April 26, 2022
This is the fourth installment in our series about Sales Best Practices for the Green Industry. In this post, we’ll be discussing the importance of having a thoughtful, well-developed Customer Experience program.
I will quote from an article published in the Harvard Business Review several times throughout this post. Two things to note regarding that.
First, I’m only going to link to that article one time – click here to read the full article. It was written in 2007, so this is something people have been talking about going back before the Great Recession. While the real-world examples in there are a bit dated (does anyone remember the Treo?), the principles involved are still spot-on. You could easily find modern examples to update the article.
Secondly, when referencing this article moving forward, I will use the acronym “HBR” about the “Harvard Business Review.” Typing out the full name of the publication is going to get old.
Okay, let’s dive in!
What do we mean by “Customer Experience?”
Don’t misread this as “customer service.” The two are very different.
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries defines customer service as “the help and advice that a company gives people who buy or use its products or services.” In short, customer service is the support and advice you give to people who are already your customers.
This is different from customer experience. According to the HBR article, “Customer experience is the internal and subjective response customers have to any direct or indirect contact with a company.” In other words, it’s not objective truth. It’s the feelings people have when interacting with your company, whether they’ve become a customer or not.
Customer Experience (called “CX”) is the aggregate of all the interactions a person has with your company – what they see in your advertising, driving past your trucks on the highway, talking to your crew working at the neighbor’s house, what they encounter while navigating your website or phone tree, and what they undergo while talking to your sales, scheduling, office, or billing staff. ALL of it is considered “CX.”
Per the HBR, “Customer satisfaction is essentially the culmination of a series of customer experiences or, one could say, the net result of the good ones minus the bad ones….To understand how to achieve satisfaction, a company must deconstruct it into its component experiences.”
How people feel about your company is like a bank account. Deposits are when people have good feelings about what they experienced. Withdrawals are when people have a negative experience leading to frustration, anger, or sadness. Those withdrawals are inevitable. Thoughtful CX is about being intentional with the deposits.
You collect this information at different stages throughout your customer’s interactions with your company. These experiences are called “touchpoints” in the customer’s relationship with your company. (Note: in the HBR article, they are called “touch points” with a space. The spelling without a space is considered the current, correct spelling. I’ve left quotes as they appeared in the article.) The HBR article says:
What constitutes a meaningful touch point changes over the course of a customer’s life. For a young family with limited time and resources, a brief encounter with an insurance broker or financial planner may be adequate. The same sort of experience wouldn’t satisfy a senior with lots of time and a substantial asset base.
Not all touch points are of equivalent value. Service interactions matter more when the core offering is a service….Companies need to map the corridor of touch points and watch for snarls. At each touch point, the gap between customer expectations and experience spells the difference between customer delight and something less.
The total accumulation of all these “touchpoints” is called the Customer Journey. You need to be the diligent, relentless steward of the Customer Journey if you are to thrive and outpace your competition in today’s marketplace.
Why should I care about Customer Experience?
I can hear some of you moaning about this one already. “Why should I care? What’s in it for me?”
First off, shame on you. You’re in a service industry – doing the right thing for your customers should always be top-of-mind for you.
Secondly, there are great reasons you should prioritize CX in your business.
Good CX Builds Loyalty
According to the HBR article, “Consumers have a greater number of choices today than ever before, more complex choices, and more channels through which to pursue them. In such an environment, simple, integrated solutions to problems—not fragmented, burdensome ones—will win the allegiance of the time-pressed consumer.”
When you’re easy to do business with, and people have a wonderful experience, you win. It’s that simple. Don’t believe me? How about this:
Emplifi, quoting research done by Forbes, stated, “65% of respondents would become long-term customers of a brand if they can provide positive experiences throughout the customer journey.”
65% is nearly two out of three. Two out of three customers said they’d become “long-term customers” if a company could provide a positive experience throughout their “customer journey.”
Ignoring your CX (or bad CX) leaves a lot of money on the table. Speaking of leaving money on the table…
Make More Money
This is a blog in a series about improving Sales, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this. If you want to make more money and reduce costs, you should improve your Customer Experience. Citing research from McKinsey & Company, Chief Outsiders found that companies that improve their CX programs “increase revenue 10-15%” and “lower costs 15-20%.”
Lowering your costs by up to 20% alone should make this worthwhile. But increasing revenues by 10-15% isn’t insignificant. Between reducing your costs and increasing revenue, you could be looking at an improvement in profitability of 25% (on the low end) to 35% (on the high end).
If you can ignore a combined 25%-35% boost in sales and decrease in expenses, good for you. But you shouldn’t.
Now What? – How to Start Improving Your CX
Now that you understand what CX means, it’s time to start thinking about how to improve it. There are several actionable ways you can go about doing this.
Ask People Who Canceled
One place to start is with people who recently canceled their service with you. This is probably the most uncomfortable place and one of the most important. You can do this through surveys, and you’ll likely get some useful feedback there. I would recommend picking up the phone and physically calling them.
This group has nothing to lose. You’ll probably catch an earful from some of them, as the emotions might be running high. If you can’t separate their feeling from the honest, objective feedback, ask someone with thicker skin on your team to do this. Incentivize them in some way (bonus, dedicated parking spot, extra PTO, etc.). The information you’ll gather from these conversations will be valuable.
Make sure you’re capturing that information in some actionable way. Create categories or “buckets” where that feedback falls. They could be things like “scheduling,” “backlogs too long,” “customer service,” or “poor communication” – you get the idea. This will tell you where the bottlenecks to great CX are in your company.
You should also separate these by service line if you offer more than one service. You might find that your backlog for Landscape Maintenance work is just fine, but your backlog for Design/Build is where people are getting frustrated. That’s a powerful insight – you’re narrowing things to a specific problem in one department rather than trying to fix an entire process.
Ask Your Team
Many businesses overlook this part of the process. When you’re trying to figure out what things are essential to your customers, the very first place you should go is to the people who serve them every day.
Your sales, production, scheduling, customer service, and billing teams have a wealth of insight that is probably untapped. Asking them questions like “What are the most common frustrations you hear from customers?” and “What are YOUR most common frustrations in attempting to solve a problem for our customers?” will get you moving in the right direction.
Once you’ve identified some common issues, start figuring out how to solve them. You’ll improve the experience for your clients AND build goodwill with your team. There’s no downside to this.
Are your schedulers frustrated by the inability to reschedule jobs en masse due to weather? Look for a solution. If your production teams would otherwise be going home, have them call those clients before they leave rather than sticking all those calls with the scheduling team. Or, find a software solution that allows you to reschedule those jobs and communicate with your customers.
Define a “Win” for CX
You must clearly understand what “improvement” looks like (getting proposals to customers more quickly, reducing the backlog, less time spent on paperwork, etc.). Without a clear definition of what a “win” is, you’ll just be making a change to make a change.
For example, if you’re trying to improve your backlog, set a goal. If it’s a 12-week wait today, set a goal of getting it down to eight weeks. Set a deadline of when you hope to achieve that goal, and then check in periodically to make sure you’re getting there.
If you’re hitting those goals, great! If not, figure out what the bottleneck is (don’t assume it’s the same one!), and make another adjustment.
One word of caution: before diving headlong into a change, figure out if there are “downstream” consequences. Don’t make a significant change to relieve a bottleneck in one part of the business only to create another one somewhere else. Make sure you’re providing holistic solutions.
Ask someone you trust to do this. Make sure they do NOT mention they know you. Offer to pay for or comp the services; this is research. Get them to report to you about EVERYTHING. Some specifics to ask about are:
- Messaging: Did any ads resonate with them? Were there any ads, commercials, or interactions with the company that they found cumbersome or offensive?
- Contact: How did they come into contact with your company? Website? Talked to a crew in the field? Did you stick a door-to-door Sales rep in their neighborhood?
- Timeliness: How long did it take for your company to call them back? How long until they got an appointment or a proposal? What was the wait time until the work was scheduled? How long until completion?
- Professionalism: Ask them to rate the professionalism of EVERYONE they spoke with; customer service reps, sales reps, field crews or technicians, schedulers, the billing department – everyone. Especially if it’s a family business and you have family members working there. (You need to hold them to a slightly higher standard to avoid the appearance of nepotism. This keeps morale high for other employees. It’s the way the world works. )
- Billing: How easy was it to pay? Was the invoice clear on what work was done? Was there a breakdown of what items cost, what was taxable v. non-taxable, etc.? Consider having the bill go past net-30 terms, and see what the collections process looks like for them.
Get clarity on the whole process. Consider having a few people you know and trust do this each season (at different times). Take their feedback seriously. When someone you know and like tells you, “This part of the process was awful,” imagine what people who don’t know you think about it.
A great way to do this is using Buyer Personas. You create some imaginary people who are representative of the type of customer you want to attract. This is typically a marketing exercise, but once you’ve made two or three of these, you can start to craft experiences that this “person” would enjoy.
Pretend one Persona is “Millennial Mike” (yes, you name them). Mike is a 35-year-old married man with two kids under six. He is the breadwinner in his family (his wife works part-time), and he works as a mid-level manager at a warehouse. “Mike” enjoys some DIY projects, but mostly those are home renovations. He’s lost when it comes to yardwork of any kind, he’s short on time, and what little time he does have on weekends, he spends with his family. The division of labor in their home dictates that “Mike” is responsible for all yard-related tasks.
What types of advertising will probably resonate with Mike? What is Mike most likely hiring your company to do? How would he like to pay? What problems is he trying to solve by calling you?
These are questions you need to answer for Mike. Once you’ve responded to these questions (and similar questions for your other Buyer Personas), you can begin to craft ads, website experiences, Sales, Scheduling, and Billing processes that will ensure Mike has a great experience with your company.
Proposals – How long do they take?
I want to discuss proposals specifically, as this can be a real pain point for both customers and Green companies. How long does it take a customer to get a bid when they’ve asked for one?
For some Green businesses (like Lawn Care), it’s almost instantaneous. You can quote that job over the phone based on square footage or look it up online and email them a proposal in moments.
For the rest of us, it’s usually a bit more complicated. It’s almost impossible to quote edging and mulching, shrub trimming, or tree removal to a net new customer over the phone. Someone has to look at it.
During the peak of the season (Spring for most of us), your Sales team is stretched thin. They’re running from appointment to appointment like crazy, trying to “make hay while the sun shines,” so to speak. Backlogs on an appointment for a proposal can sometimes take a week or ten days.
Once your Sales staff have met with someone, how long until they get a proposal to the potential new customer? A day? A week? Longer than that??
Here, you need to have an honest conversation with your sales staff. Don’t get mad about delays. Ensure them that there will be no punishments for long wait times. Instead, reassure them that you’re trying to ensure they have everything they need to succeed.
Winning the sale
Your best chance of getting that new customer is to do a few things here:
- Be the first company to call them back. Do it right away, as soon as possible, after receiving their request.
- Get to their house right away. Leave as little lag time as possible between when you speak to them to set up the appointment and when your Sales staff is meeting with them. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but try to keep this window to 48 hours or less.
- Get them a proposal quickly. This will vary depending on what time of day you meet with the client. You have the best chance of success when your staff can get a proposal to the potential client in 24 hours or less. If it’s a morning appointment, or you have technology that allows you to do so, the same day is best.
- Communicate. If your proposal will take longer than the “same day,” tell the customer when they should expect to receive it. Give yourself a buffer; if you think it’ll take two days, tell them it’ll be three. If you get to the end of the third day and you aren’t going to make your deadline, call them to tell them when they’ll get it. Most importantly, stick to that self-imposed deadline!
Reducing the wait time
There are ways to reduce the wait time between the request and the appointment. Also, there are ways to reduce the time between the meeting and the customer receiving a proposal.
Get creative here. I’ve seen platforms like Groundwork perform well for some companies. It’s a “virtual” Sales call. The homeowner uses their cell phone to record video walkthroughs of their projects. They explain what they’re looking for in their own words, and you send you videos of the job site. It can work out well for those edging and mulching jobs or simple hardscaping projects.
You can outsource your quantity surveys to a company like Takeoff Monkey. This service is simple; you send them all your landscape design drawings, and they send you back the quantities you need for hardscaping, plants, irrigation installs, etc. The staff is composed of teams of people with experience in landscape construction.
Outsourcing parts of the process is another option. You could hire a freelance Landscape Designer in your area to meet with the client and work on the drawings. You might even consider hiring a small hardscaping contractor to complete some of your installs. I’ve seen both of these ideas work very well firsthand.
You will need to account for any of these options’ added costs in your pricing. The point is to do whatever you can to streamline your process and reduce the wait time for your customers.
Importance of Leadership in CX
You’ve got to be the champion of your customer’s experience. If you don’t want to own that, delegate it to someone or hire someone to do it. According to that HBR article, “a vigorous reaction to intelligence gathered on customer experience requires general management to orchestrate a response to customer problems.” It’s not enough to understand the problems; you have to fix them.
If you fill a leadership role in your company, you’re on the hook for this. You need to be aware of the entire customer experience with your company and how each department contributes to these “touchpoints.”
Seeing a crew at work in the field (production), using your website (marketing), calling your office (customer service), getting a quote (sales), following up on a proposal (also sales), timeliness of scheduling (scheduling), and paying their invoice (billing) – all of these touchpoints require a commitment to ease of use and excellent communication from your company to the customers.
To streamline this process, they need to be overseen by one person. There should be someone at your company who has input into all of these areas and owns responsibility for ensuring your customers have an exceptional experience doing business with you.
If you don’t believe me about the importance of leadership in this area, I’ll leave you with one final quote from the Harvard Business Review:
Customer experience does not improve until it becomes a top priority and a company’s work processes, systems, and structure change to reflect that. When employees observe senior managers persistently demanding experience information and using it to make tough decisions, their own decisions are conditioned by that awareness.
Once you prioritize this in your business, those who report to you will also prioritize an exceptional customer experience for your clients.
There is a critical difference between customer service and customer experience. Customer service is working with people who are already customers. Customer experience (also called “CX”) is the subjective feeling someone has about you across the sum of all their “touchpoints” with your business.
You can improve your identifying pain points through conversations with canceled customers and your team. You can also use your Buyer Personas from your marketing and Secret Shoppers to craft experiences that your ideal customer will love.
Great CX is important because we work in a service-based industry. It’s also great for your bottom line; good CX has been shown to increase sales and reduce costs in a business. Proposals are a particular pain point for many Green Industry businesses, especially during peak season.
Lastly, remember – this change won’t happen until you lead the charge. Make sure you are the relentless cultivator of a great customer experience, and you’ll reap the benefits in sales!
Keep Reading Part 5: The Sales Call