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Monday, August 06, 2007

Book Review: How To Talk To Customers

So much of effective communication - with customers, co-workers, family, and friends - is a function of the impressions we create.

Imagine consciously creating only great impressions... Tempting, isn't it?

How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC by Diane Berenbaum and Tom Larkin from Communico Ltd. provides the means for doing just that.

Reviews of this book appear on Service Untitled, The Innovative Marketer [which includes a podcast], Customers Are Always, Customers Rock!, Drew's Marketing Minute, and Make It Great. I started reading it while attending the Disney Institute session that led to STORY Brings Brands To Life. The session repeatedly referred to magic vs. tragic impressions and reinforced how critical it is to create a positive impression with customers - exactly what Berenbaum and Larkin discuss in their book.

[Customers Rock! features an in depth 2-part interview with Diane Berenbaum. How To Talk To Customers - An Interview with Diane Berenbaum Part I offers an overview on the company, MAGIC and customer service.]

MAGIC stands for Make A Great Impression on the Customer. More specifically,

Make a connection to build a relationship; then Act Professionally and express confidence. Get to the heart of the matter by listening and asking questions. Inform and Clarify what you will do. Finally, Close with the relationship in mind.

MAGIC is about maximizing positive interactions and managing how others perceive us. It offers tools to start out a relationship or interaction on the right foot, and extend the goodwill so that even if the outcome isn't perfect, every other aspect of the interaction will have been more than satisfactory. We leave our customer with a great impression of hard work and goodwill.

According to the authors, how we communicate is the most dominant factor in our relationship with others. Think how often we fall into unsuccessful communication patterns because we aren't looking, listening and perceiving from the other's perspective. [If you haven't, consider reading Deborah Tannen's books about society and language].

The solution entails listening, empathizing with the other, taking a collaborative approach [after all, we're trying to identify a solution], and then framing the communication in terms of community and relationships. We consciously choose our attitude. An attitude of indifference is so powerful that it is the reason why 68% of customers will stop doing business with us. If customers perceive that we don't care, they are done with us. On the other hand, satisfied customers stay, return and promote us to others. They represent loyalty's Holy Grail!

Tone of voice, how we listen and body language work together to create the right communication environment. That's what leads to making a great impression and establishing a constructive middle ground between us and the customer. The goal -- especially in retail -- is to create a long term relationship with subsequent interactions rather than just a one-time transaction.

MAGIC words or phrases are personal, specific [how can I help, when...] and empathetic, unlike tragic words or phrases that put distance, create uneasiness, imply lack of action or responsibility, are impersonal, vague and unclear, and/or use inappropriate slang.

The authors describe 4 levels of listening [Customers Rock!'s An Interview With Diane Berenbaum - Part 2 addresses listening in more detail as well as the 33 points of MAGIC]:
1. A transactional dialogue focused on task.
2. Rapport building which asks questions.
3. Creating a sense of warmth and perception. This has an empathy focus.
4. Attention or intuitive. The listener remain largely silent and exudes patience.

Most business communications occur at levels 1 and 2. Level 4 captures close relationships where trust and mutual respect exist [think of a parent trying to help a child work through a difficult situation]. Level 3 is the goal in business. The listener is attentive, non judgemental, and genuinely recognizes the other's feelings and perspective. The listening is empathetic with the listener trying to perceive the big picture.

Some tips: be sure to use the customer's name, stay with the customer until the end [i.e., the worst is having someone hang up on you after a 20 minute phone ordeal when you still have questions], and then follow up!

Do you realize that only 4% of dissatisfied customers actually complain? The remainder just leave and spread the bad news. Those who complain, yet are satisfied, become 8% more loyal than if they had had no problem. Resolving problems then represents an opportunity to build relationship.

From a retail perspective, the salesperson represents the ultimate message in-store. This is particularly true in a consultative selling situation where the salesperson must communicate knowledge in way that provides VALUE to customer.

[Note: for a flooring retailer focused on selling fashionable solutions for a consumer's home, be sure that your salespeople exude design sensibilities.]

A great impression comes from using welcoming words with an upbeat tone, at a moderate pace. Body language is positive [smile, appear upright/open, make eye contact, offer a firm handshake]. Think about the great impressions others have had on you. What did you notice that you reacted so positively to?

The strong focus on empathy and listening had me wondering whether gender ever comes up with MAGIC. Are women better at it than men? In training, in listening skills, in communication skills? Here is what Diane Berenbaum had to say:

"We find that MAGIC is gender-neutral. We focus instead on communication style. Our individual communication styles can influence our interactions and their outcomes. Both men and women share two distinct styles of communicating: Directive and Supportive, though we all have different degrees of preference.

Generally speaking: When communicating with a Directive Style, the focus is on telling, conveying facts and getting something done. This style is task-centered. When communicating with a Supportive Style, the focus is on listening, connecting and seeking understanding. This style is relationship-centered.

One style is not necessarily dominant in either gender. An emphasis on either style can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the situation, the role or the relationship. Truly effective communicators read their audience and blend the two styles to achieve their purpose.

We have a choice in how we respond to any situation or contact. The focus of MAGIC is to understand your style preferences and develop the ability to draw on both directive and supportive communication styles as the need arises."

Interesting. It particularly makes sense when you think that at different times we may just as easily be in customer mode or in supplier mode.

Erica Stritch from Communico [who provided me with a complimentary copy of the book] also invited me to attend a webinar titled Shift into High Gear: 4 Drivers to Rev Up Quality and Consistency in Call Centers during which Tom Larkin, Senior Vice President of Communico Customer Service Training and co-author of How To Talk To Customers; Jason Checketts, Manager of learning and development at Wells Fargo; and Monica Kelly, quality analyst, account services at Colonial Supplemental Insurance teamed up to provide tips on how to achieve exceptional service consistency.

The webinar brought up the loyalty effect resulting from employees who stay with an organization. Their tenure creates value for the organization. MAGIC not only creates satisfied customers who stay with you, but it also develops satisfied employees who remain and create even greater value with customers. That's magical!

By the way, I witnessed MAGIC firsthand with Tom dealing ever so gracefully with technical issues.

If you're intrigued with the subject matter, in addition to reading the book, consider subscribing to the Communico Newsletter.

Can you imagine a more critical skill than figuring out how to talk to customers? I can't.

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