Public Speaking, Presentation Skills & Media Training

Customer service. It is critical to maintaining long-term relationships with customers. Organizations like Nordstrom and Disney have shared their secrets to great service over the years. Michael Brown challenged the traditional thinking on customer service in his book, Fresh Notes on Customer Service. His premise is customers should come second and the emphasis should be on employees, who if treated well, will provide outstanding service. Other books and articles offer lots of tips about how to train your employees and create a culture that values service. I think the biggest key to service is one that is often overlooked. It’s the customer you choose to serve.

I know it seems obvious, but I believe you can only achieve great customer service if you are serving the right customers for your business. This means you need to focus on who the customer (client) is long before you serve them. Too often a company tries to be all things to all people. Upfront you should consider how your products, services, and approach to doing business match your customer’s requirements.

If your customer needs you to do a lot of custom work and you are only structured to provide standard product, you will disappoint.

If your lead time is two to three weeks and your consumer is constantly calling at the last minute, you will disappoint.

If your customer likes a lot of personal attention, meetings, and phone calls, and you want the process to be more online and automated, you will disappoint.

If you like to be on the cutting edge and constantly innovating, and your customer wants to do the same thing over and over, you will disappoint, not to mention you will get frustrated and annoyed.

So, before you think about how to service a client, consider whether it is a client you want. Ask yourself: Is the work something that fits well into your existing workflow, processes, and the capabilities of your company? Would it be a stretch to deliver what your customer is asking for, or require a capital investment you are not prepared to make, like adding inventory? What if it just isn’t work you are ramped up to do? If the work is not part of your core capabilities, it takes longer to accomplish. You simply may not be able to provide timely service. You really need to think about whether the client can, and will be, good for your business in the long-term.

Once you get the client, you need to perform, and unfortunately, most don’t. A recent study by SuperOffice that benchmarked customer service stated, “Most companies know what they need and should deliver excellent customer service. But interestingly enough, research shows that while 80% of businesses believe they provide excellent customer service, in fact only 8% of customers believe they are actually receiving excellent service.”

Did you know I conduct workshops for businesses and I am a speaker for hire? Here’s my speaking packet.

Public Speaking, Presentation Skills & Media Training

Small business advocate: Access to capital is critical for small business owners.

 

Ask any small business person about the challenges they face and at least one will be access to capital. In simple terms M-O-N-E-Y. Often no one wants to lend you money when you need it. When you don’t need it, everyone wants to lend you money.

Another issue is the paperwork and complexity to apply for loans. When I needed cash to launch my business, I started in a pretty traditional way. I took stacks of paper and went from bank to bank. It was time consuming, but it worked. The first loan was under $100,000, typical for small business. Small business lending statistics have been consistent recently. Over 70% of small businesses are looking for loans less than $250,000, and more than 60% want loans less than $100,000. These are generally the loans a lot of lenders don’t want to handle because they prefer bigger, more profitable transactions.

The good news is today there are many more options from alternative lending sources.

Recently I heard a speech on small business credit and capital by Nat Hoopes, Executive Director from the Marketplace Lending Association. He spoke about the growth of financial technology also known as “fintech”. Essentially, fintech refers to an industry made up of companies who use technology to compete with traditional institutions, like banks. Peer-to peer lending sites like Lending Club and Funding Circle are members of the Marketplace Lending Association.

While doing research for my book Small Business for Big Thinkers, I profiled one online lender, On Deck, and learned a lot about why borrowers turn to this kind of funding. For one thing, alternative lending sources make the borrowing process fast, simple, and transparent. Unlike the reams of paper you need to submit with some other types of loans, the application process is usually one page online and takes about ten to fifteen minutes to complete. Often these companies approve loans based on three months of bank processing, or three months of merchant processing.

Here’s the part that really makes you take notice.  Decisions can be delivered in as fast as one business day, and funding in as fast as two business days.

It makes you wonder how alternative lending sources approve businesses and react so quickly when some traditional ones cannot? It’s all about the technology that seamlessly aggregates digital information – such as cash flow, merchant processing information, and social data – to evaluate the true health of a business.

Of course, you can expect to pay more for money from these sources, but this does not seem to bother some small companies. Those I spoke with believe speed and ease are the top priority. Some experts also believe paying a higher interest rate is not necessarily bad. Business owners who pay more may be better prepared when the artificially low rate cap comes off interest rates.

Small businesses need to consider all the options when searching for affordable credit. They also need to consider the risks, because how you manage money and your credit is one of the most critical aspects of business. The alternative market won’t discipline you. You must to do that.

If you need a primer on what is happening, check out the Harvard Business School report The State of Small Business Lending: Innovation and Technology and the Implications for Regulation by Karen Gordon and Mills Brayden McCarthy. I hope articles like this help as I love being your small business advocate.

 

Interested in having me speak at your next event? You can view my speaking packet here.

Public Speaking, Presentation Skills & Media Training

My thoughts on customer service.

Real customer service begins with serving the right customer for your business. Once you identify that customer it is time to dig deep into how to provide unparalleled service. With all the technology and systems available to business today, you might think it is easy.  It’s not. The problem is not a lack of tools. It is a people issue.

In a recent SuperOffice Customer Service study, the findings were telling.  62% of companies did not respond to a customer service request. 90% of companies did not acknowledge an email, and a whopping 97% of companies did not follow up with customers. Pretty amazing statistics considering everyone I talk to says service is a priority.

Here are a few of the things my company does to better connect with customers.

The “Three Ring” Rule

It may sound simple, but it is everyone’s job to answer the phone. It should never ring more than three times. We have had amazing response to this… and the fact that we actually do answer the phone. If you have ever been caught in the maze of recorded prompts, you know how frustrating it can be when what you need is simply not one of the options. A real person can resolve an issue or answer a question the first time which avoids people having to call back.

Get Everyone in the “Know” 

We believe the more people who understand the customer or a project, the more people who can respond to a question or request. That means holding informational meetings to provide a high-level overview of what is going on company-wide. We also employ a project management system and hold people accountable to make sure e-mails are attached, notes are up-to-date, and schedules are set. This makes it easy to reference the history and communicate exactly what is going on with a project or order. Of course, this is easier to do in a smaller company, but it can be done in larger organizations that are disciplined about documenting information.

Get Proactive

Reach out before a customer expects it. Send a quick update to let a client know you are working on their project and when they can expect delivery. It’s even better if you deliver before the promised date. But be careful…if you consistently over-perform it will become the new standard. Also, customers need some “love” even if they are not currently working with you. A quick e-mail, short newsletter, or video to highlight new products, trends or other customers can help keep you connected.

Automate

These days, most people prefer e-mail communication. There are a number of different customer service software packages that can send automated responses to acknowledge you have received communication and then direct the e-mail to the right person. Of course, automation must be followed up with a real person who reaches out.

Yes. I am right back where I started.

It all comes back to one simple concept. Customer service is not about a department. It is about everyone on your team being willing and disciplined to serve.

 

Looking for someone to lead a workshop at your business on the topic of customer service? I would be excited to help! 

Public Speaking, Presentation Skills & Media Training

What’s in a business title? A lot actually.

The owner of an insurance agency I know did an experiment. Sheila VanZile of Watermark Insurance printed business cards with two different business titles: President and Queen. Over the course of time, she used both… and Queen won out. That title engaged people, helped start a conversation and gave them a glimpse of her fun personality. Her business is all about building relationships and being able to connect with customers to identify needs. She said those who were not amused at the title of Queen were actually not people she wanted as clients.

If you had asked me for my opinion on titles a number of years ago you would have gotten a different answer than today. In the past, I would have said that I didn’t care much for titles and some of the most important people I know don’t even use them. But today, I have a different perspective. After working with companies large and small I have found that doing business is a lot easier when you have a frame of reference about the person. That’s why titles and job descriptions are very important. They tell people about your level of responsibility and in some cases, like my friend with the insurance agency, your personality.

Titles are a way to distinguish those who have decision making power from those who do not. Those who are leaders and those who follow. Those who are important to pay attention to and… well you get the idea. But titles are tricky. Corporations have a lot of titles. There is the CEO, COO and the CFO – not to mention lots of VPs. Go to most banks and it seems like everyone is a vice president. At least that is what their card says. That’s because banks and other institutions give out titles freely. It makes the customer feel good that they are working with a vice president.

Small businesses have traditionally been anti-title. Many of the small business owners I know don’t refer to themselves at the CEO or President. They prefer to be called the owner or founder. Because most small business owners are providing direct service, they shy away from C-Suite titles. And, here is an important point. Small business owners actually have more flexibility when it comes to titles. So does a title really matter and what should you consider when picking titles for positions within your company? Here are a few things.

Is the business title one that will immediately tell people what the individual does?

What kind of an impression do you want to make? Casual, fun, impressive?

Is it accurate and honest? Don’t use a business title that conveys authority if the position is not a decision-making one.

Is the title one that is appropriate for your industry? For the department or area that the individual oversees?

Choosing titles can be confusing but choose wisely because it really does matter. It’s defining your brand with your title and your personality and matching them appropriately. One great resource is the Society for Human Resource Management.They have tools for both members and readers including a list of titles and descriptions. Check out any industry groups or associations where you have membership. Finally, test out the titles with a few trusted individuals. Who knows, maybe you could be the Queen (or King) too.

 

I’d love to speak at your next event. You can view my speaking packet now.

Public Speaking, Presentation Skills & Media Training

Business lessons from my dad to me–and now to you.

With the holiday season coming and going, I think back to what is very important to me–family. One family member who has had a major impact on my business life is my father. I wanted to share some of his business wisdom. 

I am the owner of a media production company but my education in business began long before I started the business. It began in the backroom of a dry-cleaning establishment. It was a family-owned business operated by my dad and his two brothers, the descendants of Greek immigrants. The brothers also owned a small burger joint right next door where the specialty was, what else, Greek chili dogs.

I can remember working at the cleaners from the time I was old enough to follow directions. Every Saturday he would take my sister, younger brother, and me to the store. While he did paperwork, or caught up on loads of clothing in need of attention, we would check in the dirty clothes, put paper inserts on hangers, and clean the store. It was my first foray into business and believe me, there was no better feeling than having the run of the store. As I got older, I worked my way up to being a counter girl, my first sales experience. Then, I could open and close the place, my first management experience.

Some 30 years into my own business I am still amazed that what I learned from my dad still holds true. And the advice is as sound as what you get from business gurus whose books make the New York Times bestseller list. So here are dad’s lessons.

Business Lesson 1: No one can pay you enough money to do a job you don’t love. My dad always said “do what you love and the money will follow”. It does not matter if your passion is clean clothes (as it was for my dad), or media production (my passion), when you love what you do it is not work. And, people who are passionate about what they do excel.

Business Lesson 2: Learn every aspect of your business. If there was a garment that needed attention to get out nasty spots, my dad knew how to get it done. He could press creases into pants that were perfect. He could run the counter and greet every customer by name. He knew the machines and money side of the business. There are many stories about people who have moved from the shop floor to the C-Suite. It is not an accident. People who learn business from the ground up are often the most compassionate and informed leaders.

Business Lesson 3: Treat every person with respect. It did not matter if a customer brought him one suit or a whole closet full of clothes, everyone got special treatment. There were no small customers, just smaller orders. I have learned this lesson first-hand.  By taking a small job no one wanted I gained a large manufacturing client and have a 30-year history of working with them. Pay attention to small customers, they get bigger.

Business Lesson 4: Value loyalty. My dad was fiercely loyal to suppliers who helped him get started in business. They trusted him and extended him credit when some would not. As he became more successful, everyone wanted his business and tried to undercut his long-time suppliers. My dad never even considered making a change to get a discount. Relationships are important. That also holds true for employees and everyone who is important to you in your personal and professional life.

Business Lesson 5: Give back. My father believed very strongly that business has a responsibility to give back to the community long before it was popular. He donated free dry-cleaning to schools and non-profits. He and mom volunteered. They gave of time, talent, and treasure. He was always working and always giving back. He is known for the beautiful birdhouses he designs and builds. You can’t buy one, but he would give you one.

These business lessons sound simple. Do what you love. Know your business inside and out. Be respectful and loyal. Give back.

Thanks for the business lessons, dad!

(Note: Afendoulis Cleaners is still family owned and in the capable hands of my first cousins.)

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Public Speaking, Presentation Skills & Media Training

Every day, business owners makes countless decisions. Some have long-term, significant impact on the business. Others are small ones. It is important to think through decisions. However, you should be aware overthinking decisions can lead to paralysis, missed opportunities, and slow your business to a crawl. So why don’t people choose to make timely decisions?

 

Fear of being wrong

Some business owners I know test out potential decisions on anyone and everyone. They go from person to person and explain a situation in depth. They talk about their plan and play out the scenarios. The truth is, certain people and resources can provide feedback to help you make good decisions. Others simply don’t know your business well enough. As a business owner, you have to be ready to take risks. Do nothing and the competition speeds ahead of you.

 

The need to know everything

For many, it’s important to have every piece of information available and analyze it to death. You simply can’t know it all. The best way to navigate is to understand how much information you need to be comfortable with your decision. This is different for each person. For me, when it comes to small decisions, I am good with 60%, for big ones 80%.

 

Too much collaboration

Large organizations with complex teams are especially susceptible to over-collaborating. It’s great to have diversity of thoughts and ideas, but too much collaboration can delay or sidetrack critical projects. The speed of business demands efficient collaboration. This is actually easier and more convenient with today’s technology. Collaboration tools like Cisco Spark, Skype for Business, and Zoom make it easy to “get in the same room” and move business ahead.

So how do you avoid overthinking decisions? Here is some advice from Stop Wishing. Stop Whining. Start Leading, a book I co-authored with Doreen Bolhuis.

“One approach is to break the decision down into “smaller bites.” Think of it this way, if you want to buy a new house, you don’t just go out and do it. First, you get pre-qualified for a loan so you know how much buying power you have and if you will be able to secure funding. You might research neighborhoods. You would look at the property values, the schools, and location with regard to essential services. Next, you might be looking at the styles of homes, layouts, the number of bedrooms, etc.  You are breaking the home-buying decision down into manageable decisions. This is the same process you use for business decisions.

Timing is important. You must get that right. Once you have done the research, make the best decision you can. It may not be perfect. In fact, it won’t be, because nothing is perfect. If you wait for perfect conditions you will never do anything. You will get stalled.

After you make a big decision, you may experience “buyer’s remorse.”  This is very common especially with large decisions. These are decisions that impact people and the business in a life-changing way. Don’t second guess yourself. It is easy to feel like you should or could have done more.  Unfortunately, the world does not stand still so you must be disciplined and keep moving forward, even if it feels bad emotionally.”

A few final thoughts.

If you are going to lead an organization, decision-making is a critical skill. Start practicing with small ones and work your way up to the big ones. Don’t overthink your decisions or your organization will suffer. If you are looking for a formal process check out the 7 Steps to Effective Decision Making from UMass Dartmouth.

 

Public Speaking, Presentation Skills & Media Training

The business plan has been the “must” for every would-be entrepreneur. When I first started out, I read all the books about how to create the perfect one before I ventured out to get funding. While everyone has their own twist on what to include, there are some typical components. They range from an executive summary, to analyzing the competition, customer profiles, marketing and the like. It took quite a bit of time and research to develop my first plan which was lengthy…you might say it was more like a thesis, but it did help me get funded.

Today it is much different and a lot of start-ups, as well as existing businesses, are rethinking the business plan. Much of this is due to the speed at which business gets done and the constantly changing landscape. There are also differing points of view on the value and need for a business plan. Some businesses have been wildly successful without one. However, having a business plan does have an impact according to a study published in Small Business Economics. The study found “entrepreneurs that take the time to create a plan for their business idea are 152% more likely to start their business.”

New online tools like HubSpot make it easy to create a plan. In fact, some tools boast a completion time of less than ten minutes. I would think making the leap to start or re-position your company should be worth more of your time and reflection.

One expert I think has it right is Ellen Rohr, the author of The Bare Bones Weekend Biz Plan. She has created a simple and very cool six-week process to get a great idea off the ground. Or, there is a weekend biz plan if you are really in a hurry. You don’t need to go online, create a profile, save a password, download templates…you get the idea. All you need is the book and a three-ring binder. Ellen coaches you through the process day by day.

I had the opportunity to work with Ellen recently on a video shoot and her expertise and enthusiasm for business are evident. And, we agree on a key point. Sometimes, we make business more complicated than it needs to be. As a result, it is easy to avoid tasks completely or procrastinate. By breaking down the areas of business and then addressing each in a systematic way you are more likely to get results.

A business plan should be a living document you refresh frequently, not something you create once and file away.  What I like about the binder is you can update and review things without ever having to boot up a device. Don’t get me wrong, I love my technology, but sometimes leafing through papers gives you a whole different perspective than scrolling a large document. Of course, Ellen does have downloadable versions of her work.

Business plans are not just for start-ups. If you have an existing business, or are updating or refreshing, your plan is even more important. And, it won’t be based on guesses (my first plan had a lot of those) but solid information and experience to help you grow and improve.