About Mark Strauss

Mark Strauss is a 25 year business consulting veteran helping organizations ranging from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies. His unique blend of branding, marketing, and communication training experience provides uniquely effective solutions for every client.

The Art of the Menu

Allison recently did a seminar for area restaurant and hospitality professionals titled “The Art of the Menu.” This two hour session covered menu mix, food cost, and design tips to help restaurants improve the guest experience while increasing revenue and reducing costs. The event ended with one-on-one reviews with attendees who brought their menus.

Tony Wittkowski from the Herald Palladium newspaper attended and did a nice write up. His article includes some useful restaurant menu tips that were covered in the seminar. Click here to read the article.

By | June 5th, 2017|Training|0 Comments

Stop Using This Common Phrase Immediately!

commonThis seemingly harmless phrase ruins relationships, derails sales, and pours gasoline on already inflamed customer service situations:

“Like I said…”

Think about it for a moment — you’ve just asked for something that’s important to you and the person’s response starts with, “Like I said…” How does that make you feel?

Even in the best situations, it can easily sound like:

“Listen, dummy, didn’t you hear me the first time?”

Over the years, I’ve seen countless sales and customer service professionals unknowingly manufacture disaster with this phrase. Then they walk away completely baffled as to why they lost a sale or why their customer suddenly went from minor frustration to all out war.

It’s so ingrained in our communication culture that we don’t even think twice about using it. Full disclosure: I still catch myself starting to say it from time to time.

Even in small organizations, “Like I said…” can be responsible for thousands of dollars of top-line revenue loss — not to mention added customer service cost and increased expenses related to customer/employee retention.

Yikes! All that from three, seemingly innocent words? Sadly, yes. So I guess it’s a good thing we have some other options!

Our first alternative is to avoid using an “I’ve already told you before.” type of phrase altogether. If it’s not necessary in order to find a solution, then skip it. However, since so many business conversations require referencing previously discussed information, here are some effective alternatives to “Like I said…”:

As I mentioned…
While this phrase is certainly less argumentative and/or condescending, it doesn’t sound quite as personal as the other alternatives below. So it’s typically best used in more official settings and ideal for emails. This and all the other alternative phrases can be softened even more with a variety of suffix words/phrases:

  • As I mentioned earlier…
  • As I mentioned last time we talked…
  • As I mentioned when we spoke on Tuesday…

Notice “before” isn’t listed as a suffix option. That’s because it can very easily sound argumentative. Maybe that’s because it’s so often used in conjunction with “Like I said…”

If we want to run even less risk of manufacturing frustration, simply add one word to this first alternative…

As I may have mentioned…
An even softer variation that can be used with someone who is already frustrated or is typically sensitive. It also has a much kinder ring to it. This is the best variation to use in situations where we’re not sure if we’ve already discussed that exact information.

While these two alternatives are far better than “Like I said…,” they can sound a bit businessy and/or scripty (I’m not entirely sure those are real words). Personally, I prefer the variations that sound more natural:

As we talked about…
I’m a huge fan of any sort of communication that puts everyone on the same team against a challenge. Including the pronoun “we” serves that purpose. Plus, “talked” is more conversational and doesn’t risk coming across as if we’re trying too hard to sound professional.

Like we talked about…
While I’ve always liked this natural-sounding alternative, in certain situations there can be bit of danger when starting with “Like” because it can create a nano-second association to “Like I said…”, especially if you’re not using a positive, helpful tone. That’s where this simple variation comes in…

Kind of like we talked about…
It’s difficult to sound negative or combative when we say this version — as if a positive tone is built into the words themselves. Go ahead and try it! See? It’s conversational and adding “Kind of…” almost completely diminishes the risk of coming across as argumentative. A far cry from “Like I said…”, right? Also, since it’s phrased as if we’re talking about a somewhat separate subject, there’s very low risk of accidentally creating an overall “I’m right and you’re wrong!” communication environment.

Try saying all of these phrases out loud in order to hear how they sound progressively more positive and helpful.

  • Like I said…
  • As I mentioned…
  • As I may have mentioned…
  • As we talked about…
  • Like we talked about…
  • Kind of like we talked about…

Now you can mix and match endings to find the phrases that work best for you and your unique circumstances:

  • As I mentioned in my email to accounting…
  • Kind of like we talked about earlier…
  • As I may have mentioned last time we talked…
  • Like we talked about last Thursday…
  • As we talked about during yesterday’s meeting…

Like I said, there are much better alternatives to this phrase to help create and maintain positive relationships! 🙂

By | May 12th, 2016|Communication Tips, Training|0 Comments

3 Essential Sales Skills — A Customer’s View

What’s more fun than having your furnace conk out right in the middle of winter? Lots of things, like… going to the dentist, long division, or even watching curling on TV (actually, I do like watching curling).

As I interacted with the Service Technician, the Salesperson, and finally the Installer, I was reminded of 3 easily implemented skills — key pieces to the sales success puzzle for any service or sales professional. First, a bit of context for my perspective as a furnace-buying customer:

One of my long-term clients is the largest, independently owned, residential HVAC and Plumbing company in the U.S. and Canada who recently won the 2015 BBB Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics.1 For many years, I trained over 500 of their customer service reps, sales staff, field technicians, and managers on how to build solid customer relationships to resolve issues and maximize sales opportunities. This experience, along with having worked for service companies in the past, has made me hyper-aware of the power of communication in service industries.

Since the above-mentioned client only services Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana, we ended up doing what many people do when their furnace dies — we reached out to friends for recommendations and read online reviews before making our choice and picking up the phone to schedule a service call…

The Service Technician  (The Power of the Pre-Close)

The technician who came to our home was professional and thorough, and even after finding an easily fixed, failing ignitor within the first 15 minutes, continued his inspection. I had high hopes that our furnace would be back up and running that night until I heard him ask if I had another source of heat because of a flawed heat exchanger. The first word that came to mind is not suitable for print here.

As we discussed scheduling a salesperson to come out and quote a new furnace, he made the following statement:

“If you sign a contract for a new furnace, we’ll supply you with space heaters until we get it installed.”

Did he just say, “If?”

While that simple word may not seem like such a big deal, let’s shine a bit of light on the situation: I called their company to help me out, and even mentioned to the technician that we have several friends who recommended them. So the real question is: Why would a service professional make a statement that includes not buying as an option?

A pre-close statement is an assumptive phrase (or question) that sets up a future closing situation. It does so by choosing words that help put the customer in the mindset of doing business. The following revision puts the customer (in this case, me) in that mindset:

“When we get you scheduled for the new furnace install, we’ll make sure you have some space heaters until we get you up and running.”

Sounds cleaner, more personal, and says in a respectful, non-salesy way: “We’re going to help you out.” When compared to the original phrase, it’s easy to see how awkward and separative a non pre-close statement sounds. These types of subtle phrasing changes are often overlooked and have a direct impact on closing percentages.

There’s also a secondary assumptive element in the above example: using “the new furnace” instead of “a new furnace.”

As a quick side note, I’m not a big fan of words like “sign” and “contract.” There are less harsh ways to present these types of decision actions, as in the revised phrase: “…schedule the new furnace install…”

The Salesperson (How to Drop Your Price)

Since my client and this company are both Lennox dealers, I told the salesperson I would be calling my client’s Executive Sales Director (Thanks, Jeff!) to review the suggested equipment and pricing. Long story short, after making that call our salesperson agreed to drop his price. I got what I wanted, but was that the right thing for him and his company?

No.

Without addressing the often-debated topic of whether or not a salesperson should every drop their price, there’s one rule to follow if you choose to do so:

Always give a valid reason if you drop your price.

The customer wanting a better price is never a valid reason. As soon as our salesperson dropped his price simply because I asked, he basically said his first price was inflated and that he could have given me a better deal from the beginning. Yikes! What happened to his credibility? To avoid such a disaster, he could then have presented some valid alternatives to lower the price:

  • Remove/change solution options
  • Revisit previously presented, alternative solutions
  • Offer to find out if he can provide any additional warranty

If none of that worked, he could have called his manager and asked something like:

“I’m here with Mr. Strauss and he’s worked with another Lennox shop in Chicago for years. Since this is kind of a unique situation, is there anything we can do to help him out with the price?”

Dropping price simply because the customer wants a lower price is one of the quickest ways to lose credibility and ruin the customer relationship — oftentimes forever.

Even more disturbing is the customer will rarely (if ever) verbalize that they no longer trust you because of this. They will simply say things like, “We’re getting other quotes.” or “We need to think about it.” I’ve seen far too often where sales and service professionals never even knew they were manufacturing this problem, all while believing they were doing the right thing for the customer and themselves.

The Installer (Using the Customer’s Name)

The install crew did an excellent job and even kept me informed of the progress throughout the day. However, when they did so, the install lead would call out from the furnace room:

Sir?

You might be thinking, “What’s wrong with that?”

I find it fascinating that the subject of using the customer’s name instead of “Sir” or “Ma’am” is the skill people want to debate the most. Perhaps the most heated objection comes in the form of, “My parents taught me that using ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ are signs of respect. So I never use the customer’s name.”

While I’m typically a diplomatic communicator, I’ll be blunt here: “That’s fine, but… you’re not 7 years old anymore.” Using the customer’s name (first or last, depending on the situation) in modern communication is more respectful.

Any wording that reinforces the perception that it’s the company on one side of the table and the customer on the other needs to be changed — using the customer’s name is one of the most important tools to build a relationship and put us on the same side as the customer. There are endless values to this — including being respectful.

When the install team arrived, I introduced myself to the install lead as “Mark.” This immediately gave him permission to call me by my first name which opened the door to tons of value to both he and his company:

  • In the event of an unforeseen issue, the experience is personalized which diminishes frustration through trust that the professional is looking out for the customer’s best interest. I refer to this as “immunizing the relationship.” Building a relationship from the beginning affects the customer’s perception of everything that follows, both short-term and long-term.
  • From a sales standpoint, being personal allows for dialogue. We’re all looking for companies to trust. An open dialogue with a professional who has built relationship and trust allows for introductions to other products/solutions — and there are LOTS of these opportunities in the HVAC industry.
  • It’s a key ingredient for establishing the long-term relationship with the company for repeat business and, of course, referrals.

Can something as simple as moving from sir and ma’am to the customer’s name create all that? Absolutely!

Additionally, in customer service situations, the risk of sounding condescending or argumentative is maximized when using “Sir” and “Ma’am,” and there’s a missed opportunity to bring relief by effectively using the customers name.

If you’re uncomfortable with using a customer’s first name, then use “Mr. or Mrs.” Also, when in doubt whether you should use the first or last name, err on the side of the last name. If they want you to call them by their first name, they will tell you — which is always a great sign you’ve built rapport.

The Heat Is On!

Subtle pre-close tweaks, dealing with price professionally, and building relationships with customers by using their name have the power to immediately increase sales percentages. I’ve seen implementing just a handful of simple skills like these increase success conservatively by 5%. What does that mean to you and/or your company’s annual revenue?

Although this article contains suggested improvements based on this recent experience, the company that helped us out did an outstanding job. As I write this, it’s a comfortable 71 degrees in our home!

* * *

1 While this link is allegedly included here to reference the positive results of working with this client, it’s actually a shameless plug for both of our companies.

By | March 15th, 2016|Communication Tips, Training|0 Comments

“I’m sorry for helping you.”

on_holdI find it next to impossible to turn off my communication radar. It’s like the Terminator’s HUD, but instead of identifying threats and targets, it auto-analyzes communication structures and how challenges, situations, and relationships are affected by what we say (and how we say it). Fortunately, as a result of focusing on building positive customer relationships for over two decades, the “TERMINATE” functionality has been almost entirely reprogrammed.

A couple experiences blipped across the radar recently that reminded me of one of my favorite quick communication fixes; an easily implemented skill that yields immediate, positive results.

The Scenario

Your upset customer has been on hold for over 3 minutes while you frantically track down an important piece of information. After what feels like an eternity, you finally find what you’re looking for…

Whew!

That feeling of relief quickly vanishes as the blinking “HOLD” light reminds you of the swelling anger and frustration waiting on the other side. You pick up the receiver and press the button just below “LINE 1.”

What do you say?

The Apology

One of the two recent experiences was at a retail clothing store. We were checking out when another employee hurried behind the counter and picked up the phone. A few days later, I was on the phone with a well-known cable TV and Internet provider whose name rhymes with “Tomcats.” I was placed on hold for several minutes, and when the rep got back on the line she said the same exact thing as the person at the retail store:

I apologize for the hold.

Essentially, they both said, “I’m sorry for helping you.” I’m frequently shocked by how common this is; especially in large, well-established sales and customer service organizations.

At this point, you might be expecting a tirade about that TV and Internet company’s poor customer service. Quite the opposite. The rep I spoke with was both helpful and pleasant. In fact, we ended up having a nice conversation about customer service, the holidays, etc. I made it a point to tell her how much I appreciated the job she was doing and asked if I might offer a small suggestion while she made changes to my account:

ME: Can I offer a tip that will make your life easier?

REP: Sure!

ME: Great. So why did you put me on hold earlier?

REP: To find out what other promotions we have available.

ME: Right. But why?

REP: To see how I could save you some money.

ME: Why?

REP: To help you.

ME: Exactly. So, let me ask you this… When was the last time you apologized to someone for helping them?

The illogical nature of this all-too-common practice of apologizing for putting someone on hold is the least of its problems. Not only does it almost always create separation between us and the customer, it voluntarily, unnecessarily, and negatively puts us in a submissive position. This immediately transfers control of the business interaction to the customer. And that’s not even the worst of it…

When we say, “I apologize for the hold.” or its evil twin, “I’m sorry for the hold,” we’re essentially saying, “I’ve done something wrong.” (even though we haven’t). Customers almost never register this consciously, but it subtly erodes the foundation of the relationship — even in the best of situations.

Perhaps the most damage is done when someone is already upset in customer service situations. With adversarial customers, this unwarranted apology hands over control of the interaction by solidifying their existing (justified or unjustified) perception of having been wronged. We’ve unknowingly manufactured an additional roadblock on the path to finding a mutually agreeable resolution.

And if all the above isn’t bad enough, we actually lose twice every time we apologize for helping someone.

Think about when your favorite football team fumbles only yards away from scoring and the other team runs the ball back for a touchdown. That’s not a 7 point swing — it’s a 14 point swing! It’s exactly the same with communication mistakes like this. We’ve not only negatively affected any type of relationship to some degree, we’ve also missed a prime opportunity to help build a positive customer relationship. Which leads us to the alternative designed to put us on the same side as the customer…

The Solution

As with most pervasive communication problems, the solution is simple — introduce positivity by thanking them for holding:

Thanks for holding, <name>, I talked with my manager and we’re going to…

Not only does this simple alternative accomplish the exact opposite of all the issues listed above, it is also consistent with one of my universal rules: Don’t introduce a negative unless absolutely necessary (a good filter to examine other commonly accepted communication practices that may be manufacturing objections and costing you money).

You might be thinking, “What if the customer has been on hold, but hasn’t talked to anyone yet?”

Good point! This is where another universal rule applies: We’re the constant because customers and situations are always the variable.

In cases where someone has been waiting to be helped, why start off the relationship with a negative? Approaching an unknown situation from a negative-based, submissive position immediately transfers control of the situation to the customer, putting us at the mercy of the unknown. Why not use a phrase that brings positivity and some level of relief from the get-go? Especially since customers form an opinion of us within the first few seconds of a call:

Thanks so much for holding, how can I help you today?

or

Thanks for your patience, how can I help you today?

Can you feel the infusion of positivity as you say these alternatives out loud?

The Value

Simply put, anything that takes away from the customer relationship costs money, and anything that adds to it increases short-term and long-term success.

Take a moment to consider this simple change within the context of your business model and the variety of situations you encounter on a daily basis. How will it affect your customer relationships? Revenue? VOC? Employee retention?

My hope is that when you see that blinking “HOLD” light you will always see it as an opportunity to build a positive customer relationship!

* * *

NOTE: This skill is included in my upcoming book on the building blocks of effective sales and customer service communication.

By | December 29th, 2015|Communication Tips, Training|0 Comments

Welcome to the Re-Brand

Breathing life into our client’s brands is what we love to do. So it feels kind of strange to do it with our own brand. Giving an 11-year-old company a fresh paint job has been fun and interesting. But underneath the fresh coat of paint, what’s actually changed?

Over the last 15 years as a media design and communication training consultant, my focus was typically more on the marketing, branding, and design side. That has changed quite a bit over the last several years.

I found crafting communication structures and training to be as creative as any marketing, branding, or design project. So while our unique value-add has always been the mix of marketing and communication training — leveraging over 25 years of communication and sales training experience — we finally made the decision to shift the main company focus to training. Why?

How often do we hear groans when someone says:

“So I had to call <insert company here> customer service this morning…”

When did “customer service” become such a cringe-worthy phrase? I can’t stand to watch clients make huge branding and marketing investments only to have the customer relationship destroyed from the moment they hear an indifferent, “Can I help you?” (which, by the way, should be, “How can I help you?”)

So while we will continue to be a valuable resource with our unique blend of branding and training, the primary focus on building communication structures ensures that we continue to help our clients… build brands from the inside out.

Perhaps the biggest change is for Allison Strauss. A 28+ year veteran of the restaurant industry, Allison has worked in every area of the business from high-end fine dining to country clubs. After spending 14 years as a GM with Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse — a Chicago restaurant institution and one of the most successful, fine dining restaurant groups in the country — Allison made the decision to move to full-time restaurant consulting 2 years ago.

Bringing her wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise with building teams, Allison is helping both new and existing restaurants with every aspect of the restaurant business. From training staff and management on guest communication and service standards, to inventory, forecasting, P&L, and marketing, she’s able to position restaurants for continued success in an what can be a volatile industry.

What’s Next?

As a national, Chicago-based consulting company, we are able to travel anywhere to help companies succeed. Watch this space for communication skills and tips to help a variety of industries and feel free to drop us a note to discuss how we can help build your brand!

By | December 2nd, 2015|Branding, Communication Tips, Restaurant Tips|0 Comments