I once took my laptop into an office-supply store to have its cranky USB ports repaired. But it was 5:30 p.m., and their tech guy only worked from 10 till 5. “But,” I protested, “that’s when your customers are working.” The clerk yawned: “You can leave it overnight if you like.” “I need my laptop tomorrow,” I said. “Then come back one day when you have time,” shrugged the clerk. And that’s what I did, about 10 months later.
Are you available when your customers need you? Are your business processes geared toward their needs, not yours? As marketplace competition grows, a key differentiator could come from the oft-overlooked concept of ETDBW: How easy are you to do business with?
Chicago management consultant Jeff Blackman encountered the concept of ETDBW years ago when he helped a U.S. chain of ice-cream parlours boost its business. One of the first things he noticed was that the stores’ counters were too high to let their best customers — kids under seven — peer into the ice-cream buckets. To pick their favourite flavour, they had to be physically picked up by a parent — one by one. It created a tiring experience for the adult, and a long wait for customers in line. Blackman suggested installing waist-high windows, which boosted sales and customer satisfaction.
An expert on sales, motivation and leadership, Blackman now spends much of his time helping companies become easier to do business with. He considers this a shortcut in solving complex problems of productivity, logistics, service and customer satisfaction. “It’s all about sales, operations, how the phone is answered, how easy your website is to navigate,” he says. “People like ease in their lives. Simplicity can become a competitive weapon.”
When I finally took my laptop back to the store, the technician tried to fix it on the spot. But his solutions didn’t work, so he asked, “Can you leave it with us?” “How long?” I asked. “Two weeks,” he said. “We have to send it out.” “But I need it for a business trip next week,” I said.
Nobody sets out to be hard to do business with. So, where do these problems come from? Blackman says it’s usually a case of companies looking to do things in the easiest way possible for themselves — and forgetting customers’ needs. It even happens internally, he says, when companies make it difficult for staff to share information, or when they force employees to say, “Sorry, that’s against our policy.”
I finally brought back my laptop last summer, when I could live without it for a few weeks. “Have you backed up all your data?” asked the technician. “Um, no,” I gulped. The technician glared at me. “You’re supposed to back up your data before you bring it in.” “Nobody told me,” I protested. He shrugged — not his problem.
How do you begin retracing the path from hard to easy? Look internally first, says Blackman. Find out where your own people are “roadblocked,” where the rules prevent them from helping customers. Are prices clearly marked? Are your inventory records up to date? Can employees process returns quickly and positively? If you can’t see those barriers, ask your employees, in person or through a confidential survey. You’ll find them soon enough.
Then, look at your business from the clients’ point of view. As you know from your own experience as a consumer, problems are everywhere, from suppliers with inflexible credit terms to sales reps who sell you the wrong product to menus that are too hard to read in the dim light of a restaurant. Survey your customers, track their complaints or ask your front-line people what’s preventing their prospects from buying more. Once again, you’ll get an earful.
Blackman once worked with a furniture dealer that was so user-unfriendly that it could barely tell you to the nearest month when your order would arrive. He helped the dealer update its customer-service ethic and inventory systems to the point at which sales reps could guarantee the day of delivery. It was a lot of work and required a complete attitude change, says Blackman. The result: four reps surpassed their sales quota for the year in April; by the end of the year, revenues had risen by 31%.
“It’s about consistency, being conscious of customers’ needs and taking the customer’s side,” says Blackman. Really, it’s all about common sense. Seattle-based department-store chain Nordstrom reduced its employees’ guide to being easy to do business with to a single card with one rule: “Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” Nordstrom is far outpacing its competitors in terms of same-store sales growth and new-store openings.
I took a chance and sent my laptop off for repair, although I refused to sign the waiver absolving the store of responsibility for my data. Two weeks later, they called to say the repair was too costly; they offered me a discounted, non-negotiable sum for my laptop in lieu of repair. (Next time, I’ll read the fine print on the extended warranty.) When I rejected the offer and reclaimed my laptop, I discovered all the data had been wiped away. When I complained, the warranty department accused me of making it up.