Be available 24/7. After the pandemic hit and we couldn’t open our physical doors for three months, we began to realize the importance of accessibility. We needed to be there for our customer’s musical questions, but also just needed to be there for them. In addition to the traditional means of communication, voice mail, email and feedback forms on our website, we got another cell phone for our business and made sure the phone number was accessible. We encouraged people to call or text anytime so we could arrange for them to get their purchases, answer questions about lessons or just answer the phone and chat.
As part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Miriam & Mike Risko.
For over 25 years, Mike Risko Music, located in Ossining, New York, has been a place to study and play music, to shop for musical instruments and gear, and to interact with working musicians. The business has two components: a school that provides a space where musicians of all ages and levels can connect, learn, and grow, and a store that features instruments selected by expert musicians who also use them on stage and when teaching lessons. The goal of Mike Risko Music is to be a one-stop shop for musicians and future musicians. Our focus is on providing customers and students with everything they need to fulfill themselves musically. As musicians themselves, owners Mike and Miriam Risko, who actually got married in their music school on June 3, 2000, also bring music into the community with their outreach programs, musical theater productions, and their band, the Mike Risko Band.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Mike Risko: My wife Miriam and I were living parallel lives — both trying to make a living performing in bands. We ended up playing in a band together at a gig for thousands of people at the South Street Seaport in New York City on July 4th, 1997 and the rest was history. Before long, Miriam was teaching voice lessons at my small guitar teaching practice. Within a few years we got married (in our music school) and were spending our days teaching and building the music business while performing at night.
By 2003 we had started a family and we opened a music store in 2010 when we bought a building down the street. This building is located in the same spot I started my music career in the early 90s. We’ve come a long way over the years, weathered the challenges that come with owning your own small business, and managed to evolve and grow during the pandemic. In fact, we pivoted our business model to include an e-commerce website where we sell instruments and musical accessories and gear. In addition to our in-person music school, we now also run a virtual music school and in our free time we play as much music as we can with our band.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Don’t try to stand on your amp and balance while you are playing guitar for thousands of people at South Street Seaport. You will undoubtedly fall down and be totally embarrassed, even though you thought you were being cool. This is both literal and figurative, it’s a lesson I’ve learned and remind myself of often. Watch your step, keep your balance and think things through before you do them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Miriam Risko: When I was a kid, I got a small role in a big musical at my sleep away camp. I was cast as part of the yellow brick road in “The Wiz.” I called my dad and told him I wanted to come home because I didn’t want the small part. He encouraged me to stay saying “You are going to be in that show and be the best yellow brick road anyone ever saw.” I did exactly that and I learned some very valuable lessons that summer — there is no small part in a play and the most important thing is to do your best at whatever part you have and you will shine. I remind my Dad of that story all the time and how impactful it was to me at the time, and how it changed my perspective. It’s a story I also share with people through our business, because it helps to inspire them. Do your best at whatever you do and you will shine.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
We like to think of our customers as rock stars and since rock stars typically get the royal treatment, we treat our customers the same way. We listen carefully and make sure their needs are met, and hopefully they share their positive experiences in our store with others. We believe so strongly in the connection with our customers because when they feel good about learning or making a purchase in our store, they’re more likely to return and then they become part of our larger family.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
Competition is necessary to keep you on your toes and it gives you a chance to look inward at what you are doing and make it even better. Customer service is an area where we can all compete equally and if you are ever looking for an area to improve, that is one of the easiest places to start.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
We have lots of little wow moments all day. One example is the customer who came in recently to purchase a screw to fix his guitar. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the one he needed in stock, so we removed one from one of our used guitars and offered it to him for free. He was thrilled and that not only made him feel good that he could get back to playing his guitar, but it made us feel great to be able to provide something so small that made a big difference to him.
During the pandemic, when so many people were afraid to leave their homes, we delivered ukuleles to our customers’ homes. We also like to make sure we offer a token thank you to people who sign up for music lessons and now offer everyone a free mask and Mike Risko hand sanitizer to everyone who comes in our doors. Even the small gestures make a difference and our customers really appreciate them.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
We once had a student whose mother really wanted him to practice more, so we decided to lend him a beautiful, new guitar to take home for the week and only asked that he return it the following week. When he came back the next week, he had a new sense of excitement. He was thrilled that he got to practice on this amazing guitar and he was energized to keep playing. His mom was thrilled and to this day, he’s still playing and taking lessons from us and she has been referring customers to us regularly.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
•Be available 24/7. After the pandemic hit and we couldn’t open our physical doors for three months, we began to realize the importance of accessibility. We needed to be there for our customer’s musical questions, but also just needed to be there for them. In addition to the traditional means of communication, voice mail, email and feedback forms on our website, we got another cell phone for our business and made sure the phone number was accessible. We encouraged people to call or text anytime so we could arrange for them to get their purchases, answer questions about lessons or just answer the phone and chat.
•Design your space for the best possible customer experience: Make your space a place to try before you buy. Our store is set up with plenty of seating and accessibility to instruments for people to try. Since we have one instrument to show and one to go, they can leave the store with a brand new product. We also duplicated this in our online world including videos of all products and an opportunity to do a virtual consult anytime (by calling the landline and now also the cell phone) so customers know what they are buying and are excited for their purchase.
•Educate your customers on your products, don’t sell them. We believe it is important to for customers to get the right product and we don’t let anyone sign up for music lessons without taking a free trial lesson first. We use that lesson time to help them visualize what their lesson will look like and ask questions. By the end of the trial, they are always ready to sign up since they now know what to expect.
•Support those who support you. Being a team player is such an important part of customer service. Buy ads, sponsor teams, donate equipment. Be a part of your community. These are the people that will shop in your store and refer you. Giving back is essential to say thank you.
•If we make a mistake, we own it. We have armed our staff with coupons called “Yikes Tickets.” If a teacher is running late for a lesson, if their Internet connection isn’t working properly during a virtual lesson or if something goes wrong with a purchase, we promptly give a “yikes ticket” which is a little something they can put toward their next purchase. We take pride in not having to give them out so if we have a staff member who got a stack of five and hasn’t given any out because he or she didn’t need to, we let them use the yikes ticket in the store for their own purchase. It’s a win either way.
•Never let someone leave with an alarm on their purchase. We don’t have alarms like in clothing stores, but we have all gotten home with a perfect pair of jeans only to find that pesky white plastic alarm still firmly attached that may spew ink if you even try to unscrew it. There goes the chance to wear the jeans that night and you then have to make a trip back the store, risking the alarm going off when you walk in. You don’t want to do anything like this in your store. Make sure that your customer has everything they need when they leave and that there is nothing missing from their purchase, including every possible accessory they may need to plug their instrument into the wall and start playing. We want our customers to open their purchases at home and have everything in place to get rockin’ right away. Train and empower your staff to do the same.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
We believe that if you are consistently offering great customer service and you never stray from that, people will talk. They will let others know how they feel and that will inspire others to reach out to us.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
We try to share as much music as we can. Whether we are playing with our band or encouraging our students to get out and play for events like Make Music Day or Earth Day, we think it’s important to share music. Live music makes people happy. We try to volunteer our live music anywhere it fits in our effort to spread music! Our movement is to bring as much music as we can to as many people as we can.