5 ways to truly ‘delight customers’

Hardly a week goes by without seeing an article or opinion piece about how important it is to ‘delight customers’. And companies like Disney, Apple, Southwest Airlines and Zappos are regularly held up as shining examples of companies that succeed in this area.

But what do people really mean when they say that companies should “delight customers”?

Delight is not easily quantified, although you know it when you see it or experience it. But if you want to delight customers, the good news is that the bar set by most companies is really low. Look at virtually any telco or mobile provider, or many retail outlets to see exactly now not to delight customers.

The following are 5 rules to follow to delight customers, regardless of the industry your are in.

Make the Mundane Memorable

Let’s face it, most of the interactions we have with companies are forgettable. They are simple actions or transactions that we have everyday with virtually every vendor. And that fact means there is opportunity to separate from the crowd.

I’ve written about Disney previously. We visited Disneyland after visiting SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. And while there were many memorable aspects to the visit, one thing that I noticed right away was how effortless the parking was at Disneyland, particularly compared to virtually everywhere else we had gone. I wrote:

First of all, strange as it sounds, I can’t sing enough praises about the parking garage at Disneyland. Yes, you read that right. Disney has made even the mundane task of parking, ruthlessly efficient. Disney staff direct incoming vehicles into successive rows of empty parking spots. Contrast this to other parks, where, like in a shopping mall, you hunt up and down rows for an open spot.

Another example is Southwest Airlines. You may have already seen the video, but if not spend a couple of minutes and listen. And note the passengers’ faces and reaction at the end. Do you think they’ll remember their flight on Southwest and tell others about it?

In both these examples, it doesn’t cost the companies any extra money to do these things, but the impact on customers is clear, the fact that they thought of these little details says to me that they will definitely care about the big things.

Don’t Be a Hypocrite

In the age of social media, the term “authenticity” is used quite often. In fact, search on Google for the words social media authenticity and you get over 5,000,000 hits!

Being “authentic” means being honest with your customers in all aspects of your interactions with them. In my view, the opposite of authenticity is hypocrisy. i.e. saying one thing and doing another.

One of the worst examples of hypocrisy occurs with call centers.  I’ve had this happen many times, perhaps you have too.

When putting me on hold in long queues to speak to “the next available attendant”, a recorded voice comes on regularly telling me “your call is important to us”. Really??? How important could it be? You’ve had me on hold for over an hour. If it was really important, you’d have enough staff so I wouldn’t have to wait an hour to speak to someone and once I do get through it wouldn’t be a poorly trained, unempowered person on the other side of the world who pretends he’s in a call center in Des Moines Iowa.

I could cite other examples like this, such as meaningless guarantees or refund policies, but overall, treat people with honesty and decency and help them get their problems resolved. That’s all that anyone really wants.

Customer Service, not Lip Service

Zappos is famous for their customer service. In fact, excelling at customer service is a fundamental part of their business strategy. They sell what are essentially commodity items — shoes, purses, clothing, jewelry etc. And so they’ve decided to differentiate themselves on their service e.g. free delivery and free returns. But Zappos goes well beyond these simple tactics and takes it’s dedication to service to it’s employees. There are lots of articles that detail Zappos’ culture etc. but one test Zappos has to see how dedicated their new employees are is known as “The Offer”.

Zappos offers all new employees who have finished their mandatory training $2,000 if they’ll quit. i.e. If you don’t think you want to stay at Zappos, here’s an incentive to help you make your decision. A small percentage take the offer, but the vast majority stay. By identifying those people who are less committed to the objectives of the company and accelerating their departure, Zappos ensures that those who stay are truly the ones who will help the company succeed. Simple but incredibly effective.

On the flip side, I wrote about a particularly bad customer service experience at a Canadian retailer — Future Shop — here. To make a long story short, all I wanted to do was exchange a defective clothes washer that had been delivered to me. I spoke to about a dozen “customer service” people who consistently failed at their job. During the ordeal, which eventually did get resolved, I came to the following conclusions about Future  Shop staff.

  • They openly and consistently lie to customers
  • They don’t know what the word “Service” means
  • They are trained to show empathy over the phone but have a complete disregard for customer issues
  • Beyond empathy training, they are not trained to read notes in a file and have no understanding of internal FutureShop processes

Comments on the blog from readers indicated I was not alone in my experience. Will I buy anything from Future Shop again? Unlikely.

And just to reinforce these points, I did 2 Twitter searches as I was writing the post. One for  the words future shop service, and one for zappos service. These are the most recent 5 Tweets each, completely unedited. Click on each to enlarge and read.  Case closed.

Kill the lawyers fine print

I don’t know about you, but I hate fine print. Yes, we live in a litigious society, but the only thing worse than letting accountants run a company is letting lawyers run it. But all fine print doesn’t come from lawyers. A lot of it comes from Marketing people or Product Managers.

Here’s a simple example. I got a coupon for a “Buy 1 get 1 free” admission to a movie at my local movie theater. There was a lot of fine print on the back, and I hate to admit, that my eyes have reached a point where I can’t read it without my reading glasses so I didn’t read through it. But, I decided to take 2 of my kids to see  Spy Kids one weekend.

We got to the theater, only to find out that the coupon wasn’t valid on Fridays or Saturdays. Darn. Should have read the fine print. OK, I said to my kids, let’s come back tomorrow, no harm. We returned on Sunday to buy our tickets – 1 adult, 2 children.

The theater employee informed me that the coupon was only good for “1 free General Admission ticket with the purchase of 1 other General Admission ticket.” You see, “General Admission” specifically means “Adult” ticket. i.e. she was saying I had to pay for an adult ticket for my child if I wanted to use the coupon. We argued a bit and worked it out, but my question is why? Why would that be a stipulation? Why does it matter that the ticket be an adult ticket? And then to use terminology like “General Admission” that is clearly misleading.

Needless to say, even though it was a small extra amount, I wasn’t too happy about the hassle of using a simple coupon at the movie theater. A pox on you and your lawyers Cineplex Odeon.

Kill the fine print, put the lawyers in the back office where they belong and make it easy for your customers to actually purchase and enjoy your product or service.

Don’t let bad judgement multiply

No matter what business you are in, problems occur that need to be addressed.  And if the problem is the fault of some of your employees, don’t compound their bad judgement with more bad judgement from those whose job is to rectify the situation. It can come back to haunt you in ways you never expected.

You’ve probably heard of the “United Breaks Guitars” incident. In short, a musician (Dave Carroll) checked his guitar as luggage on a United flight. He claims he (and other passengers) saw it being mishandled and dropped by baggage loaders. He alerted staff on the plane who ignored his words. When he picked up his guitar at his final destination, it was broken. United Airlines stonewalled him for months and offered no settlement. Then Dave, being the musician that he was, put out his story to the public via the following YouTube video. 10 Million views and counting!

It was a PR disaster for United to say the least. How simple would it have been for the flight attendants to listen to the passenger, or for United to compensate the passenger for his loss.

Now, some people might say, well, that would only encourage others to make false claims for damaged luggage and where would that leave United? But the fact is that the vast, vast, vast majority of people have no intention or reason to do even attempt this. Don’t create policies and rule based on exceptions and apply them to everyone. It not only penalizes all of your honest customers, but it creates a clear culture amongst your employees on how the company views customers.

In summary

None of these suggestions are new or revolutionary. But the companies that excel and are renowned for their customer service take simple rules like these and put them into practice. They instill them into their culture so that their employees know that this is the norm expected of their behaviour.

What’s surprising is that none of these really cost a lot of money to implement. OK, free shipping and returns a la Zappos does cost real money — but having dedicated service employees who are empowered to resolve customer issues doesn’t.

The question is why aren’t more companies doing these things?


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Change Your Words

Try this exercise.

Go to your marketing collateral closet and pull a sales packet of information out. These are the same data/sell sheets, white papers and pretty pictures that you would pull if you are preparing to speak with a potential buyer. (You can leave the pretty folder in the closet – they cost extra money to produce.) If you don’t have a marketing closet, go to your Web site and print out the packet of material.

Now, go through each of the pieces you have pulled together and circle these words (a big red marker works best):

  • if you work with a hardware product: reliable, scalable, “stronger performance”
  • if you work with a software product:  faster, easier, “more productive”

How many occurrences did you find? 5? 10? More? On every sheet or every other? Did you just offer a face palm because you see where this is going?

The sales collateral, marketing artifacts, you use need to speak to the buyer. Words like “reliable, scalable, stronger performance,” and “faster, easier, more productive” speak to your product. They are adjectives that are marketing-speak for how you are trying to illustrate why your product is “different, better, cheaper.” They, however, fail. These words speak to
descriptions of features, not the problems your market is trying to solve.

It’s not the words’ fault

Instead of pulling out a thesaurus and trying again with different words, it would be best if you step back and look at your whole product messaging. Stepping back to look at your messaging begins with stepping back to look at your market’s problems, and that begins with taking a look at your market. Do you really know them? How well do you know them?

If you know your buying market, really know them, you will know what words will matter to them when they read your marketing and sales material. A word like “reliable” don’t resonate the way they used to – in today’s technology world, we all expect and assume that the systems and software we buy are reliable. Software that says “more productive” often has no value to a buyer – doesn’t all business software make you more productive?

Go find out what the real problems are that your buying market is facing every day. Listen to how they describe their problems. Ask why they are seeking new solutions and what are the important elements for them to consider. Listen to their words. Write the specific words down.

When you return to your office, share the notes from the visit with your marketing communication team. Let them know the real words that matter to the buyer. Tell them the emotions you saw, the non-verbal body language that was displayed during your visit. Tell them about the person, and not in generic terms.

Changing the words you use may be subtle difference; but to the buyer, when you understand their problems and speak their language, that may be all the difference you need to gain the trust and credibility – to gain the sale.


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Strategy, Innovation and the Need for Experiments

By Prabhakar Gopalan

Something very fundamental is broken  in large corporations.  The ability and spirit to experiment as a corporate function.  Managers are:

  1. chasing short term results that improve existing operations with traditional strategies (cost cutting, outsourcing, value chain improvement, and the like) and/or
  2. designing large 3 – 5 year plans and multi-billion dollar acquisitions, predicting where the markets would move (supported nicely by multi-horizon pictures supplied by management consultants) and/or
  3. buying their way into successful experiments (=acquiring successful start ups) after the fact, not before – losing the ability to experiment from within.

I have a hypothesis on why experiments have taken a back seat:

The adoption of Henderson and Porter’s work (and by extension traditional management consulting work)  negatively impacted experimentation as a strategy discovery tool.

Bruce Henderson and Michael Porter are two of the most celebrated strategy theorists in recent times.  Much of corporate America, MBA consultants and academicians revolve around the Experience Cuve, Growth Share Matrix and Five Forces work the two published.

Henderson’s study of experience curves effects on business is about how mass production and the experience of it can give advantages to companies in cost for scaling production.  His growth share matrix is a 2×2 matrix that guides how managers should optimize their portfolios – dumping dogs, milking cows and riding stars.

Porter’s 5 Forces is about a static industrial organization theory set in the aftermath of how American companies became dominant industrial organizations – the rest of the world was still catching up after World War II in building a decent factory to compete (See W.E. Deming‘s work for details).  Neither theorist embedded the idea of experimentation or learning in their frameworks.  But consultants and managers at corporations have wielded their frameworks for much of the last 30 years.  The effects are telling.

Don’t agree with my hypothesis?  See Ngram below. Note the drop in the experiment line after 1960.

comparison of experiments vs. strategy before  & after BCG and 5Forces

(click to enlarge)

Of course you are going to argue “correlation is not causation”.  My response to that is – go ask your executive leadership how many experiments they have conducted in the last 12 months at any scale and how much of management theory from Porter and Henderson they have employed during the same period.  I rest my case.

The problem with strategic intent is that you need to know where you are going.  The reality is, you can never be certain of that.  The experimental/learning school of strategy tells you that your strategy is mostly what you see in retrospection.  Not something you can deliberately design and execute, especially for a long period of time.

HP’s roundabout on Compaq and Palm are examples of how experimentation as a corporate function has been disappearing, and a case of failing big bets and fortune telling gone awry. (HP withdrew TouchPad after just 49 days on the market.  See HP’s lack of invention is why WebOS failed on Tom’s Hardware).

Steve Denning writes about how traditional management ideas lead to Why Amazon Can’t Make A Kindle in the USA.  If only managers at corporations  focused on experimentation as a strategy tool, employees would be on the path of continuous innovation across the entire value chain and not within the bounds of core versus non core activities or a set of disaggregated activities tied together by marketing and sales functions.

When was the last time you placed a little bet (i.e. conducted an experiment)?

Prabhakar Gopalan

NOTE: Originally posted on Prabhakar.me

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Open Question: Your worst job-related mistake and lesson learned

Here’s another question for you. We all like to share don’t we? 🙂  So, let’s open up a bit  and share some lessons learned with each other.

We all make mistakes. And honestly, it’s only through mistakes, trial-and-error etc. that we learn lessons we remember. So tell us:

What was your worst job-related mistake and what lesson(s) did you learn?

Please answer in the comments below, or email us (onproductmangement@gmail.com) and we’ll add your answer anonymously.

The mistake could be anything from your interaction with others, to bad decisions you made on the job, or just something that hit you out of the blue, that in retrospect, you probably should have seen coming, or perhaps something else altogether.

I’ll get the  ball rolling.

Mistake: Not understanding and even ignoring the politics, dynamics and reality of a company when taking a PM job

I’ve had a couple of jobs in my past where I was more enamored with the job title and compensation, than with the details of the role, the politics, dynamics and market focus of the company. Neither of those jobs worked out well. 🙁

Product Management can be a transformational role in a company, but the conditions need to be there to allow it to happen. And more so I believe,  than any other group in a company, the success of Product Management is tied into the politics, dynamics and culture of a company.

If the company is focusing on a tiny, stagnant (or possibly non-existent) market, there is nothing you can do to make it successful. Likewise, if there are entrenched political factions in the company (e.g. Sales or Engineering etc.) that have significant influence on the CEO, there is (almost) nothing you can do to be successful, unless you have a mandate and support from the CEO to enable change. And even then, it’s an uphill battle.

Lesson: Titles and compensation are great, but go into companies with your eyes wide open and as clear an understanding as possible of the barriers to your success. If those barriers look daunting, think twice before accepting that position or you may find yourself wanting another job, or unfortunately, looking for another job in the near future. I made that mistake twice before it truly sank in.

So there’s my mistake and lesson. Please share yours.


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The Fine Line Between Strategy and Fantasy

A favourite topic of many entrepreneurs, product managers, marketers and executives is strategy. You hear it all the time. People talking about company strategy, product strategy, marketing strategy, sales strategy etc.

The interesting thing about strategy is that there are so many definitions of it. If  you look in the dictionary,  you’ll see something like this:

Strategy n. a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result

OK…that’s somewhat obtuse to be honest. In essence, it’s says a strategy is a plan or series of plans to achieve a goal.

From a business perspective, the most common description of strategy seems to be tied to Michael Porter’s 5 forces that shape strategy. You can also see a video here of Michael Porter talking about these forces. Here’s another good video talking about competitive strategy.

And here, embedded for your viewing pleasure, is our own Prabhakar Gopalan, who gave an insightful talk about strategy at the recent ProductCamp Austin. (Make sure you watch Part 2 as well or click here for talk details).

So what exactly is Strategy?

My take is that strategy is more than a plan, and more than a set of guiding principles. A strategy is a framework for decisions and actions, that will help guide a company or organization to success.  It’s as much about understanding what you will NOT do (and knowing why), as what you will do. For a strategy to have a good chance to succeed, it has to have 4 essential components:

  1. A clear set of achievable goals/objectives
  2. An understanding of the major obstacles that could prevent you from achieving those goals
  3. The actions needed to overcome those barriers
  4. A means to measure the success of that strategy as time progresses

Before I explain each of these, let me say that if any one of these are missing from the strategy, it can quickly turn into fantasy.

Strategy is about executing within constraints. Those constraints are both internal and external. Internal constraints basically come down to your organization’s ability to execute the plan on time. Do you have the money, the people, the resources etc? If not, then your plan will fail. Similarly, the external constraints come from competitors, the economy, market trends, channel constraints and other factors that are usually beyond your direct control.

The key to a successful strategy is understanding those constraints, and defining the path that will lead you to your goal. And in business, that goal should be sustainable competitive advantage and clear differentiation in the marketplace. This could be by exploiting market trends, attacking competitor weaknesses (or strengths), or heading into new uncharted territory and defining and claiming new market space.

1. Achievable goals and objectives

Everything starts with having clear, ACHIEVABLE goals. I highlight the word achievable because the first mistake that most companies make is to set unattainable targets. These could be related to sales/revenue, market share, time to success or some other major business objective. If the goals are unachievable then the strategy will fail, without question. This is where the fantasy begins with a lot of companies.

2. Understand the obstacles in your path

Assuming the goals are achievable, the next step is to identify where the bumps in the road lie. i.e. the obstacles to success. Conversely, you can also look at what the conditions are for success. i.e. if an obstacle to success is the lack of a 3rd party developer network for your product or platform (in a certain timeframe etc.) , then a condition for success is the existence of that 3rd party developer network (in a certain timeframe etc). How you build it out is a different matter entirely.

You can look at it either way, but you need to ensure that those factors are clearly identified and their dynamics and importance understood. Another part of the fantasy occurs when companies don’t realize the obstacles in their path, or simply choose to ignore the reality of overcoming those obstacles. Most strategies look great when you ignore the challenges you’ll face.

3.  Actions for overcoming the obstacles

Tied closely with #2 above, it’s important to articulate HOW the barriers will be overcome. Some people would view this as a set of tactics, but understanding HOW to overcome barriers (and the required assumptions) is still about understanding the constraints and the conditions for success.  Using the 3rd party developer network example from #2 above, understanding HOW that network will be created is critical. Some key questions to understand would be:

  • What exactly is that developer network? ‘
  • Why is it needed?
  • What does it look like in 6 months, 12 months, 24 months etc?’
  • How will members be recruited?
  • Why would people join the network? Why wouldn’t they?
  • How will members be retained and grown over time?
  • etc.

These kinds of questions are fundamental to bringing a dose of reality to any key objective tied to a strategy.

4. Measuring success along the way

Let’s say you’ve implemented the strategy. How do you know it’s working? Are you on track for success, ahead of plan, behind plan? How do you  measure it, particularly in the face of a dynamic market? Objectives that looked good 6 months ago may be completely irrelevant today because of external issues beyond your control or required changes in assumptions you made.

When defining your strategy, identify a few simple ways to track it’s progress. What are the best (simple) indicators that can be used to track the success of various aspects of your strategy? These will help you identify and address problems quickly, if they arise.

For example, with the 3rd party developer network, simply tracking the number of developers joining the network (and total overall) will tell you roughly how well you are doing against your goals. But tracking their development plans and target dates for releasing applications or products for your platform will give you a much better indication of how successful the network will be.

A real life case study

Now I’m going to pick on HP for a bit, because the recent EOL of the TouchPad and WebOS is a great example of how even the most sophisticated companies can believe a fantasy. Listen to this interview of HP CEO Leo Apotheker, from June 2011 (less than 3 months ago) as he discusses HPs strategy with WSJ’s Walter Mossberg.

As you listen to Apotheker, (key points about WebOS start at about 9:00 & around 24:00 into the video. Also note the answer to the question around 34:30 about lessons learned from RIM’s Playbook experience!!) and given recent actions by HP, ask yourself how much of what Apotheker said was fantasy, and how much was strategy based on an understanding of reality, constraints and ways to overcome obstacles. He spoke about consumers, enterprise, cloud, developers, security, connectivity, WebOS on every PC, on printers, and end-t0-end ecosystem etc.

And finally, here’s a link to an article (posted Aug 19 on ZDNet), where Apotheker and HP CFO Cathy Lesjak describe why they completely changed their strategy just 7 weeks after the launch of the TouchPad. A little more discussion about focus and constraints than the video above.


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