Include quality and customer satisfaction strategies and goals in all levels of the company. Relay and demonstrate the expectations, and then hold employees accountable. Everyone should know that the company’s commitment to quality is real; it’s not just pretty words on paper.
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 Penelope Przekop.
PENELOPE PRZEKOP, CEO of PDC Pharma Strategy, is a corporate quality management expert, entrepreneur, and writer. Throughout her 30+ year career, she has worked with numerous Fortune 100 pharma companies, including Pfizer, Merck, Lilly, and Glaxo Smith Kline, and has held leadership positions at Novartis, Covance, Wyeth, and Johnson & Johnson. Her book, 5-Star Career: Define and Build Yours Using the Science of Quality Management launches in November 2021 from Productivity Press.
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?
I grew up in Louisiana, dreaming that some day I’d fly away (like the Kelly Clarkson tune). I always knew that I’d be a writer; I had quite a bit to write about at an early age. My mother struggled with mental illness, which created a constant tornado of stress in our home. I discovered biology in college and fell in love with the challenge it gave me; I’d always been a liberal arts-minded student. I earned my BS in biology and, three months later, I entered a Ph.D. program in pharmacology as a single mom with a newborn. Yes, that happened. I knew what I wanted and kept moving forward. Surprise! It was tough! Eventually, I made the difficult decision to drop out of graduate school and take a research job; I swore to myself that I’d continue my education later. Interestingly, I met my husband in that Ph.D. program. He and I moved to northern New Jersey in 1991, which put me through several years of culture shock, and fortuitously helped kick off my pharmaceutical (“pharma”) career. I was extremely proud to earn a MS degree in quality systems engineering years later. My husband and I celebrated our 30th anniversary this year.
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?
My favorite funny mistake relates to my writing career. I began writing my first novel, Please Love Me, in 1992. I used a computer and saved each chapter to a separate floppy disk. For the first five years of my pharma career, I wrote every day during my lunch break. I was almost finished with the novel when I made the goofy mistake of accidentally knocking my floppy disc holder into my office trash can. When I couldn’t find it, I recalled hearing a “thump!” earlier and connected the dots. All my work was in that box; I didn’t have a paper copy! I forced myself to remain calm and find a solution — nothing was going to stop me from finding my disks! I could see the trash dump from my 3rd floor office rear-facing window; it was full. I went out to the trash dump in my dress and heels knowing that three floors full of pharma professionals were potentially watching from their office windows. I spent over an hour digging through our collective trash. I searched for what looked like my trash until I found it! From that experience, I learned just how much my writing meant to me. I also learned that when things go terribly wrong, remaining calm and thinking logically can save the day. Lastly, I learned to always back up my work…and that you never know why someone may be digging through a dumpster.
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?
A handful of people were pivotal to my career. It’s tough to choose just one. Those who inspired me and were most helpful recognized my desire to learn and grow, whether it was in my pharma career or in my writing. They seemed to saw my unique qualities. They listened to my creative ideas, no matter how crazy. They believed me when I told them what I could handle and gave me stretch goals. In response, I learned to look for the unique qualities in others and provide well-suited opportunities that would bring out the best in them. I hesitate to give credit to a particular person because I firmly believe that each person holds the ultimate, authentic power to build the career they envision. This is the overarching message of my upcoming book, 5-Star Career: Define and Build Yours Using the Science of Quality Management (Nov 2021, Productivity Press).
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?
Given my 30-year career focus on pharma industry quality and compliance, my perspective on customer service and customer experience is based on the science of quality management (“the science”). The need to build customer trust provides insight into why the science has been embraced by highly regulated industries as well as the global health authorities who regulate them. Industries such as aerospace, nuclear, and pharmaceuticals develop and deliver products whose potential flaws can lead to severe outcomes. They evolved to improve the world. Pioneers of highly regulatory industries that impact consumer safety weren’t handed roadmaps. Their purpose was to build, not destroy, to heal, not to hurt, and this continues to be the purpose of the pharma industry. That is exactly why these industries not only recognize the science of quality management but also team with government agencies around the world to declare its use mandatory. My point in sharing this is to relay that considering ideas about customer satisfaction from someone with my background and knowledge may offer a fresh perspective on how to build a company culture that ensures consistent wow-level customer satisfaction.
The proven science of quality management tells us that quality is defined by customer satisfaction. This is a simple fact that many leaders overlook when developing business strategies and goals. Like many of the other underlying concepts of quality management, it calls for a forward-thinking mindset and the ability to delay gratification. To truly understand and visualize the powerful impact of great customer service requires a clear upfront vision. The first question is: how do you define success? My new book focuses on how individuals can apply the science of quality management to career development. The first question in that scenario is the same: how do you define success? Many companies apply quality management to the development of products and services; however, if those same concepts are applied to the development of the company, one can begin to understand the value of great customer service and customer experiences. You’re not simply selling a product or service; you’re selling a company. Lasting success results when leaders create strategy and goals around selling the products and services they offer and selling the company. When a customer buys the company, not just the product, they feel integral to the company. A bond is formed, loyalty is created, and love grows. Yes, love. If your goal is long term success, it’s customer loyalty and love that will carry you through the fluctuations that are unavoidable in business and in life. Aiming for perfect products is admirable and should be a goal but failing to recognize that products aren’t the only things your selling can hold a company back, slow growth, and even bring it crashing down.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
Customer satisfaction lies at the core of how quality is managed, which is why the science has far-reaching applications. It can also be applied personally, which is the focus on my book, which launches this November. The importance of customer service as an element of quality management is intuitive within the context of the goods and services being provided It’s not as intuitive on a personal or company level. My book applies the science to the reader’s personal system, helping them build a career they define as 5-star worthy”. Company leaders can also apply the principles of quality management to build a company they define as 5-star worthy.
It’s easy to accept that your key customer must be defined. However, efforts to precisely define the customer are primarily used to establish product specifications. The focus is often on getting the product right. If the product perfectly satisfies what the profiled customer wants, it will sell. However, that’s all quite short-sighted in a way that many companies don’t recognize. They overlook the obvious: their customer isn’t a profile, it’s a person. Keeping the human factor consistently in mind is an incredibly powerful key to building “wow” into the customer experience. We’ve come far enough in our understanding of human psychology to realize that, although we’re each unique, not one of us enjoys being greeted by a frown, given the runaround by a computer voice, or having our post-purchase questions or issues ignored. A perfect product may lead to a business transaction, but relationships are built by people. Building a business is not for the faint of heart. Building a business that can last the test of time requires leaders and employees with heart. Creating a company that has a heart and soul starts with a strategy driven from the top down. It takes having a CEO sitting in his Los Angeles office who cares and wants to ensure that a 16-year-old cashier in Small Town, Central Pennsylvania smiles and says, “Thank you!” to the customer who just made a purchase. As you can imagine, connecting those dots is not easy; it takes strategic planning, dedication, and action.
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 naturally inspires improvement, but it only works if company employees truly care about the win. Highly successful companies that achieve longevity have gained — and maintain — the trust of their customers. That trust is built between the employee and the customer through consistent positive connections. A seed is planted the first time a customer is satisfied. Then the customer is called upon to have faith that the company can satisfy them again. A company waters that seed each time they successfully satisfy the customer, and the trust builds. As the seed of trust develops into a strong sturdy tree, it’s not immune to the ax. Occasional, slight dips in satisfaction won’t dent the trunk significantly, but repeated dips can bring the trust tree down. Similarly, one major dissatisfying outcome can have the strength to chop down a 300-year-old oak. Your competition is waiting and watching for your forest to fall. Focus on nurturing your customer bonds rather than on your competitors’ actions.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Word of mouth business may not make for a super exciting story, but it’s golden in the consulting arena. My approach to customer “wowing” is simple. I approach each pharma company as a unique entity in a regulated environment that has created industry standard check-the-box activities that no longer fit our emerging business models. I seek to understand my clients on a personal level, proactively look for ways to be helpful, and give them honesty. Often, my work requires me to point out gaps and issues to clients, which is not always easy or comfortable. I’ve developed an approach that maximizes the positivity in my clients’ experience. My goal is present them with the truth, while also encouraging them. An individual’s or business’s ability to proactively identify gaps is incredibly powerful and positive. I offer a positive customer experience by helping clients visualize the future state. I build trust with my clients by being genuine and honest. They trust that although I may have a smile on my face, I will speak the truth, no matter how tough it may be to hear. They know that I’m on their team and ready to help them close gaps in a fit for purpose, practical way. I’ve enjoyed growing my business through recommendations as a direct result of my customer focused approach. There’s no greater approach than focusing on the customer at hand.
Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
An example of a long-term ripple effect I’d like to share involves my writing career. I’d been writing fiction for years when I received a call from an editor at McGraw-Hill. She was intrigued by a topic I’d recently spoken on at an industry conference; she called to ask if I would be interested in addressing the topic in a book. While my wildest dream at the time was to get a call from a fiction editor, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I immediately jumped at the opportunity. I viewed my editor as my customer, and we had a fantastic experience working together. Jump ten years forward. My ability to wow the McGraw-Hill editor with my conference topic and our experience working together had long-term ripple effects for my career. The McGraw-Hill book gave me an opportunity to demonstrate and share my industry knowledge and ideas at the time, which inevitably pushed my career to new heights. To top it all off, that same McGraw-Hill editor is now my literary agent. When she shifted her career focus, she wanted to represent my work based on what we had accomplished together. She also saw how I was able to use the opportunity she gave me to continue developing my industry knowledge, ideas, and services.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Start with the basics. Learn about the science of quality management and embrace it! Engage an executive quality management coach. Invest in training at the highest levels to begin initiating cultural change that starts at the top. Commit out loud and weave the message into your daily communications.
- Engage an independent assessor to design and execute a customer service/experience assessment based on quality management. They can provide feedback, recommendations, and strategic guidance.
- Include quality and customer satisfaction strategies and goals in all levels of the company. Relay and demonstrate the expectations, and then hold employees accountable. Everyone should know that the company’s commitment to quality is real; it’s not just pretty words on paper. (Remember, quality is defined by customer satisfaction.)
- Initiate activities that encourage employees to define what a Wow! customer experience is within your company. For example, allow for brainstorming sessions for teams, groups, and functions. Invite them to share their thoughts and ideas. Encourage employees to put themselves in the place of the customer to consider what would wow them.
- Value and relay “Smile Power!”
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?
I don’t particularly like obvious efforts to obtain 5-star reviews, recommendations, and such. Consumers are smart. That sort of intense focus can send the message that your end goal is getting another gig, rather than satisfying your current customer. Instead, the key is to build a company culture that encourages employees to go out of their way to ensure that customers feel valued and supported. Teach employees to actively look for opportunities to make customers’ days a bit easier and brighter. Reward employees for that type of behavior and your company will see positive results. It doesn’t happen overnight. It calls for consistency, patience, and unwavering dedication to the idea of selling the company not just its great products and services.
My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
My older daughter and I created Bra in a Box, a company based on the development of a unique silicone box for storing and transporting silicone nipple covers. I never thought I’d be in the nipple cover business, but transporting those sticky things was awful! I had an idea for the box, we explored it, and made it happen. During our research phase, we identified that most of the nipple covers and related silicone products on the market were sold by Chinese manufacturers. They were quite inexpensive; however, the packaging, websites, pictures, etc. were not presented well. They did not inspire customer confidence. It is a perfect example of a company selling a cheap product with no obvious concern for selling their company. We decided that we would sell not only nipple covers and our box, but also our company; our company would offer value that the direct-to-consumer companies based in China could not. Through this effort, we could also potentially improve the reputation of nipple covers and inspire more women to try them. While we’re still a young, purposefully slow-moving company, we have seen the results we anticipated. We’re continuing to develop the company, and when the time is right, we hope to take it to the next level. Based on my experience with Bra in a Box, I recommend that US and European companies take steps to sell their companies along with their products. What value does your company offer? It’s often true that “you get what you pay for.” US and European companies should focus on visually communicating and demonstrating through service and care that customers can trust and rely on them to consistently meet their needs.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to start a movement toward personal applications of the science of quality management to improve quality of life. I believe there are far-reaching applications and implications. It’s time for quality management to move out of the office and into the mainstream thought process. It’s been proven across the globe in numerous industries and adopted by the most highly regulated industries in the world and the regulators who monitor those industries. Applying it on a personal level changed my life. It provided the missing link I needed to finally understand how to create the authentic life and career I wanted. I know it can provide the missing link for others, too. That’s what inspired me to write 5-Star Career: Define and Build Yours Using the Science of Quality Management. It’s a start!
Another passion of mine that I must share is a scholarship that I founded following my brother’s suicide in 2012. The John & Penelope Hall Defining Courage (aka Be Courageous) Award, established in 2018, spotlights the value of personal courage and the profound impact it has on not only the path our lives take, but also the quality of our lives. Beginning with the graduating class of 2018, the scholarship has been awarded annually to a selected senior at Northwood High School in Shreveport, Louisiana. The primary intent is to support the recipient’s career goals as well as to educate and inspire them, the other applicants, and the broader community. Students apply by submitting a video or an essay based on one of several prompts related to understanding and expressing the value that personal courage has, will, and can have in their day-to-day life, and during challenges. My long-term vision is to grow the Be Courageous scholarship fund, eventually offering the scholarship at other high schools. I’m passionate about sharing the message that when hope is lost, courage is there. Focusing on courage can move us forward in the absence of hope, which is essential to finding hope again. To learn more about the scholarship, visit my website (link provided in bio).
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can find me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. My name is unique; search it and you will find me. Just be sure to double check the spelling!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!