There’s an old story about an advertising agency getting ready to pitch for the account with British Rail, the company which ran the UK railways before privatisation and which was famous for late-running and cancelled trains, filthy stations and awful food. The agency was a small one as these things go, and knew it would be pitching against some of the bigger firms, and so knew in turn it had to come up with a pitch to really grab the attention of the British rail management. And it came up with a corker.
Here’s what happened. The bosses from British rail turn up at the company’s office, and open the door to a dowdy reception area with tatty chairs, a grease-stained floor and the rancid smell of stale tobacco smoke. The reception desk was unstaffed, and there was no way of calling anyone.
So the bosses hung around for a few minutes and eventually some ill-dressed woman sloped in, a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth and sat down behind the reception desk without acknowledging them. One of the British Rail bigwigs told her they had an appointment with the creative team to see a pitch, but after the woman called upstairs she told them she couldn’t find any information, and thought perhaps the meeting had been cancelled, though they were welcome to wait. And wait they did for twenty minutes, sitting on the ragged seats in the smell of old smoke, until at last the head man said he’d had enough, and told the receptionist the party was leaving.
And leave they did, only to suddenly find their way blocked by a man who appeared from a side door, introduced himself as one of the account executives at the agency and said: “Apologies for the terrible service, but what you’ve just experienced is the average person’s image of travelling on British Rail.” The agency got the deal, or so the story goes, though whether it managed to change the reality of travelling by BR, or even convince people things would get better, I don’t know.
Still, the story highlights a truth, in that so many business-owners fail to notice when part of their business, and especially the customer contact side of it, is so atrocious.
Why? Because often an owner is so close to the business, or spends so much time dealing with the “big picture”, that he just doesn’t see the small things which give the overall bad impression of the company and can lead to customers leaving in droves.
This shows the importance of getting the small things right, and how the perception of your business is as important as the reality. In the case of British Rail, even if the trains had run on time (the main role of a train provider), the image of general sloppiness probably put many people off travelling with them.
And so it is with any business, including yours.
When a customer receives a bad impression, it doesn’t just affect how they feel right there and then. It affects how they feel about the service they receive after that.
First impressions do count — and a general feeling of sloppiness at the outset can taint the whole experience from then on. So a slightly dirty table or greasy cutlery in a restaurant can cause a diner to perceive the food as below-par, even if it’s actually OK.
Worn seats in a taxi cab can make a passenger feel unsafe, even though the car is perfectly roadworthy. And so on.
And that’s only the start of it. For one thing, when a customer decides not to use your business again you miss the chance of adding the chunk of revenue a long-term regular customer provides. But an even bigger problem is that people love to spread bad news — and bad impressions. So when a customer receives a bad impression of your business there’s a good chance they’ll go right out and tell their friends and acquaintances about it, and that means you lose prospective customers before they even give you a chance. Not the ideal situation, I think you’ll agree.
And the tragedy isn’t that these things are difficult to fix. They’re just difficult to see, because they become part of the background, destroying customers’ experiences, and with it the business, sometimes with fatal results. Just take a leaf out of good old British Rail’s book, and take a look at that anecdote about their perception problem:
- Cleanliness. This is crucial aspect for any business where customers actually visit the premises, and it’s especially important in the hospitality industries such as hotels, restaurants and bars. Dirty floors, greasy tables, washrooms that are anything short of glisteningly clean… all of them put customers in a critical mood and are likely — slowly but surely — to be destroying your business. The importance of cleanliness and how it affects perception was recognised by Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. It was one of the planks he built the business on, and if that isn’t enough to highlight how important it is, I don’t know what is.
- Slow customer service. This is one thing that really drives a lot of people up the wall with frustration. Nobody likes to wait for service, and it gives a perception you really don’t care about your customers at all. If you run a business where people are served face-to-face, make sure they get attended to as quickly as possible.
And if your contact is mainly through phone or email, make sure the phone gets picked up quickly and the emails get a rapid reply.
- Slow fixing of problems. As bad as — or maybe even worse than — slow customer service is taking forever to fix problems. You’ve taken money from someone, and now they want you to fix something that’s wrong. And when you take a long time to do it, you turn someone from a customer who could be an advocate to someone who will spread the word about your terrible customer service far and wide and cost you a lot of business.
- Punctuality. You know how it is. You make an appointment for someone to deliver something, or come round to your place to make an estimate, and they turn up two hours late with a shrug of the shoulders. And it sets off alarm bells immediately, because if a company can’t be bothered to turn up on time it shows a shoddy attitude to their work in general.
The four points above are just a starter — I’m sure you can find many more — but they’re some of the most important. If you look at the list you’ll notice many businesses suffer from these problems, and that’s great news for you, because telling your customers you won’t do them — and then actually keeping your promise — will put you well-ahead of the competition and make sure your customers love you. And that means they’re more likely to send more business your way, from themselves and from their friends and associates through referrals.
CHRIS CARDELL’S KEY TAKEAWAYS
Remember, it’s often the little things that make a difference, and if you look after them you’ll find the big stuff — the core of your business — will reap the rewards in better customer satisfaction and more profits.
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