Lucky's Blog

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Customer Always Wins

Last week I received another overwhelming response to my article “Educating The Customer”. I thank everyone for their support and comments. It seems that many of the comments I have received relating to the customer being right, come down to negotiations. One person, who actually commented on the blog itself (which is greatly appreciated and helps promote discussions), explained that they were “A non-confrontational person” and had trouble when it came to educating the customer. While the example I gave in my story was based more on a safe and professional installation, those comments conflated with many other comments from my previous article “Who’s Your Customer”. So I thought I would share this story with everyone. This is an actual event, from when I worked on a hospital remodel project.

I was the project manager on an emergency room expansion project to an existing, well established, hospital in Florida. We had been working on this project for approximately six months and the overall project had been broken down into twelve different phases. We were just starting the third phase which was building out an old storage room into a new pharmacy.

Prior to starting this phase the GC had a pre-construction meeting with all the sub-contractors to discuss the plan. I had put together our electrical plan and our schedule for the execution of this phase and was well prepared for the meeting. The meeting went off without a hitch. Everyone seemed to be on the same page, and it looked as though this phase would run as smoothly as the previous phases.

The following Monday the GC’s superintendant came up to me and asked why we hadn’t started work in the storage area yet? Confused, I looked at him and stated, that I thought we had just discussed this at the meeting last week, and they were supposed to start the demo today. The superintendant said, “Yes, exactly, why aren’t you in there removing the fixtures?”

I tried to explain to the superintendant that the demo work was not in our contract and that all we were supposed to do was disconnect the power to the storage room for the demo crew. The super flipped his lid and started screaming at me and calling me some less than flattering names. Rather than become emotional and take it personally I sat there and listened to him, and allowed him to vent his frustration. I then told him, I understood his frustration and maybe I was wrong. I invited him back to my office trailer to check, and if indeed it was in my contract, I would get people in there immediately to start removing the fixtures.

I will not bother to go into the details of the contract but we were at a standstill. After looking over the contract the super was convinced that it was my responsibility, and I was convinced that it was not. At this point the super and I went to discuss this with the Project Manager for the GC. The Project Manager, again not letting emotion get involved, sided with me on the fact the there was a note on the electrical plans that said: “all demos by others”. The problem was that there was a note on the demolition plans that said: “fixtures to be demoed by others”. This was clearly a mistake and now we had to get it resolved.

The GC brought in the owner to discuss the situation and the owner was very adamant that they were not going to pay any money out for something that was in the contract, regardless of how unclear. They believed that it was not an acceptable reason for a change order and that the problem should have been found before this point in the project.

Again, I am not going to get into details but in the end the owner realized that since the architect was hired by the owner, and the architect drew up the plans and wrote the notes, that the liability lies with the owner, and if they wanted to they could go back to the architect for compensation.

Now in most cases this situation would have resulted in a change order, and the only person coming out of the whole process with a positive experience would have been my company. However, as I have said many times, I believe in giving the customer the best possible value.

What no one else knew was that I was also doing a project for a small warehouse facility. This warehouse had minimal lighting installed and the owner was planning on adding shelving and was in need of additional lighting. However, his budget was extremely limited to say the least. Keeping in mind that I am always looking for a win/win situation for my customers, I asked the owner of the warehouse facility if he cared if the lights to be installed where used. The owner quickly replied, that he didn’t care as long as they worked. I asked him to let me check on some things for him, and I would get back to him.

I went back to the hospital and spoke with the GC. I told him that if the owner was willing to let us keep the lights, that I would remove the lighting for free. The GC went to the owner and then the owner and I discussed it. I told the owner that if I could keep the fixtures we would not charge for the demo, assuming I could get the other customer to buy the lights from me. The owner was thrilled and in full agreement.

I went back to the warehouse owner and told him that I had the opportunity for him to buy 400 fixtures at $40 each. I explained that I understood he only needed 275 fixtures, but at $110 each that would cost him $30,250. Some of the used fixtures would not be working or usable, but I promised that we would get 275 working fixtures out of the lot, and for much less than buying new fixtures. He agreed and thanked me for helping him with his tight budget limitations.

In the end the Hospital got what they wanted, the GC was praised for hiring us, the warehouse owner got a great deal, and I walked away with three customers singing my praises all while taking a little coin home in my company’s pocket. If I had gotten caught up in the battle, and not stopped and listened to what the objections were, then I would never have come up with this solution.

When faced with a customer who is unhappy, stop! Listen, and try to find out how you can make everyone a winning proposal. It is not a battle, it is not an argument, and it’s not even a confrontation. What it is, is an opportunity for you to help your customer, and earn a reputation.

I have told this story to illustrate that you cannot get caught up in who wins and who loses. The fact is that if your customer doesn’t win every time, then I promise you, you are the one who has lost.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Have We Lost The Ability To Communicate?

Today’s article is about communication. It is amazing to me that in today’s high tech environment we still cannot find a way to communicate better with our teams and customers. Just about every day I hear the statement “well I didn’t know about that”. With the abilities to call, email, text, tweet, blog, etc… how is it still possible that so much communication gets lost? Have you ever wondered how offices ever got anything communicated before this Technological Age? Easy, they actually spoke to one another! I know this is a strange concept, but believe it or not, when somebody had something to say, they got up out of their chair, walked down the hall and said, “Hey Joe….” When you are face to face a funny thing happens, you also talk about things outside of the subject you came in to talk about. Maybe it is personal, or maybe it is just, “did you hear about….?” Either way, it causes people to communicate.

I can’t count how many times I have asked one of my team members over recent years, “Did you talk to them?” The response is usually, “I sent them an email but they haven’t responded.” Why is it so hard in today’s world to pick up the phone or walk down the hall? When I have asked this question to clients and team members alike I usually get a response that is similar to, “in an email you have time to choose your words and think about how you want to answer the question.” It’s funny, in the times before technology you had to be quick on your feet. A defined skill set that demonstrated how you were able to handle the pressure and being put on the spot. It is my opinion that all this new technology is destroying those skills that once set apart the average individuals from the superstars. While email has its place, there will never be a replacement for personal contact.

One problem that seems to happen a lot when emailing is that what you put into writing is taken the wrong way. It is easy to mistake a statement as condescending or sarcastic, when in reality it was never meant that way. When someone is reading an email they do not have the luxury of hearing the inflection of your voice, or seeing the smile on your face, so something that may have been meant as a joke could be completely offensive. It is also easy to lose that personal relationship when emailing. Emails tend to be short, direct, and to the point. Rarely does someone take the time to ask how someone is doing, or how did things work out with the problem they last discussed. This is a personal touch that many people base their buying decision on. There are also issues with grammar. Most people count solely on spell check and don’t bother to reread the email before hitting send. This can also cause problems and misunderstandings, not to mention make it look like you have poor writing skills.

Texting is a whole different topic. In the world of texting it is all about acronyms. When you consider spell check there are hundreds of examples of inappropriate texts that have gone out due to spell check. (Just Google “texting errors” and you are in for hours of humorous reading.) Once again, texting is usually very direct and people don’t take the time to make things personal.

While many of these issues I have spoken about illustrate problems with emails and texting, one of the biggest problems comes when there is a conflict. In the office community people tend to be very brave and confrontational through written communication. However, should they actually have to pick up the phone, or be face to face, they are often much more cooperative in finding a quick resolution to a situation. Also most of the time, these argumentative emails will start to build a large amount of CC’s with every reply. When it is all said and done there has been multiple people brought into a simple conflict that could have been settled with a two minute phone call between two people.

The most valid point I have heard from people on why they prefer to use emails and texting is for documentation. When you use emails and texting as a form of communication you have written record of what was said, and who said what, throughout the conversation. While this is true, you can also accomplish the same thing by picking up the phone, having that conversation, and then sending an email or text recapping what was discussed and the details of what was agreed upon during the phone call. That way you still have the personal touch, avoid any misunderstandings, and have documented the whole conversation in writing.

Another issue I have is that we are becoming too dependent on these devices. Just the other day a good friend of mine lost his cell phone and was unable to call his girlfriend to come get him. He had to call me because he knew my number by heart from years of friendship and before our new phones were a staple in everyday life. He actually didn’t know his girlfriend’s number of several years, since all he had to do was look her name up in the phone and press send. How many of us would be in that same situation with our business contacts should we lose our phone?

However, all the other points combined do not add up to the biggest problem with today’s technology. It is the safety factor! We all know about the lady who walked into a fountain because she was too busy reading her email and texting, while funny to watch on Youtube, it is sad that we have become so distracted that we are putting ourselves and others in danger. All of us have also experienced the person swerving all over the road trying to text and read emails, or talk on the phone while driving. It’s hard to imagine a time when people could just wait until they got home to make a phone call. But In today’s world we are all at risk because somebody’s texts, emails, or phone calls are more important than our safety.

In closing, I think that technology is a great thing. In fact I am an ‘early adopter’. I always have to have the newest gadget that comes out. However, I don’t want dependence on these gadgets to do my job and live my life, to cost me my life. While I continue to watch the ways of communication grow, I can’t help but notice that everyone’s heads are down reading or typing on their phones or they have headphones in their ears everywhere I go, but yet little is being said. It is imperative that while technology continues to give us tools to be more efficient, that we don’t lose the one skill that has allowed us to invent the technology in the first place, communication! So do us all a favor and hang up the phone and drive, and when the opportunity comes to have dialogue between a team member or customer, once and while, just pick up the phone, or walk down the hall, and say hello. You might be surprised at the improved communication that will follow.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Process Or Purpose?

In previous articles I have mentioned how important process is to hold together a vision and a brand message. However, I wanted to make a point that sometimes, there can be too much process implemented, which can have an adverse effect on your ability to serve your customers. I use the word serve your customers for a reason. We must always remember that our primary function is to serve our customers. If that message gets lost then it is a downhill ride to the unemployment line.

In today’s troubling economic environment it is easy to get lost in implementing processes to help with daily functions, such as cost captures, timekeeping, collections, and other parts of our business that effect the bottom line. However, the question must be asked before implementing any new process, is the cost of this process outweighed by the benefit? I have seen too many examples over the years of processes that have been put into place with little to no benefit to the whole organization. To implement a new process and capture information that has little to no value, is really just inflating your overhead. What I mean by that is you must remember that for every process that you implement, you will need the following support to ensure you are capturing the proper data. First, you will have materials, additional hours, and indirect unseen costs (office space, electric, coffee, cleaning services, etc…) to document this new process and enter the information required. Second, you will need space to collect all the new information and documentation. Third, someone will need to analyze this information and put it together in some kind of format that shows the gain/loss/target, etc...  Finally, you will need to review this information with your team and figure out how to achieve the goals and/or target you want to meet. All of this costs time and money!

Now don’t, get me wrong…processes will help you evaluate, adjust, and implement change. The metrics you receive in return may help your team grow and improve, but will the results be worth the price tag? Also, will it interfere with your primary function of serving the customer? I have seen several cases where too much process gets in the way of a company’s purpose to serve the customer.

So, after costs vs. benefit, the second thing you need to evaluate is that your processes won’t get in the way of serving your customer. I have always told my team members that a service group must operate at the speed of light. In order to set ourselves apart from the competition we have to be quicker, safer, and smarter. We have to be able to respond and resolve our customer’s problems in a more efficient way than our competitors, and we have to make it as simple as possible for them find and use our services. With that said, any process that you want to set in place needs to stay invisible to the customer. You cannot afford to have any processes slow down your ability to respond to your customers needs.

In the end it is all about serving the customer. You have to make your customer feel special. They should feel like they are your only customer. Once more, you should make it easier for them to do business with your company than any other company. That is a competitive edge that will win market share every time. It’s all about added value. While processes are nice and can help your structure, you don’t want to bog down your operation with red tape. If you are in the service industry you have to be able to move fast, respond quickly, and jump into action when your customers need you. If you have processes that impede your ability to respond quickly, then you may need to reevaluate those processes and find a better way that will not affect the customer. You must never lose sight that we exist to serve our customers and without them, we have no purpose!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Unified Vision

This article is dedicated to my good friend John, who asked me specifically to discuss some of the processes I have instituted to help maintain our brand. While I will apologize if this comes across as a promotion, it is not intended as such. I am very proud of my team but I am not using this as a platform to promote our service. I am hoping that everyone will gain insight into how important process is to being successful.
You cannot develop a brand without a unified vision. You must understand what your brand message is and build processes to ensure its successful implementation. A unified vision is the cornerstone of your brand’s foundation and everyone must understand and buy into it. As I have explained in my book, only once everyone knows the main objective, the play or plan that will be executed and their role, do you have any chance to succeed. The more clear and detailed your vision, the better chance you have to build a unified team and the better chance you have at implementing a solid brand message.
As I have stated in multiple articles, my main brand is quality and customer service. While many companies and individuals will promote these same key factors as part of their core principles, this is not a slogan, it’s a way of life for me. I spend my days looking for exceptional examples of quality and customer service, what I can learn from them, and as many of you know, I write about them as well. I also make note of the less than stellar examples and believe me, there is no shortage of examples.
My team is built around a brand message of the highest quality and the ultimate customer experience. I have also instituted many processes to ensure that the message is heard loud and clear.
It starts with the hiring process. When we plan to bring a new person into our team, we have a very extensive interview process that includes multiple tests that will reveal the candidate’s skills as well as their character. We make it a point to have several different people interview the candidate to get multiple opinions and then share our findings. You see when someone becomes part of our team; it is not something that is taken lightly, in fact, less than 5% of candidates actually earn a position on our team.
Once an individual makes it past the interview process, they go through a thorough back-ground check. Once they have passed through all of this up front evaluation and we are still considering them for our team, we put them through orientation. This is a weeklong orientation process where they go through multiple training sessions on safety, skills, specific processes exclusive to our team, customer experience, and quality. Once they have completed this training they are then scheduled to do a three week ride along with one of our senior team members who will train them on all our processes in a hands-on environment. Only once they have completed this training, and the senior team member recommends them for a position with our team, are they able to move on to the next stage. The final stage is a one on one interview with me, where I make it crystal clear what it means to be part of our team. I also cover what my expectations are and have some detailed conversations about what they have learned over the past several weeks. Only once I am convinced that the new candidate is a good fit and will promote our brand message do we bring them aboard to our team.
While this is a very detailed process, if I were to stop there, the brand message would be lost in a month or two. To capitalize on the huge upfront investment of training we have monthly continued training sessions in every office, where all the team members come in and we continue to discuss what we are doing right, and where we can improve. The brand message is constantly being promoted on a daily basis to all of our team members. We are continually coming up with new ideas and better ways to serve our customers.
Once again, if I were to stop there, the message would still end up being lost. We also have implemented a very structured QC program. This includes follow ups with our customers to get valuable feedback on how we are doing and how we can improve, as well as site inspections to verify that the highest possible quality is being supplied on every job every time. As a very wise man once said, “you must inspect what you expect to fortify a congruent culture”.
In closing, this is just a quick snapshot of some of the processes built around my team to ensure our brand message is solid and unwavering. That is probably the most important part. Once you build the process and brand, you can never let it slip. It is easy to cut corners, or skip around some of the process once you have built it, but that is the first slippery step to losing your brand message and becoming another historical failure. I hope this article has been helpful and got your mind churning. I know that it may sound like too much to take on, but just use baby steps. Remember that a journey of a thousand miles starts with that first step. Good Luck and best wishes.

Friday, May 3, 2013

What's In A Name?

What’s in a name? Your brand- and your brand should mean profit! Over the years I have made a point to push for excellence within my team. I know that everybody would like to make this statement, but few really implement a structure that will hold up to the test of time. In previous Blogs I have touched on the difference between stores that truly put the customer first and those that put the price first. One thing I can say without exception is that if your sole focus is to be the lowest price, you will never build a brand name for quality.
I am not knocking anyone that focuses on being the cheapest option; in fact that is their brand. There is a place for these products and services. However, it is a blood-bath market place to compete in, and not for the faint of heart. I have spent my career building a brand based on quality that will carry on for years after I have dropped out of the race.
So why do I focus on a brand of quality? As I said before, profit! People are willing to pay for quality and there is much less competition offering true quality service. If customers were not willing to pay for quality, places like Nordstrom’s and Best Buy would not have any customers. People know when they go to these places they will be treated with great customer service and assisted by knowledgeable staff.
Once more, think about cameras, clothing, watches, etc… If people only cared about price then Nikon, Halston, and Rolex would have no sales. Why would people be willing to pay more? because of the brand. Consumers know that if they buy a Rolex they are getting the best made watch available. Yes it costs much more than an average watch, a lot more! But it also costs a lot more to produce. However, consumers who appreciate real craftsmanship and quality are willing to pay the extra money.
I use this example in my training to get across the point that we want to be the company that everyone else aspires to emulate. We want to be known for true craftsmanship and quality. This starts with an extremely strong process, training, and a continued improvement plan. We are constantly setting the bar higher and higher. We are never complacent and always finding new ways to offer better value to our customers. That is what it is all about, value! You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building a brand, but if there is no real value, you will not last long.
So building a brand means a complete dedication from yourself and your team, it requires total ‘buy in’ at every level. You need to take the time to understand your market, know where the gaps are and build your brand to fill those gaps. It may have nothing to do with quality (even though that is part of what you strive for) it may be about speed of service, availability, ease of use, etc… Only after a solid market analysis can you determine what branding message would be the most profitable and fit with your core values. Once you have developed what your brand message is, you need to build the structure to support that message and adhere to it. Under no circumstances can you make an exception or waiver off from the original message.  It is easy to get off track when the market changes or the economy shrinks. However, you must stay true to your brand, even under the worst of circumstances.
Don’t get confused with a mission statement. A mission statement is not a brand. Most companies write a mission statement, get everyone to sign it, and then hang it on a wall to collect dust. A mission statement is just that, a statement. While in many cases a mission statement may be a rough outline of what you want your brand message or core principles to be, a brand is a way of life. It is something you live every day. A true brand message has structure and process built around it to ensure that it is being carried out to every customer or product, everyday.
You also need to continually touch on that message with your team. One piece of training at orientation will not support a true brand. Your message has to be spoken multiple times a day, and your team needs to have continued training as well as periodic inspections to ensure that the brand message is always at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
As I said, a true brand is a culture. It is a way of life for you and your team that if followed, will bring not only profits through the door, but it will also help in maintaining a harmonious work environment, because everyone understands what their mission is and how to get it accomplished.
So the answer to the question:  “what’s in a name?”- is simple! It is what people think of when they hear your name. When you hear the name Rolex you think of gold, quality, precision, etc…, when you hear the name McDonalds, most people think of the golden arches or golden french fries, when you hear the name Toyota you think of value and dependability. So what will people think of when they say your name? If you have an answer to that question, you have taken your first step to building your brand!