We all have a common set of expectations from certain industries we do business with that we won’t compromise if those expectations aren’t met. We expect to hear a dial tone when we pick up the telephone when no one else is using it. We expect our cars to start in the morning when we get ready to leave for work. It’s implied that a restaurant will prepare our food properly and follow satisfactory sanitary guidelines. If we pay our electric bill on time, we expect the lights to work when we flip the switch. Same goes for the water bill—we expect water when the faucet or shower is “started. " These are expectations set, in part, by the industries providing the service, but they are also engrained in our culture as things to gripe about quickly should there be any form of disruption.
When is the last time you weren’t alarmed by a power outage even if it occurred after a major storm? You likely called the utility company immediately to tell them all the while understanding you probably weren’t the first person calling. If your telephone didn’t have dial tone, you likely sought out a cell phone to track down the utility and phone companies to alert them of the disruptions, right? Your common sense told you that a pole must be down or a set of lines got cut somehow, but you went ahead and called anyway. We all do this even though we understand the companies we’re alerting have a good chance of knowing about the outage anyway.
If you were to think of your company in the same light, what would be some things your customers have come to expect that are deal breakers if you don’t live up to the industry’s established and implied expectations? For my company, a consulting firm, I believe all bets are off if we don’t put the customer’s interests first throughout the relationship. We can come up with a bad idea that definitely won’t please the client, but it may not cost us current and future business if the idea had their best interest at heart.
With that kind of thinking (hopefully) taking place, let’s walk through some things you can consider in making sure your business is meeting and exceeding customer expectations.
Evaluate Your Landscape
Look around at your competitors and determine what areas cannot be compromised within the current competitive landscape. What areas are viewed by customers as implied expectations because of your industry? Which areas can you capitalize to differentiate yourself from your competitors and raise the bar? I’m a big proponent of establishing differentiation in an area your competitors are weak as it pushes them into reactionary mode. Organizations which aren’t capable of adapting quickly are severely threatened when the competition changes the rules of the game, and it ultimately forces them to either spend a lot of money to catch up when this happens or concede defeat by going in a different direction. Wouldn’t you rather be the one creating change versus reacting to it?
Make an Ultimatum to Your Organization
If you’ve figured out what expectations cannot be compromised, take the next step by issuing an ultimatum to your organization. For example, Domino’s changed the pizza delivery game with their “30 minutes or less or it’s free" guarantee when they entered the market. There are no guarantees like that around now thanks to lawsuits and whatnot, but that set an industry expectation that it is realistic to expect a pizza to be delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less. What do most people do if they place a pizza order today and the delivery is estimated to take 45 minutes? They take their business elsewhere so this has become an implied industry expectation that customers are hesitant to let go. By issuing that ultimatum to their franchisees and employees, Dominos sent a message that they were serious about being timely and efficient. Other chains had to follow suit or risk being left out. What are some things in your industry which could be used as ultimatums to your organization in addition to being bar raisers?
Openly Accept Feedback
If you are going to give an ultimatum to your company and the industry it competes, it makes no sense to hide from criticism and feedback. Take the responsibility to welcome feedback of any sort, and respond to it quickly. If someone takes the time to compliment your organization, thank them immediately. That’s all you have to do. If they complain, allow them to express themselves openly, but don’t send them back a canned response. Take the appropriate time to acknowledge the complaint, and outline some definitive actions you intend to take to alleviate the problem. If someone is motivated enough to complain to you, you can bet they are motivated enough to express their displeasure to family, friends, and colleagues.
Be Involved and Accessible
There are a metric ton of blogs and websites out there that are engaging your customers in conversations about everything under the sun. It is highly likely they may have had a conversation or two about your company. Some of it may be kind and some unkind. You’ll never know unless you get involved in the online community and do a little “ego" surfing which means visiting sites like Technorati or BlogPulse to search for your company’s name, your name, products or services you sell, and to find information about your competitors. When you come across conversations and postings that apply to your given situation, jump in, comment, and join the conversation regardless of whether the discussion is flattering or condemning. Don’t hide behind some false identity pretending to be someone unassociated with your company either—fully disclose who you are, what you represent, why you’re joining the conversation and how to contact you if anyone is interested. In other words, be accessible and accountable. One word of caution—if you can’t keep up with this on a regular basis, or you don’t wish to reveal your true identity, it may be best to appoint someone else to tackle this task. Being un-accessible or concealing who you are may be misinterpreted as being aloof or disingenuous which will counter anything positive you may have accomplished by getting involved in the first place. The online community is very adept at figuring things rather quickly out so don’t try to fool them.
If you receive constructive criticism in any form, act quickly to resolve any issues stemming from that criticism. If someone simply writes or phones you to say “your company sucks, " there’s not much you can do with that because it isn’t specific to any problems that person experienced. However if someone takes the time to walk through an unpleasant circumstance inflicted upon them by your company, take that opportunity to right a wrong as much as possible. Mistakes are bound to happen, but preventing those mistakes from happening again and immediately addressing problems that impact others will minimize the damage and may also present an opportunity for an upset customer to become a happy one again.
Every industry has an imaginary “bar" set for it either by an established leader or by the collective efforts of that industry over time. If your company can somehow raise that bar to new heights, you can take over control of the industry. Following the five steps above can help improve your chances of discovering a game changing nuance to accomplishing just that.
Roger Bauer is Founder and CEO of SMB Consulting, Inc. , a leading national small business consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, web design, SEO, sales and marketing, and business analysis. To learn more, point your browser to Business Consulting . To contact a small business consultant today, e-mail email@example.com .