My Favorite Business Books of 2014

Here are some of the best business books I read in 2014. These books are perfect for a last-minute Christmas gift or a good business book to read yourself over the winter holiday.


The Effortless Experience

I discovered this book when author Matt Dixon gave a riveting keynote address at ICMI’s CC Expo conference in May. 

The core message is avoiding service failures is a much stronger loyalty driver than delight. Dixon makes a compelling case for finding ways to make service consistently effortless for customers. He offers practical solutions and common-sense tactics than can easily be implemented.


What Great Brands Do

Author Denise Lee Yohn makes the compelling argument that branding is more than just a marketing exercise. It’s how to run a business. All departments impact a company’s brand whether it’s operations, R&D, or even customer service.

The book is full of practical examples and hands-on exercises that make it easy to translate the ideas into action.


Your Brain at Work

This book offers a fascinating look at how we can improve our success by having a better understanding of how our brains work.

It follows a typical workday for Emily and Paul, who are both overwhelmed with constant emails, meetings, and distractions. The author, David Rock, rewinds the scenes that unfold throughout their day to show us how small changes can lead to big improvements.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention my own book, Service Failure. It uncovers hidden reasons that employees struggle with customer service.

Happy Holidays!

How Cheap Retailers Lose Out on Holiday Sales

For customers, holiday shopping means one thing: crowds.

This is good news for retailers. Cash registers are ringing Jingle Bells. Many retailers count on the holiday shopping season to make up the bulk of their profit for the year.

Yet, many retailers still pinch pennies like old Ebenezer Scrooge. That penny pinching many be costing companies even more sales.

A new report from CTS Service Solutions reveals that crowds are driving customers away. The full infographic is below, but here are some findings that really stand out: 

  • 50% have left a store because of parking
  • 62% abandoned a sale due to slow service
  • 70% decided against a purchase rather than wait in a long line

Retailers can follow a few simple steps to capture even more sales this time of year.

Staff Up. Yes, many retailers add employees for the holiday season, but they’re often still chronically short-staffed. Saving just a few sales per hour would more than pay for the extra cost.

Manage Lines. Waiting in line has just as much to do with perception as actual wait time. Check out these tips for lowering customers’ wait time perception. My favorite? Keep customers engaged and keep things moving.

Mobilize Checkout. Okay, this is probably on next year’s wish list, but take a look at this terrific overview in Fortune magazine. One reason customers love the Apple Store so much is you don’t have to wait in line to make a purchase. The associate who assists you takes your payment right then and there. 

Courtesy of: Customers That Stick

Huge crowds can weigh heavily on your employees too. Here are 15 Holiday Tips for Anyone Who Works Retail from Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor.

Trend to Watch: Contact Center Quiet Rooms

Contact center agents’ brains are fried.

The cause is a production line mentality. Agents hum along like factory workers in an endless queue of customer contacts. Everything is tracked, measured, and evaluated. Efficiency rules.

Multitasking is seen as the key to efficiency. The more you activity you can squeeze into an agent's day, the more efficient you are; or so the thinking goes.

It's rampant among contact center agents. The average agent now uses seven screens to serve customers (source: ICMI). 

All this repetitive multitasking leads to a disorder called Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF). Symptoms include distractibility, impatience, and difficulty starting and finishing tasks. Psychologists have described the symptoms as being identical to ADD.

The only known cure for DAF is rest.

That rest can be hard to come by. The noisy break room? Nah. What about one of those new collaboration spaces? Collaboration isn’t rest. How about a conference room? Sorry, there's a meeting in progress.

Some savvy contact centers are giving agents a place of their own called a quiet room to decompress.


What are Quiet Rooms?

These are special rooms specifically set aside for quiet reflection. They give agents a place to stop the rampant multitasking and recharge. Perhaps read a book or listen to some music.

VITAS Healthcare calls their quiet room the Serenity Room. They provide hospice care services, and the Serenity Room was originally designed as a place for Chaplains to provide grief counseling to patient families. When they built their call center, they decided to include a serenity room for their agents.

According to Patient Care Administrator Joann Gawczynski, the serenity room has become a popular place for agents to regroup after a difficult call or to just take a break.

“Our serenity room allows our staff a quiet room to go and relax.  They can put on the radio or listen to a CD. It’s set up as a sitting room you may have in your own home.”

Image courtesy of Joann Gawczynski

Image courtesy of Joann Gawczynski

A recent ICMI poll found that approximately 50 percent of contact centers have quiet rooms. Couches are popular, but you might find a yoga room or even bunks where agents can catch a few winks.


Rest is Key

Many agents take a break from work but put themselves right back on the multitasking hamster wheel. They pull out their phones and text, chat, like, and play games. 

Agents don't just need a break from work. They need a break from multitasking.

That's what makes quiet rooms so useful. Unfortunately, office space is a precious commodity. Not every contact center can designate a whole room for peace and quiet. 

Some contact centers take advantage of their outdoor surroundings. Getting out into nature is an effective way to recover from DAF. 

The agents at telecommunications company hike what is simply known as The Hill. It gets the blood flowing and offers a sweeping view of the surrounding community at the top.

Image courtesy of Jeremy Watkin

Image courtesy of Jeremy Watkin

The Hill really gets the team's creative juices flowing. It's even spurred this musical homage from Jeremy Watkin,’s Director of Customer Service.


Creating Your Quiet Room

There are four characteristics of a quiet room that can help agents recover from DAF (source: Kaplan, 1995).

Being Away. The environment should feel like an escape from the normal workplace.

Fascination. It should allow for activities that are effortlessly absorbing. Examples including reading a book, working a puzzle, or listening to music. Nature has been shown to be highly effective too.

Extent. The environment should be able to rich enough and large enough to promote sustained rest. In this sense, a Quiet Corner won’t work nearly as well as a Quiet Room.

Compatibility. The space should be compatible with agent decompression. In other words, your agents might love having an Xbox, but saving the world from space aliens won’t make their brains feel any less fried.

I'll admit that the concept of a quiet room seems a bit new-agey. Perhaps too new-agey for senior executives to take seriously. 

It might be helpful to consider the payoffs when designing your quiet room. 

DAF is a huge cause of agent burnout. If you can prevent DAF, that will lead to better calls, better service, and better agent retention.

When Giving Customers A Little Extra is a Big Mistake

A bottle of wine and a lavish cheese plate greeted me as I entered the hotel room. You’d think an oenophile like me would be excited to see these gifts after a long day of travel.

You’d be wrong. 

The bottle of wine came with a lot of bad options. Should I drink it? I was only there for one night. That’s too much wine. 

Perhaps I could have a glass, but it seemed like such a waste to open a bottle of wine for just one glass.

I could bring it home. That would mean I’d have to check my suitcase instead of carrying it on the plane. A checked bag would translate to an extra 30 minutes waiting at the airport and a $25 baggage fee. That seemed pretty steep for a $20 bottle of wine.

I could leave it. Would somebody’s feelings be hurt if I left their gift behind? I hope not. I really hate hurting people’s feelings.

The cheese plate was another dilemma. It was too late for cheese tonight and cheese isn’t exactly the breakfast of champions. Besides, it looked like it had been sitting in the room for a little while. This one was a lost cause. A total waste.

These gifts were provided with the best of intentions. It’s too bad the result wasn’t delight but rather consternation over wasting them.

Sometimes, giving customers a little extra turns out to be a big mistake.

Unanticipated Consequences

We’re taught to think of customer service as going above and beyond. Do something extraordinary for someone and they’ll remember us for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out the way we hope. Here are a few examples:

A free dessert at a restaurant can backfire if the guests are already stuffed or watching their diet. Do they eat something they don’t want or reject such a nice gift?

An upgrade to the deluxe package at the car wash can backfire if the customer is in a hurry and finds the smell of air freshener to be sickening.

Upgrading an airline passenger's seat to an exit row can backfire if it separates her from the rest of her family.

Small gifts like these are given with the purest intentions. However, these unanticipated consequences can causes these gifts to become annoyances to the customer.


Thoughtful Gift Giving

I’ll be the first to admit I struggle in this department. There isn’t a perfect answer. And yes, the thought really does count.

So, let’s start there. One way to avoid any trouble is to ask.

At the restaurant, a server can ask her guests if she can bring them a dessert on the house.

At the car wash, the ticket writer can ask if he can upgrade the wash to a deluxe package at no extra charge.

At the airline, the gate agent could ask the passenger if she'd like to be upgraded to an exit row seat.

Asking accomplishes two things.

First, it verifies that the little extra is something the customer actually wants. Second, it avoids wasting the gift on someone who doesn’t want it. 

Of course, there are sometimes when you don’t have the luxury of asking. Or, asking might ruin the surprise. So, what should you do then?

Look at it from the customer’s perspective and think how you can brighten their experience. One of the best hotel amenities I ever received was a bouquet of flowers at the Napa River Inn

The flowers were cut from the hotel's garden and my wife and I could see the same rose bushes in bloom outside our window. It brightened up our room throughout our stay and created an even stronger connection to one of our favorite hotels.