What separates a good service experience from a great one?

Getting the basics right – and making the pasta stretch a little further

Good service experience

A few weeks ago, I got itchy feet – again. This time, I decided to visit my friend S in Milan.

He and I used to do an Italian/English conversation swap when he lived here in Cambridge, and we’ve remained in touch online since he returned to Italy. But however HD the video, and however surround the sound, a Skype call just isn’t the same as a face-to-face encounter.

So I decided to head for the bright lights and the big city, and booked my ticket for Milan. But first, I had to find somewhere to stay, as S’s sister’s flat couldn’t accommodate all three of us.

A home from home

Booking accommodation is always a bit of a crapshoot. In the past, I’ve had the misfortune to rent one place where the bedrooms smelt of cat pee and the owner’s hard-of-hearing mother had the television on at full blast in the room above mine (Rome).

Or the creatively photographed apartment that left out the busy road running right past the terrace (French Pyrenees). Not to mention the top-floor flat above a market square that turned into a gathering place for droves of Vespa-riding teens until well after midnight (Florence). 

But now with the sharing economy in full swing, and with everybody rating everybody, things have become a little more transparent. Cat pee and noisy roads will soon sink a listing, so you can book with relative confidence.

But in a world of rising standards, not everybody has hit five stars. So what makes a service experience really stand out? 

  • Communication. My host (let’s call him A) was responsive from the very beginning – confirming the booking within minutes, and suggesting we connect on WhatsApp. From then on, he was available at a moment’s notice to answer any questions or provide advice. 
  • Flexibility. I read in one of the reviews that A had waited up until 1am for a guest to arrive who’d got delayed. And with me, he showed the same flexible approach: no problem with arrival or departure time, breakfast at whatever time suited me, and modifying his schedule on the fly to take me on an impromptu walk through Milan.
  • Going above and beyond. Strictly speaking, I should have had just bed and breakfast (if you haven’t had Italian fette biscottate to start the day, you haven’t lived). But on my four nights in Milan, A invited me to dine with him on one evening, and with him and his partner on another when I rocked up five minutes before they were due to eat (“Join us! There’s plenty of pasta to go around.”). 
  • Making a connection. When I chatted to A about renting out his spare room, he said he started it as a business, but soon realised that it was more than that. Receiving paying guests in his home wasn’t simply a commercial transaction, but a way to connect with people from all over the world and share their lives (and his) for a few days. 

The caring economy

Now renting accommodation on Airbnb or any of the other lookalike sites is not like selling widgets, or providing IT support services or running a management consultancy.

So can the lessons of a holiday experience be extended to business? I think they can. Because what these hosts and guests have realised is that all business is transacted between two people.

And yes, it’s true that you don’t get to meet every customer or prospect in person over a crunchy Italian biscuit at breakfast.

But you can try to imagine what their world is like when you’re writing that marketing email or posting that tweet, when you’re drafting the blog post or launching a sales campaign.

A physiotherapist once told me that it’s been scientifically proven that if you visualise a muscle when you’re exercising it, the manoeuvre is more effective. In much the same way, I think that if you visualise your target audience when you’re carrying out any sort of marketing activity, it works better. 

And that’s why so many marketers nowadays have detailed buyer personas. See the person and you make the connection – which, for my money, is what separates a good service experience from an exceptional one.

I’m already planning a return trip. Because those crunchy Italian breakfast biscuits just aren’t the same here.

Funny that.

How would you sell your business in a soundbite?

Why marketers should be more like politicians (and spin-doctors)

[Image courtesy of DEMOSH at Flickr Creative Commons]

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, we’re heading for another general election here in the UK.

It’s the the third time in just over two years that the nation has been asked to decide an important issue. Ballot boxes are being dusted off, and pencils sharpened.

“It’s undemocratic!” shouted some opponents. “A blatant power grab!”

Hang on a moment and let’s unpack those statements.

It’s undemocratic to hold a general election?

It’s surely the very definition of democracy to consult the people on a regular basis, to ensure that their will is supreme. To get a clear mandate for a government (general election) or to decide on a hugely important issue (Brexit). 

As for it being a power grab, if that’s actually what the Tories were doing, then why didn’t Labour – who are trailing badly in the polls – vote against calling an election when it was put before the House of Commons?

The answer, of course, is that they they didn’t really have a choice. Opposing the election would have looked like self-interest, putting their party’s survival before the greater good. 

The Lib Dems supported it because they have nothing to lose. Wiped out in 2015, they figure that the only way is up, so they’re cranking up the party machine and getting out the rosettes. This is Brexit referendum take 2, they hope.

But apart from all the party shenanigans and hidden agendas, for me what’s really interesting here is the use of language.

We live in a soundbite era, so getting the message across fast is vital. Say something is undemocratic, and the accusation sticks. As does power grab.

Virtual reality bites

We saw it last year in the Brexit campaign (better together vs. take back control). And we’re seeing it again this year in the run-up to the election on 8 June.

Delivering on Brexit is Theresa May’s mantra whenever she talks to the media. Hard Brexit and soft Brexit have entered the political lexicon, as has the more pointed Tory Brexit.

Hard-working families are much mentioned, safe in the knowledge that the term has mass appeal. (I always wonder what the childless or those who don’t work particularly hard must think, but they’re clearly not target voters.)

Interestingly, family values doesn’t feature much here in the UK, though it might elsewhere. And religion is off the agenda, unlike the US, where it’s pretty much a given. As Alastair Campbell once famously said, “We don’t do God”.

As ever, simple messaging works. It just does. Make America Great Again worked wonders for Donald Trump, as did Hope for Barack Obama.

Nobody does detail, and especially not the electorate, who often make a snap decision on the day of the vote. (I certainly know I have.)

Spin and win

If all marketing is sales (and it is), then pretty much all of politics comes down to marketing these days.

Which is why Theresa May has once again enlisted the help of Lynton Crosby, the Australian spin-doctor who engineered victory for David Cameron and Boris Johnson on more than one occasion.

Crosby knows that image is everything in the 24-hour news cycle, and it’s important to get your message across fast and simply.

During his watch, the Conservatives came up with How Would You Feel if a Bloke on Early Release Attacked Your Daughter? (to show they were tough on crime) and It’s Not Racist to Impose Limits on Immigration (to detoxify a sensitive issue and open a debate).

Managing the message is everything for these politicians. And it’s not just the Anglosphere that’s at it – everybody is.

French connection

Across the Channel, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are simplifying their message to appeal to voters.

For the second round of the election, their new posters show them looking presidential, with simple taglines: Ensemble, La France! (Together, France!) for Macron, and Choisir La France (Choose France) for Le Pen.

Interestingly, they’ve also both decided to make things more personal by removing any mention of their party from the posters. So En Marche! (On the Move, which mirrors Macron’s initials) and Front National (National Front) appear nowhere.

They both know they need to broaden their appeal beyond their party loyalists, and bring their personalities to the fore.

Marine Le Pen may have a slight advantage there, being one of the few politicians referred to by her first name alone (joining an exclusive celeb lineup that includes Oprah, Madonna, Boris, Nigella and Elvis).

Crossing the line

US election strategist Frank Luntz is in no doubt about the link between politics and marketing.

He says Bill Clinton won the 1992 election “because he, more than any other political figure, understood what was happening in the country at that time, and had an innate ability to communicate it right back.”

Luntz’s book (Win – the key principles to take your business from ordinary to extraordinary) shows that what works for political parties also works for companies.

So if your business were a political party, what would your manifesto look like? And what would your campaign slogan be? How would you get people to sit up and pay attention?

In these election-happy times, it’s worth thinking how you’d get your message across in a soundbite.

No need for a power grab. But you might just get some prospects to pick up their pencils and tick your box.

Why bad spelling may just hit your bottom line

The hidden cost of those niggly little errors – and what you can do about them

[Image courtesy of Barry W at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Are you a Grammar Nazi?” asked somebody I connected with on WhatsApp, after I picked him up on a mistake.

I’ll have to way the options up, he’d written. I tried to resist the temptation, but failed. Weigh, surely? I replied, with a grinning emoticon.

He blamed it on predictive text, but I wasn’t all that convinced. And he followed it up with the question on my totalitarian learnings. 

I probably am a bit of a stickler for grammar, as well as spelling, punctuation and all the little details that separate bad writing from good. But then again, I have to be, as nobody’s going to pay me for copy that’s riddled with spelling mistakes and dodgy syntax.

You’d think it would be easy to get it right, with all of the technology we now have at our disposal. But even clever algorithms have their limitations, and mistakes can easily slip through the net – especially when you’re waying up the options.

Spelling it out

I was reminded of my friend’s slip-up when I started reading a fascinating book by linguist David Crystal.

If you’re a language geek like me, Crystal will need no introduction. He’s a prolific author who’s produced over 100 books on language in the last 50 years. And his latest, Spell it out: The singular story of English spelling, is compulsively readable.

Starting with a Christian scribe pondering over how to write down the unfamiliar sounds of Anglo-Saxon with a limited (Roman) alphabet, it takes us all the way up to present day via the Norman Conquest, Caxton and the arrival of printing, Shakespeare and Noah Webster (who’s the reason Americans now write harbor, center and traveling).

For a linguist, Crystal is pretty relaxed about spelling change: more of a describer, and less of a prescriber. Unlike some merchants of doom, he thinks textspeak is a sign that language mastery is alive and well.

But beyond the intellectual interest of knowing why -ough has so many pronunciations (through, tough, thorough, hiccough, though, cough), for me the book raised the more interesting question of why spelling is important in the world of marketing.

Does it matter if you get it right? And what’s the price of getting it wrong? Well here are just three considerations: 

  • Credibility: the web is a place where trust is everything, and there’s no shortage of people ready to take you for a ride. You really don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. Remember that on the web, your copy is representing you, so it’s important to get it right.  
  • Search engine ranking. Misspell a word consistently on your website, and you may just see your SEO suffer, for two reasons. The most obvious is that people aren’t searching for your misspelling. But more importantly, Google and other search engines may penalise you for getting it wrong, as misspellings can be an indicator of a site that’s less than trustworthy.
  • Lost revenue. Even when people do find you, that’s not the end of the story. One entrepreneur found that a single misspelling cut online sales by half. Fraud and phishing are so widespread nowadays that misspellings may just set alarm bells ringing – much in the same way that an insecure connection (http, rather than https) does.

Sweet success

Of course spelling errors can happen on both sides: your clients are just as prone as you are to slip up. And when they do, you may well be able to anticipate – and even capitalise – on it.

I regularly receive calls and emails from people looking to copyright a product or idea. But that’s something best left to lawyers. And so to avoid confusion, and reduce the number of enquiries, I added a page to my site explaining the difference between copyright and copywriting. took it one step further, when they realised that lots of people were searching for ‘bathroom sweets’. They acquired the domain and redirected it to a special section of their website that has a distinctly chocolatey feel – complete with photo of an edible bathtub.

With gentle good humour, they explained the difference between ‘sweets’ and ‘suites’ and guided people to the destination they needed. A stroke of creative genius (unlike Topshop, whose ‘Shakespere’ t-shirt earned it online ridicule).

So spelling does matter, and it could just affect your bottom line, for better or worse.

And what are my recommendations? Print out your copy. Read it with a pen in your hand, guiding you through every word. And always take a break to get some distance and see things clearly. 

Crystal clearly.

Why your point of view doesn't matter (and theirs does)

It’s a good idea to take off your goggles every now and then

[Image courtesy of frankieleon at Flickr Creative Commons]

Last week, on the day that Article 50 was finally invoked, I left the country.

The timing was entirely coincidental, of course, as I’d booked my holiday well before the fateful date of 29 March was made public.

As I made my way through the airport, my eye was caught by the wildly differing newspaper headlines.

FREEDOM! shouted the Daily Mail. Dover & out, punned the Sun as it ‘beamed a message’ from the famous white cliffs to the continent.

The Guardian, however, was not amused. Today Britain steps into the unknown, it warned, against the backdrop of an EU jigsaw puzzle with a gaping hole where Britain should have been.

The Express talked of ‘Theresa May’s no-nonsense message to Brussels’, while the The Independent mentioned the ‘nightmare’ of a hard Brexit.

The Star, meanwhile, had slightly different priorities, with Arise Sir Becks (David gets a knighthood) and Mel B’s three in bed romps (still just as spicy after all these years, apparently) taking pride of place on its garish front page.

I didn’t buy any of them, but decided to return my attention to The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood that’s recently seen a uptick in popularity thanks to the misogynistic sorties of The Donald. (Highly recommended, by the way, and headed for an 8 out of 10 at my upcoming book club.)

As the plane climbed high, I gazed out the window and began to think about the stories we tell ourselves – about ourselves and others. Fresh from my foray into cognitive behavioural therapy, I wondered whether we ever really understand what’s going on in anybody’s head, our own included.

He said, she said

The interesting thing about Brexit and Article 50 is how polarising it’s all become – just like the Trump presidency, in fact. People on both sides passionately defend their point of view, and believe that right is on their side with a sort of religious zeal.

As the plane descended over the Alps and lined up to land at Nice airport, my thoughts returned to earth too. What would the French make of it all, I wondered. Would their newspaper headlines be as provocative?

A glance at the front pages in the arrivals hall made me realise that point of view is just as important as the story you tell. 

Le Figaro did have a front-page photo of Theresa May with a small caption about Brexit. But the main headline was about doubts over the economic policy of presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron.

For many other papers, it was news, but not the news, relegated to second place by French politics, gossip and sport. 

Libération, on the other hand, had a full-page photo of a red-jacketed foot guard, with Vous nous manquez déjà (we’re already missing you) printed on his bearskin. Inside, they had two possible visions of a British future: one bright and optimistic, the other dark and menacing.

No prizes for guessing which one they thought was the more probable. 

La vie en rose

As I chatted to French people on holiday, I quickly realised that Brexit is a side-show for them.

They see it through the prism of the age-old rivalry between Britain (or more exactly, England) and France, the legacy of World War Two and a fundamentally different relationship between the people and those in power. Plus the latest scandal involving François Fillon’s wife and who’s made it through to the next round of The Voice.

The point of all of this is simple: point of view. Yours, theirs, and the overlap between.

When you’re communicating with clients and prospects, it’s vital to take off your goggles and put on theirs. It doesn’t matter what you mean; it’s what they understand. It doesn’t matter what you write; it’s what they read.

If you can step outside your world, and step into theirs, you can see how to get through to them. So Trump could be a standout president, and just what the country needs. Brexit could be a huge success and mark the beginning of a new era.

And your latest genius marketing campaign might not be quite as attractive as you’d previously thought.

(D)over and out.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for marketers

Getting inside your audience’s head (and your own)

[Image courtesy of Pawel Loj at Flickr Creative Commons]

My friend F, who’s almost completed a course in counselling, sent me a couple of her recent essays to read. A train journey to London was the perfect opportunity to get in touch with my inner self. 

One essay was on Freudian psychoanalysis, which has never really appealed to me. I think it’s too intent on raking over the past, and can keep you so focused on the problem, you can’t see a solution.

Also, there’s really only so much you can blame your parents for; somebody once told me that if anything goes wrong over the age of 25 it’s on you, not them. Ouch.

The second essay intrigued me, delving into the fascinating world of CBT. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aims to change the way you think about yourself, other people and the world in general. It’s the old idea that nothing is bad, but thinking makes it so. So it’s not the event in itself that’s negative, but your reaction to it – and when you react, you have a choice.

As a self-help addict (a paradox in itself, I think you’ll agree) I was hooked. So as my train sped towards King’s Cross, I went online and found a book on Amazon called Change Your Thinking with CBT.

It had rave reviews, including several that said it changed their entire way of thinking in just a couple of days. 

Praise indeed. But did the book – and the therapy – live up to the expectations?

I have to say that, much to my surprise, it did.

Mind matters

There’s nothing in there that we don’t all know already, but sometimes, the obvious isn’t obvious until it’s pointed out by somebody else. Almost every page had a light-bulb moment for me, and it helped me think differently about common frustrations and niggles. 

By simply reframing how you perceive the things that happen around you, you can defuse situations and take power away from negative thoughts. And not just in your personal life, but in business too.

It’s easy to forget when you’re pushing out a marketing campaign, or tweeting, or writing a post on LinkedIn that you’re one person talking to a another person. And that you both fall into some of the cognitive traps highlighted in my wonder book. 

So what are they? Here are some of my favourites, together with how they affect the way we interact with colleagues, prospects, clients and readers. And everybody else.

  • The tyranny of the shoulds. This is the belief that things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be a certain way. It falls into the category of absolutist thinking that has a mental picture of the world that’s rigid and inflexible. (Customers should behave in a certain way. My LinkedIn post should have had more likes. My sales promotions should always work. Clients should like every idea I come up with.)
  • Awfulising (or ‘catastrophic thinking’), when we take a minor incident and react in a disproportionate way – or even a major one that’s serious, but not the end of the world. (One mistake means they’ll never buy from me again. Missing the deadline is a disaster there’s no coming back from. The product recall will damage our reputation irreparably. The website relaunch was a fiasco from beginning to end.)
  • Black and white thinking means you look at everything in a polarised way. It’s either good or bad, with no middle ground. Apparently this is a particular trap for perfectionists – and we know who we are. In reality, things are always a bit more nuanced, so a quick mental shift will allow you to focus on the positive. (The draft white paper came back with quite a few amendments, so I obviously got it completely wrong.)
  • Overgeneralising. This happens when you take an isolated event – or a small number of similar ones – and turn it into a rule of thumb. If you find yourself saying ‘always’, ‘everybody’ or ‘never’, you’re probably overgeneralising. (They always miss deadlines. I never win pitches against that competitor. Every time I deal with them, they beat me down on price.)
  • Mind-reading. We’ve all done it, and even though we’re often proved wrong, we continue to step into the trap with our size 9s. The conclusions we jump to about people are almost invariably negative, and cause lots of stress and anxiety. It’s closely linked to another trap – personalising – which is based on the premise that the world revolves around us, and that other people’s actions are aimed directly at us. (They didn’t buy from us, so they obviously don’t rate us. He didn’t return my call, so he must be angry with me for some reason.)

The last one is my favourite: comparing. It’s one that we all do personally or professionally virtually every day. There’s always somebody slimmer, richer, funnier or faster than you. And there’s always a company that has nicer offices, a better website, cleverer adverts or a slicker tagline than yours.

And you know what they say: compare and despair.

CBT may not change your life in two days, but it may just change how you think about yourself and your audience – and how you interact with them.

At least I think so.

Unless I’m overgeneralising again.