Have you ever hung out with people who all belong to a different professional circle then you, and they crack “industry-specific” jokes? You may feel clueless and a total “div head” (English slang for a rather slow, stupid person) for not getting the joke. In the same way, I am also sure we have all found ourselves in conversations even within our own companies where people are talking about something that we don’t understand. Even though we may never admit it, we have probably played along with the conversation, pretending to be in the know, nodding with a sense of confidence backed with twinges of fear that we may get “found out.” One reason I decided to take the Introduction to Web Development and Design course at BCIT is due in part to this.

As a designer in my 30’s, I was trained and bottle-fed on print design, not web design (the web will never smell as good as a freshly printed ink-drenched brochure). My lack of knowledge and understanding of coding and web standards was starting to become a hindrance. Sure, I may have nodded my head with understanding as our web guys talked about divs, WC3, and some guy called Zeldman, but as Art Director for a company that focussed on web and print design, my knowledge was lacking, and it was time to go back to school.

I found myself at a moment of reflection. At that point in my life, I owned a house, had a young child, could afford more than plain pasta for dinner, and there I was at 37…a student again. I knew this was all in my head, but it was certainly bizarre going off to class once a week. Before my first class, I felt concerned that I would be the “old fart” in the corner, trying to keep up with all the young “whippersnappers.” In actuality, there was a great diversity of people there; younger people who were just starting their careers, individuals who were hired by their companies to maintain their corporate website and needed training, and people like myself.

The course was hard work. It was like learning a new language, something that doesn’t come easily to me. Remembering when to use absolute, float, or relative positioning sometimes “mashed” my brain. At the same time, my problem-solving side enjoyed figuring out solutions to why the code I wrote did not do what I had expected (damn those closing tags).

I procrastinated (well, actually avoided) taking this course as I had to admit to myself that I was not perfect, or that times had changed and that I needed to “catch up” a little. But I was glad I did. I could participate fully in conversations, give better strategic direction to the entire team, could confidently challenge the web guys. I don’t pretend to know everything about web and programming, but investing in new knowledge gave me new tools and confidence.

One unexpected bonus of being in college for me was receiving a student membership card where I got a killer discount for trendy clothing shops selling 80’s style clothes (that I, unfortunately, remember wearing the first time I went to college).

In conclusion, I would invite you to ask yourself if there is room for you to improve or to be better at your job. It’s OK to go back to college or seek private one-on-one training when the opportunity arises. Don’t be a “div head” and let your ego or some other reason prevent you from growing in your profession.

Even though I got my order and the change from the $20, I was frustrated. Had I left right then, I would have been angry, and I probably would have complained to anyone who would listen for the rest of the day. Instead, I decided to change the direction of things. I decided to share my experience with their manager. I explained that I had had a negative interaction with two of the customer service staff. On some level, I sincerely hoped they could learn and grow from our experience, and on another level, I just wanted him to know I was… “unhappy” with the service I received.

I shared with the manager that the cashier who served me need not have rushed to the extent that she did, though I understood that it was busy. I stated that her comment, “if what the customer is saying is true…” was out of line and led me to wonder if Costco’s policy was “the customer is guilty until proven otherwise.” I also suggested it would have made a difference if the supervisor had explained in detail why he wanted my Costco ID. The manager was great; he listened. He didn’t make any excuses. He thanked me for the feedback and genuinely apologized. As a result, he sent me on my way feeling I had been heard and feeling a lot less frustrated.

The moral of the story is that you can spend years building a strong brand for your company, and yet it can be demolished within seconds if your customers experience bad service from your staff. On the flip side, an apologetic and authentic manager can do wonders to restore brand loyalty (if a customer gives them the opportunity).

Ultimately, it is up to you to hire well and to train your staff to provide the kind of customer service your brand, your business, and your customers demand. Inspire your team to want to deliver excellent customer service (even if they are having a bad day) and manage people to ensure that they provide the required customer experience consistently. Train your managers to listen, to be genuine about the customer’s concerns, and always to work to alleviate their concerns. Managers should NEVER make excuses for their staff. Frustrated customers do not want to hear excuses, and ultimately, managers should know that they are there to defend and maintain the brand, not the poorly performing customer service staff.

Often, people don’t need to hear much more than, “I’m sorry that you had that experience, we will rectify that situation immediately, and thank you for taking the time to give us the feedback. It takes commitment on your part, and we appreciate that.” The old phrase “A little goes a long way” is very appropriate when it comes to customer service and brand integrity. Of course, if the situation deserves it, managers could offer a gift card or some other type of compensation to a customer who has received poor service. It is incredible how quickly a small gesture can rebuild a customer’s loyalty. And if you can obtain the customer’s address, send them a follow-up letter thanking them for their time, and update them on any changes, you have made based on their feedback.

Customer service has never been more critical than in today’s tight economic times. Businesses are fighting to keep customers loyal. At the same time, the amount of people looking for jobs has increased substantially. Teens are competing with 50-somethings, so take the opportunity to hire individuals who are going to represent your brand to your customers best. Manage them well and train your managers to respond appropriately when your customers tell them what they think you are doing right and what you could do better.

Now, allow me to tell you a little story about exceptional customer service to highlight the role you can play as a customer to build better businesses. A few months ago, I was shopping at Save On Foods and was served by a delightful lady, Maggie, who was probably in her early 50’s. I had my bicycle with me, and she enquired into my day and my ride. It was not the usual generic “how are you” that we tend to revert to in Northern America. It was a genuine conversation. We joked, laughed, and connected. It was refreshing.

My commitment is to ‘report’ excellent customer service to managers too. I enjoy seeing the manager’s face when they realize that you are there about a compliment, not a complaint. In this case, I happily reported that I had received service from Maggie and that the customer service initiatives they have in place for their staff were seemingly working well. As customers, one of the most effective ways that we can demand excellent service, and get more of what we want from a company, is to praise them when they get things right.

As business people and as customers, I believe it is time we take a stand and demand better customer service. Let’s report poor service, and let’s celebrate excellent service. Let’s tell our friends and colleagues what we are doing and encourage them to do the same. If we want exceptional or even good customer service, it is in our hands as customers, as managers, as business owners, and as employees to demand this and to be proactive in making it happen.

Customer service is relatively straightforward, be genuine, be polite, and go beyond the expectation of the customer.

Let’s strive for a community where a $20 bill never disappears again, and where brands everywhere are safe from the destructive forces of disgruntled ex-customers and ex-employees.

First impressions are critical. You want it to be a good one. Ever receive a flimsy handshake? Not good, right? Ever had a bad first date or met the parents-in-law for the first time, and you called them by the wrong name? First impressions last, sometimes forever.

As a business owner, you want the person receiving your business card to have a particular impression of your company. Design, paper choice, and the type of printing all add to this feeling. For example, if the paper is too thin, it can communicate that you “cheaped-out” are inexperienced or unprofessional. If you are a public company or government agency, you will not want to give the impression that you are spending all the investor’s money on “fancy” stationery and design. Therefore, you may want to avoid using a thick paper for your business cards.

Getting your cards to deliver the desired experience is a delicate balance. It is in your best interest to hire a certified trained professional to bring their years of experience to solving your communication and design problems. A qualified graphic designer will understand your required needs and will know how to express them in a way that resonates with your target audience.

Where and how you have your card printed also leaves an impression. The worst thing you can do as a business owner is to print your business cards on your office printer. It communicates that you are not going to make that extra effort to ensure a good client/customer experience and that you “cheaped-out.” I strongly recommend that at the bare minimum, you use a company like Clubcard or Jukebox Printing where you can get good quality cards for a reasonable price. Ideally, hire a printer (or have your graphic designer co-ordinate this on your behalf) where you have total control over all specs such as colour, paper choice, and an array of finishing’s (like rounded corners, embossing, different varnishes, this list goes on).

To answer the initial question, “does a cheap business card cheapen your brand?” I would, very loudly, say, “YES.” As a person’s experience of your company is essentially your brand, if you economize too much on your business card (or any other area of your business) then, yes, it will cheapen your brand. Since one of your potential customers’ first impressions of your company will be your business card, MAKE SURE it’s a good one.