Friday, March 6, 2020

JC's customer-service Rule #3


Everyone’s got a short list of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s for their business segment; and here are mine.  I don’t ordinarily make guarantees; but if your business is fielding calls and questions from customers and you sincerely want both to make a good impression and to make money, I’ll challenge you: if you’re not already following a policy that includes these simple guidelines in some form, do so, and you’ll get what you want out of what you do.


RULE #3: Know The Competition

28 Sep 2000: Mark Turnbull and Tom King of Australia shake hands with silver medalist, the USA, during the Men's 470 Sailing Final held at Rushcutters Bay, Sydney Harbour, during the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Nick Wilson/ALLSPORT
photo by Nick Wilson / ALLSPORT that fits the point perfectly so I used it

I’ve heard from plenty of resellers and service providers who claim to be the only one worth any consideration in the industry. These people deny that the guy down the street has anything of value and blow off online retailers as though they’re not in ‘real’ business.

If you’re one of these, sorry; but you’re just wrong. And your competition is probably eating you for lunch. I’ve discussed this before; and I can make a strong case for concentrating on what you do best and allowing the other guys to do what they do best. You’re not so much in head-to-head competition with them anyway if you’re able to distinguish between what you do and what they do that represents a benefit to the customer in coming to you.

For example, you might sell Mercury outboards and the guy down the street sells Evinrudes. They’re not really the same thing - different technology, different availability, different support network, and so on. Not all customers are wishy-washy between the two - it’s like Ford and Chevy; they like one better than the other and know that’s what they want when they start shopping. Sometimes people change their minds. I’d say most often they don’t.

Recently I had the cable-Internet tech over to fix a problem and asked him about portable (cellular) Wifi for the boat, for when I’m away from landborne service. I told him what I’d seen at the phone store (his employer’s competitor) and he immediately acknowledged that theirs was the system to use for that. And in the same breath he added that he knew the competition did that piece of business well while his company was more focused on other stuff the competition didn’t do. I was stunned. Of all companies I’d never have expected his to admit that! - I’d more expected him to put them down.  But this was actually very solid customer-service policy - well-informed, honest, and in the customer’s best interests.

So, as a first step, focus on your product lines’ customers, and emphasize your strengths to retain them; and let the strengths of the product line (and your up-to-date knowledge of it) keep them from going over to some other product line. And keep up the dialogue with that products suppliers to keep them doing their best for you, too!

Some questions coming from the customer may be awkward to field. But your best tactic is information - that which you possess and that which you can glean from the customer. Learn about what the customer really needs. Educate him about which features make yours so appropriate for him, explain all your dealership has to offer, and offer him your best deal including delivery, installation, and post-sale service; and let the customer decide. Avoid bad-mouthing the other guys - in fact you should readily admit and discuss their virtues. They’re not bad people over there - they’re just like you. They just sell a different product, or the same stuff in a different way, or keep different hours or use different delivery services. (If you respect them, theyll respect you. It does happen.)

I firmly believe that everyone who truly earns it is entitled to his own share of the market. As a player in the market, focus on what you do and why it should be important to the customer. If you’re convincing (and, most of all, honest) you’ll make your sales, and deservedly. If you have to bad-mouth the competition, the customer will recognize that, probably go to the other guy, hear a very different story in a very different way, and if so you didn’t deserve that sale anyway.

If you’ve done your best and other guy wins him over anyway, find out why, embrace that information, and change what you do to reflect that. It may entail a lot of negotiation with your supplier, who may be giving you less than the best deal they can and may have plenty to suggest to you about how you sell. That might not be a fun conversation! But really, if you can’t do better with what you sell than how the other guy does with what he sells, I’ve got to wonder why you’re trying to sell it!

I can pilot you through the nuances of acknowledging the (inevitable) competition while helping you strengthen what your business does that makes you unique. Get in touch; and we'll see what we can do to bring your business to the next level.


JC's customer-service Rule #2


Everyone’s got a short list of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s for their business segment; and here are mine.  I don’t ordinarily make guarantees; but if your business is fielding calls and questions from customers and you sincerely want both to make a good impression and to make money, I’ll challenge you: if you’re not already following a policy that includes these simple guidelines in some form, do so, and you’ll get what you want out of what you do.

RULE #2: Know Your Market

Joe Poole conducts an in-store seminar at Austin Kayak
Joe Poole conducts an in-store seminar at Austin Kayak, c/o ACK

This is the first rule of writing, publishing, or performing on a stage (all of which I have done). Haven’t we all seen The Blues Brothers in which the brassy blues band have to play a hard-core country-and-western bar and literally risk their lives to win over the audience?  Lesson learned: there’s no point in attempting to do what you do if you don’t know how it’s going to be received.

It is also a vital factor in selling anything. Market awareness is key to every business.  A Certain Large Marine-Supplies Chain ('Big Blue') has had a policy of locating their stores in places with high real-estate values - because they believe, out there in California, that boaters everywhere are most likely rich white one-percenters.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  They should put their stores where the boats are! - and I’ll state here that their recent financial distresses are down to their not following the the market-awareness rule.

Many small retailers, in frustration, develop one of two truly awful mindsets about their customers: ‘they’re cheap as dirt and never buy anything’ or ‘they’re filthy rich and hate people who work for a living’.  Neither of these is necessarily true.  Most likely, customers are just people with needs who are looking for real answers to reasonable questions about quality, utility, wait time, and final cost; and they're frustrated too at not getting respect for needs. Expect them to ask these questions, and respect their reasons for asking.  Have ready answers to the most common questions (Rule #1).

Moreover, know something about who they are and where they come from - probably situations in life not much different from yours. Where do they use their boats, or whatever it is they’re looking to use? When do they use them? Are they into performance, comfort, convenience-? Do they appreciate bargain pricing or the highest quality? What’s their level of experience? Do they prefer buying online or from someone they can meet and shake hands with? You need to know these things (and probably much more) in order to be truly useful to them; and they’ll welcome your interest and be eager to share information with you.

Achieving an easy conversation with a customer about what he’s asked about is a valuable means of gaining his trust. Customers like to be listened-to, respected, liked, even joked-with. If he’s on the phone, ask him about the weather or other conditions ‘out there’.  Listen to and amuse him about his response. I’ve long been prone to teasing callers about their great fortune in living down South where the boating season is longer - it serves to remind the customer, with humor, how lucky he is compared to others (me). Share with him anecdotes about your personal experiences with the product he’s asked about - but be honest; there’s no point in fabricating stories.  If you’re a real-world user of things like what you sell, that’s the best way to build a bridge of trust with a customer - who, in reality, is not much different from you.

Most importantly, never comment about religion, politics, and sports teams with a customer - even if you know his inclinations in these areas. Some other customer, about whom you know much less,. might overhear you. Offending a customer about a personal matter (no matter how right you think you are) is a sure-fire way to lose money from your pocket. Even if the customer brings it up, smile and respond with a nonpartisan ‘Yeah; what are you going to do?’ and keep focused on the important part of your job, which is earning money through honest effort and mutual respect. Ultimately the customer will view you as an affable professional who is full of useful information, easy to talk with, and eager to fulfill his needs - which means he’ll be coming back regularly.

Helping small and independent businesses polish and benefit from a sound customer-service policy is my main focus. Get in touch; and we'll see what we can do to bring your business to the next level.

- JC2

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

JC's customer-service Rule #1


Everyone’s got a short list of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s for their business segment; and here are mine. I don’t ordinarily make guarantees; but if your business involves fielding questions from customers, and you sincerely want both to make a good impression and to make money, I’ll challenge you: if you’re not already following a policy that includes these simple guidelines in some form, do so, and you’ll get what you want out of what you do.

RULE #1 (most important): Know Your Business

resale customer service professional informing customer about tool
photo c/o BMR Insurance Agency

I always say that when you receive a question from a customer, in person or on the phone, he’d better not hear ‘Um’ as your first word. Getting information is the customer’s first step in deciding what and from whom to buy - and your first step should be to provide him with that information eagerly and authoritatively. Equivocation or hesitation on your part is his first indication that maybe he’s asked the wrong vendor; so avoid that!

If you’re a service provider, know what it is that you (or your staff) do, know as much as you can about the actual doing of the work, be able to answer pointed questions about what gets taken apart during which procedure and how it’s all improved after the work’s been done. Know the prices of major jobs - don’t just answer, ‘Well; it’s time and material.’ Know which materials will be needed. Know the standard time brackets for the completion of each part of a job. Know the next few available times when your people can do the work.  If any person facing the customer or answering the phone doesn’t know this, he must offer to get an answer ASAP and must return to the customer with an intelligent quote.

If you’re a materials reseller, know what you do sell, have on hand, and what you can and can’t get. Know what each item is good for, its salient qualities, how it’s installed or used, how it compares to other products from other places, what to watch out for and reasons why it is simply superb. Don’t rely on a sales pitch - give them the true facts. Good products sell on their own merits - your job is to explain those merits. (If your products aren’t good, why are you selling them?) You might not have it all memorized; but be able to ‘go into the back’ and inform the customer of his real-world price and, if you don’t have it in stock, the standard lead time and usual shipping costs. Offer to get a precise answer ASAP and return to the customer with an intelligent quote.

In general, customers value vendors who provide them with information they can rely upon. They want to be reassured they’ve chosen the right seller who will get them the right product or service without worrying them about whether or not they’ve chosen well. I have a reputation for never having customers walk out the door worried that they may not have received the right thing or the best deal; and (maybe because of being a former classroom teacher) I think educating them is the best way to relieve both the customers and myself of such worries.

I can assist you through product training and policy implementation to help strengthen what makes your business unique. Get in touch; and we'll see what we can do to develop sound strategies to improve your performance and market share.

- JC2

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Drawing in the click-happy customer


Many people in small business have come to loathe and fear Amazon - and often with good reason. Amazon is everywhere; they offer stuff at good prices; they offer free shipping; it’s so easy to place an order! Why would anyone want to start an e-store when they’re up against Amazon?

The REALITY is that the small business with its modest little e-store isn’t head-to-head against Amazon at all - they only think that they are. Actually your small business focused on good old-fashioned personal service is at a great advantage over impersonal Web-based behemoths like Amazon, Wayfair, and others.  If anything they should be afraid of you!

Maple Leaf Ropes 3/8" anchor line available on Amazon
Can I use this for my 27-footer?  Amazon DOES NOT have the answer.

In your case, you're smarter than Amazon. You know about the products you sell (JC’s first rule of selling: know your product). You can answer pointed questions about application, installation, product quality and longevity, and other details to which the customer really wants real-world answers.

Now look at the average parts listing on Amazon.

  • See the detailed information about the product? - right; you don’t; because it’s not there.

  • See the contact information by which you can ask the seller your questions? - right; again, you don’t, because it’s not there.

  • See the product reviews by actual buyers and users at the bottom? - this is the worst bit of all.  These are no substitute for a knowledgeable expert - they’re only people who bought the product on that site.  Much of the time they're just wrong - or else they're citing problems or complaints which could easily have been prevented if they’d been able to talk to an expert before they clicked Add To Cart and then Check Out.

My favorite (or least favorite) are the cases of people who request a return because they got click-happy and bought the water-pump kit for a Mercruiser Alpha Gen-1 sterndrive instead of the correct one for the Gen-2 drive they actually have (about a $60 difference).  They searched on ‘Mercruiser Alpha water pump kit’, selected on price, and clicked without reading any further. The listing on Amazon (or on that up-and-coming online-only marine retailer that I’d love to name, but won’t) didn’t specify applications in their description (very likely because they didn’t even know).  So both customer and seller have to do double work; and neither of them learns much from the experience after all.

But you are a real person doing real work in a real building with a real phone.  Putting your contact info in the listing and inviting people to actually phone and ask before buying is a great way to make customers. I know for a fact that this works - I’ve fielded phone calls from all over the US because the online-auction listing made them feel welcome to call. I provide specific information about the product, including how they can tell if it's what they actually need, how to tell this is a quality part, and how to install it and maintain it, and I guide them through the online sale process.  And they ring off expounding in gratitude that ‘a real person answered the phone’.

My contention is that these people are far more numerous than those Web-only retailers want to believe; and I’m betting these customers will be relieved and grateful even to pay a few percentage points more for the part or for its shipping just for the peace of mind of knowing they’ve got the right part coming - and they've helped out a hard-working seller who’s just trying to do the right thing by helping them.


One of my specialties is setting up a decent, easy-to-use e-commerce presence that can sort of grow with you - the more you want to use it, the more you can benefit from it.  Consider it a way to bring old-fashioned person-to-person service into the 21st-century online world. Just ask me (note my contact info is in my site too!); and we’ll discuss how you can get started, or go further, in a vital channel of business in which you probably don’t want to be losing out to others.

- JC2

Monday, January 20, 2020

’Tis the season



New Jersey marina in snow
photo courtesy of


In the northeastern US, we all know that pleasure boating is a very short season.  We’re lucky if we get six months of in-water use of our boats.  Unfortunately a lot of business owners in this industry (who are often boat owners as well) think like boat owners regarding the season. If this us you, please stop!

The period between November 15th and March 15th is a vital one in the boating industry.  This is NOT your hibernation period; it is the core period in which you can get the best work done. Consider tasks like:

  • Conducting physical inventory;
  • Upgrading facilities - painting, carpet, decor, signage, in-store fixtures;
  • Revising Web site and e-com platform;
  • Replacing or maintaining computers, printers, POS systems, Wifi providers;
  • Training staff on all new procedures and equipment;
  • Meeting with vendors, discussing forecasts for purchasing and selling;
  • Meeting with your favorite business consultant to see how to improve your operation before the big business happens ;).

For marina operators, regular inspection of the yard through the often-brutal Northeast winter is an absolute must.  Blocking and stands of boats should be inspected at least weekly; boat covers and shrinkwrap need to be maintained; storage areas for batteries and motors need to be kept from freezing; pilings, bulkheads and docks need to be cared for.

For store owners and service shops, this is a good time to inspect, repair or replace, or add to existing tools and machines and the physical facility itself.  Rearranging the place to make it look and work better can’t be done at a better time.

In all cases, this ‘dead’ period is the best time to improve your business’s procedural efficiency and marketing visibility.  If you haven’t getting much Web traffic so far, consider revamping the site’s content and how it gets discovered in searches.  If you’ve had problems tracking in-store sales, consider upgrading to a modern, cost-effective POS system that tracks all your sales, customers, and inventory.  If you’ve had problems getting staff up to speed, bring them in for hands-on training at a time when mistakes can have much less effect.  And if you’ve had too little time to keep in touch with customers, compose and send out thoughful, focused e-mails to remind them of what you’d like to do for them.

All of this might be problematic to address during the high season.  So instead of burrowing under a blanket all winter, shake the cold out of your bones and keep busy with the groundwork that provides an easier, more efficient, and more lucrative summer season.  And plan on enjoying the summer with a week or two away for yourself!

The longer one waits after New Year’s, the more hectic getting ready for the season will be.  I specialize in helping you upgrade the business, especially in matters related to inventory control, customer service, and general promotions, in a manner that is easy and economical for the business owner.   I listen as much as I teach and will do as much as you’d like me to do.  Get in touch; and we’ll see how we can get your business ready for when you need to be operating at full-steam-ahead.

- JC2