Your Brand Is Only as Strong as Your Customer Service with Skip Cohen
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The theme for this month’s issue is branding, which makes me smile because everything I’ve written for the last five years has fallen under the branding umbrella.
Too many business owners think branding is their signage, logo, stationery, business cards and site/blog design. They believe all the visual cues to their identity are the key elements of their brand. That’s true to an extent. But let’s talk about the core features.
Your brand defines everything about your business, from the quality of your work to your involvement in the community to your reputation. It’s about the power and frequency of word-of-mouth advertising and the experience people have working with you.
Let’s compare Macy’s and Nordstrom. I can buy the same Polo short-sleeve shirt at both for the same price, but that’s the only common denominator. At Macy’s, I’m going to have to hunt to find a clerk to help me. Depending on what day of the week or time of day I’m in the men’s department, the inventory is typically a mess. If the color or size I want is out of stock, I’ve got some work to do, often with little or no assistance.
Now, take the same venture at any Nordstrom on the planet. First, I’m going to be greeted as I come into the department. It’s rare somebody lets you wander for too long without offering to help. Second, I’m going to find everything in order by size and color, and always in the same area. Third, if I need help, a clerk is going to check the selection on the floor, and then in the back if it’s not on the floor. They might also ask if I’d like them to find it at another store. Last on the list, when I buy what I want, they’re going to come from behind the register, thank me by name and hand me my purchase.
Several years ago I interviewed Tim Walden on a podcast for SproutingPhotographer.com. Tim and his wife, Beverly, who have a studio in Louisville, Kentucky, are two of the finest portrait artists in our industry. Tim once told me something I’ll never forget: “We don’t sell photographs, we create an experience.”
That brings me to the heart one of the most critical components of your business, customer service—but not in the sense most of you think of a service department at any retailer. Think about the way you communicate with every client, and the experience they’re having while working with you.
Create an Experience
Let’s look at Tim Walden’s statement. What are you doing to make each client’s experience with you unique?
It starts with your personality and your love for the craft. Every client needs to feel special, and it can be done with a combination of your listening skills and attitude. Yes, it’s almost that simple. This is about making time in front of the camera fun. Remember fun? It’s too often lost today under the baggage of the day-in/day-out challenges of business.
This is where you can build on your reputation in your community. You want to be known for giving back, being easy to work with and being the best at what you do. Here’s how Tony Corbell describes himself when he started out: “I may not have been the best photographer in town, but I was determined to be the nicest.” If you know Tony, you know he’s never strayed from that philosophy throughout his career.
There’s no such thing as a one-hit wonder in photography. If you did an excellent job with a client, even if they never need your services again, they may share the experience of working with you over and over again with friends, family members and colleagues. You have to treat them as part of your family, no matter how small or large the assignment. You need them to feel appreciated and valuable. That means it’s important to follow up after the event. Keep in contact and check in with them now and then—not to hard-sell, but just to show your interest and appreciation for their business.
This is about doing your homework in advance with each client. A little research can go a long way in building a solid foundation with customers.
Matthew Jordan Smith has a great story about his longtime relationship with Aretha Franklin. The first time he photographed her, he researched things she liked. He discovered she loved yellow roses, so a few days before the shoot, he sent her a dozen of them with a note saying that he looked forward to working with her.
Her response was over the top. She called Matthew directly to thank him. That first action by Matthew set the stage for a relationship and friendship that’s lasted most of his professional career, right through to today.
Apply Matthew’s approach to a bride, commercial client or family/portrait sitting. What can you do to surprise the client and exceed expectations?
Fast Response Time
Whether you’ve been contacted via email or phone, the faster you respond, the more impressed your potential client will be. Formatted text inquiry forms on your website don’t do any good if you don’t respond the minute they come in.
I met Myrtle Beach wedding photographer Gene Ho years ago. His message system is set up so the client gets a response in less than an hour. He’s often able to lock in a bridal client before his competitors have even opened their email.
Customers should never feel invisible, even when they walk through your door while you are busy, when they’re on hold while you finish another call or when they’re awaiting a response from an inquiry. How you respond is critical to their first impression.
The Two-Person Rule for Problem Solving
I shared this in an article two years ago. I’m a huge fan of WalkTheTalk.com and their books on customer service, leadership and communication. Their 1999 book, 180 Ways to Walk the Customer Service Talk, describes the “two-person rule” like this: “Adopt the TWO-PERSON-RULE. Never make a customer talk to more than two people to resolve a problem. If you’re the second person to deal with the customer, you ‘own’ them. Either solve the problem immediately or get a phone number and a convenient time to call back.”
Keep Your Promises
Whether it’s the time you promised to call or meet with somebody or a special offer as a solution to a problem, it makes no difference if you don’t keep your promise. We’ve all heard the expression “Underpromise and overdeliver.” That’s your goal with every transaction and encounter.
No one magazine article can help you with everything you need to remember about customer service and how it contributes to building a strong brand. But just in case you’re questioning the wisdom behind each suggestion, here are some great tidbits from an article on customer service from Inc.com.
- Customers are three times more likely to tell their friends about a negative experience.
- It takes 10 to 12 positive reviews to offset the damage from one negative review.
- Eighty-one percent of the people who switched to another company because of a bad experience say the company could have prevented it.
- Totally satisfied customers contribute 14 times more revenue than somewhat dissatisfied customers.
The bottom line to this month’s article goes directly to your bottom line. Build your brand on a reputation for being great to work with, caring about your clients and being helpful, cheerful and grateful. Use your blog and social media to reinforce your passion for the craft, business and clients.
As Sam Walton once said, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire anybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”