaging.  This week, our train stops at the station of Customer Expectations, and the conductor (me) warns you to watch the gap.

The other day at a trade seminar, I heard a panel of internet marketing experts talk about the growing explosive impact of social media on business.  Their theme: an increasing percentage of physical retail transactions at brick-and-mortar stores start with a web search or a recommendation via social media.  More and more people first check out a retailer's virtual presence on its website before they step inside its actual property.

This is true of any organization that has a public-facing presence online.  Churches, charities, institutions, and service providers across a host of industries all reach out to attract new clients/members/users by spending oodles of money to create beautiful websites.  And the public cruises those websites the way it used to browse newspaper ads or window-shop at the mall.  People form  first impressions based on online branding.

This means by the time many people pass through a store's entrance, or call a service company's Contact Us phone number, they've already halfway decided to give that business their "custom" -- to use the optimistic old English meaning of the word that signifies loyal, repeat purchasing of goods or services.  In other words, web surfers come ready to buy.  They're newbies who are already primed to be regulars.  But that predisposition is based on distinct expectations forged on the slick screens of an oh-so-perfect company website.

So in the doors they come -- and here it is: the critical pivot point when your public image stops being virtual, and starts being visible.  At that moment, the glossy world they've glimpsed on your snazzy site may devolve  into a ghastly human reality.  They may encounter a grim hostess. A gum-popping cashier.  A grumpy phone rep.  A grungy deliveryman. When your customers interact with that person -- their first real human face of your corporation -- will they get a good experience?  Or will they get a letdown after the flash and dazzle of everything they've seen so far?

It's not just about getting your staff to perform their duties well. That part needs to be excellent; that's a given.  But to keep the gloss on that first internet-generated impression, your client-facing staff also needs to be in the know about what your website is saying. They must be ready to interact with clients about its latest slogans, current promotions, and even its new color scheme.

What if companies don't keep staff updated about website goings-on?  Then customers can encounter a pretty wide gap between expected service and perceived service.  And for these situations, social media presents another fresh hell: instant negative customer reviews.   These can happen via tweets, Facebook posts, Youtube (yes, Youtube!), or apps such as, where people even name individual employee names, e.g.: "Tyler the delivery guy from Papa's Pizza on Franklin Street didn't know about their Summer Sizzler offer.  He argued with us over the bill until we pulled up Papa's website on our iPhone and showed it to him." (See an article about Tello by clicking here.)

With so many online outlets, dissatisfied customers can do reputation-sinking any time, for any reason. And they do.  Complaints range from justifiable (dirty sheets, damaged orders) to just trivial (phone reps who speak without enough pep, clerks who grant other customers too many perks).  In between, there's a bevy of besmirching opportunities for staff who seem ignorant, evasive, or out of date with their outfit's latest internet-posted price discounts, policies, or promises.

If you lead a team that has contact with the public in any way, your challenge is clear: you need keep their actions and speech consistent with your website's messaging.   Do you have the tools and systems in place to achieve this?

Here are some ways that you as manager can help your team close the gap and create a seamless impression:

1.  Incorporate your company's online marketing phrases and campaigns into your own staff communications.  If everyone hears you quote them, it increases awareness, underscores the importance of staying current, and fosters  ownership.

2.  Use available company resources to increase your staff's familiarity with the website.  Does your organization provide links to the website on its workstation monitors?  Does it post updates about it in the company newsletter?  If so, promote these to your troops in a creative way.  Send out a pop quiz about the latest website offerings, encourage people to fill it in during their shift, then hold a prize drawing for the correct entries.  Got tech-savvy admins or interns?  Have them grab screen shots and create a simple media presentation about the website that can be staged to run continuously where staff can see it, such as in the employee break room. Utilize any other methods that the head office gives you to cultivate website awareness.

3.  Send your staff a "Buzz Bulletin" heads-up whenever your company changes something on its website.   Present it as helpful preparation: "Here's the buzz, just wanted you to be aware..."  (Hint: this is also a useful awareness-building tool whenever your company makes the headlines, takes a stance in the media, or starts a new message in other public arenas.)

4.  Supply your staff with a FAQ (Frequently-Asked Questions) sheet for new promotional campaigns, menu items or product lines.  The idea is to give them stock responses -- simple scripted messages containing authorized ways to say things.  (To be on the safe side, take these directly from the website or other corporate-generated material, such as press releases -- the top brass and/or the legal eagles have already vetted out any language there.)

5.  Give your team "hot line permission" to call you and ask you a question about internet promotions or tell you about anything that they didn't feel prepared to handle.  Give those calls top priority for response, and use them as heads-up warnings to track issues that are escalating in frequency.

6.  Regularly affirm that good brand communication is everyone's job.  In your messaging and meetings, tell your own personal horror stories about situations when you yourself were blind-sided by a customer who knew more than you did about the company's latest web-posted campaign.  Give a supportive shout-out to any team member whom you observe integrating web-generated marketing and PR wording into their client interactions: from quoting the company catchphrase, to answering sales questions  with spot-on accuracy, to referring customers back to the website for future guidance.  Even better, tweet your appreciation!  (Using social media to close the social media gap in customer expectations -- how wicked is that?)

In a way, all the trappings of  the impersonal internet set a trap for in-person customer service. There's even more to live up to, now, with multiple layers of marketing impressions in the mind of each consumer.  And -- perhaps -- there's even more of a disparity between the staff's jaded insider perspective and the would-be customer's highly-marketed, well-shaped, idealized impression of the store brand.

Watch out for that gap, and repair it whenever you need to.  The bottom line to your troops: whenever you're on duty, you need to be on message. 

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