Three Easy Ways to Engage Your Customers

The Westin Portland was my favorite hotel.

It's slated to leave the Marriott (nee Starwood) family at the end of this month and I'm sad to see it go. I've stayed there many times and have always felt welcome. I even wrote about it in my blog and in my book, Service Failure, where I shared some of their secrets for outstanding service.

One thing The Westin Portland consistently did well was customer engagement.

I was surprised with a Westin Portland coffee mug and a handwritten note on my 10th stay at the hotel. I've stayed at several other hotels 10 or more times, but none of the others ever recognized me like that for my loyalty. 

I still use that mug.

Ali, one of the valet parking attendants, always recognized me when I arrived. At first, he greeted me with "Welcome." Soon, he greeted me with, "Welcome back!" 

During one three month stretch when I stayed there every week, Ali greeted me with, "Welcome home!"

Then, there was this incredible experience that proved small things really do matter. 

What is Customer Engagement?

The typical definition of customer engagement is unsatisfying.

Most of the sources I looked at defined customer engagement as any interaction with a customer. My issue with that is not all interactions are particularly engaging:

  • Transactional interactions are routine and unmemorable.
  • Problem interactions are often frustrating.
  • Marketing interactions often feel forced and too cheesy.

The one type of interaction that truly feels engaging is when customers are interacting with an employee or your brand in some way because they like you. These engagements cement a customer's loyalty and make that customer more eager to recommend your business to others.

Most of all, engagement doesn't feel forced or contrived. It's authentic.


Three Ideas You Can Use Right Now

Here are three ways you can engage your customers that cost little to no money and take just a small amount of effort.


Acknowledge the Social Love

This has got to be the easiest technique on the list.

All you have to do is acknowledge those moments when a customer professes their love for your brand or service on social media! 

Here's a fun exchange I had with Tesco Mobile. (I'm not even a customer, but they're incredibly engaging on Twitter.)

Of course, it helps to have a presence on social media. Patrick Maguire recently posted this story on his blog where a restaurant missed out on some really nice positive exposure because it lacked a social media presence.


Keep an Interest List

It's time to put your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to good use! Keep a list of special requests, favorite products, and other things your customers are interested in.

A restaurant can seat repeat guests at a favorite table. A dry cleaner can know exactly how much starch a customer likes in his shirts. A plumber can remember the name of the family dog and bring a dog treat on a service call.

You can even use this technique to generate sales.

Years ago, I managed a contact center for a catalog company that sold products imported from countries that made up the former Soviet Union. Most of it was new, but we also had our fair share of antiques and collectibles.

We'd turn to our interest list whenever a new shipment came in and call customers who were interested in particular antiques. These were people who were looking for something specific and rare, so they were actually happy to get our call!

Notice that the secret to making an interest list work is you need to capture your customers' interests. You can use the Five Question Technique to make this happen.


Build Relationships

We often have a chance to interact with customers in a way that stretches beyond a simple transaction. 

For example, The Westin Portland hosted weekly happy hours in its lobby. A lot of hotels do this, but what really impressed me is that many members of the hotel's leadership team, including the General Manager, would show up and spend time mingling with guests.

It was a chance to get to know the people who worked there on a much more personal level. I've even stayed in touch with several associates from the hotel over the years.

One of those people was Jeff Igou, who now works at the Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit. My wife and I visited Detroit on our recent baseball stadium tour and you'd better believe I stayed at Jeff's hotel!

Try to get to know repeat customers on a personal level. Make sure they know you, too. My research suggests that customers are 2-3 times more likely to give a business a top score on a customer satisfaction survey when they know an employee by name!



Engaging your customers can improve loyalty, referrals, and ultimately lead to more revenue.

The best part is it doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Just a little bit of effort and creativity can go a long way!

Lessons From the Overlook: Some People Suck

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

My monthly inspections of The Overlook have revealed a sad fact: each and every month, something is broken or stolen. 

The snow shovel went missing. The ice scraper we left for guests went missing two months later. People repeatedly steal batteries out of the alarm clocks. Three flashlights were absconded. Even our American flag disappeared.

Our flag?!

There's also been some damage, some of which was unreported to our property manager. A few broken glasses. A broken drawer dislodged from a chest (how?). The broom was broken in half. 

Luckily, it hasn't been anything major so far. Everything has been quickly repaired or replaced.

I won't lie. It's frustrating to see the damage and find that items have gone missing. It's also a reminder of a universal truth in customer service.

Some people suck.

Some of our tupperware went missing.

Some of our tupperware went missing.

The Wrong Solution

It's tempting to implement a heavy-handed solution.

Many businesses go this route. They overtly mistrust their customers and institute restrictive policies and unreasonable fees as a result.

Here's an example from a frozen yogurt place that I no longer frequent:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The sign was clearly intended to thwart would-be free sample abusers.

One might imagine roving hoards of sample bandits descending upon the shop and draining the yogurt machines of free samples and then merrily tromping out without ever spending a dime.

More likely there were a few frustrating abusers.

The rest of us who are mature enough to handle the heavy responsibility of self-policing our free sample usage feel penalized by a sign like this. It's uninviting and discourages people from trying new flavors.

Here's an example from another vacation rental.

My wife, Sally, and I have rented the same condo in Napa, California twice a year for the past couple of years. We drive up, bring our dog, and enjoy a week-long working vacation in wine country. 

Earlier this year, the owner suddenly decided pets were no longer welcome.

Apparently, some pets made a mess and few were even destructive. But not ours. Not even once. Would the owner make an exception for our well-behaved dog who has stayed at the condo multiple times without incident?


And with that, the condo lost a regular customer and the many referrals we've given. Which brings us back to The Overlook. 

We could implement a more stringent damage policy, raise the security deposit, or put up nasty signs all over the house to remind people of the rules.

But that would suck, too.


Get Some Perspective

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the importance of knowing your numbers

It's infuriating to discover theft or unreported damage. While that's an emotional reaction, a rational review of the numbers reveals its not such a big deal.

Let's start with damage.

Dishes and glasses will break. Heck, I accidentally broke a glass at The Overlook on a recent visit. So we've stockpiled extra dishes and glasses so that when one does break, we can quickly replace it with a matching item. 

The cost per incident is typically less than $5.

Replacing a few dishes and glasses is part of the cost of doing business. Spread out over the many guests who don't break or steal anything, that cost is minimal. 

Side note: Having clean, matching, undamaged dishes and glassware is a surprisingly simple point of difference between The Overlook and the typical vacation rental.

What about theft? Empathy has given me a new perspective.

The Overlook attracts families, which means we often have young children staying at the cabin. Have you ever seen a couple of harried parents trying to corral their kids on vacation? Stuff gets scooped up and shoved in bags.

I'm convinced a lot of the minor thefts are unintentional.

For example, I can imagine a guest using the ice scraper to scrape their car windows on a cold morning. Perhaps they toss it in their car while they're driving around town in case they get more ice. The ice scraper eventually gets forgotten in the trunk until they arrive back home and unload their car. 

Should they have alerted our property manager and offered to pay for a replacement? Of course they should have. But replacing that ice scraper cost less than $10. I gladly replaced it so there's one available to the next guest who gets ice on their windows.

So far, there really is only one big problem with damage and theft.


My True Worry

The biggest concern I have with theft and damage is the impact on the next guest.

We try to minimize this issue. Our property manager inspects the property before and after each guest stays there. The cleaning crew also alertly spots problems. Sally and I personally inspect The Overlook at least once per month.

The challenge is its tough to spot everything in a house.

A damaged glass was put back in a cupboard behind other dishes. The weather turned warm right after the ice scraper went missing and nobody thought to look for it. Our property manager didn't realize we had an American flag, so how could she know it was gone?

For now, we try to put everything in perspective.

We keep extra supplies at the house. We inspect everything regularly. We react quickly to guest feedback when they alert us to a problem caused by another guest.

And we avoid the temptation to penalize our many wonderful guests for the actions of a few people who suck. Over time, we think this will help us build a steady clientele of repeat guests who will treat our cabin with respect.

The few guests we know who take items or cause damage and try to hide it just won't be invited back. So much for 100 percent repeat business.

Let's Stop Calling Customer Service a Soft Skill

The term "soft skills" is typically used to refer to a wide range of interpersonal skills.

This includes leadership, emotional intelligence, and customer service. There's no doubt these skills are important, but calling them soft skills creates a problem.

My friend Jeremy Watkin recently wrote about the debate over this term in this blog post for the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) blog on the topic. He asked 17 customer service leaders to weigh in. Nine were against using "soft skills."

Noticeably absent from Watkin's list were trainers. By my count, there were only two people who weighed in who had a background in adult learning. Both of those people were firmly against using the term.

I asked a few of my own training professional colleagues for their thoughts on the term, "soft skills." They were unanimously against it.

That's because calling a skill like customer service a soft skill makes it almost impossible to train and manage. Here's why.

Skill or Soft Skill?

Skills are definable, observable, and measurable. For example, you can see someone demonstrate certain skills to fix a car, program a computer, or cook a meal. 

Let's say you wanted to hire a customer service representative for your contact center. If you wanted to gauge a skill such as typing, you could administer a typing test. That would tell you the person's speed and accuracy.

You could also offer training to develop that person's typing skills (Mavis Beacon, anyone?). The training would focus on specific drills to improve speed and accuracy.

But what about critical customer service skills such as building rapport?

This is where many customer service leaders struggle. Interpersonal skills like building rapport are typically called soft skills because they're difficult to define, observe, and measure.

That creates a problem.

  • How do you train a skill you can't define?
  • How do you screen job candidates for a skill you can't observe?
  • How do you coach employees to improve a skill you can't measure?

You'll find it pretty difficult to answer any of those questions if you don't have a clear definition of the skill involved. And once you create a clear definition, it's no longer soft. It simply becomes a skill.


Why Terminology Matters

Keep in mind the term "soft skill" is applied to skills that are difficult to define, observe, and manage. So calling something a "soft skill" is often an unconscious attempt to avoid difficult work.

For example, imagine you wanted to train employees to build rapport with customers. How would you train that?

A typical response might be to do a class discussion, include some self-reflection, and perhaps add some role-playing for good measure.

Notice what's missing:

  • Definition: What is rapport?
  • Observation: What does building rapport look like?
  • Measurement: How can I tell if someone has learned to build rapport?

That kind of soft skills training is usually not training at all.

Training helps people develop knowledge, skills, and ability. So logically, if you can't define what exactly you're trying to train, you can't train it.

    Take the time to define, observe, and measure rapport and its no longer a vague, ambiguous soft skill. It's simply a skill.

    Here's an example that I often use in training:

    • Definition: Rapport is creating a personal connection with another person.
    • Observation: An example of rapport is learning a customer's name or other personal details.
    • Measurement: I can measure this through a simple training activity. Participants are given three minutes to meet three new people. At the end of the three minutes, they are asked to recall the following information for each person: Name, a hobby or interest, and a customer service strength.

    Most customer service professionals will tell you they're pretty good at building rapport. But that's rapport in the ambiguous, unmeasured, soft skill sense.

    My activity highlights an unexpected difficulty. In a typical training class, just 10 percent of the group will  successfully complete the exercise.

    Now it's time to train.

    I spend time working with the class to determine obstacles to building rapport. We discuss specific techniques that can make them more successful. When I run the activity a second time, typically 80 - 100 percent of participants demonstrate the ability to build rapport with three people in three minutes.

    That's observable and measurable skill development.


    Improve Results with this One Adjustment

    The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the premiere professional organization for training professionals.

    A few years ago, ATD published a comprehensive handbook which is the definitive reference guide for adult learning. It's noteworthy that the term "soft skills" isn't referenced in this guide.

    That's because skills are skills.

    It doesn't matter whether it's a technical skill like typing or an interpersonal skill like building rapport. If you can define it, observe it, and measure it, it's a skill.

    Make no mistake: defining customer service skills can be a difficult, time-consuming task. That's why most managers and trainers don't do it.

    But taking the time to get clear about customer service skills opens up a world of opportunities for customer service leaders. Here are just a few:

    • Hiring becomes easier when you clearly define the skills you need.
    • Training is more effective when you know what to train.
    • Coaching is vastly improved when you can be specific.

    Chances are, you're doing some of this already.

    Customer service standards are ways of defining expected customer service skills. Quality monitoring and mystery shopping are examples of observing and measuring these skills. You're probably coaching those behaviors already.

    So drop the word "soft" and just call them skills.