Something Fruity For a Friday

Just a short story about fun, friends and food.  We had a great time eating out with some lovely new friends, at a local pub. Nothing new there, other than a slightly odd experience with desserts.

Now, I continually say that I don’t have a sweet tooth. It’s not true, and I was sulking slightly because there was nothing on the menu that I fancied. With our friends having Banoffee Pie and a Cheese Board, my wife ordered her favourite – Raspberry Eton Mess. Now, there’s usually some excitement and anticipation about Eton Mess – it’s made in many different ways, and looks and tastes different depending on the chef.  But this one was very different. Unless I’m very much mistaken, it was  Strawberry Eton Mess.  Maybe in Theale they grow raspberries with the seeds on the outside. Or maybe not. They were definitely strawberries, and not raspberries.

And I still haven’t stopped laughing about it. When someone serves up completely the wrong fruit, doesn’t even mention it, and expects you not to notice, then I think I’ve a right to tell the story. Meritology talks about being distinctive. But what this pub did made them #standout for all the wrong reasons. There are 218 pubs in the Reading postcode district (thanks to for that statistic!), and we’ll be trying one of those next time. Maybe they’ll have raspberries in their Eton Mess. And maybe we’ll get what we ordered. Simple really.

The Centre Of Everything

Ever had a situation when someone made you think? And I mean really think. When you say to yourself – crikey, I hadn’t thought of that. They come up with either a brilliant idea, sparking suggestion, or just point out something you really hadn’t realised. Here are two of my examples:

First, the wonderful Jost from The Henley Partnership pointed out that we had the word “really” in seven of the titles for our 2015 learning events. So, when I’d stopped laughing at my occasional dopey side (I should have spotted that) we immediately changed the wording to something less repetitive and more obvious to the reader.

Second, we were at our Planning Day last week. By the way, that’s a very dull name for an event that’s great fun and brilliantly productive. I’m working on that! We bring together 20 HR and business professionals, from our 25 corporate members, working in groups to magically produce the rabbit from the hat – a programme of masterclass events and learning sessions that develops (fast) the capability of their directors. And one of our special guests made the following observation – “Mark, you don’t have many sessions about customers”. As observations go, it was pretty obvious. But it made me think. So hard that my head hurt. I’d argue that the customer agenda is implicit and even omnipresent. But is it really? Do we need to be very explicit about the fact that the customer is at the centre of everything we do? Otherwise, why do companies exist? What’s the point of doing business? You may define your customers differently, but we all have them. No disrespect to the third sector, or any company where the intent is about simply doing good, but I’m here to serve my customers. And I think most of you are too…

So I need to make sure we signpost the customer agenda, or run more events about that specific topic. Subconscious or conscious, we need the business brain to recognise that customers are the most important item on any agenda (the cognisance), and spend more time developing our ability to deliver the value they want and need (the capability). And then people like me need to spread the word about why customers are so important (the contagion). And hence this blog. I’ll get down from my soapbox now!

And P.S. thanks to the wonderful members of The Henley Partnership, for their wholehearted support and brilliant contributions to what we do. You are valued even more than you realise. Most of my ideas are inspired by yours.  And please keep making me think.

When Relaxation Kills Rapport

Yikes! Apologies for the slightly aggressive sounding blog today, but it helps me make the point. I’m just off the phone to a big motor dealer. I was enquiring about a vehicle they’ve just reduced in price.

Two things. Firstly, I got the usual “we’re getting loads of interest in this car, so I’d better see if it still available” line (we all want something more, if it’s high in demand or scarce, right?). I’m OK with that, mainly because it could actually be true. It’s a great car, at a good price. Secondly, I was asked if I’d been to the garage before, and spoken to any of their salespeople (because I guess each salesperson “owns” their own clients, or has to share commission if the customer has dealt with someone else previously).

Now, I seem to have a decent ability to make people feel relaxed when we’re chatting over the phone. And here’s what happened next. I said I’d only been before to wander around, and hadn’t spoken in detail to anyone. So he decided to laugh, and say that I’m “fair game then”. Ouch. I have visions of a small guy with a big gun. Slightly too aggressive. Unlikely to care about me as his customer.

Unfortunately, he killed our rapport stone dead. Like the animal his mind is hunting. And I don’t like being hunted. I might just turn and bare my teeth. Or at least be more stubborn about the deal we make.

OK, so we were relaxed, he was excited by a possible sale, and it’s just small talk. My point is simple. When involved in sales and service, be careful how much you relax. When relaxed, and without inhibitions, it’s amazing the daft things people say. And you don’t want to #standout for the wrong reasons.

Beware Of The Dogs

It’s sunny today, when they predicted rain. That’s always a good start to my day. You join me on my constitutional walk across Greenham Common (imagine hills, horses, cows and sheep right next to a large town, and you can draw the picture). Coming over the brow of the hill near home, there’s a farm. And on that farm (no singing “Old MacDonald” at this point) there are guard dogs. Every day I pass the farm, the dogs bark at me. And they are very loud.

But that’s not what makes me laugh. It’s the fact that I am at least 50 yards past them, before they bark and snarl. They have to be the world’s worst guard dogs. And I think poor service is like these guard dogs. Let me explain.

I have many real and recent examples of poor service. It’s usually when someone takes ages to acknowledge that I need help, and then barks at me when they open their mouth. Here are those examples:

  • the mobile phone shop where someone eventually wandered over, and then said they couldn’t help with anything to do with my existing phone (I’d have to call customer services). Shame I wanted to fix one device, and then take out a contract for another!  We didn’t get that far.
  • the car dealer that was texting while I looked around the showroom, and then asked whether I was ready to buy a car today (as his first question).
  • the hotel receptionist that barely looked up as she gestured me vaguely in the direction of the bar, and said I need to speak to “someone in front-of-house” (I know what that means, but it’s hospitality industry jargon).

We know instinctively that great customer service is key to acquiring and retaining customers. But how well do we understand how value is judged, in those very first interactions? Simply put, it’s The 7 – 11 Rule where, in the first seven seconds of contact, a person (in this example the customer) forms 11 impressions about you and your organisation – including honesty, professionalism and helpfulness. So beware of the dogs. They make poor impressions. Don’t hire them. Fire them. Better to lose them than your customers.

So, who is providing great service? I’m so impressed by @DecathlonUK in Reading. Go and watch how they handle those first interactions with customers. Knowledgeable. Helpful. Professional. And if Grace is around, watch how she works. Such a natural customer service style. Simple stuff, but so #standout.

Make Sure You Meet Expectations

This isn’t a blog about performance management systems, that use the expression “meet expectations” to rank how people are doing. But it could be, and I’ll borrow the language for my shortest blog so far!

Having been off work for a while (ages actually), I’ve observed lots of people offering me products and services – personally and professionally. The obvious ones are in the medical profession, but I’ve also engaged with banks, investment companies, retailers, manufacturers, creatives, motor dealers, coaches, plumbers and decorators as I’ve tried to make productive use of the enforced rest. I’ve also had lots of interaction with people professionally. What I’ve noticed is how much my experience has varied. The difference has been dramatic. Some people have been great. Others, err, not so good.

It’s obvious that I have, rightly or wrongly, very clear views on what I expect. I’ve realised that there’s a minimum I expect, from each trade or profession. It’s what my colleague Nick Kemsley @Nick_Kemsley, when referring to HR, calls “the vital basics”. What I’ve actually seen is some really great people exceeding expectations (like decorator Ben @BrushAbove). It’s a two way thing, and those people show me what they want in return. But too many have fallen way short. Shame on them (well, shame on me too for making a couple of poor decisions on who to use!)

But what’s really intriguing is how few concentrate on those “vital basics”. Very few do “just enough”. Maybe I need to reset my expectations, but I’ve been surprised by that. Isn’t meeting expectations the way you build reputation and get work? Meeting expectations should be “standard” and not “#standout”. But, in my experience lately, just doing those basics can make a real impact and make you very different. You don’t need to be a superhero. So find out what your customers expect, as a minimum, and make sure you meet those expectations. Get those “vital basics” right. It might just be enough to make you #standout.

Let Them Eat Cake?

Meritology is always looking for examples of where people add great value to customers. So congratulations to Richoux in St John’s Wood for some #standout service yesterday (it’s a great place for a grown-up lunch, by the way). They proved it’s easy to bring innovation to even the most basic service. Here’s the story.

We’ve been there before, and were confused by the vast array of desserts and pastries on offer. We went for a look, didn’t know what to choose, and ended up saying no. This time, the server brought to our table a wooden tray of various desserts. It was the 2015 version of bringing round the dessert trolley. And, not surprisingly, we both had dessert*.

I have no clue whether the tray is a “corporate” instruction, or the idea of one of their staff. And I don’t really care.  It came across as a simple and smiling way to encourage us to take dessert. Good for us, and good for takings. Last time their approach was to “let them eat cake” (passive). This time, the attitude was to “help them eat cake” (active). Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but anything that makes the customer say “wow” has to be a good thing. And it was so simple. And impressive. And memorable….

“Innovation opportunities do not come with the tempest but with the rustling of the breeze.” – Peter Drucker

* And in case you’re interested, I took the perfect apple strudel and my wife had a slice of the fantastic black forest gateaux (very “eighties”!). We’ll be back to try the others…!