Thursday, April 28, 2011

Best Example of Authentic Entrepreneurship & Customer Focus? Chris Zane´s!

Chris Zane has learned from his own experience what it means to win the trust of a lifetime customer. He thinks a lot how the game is played and tries to change the rules so that everyone (except for competitors) wins.
Chris Zane, Founder and President of a very successful leading American bicycle Company Zane´s Cycles based in the Branford, U.S., always positively surprises. His customers, his business partners, employees or just his followers on Twitter. I am myself the real life example. My blog on Starbucks´ was a door opener for our twitter conversation on customer service , that ended up by a pleasant surprise of receiving Chris Zane´s new book with his inscription. Another sign that Chris Zane lives the values which he shares during Keynote speeches, at Universities, in professional magazines (e.g.Fortune, The Harvard Business Review) and also in his new book "Reinventing the Wheel".

What puts Chris Zane apart from others?

Vision, Passion, Authenticity and Drive
Chris is always hungry for a challenge, wanting to do something big. Already at the age of 16 he bought his first bike shop. Twenty years later he was running 15 million USD business.

"I was scared to death of going out of business which is always a great motivator to try new things. I was small potatoes, but that didn´t mean I had to stay that way."

The success story was not as rosy at the beginning. Chris nearly went bankrupt. Fortunately he got an impulse for trying again, but differently.

"I thought I would let my customers lead me instead of trying to guess what they wanted."

Customer Service Obsession
If you may not yet have heard about a CEO, who believes he should be "at somebody´s service", please meet Chris Zane. His customer service obsession became famous, not just in the U.S.
"Every company, particularly large national ones, needs to start thinking of customer service as a profit creator, not just a cost sink. ...In this viral age, where so many transactions happen with no human being involved, finding a way to make emotional connections with your customers is key."

As Chris passionately claims in his book: "We are better than our competitors because we differentiate ourselves by offering more service than most customers consider reasonable. ...Our goal is to blow them away with our attention to detail as soon as we meet them. ...By doing more, by creating a positive and unexpected experience, along with a gentle reminder of what you did, you are changing the relationship you have with your customer."

No wonder that Chris believes that most important is to look at the value of a customer over the lifetime of your relationship with him or her, as part of a lasting sequence of events, avoiding thinking in terms of single transactions.

Zane´s employees pro-actively use customer database to start a conversation with a returned customer. The profile of the customer reveals among other information purchase frequency, bought items history and also tracking of every repair job. Rather than wasting time by offering to a customer something he/she has already bought, they are talking about what type of other products he/ she might be looking for this time. Database information is also used to send tailor-made flyers to customers, informing about special event or for approaching parents of growing kid e.g. if Zane´s sells a 16inch bike to the parents of a five-year-old, the same family will be ready to upgrade to the 20inch bike in another two years.

Zane has also put high attention to designing the retail store layout. The objective was to encourage his customers to browse through the latest and greatest products. For the customers who subscribe to the unlimited flat tire fix program, there is a staff "show" in the retail store. The entire staff sprint into action and the customer receives the red carpet treatment. In front of the eyes of the other customers, who have afterwards the temptation to enroll as well.

"If I stopped thinking I was in the "selling stuff" business and instead that I was in the "selling experiences" business, I could attract those customers who weren´t 100 percent price driven."

Innovative Marketing
Chris is always looking into a new niche, trying to change the game. He believes that if Zane´s ensures continuous improvement, than the employees are never on autopilot. He is obsessed with developing additional offerings, with providing more service than seems reasonable, knowing that customers self-regulate.

Among the most popular and surprising services that Zane´s started to offer were e.g. a lifetime service guarantee (all parts and labor are covered for the life of your bike, meaning tune-ups for free), flat tire insurance (for small one-time fee bike´s flat tires will be fixed for free for ever), a free trade-in program for kids bikes (even ten years later kids can get full credit for their bikes to purchase new ones) or also ninety-day price protection guarantee (to take out the question of price right out of the customer´s buying decision).

Spreading positive Word Of Mouth and helping the community he lives in is also a key priority for Chris. Zane´s donates dozens of slightly used but quality bikes to underprivileged kids every six months or so. As he continuously thrives to support those in need, being it sports clubs or children at schools, the attention from the local media to Zane´s Company is inevitable then.

Down the Earth Approach
"Rather than obsessing over textbook concepts like inventory turns or the cost of goods sold, all I had to do was think about how to make our customers think good things about us."

"It took me several years of operating the business before I built up enough confidence to leap to a lifetime guarantee." When Zane´s started with this program, some supposed experts were convinced it was going to lead Zane to bankruptcy. He however understood clearly the cost and profit implications of each service innovation he has undertaken. So he assured, the costs of this service will be minimized: "I paid my mechanics a salary rather than a commission, they had all the incentive in the world not to work on the same bike more than once." He has also made his pre-calculation of probable cost he will have to take on. The reality overachieved his expectations. The business started to grow rapidly at the expense of competition and the profit has not sunk while most people did not take full advantage of every deal they come across.

Training of Positive Serving Employees Mindset
Chris has an ambition to make Zane´s a fabulous place to work. "My goal is to build a team of people who have both the aptitude to learn the nuances of riding and the ability to translate those details to our customers. ... I can´t teach someone to have empathy and kindness for our customers and toward his or her co-workers. My main criteria in adding new members to our team is, "Is this person intrinsically nice"?

"Any organization that fails to coach its employees not to say things like "Can I help you" also fails to recognize that it has encouraged its employees to turn on autopilot, responding in the way a robot would."

Final Word
Chris Zane definitely belongs to the top class retailers, not just in the American scale. I wish his vision of creating lifetime customers will be adopted by more businesses, especially in the Czech Republic.

Chris Zane has been awarded many times for his Customer Service / Outstanding Business Practices, proudly belonging among the most influential people in the US bicycle industry, his marketing and sales practices are used as college case studies worldwide. His book Reinventing the Wheel is available at Amazon. 

Link To Amazon - Chris Zane: Reinventing the Wheel

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Other Vaclav Klaus (Or The Other You) On Twitter

Identity Theft Easy With Twitter
The Other Vaclav Klaus became popular on Twitter once publishing joking tweets about stolen pen. Followers started to grow by geometric line. The issue is that this Other Vaclav Klaus pretends he is Mr. President himself, adding the President picture and a link to official Vaclav Klaus web pages.

A typical case happening to famous people that the Twitter Co. struggles to prevent or deal with. There is a boarder line between allowed parody vs. not allowed non-parody impersonation. Twitter's impersonation policy states the following: "Impersonation is pretending to be another person or business as entertainment or in order to deceive. Non-parody impersonation is a violation of the Twitter Rules." Too much vague definition enabling harm to victims.

For increased clarity twitter just offers a service for selected celebrities and politicians to verify the data and give the person an identity authorization stamp. No wonder that some of the influential guys like Robert Kiyosaki or Donald Trump had no other options except for naming themselves on Twitter "@theRealKiyosaki" or "@realDonaldTrump" and adding a authorized stamp from Twitter, once they rightly did not start to negotiate the lump sum for name buy-out from the fake users.

Not all the fake owners do it from financial reasons being inspired by huge packages coming from web domains sales. Some of them just enjoy the fact that they can for a period of time enjoy the popularity or just to feel "cool" and "funny" to contribute to spreading out the local jokes. But what about if they attract huge number of their followers and then distribute a false alarm message?

It is not anymore about identity protection of celebrities.Twitter currently claims something between 175mil. & 200 mil. registered users worldwide. So if you imagine that this social network continues with its fast development, your registered true name on twitter may become a prized possession. Once you book it ahead of time, it cannot be taken away from you. YOU own it.

But do not go overboard and don not try to register now all name possibilities. Anything to which you do not own the rights is likely to be removed when Twitter is made aware.

If you do not want to be left out with some desperate user name, because yours is already taken, act immediately.You prevent yourself from identity theft and you make it easier for friends to find you.

And do not stop just there.

Track your name on-line presence via search engines or profi tools. Act immediately to avoid spreading misinformation or reputation damage. If you are a celebrity, media person or politician, assure that you act immediately once you are a target of being "twitterjacked", as Ashton Kutcher or Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates or Condoleezza Rice experienced themselves, some hackers tweeted under their names.

Engage and build your brand on Twitter, post and share interesting tweets. This will attract many followers to you. Sooner or later your active twitter presence will eliminate the fake other ones, as readers intuitively go for quality and essence, they can only obtain from the authentic true individuals they adore.

Note: Identity theft, parodies, and copyright infringement on Twitterverse bring legal implications. Officially Twitter advises impersonation victims to contact its Terms of Service group. But depending on how quickly the profile in question is caught, it may be too late, experts say. Impersonation, parodies, and copyright infringement are likely to continue as Twitter grows. While the medium is relatively new, these issues are not. We can definitely expect interesting legal cases in this area.

Monday, April 11, 2011

(Not) Aging By Learning And Playing

Recently I have re-connected on Facebook with a business friend. He has sent me as a teaser a picture from our “olden – but golden” days, suggesting it was just few years ago. I had a temptation to correct him, the photo was taken already at least 17 years ago… Did I feel old realizing it was so long? And what about my authenticity? How much have I lost it because of my age or due to the top management expectations during my professional career?

Aging is a topic most of us hesitate to talk about. But the curve of aging is linked with learning. We cannot grow old, if we succeed to learn something new and stretch our minds enough every single day. We cannot grow old if we constantly try to improve the way we think and behave, if we actively and positively fight the obstacles we face. Challenges are good for us, because they help us to expand our horizons, to make a difference and to keep our soul young. The bigger we aim the more barriers we can expect and the more creative fresh approach we have to take. 
Feeling “for-ever-young” means we can tackle the professional and private life-hurdles with ease. Feeling young means we are able to nurture our inner child. We are able to build on the skills we have had as youngsters - being naturally curious, enjoying to engage with spontaneity and laughter, without fear.

Most of the time once we adults assume the responsibilities of life, we stop playing. We close our minds to new insights and powerful thoughts. We live reactive, passive, “comfortable” lives. We are afraid to take a chance, to live through new experiences, to search for greatness.

But does it have to be that way? What would our life look like if there was more authenticity? Where would our work experience bring us, if we started to bring more fun, imagination and greatness back to our jobs?  How would we feel if we started to fully enjoy every second of this journey called living?

“Aging only happens to people who lose their lust for getting better and disconnect from their natural base of curiosity.” Robin Sharma.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How Howard Schultz Managed To Enhance Starbucks´ Soul

Howard Schultz is visible everywhere now. At least from three reasons. Starbucks celebrated its 40th birthday on March 30th. Howard recently released his second book "Onward. - How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing its Soul" and thirdly because he is a true leader who is able to lead by example and generate a buzz around the Company he restarted for success after he returned to the CEO role in 2008.

Starbucks became under his leadership the World´s largest coffee store company. But back in 2007 successes covered up mistakes. Starbucks - as many other growing Companies - lost its focus on the customer. Instead it put all the efforts on the compliance with Wall Street. The pressure to deliver the growth expectations led to over expansion and loosing the Company soul.

Hard work had to be done, tough decisions had to be taken. Starbucks had to downsize and to reclaim its original customer centric values, vision and mission, while aggressively innovating and building on the opportunities arousing from social media landscape. Priority was to maintain the loyalty of Starbucks´s core customers at all costs. "Maintaining a focus on core customers during crisis is what helped weather a downturn," said once Howard, "While winning them back later would be too hard."

Howard understood well, that the Starbucks brand has to be unique and authentic. It has to resonate with the customer. People want to support only those brands and companies, whose values are comparable with their own. These values have to be inspirational, the staff and shop ambient have to breathe them. But a true brand has to go beyond its own distribution outlets.

This was the reason why Starbucks intensively started to emotionally engage with customers outside the coffee stores. Starbucks found the recepie to become one of most relevant brands to customers on Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare. It has developed itself into an iconic modern brand, often used as a benchmark, not just in the coffee business.

Howard underwood well that "Employees want to work for a Company they are proud of." But as well that "We are not in the coffee business serving people, we are in the people business serving coffee." For him the most important people at Starbucks are those wearing the green aprons. That is why one of the first steps Howard had done as returning CEO was unprecedented closing of all the North American stores for three hours to retrain employees (at costs of 6mil. USD) and then hosting a comprehensive off-site with 10,000 retail store managers (at costs of 30mil.USD). He apologized himself to all the staff for the decisions Starbucks leadership had made that had put the Company into the negative position. "The most important characteristic of a successful CEO is building trust with everyone in the organization. We can´t exceed the expectations of our customers if we can´t exceed the expectations of our own employees."

"Success is not an entitlement. It has to be earned.".Once you have the loyalty and trust of customers, you have to continue to earn it," as Howard once said. Starbucks is now on the rebound with its stock up more than 350% from its 2008 low. Though the challenge will be to keep the momentum and avoid the mistake of sleeping on the laurels again.

Howard Schultz personal mission:
"Dream more than others think practical. Expect more than others think possible."

Howard Schultz on vulnerability of a CEO - more in my other blog post: