July 2020 - Striven

The Way You Say It: Managing Customer Expectations

A few weeks ago, my local Motor Vehicle Commission reopened. Drivers had been waiting for months to renew registrations and licenses. New, hopeful drivers were looking to get their first licenses, a rite of passage that comes one year later for teens in New Jersey than in many other states. In any case, there were papers to be signed, fees to be paid, documents to be transferred.
When the MVC was finally cleared to re-open safely, they swung their doors to angry customers in lines that wrapped around the entire building. Occasionally several times over.

Who could have predicted such chaos? Such anger? Such an apt visual representation of the frustration and bureaucracy the MVC has been trying to shrug off for years? Who knew all of the customers would come at once?

Well, pretty much everyone who gave it more than a second’s thought. Customers had been waiting weeks for these services. But the organization had no process in place to handle the surge of business that was bound to come. What could have been a good thing —back to business!— turned out to be a nightmare.

Anticipating What Your Customers Expect

Many people I speak with have had the same experience ordering takeout, speaking with contractors, getting maintenance requests filled, ordering items from small businesses online. The list goes on. There’s a common thread through every interaction: people aren’t really that frustrated with the time a transaction, call-back, or shipment takes. Instead, they’re upset that there’s no communication about the fact that things have changed.

Increasingly as consumers of both products and services, we’ve become quite accustomed to disruptions and delays. We inherently understand issues with supply chains or that safety precautions mean we’re going to wait longer than we used to for a haircut, a sandwich, or a driver’s license. Really, all we want is to be told.

How To Communicate Changes and Delays

The other day, I went to order some music online (yep, I still do that) from Kings Road Merch and saw this message:

customer shipping delay message

A relatively simple explanation, with a peek behind the scenes, that sets my expectations as a consumer. When I read this, I say “of course, that makes sense.” I’m not angry, because how could I be? However, it might have been a different story if my order had taken twice as long and I hadn’t been informed. I’d probably have assumed it got lost in the mail and I’d have to check back in with the company.

The Small Business Advantage

Setting and managing customer expectations is especially challenging for small businesses. They don’t have the distribution and shipping power of Amazon. Automated responses are less common when dealing with small business services. And when they’re overwhelmed with customer demand, processes can move even slower.

5 Ways to Set Customer Expectations

We’re always racing in business, and especially in technology, to do everything faster. And big corporations with the most money may seem like they’ve won that race and made it impossible for small businesses. But the latter have the power of creating and leveraging personal relationships with customers. 

Even in a completely automated transaction, I’m struck by simple messages that remind me who’s at the other end of things. I go back to the last part of that pop-up on my ordering screen:

excerpt of customer delay message from small business

Genuine gestures of appreciation. Reminders of humanity. It matters less to me that I have to wait longer for a package to arrive. I’ve been warned. But this doesn’t read like a warning or an excuse at all. Because I know full well what small businesses are struggling with right now— we all do. Ultimately, I feel much better about giving them my business.

Customer Expectations Are Always About People

Many small businesses might be “Covid-proof” in the sense that customers will keep coming, and sometimes in droves. It’s a reassuring thought. But it doesn’t mean all businesses are equipped to handle shifting customer demand, rearranged operations, or new processes. 

The key, every single time, is communication. If only my local MVC had sent a message to customers in anticipation of long wait times. If only they’d have reassured us of their mission, and the fact that they’re a collection of great people who want to help. If only they’d sent it out before the lines formed. I wonder, then, what would have changed. 

We probably shouldn’t have to be reminded of these things. But the truth is, those messages bring out the best in customers and set better expectations. They remind us what business really is: people working to help improve each other’s lives. Even if it means we’re just trying to renew our vehicle registration.

Business In 2020 Is Unpredictable. Here’s What Is Certain.

Yes, it’s been a tough year. You don’t need the recap. But as tough as this year has been, the biggest challenge for most small business owners is trying to figure out what’s next to come. Many that I speak to complain about the unprecedented uncertainty that seems to surround everything. 

And yet, I’m not so sure. There’s always uncertainty, even in good times. Uncertainty is the backbone of free markets. People place bets on outcomes that they know aren’t certain and for some those bets pay off and for others…well…you know.

But really, are things all that uncertain? I can actually argue that there are at least six things going on in the economy and the world that will have very certain outcomes. Because even when things seem bleak and unpredictable, certain things always come true. We know this.

There will be a presidential election in the fall.  

women at voting booth

We know this. And we know that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden will be elected. We also know that all of Congress is up for grabs as well as a third of the Senate. You may think all this is creating uncertainty. I say it’s not. That’s because with just a little research it’s quite easy to understand where both presidential candidates, as well as their parties, stand on all the issues – healthcare, taxes, growth, labor – that affect our businesses. We may not know who will be elected but we certainly know now how that leader’s policies will impact our companies…and we can plan for that eventuality well in advance of it happening.

There will be a vaccine and better treatments for Covid-19. 

Most scientists are certain of this. In fact, many doctors are already reporting improved methodologies for treating the disease which are contributing to much lower death rates. We’re not certain of the timeframe of a vaccine – it could be by the end of the year or a year after that. But there are dozens of companies working on this as I write and a few are quite far along in the process. It’s certain that a vaccine won’t cure all because no vaccine does. But it’s also certain that when these vaccines are released they will help to significantly reduce the infection rate and give more ease to the public – the consumers that ultimately buy our products or products that contain our products. In other words, this will be over at some point.

There will be an economic recovery.

economic recovery sign

Why? Because there always is. Economies run in cycles and this recession is no different. As hard hit as we are, it’s already apparent – given the most recent economic data – that the bottom has been reached and some indicators are back on the rise. True, we’re not sure when a full recovery will take place and we don’t know how quick that recovery will be. But if you know your history you know that these things right themselves. That’s certain. Our job is to navigate our businesses prudently until this actually occurs.

The stock market was once above 29,000. 

 In fact, the Dow was 29,551.42 set on Feb. 12, 2020, only five months ago. If there’s one thing any stock market analyst will tell you is that once a market reaches a high, it will one day reach it again and surpass it. Every stock market rally has proven that. So it’s certain that someday the markets will reach and exceed 29,552.42.  What we’re not certain about is when and if there are more potential precipitous drops between now and then. Of course, if we knew that we’d be able to predict the future and therefore we’d be rich. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to get back there someday. That’s for certain.

There are exciting new technologies on the way.  

man holding holding vector globe | new technology concept

The pandemic proved that working from home is a viable workplace option. But that’s just the start. Big companies around the world, and particularly in the U.S., are well on the way to developing technologies that will fundamentally alter our lives over the next few years, including artificial intelligence, driverless cars, drones, virtual reality, voice recognition and a host of other cool stuff. Will this all be positive? Probably not because humans are adept at creating one new problem for every two they solve (another certainty). But most of us know that, thanks to and because of these technologies, the world for our kids and grandkids will be much different than ours right now. Some will profit and prosper from this stuff and many will be better off. That’s also a certainty.

Our business fundamentals haven’t changed.

Regardless of vaccines, markets and technologies one thing’s for sure: you still need to sell something for a price higher than you paid for it in order to make a profit. You still need manage your cash prudently. You still need to hire great people to grow your business. You still need to work hard and run an ethical business to succeed. These are not just fundamentals. They are business certainties and none of them have changed or will change regardless of what happens.

How to Create a Remote Culture of Trust and Strengthen Productivity

Remote working has become the “new normal.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses allowed employees to work remotely at least part of the time. But few businesses could have expected a transition to remote working at this magnitude.

If you are a small business owner or manage a team, you may be struggling right now to help team members succeed because all of this is all so new. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to build trust and put your team in the best position to do great things— without having to use technology to spy on your employees 24/7.

Building Trust or Maintaining Control?

two video cameras monitoring employee; Big Brother concept

Can a disruption like the COVID-19 pandemic actually enable managers to build stronger work relationships? Can it help facilitate trust? It’s possible, but it is up to management to avoid the temptation to exert greater control in managing employees who are no longer seen on a day-to-day basis. 

David De Cremer, a Professor in Management and Organizations at the National University of Singapore, writes in Knowledge@Wharton about the challenges many managers face building trust with employees. This is a longstanding issue that has been boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic where everyone now is working from home.

A lack of trust in an organization threatens its employees’ productivity, happiness, and ability to work well with one another. De Cremer writes that, in the midst of COVID-19, some employees have complained more about management and how they value productivity over employee health, use meetings to track tasks, and display controlling behavior signals.

These behaviors are often the result of a lack of trust between managers and their employees. De Cremer points out that social sciences use a definition of trust where there are positive expectations by each party and an acceptance of vulnerability to each other’s actions. Employers must create high-trust organizations built on positivity and empathy. 

As a small business owner, you must believe you hired good people who take their jobs seriously. Your job is to cultivate a culture of trust. How do you do it? By emphasizing progress, and not keystrokes, when it comes to productivity and using meetings for team-oriented activities rather than micro-managing.

According to one survey on remote work, employees who said they felt trusted at work had more energy at work, stronger engagement in work tasks, reduced stress levels, a significant decrease of feeling burned out, and higher overall life satisfaction. Building trust is mutually beneficial for managers and employees.

Adapting to Remote Workforce Management

mom working remotely as two kids play

If you have had success being very visible in the office, you’ve probably learned already that you can’t replicate the office in a remote environment. 

The New York Times profiled a senior executive who attempted to do just that. He quickly learned that his constant Zoom meetings and regular check-ins with employees were actually a detriment to his employees’ productivity and morale. He backed off and discovered that work was completed ahead of schedule and employees were being more productive. 

Adapting to remote work will be more difficult for some employees than for others. Just as you might need to adjust your leadership style, employees will too as they merge work life and home life within the same walls. For some, this will be an easy transition. But others may need more time and guidance to adjust. 

And specific teams may thrive better than others given their role and the level of collaboration involved to complete tasks. Writers or engineers may do amazing at home. But sales or customer service teams may need additional resources or assistance to succeed in their new environment. 

How you approach managing team members will depend on individual employees and the roles they serve on their teams. Adapting to a remote environment starts at the top. So consider how you’re adjusting and whether your management style makes sense in this “new normal.”

Using Technology to Best Serve Employees

man on video conference

Businesses that have leveraged video conferencing software and business intelligence technology are transitioning the best in the COVID-19 economy. It has never been easier to connect with team members remotely, collaborate on projects, measure daily activity, and set up automated reporting to see results in real-time. 

Technology helps. It can give you insight into what your employees are accomplishing on a daily basis. But how should you approach using technology to help employees succeed? Remember, it’s possible to become Big Brother and use software to track keystrokes and everything they do while on the clock.

But do you want to become that kind of a manager? We have already talked about building a high-trust organization based on positivity and honesty. Will keystroke and mouse click tracking really help you gain your employees’ trust? Probably not. Which is why you should focus on quantitative and qualitative work metrics. 

You can learn what your employees are doing and how well they’re performing without worrying about what they’re doing every second of the workday. Technology should enhance collaboration and productivity, not cause a trust gap.

As a leader, it is up to you to make your expectations clear. Explain how you will measure productivity to ensure everyone is being utilized correctly. It should be about results versus what is being done at any time of the day. Show how the technologies you use will help your team— not make them feel like they are being watched 24/7.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In this “new normal,” some organizations are reporting boosted productivity. They’re changing the way they do business on a daily basis. They are removing inefficient processes and reassessing their views of remote work. 

But others are concerned about burnout as employees remain at home for an indefinite time. It’s important to be mindful of what is going on in your business. Be ready to adapt as you learn new things about productivity and morale. 

sage alternative

Build trust, adjust your approach as needed, and utilize technology to put your employees and your business in the best position to succeed.