Patti Mara | Listening to Your Customers

As a small business, don’t let yourself become a commodity – you’ll get lost in a crowded market. Instead, to compete effectively, says Patti Mara, you must position yourself as a trusted resource and provider of not products and services – but solutions.

Patti, a business consultant and author of the new book UpSolutions, says there are key things a business must do to reach that goal. It all starts with the customer – and how you interact with them. 

She says too many businesses give prospects a reason to default to the competition with the lowest perceived price instead. 

We talk about what the ideal customer experience looks like (including during the ongoing pandemic), how to help your customers make “better” decisions, and more, including…

  • Why you should never compete on price
  • 3 things you must do to make your team more effective
  • How to listen to what your customers are saying beyond the words
  • Why putting profit as a secondary consideration in your business… will lead to faster growth
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:


Steve Gordon: Welcome to the Unstoppable CEO Podcast. This is your host, Steve Gordon and I am really excited about the interview today. Today I’m talking with Patti Mara. She has worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs who have owned and operated businesses and she’s helped them reposition those businesses for success to dramatically increase their growth, their customer retention, their profit. And she is author of the new book UpSolutions: Turning Your Team Into Heroes and Your Customers Into Raving Fans. And I know particularly right now, that is something that’s very important to businesses all over the world. And I’m excited to have you on the show today, Patti. Welcome.

Patti Mara: Thank you, Steve. It’s really wonderful to be on the Unstoppable CEO.

Steve: You and I have a little bit of, I guess, common ground in that we’re both Strategic Coach clients. You told me before we started, you’re one of the coaches for Strategic Coach and have been for quite a number of years. And so we kind of share that framework for thinking. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m really intrigued by how you approach this idea of turning your team into heroes and your customers into raving fans, because I feel like we’re sort of standing on common ground. And so it’s gonna be a fun conversation. Before we get to that, I would love it if you’d give everybody a little bit of your background. Just kind of give us some context for how you got to this stage.

How Patti Got to This Stage In Her Career

Patti: Perfect, great. You know, as with many stories, it’s a roundabout way. And probably the most pivotal early experience I had is when I was going through university in the late 80s. I worked in a bookstore. Just a chain nondescript bookstore in a mall and I had a really good manager. And the manager trained all the team members, on interacting with customers. Really simple. Anyone who came in the store, you stopped what you’re doing, you said, Hello and can I help you? And if they were looking for something specifically, you took them to the section, put the book in their hand. If we didn’t have it, we offered alternative suggestions. Or we could order it in. And very simple things that if somebody was in the store, the team were having sidebar conversations, just customers had our full focus. And a couple of things about that really stood out. One is that as a team member, it was fun. It was fun to show up to work. We had fun as a team, we were all engaged. There was this aligned purpose and focus that we shared that just made the time flow by and we had very little turnover and it was mostly part-time. And then the other thing was we had consistently had customers coming back into the store, commenting that they’d been in almost every store in the mall and this was the only store they felt welcomed and appreciated and they just wanted to say thank you. So that really stayed, you know, stayed with me. The other piece of that is at the end of the year, that little bookstore, this is in like 1987, 1988, the little bookstore was targeted, the budget was 500,000 gross revenue. And at the end of the year, we did just over a million. So the impact of being engaged, interacting with customers, taking care of their needs, listening was dramatic impact in the business results, both in the front stage with the growth revenue and then in sales in the backstage with the team engagement and retention. And that laid the foundation. From that point on, it’s like almost all of my experience from that point on was customer service, customer experience. And it led very quickly that I ended up being a customer experience trainer, that I would go in and work with business owners and help them align the experience both they and their team were giving to create that customer experience that was aligned with the business model that the value that they provide in the business. And that really just took off. And I took it to a different level when I came across Strategic Coach in 1997. Because of course, that’s the building blocks for taking your wisdom, your knowledge, and packaging it and taking it to the next level. So 1997 was the next shifting point that really allowed me to go and do what I do, but at a bigger level on a larger stage.

Steve: That’s so interesting to hear you tell that story. I started off probably about that same time working in a mall, I wasn’t in a bookstore, I was in a nondescript little local chain, athletic shoe store. But as you were describing all of those things, it’s all the same things that I would hear from our manager. And I go places now, and it is really rare to find that experience and it drives me up a wall. And it must drive you up a wall too when you don’t have it. And it’s such an easy thing to do. And the thing that I observed about being in that kind of environment was that we had a lot more fun. And it sounds like that was really kind of your experience as well. Like you with your co-workers, because you were really attuned to the customers and in service of them, things went a lot better I would imagine. You had a lot more wins, you had people who were a lot nicer to you rather than being grumpy. And so it probably really reinforced all of the things that you were doing.

Patti: Absolutely. I 100% agree. You know, Steve, I think I’m more fine, like more in tune to it, but it really is glaring. And here’s the rule of thumb, in particular for brick and mortar businesses, whether it’s retail or service. In particular, you no longer have any room to send the customer to another location. So if you don’t have what they’re looking for, how can you help them? You know, if they’re looking for something, how do you show them where it is? If, one of the rules of thumb is that your customers don’t even know the questions to ask to make an effective buying decision. So the only thing customers or clients can really fall back on since they don’t know how to make an effective decision is price. And now you’re being squeezed on price. But on top of that, you know, with your team and your business, you cannot give customers any reason to go to another competing business. It’s just too hard to acquire them, you need to be taking care of them.

Steve: Absolutely. I mean, you know, we work with businesses on attracting customers and it is, most businesses don’t think about it this way, but it is generally the number one investment that they’re making in the business and then oftentimes, those customers, those clients are coming into an experience that is less than optimal, to say the least. And they’re wasting that investment. So you’ve been building your business and I would imagine there have been times when things weren’t perfect, where there were some challenges and things to overcome. How have you dealt with that over the years? How have you really kind of persevered and stayed unstoppable?

Progress Comes From Setbacks, Failures and the Unexpected

Patti: That’s a great question, Steve. And I love your name, the Unstoppable CEO because I think that’s actually what it takes to be successful. Not daily wins because none of us have daily wins. I actually, I think if I look back over my history, that the most significant leap forward have come from something not, you know, going wrong. Some kind of failure or some kind of a setback, or just an outcome that wasn’t expected. And diving into identifying, you know, what worked, what didn’t work, what I learned and applying that forward is really this correction, if you will. I actually call what doesn’t work the Entrepreneurial School of Success. It’s our own MBA and sometimes it’s expensive.

Steve: Very expensive. Yes.

Patti: absolutely. And I love what you said, Steve, about, you know, the cost of client customer acquisition. It is huge. And so you can’t afford to be turned away. Plus, I think understanding who your customers are is almost your unlimited opportunity for growth because if you’re tuned in, they’ll tell you what next. And saying that I’m coming about a roundabout way to answer your question because really, every single time that I’ve hit a point that I either hit a wall, didn’t know where to go next, something went wrong, I didn’t get an expected outcome. I went back to who do I enjoy working with that I, you know, I want to work with them, they enjoy working with me, they appreciate what I do for them and they’re willing to pay me for it. So I go back to who are they and I do a check-in what’s true for them today? Not what I think, not what I expect, but what’s really true for them today? What are their needs? What are their challenges? What do they want to see? And when I get at that level, I can always figure out a solution. And the solution is always what the next step is.

Steve: I love that. I love that way of thinking about it. It’s a very, I think empowering and forward-looking kind of forward motion way to approach setbacks or obstacles. So thank you for sharing that. I think that’s really powerful. It’s so interesting when I have talked to so many entrepreneurs on the show and everybody’s got a little bit of a different approach to it. But what you just described, you know, if I sort of summed up the wisdom of all of these entrepreneurs I’ve talked to, I think you really captured it in a really clear way. And I want everybody to take note of that because I think this is really important, particularly, you know, as we’re recording this, it’s, you know, right in the midst of this Coronavirus outbreak that’s happening around the world and people are worried. And it certainly will require you to be a little bit unstoppable here for some period of time. But I think taking that mindset and that approach is the thing that gets you through no matter what situation you’re presented with.

Patti: You know, spot on. There was a post in my local community, you know, restaurants are having a hard time, people aren’t going out to eat in public. How about, you know, go and buy a gift certificate at your local restaurant that you love to go on a regular basis. And the restaurant can use the money now and then when things settle down in a month or two, you can go for dinner. There are, but if I owned a restaurant and I knew who my customers were, I’d be reaching out to them or I might be delivering meals. Or, you know, what, who are they? Who are your best customers? You did a really great podcast interview recently, Steve, where We talked about your 100 best. You know, make your list of your hundred best either that you currently work with or that you want to work with. And who are they? And how do you take care of them?

Steve: Yeah, I love that. And, you know, that is such a creative example. And I think that’s really what it takes, you know, not only to move through challenging times, but I think that’s really what it takes to move through any time. When you can really be in tune with your customers and what they need from you right now and how you can be a value right now, it’s so empowering. You know, you’ve sort of instead of retracting inwardly, you immediately know well, if I go and get into action in this way, that’s really going to be of service. And you can sort of forget the financial part of that, I think. It’s not that that’s not important. We all have to make money to be able to be sustained in business, but I think if you put that kind of as a secondary consideration you now kind of opened up all of your creativity to figure out how you can go and really, you know, fill a need that exists right in this moment. And I think that’s, you know, that’s the fundamental kind of role of business. But a lot of times we forget about it. And particularly when times are good, it’s easy to forget about because you’re so focused on fulfilling the demand that’s in front of you.

Patti: I agree. And I want to add almost a little bit of a, not a tactic, but it’s a way of thinking. When you’re clear on who your customers are and then you get into the level of finding out what’s important to them, I really like to distinguish in customer communication, the difference between the words they use and the message they’re delivering. And this is kind of a, this is almost a tip, especially right now that we’re going through so much change and so much turmoil with the impact of the Coronavirus on different businesses. That, again there is, you said this, Steve, there is an opportunity here. And it might not be what you expect. You almost have to turn on the creativity. And when you’re talking to your customer, so whether it’s a phone call or a Zoom call or a FaceTime call, whatever it is, if you get in contact with your customers and then, you know, ask some probing questions to find out how are they, what’s going on, what do they need, what do they want? And what would they like to see, what would make life better for them? And when you’re listening to the responses, and if you can record it even better, because you’re listening for, we’re trained to listen to and respond to the words they use. You know, I don’t have enough time, it’s not convenient, and we’re responding to that. And in actual fact, anything that a customer says to you, they’re communicating that’s what’s important to them. So regardless of what it is, if it’s something around time, is it ready yet? When will it be done? Then they’re communicating that time is one of their key things that they’re focused on. So how can you make something quicker, easier access, whatever that is? The rule of thumb is if a customer says it to you, they’re communicating what’s most important, pay attention to the message they’re saying, not just the words that they use because often you’ll hear something as a complaint and you can handle the complaint, but they’re really telling you that, you know, what works or what doesn’t work for them.

Steve: I completely agree. That’s such great advice. So let’s take a quick break. I want to come back and I really want to spend some time focusing on the ideas that you share in your new book. I think, right now, probably more than any other time, they’re going to be very powerful for people. So we’re going to take a quick break. We’ll be right back with more from Patti.

Commercial Break: Hi, this is Steve, I hope you’re enjoying this interview. We’ve got more to come in a minute, but what I’d love for you to do right now is rate this podcast. Leave us a review, rate us on iTunes. It’ll really help others discover the podcast and help us help other CEOs, other business leaders become unstoppable. So if you go to, you can find instructions there and links that will take you right to where you need to go to review the podcast. Thanks so much. Now back to the interview.

Steve: Hey everyone, welcome back. This is Steve Gordon and I’m talking today to Patti Mara. And Patti, you’ve got a new book out called UpSolutions: Turning Your Team Into Heroes and Your Customers Into Raving Fans. I love the title. And we sort of left off on this idea that there’s an opportunity if you really pay attention and listen to your customers. And then sort of creatively respond to the need that they’re expressing that might not be the, you know, expressed in the words that they say but that you can oftentimes sort of extract it out of the message that they’re giving you that it creates, you know, some real great opportunities for you. I would imagine though, you’ve got to have a team that’s really in tuned to that sort of thing. How do you get your team to really pay attention and truly listen?

The Value of Your Business Lies In the Unique Experience You Provide

Patti: That’s a great point. The reality is of most businesses, it’s the team members that have the daily regular contact with customers or clients. And whether it’s answering the phone or when somebody, you know, a customer walks into the store, whatever that is, they’re usually the ones that have the day to day contact. And unless, there’s a couple of, I think there’s a couple of layers here and I’d like to put it under the umbrella of setting the team up to win. And our role as a business owner is really to set up our team members to win. It’s interesting because if you get right down to it, everyone wants to feel like they’re winning in their role and they spend an awful lot of time guessing what they think you want if you haven’t clearly laid it out. So the first thing is to create the, have a real clear purpose. So I like to have, let me backtrack a little bit. I think most business owners think what they sell is their business. So in other words, the product or service they sell, they think that’s their business. And my argument would be that the value you create in your marketplace is your business. That what you sell, your product or service, is actually a vehicle to deliver the value of your business, to deliver it to your businesses. So, you know, financial services, for example, that’s the umbrella and you sell financial products if that’s your business. But the value of the business is whatever you’re creating for your clients, whether that’s, you know, retirement security, legacy plan, you know, whatever that is, what your focus is for your target audience, that’s your actual business. And then the, you know, financial vehicles are just support of that. And that’s true for any business. It doesn’t matter if it’s a, you know, a local TV, you know, they sell TVs. Well, sure they can be commoditized you can buy them online or you can go to a Best Buy store. But if you understand that selling the TVs is just a vehicle, than what your business really is, is creating a home theater experience or entertainment hub for the family or the whatever that is. You’re creating something for who’s buying it, so who your target audience is. So I say that because part of setting the team up to win is knowing the game you’re really playing. That Daniel Pink and his book Drive said that the three main influencers, if you will, for team success and performance these days. It’s not money. I mean, they need to be paid relevant to their responsibility in their role, but really what drives people today is a sense of purpose, that sense of development. They feel like they’re improving and developing and an increased amount of autonomy. So they, as they develop, they can have a bigger and bigger impact. So, pull back here, a key piece for setting your team up to win is that they feel that they have a purpose. And what they do in their role fulfills that purpose. So what impact is your business really? What game are you really playing? And what’s the team members’ role in that? How do they, this is literally how do they get to be a hero with their customers because they’re part of that bigger purpose? So that’s, I would call that the first layer, Steve.

Steve: Yeah. And I think, you know, that’s the thing as business owners we hear a lot. I think the really challenging thing is how do we take that great advice and how do we make it practical and apply it in our business? And so I heard you say a few things there. So I heard you say they have to know how they, you know, how they win. So, what does that look like if you’re working with a business, how would someone translate that down so one of their frontline employees would know this is, you know, this is me being successful today.

The Three Columns

Patti: Okay, perfect, perfect. There are three, I call them like the three columns. The first is I like to see a very clear, literally another level of job description. I prefer the term position agreement. And a position agreement is the step beyond a job description where a job description tends to list out the responsibility of the tasks of the role, a position agreement actually put standards in place. So for example, if a task is to greet customers as they walk in the door, the standard would be within three seconds of a customer being in the store, somebody has said hello, welcome. So that you literally put standards in place. For example, you know, all customer, all client calls are returned, you know, the client returning calls is the task and the return within two hours on the same business day, or, you know, first thing the next business day. So you put standards in place, not just what it is, but what’s the standard of what success looks like in that role. So that’s the first. The second is a regular team communication. And I’m talking 15, 20-minute huddles. And it could be once a week, it could be every day. I have one friend of mine who has carpet cleaning and restoration business. They have a team huddle every morning for 15 minutes at eight o’clock. At the very least, it should be once a week for 15, 20 minutes. And one of the challenges I keep hearing back pushback from entrepreneurs is well we’ve got a small team. And I talk to everyone, every day anyways. It’s still different to have that huddle that everyone talks about what were the wins from last week, what are the key things everyone needs to know about this week, and what are the focuses that we’re working on accomplishing this week that we’re going to report on in the next meeting? So that structure creates a rhythm and a communication. Again, people feel connected. And then the third is that they know how they’re doing in their role. So if we’ve got standards in place, on a regular basis, at a minimum every quarter and it could be much less than that. And certainly, when you’re onboarding somebody, it’s weekly and then monthly and then quarterly, that you give people feedback on how they’re doing against the standards of their role. So that structure when you put it in, that for me is actually a time generator. That if you put in place that basic foundation structure to set your team up to win, you’re literally freeing up your time from down the road having to correct something that wasn’t done, to fix something that was a misinterpretation, and you increase the productivity of your team because you take the guesswork out.

Steve: Yeah, I, you know, as I’m listening to you describe all of that, it makes perfect sense. And it’s, I appreciate you clarifying that because it’s much clearer when you begin to talk about well, moving that into standards. And I think for most of us we can kind of envision what the standards are of what we want for each position, then the challenge, I think, is actually sort of taking the time and getting that out of our heads. And I feel like that’s kind of a, it’s a continual process, particularly as you’re in a growth mode for the business and things sort of are changing. But very, very powerful. So I know in the book, you talk a lot about getting, you know, your team to really turn into heroes. But the other piece of this you talk about is turning your customers into raving fans. What’s the linkage there?

Patti: So, the connection is when the team understand how they are having an impact, how they make someone’s day or make a difference or deliver the purpose of the business. Then they literally get, become, their roles that are problem solvers, solution creators. And so their engagement with customers or clients completely shifts. And when customers feel completely taken care of like, literally, you know, beyond their expectation because they didn’t even have to think about it or ask for what they really wanted, they go away and they start talking about the business. And again, it is accelerated if the business is clear and talking about why choose them. You know, the, one of the rules of thumb is that if a business is, as your business if you’re not clearly communicating, why choose you? Again, beyond what you sell, but the value and results you create, the solution you provide. If you’re not communicating that, people choose the lowest perceived price. If you are communicating that and your team are delivering on that, you give an easy way for your customers, your clients to talk about you and to rave about you and the impact for them. And I’ll give you an example. This is a really simple example. A friend of mine wanted to put up a shelving unit floating shelf in his office. So he went to one of those big storage places. And he’s in the shelving aisle and a young clerk comes up to him and he says, you know, can I help you? And my friend Dan said, No, I’m fine. Now, first of all, the clerk came up and approached him. That’s spectacular. The second is, he didn’t stop at that. Most people will say, Okay, thanks. Call me if you have any questions. Dan is standing in the selling aisles, so the clerk asked a probing question. He literally just said What type of wall do you want to put a shelf up on? You know, now Dan said fully engaged drywall. Great. What do you want to put on the shelf? Dan answered, you know, a couple knickknacks and books. And so then the clerk came back and said, Well, my recommendation is this shelf because it has this type of anchor that offer drywall, you can put this weight on and it’ll stay on the wall. If you use something like this shelf, it’ll probably fall off within the month. So Dan walked out of this storage store having bought an $85 shelf and ecstatic about the purchase, but the shelf he had been looking at was $25. So he had a great experience, left with what he needed, had a great perception of value. And he told people about it because I know about the story because he shared it with me. And he has this great perception of this store and who works there. Had the flip happened, that he hadn’t gotten help, he hadn’t gotten the recommendation, he didn’t know how to make a decision. He didn’t know the questions to ask. You know it wasn’t even on his radar. He would have bought the $25 shelf, it would have fallen off the wall and he would have thought that’s just a cheap store.

Steve: You know, I think the thing we overlook so much, like that’s a fairly simple decision, buying a shelf to put on the wall, right? But we all go through that. We all go through that, even on simple buying decisions. But then if you go to, you know, to kind of take this to the extreme and a lot of the people listening are selling their expertise, their wisdom, their years of training and experience because they deliver a service of some kind. And now this is a far more complex decision for the potential client, the customer. And they’re not qualified half the time to make the decision, you know? Like, I’ll go in, I would have the same question. as Dan. I’d sit there and stare at the shelves but I’m reasonably qualified to pick out a shelf to hang on the wall. But it gets I think so much more complicated when, you know, you’re looking at hiring someone to help you with the finances in your business or help you with a legal matter or some other really complicated thing or buy a very expensive very complicated product. Is the process basically the same, if you’re working with companies like that, is the process the same, the way you would approach it?

The Absolution Recipe

Patti: Absolutely. And what’s interesting, so, in the core of the book, the first three chapters are mindset shifts. And chapter four is something I call the absolution recipe. And the absolution recipe is very simple, but it’s designed to be simple so that your team can easily use it remember it. But the absolution recipe is what do you already know about the customer? You know, Dan was standing in the shelving aisles, so the clerk knew that he’s probably looking at a shelf. He can ask probing questions around shelving. So what do you already know about, interesting most, you know, team members that have been in a company worked in a company, work with customers or clients for three months or more are experts compared to the customers. So you know a lot about somebody in front of you that they don’t even know. You know, they’re not even aware that’s true for them. So the first is applied observation. What do you know about that person in front of you or on the phone, whatever that is? The second step is asking probing questions. So based on what you know, your applied observation, what are probing questions? And the probing questions are as simple as what are the, what piece of information do I need to know to make an effective decision? Because, you know, what’s the guide based on your wisdom that someone needs to go through to make an effective decision that they don’t even know to look at? So you ask the probing questions to pull out the detail. Number three, part three is you provide that up solution and explain why that’s a solution for their needs. And four is ongoing relationship development. It really everything you do has to go beyond a one-time transaction that you’re getting to know the building that relationship. So what’s next? How can you be a solution for them ongoingly? For me, there’s a, it doesn’t really matter. It can be a financial services business, it could be a bookstore, it can be a shelving store, it could even be an online, you know, business, it’s still those four key components so that you’re positioning what you offer as a solution.

Steve: Well, I love that you’ve broken it down that simply because I think anybody can now apply that. And you know, as I’m listening to you describe that I’m thinking well, that’s actually also very applicable in marketing. And people get turned around all the time about, well, how do I respond to this lead? And it’s the same process you just described.

Patti: Absolutely.

Steve: Yeah. So that’s brilliant. That’s brilliant. So where can people find out more about the book and more about the work that you’re doing?

Patti: Great. Thanks, Steve. So really simple. My name, That’s And you can find information on the book. In Canada, it’s in some bookstores, but in the States, it’s mainly on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. But there’s a lot of resources and we’re adding resources all the time. And, Steve, I’d love to give a tool to your audience. Can I talk a little bit about that?

Steve: Yeah, that would be great.

Patti: Thank you. So I’d like to do this. This is a tool that I talked about in the book. It’s called a touchpoint scorecard. It’s a very simple tool, but it’s powerful because it allows you, or puts you in the position to look at your business through your customers’ eyes. And you’re going to identify different touchpoints in your business and then rate yourself from one to 10, what’s the experience you’re delivering based on the value of your business at that touchpoint? And one I have a lot of fun with a lot of businesses is in a retail store, you have a receipt, you make a purchase new leave with the receipt. Is the receipt, does it reinforce the value of your business? Because there’s certain information that has to be there. But it’s actually the last thing somebody leaves your business with and you want it to be reinforcing the value. A business card is another. Does it really reinforces, does it create a sense of the value that you uniquely bring? So it’s an interesting, and what happens going through the exercise and it’s a great one to do with your team, not just on your own, but with your team you’re come up with, you’re just looking for really simple improvement. Small changes that create an alignment of value and experience at every point of interaction with your clients. So what I’d like to do is, Steve, is just share a specific link for listeners of your podcast. And so for anyone, if you’d like to download your copy of the Touchpoint Scorecard, just go to

Steve: That’s great. Thank you, Patti. We’ll make sure we link that up in the show notes. Folks, again, that URL is And it is forward slash unstoppable CEO. That’s really generous of you, I appreciate you sharing that.

Patti: My pleasure. Again, my passion is really enabling business owners and their teams to create their marketplace, to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat.

Steve: That’s fantastic. And I imagine that the website, they can find out more about the work that you’re doing and connect with you there if they want to learn more.

Patti: Absolutely

Steve: Very good. Well, Patti, thank you for taking a little bit of time and investing it with me and with all of our listeners today. I’ve got notes. I’ve got things I got to go probably look at in our business and improve upon and I’m going to get the scorecard myself and go through it. So thank you very much for sharing

Patti: My privilege and pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on Steve.

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