Driving client experience: The case for unique over exclusive
I just got back from beautiful Lake Tahoe where I stayed at an exclusive summer resort.
By all measures it was amazing: energetic staff all over, beautiful mahogany wood lined the lobby, thousand thread count linens, and the restaurant did not disappoint.
So why was my first thought that I totally regretted paying for it?
It wasn’t the bar tab or the room service charge, though those weren’t cheap.
It was actually clear to me: I don’t value exclusive as much as I value unique. And the hotel’s game was all in on exclusive.
The distinction between exclusive and unique in guest or client experience is something I learned painfully. It is subtle, but it is actually one of the biggest trade-off’s we need to be talking about as entrepreneurs, especially in the Sharing Economy, where a large part of my practice is focused.
At first glance, I get how separating unique from exclusive may be confusing….
(Doesn’t exclusive imply scarcity and therefore is unique?)
Sure. But if you think about it from a guest or client experience perspective, you begin to see the difference.
So what’s the difference …
Exclusive is for those that want a “better than most” experience (like a VIP table), while unique is an experience catered to you and in some ways different from what anyone else would get. For example, a “Happy Anniversary” note card on your hotel room night stand with a gift card to the hotel bar is unique, assuming of course that it is actually your anniversary (congrats, by the way).
Exclusive means you get something that most others do not, like cutting the line at a club. Generally, you pay for exclusive. Exclusive is a money thing.
Unique means you get something special to you, like the hostess bringing your golden retriever a water bowl or whispering “Go Ducks” after noticing the Oregon “O” on your golf shirt. Unique is an activity that is trained into your operations.
Where exclusive usually comes with an upgrade from the common product, unique is typically a binary trait: either it comes with the product or it does not.
Okay, so what does this have to do with my business…
If you’re in a client- or guest-facing business, knowing how much your client cares about exclusive vs. unique will help you maximize returns, increase raving reviews, and deliver more for clients than they ever expected…
(But really, you knew what they wanted all along!!!!).
Unfortunately, in my business, I got this this terribly wrong.
I used to think exclusive was important to our clients…
“Hey, you get us and we’re not available to everyone. That’s good for you. ”
As you can imagine, that frustrated a lot of people. That’s the nice version. I’ll say, we pi**ed a lot of people off, as I’ll share in more detail below.
We had clients yell at us and I had no idea why. Refund requests, all CAPS emails, and poor client survey results hit me hard. I would get 20 emails an hour, and they weren’t all THANK YOU emails. To be fair, some were and we still had more way more happy clients and pi**ed off client, but nonetheless, we were experiencing what was rapid growth. But I was also experiencing how operational scale is critical to the growth you want and crippling when you’re not ready.
I struggled and my own frustration began to show in how I dealt with clients.
Case Study 1. I sent an email to a previous client who hadn’t responded in months saying that assumed he wouldn’t be working with us this year. I thought that was fair and needed to be clear. We were 30 days from the deadline and I wanted to avoid any last-minute requests. After getting that email he called me furiously and yelled at me for 20 seconds straight. That sounds short, but it’s a very long time to be yelled at. I calmly listened, and thanked him for his call before hanging up.
Conclusion: He would later engage us to do his work but only after his alternative tax preparer failed to understand his Airbnb business. We discussed boundaries for communication styles (his and mine), grew close, and are considering investing the same real estate syndication.
Case Study 2. In another instance, I sent what I thought was a matter-of-fact email to a current client explaining that since we could not get the remaining expense information for the project, and because of our current workload, that we would not be able to meet the upcoming deadline and would be extending them to the October 15th deadline, unless we received the expense information in the next 2 business days.
Their response? A request for a refund of their deposit.
I was dumbfounded. We were after all requesting information to finish their project! Clearly, there was some confusion that I attempted to clear up in my next email…
I explained that we had begun the work and in fact were underwater on the project already having spent more time than we expected (trying to gain sympathy). There would be no refund. In fact, we could wrap this up immediately if we received the missing expense information. If we could not get the expense information within the next business day, we would have no other choice than to focus on clients who had provided all their information and needed to file by the tax deadline.
Conclusion: We ended terminating the engagement and agreed to go our separate ways.
Reflection Questions. Am I insane? Did I choose inherently angry clients? What am I missing?
I took my usual post-tax-season vacation, this year in Japan with my fiancé, and spent time reflecting on the big failures. I was miserable.
I dreaded looking to my phone, knowing there was another fire waiting for me.
The truth is I hate failing clients, and like with the client who yelled at me in Case Study 1, if we can agree to work together after a hiccup, I’ll eat my time on a project, right the ship, and likely become closer than when we started.
I’m very empathetic and enjoy nothing more than OUT-DELIVERING my competition. Maybe you’re like that too. But sometimes the universe has other plans.
I was most frustrated because I knew that it wasn’t them. It was on me. I was missing something and I needed to STEP UP. I could grow or die.
I thought about this for days. In Japan, we visited centuries-old temples, ate at a fully-automated sushi restaurant, and made carefully crafted bento boxes with all the care of a shinto maiden.
Here is a country that has focused so much energy inward, perfecting and improving so many trivial pursuits — organizing your homes, cold noodles, the automobile.
And here I was sulking, when the world was telling me to improve.
It took me a while, but I realized that I had been operating under the assumption that people knew we were an exclusive service provider and cared about our laurels. After all, what other firms give access to ex Big 4 accountants? Was their previous accountant in the Wall Street Journal? The New York Times? Testified before Congress? WE were important.
Or so I thought.
Experience was teaching me, otherwise.
I sat one evening in a Japanese garden in the hills of Kyoto, looking at the sun setting over the city. It was a picture that just felt unreal. And in that moment, I reflected on the frustrations of those and other clients, and got to some uncomfortable questions, better questions.
Was I customizing a client experience that I myself would want to go through?
Did I contemplate their journey before they came to us? About why they came to us?
Did I reflect on how to meet our client where they were instead of where they should be?
Did we honor the trust that our clients put in our hands in a way that made sense to them? Did we ask if our requests made sense to them?
Was I treating all my clients, who have different values, finances, and experience in hiring professional help the same?
I wrote my answers down furiously, and reading through them, I wasn’t happy.
Worse yet, I realized that by example, I was teaching our team that our clients were lucky to have us. I thought our angle was EXCLUSIVE and not UNIQUE. And that kind of arrogance closes the door to learning. Not just for me, but for everyone.
The truth was that our clients wanted, expected, and deserved a personal and customized experience.
And I remember — like it was yesterday — that if I was going to continue to deliver, we would do it differently. In a way that only we could do it. That would be our competitive advantage.
I had a moment of clarity, I realized that we would need to educate before we asked for anything, and make sure we understood a client’s financial context before proposing any kind of next steps. In short, we were going to go long on UNIQUE.
This was a service for them, not a business for us.
As I wrote that word out, I wrote out “YOU NOT ME.” Underneath it, I wrote “YOU” again, then “unique client experience,” next to it. Playfully, I scribbled over a few of the letters, to spell out “YOUnique client experience.”
It may be cheesy, but it was a powerful moment for me when I realized that there was more than “product market fit,” more than creating a sales team, and more than just preparing a PDF that is filed with the tax authorities to creating a GREAT business.
While I was clear on the shift we had to make, I realized that my team would take some time adjusting to this. I knew, however, because of how we were operating that there would be a fire or two, in my inbox. So I took a deep breath and poured into my email. I began to take on emails head on, responding to status updates, forwarding requests, replying to questions looking to provide that unique experience I had gotten so excited about.
I soon found an email from Michelle (she’s client who allowed me to use her real name). Michelle noticed that the bank account number on her tax return routed the refund to an incorrect bank account. We were talking about thousands of dollars, all missing because of two transposed numbers. I was devastated.
Rather than refer the issue to her tax preparer which would take a few days, I took over then. I ran to the nearest coffee house with my lap top, I emailed her explaining what had happened and what we needed to do. I let her know that appreciating her patience and trust, I knew she had wanted us to get her depreciation right, that she went with us because her taxes were getting complicated, but ultimately it was on us for making an error that was going to cause some headaches. I acknowledged her frustration. I knew there were processes to get the money back and acted in that moment. Since business hours were starting in the US, even though it was late, I stayed up until 2am, filling out the paper work and outlining letters that needed to be sent to the IRS and her bank. Lightning hit around 4am. Her bank had caught the error and had wired the funds to her savings.
Typically, I would have allowed our standard operating procedures to take over. Those events are unfortunate, but they do happen and we have processes that take 2–4 business days. But if I thought about it from her perspective, I would have been terrified. I knew I needed to act in that moment and I was grateful we did. Michelle has agreed to let me share her story and acknowledges that humans make mistakes, she could have also keyed in the wrong number into TurboTax, but it is ultimately how we helped that mattered.
Someone on my team asked, “Aren’t you on vacation. Did you sleep?”
I responded by forwarding the email chain to my entire team. I was changing the tone right then and there.
I copied my management team and let them know this was not an email just about the current case, it was a change we were making for good. Here’s an excerpt.
“No one gives a sh** that we’re sitting on 1,000 emails from people that want to work with us or that we’ve turned away other potential clients. No one is going to believe that we are a “VIP service” let alone as good as H&R Block or even the one-person preparer, if we can’t deliver the results that matter to THEM. Our clients are our WHY, and if we can’t figure this out, we’ll all have more time to sleep when this business isn’t around next tax season.”
It was crystal clear to me.
We were going to obsessively dedicate ourselves to delivering a one-on-one, customized experience. Because I won’t run a business that doesn’t deliver.
Conclusion: Our clients wanted unique, all along.
And much like I regretted paying for the exclusive hotel in Lake Tahoe because I don’t value exclusive, I’m sure my clients felt the same. Some told me so, as I shared.
Today, we focus so much on creating tailored work papers, explaining why clients they owe taxes or what strategies they’re missing out on. More importantly, we make an effort to understand where a client is coming from. We rank each of our clients based on perceived communication style, financial context, and long-term vs. short-term needs and goals. We do a interest scoring analysis to get a sense of how much they want to learn versus have us do everything for them.
This ensures we’re qualifying clients as well as gauging how to best help them when they come in.
One simple change that we implemented for 2019, that I’m particularly happy about is the virtual client review…
Every client will be getting a password-protected virtual video review of their tax return, allowing clients to get a walk through before trying to schedule a call or figure it out on their own.
Here’s a quick clip from one we recently recorded.
“Hi Bob, Hope you and Sheri are doing well and that the weather’s great in Nashville. So great to see the market is so hot, you guys must be swamped! Anyway, we wanted to get your numbers in front of you to get you comfortable with our work so far. If you have any questions, you can schedule a live call using the link below. Now, let’s begin with page 7 of the document Form 1040…”
I know, some of our clients reading this are saying, thank goodness, I only got to page 3 of the tax return before giving up. I also know there are colleagues of mine reading this saying, ‘Gosh I would never do that. I’m just preparing a tax return.’ The truth is, you’re not.
Do we have clients that don’t want to hear from us until it’s April? Yes.
Do we have clients who trust us and want a partner in this complicated financial landscape? Absolutely.
The punchline is that every business needs to do is first get clear on whether exclusive or unique is the game they’re playing. I got this wrong and it cost me emotionally and financially.
It’s about how to create value in a way that makes sense for your end user, client, guest or renter as an individual.
Are you getting it?
Is this resonating?
What I’d like to tell most of our clients, specifically in the Sharing Economy space, is that you’re probably not selling exclusive. This is 100% true if you’re selling your services and you’re not Oprah, Gary V, or a top influencer.
Moreover, very few Airbnb hosts and Turo renters (our clients at Shared Economy Tax), sell exclusive.
If you have a fleet of McLaren’s on Turo or list mansions on Airbnb Luxe, great. Exclusive will get people to rent from you, but a unique experience will keep clients coming back.
As I tell my Airbnb clients, your guests and clients don’t care how many guests you’ve handled after they book…
Sure, hitting that $50K or $100K earned on Upwork is impressive but your history does nothing for you after the contract starts.
One funny thing I always share about the Sharing Economy to reporters or regulators is that “sharing” in Sharing Economy… is a misnomer.
Here’s an exact quote:
There’s no Kum-Bah-Yah sharing going on with Turo renters, Airbnb hosts, or Freelancers. This is a cash-producing business. You want my car? Want to stay in my house? My services?
Sure. All you have to do is… pay.
And what Sharing Economy players also forget is that those on Sharing Economy platforms — whether they’re looking for help on Upwork, a car on Turo, or a place to stay on Airbnb — still really only care about the most important person in the world: the proverbial me.
No sharing going on here. Your clients or guests love these platforms because it allows for even more customization and tailoring to what they like or need, i.e, more me!
Your clients and guests want to know ONE THING FROM YOU AND ONE THING ONLY: do you care about me also?
For most of our clients (and even for those selling an exclusive experience), unique is what’s going to drive results.
All greetings, at a minimum, should be on a first-name basis. There must be some customization even if you have a template first message, and that applies on Airbnb as much as it does on Upwork.
If you’re an Upworker looking for my business, consider sharing that you looked up your new client’s experience or company on LinkedIn and found their background interesting.
Take this from me, as someone who spends tens of thousands on Upwork… when someone shows that they’ve done their homework on our company or knows we’re affiliated with Upwork as the company’s official tax education partner, I tend to be more forgiving and appreciative over the course of the contact.
So focus on unique.
You may think you’re giving a guest an exclusive experience…
After all, they’re the only guest at your place, you cleaned up for them… But unless they feel that unique touch… be it a card with their name on it or freshly baked cookies, you’re likely not showing enough YOU in the equation.
In our business, we do offer exclusive (not everyone gets in-year consulting)…
That certainly sells, but it loses it’s flair if we can’t deliver.
We’re not into one-time engagements. What we’re focused on is delivering on a customized, unique and tailored experience, that we can repeat year after year.
What I want to hear my team say is,
‘Jen, Your business grew 100% last year over last, that’s great! And I can also see you made some big investments to get there. Did you know there’s a way we can write off that investment that can drop your tax bill? I think this is something we should talk about, in the meantime check out our post on Section 179 depreciation (what I’m talking about) and once you have a look you can let me know if this is a strategy you’d like to consider.
Without knowing too much tax stuff, you should get that (a) we did our year-over-year homework, (b) we reviewed some of the big spending items, (c) that we’re looking at options that are in your best interest, and (d) that we’ve provided options for you to learn more on your own or get right on a call.
It has been the customized approach that has kept our clients loyal.
It has been when we have gotten busy or cocky about how many clients we’ve gotten that we’ve forgotten this and have let newer clients down.
But here’s my point …
$100K+ on Upwork? 5-Star Reviews? Super host?
No one gives a sh** if you fail them by…
- Not responding to their messages if the water heater breaks or — heaven forbid — the wifi goes down during their stay.
- If you aren’t responsive and miss a deadline on Upwork.
- If you rush a rental on Turo, and don’t get to wash and clean a car before a long rental period.
What people care about is the most important person in the world: me.
And they want to know one question: do you care about me also?
The challenge is to deliver on unique and convince your clients that you do, through a consistent and carefully designed experience. You want to think through that journey, what it looks like before your client or guest came to you, what they feel during their time with you, and what they should feel as you part ways.
So that everyone has the spelling down, it’s:
Next, I’m going to share a few ways our clients have created a customized experience and a few things NOT to do.