Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Batter's Up!

The Mets were losing 6 to 0 when I came in to watch the game. Son was in the dugout on a field they had never played before. One with proper stadium seating and lights on the field - and loads of gnats eating everyone alive.

"We're losing," he told me when he saw me standing above him.

"Eh. You were losing yesterday too and look how you guys came back in the end."

I'm not worried. It was game 7, I believe. And the Mets had only lost 1 game so far. But it's amazing how the self-esteem of children is a cup that has to be filled daily. Somehow it empties overnight then you have to fill it up all over again the next day. This was their third game this week because of rainouts the previous weeks. The game the night before was tense until the very end, but once they got the leg up, there was no stopping them.

It's actually way more interesting to watch than I anticipated. I had listened to the opposing coaches the first couple of games talk about stealing bases. The Mets were doing that so much - and winning by so much - that they risked embarrassing the losing team, so there was a moratorium declared on stealing bases. The Mets clearly knew how to steal bases but even I knew that if they wanted to get to championship level, they would have to do better than that. They would surely meet their stealing-bases equivalent one day and then what would happen?

But as time has gone on, I've watched them become better at hitting, retrieving the ball to get the other player out before he got to base, pitching and home runs - lots of home runs. You can see them working together more and more and it's pretty cool to see.

In this game, it was now Son's turn at bat. (That's my #3 below.) I called to him as he walked out. "Take chances, Son! You can do it!" He usually becomes a statue when he goes up to bat. Sure, he swings if it seems like he should, but otherwise birds could have mistaken him for a great landing spot.

Not this time.

His teammates called to him to swing for the good balls. His coach called to him to do what they practiced. I watched him bouncing up and down a little bit, emotionless as usual. The balls were mostly bad, fouls, enough so that he didn't strike out but he got to walk to first. That's cool. The next boy up was pretty good at hitting so they would be in a good place for sure.

Son's teammate swung, hit and sent the other team scrambling, their coach in a tizzy over all the fumbling and confusion. Son ran to second. Then third and we all watched the confusion continue.

"Run, Forest, run," Mr T. shouted.

The next thing I knew Son was home, his teammate on third and we parents were jumping up and down screaming in delight because they had done it again - they had come from behind and revved themselves up. They didn't need us anymore. They could cheer themselves on now but it was too late. We were all riled up too. Parents came out of the stands to watch over our little ballplayers. One coach's wife hugged on me as we watched. Another mom was wowing as she taped. A dad was reporting the scores to someone on his phone. We were cautious but excited, confirming with each other everything we were seeing to make sure we were all on the same page.

"Did you see your son," the hugger asked me excitedly. For once my ears weren't in overdrive driving to decipher her thick Spanish accent.

"Oh, I promise I did!" Mr. T was on the side of the field taking the pictures. Daughter was playing in the stands as usual but I had extra sets of eyes helping me track her constant comings and goings so I could focus on Son.

They played happily like the team they were. Mere minutes from the 2-hour mark at which they can stop playing. They were now 8 to 7 and their coach had declared them winners yet again.

Or were they? More confusion as our hopes to get out of the gnats were dashed. The other coach said something. The umpire said something. They had to play an extra 15 minutes? What?

We all looked at each other.

"Aw, they're just mad 'cause they lost!"

Whatever had happened, the game was not quite over and the batter for the other team was up.

I looked at the videotaping mom whose eyes got big. "Uh oh," we said to each other. This was the kid, if any kid could, who could knock that ball out of the park. If he hits and gets to home, we're tied. He hits but thankfully our boys are quick and he is out before he starts.

We erupt in relief. This was their best player. Surely the Mets would be able to hold off anyone coming in after him. And so they did - and won for the second time that evening.

This is where I am, my friends. Village Works is doing tons of vending, creating new cards and preparing for future events. Of course my job continues to be nonstop action and Son's cub scout activities continue, though they wrap up this week as he becomes a Webelo 1. (Yes!) But in between all this movement, I am watching Son play with his team, winning game after game, coming back from far behind or taking the lead and never letting go. We're freezing out there most times, being eaten by bugs other times, but somehow we're never bored by this 2-hour display of amateur athleticism.

I can't think of a better way to spend my time, watching my son realize that he can do something and have such a big impact on everyone around him. It's truly awe-inspiring.

Monday, May 04, 2009

5 Relearned Lessons in Customer Service

The past month has been an interesting lesson in customer service. People we have worked with in a business-to-business capacity for months or years suddenly had all kinds of unfortunate circumstances befall them or have had good things happen to them that takes up their time. All of these people were small business owners, just like us. We have loved the work of these people in the past. We have praised them to the hilt to others. We know this is just a bump in their road and they won't lose our business because of these setbacks, but it doesn't change the fact that this time around we were less than thrilled with something they did or did not do. The common denominator? Communication.

The circumstances were illnesses and machinery failure and increase in workload. We have also dealt with people in the past on a very limited basis because of this same thing - lack of clear communication. We weren't feeling heard, let alone understood. We were feeling like they came to the table with preconceived notions and even after discussing things, we weren't getting what we expected. The main offender of this last situation worked with us for about 2 or 3 months and we had to let him go. It was crazy how I would say, "Do X" and he would come back to me asking, "What do you want to do?" or worse, I would say, "I need you to do things 1, 2, 3 and 4" and he'd come back - very late - with things 1 and 4 done but nary a word about the middle two, as if I hadn't said them at all. That shows you really don't listen or read, and you are not acting like you care. I give really detailed emails, folks. Usually I know exactly what I want and I don't have time or desire to re-explain things. I like to work with people with a certain amount of intuition about my wants and need and loads of self-initiative but it's not easy to find these qualities.

These events formed a huge reminder for my business partner and me. We don't want people to think these things of Village Works. It has occurred to me after these recent experiences that maybe there is a lesson here for us to focus on for the sake of our own business and growing customer base. Basically it is this: Talk your customers at every stage of the game and talk to them directly and honestly. Blogging and newsletters to communicate some major things that affects lots of people is great, but if you are going to be late getting Mr. Smith's job done because of something beyond your control, just tell Mr. Smith the truth. He may be able to even extend your deadline. He may not care and will just say thanks for letting him know. He may walk away and then you know what you have? Less stress and more time for your other customers.

So this is what we know about customer service and communicating with customers, but have relearned and it is sticking with us all the more:

1 - Be the doctor. I took a psych class in college and have rudimentary understanding of the field so bear with me. But as I recall, one of the differences between a psychiatrist and a psychologis, is that psychiatrists generally work with people who are not quite aware of what their issues are so they help diagnosis the illness so they can begin to find solutions. Psychologists are generally working with people who know their problem but still need help solving it. Figure out which you need to be and do that, but in order to do either one, guess what? You have to listen to your customer first! Remember that it's really not about what you can do for your customer initially. First you want to know what your customer wants you to do for them. Let them exhaust their list. Maybe you know something won't work but I believe they will listen more readily if they feel like you first heard their desires and, like any good relationship, you have said back, "This is what I am hearing. Am I understanding you correctly?" After that, you can bring out what you have to say. Hey, maybe even wait for a second meeting which gives everyone the chance to think about things and come back to the table fresh.

2 - Stay in touch. Small businesses really need to take this heart. You don't want to appear small or unable to do a job. But most people just want to work with people they like and feel they can trust. Size really doesn't matter - usually. But what happens when you, the small business owner, get sick or go on vacation? You don't want to lose business but I would like to suggest to you that it is better to say you are sick and will be back to work in X days/weeks than to not say anything at all or pass everything on to someone else without your customer's knowledge. It really all depends on how you normally work and what your customer has become used to. If you are going to stray from the norm, let them know. Auto messages, recorded away messages, emails, whatever you need to let them know what is going on. I believe you will gain their respect and continued loyalty. I know you would have mine. It takes a lot of work to find the right service providers. Why would I walk away so easily?

3 - Be a giver. For Village Works, part of what we enjoy doing is not just doing the job you expect from us. We try to always add a little personal touch to the job that is truly specific to the job or person for whom the job is being done. Special packaging for the products, a few extra items added in because we figured there may be some unexpected need. We do what comes to our hearts at that time and create something we'd personally enjoy receiving or giving. The customer isn't expecting it. It's part of how we under promise and over deliver and we enjoy the surprise of doing things that way. This works for us. It may not work for others but then again, who doesn't like a little coupon with their purchase or some kind of discount just for referring a new customer? We at Village Works think about what we'd like to see or receive and do no less than not just what the customer wants, but what we know would make it something we'd be proud to have for ourselves.

4 - Do unto customers as you would want done unto you. I think I've said this in a few different ways already above. Just put yourself in your customer's shoes for a brief moment. I know you can do it because you most likely already feel like something isn't quite right or you are feeling a little guilty about some part of the communication you are having with the customer. Or maybe you are beginning to feel annoyed by that customer's persistence but what are they bugging you about? Is it the same question of when, when, when or how, how, how or please call me? It may be time to go back to Number 1 - figure out what their issue is and help them solve it by simply talking to them.

5 - Even if there is a parting of ways, give your best service. Sometimes things just don't work out. But I can tell you from a customer's point of view that just because the fit is no longer right for us, or wasn't right enough to work with you in the first place, doesn't mean we won't recommend you. My business partner and I are huge believers in telling others about our positive experiences strictly so others will benefit. We enjoy doing it! But we won't hesitate to talk about the shoddy experiences too. You have to remember that my leaving doesn't necessarily mean I won't be back and it also doesn't mean I won't send customers your way. My leaving isn't always a reflection on you so give us your best service at all times because you just never know what we'll say or do for you. Don't underestimate our ability to help you grow.

As businesses, I think we need to remember that we are customers too and stepping in that role when dealing with our own customers can be helpful to all involved. If we wouldn't appreciate being treated a certain way, should our customers feel any less?