January 26th, 2015 by Oren Smilansky

Anyone who’s ever had to look for an apartment in New York City knows what a nightmare it can be. If you’re not someone like Lena Dunham or this billionaire,  finding a reasonable place can be nearly close to impossible. No matter how good the offer, it seems like there’s always a catch. Though you find out that an apartment has a laundry room and an elevator (and, if you’re on a budget, this is a harder combination to come by than you’d think), it’s also a 30 minute walk to the nearest train station. With numerous setbacks like this in mind, it’s vital you’re a hundred percent sure that everything is right before you sign any agreements. But since apartments are in such high demand, it’s also necessary to act fast, which is difficult considering the magnitude of the commitment.

Those of us who want to keep our last ounce of sanity will throw in the towel and work with a broker who can help facilitate the process. Brokers work on commission, so in a sense they have an obligation to treat you like a customer. So far, I’ve interacted with a number of them, some who I felt treated me professionally as a customer, and some who I felt haven’t. Based on my observations from a customer’s perspective, I have a number of tips to offer to brokers and any other agents who deal with customers. These tips, while gleaned my apartment hunt, apply to  agents in similar fields.

-Be considerate when contacting the client/customer. Not only when, but how you contact them. If you insist on calling the client on the phone at 11:00am on a Monday, please take into consideration the fact that that person are likely also busy trying to make a living, and therefore might not be available to chat about housing. Further, don’t expect them to be able to meet you at 1pm on a Tuesday. It should go without saying that any appointments would be best if scheduled on weekends and nights—after all, you do expect us to have regular pay coming in that will help pay the rent, right? Or do you want us to jeopardize the source of income we need in order to even be able to pay for the apartment you’re trying to sell us.

-Avoid the temptation to talk back, even if you feel that the customer you’re dealing with has not been respectful. Don’t do it. This isn’t going to get you anywhere.  For good or bad, the customer can do you more lasting damage than you can do to them. The other week, I was texting back an forth with a broker about seeing a place. Since they don’t give out the exact location of the apartments, he’d decided that we’d meet at a place called Tennis Ct. I didn’t realize that this was not a short hand for tennis court, but the street name, and I asked him where the tennis court was. His response was to condescend to me by asking me if I “even know the area”? He proceeded to tell me that, “with all do respect,” I should familiarize myself with a neighborhood before booking a viewing. “For this reason,” he wrote, “I will not be meeting with you today.” I was ticked off, so say the least. At that point I’d cleared my entire schedule in order to go see the apartment which was at least an hour away. And it was a Sunday, mind you. I’m glad he saved me the time it would take to meet with him, but he’s forgetting that I have the power of giving him an online review. I may not know the location of the apartment he was going to show me, but I do know his name.

-Be careful with your spelling and tone in written messages. This should go without saying for any professional in any industry. If you don’t know how to spell or punctuate, the educated customer (aka the one more likely to pay you) is going to be less inclined to work with you. So far, I’ve received a number poorly worded and punctuated text messages that left me confused. Not only is it hard read and decipher such messages, but they suggest to me that the agent is not serious about their job, so I end the relationship there.

-Don’t change plans at the last minute. If you say you want to meet one location, don’t text me at the last minute saying you’d rather meet somewhere else. Understand that it will take me a certain amount of time to commute to the place in question, and that I might not be able to check my messages at a given point in time. One agent texted that he’d prefer to meet me at his office since he prefers not to

-Don’t share the client’s personal details. Especially ones that they gave you in good faith, and for a specific reason. You can use your good judgment to determine which details these would be. I’m not talking only about my social security number; I also don’t particularly want the entire world knowing how much money I make a year. If I gave you that information for the sole purpose of enabling you to figure out if I qualify for the place, leave it at that. You have no business advertising that information to everyone in the vicinity, or other potential renters.

-Don’t lie to, or be disingenuous with customers. Let people know exactly what you know. When I ask you if there’s a laundry machine in the building (and yes, clean clothes are a priority of mine), don’t say that you think there’s a machine in the basement when we speak on the phone only to pretend that my question is news to you when we’re on the premises.

In the age of online reviews, these guidelines–while they may seem obvious– are important to keep in mind. A lot of disgruntled customers won’t take the time to write and share their feedback, but there are those who will out. And once that happens, it’s out of your hands.

January 22nd, 2015 by Maria Minsker
We’ve all heard this before: big data is “everywhere.” But who has access to it? According to new survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit and Teradata, there’s a pretty significant gap between what CEOs think about employee access to big data, and what employees think about big data accessibility. So while big data may be pouring in from “everywhere,” access to it is still fairly limited. To borrow some language from the survey, it would appear that CEOs are “wearing rose colored glasses,” and that’s a problem.
Here are some of the key numbers to illustrate the issue:
  • About 47 percent of CEOs believe that their employees have access to the data they need, but only 27 percent of the employees believe that they have sufficient access.
  • About 43 percent of CEOs believe that data is made available to those that require it in real time. Only 29 percent of employees agree.
  • About 38 percent of CEOs believe that employees are able to extract “relevant insight” from data, while only 24 percent of the employees believe this.
  • About 53 percent of CEOs believe that employee access to data has improved decision-making at the company by “empowering” employees, yet only 36 percent of employees see it that way.
  • And finally, about 51 percent of CEOs believe that providing access to data has “improved employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention.” Only 35 percent of the employees notice an improvement.

So what does this all boil down to? Ultimately, it results in a bad experience for customers. At the Gartner Customer 360 Summit a few months back, the gap between CEOs and mid-level employees was a key theme, and analysts urged CEOs to re-think the culture at their companies.

Back in May, Gartner analyst Gene Alvarez said: “Businesses that excel at creating customer-driven cultures also use stories to communicate messages, make the messages transparent to their customers, make responsibilities and rewards clear to their employees, provide training and education, recruit in innovative ways, and, lastly, recognize that these types of cultural changes take commitment and time.”  His sentiment applies to data access as well. Mid-level employees don’t just want access to big data insight; they need it. They need it to do their jobs, and they need it to keep customers happy.

After the Gartner conference, the question of company culture and its link to customer experience interested us at CRM so much that I’m exploring the topic in an upcoming feature (look for it in July!), and this survey certainly brings up a few additional questions. The gap is a troubling one, and it needs to be addressed.

January 19th, 2015 by Oren Smilansky

Congratulate me. I made it through my first ever trade show as an editor for CRM Magazine last week. And this wasn’t just any trade show; it was the National Retail Federation’s Big Show (not to be mistaken with the 7 foot, 500 pound WWE wrestler, who will surely come up if you google this).

All in all, it was a good experience. I was pleasantly overwhelmed by the vendors’ new technology and enjoyed listening to a wide cast of speakers which included former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke and Juan Enriquez, among others. I also might have enjoyed one (or six) too many Krispy Kreme donuts, but that’s another matter.

Considering the size of the event, it’s impressive that the NRF is able to keep everything as organized and civilized as they do. The Javits Center in New York—where the Big Show is held—can get a bit hectic around event time. (This I already knew from attending ComicCon and BookExpoAmerica, which are also held at Javits.) But, aside from the inevitable mess the bathroom is bound to be at any large gathering, and the incredibly long food lines, it was pleasantly arranged and I felt like I made the most of my time there.

As a journalist covering the event, I relied on my devices for nearly everything, from checking my email and the time to taking pictures and recording panels. My cellphone, I’d say, is more instrumental to me than my laptop, since it offers most of what my computer does, only in a smaller package that’s easier to keep track of.

I hadn’t properly planned ahead for the fact that I’d need to recharge my phone fairly often. I use my phone throughout the workday without giving its battery life a second thought, because I have the luxury of charging it when I need to. But while I’m at my desk, I have the at my convenience a trustworthy power outlet. I also have more time to stay put and wait it out.

Not so at an event of this magnitude.

It’d crossed my mind that that I wouldn’t have time to sit down in any one spot for long enough to let my phone recoup, but I didn’t realize that the only place I could do it was in the press room. And in the press room—which was also incidentally the only place press members could access wifi— it could be a bit of a challenge to get a seat.

This forced me to be strategic with how I used my phone throughout the day. I had to prioritize and figure out which tasks were most important to me. I’m pretty obsessive when it comes to getting quotes right, so my number one concern is recording any speeches that I might need to refer to for an article or feature. I’m also pretty neurotic when it comes to checking my email, so that was a second concern. Though it’s nice that NRF offered a mobile app which allows you to keep track of their schedule and manage your time more efficiently, I didn’t make as much use of it as I would have liked. And I don’t think I’m the only one who finds that apps take up more battery than they’re worth. I found myself relying on their glossy hard copy schedules instead.

When I passed through the Samsung booth to find a power outlet, they offered me a free set of headphones. But what I needed most at that point was a quick phone charge for my S3 Mini. Hopefully they’ll have booths at these events in the near future .

January 15th, 2015 by Maria Minsker

Before immigrating to the U.S. with my parents when I was six years old, I lived in Moscow, Russia. As a kid, one of my favorite things to do was take the Metro to the middle of the city and visit my dad at work. He’d have long lunch breaks, and once a week, my mom brought me to his office and we all went to a McDonald’s down the street. I remember playing in the little jungle gym, getting a Happy Meal, and playing with my new toy all the way home. When we moved to New York, everything was foreign. Everything except, you guessed it, the McDonald’s down the street. Sure, the menu items were slightly different, but there it was, a Happy Meal. And when neither me nor my parents knew a word of English, walking into a restaurant and ordering a familiar meal and enjoying a familiar moment with my parents was priceless.

Fast forward to today, and McDonald’s is constantly under scrutiny for the quality of their food, for the low wages they pay their workers, and for their kid-targeted advertising. Now, I agree that these issues need to be addressed, but to accuse McDonald’s of using tragedy to sell burgers is just not fair.

The burger giant’s recent campaign is being criticized for commercials that feature signs outside of McDonald’s restaurants. Some acknowledge happy occasions, such as birthdays and anniversaries, while others tackle tragic events. Some refer to 9/11, hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon, and others. One that made me tear up declared “We are open” despite some visible damage following a flood or hurricane.

If you ask me, the commercials are done tastefully. I can understand why some people are angry, but at the same time I think it needs to be said that McDonald’s isn’t really trying to sell burgers in these commercials. Yes, no doubt, it is the ultimate goal of every commercial, but hear me out.

Over the last few months (perhaps even a year now), McDonald’s has been busy revamping its image. The company is well aware of the criticism it receives, and has been taking steps to answer consumers’ concern. In an effort to repair its flailing image (and slipping sales), McDonald’s has also launched its “Our Food, Your Questions” campaign, an effort that has largely gone unnoticed. As part of this project, McDonald’s is inviting customers to ask questions via Twitter, which it promises to address. So far, the company has been transparent, often sharing detailed images and infographics that illustrate how certain foods are made. For instance, the company has stopped using Pink Slime, and continues to make positive changes.

What isn’t changing, however, is the role McDonald’s has played–and continues to play–in the communities it serves. I’m referring to that familiarity that I mentioned before. That’s what McDonald’s is selling in those commercials. The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal hits the nail on the head:

But there’s a reason why McDonald’s restaurants are so often seen in coverage of floods, tornadoes and earthquakes. It’s because they’re a symbol of normalcy. If they’re underwater or in ruins, it’s a short-hand for everything else that’s been upended or destroyed.

McDonald’s food may never get raves. It’s unlikely to be seen as trendy. It’s common enough to almost be seen as a utility. But in its ubiquity, it owns a place in the American consciousness, so why not build on that?

I completely agree. It would be silly to ignore all of McDonald’s faults, surely. But it also seems silly to pretend that it’s not an iconic, classic brand that has actually been along with us for the ride. When my neighborhood McDonald’s was shut down because the block it was on is currently being turned into a huge condo, I was sad. My mind wasn’t flooded with memories of greasy burgers and over-salted fries, but of my friend Inna’s birthday party. Or that time my mom and I split our first Big Mac and liked it so much that we went and got another one.

In short, McDonald’s has its faults. A lot of them. But it’s a piece of our culture, as hard as it may be for some to admit. So next time you see one of those commercials, I urge you to see past the grease and remember a time you actually went to McDonald’s. I bet there’s some fondness in there somewhere.

January 8th, 2015 by Maria Minsker

Gift giving is stressful, but sometimes, so is gift receiving. We all have that one relative or friend that insists on getting us a massage pillow, or a weird scarf, or something that would actually be nice, if it weren’t lime green. And then we make that trek to Brookstone or wherever else the heinous item was purchased and try to return it, sometimes with a gift receipt, and sometimes without one. And retailers are well-aware that the end of holiday shopping marks the beginning of holiday returning. This year, roughly 1 in 4 consumers will return or exchange at least one of the items they received as a gift, according to a new study from Retale, a mobile app and Web site that generals weekly retail circulars.

Retale found a reassuring piece of data: about 62 percent of consumers say that the in-store return and exchange process was convenient. But there’s still much work to be done.

The insight also revealed that when asked to identify some of the biggest challenges to the process, consumers says that keeping track of necessary receipts (34%), shipping and handling (26%), confusing return policies (20%) and additional costs associated with a return or exchange (16%) were among the top pain points. Some brands have already become attune to these concerns, and have started to make changes. Receipt-free returns are becoming more commonplace as companies become more lenient with their return policies. Brands have also made an effort to be more clear about return procedures, spelling them out more explicitly and in simpler terms on their Web sites.

According to Retale, only 9 percent of shoppers prefer to make returns online by initiating the return on the company Web site and shipping the item back themselves. A huge majority–over 70 percent–prefer to make returns and exchanges in physical stores, even if the item was originally purchased online. This is likely because the process of shipping items back has historically been, in short, a major pain. Many retailers require consumers to log in online, fill out a return form, print out a shipping label, and, sometimes, even pay for the shipping themselves. Businesses that place a pre-paid, pre-printed return label into the shipment box have made a world of difference for consumers, and as more companies adopt this model, consumers are likely to become much more comfortable with returning items via mail.

Ultimately, there’s no way around it: no business likes returns. It means they’re losing a sale, and potentially, a customer. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Returns and exchanges are opportunities for brands to shine in the customer service department. Sure, I didn’t want that turquoise sparkly sequined dress from Nordstrom that my aunt bought for me, but my experience while returning said dress reinforced my loyalty to the store. They didn’t need a receipt, they didn’t ask me a million questions, and the process was quick and painless. The recipe is simple: make returns frictionless, regardless of whether the purchase took place online or in-store. And send pre-paid labels. I’m looking at you, Forever 21.


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