Do You Charge for Estimates?

money1As a service provider, much of my time is spent meeting with potential customers. Whether over the phone or in person I have the opportunity to ask questions about their needs so that I can assess the project and offer an estimate for the cost and benefits of working together.

I don’t charge for this. Do you?

A great majority of the time after our meeting, if the proposal meets their needs and their budget, we proceed. However, sometimes the project doesn’t happen.  I suppose I am out the time and money spent on driving to the meeting, having the meeting and writing the proposal; however, I look at it as an investment in my business. 

Today, while taking my car in for an estimate of repairs, I noticed a sign that read:

One free estimate per car

$5 for each additional estimate

To be honest, I had to keep myself from laughing outloud. $5? Really? I will admit that I have seen companies that charge a fee for the estimate or consultation but then deduct that fee from the entire project should you decide to work together. But five dollars to look at the body of my car for less than five minutes?

Perhaps the dollar amount is small enough that people don’t hesitate, but when you consider that most auto body repair jobs end up costing several hundred dollars – if not more, just what is the company gaining by charging $5.  A better question might be – what are they loosing?

The purpose of an estimate or initial consultation is to uncover the needs but also to share your expertise. There is so much competition that consumers have an overwhelming number of choices. Why place a road block, even a $5 road block between you and the opportunity to have a new customer?

Thoughts?

 

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This Service Stinks

From Cartoon Stock.com

From Cartoon Stock.com

I have bugs in my living room. Big, leggy, gross bugs and when you squish them a blue goo comes out.  Ick.  At first there was just one and then a few days later, one more.  Over the last month I’ve seen and disposed of about 12 of them and yesterday when I saw one on the wall, I had had it and decided to learn more.  I carefully put the bug, still living, in a sandwich bag, grabbed my purse and headed to the local “helpful place.”

I was given great assistance by a young man who not only knew the bug to be a stink bug but that it was harmless and sensitive and found a stink bug catcher than I could hang in my living room. I had done quite a bit of digging in the dirt around the edge of my house in the back and had noticed the bugs out back and he assured me that this trap would take care of the ones inside.

So home I come, ready to get rid of the stink bugs only to discover that for inside use I also need a special stink light sold separately.  It doesn’t work without the light.

So one day later I head back to the helpful place and was met by two women who said I probably just needed to open the box.  Nope, I assured them and then pointed to the small disclaimer on the box.  I said that I’d been told this would do the trick and did they have a light?

I was taken to the section of the store and was told that nope, they don’t carry the light.

So I was sold something that won’t work? I asked. 

She didn’t make eye contact. She didn’t apologize.  She did not offer to call another store or order one in for me.  She just turned away and walked up to another customer to see if she could dispense more of her helpful service.

I can understand that some stores can’t possibly afford to carry all of the inventory available. I can also understand that stores sell out of popular items during certain times of the year.  But to not acknowledge the situation I was now in and to walk away without offering any further assistance or at the very least suggesting that Lowes or Home Depot might have what I need, felt hugely less than helpful.

What do you think?  Is it common sense to try and find a solution for your customers or is the “oh well” attitude that I encountered what we now should expect when shopping?

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I Solve Your Problems

Deborah Chaddock Brown professional speakerLast week I spoke at the Fastbreak Breakfast hosted by the Canton Chamber and Aultcare. The topic was social media strategy and as part of my speech I have the participants think about their 30 second commerical in terms of the 140 character restriction of most social sites.

You have to be focused. People don’t want to know your name or your company or WHAT you do, they want to know HOW you help them and what the RESULTS are. Then if you capture your attention, they’ll want to know more. So it comes down to:

I help WHO achieve WHAT?

I asked for volunteers to share their story and one gentleman said that he was a house painter.

“So you transform my home. You make my rooms like new.”

“No,” he said.  “I solve your problems.”

“Oh, honey,” I told him. “That will take more than a gallon of paint!”

He was thinking about what he offered. Sanding, grout, filling holes and cracks, primer, paint, wallpaper removal and installation, etc.

But as a potential customer “solving my problems” made me think about what my problems are: nine year old car on its last legs, a $4500 orthodonist bill for my daughter, my Mom’s upcoming surgery and the fact that I need new dress shoes but I can’t seem to find any that I like.

All the more reason it is important to put yourself in the shoes of your customers and be more focused with your message.

Last night I gave a similar speech to the SMEI in Akron and when we came to the same exercise a man who offered private label baked goods said that he “helps grow sales with proprietary products, custom.”

I said – any product?

No.

And by proprietary do you mean private label? Which term is more likely to be used by a customer searching your services? Using the Google Trends tool I find that proprietary products is never used when compared with private label.

When I hear custom, I think custom auto, custom design, custom anything but muffins. Once again, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers and think like they do.

We get so caught up in the passion of what we do that it becomes all consuming and we forget that our customers have other things on their mind besides what we offer.

The lesson is to be focused rather than broad. I don’t solve all your problems, I create a home beautiful with paint and paper. I increase your sales through custom made food products that carry your company name.  Short, sweet, but focused.

Don’t leave your customers wondering. Don’t make them guess. Think like they do when creating your marketing message or 140 character status update.

And if you can solve all my problems – please, call me!  :)

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Blogging to Connect with Customers

PatrickThose that have begun the process of using social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. start by being driven by a desire to get their name out on the web. They understand the value of being visible and being found but still use the tools as one way – push your message out there, vehicles.

The reality is that social media is a powerful, real time, opportunity to connect with customers. To showcase your knowledge and to invite questions, comments or opinions.

In a recent blog post writer Lisa Barone asks the question “should you blog to consumers or contempories?” In other words – who are you writing for? 

One school of thought has the purpose of blogging to be connecting with others in the industry – to be a thought leader to your peers. To be the one others “retweet” or comment about.

Lisa has a different view – one that I tend to agree with wholeheartedly:

For a small business owner, I think your blogging investment is far better spent producing content for your customers, not for your colleagues in the industry.

She goes on to list some very compelling reasons:

  • Your customers are the one performing searches – looking for a person or company  with your expertise.
  • You need to build authority with customers, not colleagues. Afterall – who is the one buying from you?
  • You want to start conversation with customers, not colleagues.  – So true!
  • Your customers are checking for your pulse, no one else. They want to buy from someone they like and trust and what better way to learn more about you, what you know and what you stand for then by reading your blog posts?

Read Lisa’s entire blog post here.

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Verizon’s Arbitrary Pricing Leads to Customer Confusion

There are three schools of thought on product pricing:

  1. Set it and forget it
  2. Set it and haggle
  3. Leave it open for interpretation

We are used to the price being the price and unless there is a coupon or special, the marked price is what you are expected to pay.  Conversely, if you have traveled to Mexico or other countries where pricing is a bidding war; you are also familiar with this entertaining debate where pricing becomes more of a game of “chicken.” Who ever blinks first is the loser.

But this last mode of pricing was new to me and I recently experienced it at the local Verizon store. Both of my children’s phones were up for a new phone. It had been two years and so I knew that I would be offered a significant discount on the purchase of a new model.  I went first to replace my son’s phone, knowing he didn’t care what it looked like so long as he could text and take pictures. He was still in the hospital so I went on a lunch break to replace his phone.

I was shown three models that met his needs and chose the middle model, one with a touch screen and nice camera feature. The price on the example was for those that weren’t due an upgrade so I looked for the sales person to tell me the price.  $99 before rebate, he told me. And the phone was eligible for a $50 rebate.  Cool.

We processed the paperwork, he transferred the data from old to new and bada bing bada boom, I was back at the hospital with a new phone. $106 and change with tax.

My daughter is more selective so I knew I would need to take her with me. Two days later we went to the same store but a different sales person was on duty. She was offered the same three choices and selected the same phone as my son’s. Unlike the first sales person, this one didn’t engage us in conversation as he went about typing in the information and so I took that moment to pull out my checkbook. The last check I’d written was the one for the other phone and so I said “So that will be $106 and change, right?”

He stopped typing, looked at me with a strange look and said, “Where did you get that price?”

“I bought the same exact phone two days ago, has the price changed?”

“No.”

“So it is $106 with tax, right?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“So, how much is it?”

“$150.”

Imagine my confusion. I explained that I just bought the same exact phone under the same exact conditions and didn’t understand the pricing difference. He told me, quite hacked off, that I was obviously given a special price.

I said that was a surprise to me as I hadn’t asked for a special price. I just asked for the price. I said, perhaps you aren’t familiar with the pricing of your inventory.

Well, that led to more indignation. Finally he looked at me and said “I can charge what ever I want for this phone. I can charge you ten cents if I want but I’d be out of business in a month, now wouldn’t I? Clearly the other person decided to give you a different price which I will honor but just so you know, that isn’t the price of the phone.”

Wow.

Here is a case, where a company has given their employees some freedom with discounts but forgot to teach them the benefit of making sure the customer knows up front that they are receiving a discount. Not to mention, teaching employees how to be gracious.

I still don’t know why I got the better deal the first time around (the second person did match that price) but I left feeling like I was cheating them out of their due. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable. In the end I took the new phone before all of my daughter’s data was downloaded from her old phone because I felt so uncomfortable. I left with a bad feeling. I left feeling like I was a bad person. 

Now some of that may be my own personal issues :) – but the bottom line is that when companies allow their employees to price willy nilly, it can back fire.

Today I am filling out the rebate forms and I notice that the first guy filled out the form for me so all I have to do is sign it while the second guy didn’t.  The bad taste continues.

Has this happened to you? Have you found yourself in a situation where there is pricing confusion and the employee makes you feel at fault? Did you go back?  Would you refer them?

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Dr. Stanley Pearle: The Original Customer Relationship Builder

Dr. Stanley Pearle

Dr. Stanley Pearle

This week one of my business heroes passed away, Dr. Stanley Pearle. Dr. Pearle was the founder and original owner and lifetime inspiration for the optical retail chain: Pearle Vision.

I started to work for Pearle Vision in 1987 when the only optical discount was in August for “Family Eyecare Month.” We didn’t have computers in the store and one hour glasses were just on the horizon. In fact, in the next couple years people would come into Pearle and say “don’t make my glasses in an hour…I want them right.”

Over the years when I would mention Dr. Pearle people would be surprised “You mean there really IS a Dr. Pearle?”  Yep and I was lucky enough to be his “date” at many company events towards the end of my career with Pearle. The company would change hands and so did leadership over the almost 20 years that I worked for the company but he and I never changed and I was lucky enough to get to “hang” with him at the annual meetings and pick his business brain.

When he first founded the company in the 60s he brought a new approach to a previously viewed medical product. He was the first to start the breakage guarantee.  Industry leaders thought he was crazy but he knew better. He knew that you needed to understand your customers and give them something of value.

I will never forget my first year with the company. I was hired as a manager for the Colerain Ave, Cincinnati location and as a sales person, was to manage a medical location in a licensed state without any optical background. It was unheard of. My peers openly criticized the fact that I wasn’t ABO certified but rather brought a customer focused approach to sales. The mere fact that I referred to the patients as customers was outrageous. (By the way – I doubled sales that first year and was promoted to regional manager – who says a customer-first approach doesn’t work?)

I attended training in Dallas – our headquarters at the time – and met Dr. Pearle for the first time. We had a brief conversation and I was suitably awed by his presence. Three months later at a regional meeting I met Dr. Pearle again and he remembered my name.

I was blown away. We had hundreds of locations and he remembered me and my background and my location. He was all about building relationships, making people feel valued and treating them as he wanted to be treated. Years later he visited my New England territory and I took him to visit five locations. People lined up to meet him, shake his hand and have him autograph the life-sized, cardboard cutout of him in their store lobby.

Dr. Pearle understood just how important the people in a company are; executives, hourly employees, franchise owners, lab workers, he greeted them all with warmth and a sincere desire to hear their perspective on the industry. He listened and engaged people. Where ever he went, he built relationships.

I will miss him greatly. And all that he stood for. He put the customer first, whether the customer was the end user, a corporate employee, franchise owner or vendor. Thank you, Dr. Pearle, for all you taught me.  Thank you for everything.

For the complete news story of Dr. Pearle passing, click here.

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The Power of a Personal Network

Ben's Mazda

Ben's Mazda

They say life can change in the blink of an eye, but you never really appreciate how true that phrase is until someone blinks.

On July 7, 2011, at 4:30pm, life blinked for my 20 year old son, Ben and the ripple effects of that blink reach beyond comprehension.

He was hit directly in the driver’s side of his car while crossing an intersection by a woman driving 50 mph. He had thought the intersection was safe to cross, a two lane divided highway, because from his view, he only saw a tractor in the slow lane. It wasn’t until he was in the middle of the intersection that he saw the woman in the high speed lane. It was too late for either of them to change their course.

She is fine. Shook up, jarred hard by the air bag deployment but was treated and released.

My son will be fine…eventually.

His internal injuries are such that the best they can hope for now is stablizing him while they focus on his collapsed lung and allow the multiple fractured pelvis to heal. In three months they will see if additional surgeries will help to reconnect the many internal parts that are currently not functioning normally.

It is at times like these when you learn how valuable your network is and the interconnection you have with other networks. As I waited through the night for word from the surgeons, 12 young people literally and figurative surrounded me with their love for my son. The next day 19 of Ben’s friends waited outside ICU patiently for their turn; two by two, to sit by his side and hold his hand.

Ben’s network began a cross over, friends connecting with me on Facebook, liking my comments, emailing me, asking to put my cell phone in their phone. The generation gap bridged, hugs exchanged and the networks of myself and my son are forever connected.

The prayer chains of more churches than you can count around the country began sending up powerful prayers on Ben’s behalf. People began calling, email, texting, Facebooking, Tweeting and visiting with offers to help, food, hugs, cards, flowers, and prayer.

But then the help became more concrete.  Offers to take my teenage daughter for a few days, wheelchairs, shower seats, crutches were offered, legal assistance, counseling – all help from my network that has been carefully built over the years. Customers, peers, friends, neighbors – the offers have been unbelievable.

I am sharing this because in this blog I often talk about the power and value of building customer relationships. When you treat customers, employees, vendors and peers as friends, they not only buy from you and refer you, they line up to offer their assistance when life blinks.

My gratitude is overflowing. My heart is so full with thanks and appreciation and wonder at the generousity of those in my network. For all of you who have reached out or simply saw a status update on Facebook or heard through the grapevine and offered up a quick – “help Ben get better” I am so very grateful.

I hope you never have to know the full extend of your personal network. But do know – without a doubt – that your network is a powerful gift. When you reach out to build relationships, you just never know how they will benefit you or make your life richer.

Thank you to all of you!

One week later - Ben's First Walk

One week later - Ben's First Walk

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Customer Recommendations Politics and Prose Style

 

There is a bookstore called Politics and Prose located in a neighborhood of DC that opened almost 30 years ago. The founder, Carla Cohen, truly understood the value of being connected with her customers.

In an article in Inc Magazine a few months ago, the bookstore and more importantly, Carla Cohen, were featured. There was a paragraph in the article that struck me as profound and yet many readers may have skipped over:

Cohen read in the morning, then went to the store, then read at night. “Very disciplined,” says her husband, David. At the store, Aaron Cohen says, she asked customers, ” ‘So, what do you like?’ They’d tell her, and she had read it. And she’d go to the shelf and say, ‘What about this?’ That’s merchandising.”

Carla knew her customers and knew her products so well that she could carry on a discussion and then make additional recommendations for her customers. It is really more than merchandising. Making recommendations to our customers is a powerful tool that helps build our brand and our customer relationships.

Remember, customers buy from those they like and trust. Imagine how much they must have trusted Carla when they knew she’d read the same books they had, and more, and could make recommendations of something else they might be interested in. I am sure they would have jumped at the opportunity to take her recommendations.

Kinda like being in a restaurant and being torn between two entrees; you ask the waiter/waitress for their recommendation and you can tell when they are really familiar with the food and have an opinion. I almost always take their recommendation. After they deliver the meal and ask how I like it – there is an investment in my enjoyment – a comraderie between us; both lovers of the same chicken piccata or whatever.

Sadly, Carla Cohen passed away this past year, but her legacy and the customer focused experience she created with hundreds of author interviews and book recommendations, lives on.

Ask yourself – do you know your products or your industry so well that you can converse with your customers about anything related to your business? Do you make recommendations for additional purchases based on the information you’ve learned about your customers and the industry knowledge you have? Powerful stuff!

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Crying Baby – Fancy Restaurant – Piece of Pie

Now here is a dilema for you to chew on.

Friends of mine just went out for a fancy dinner. They don’t normally go out, married over 30 years, both busy in their careers, they are lucky if they have time for a quick spin through the local drive through. But last weekend they decided to “dude” it up and go out for a special evening.

Seated at the table next to them was a couple with a baby. The baby was crying.  Not little delicate sounds but full on screaming crying with tears and hiccups and the whole nine yards.  This must be the baby’s regular mode of communication because the parents continued to enjoy their dinner without missing a beat.

Meanwhile, the guests at the nearby tables could barely hear themselves talk.

The waiter came up and apologized to my friends. “I am so sorry. The management would like to offer you a free dessert. Would you like a piece of pie?”

My friend replied, “Why on earth would I want to stay here longer? Isn’t there something you can do – say something to the parents? Suggest they take the baby out in the hall for a minute to calm her down?”

The waiter said “Oh no, I couldn’t do that.”

“So basically, what you are saying,” my friend surmissed, “Is that their money and their dining experience is more valuable to you and the management of this restaurant than all of the other people having to endure the screams.”

He didn’t know what to say and so quietly left the table. He brought them their check – no discount – no coupon for a return visit – no futher word about the fact that the evening out for my friends was ruined.

So what should have been done? Do you favor one customer over another because it is easier than confronting an unpleasant discussion?

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Four Principles to a Customer Focused Business

Hangers Cleaners in Kansas City was featured on Cool Runnings for taking a different approach to a pretty boring business segment – dry cleaners.

Joe Runyon, the owner of Hangers Cleaners shares his thoughts on making a business successful. And in his case – being successful in an industry that is declining.  Watch the video, but here are the four main ideas:

  1. Define a powerful competitive advantage. In Joe’s case it was using an ecologically friendly solution to cleaning clothes.
  2. Be convenient for your customer. Again, Joe determined that pick up and delivery service, as a complement to his brick and mortar, was a convenient and welcome solution.
  3. Save customers time. He also developed a computer tag for clothes of regular customers which includes their cleaning preferences so that the customer doesn’t have to continually repeat their starching requests. This leads to better quality and higher satisfaction.
  4. Let your brand reflect your personality. He is a little quirky and that shows – in a good way. Employees wear shirts that say “sniff me” and the hangers have a message that inform customers that hangers can also be a spare car key.  Let your personality shine in your business and customers will gravate to you.
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