Category Archives: customer service

The foot in the customer’s door: don’t let it start to hurt.

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On all our Central European markets, we are newcomers. From the Hi-Tech energy-cost saving nozzles that are used by wise companies, and the high quality pneumatic tools that we have introduced on the market, first customers represent 20% to 70% of our turnover depending on the market. In our business, the “customer” is an abstract term: in larger companies, we always have several users and deciders who function sometimes very autonomously.

We know the expression “putting your foot in the door”. My definition of it is that you have done a first sale at the customer’s, although the share of your products compared to the total purchase of similar products is marginal.

I always welcome a foot in the door. I welcome a decision carried out by the customer to buy something from us. It’s the difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing it.

The thing with the foot in the door is that it can start to hurt, because you are actually supposed to go through the door, not to stay stuck in the middle.

Many salespeople consider the job done with the beginning of the first sales. They consider that the hardest part has now been achieved, that the products are referenced, and that the urgency on this customer can be lifted in order to focus on new potentials. That in fact is rarely the case.

What you achieve with a foot in the door is the right to pursue your efforts. It means you are “tolerated” at the customer. You are not a member, but you’re allowed to look around through the partially opened door.

Through that partially opened door, the salesperson can take a better look inside the customer, see new people, listen more closely to customer needs, understand how everything works, who’s using, who’s deciding, who he/she should be talking to. If not, at best the salesperson stays in that uncomfortable place of the marginal supplier, selling little but needing to deliver generous conditions in the hope of bigger sales. And hope alone never generated any revenue.

In the end, frustrated, the salesperson takes the foot away only to see the door slamming back shut and requiring a renewed effort to reopen, but without the visibility and access to people he or she had.

A salesperson should use the opportunity of the half-opened door to push it wide open and close it on the nose of the competitors outside. And that means using the limited access gained by being a supplier to obtain as much info and contacts as possible.

I ask our people to be able to “map” their customer. A salesperson should be able to draw on a piece of paper a schematic view of the organization chart there. The salesperson should identify the places of use of the products, the key people and their motivations, and the potentials in all these places. And I insist on the organization chart even if schematic: Knowing 20 people working side by side in the same office or production area is great, but they simply cannot open new places of opportunity if they have little contact with other potential users of your products.

So the first sale is always something to celebrate with the salesperson. It is a great achievement, but it can get painful if we don’t move on.

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Filed under central europe, customer service, distribution, sales management, sales manager, Uncategorized

Let’s put “soul” and “care” in customer attitudes

Family-owned companies try harder

In May, I took a group of Slovak entrepreneurs on an “Armagnac”, “Wine” and “Cognac” tour in Southwestern France. We enjoyed great wine, great small hotels and great restaurants.

I took my friends only to small places, well rated, but not at the top “Michelin” level. And often, we asked the locals where we could go for lunch or dinner.

There is something about these small family owned restaurants. They want you to feel at home, they talk with passion about the special of the day, they offer you a last drink “on the house”. And they were genuinely honored to host Slovaks (many places for the first time) and they made it felt.

It showed the benefits of small operations when it comes to customer attitude. Like others, small entrepreneurs also make mistakes, but it always seems to matter less somehow because they are not just doing a job, they are living their lives.

Customer attitude needs “soul”

I like procedures when it comes to customer service because it helps, especially the newcomers in an organization, to understand how to materialize customer service.

That being said, “soul” is what is the most missing in customer/supplier relationships. The customer is just behind someone doing a job, and following some procedures.

You cannot train “soul”. This comes more or less naturally. You can tell an employee that the customer is important, that the customer brings money in the company, that it’s the customer’s money that is used to pay salaries. All of that is fine, but there is no “soul”, there is none of that committment that is going to result in a real customer/seller relationship.

And worse of all, it stops working as soon as there is the slightest problem.

“Soul” does not equal communication

I have seen many “communicating with customers” trainings. Companies that seeked to improve customer satisfaction worked on communication. Countless programs were invented, countless employees were subjected to speeches, role plays and what not in a very theoretical customer relationship policy.

In the end, and even in large firms for which we expected better, communication with customers just became a training on automated and pre-chewed responses to customer inquiries and remarks. No organization can really improve its customer service if it only thinks that it’s just a technical issue with communication.

Do not get me wrong, communication will work, but if there is something to communicate.

Do the employees feel that the customer is a respected person in the organization? Can the organization renew itself and admit when it is wrong? On what does the organization focus when talking internally to its employees, how does top management set the example, and how are concrete cases debriefed internally and learned from?

Does of any of this exist? Let me blunt, in some companies that thrived from their dominant position, noone even thinks about the above because as long as revenue comes in, it must mean that customers are happy. And if revenue does not come in, it’s the fault of the employees who do not communicate well. Let’s train them with the most expensive firms on the market.

And in the end it does not work. Surprised?

It’s all about care

In those small restaurants I was talking about in the beginning, “soul” is there because people own the place. It’s their creation, they want it to work, they want it to be successful, and they make no charts about it, they go with a feeling.

And the employees follow suit, because they feel part of the family.

That family is bond by the commitment of the owners to make the small operation a success. The owner is also very present, cooking, serving, talking to customers, making those small decisions such as offering a second round of coffee or a drink. Employees see that, they relate to that, and for the most part they start to understand how much the owner cares, and how much it is important to provide to customers the experience that they need.

In such firms, there is no hiding behind some customer satisfaction charts or an empty speech.

What firms need is an exemplary message from top down showing great care about the customer experience.

Given the challenges shown in the latest “Global Competitiveness Report, it is more than time to rethink how we are going to give to every customer a great experience and modernize our customer approach with fresher and more critical thinking.

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Filed under Article, central europe, competition, customer service, distribution, economy, export, sales management, sales manager, Slovakia, Uncategorized

Comrades and Business owners!!! Unite for competition!!!

I am quite interested with Orange and T-Mobile not wanting to pay the fee to the Slovak telecommunications regulator for the extension of their license because they see it as too expensive. To be honest, I have no idea how it should be priced, but I found one of the arguments given by Orange Slovakia very interesting.

Orange claims in today’s (August 25th) edition of Hospodarske Noviny that  it is unfair that o2 (the newest competitor in Slovakia who started operations in 2007) paid 8 times less a couple of years ago when it acquired the license. It considers the measure discriminatory.

From where I stand it looks fair: you use more bandwidth, you pay more. It will be interesting to see o2’s reaction when their license comes up for renewal, but until then, it would have been outrageous to ask for a comparable cost for the license. It would have also been a blow to a free market system.

Competition is the cornerstone of our economies. It is competition that leads to innovation, to better customer experience, and to lower prices that benefit the entire economy in return. Competition is only a problem for companies seeking revenue by doing none of the above.  I am not discarding the need for firms to have strong financial results and reward shareholders (I am one myself), but a free market system must be associated with a strong competitive environment.

As there are now the first heated discussions in our four party coalition about next year’s budget, there are some talks on lowering payroll taxes in regards to keeping Slovakia labor costs competitive.

There should be in fact discussions about maintaining or strengthening Slovakia’s competitivity, but not without taking a broader look at all factors leading to increased costs for firms in this country.

Labor costs have been influenced by a rise in salaries (especially in western Slovakia) that was out of control until the first financial crisis of 2008. And these salaries are being pushed up by high real estate and mortgage costs, food costs, and gasoline costs. The best potential employees are on the lookout for better salaries because they need them for their families, and this drives costs for companies up just as much as the payroll taxes.

Let’s take the example of gasoline costs in Slovakia. I tank in all of Europe for my job and Slovakia’s prices never cease to amaze me. Data confirms (according to the webportal natankuj.sk) that even without counting taxes, Slovakia has 0,9 Eurocent more expensive gasoline than the EU average, and 2,6 Eurocents more expensive diesel fuel. Each time I fill up now, employees of the gas stations started giving me window tissue wipers. At current gasoline prices, I feel I would be eligible for stock options to be honest.

In conclusion, I don’t want government controlling prices. We should ask however that our governments (and the EU) make it as easy as possible for new players and innovative ideas to take hold in our markets. And in the case of Orange in Slovakia which finds its license expensive compared to that of a newcomer, well so be it. A market is not some organization’s property.

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Filed under Article, central europe, competition, customer service, economy, Slovakia, Uncategorized

Used cars with no kilometers shown?

I visited on the road a large used car retailer to take a look at its operations in a surviving sales site (one sales site in Slovakia was closed last year).

Some cars are shown without the number of kilometers. It simply says “unknown”

It looks bad, but this is a major improvement.

Let’s face it; our countries in general were a fantastic oasis for remarketing high mileage cars from Western Europe. What Germans and French did not want, the Poles and Slovaks took. Well, let’s say that some importers took at low prices cars that were magically improved and sold at higher prices…much higher prices. After all, these cars had less than 100000 kilometers…

So I applaud transparency in this business.

Transparency will clean up the offer of used cars, and correct prices. It will help the establishment of an intermediate used car market and help develop inter dealer B to B trading by creating stronger market price differentiations between products.

Perhaps, the money invested by manufacturers in used car programs (Peugeot, Citroen, Kia and Škoda among them) will pay out.

Best operators, and best advised operators might take the train of this opening of business. If they do not, AAA Auto will take the food right out of their mouths regardless of the quality of their certified used car programs.

For leasing companies and manufacturers, the oasis of markets that buy everything  is drying up. I foresee strong corrections in price depreciations in the near future.

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Filed under Article, automotive, competition, customer service, Slovakia, Uncategorized