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Prompted to Business Success

By Marion Oberg Riise |

A black lacquered coffee mug sits on the corner of my desk. Its golden birds among pink peonies are likely similar to dozens you would find on the shelves of any low-end import shop. I don't drink out of the mug, nor do I put pencils and pens in it. Occasionally it holds some petunias from my garden, or some Werther's candies. This mug serves a much higher purpose in my business. It is my client satisfaction prompt.

What is a prompt?
If you've never taken a writing class, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Instructors often use 'prompts' such as an old photograph or a snippet of poetry to provide a creative focus. Students are asked to write whatever comes to mind when presented with a prompt. The same prompt inspires a variety of writing, depending upon the individual experiences that students bring with them.

Similarly, in a business environment, prompts can be used to remind us of goals and objectives. When we are caught up in the day-to-day details of running a business, it is easy to lose focus. As entrepreneurs, it is important to take a step back from the business on a regular basis. Check how your operations are measuring up to your business plan. Then ask yourself the question: To be successful in this business, what do I need to focus on?

Client satisfaction is paramount.
Satisfying the customer is integral to every business, but more so in a service business like mine. Located in a small market area, I depend upon repeat business from my clients. Referrals from other clients bring in contacts for me as well. Even one unsatisfied customer can mean trouble for my business, for as a consultant once told me, a satisfied customer tells ten friends but an unsatisfied customer tells thirty.

Here's where the coffee mug comes in as my daily prompt. It doesn't remind me to keep my caffeine level up, even though some days caffeine is an important factor in operating my business. Rather, it reminds me to keep client satisfaction first and foremost, and to keep evaluating whether I am meeting this goal.

Why is a coffee mug my prompt?
Twenty years ago in my first job just out of university, I was an admissions clerk at the University of Alberta. This was back in the days when new students to the university were required to register in person, long before the use of touch-tone or on-line systems. In-person registration meant physically going around to the various departments in the myriad of buildings on campus to see if there were still spaces in the courses needed for your program. It was a frustrating procedure, because invariably you would find that the last course you needed to complete your timetable was full. The new course you had to register in then conflicted with another course, necessitating a return visit to another department to change it as well. If you were unlucky enough to be admitted after classes had started for the term, in-person registration became a nightmare because most of the classes were full.

One particular fall semester on the second day of classes, a new applicant brought in her high school transcripts. As she was already two days late, I did a rush approval on the file to get her admitted and ready to register. Then I outlined on a campus map where all the department offices were, and went through all the steps required to complete late in-person registration. The final step after handing in her form at the faculty office was to get her photo ID card, which now that regular registration was over, could only be obtained in an obscure building on the edge of the campus. Jokingly, I told her that if she could get through late in-person registration, earning her degree would be a snap.

A couple of days later, I was amazed when the same student showed up with a gift, beautifully wrapped. "For you," she said, "to thank you so much for your help. You made registration so much easier."

I was surprised by this; not by the thoughtfulness of the student, but because I felt I had only been doing my job. As an admissions clerk it was my job to help students, and I was just doing that. I had not provided more service to this client than I would have to any other.

Stop and evaluate your performance.
Prior to this incident, I had never thought about client satisfaction. The gift made me stop and evaluate my performance. Being surprised by the gift was proof that client satisfaction was part and parcel of how I did my job.

Nearly twenty years later, I am operating my own small business. The mug still reminds me of the importance of client satisfaction, and of periodic evaluation and review of how I do business. Seeing it on my desk prompts me daily to ask questions. Could I have improved on the service my clients received? Did I ask them if they were satisfied? Am I meeting my criteria for satisfied clients?

Select a prompt that works for you.
Think about what you need to focus on daily in your business to succeed. Then find a prompt to help you maintain this focus. It could be your business philosophy or mission statement flashing up on your computer's screen saver. It might be a motivational plaque on your office wall. Experiment to find out what will give you the daily reminder you need. Who knows, perhaps it may be a coffee mug with a storied past.