What do you do when your customer service is this bad?

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I went into a side-walk restaurant/bakery and ordered a coffee early this morning. Before I placed my order and politely asked whether they could make the takeaway coffee quickly or would I have to wait.

The staff member behind the checkout counter called the two coffee makers and called out to them,”Takeaway coffee, please hurry”. The two coffee makers stared at him and me with a look on the faces that said, “Don’t think you going to make us hurry”.

I very politely said to the staff member behind the till that I would rather not have a coffee and thanked him for his trouble.

Straight after this I went into a supermarket that makes fresh bean coffee and behind the cash register were two assistants one of whom politely asked me for my order and quickly set about making my takeaway coffee.

What a difference!

Customer service is something that you experience every day and with every transaction you make buying services. However, how often have you found that customer service is lacking?

If customers can’t motivate employees of retail outlets, how can their own bosses or managers?

Customer service is about having the right attitude. It’s about being willing to assist the customer in a friendly and swift way. A customer isn’t some inconvenience while continuing to chat about the morning or checking social media messages. It’s about customers and serving them that’s all.

Of course, your impolite customers may make extravagant demands and when they are not met they can start to make a fuss. Staff don’t need treatment from customers like this. In fact, some managers and business owners would rather turn away smouldering customers than allow their staff to be treated impolitely.

Instilling the customer service ethic begins with hiring the right people. Training can be helpful. Bringing up customer service in team meetings before the business opens in the morning assists in reinforcing positive behaviour. Linking customer service to performance bonuses helps too.

Whatever business you are planning to open or presently running, customer service needs to be a high on your agenda.

New ideas versus borrowed ideas

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An exspurt was advising potential small business owners not to go for
new ideas but rather copy something already existing on the market. There’s nothing wrong with this but it’s not a nuanced argument.

Where the exspurt is correct is that new ideas, completely new ideas, usually emanate from research and development. If you think of the humble Post-It note here was a product that was brand-new. Why was it brand-new? Because the chemical glue was developed in a laboratory that had not been on the market before.

One of the employees at the company decided to stick it on pieces of paper and use it for book marks. The market for those that notes quickly spread. Now this is where copycat incomes in: many other manufacturers started making similar notes, a crib on the existing thing. Low low-cost competitors climbed into the market and have come out with cheap and lookalikes. Try these imitation products and you’ll see a sticky substance on your prized gloss book where your bookmark sticks.

Take a simple service like an Italian restaurant. There are many lookalike Italian restaurants but each is slightly different. Some are run by Italian owners. Others use authentic Italian-sourced ingredients. Italian food has been franchise and now you can’t step out onto the pavement without bumping into an Italian pizza franchise. Italian is spun-off in various ways but the basic idea of Italian cuisine remains.

What would you say to a prospective small business owner, someone with an existing business, who wants to start something new?

And here comes the conventional wisdom. You probably say, take a look at the marketplace and see what is doing well or could do well in the future. Find something different and provide this to potential customers.

The difference could be, for example, in the material used. Let’s take a simple household items that you will find in any kitchen – a spatula. Traditionally spatulas come in metal such as stainless steel. But now they are available in hard plastic, wood and even compressed bamboo. Material substitution can create a new market based on an existing product.

The real challenge today is not so much in coming up with a totally new product offering, something that is better than what already exists on the market. Nowadays replication of business ideas is rapid, especially with businesses on the Internet. The real differentiation is about the customer experience. It would be worthwhile to see how you can provide better value, higher service levels and inject some fun or theatre in your offering that makes it exciting to buy from you.

Does entertainment have a role to play in your business?

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I remember when I was a boy a new Checkers supermarket opened in Fish Hoek. Clowns dressed in chequered clothing, looking tall to me as a boy, were doing tricks and handing out sweets. There was a carnival atmosphere on the main road outside Checkers store. So strong was that impression that I can still remember it clearly.

Then later I remember the yo-yo craze promoted by a soft drinks company. I loved playing wiht yo-yo’s … trying to master the most difficult of the tricks; loop the loop, rock the baby and walk the dog. The soft drinks company even brought out top yo-yo champions to show us how do the tricks.

Just think about the entertainment industry for a moment. Over the weekend we were chatting about how big entertainers like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Spielberg were. They created billions of dollars in entertainment. Think about not only modern pop opera shows and block-buster movies but popular music, the performing arts, entertaining speakers, television, videos, art galleries and festivals, casinos and Saturday morning markets.

People love being entertained.

Especially in these difficult times when people face grim prospects, stressed out from the physical and mental effort, incomes eroded by inflation and public officials. Any form of escape is welcome.

But how many businesses take advantage of attainment. Yes, there are the occasional in-store promotions, price specials and the usual seasonal sales.

Can you think of any businesses that makes entertainment a part of their DNA?

Small business that inject fun into the sales process?

Apart from the obvious businesses that are in entertainment such as Disneyland, think of the travel industry, supermarkets and restaurants. In restaurants that care about their customers you can experience a palpable feel of entertainment when you enter their door. Someone is there to greet you and with a smile on their face and take you to a table and make you feel special.

How can you inject that fun experience into your sales and ordering processes and after sales service?

Think about the many businesses who lack a sense of fun or entertainment. Banks are obvious targets and even hotels. Then there are the high-tech companies that provide employees with playrooms and things like that but take a look at the grim-faced workers and you get another story. Consider of some of the online businesses that claim excellent customer service but are dreary and boring to do business with.

What about all that corporate communication with so-called entertaining tweets and Facebook posts and company videos with stiff-necked bosses rolling out corporate double-speak and corporate evangelism.

A friend of my daughter came to visit on Friday and she had attended a conference on contract law. The only interesting thing she was excited about was the two guest speakers, one a former radio presenter and the another a passionate sustainability practitioner.

Look, I know it’s not something easy to introduce into a moribund, business where people and employees are walking around like stiffs. Yet it is possible if you try think of ways to entertain your customer or potential customer.

Today, competitive products are so close to each other in terms of quality and performance that what stands out is customer experience. People want to buy from people who make them feel good about themselves, treat them well and entertain them in a way that brightens their lives.

Don’t lose touch with what matters most

Watercolour by Chesney Bradshaw

I remember walking around and exploring the sandbanks at the mouth of the Breede River on a hot sunny afternoon.

The water in the river a brownish coffee colour. 

Sky above pale blue.

The surf out on the sandbars breaking white in the greenish blue water.

The tide turned and in rushed the greenish blue water starting to make its way up the river.

In those days the seawater went way up the river about 9 km on the spring tide.

Sitting in the sun on a sand dune looking across the bay at the majestic point of Cape Infanta jutting out into the ocean. 

The warmth on my body from the sun and against my face and arms the fresh south-easter blowing on shore from the sea.

Happy memories. Good times.

Remembering the joy that simple things in nature can bring. 

It’s a privilege to have that kind of freedom as a child. To be happy and enjoy nature and the sea. No one can take that away from you.

In today’s business environment, whether you operate a small business or something larger, how often do you get a chance to get away from it all? Do you go to the same holiday spot and do the same things? Have you lost touch with your sense of delight about the world around you?

Seeing and experiencing new places invigorates. It refreshes. Inevitably whatever you are doing now will eventually fade away. What memories, what stories will you have to treasure? If you can get away from it all and go someplace that springs from a deep longing it will no doubt re-kindle an appreciation for the small, true things in life.

It was a privilege for me to have parents and grandparents who enjoyed living by the sea. In that wide river, so aptly named the Breede River, I experienced such happy times. I treasure those experiences and must go back to experience the river anew. 

It’s a truism, but that’s why it is so true that never let things that matter least be at the mercy of the things that matter most.

Could you beat this level of service?

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A little while back I ordered a product online and when I receive the parcel the product was missing. I’m not sure what happened – perhaps the company forgot to pack it or it was lost or stolen in transit. I was thoroughly disappointed, especially because I had to wait about 10 days for it to arrive from the United States.

I quickly got into action and sent a message via the online retailer’s customer help facility. The next day I received an empathetic email telling me that the retailer was sorry for the missing item and would give me a full refund. If I wanted to re-order the item, they would waive the shipping costs. Three days later I received the refund.

While reading their email, I saw a notice at the bottom of the email that read, “Your feedback is helping us build Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company”. 

No wonder they had acted swiftly and were sympathetic have provided me with a refund. 

Look, we all know that there are going to be slipups. But the real mark of superior customer service is how to deal with customer issues or problems. 

Another example of excellent customer service I came across recently was when a garden specialist working for a garden nursery retailer received a customer complaint in the early evening. The customer said that the garden nursery retailer had given her advice to use a certain tree feller and the trees surrounding the customer’s property had been hacked. The customer was in tears because the job was so badly botched.

The garden specialist first sympathetically listened to the customer’s complaint and said that she would come out to the property the next day. Afterwards, when the cell phone was switched off, the garden specialist said she suspected the tree feller wasn’t their recommendation but must’ve been another company used by the property management team at the complex. 

The next day the garden specialist went out to the property, examined the trees with the customer and advised a solution to lessen the impact of the damage done by the felling company. Later that day the customer sent a text message saying that she was terribly sorry for having accused the garden nursery retailer of recommending the tree felling company. Another supplier had done the tree felling.

We hear a lot about bad customer service but there are some companies that are striving to please customers, especially in the online retailing world. 

Customer service is important for any business, especially small businesses, but often while excellent customer service is preached, in practice many businesses’ customer service sucks. 

In this disruptive retailing environment with mega online retailers such as Amazon, the old, traditional, couldn’t-care-less way of doing business will become harder to justify when online relations are merely a quick of a few buttons away, offering superior customer service. 

How will you improve customer service in this new environment? Many businesses have got away with it for far too long and if they continue doing so that might still be around but far less successful than they could be.

Where do you find good information?

We visited this treasure trove recently despite the run down location in central Johannesburg.

I remember when I was young and starting out and needed information that I wasn’t getting from school, family or friends. I had to go dig in the library and ask the librarian for information. Then I stumbled across a tiny bookshop in Fish Hoek where I was able to obtain the information I required at the time. The little bookshop was run by an elderly English gentleman who always wore tweed jacket. He would peer behind his big glasses and try  to handle any queries I had about books and information.

When I was down there earlier in the year, I saw the same book shop is still running but under a new owner. The owners of the bookshop have changed over the years and with jobs being scarce it is now a sought-after business

It’s amazing isn’t it, that before the elderly gentleman started the bookshop in the early 70s, there was no bookshop there. It has remained for over 40 years.

Where do you find information today? Well don’t laugh at bookshops. You might think they’ve gone. But secondhand bookshop are still around. Although in this economy, many of them have gone to the wall, unfortunately.

The small second-hand bookshop can be a treasure trove of information not about the books that are being stocked but the type of interests that people have. You can gain understanding into potential customers in your community, albeit certain sections of the community, by looking at what sort of entertainment they enjoy, what their interests are, what their hobbies are and, as you know, what sort of health and mind books they are reading. The reading habits of your community leave clues about other purchasing decisions they make.

Yet the big source of information these days is the Internet. But you need to watch out because not all the information there is accurate and believable. If you know what you’re looking for and cross reference information, then it is the most valuable source of information today.

If you want really accurate information on a specialised topic, you will need to dig a bit deeper. The best information is often found in books where authors have much experience on the topic. Some of them are good teachers and can relay that information in a useful and sometimes even entertaining way.

But when it comes to business books or books on small businesses, you need to watch out. Make sure you read the biography of the author so that you can see for yourself whether he or she has a proven track record in the field in which he or she is writing about.

The problem is that information and data quickly goes out of date in today’s turbulent, rapidly changing business environment. Some specialists are up-to-date in their field and are often the best source of information. But compared to book prices, if you approach them in person they come at high rates.

If you want information on generating ideas for a new business or existing business, then you may want to take a look at “Breakthrough Ideas”, written by an author who has practiced in the field and has experienced both failures and successes and although the author has attained formal degrees, his main degree has been obtained through the University of Life, the University of Hard Knocks and the University of Screw U where he was tutored by many skilled professors.

Small business resilience

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If you go back to the first blog posts on the ideaaccelerator.co.za website you will recall that we started warning about strange things happening in the economy way back then — nine years ago. 

The message was to knuckle down, protect your cash flow, shore up your cash to see you through troubled times and to come up with new ideas to attract customers and generate revenue. 

But in recent times things have taken a turn for the worse.

It’s not sufficient to talk about cash flow, the mantra of the business gurus and exspurts, and operational efficiencies. Shaving off pennies while Rome burns isn’t strategic planning.

Now with the economy at its knees and things expected to get worse, small business people are required to pull the Ace out from their sleeve.

Business continuity planning becomes important in times of social unrest and upheaval.

It’s no place here to discuss it, but let’s just say that each action has a reaction and it would be prudent to prepare for an environment that requires much higher levels of security.

Our scenario planning anticipates a situation where small businesses may need to pay an additional cost for doing business.

It’s a common theme that offshore, if you can get it, is an important medium-to long-term strategy. The more business you can do offshore, the more you can manage inevitable risk. 

Stepping out of your business to reflect on these things and see where you are going is critical. Your market may be falling away underneath your feet without you being aware of it. Small business owners and entrepreneurs need to understand the risk that faces them in a turbulent environment. 

Fortunately there are ways of reducing the numerous business risks facing small business owners and entrepreneurs. 

Take a look at ideaaccelerator.co.za which explores these topics and get in touch with us to start an uncomfortable but courageous conversation about risk planning and management. 

Beware false and inaccurate information

A lot of information hits us daily. Information from family, friends, news and social media. How much of this information is accurate, misleading and even false?

People use information to achieve their objectives or goals. They want something and they will use information selectively to obtain it. Think of all the sales messages you receive daily with promises about quality and service.

Then there is propaganda, which attacks, is insulting and deliberately hides the truth or even fabricates it. With no little being done and so much being taken away it’s no wonder the progandists spew out hate to cover themselves and claim progress.

Views are expressed by so-called exspurts, market commentators, economists, company representatives, self promoters and sympathy seekers.

How do you sift through all this information overload and decide what is accurate, what is objective and what is solid to base your decisions on? For small business owners and entrepreneurs it’s pretty crucial to have accurate, up-to-date information. Your survival can depend on it.

Just think how difficult it is to estimate customer demand. What about people pushing hyped up technology trends, deliberately trying to say that you are falling behind.

The best information to obtain is first-hand either through observation or making your own enquiries. Some people make jokes about information you are obtain from Internet but there is good information out there if you are careful to identify the source and perform a basic believability test.

Small business owners and entrepreneurs require information about customers, market trends, technology, new methods of operating, new strategies, laws and regulations, ways to save costs, and marketing strategies.

Do your own homework. Cross reference information. Look for trends. Talk directly to exspurts, preferably people with experience and where possible businesses similar to yours.

It’s hard to prevent yourself from being sucked in by others peddling half-backed truths, misleading and inaccurate facts and slanted, biased information. But if you start from the premise that all information is suspect, you can minimise risk to yourself.

Always begin with the question to yourself, “what’s in it for them?”. View facts and figures in context. A little bit of accurate thinking and caution will help you to avoid being taken for a sucker and making wrong decisions based on inaccurate and false information.

How entrepreneurs see things differently

I went for a walk near the Braamfontein Spruit with my family from New Zealand and my nephew Daniel, 11 years old, spotted a clump of bamboo, removed one of the bamboo stalks and brought it home with us.

“What are you going to make with that?” I asked.

“I’m going to make a spear,” he said.

What interested me was what a child can see in a clump of bamboo. Whilst most people would merely see the bamboo, he saw a spear, a sword, in that clump. The spear gave him hours of fun and enjoyment.

On holiday in the Kruger National Park, we stayed at a private game lodge. I looked around and saw the beautiful surroundings, in bushveld with the backdrop of mountains that were an ochre colour and slightly blue in the morning sunlight. I got to thinking about the original owner who may have looked at this land. He or she could’ve seen it as an abandoned farm, something to sell and move on or an exclusive private game park. International buyers from Russia and Denmark, for instance have snapped up the properties.

Entrepreneurial innovation or creativity is a highly prized resource, a special way of seeing the world around us. I saw a competition recently with a large monetary prize just to come up with new ideas to revive and renew aging and neglected infrastructure. Good luck to the entrants and may creative vision prevail – something sorely needed in this field where climate-resilient infrastructure is critical.

So how do you cultivate this entrepreneurial vision? There are no pat answers. It’s not something you either have or don’t have. It is something that you can develop. But like anything else it requires thinking differently, time and effort and sheer hard work so that it can see the light of day.

As an initial exercise, next time you go out where you haven’t been before, take a look around, focus on one object and let your imagination run. Artists do this all the time. They see potential for artworks in even mundane settings whether it be landscapes, seascapes or crowds of people. What potential do you see in those things you are looking at? Take a step back. Enjoy what you have discovered. Sleep on it. Let your idea expand. If you don’t come up with anything, don’t despair. Try again. You need to start somewhere.

Entrepreneurial vision doesn’t come suddenly out of nowhere. It requires practice and making it into a daily, life-long habit.

Entrepreneurs called back after being chased away

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I recently went with family visiting from New Zealand to the Kruger National Park and had the opportunity – and privilege – to see the park and surrounding attractions.

Most spectacular was the Kruger National Park with its beautiful wild animals and interesting topography.

One can only thank the pioneer conservationists for their foresight so future generations can enjoy this wildlife heritage. Had they not done so, we probably wouldn’t have the privilege of seeing the many animals, birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat.

But what I want to get onto is something interesting I experienced about entrepreneurship during my recent trip.

We visited an historic town – we will leave the name out – and got chatting to the owner of a local business.

We found out that the owner recently started up after the locals encouraged entrepreneurs to come back to the community.

Entrepreneurs running businesses were previously chased away – rather let’s not go into that here – and others tried to start something to attract tourists but were unsuccessful.

The locals changed their tune and have been encouraging entrepreneurs with proven experience to come in and rescue the community.

You see, what locals really want is to make a livelihood. Unsuccessful businesses are not going to create jobs. Other institutions are largely incapable of creating new job productive to the local economy. We saw for ourselves how many jobs the entrepreneur created – all beneficiaries from the local community.

Entrepreneurship is the magic that creates employment.

Take a moment to think of all the many, many people who rely on entrepreneurship throughout the country. for their daily livelihoods.

Everywhere, no matter which community, large or small, you will find entrepreneurship giving people what they need and want. Some people disagree. They have other agendas.

On every level, entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged.

No one here wants to glamorise entrepreneurship because it takes guts, grit and hard work to get something off the ground.

But in the end it’s rewarding not only for the entrepreneur but also for all the beneficiaries in the community.