May 15, 2014
By Jacki Hart CLP
Prosperity Partners program manager

Jacki HartWith spring being stubborn to emerge this year, every sector of our industry will operate at maximum capacity with the added stress from a shorter spring.

Typically in a spring like this, most homeowners don’t think of gardening and outdoor projects until they’ve ventured out and reminded themselves about the things they need or want to change. When that happens, then all of us will hear the phone start to ring off the hook. It all starts to come at you really, really fast.

A common thread across all of our industry sectors and business managers seems to be that by mid-May, the communication processes set up in each business between staff, customers and managers start to creak and groan at the seams. No matter how well prepared we try to be in anticipation of the peak season, our best laid plans seem to falter as spring marches on.

Attention to detail and an urgent/timely response starts to unravel. Calls aren’t returned in a timely way. Callers aren’t screened properly for appropriate follow up. Inventory re-orders get missed. Hurried order pickers make mistakes. Plant care slips. Managers functioning on sleep deprivation and drive-thru diets become frazzled. Balls are dropped.

In this era of high expectation for communication response — whether through email, voice mail or texts — the pace is faster, and customers leverage mobile browsers to find the quickest response to THEIR problem or desire.

Didn’t return their call same day? Most new customers, with whom you don’t yet have a rapport, will move on to the next business they can find. In many cases, a two- or three-hour delay in returning a voice mail or email may result in a prospective customer already having arranged an appointment with a competitor, or found another retailer carrying what they want.

Some would argue these aren’t right-fit customers. I disagree. You never know who will be a right-fit until you speak with them and pre-qualify, or at least get a first impression when they walk into your store. We all spend a lot of money on marketing, and can’t afford to let countless prospects pass us by just because we weren’t on the ball when they first thought of doing business with our company.

So, what do you do to improve? It might be as simple as this, buy an inexpensive small spiral-bound notebook for everyone on your team who deals directly with customers. Have them start a fresh page every day with date at the top. Insist they write down everything that comes their way which requires a follow up; i.e. passing on a message generated from a question on an installation project, a phone message, or ordering stock that’s depleted, or an unanswered customer inquiry. At the end of every day (if not throughout the day), everyone takes a few minutes to review their notes and follows-up on their day’s loose ends in a summary of bullet points with the appropriate person, or with action items for themselves to complete.

The follow-up could be via voice mail, email or text, a note on a designated board or desk, etc. And, follow-up for one’s self could be as simple as jotting unfinished items onto the next day’s page. At the start of every day, there should be nothing in the previous pages that is not ticked-off or crossed-out as having been followed through.

When we are all rushed and pulled in numerous directions simultaneously, it’s hard to remember verbal messages or mental notes on a to-do list, which solely depends on memory. Write things down and follow-up on them. Even if you can’t book an appointment immediately, return a call or email, say so.

Most of us dislike being ignored, especially when we are a paying customer. So, I’m suggesting that you step back for a few moments, and make it a priority to set up a simple, uncomplicated communication plan with your team to proactively manage the intensity of the upcoming weeks. Meet briefly each day, or at least once weekly. It’s the BEST use of everyone’s time — as counterintuitive as that may seem. You will drop way fewer balls, and keep way more people happy (customers and staff) if you keep communication clear, timely and responsive this spring.

However you decide to deploy your communication strategy — with or without technology — do it consistently across the board with all staff, so the end result is that you have customers who feel important, and who will feel confident doing business with you.

Next month, watch for Part 2: Repairing the customer experience (picking up the dropped balls and owning communication failures).
Jacki Hart may be contacted at