Making doing business together easy.
Over the 25 years I've been in the food processing industry I've seen corporations become more relaxed in their business dealings. We've moved away from formal dress codes, assistants screening calls, and strict "office hours" where work was only done at a set time and in a set location. It seems that today's company wants to be more open and friendly; but to be a truly approachable company a business must expand beyond attire and accessibility and really look at forming a culture of approachability. But how does a business do that?
Historically, being approachable in business was a quality linked to individual employees, not a trait associated with a group or company. You'll find a lot of articles for managers about being approachable, and most of the advice offered is on how to be friendly while remaining in charge. Concepts such as leaving your door open, being open to the ideas of others, and being thoughtful about the way you dress, come up often. But it's not easy to find tips on how a company, or a team, can be more approachable to clients, prospects, and partners.
…A business must expand beyond attire and accessibility and really look at forming a culture of approachability.
I’m aware of this lack of data because Southeastern Mills has considered this topic for our own business. In 2016 we wanted to create a program around our company's key attributes. We went into the exercise by brainstorming words, and “approachable” rose to the top quickly. Afterwards our C.A.R.E (Creative, Approachable, Responsive, Expert) campaign was born.
Maybe it’s because there has always been an unspoken top-down way that we work together internally. And by unspoken I mean that no one has to tell us to be available and friendly with each other – it’s just the way we work together. You can walk our production floor and ask anyone on the manufacturing team a question about a product, a customer, or even how an aspect of the company is performing and it’s likely that they will be able to give you some information.
We zeroed-in on approachability as one of our C.A.R.E. pillars because it’s an important aspect of our business. We not only strive for approachability as a company, but we look for it in the companies we contract with for our own business needs because it makes doing business together easy. When searching for a new vendor I can always spot the first warning signs of an unapproachable company: extra processes and unneeded complexity.
Businesses need to keep it simple; the more approachable your interface, the more approachable you are to customers.
At Southeastern Mills we’ve had to develop our own playbook on company approachability since there wasn’t much available on the subject. We are asked all the time to share our industry, technical, and product knowledge with our customers, academia, and even the industry at large. (This often includes fixing issues from a competitor’s product or process.) So, this blog post is our way of pro-actively sharing what we’ve learned about approachability with other businesses – because one of the things we learned about approachability is that sharing information and ideas plays a big part in being an approachable company.
So, what does it mean to be an approachable company? An approachable company has many of the same characteristics as an approachable person, but it’s not as simple as that. Yes, individuals collectively make up the company, but the company must be the driver with regard to approachability for it to become ingrained in the business as part of the company culture.
Here are traits we feel characterize an approachable company.
A company that doesn’t offer multiple, simple ways to reach them is the same as a person sitting in front of you with their arms crossed. It means “I don’t want to talk to you.” It should be easy for someone to get to the person or department they need. Today, some type of technology or automation is usually necessary in the contact process, but it doesn’t have to be impersonal, difficult to navigate, or hard to find. Even if it’s at night or on the weekend, when an emergency arises, I know our customers have multiple, immediate ways to get in touch with their account team members.
There's a scene in "The Wizard of Oz" where the curtain is pulled away and "the great and powerful Oz" is revealed to be an average man. He engaged in trickery to make people revere him, but what ultimately won Oz respect was simply being himself. So don't be afraid to invite people behind the curtain. Show off your senior leaders and feature them and their viewpoints online, post videos showing your company in action, and invite clients and prospects to the office to see it all in person.
We all like to deal with people, in all aspects of our life, who are welcoming when we encounter them. At Southeastern Mills when a customer is in-house, it's not uncommon to have a vice president, cross-functional team member, or even the president look in on the meeting to say "hello" and "thanks for your business." Being friendly and making people feel valued costs nothing, but it pays forward exponentially. (And I don't use our company as an example to brag - it's simply to share an example of what works well for us. At Southeastern Mills, hospitality is part of who we are, so "friendly" comes easy to us.)
Empathy and Action.
Listen, understand, and care about customer needs. Being empathetic can help form important connections that are lost in business-only interactions. Of course, empathy will only be successful if there's action behind it. Use empathy as the momentum to accomplish whatever it is that needs to be done. Also remember to routinely ask for feedback. How did the interaction seem to the other person? Make sure they understand that you care about their need and that you are following through to find a resolution.
At Southeastern Mills we are believers in incorporating old school techniques (like handwritten notes, and in-person meetings) into our regular communications with customers, but we also know you can be personal and still be cutting edge. This topic could take up a whole blog post on its own, but what a business should ask itself is are the individual needs of the person on the other end of the desk / counter / smart phone / email / web browser / mobile app being fulfilled in a personal way by the interactions you are serving to them?
One experience I’ve had with an approachable versus a non-approachable company is during my weekend trips to the hardware stores in my area. I like to do home improvement projects so I’m always making a supply run. When I go into the larger retailers it’s very difficult to get help – and when you do find an employee, they often don’t know the department you have questions about. At the smaller stores, there’s always a floater greeting customers at the door and that person is ready to assist as soon as you enter. For me, the better experience isn’t about the cost of goods, or number of products on the shelves – it’s about the approachability. The more approachable home improvement company is the more pleasant and personal experience, and it’s my first choice every time.
For me, the better experience isn’t about the cost of goods, or number of products on the shelves – it’s about the approachability.
Simply put, approachability makes doing business together easy. It's a way to offer solutions, where others offer products. Many companies offer the same goods, use the same business tools, etc. but being approachable is an easy way to stand out.
So how do you assess to what degree a company is approachable? Below is a quiz we developed that scales approachability within a company. It was developed using our own business experience both from the standpoint of living up to our commitment to approachability and by what we have encountered when dealing with other companies – at all ranges of the approachability spectrum.
Take the Quiz!
Take our quick, five question, assessment to find out where your company ranks on the scale of approachability.
Take the Quiz!
Difficult to find contact information. Hard to reach a live person through any medium.
Only offers online form for contacting company. Does not promise a response.
Offers automated, generic contact options. Can reach a live person, but it’s not a simple process.
Offers at least one way to easily reach a live person at the company.
Offers multiple ways to reach a live person at the company.
How approachable is your company online?
No online presence
Limited or outdated online presence.
Some online presence, but online is not a company priority. Social media channels only push occasional content.
Has online presence and multiple social media channels, but pages are not regularly or consistently managed.
Engaged social media that consistently interacts with users. Modern website optimized for all devices.
How would you rank your relationships within the office?
Employees and/ or management has a reputation of being arrogant.
Employees are not matched to customers using any logic behind the pairing. No relationships formed.
While friendly, employees are not encouraged to go “off script.”
Offers flexibility for employees to act as decision-makers.
Forms true business relationships. Warm and open problem solvers.
How would you rank how your company's open door policy with customers?
Does not host clients or prospects in-house.
Will host client or prospect if pushed, but discourages it.
Only invites clients in for large events (aka an “open house”) that don’t offer a real look into the company.
Invites clients and prospects to company facilities.
Clients are regularly invited to facilities and they feel comfortable enough to also initiate / ask for an on-site meeting.
How does your company handle customer feedback?
Openly discourages feedback. Feels internal ideas are the only ideas needed.
Does not offer channels for feedback. Any feedback that reaches company is unsolicited and usually discarded.
Feedback is sometimes gathered, but mostly discarded without consideration.
Asks for feedback, but only rarely follows through on implementation.
Regularly and actively seeks feedback – and utilizes it as appropriate.
Next question 1 of 5
Take the Quiz!
Share story to unlock your results
So how do you assess to what degree a company is approachable? Here is a chart we developed that scales approachability within a company. It was developed using our own business experience both from the standpoint of living up to our commitment to approachability, and by what we have encountered when dealing with other companies – at all ranges of the approachability spectrum.
We used the traits outlined above to come up with a few simple areas of accessibility (left hand column) that we think form the basic touchpoints of an approachable company. We then scale that against 5 levels of approachability. Select where your company falls in each area of accessibility, add up the numbers, divide by 5 – and that’s your score on our approachable company scale.
Post a phone number that leads to a real person.
Sometimes an automated answer is all that’s needed, but if a caller needs to speak to someone, they should be able to easily reach a real person.
Answer emails with timely and personal responses.
Even if the reply is automated, it should read like it isn’t automated, and it should be a proper response to the inquiry that’s been received. If the reply comes from an “actual person” be sure to always address the person by name, use language that doesn’t read like it was scripted, and sign-off using your name.
Consider alternative forms of customer service.
Apps. Online chat. Social media. There are many ways to interact with your customers. Ask yourself, “Where is my customer likely to be?” and then be sure you are there, too.
Be involved in the community.
An approachable company presents itself outside of the office. Sponsoring and attending events in the communities you serve is a great way to let the community and nearby clients know you don’t just occupy an office in the area – you’re a neighborwho cares about uplifting the community.
Senior leaders are accessible.
The individuals who lead a company have a strong part in shaping the personality of that company, so don’t keep who they are a secret. I bet you have amazing and talented people at the top of your organization – and I bet your customers and prospects would be honored to meet them.
Share your origin story and company updates.
The origin of the company (how you started) is as important as company updates (where you are today). This is a way for a company to share something “personal” that isn’t necessarily related to selling the customer something. It’s simply a way to form a connection.
Invite clients and prospects to the office.
When we designed our Center of Innovation we knew it had to be a fully equipped test kitchen that could also host guests. We have visitors in weekly to see how we do, what we do. From the moment a customer walks in the door, it is apparent how much we care.
Hire friendly, empathetic staff.
Every interaction an employee has with people outside your company either adds to or takes away from your brand perception. At Southeastern Mills we put ourselves in our customer’s shoes to ensure we are offering them what they need – and we are happy to do it.
I strongly believe in the tips I’ve shared here, but remember that working toward being an approachable company isn’t all tangible “to do” items. As I mentioned at the top of the blog it’s got to be part of the culture of the company.
At Southeastern Mills, we practice the ideals of a High Performance Work Place (HPWP), which essentially means we trust each other to do the right thing, all of the time, when it comes to our customers and our company. Our two HPWP pillars that align with being approachable are two-way communication and continuous improvement.
…We trust each other to do the right thing, all of the time, when it comes to our customers and our company.
Our culture is key here. We have very high expectations of all our employees and challenge ourselves to maximize our culture. Our HPWP elements are built around trust and improvement. How can you not be approachable when you live out this culture every day?
So, my final bit of advice to businesses that want to be more approachable is to accentuate the corresponding values already found in your company DNA, and you’ll be on track for a win-win within each one of your business relationships.