Monday, December 21, 2009


Guest post by Bren Boddy-Thomas
Bren is Helpdesk Manager at a Sonoma County's Exchange Bank and sits on the
HDI Member Advisory Board

Rah Rah Go Team! That’s cute on the football field, but look at it from a different perspective.

I’m not talking about someone who LEADS Cheers, but someone who CHEERS LEADERS!

When was the last time YOU cheered on a Leader? I don’t mean a manager. We all know someone who was thrust into the throngs of management. They’re the boss. They make decisions. They manage the team or department. But do they LEAD?
You can Google a million quotes and sayings about leaders. To be a true leader, someone others admire and want to follow, takes strength, competency and courage.

Traits of a Good Leader

  • Honest - Display sincerity, integrity, and candor in all your actions. Deceptive behavior will not inspire trust.
  • Competent - Base your actions on reason and moral principles. Do not make decisions based on childlike emotional desires or feelings. 
  • Forward-looking - Set goals and have a vision of the future. The vision must be owned throughout the organization. Effective leaders envision what they want and how to get it. They habitually pick priorities stemming from their basic values.
  • Inspiring - Display confidence in all that you do. By showing endurance in mental, physical, and spiritual stamina, you will inspire others to reach for new heights. Take charge when necessary.
  • Intelligent - Read, study, and seek challenging assignments.
  • Fair-minded - Show fair treatment to all people. Prejudice is the enemy of justice. Display empathy by being sensitive to the feelings, values, interests, and well-being of others.
  • Broad-minded - Seek out diversity.
  • Courageous - Have the perseverance to accomplish a goal, regardless of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Display a confident calmness when under stress.
  • Straightforward - Use sound judgment to make good decisions at the right time.
  • Imaginative - Make timely and appropriate changes in your thinking, plans, and methods. Show creativity by thinking of new and better goals, ideas, and solutions to problems. Be innovative!

I’m sure all of us know someone who possesses these traits, someone who has taken the time to grow into a leadership role, someone we admire.

Whether you’re a subordinate and appreciate the work they do for you or on your behalf or you’re a superior – mentoring the individual and helping them reach their full potential. Take the time to thank them.  You’ll be glad you did.


Give it some thought.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


This is the time of the year when we reflect on the past and look to the future, like the Roman god of beginnings and ends, Janus. We get together with friends new and old. We gather up the harvest of what we have done during the past year and make lists, plans, or resolutions of what we would like to accomplish for the next. For many of us, 2009 has been difficult. Personally and professionally, we've had to weather the storm of economic changes that have caused rapid and massive change in our businesses, careers, and networks. Jobs have been lost, teams changed, training discontinued, budgets cut. As I've written previously in this space, "Although the transitions will be challenging, there are opportunities here." I think it's worth examining a few of the opportunities for 2010 and perhaps some strategies to help us get there.

  • Make a list of your accomplishments for 2009 - It's very easy to forget the positive things you and your team have managed to do under difficult circumstances
  • Decide which of those accomplishments can be carried into 2010 - Not everything can be brought forward to the new year's "books," but there are some trends you can track and follow forward
  • Find the pitfalls from the past year - Make note of the weak spots and areas where you can improve on wins and reverse downtrends. The chief pitfall is deciding ahead of time that your goals cannot be attained.
  • Look for opportunities - Professional, personal, team, and individual opportunities exist. Find them and discover how to capitalize on them
Give it some thought.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject of growing into the new year. Please comment.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Keep the Bar High When Your Spirits Aren't

We all have times when we don't feel like we can maintain our positive outlook. An unexpected setback, an unkind remark, a missed opportunity, the loss of a friend—maybe all in the same morning—and your resolve to be positive goes right out the window. Sometimes a job demands that we do something really unpleasant, and it takes time to recover from the negative impact on us.

When this happens, it's easy to forget how important our own mental well-being is. We can't function up to our best potential, we can't deal with problems effectively, and we have trouble prioritizing work. Probably the best thing any of us can do when we experience this is to take a little time off. We need to step away from the day-to-day and regain our focus and the positive attitude that got us where we are.

Unfortunately, it's not always possible to step away from the work. Even when we're away from the workplace, we are connected through our smartphones or laptops, and it's easy to bring all the internal turmoil home.

When this happens, the most important thing is to remember that the quality of the work you and your team are doing should not suffer. That's why we have teams. Think back to a time when one of your team members suffered a setback. Didn't you step in and pick up some of the work, or make the appropriate adjustment so that they could recover and pick up the load again? Is there someone on your team you know you can depend on to do the same for you? The team should be strong enough to absorb at least some of the extra work.

In this excellent article on the importance focusing on our mental health, St. John Health System enumerates ways to overcome the loss of positive outlook. I suggest at least a quick look at some of the bullet points there. Add some of them to your personal arsenal of capabilities.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Get Your Customer Service Issues Addressed

Anyone who has studied customer service in any depth knows that most of your dissatisfied customers never let you know. Even consistent, well-constructed surveys often don't produce a clear picture of what you're doing right and what you can do better.

Why don't people tell us when they have a problem? Maybe it's because they think we'll be offended, or that they might get us "in trouble." Maybe it goes back to the old model of a "Complaint Department" at businesses and stores, and people don't want to be perceived as complainers. For whatever reason, the percentage of people who do let us know they are unhappy is often compared to the "tip of the iceberg" with the other 90 to 95% of dissatisfied customers remaining silent. This creates a big problem for those of us who care about and deal with customer service (CS) issues. How can we improve if we don't know that we're doing something wrong, what we're doing wrong, and maybe the customers' ideas on how we might improve?

You don't have to be angry about bad service you received—but you might be—in order to contact a customer service representative at a business. A business that's interested in having a future will work with you to find a resolution. Here are some steps you can take to get the right kind of attention on a service issue:

  • Get relevant details ready for your call, chat or submission
  • Find out what to do if your first contact does not go well
  • Tell your story as simply as possible
  • Get attention on the details that created your dissatisfaction or problem
  • Be prepared to escalate your case to the next level
  • Try hard not to be overly confrontational; making the CS representative defensive doesn't help
  • Be realistic - you won't get a house in Malibu because your dryer doesn't work
  • Don't sell yourself short - have some idea of what will make you happy, and stick to that
  • Be prepared to go to the competition on your next opportunity, and let that be known
Let us know how we are doing. Focus your feedback. In the long run, you'll get better service all around.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

After the Conference

If you happen to follow me on Twitter or be connected with me on LinkedIn, you probably know that I attended the First Wednesday Group's excellent Voice of the Customer Conference in Massachusetts this past week. This was my second time, and I'm so glad I attended. The producers put together a great range of speakers, and there is always a lot to learn.

But here's where the value of any conference is either made or broken: What's next? What did I take away from this event that helps my job, my career, my life? What did I hear—what topics were discussed that will make a difference for me over the next year?

Here, as I heard it, were the salient customer service points made at this conference:

  • If your company is not paying attention to social media (Twitter and Facebook especially), it should be
  • People are talking about your company, products and services, and if you are not in the mix, search engines will own the conversation more than you will
  • People consult social media, including reviews and ratings, before buying a product or service
  • The methods currently used to measure customer satisfaction need to be updated
  • Customer-provided voluntary support information can be extremely valuable. Knowledgeable people will post answers to questions, an will solve problems for people for free—but make sure you thank them*
  • Companies struggle with knowing when to step in with their own support
We are all learning how to use these new forms of global, instant communication. How to use them well is something we have to figure out as we go along. In my line of work, some organizations already are using Twitter as a method of getting assistance from the service desk.

It's an exciting time. How we deal with all this change will steer the customer service and support industry through the next decade and beyond.

What have you learned recently from a meeting, webinar, conference or workshop that will stay with you in your world?

Give it some thought.

*The Microsoft MVP community marked a 30% increase in questions answered after a word of thanks.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Seat at the Grownups' Table

Many of us can remember Thanksgiving dinner in an extended family setting where those of us who were very young were sent to eat at the kids' table—usually a folding table set up just for the purpose. When we were "old enough" we were able to move up to the grownups' table. It was and is a rite of passage. For those of us who are the youngest sibling, this rite was even more important.

In business, a "seat at the table" means that your department or division or function gets to participate in decision-making processes. Your people get to be in the room when decisions are at least discussed if not made.

When there are business meetings in your organization, are there people who sit at the kids' table? Perhaps they are not taken seriously, or perhaps they don't care enough to be paying full attention. In the worst case, they are people who do care, who desperately want to be part of decisions, to be asked questions, to participate.

When you call a meeting to start a new project, are some of the people in the room relegated to the kids' table? Perhaps unwittingly, are you avoiding their opinions and perspectives?

  • Make sure that all stakeholders are represented at your meeting
  • Go around the table completely and give everyone an opportunity for input
  • Listen carefully for those unexpected gems that can help you get things done

The best insights often come from unexpected places. Don't forget to tap the minds at the kids' table. And don't forget about giving them a rite of passage to full citizenship within the family of your business.

Give it some thought.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Finding Opportunities in Change

There were two significant changes in my workplace this week. They weren't new servers or databases. They were changes in staff.

One person has left the Service Desk to take a new and exciting position closer to home (it will save him about 3 hours a day). Another will be leaving my Desktop Support group to head across the building to take up systems administration duties.

Neither of these changes is easy. Work needs to be absorbed or modified. There will be the inevitable challenges to get up to speed on things these people know and things they did. Oh, sure, we have documentation. The nameplate outside my office has two lines. One has my name, and the other says, "If it's not documented, it's a rumor." But nothing beats experience in some situations. We'll miss that.

Although the transitions will be challenging, there are opportunities here.
  • Rethink workflow through and around these positions
  • Check processes for clarity and completeness
  • Develop materials to help with training a replacement
  • Refresh all administrative passwords
  • Be open to a fresh set of eyes
We'll miss our departing colleagues. But we can gain some new insights to what we do.

What's your biggest challenge when there's turnover in your workplace? How can you find the opportunities in the change? Leave a comment and let me know.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Customer Service Week: Celebrating Your Best

Who picks up the phone when someone calls your company with a question or a problem? After your customer has navigated what is sometimes a long Winding Path through a phone tree or waited on hold—or both—who handles a confused, sometimes angry customer? Your Customer Service people do.

Customer Service Week is meant as a time to honor and celebrate the people who do this difficult and sometimes personally rewarding job. Like a lot of well-intended celebrations, however, it has become focused more on celebrations in Customer Service rather than celebrations of Customer Service both as a department or team, and as a concept.

Dear C-level Execs:

When was the last time you had a question about your own products? Did you call your Customer Service line (or use your IT Service Desk)? I'll bet that you did not, but rather used some internal channels to get your answer. Why not call the same lines your customers do? I'll wager that you thought it would take too long, and might not get you the help you needed. What does that say about your company's customer focus? It says that you are out of focus, and that—once you've collected their money—your customers become second-class citizens. Would you deliver that message up front? "We'll take your money for our product and then deliver as little help as we can without losing measurable market share." What's wrong with that? Everything.

Dear Customer Service Reps and IT Support Staff:

Take this week to celebrate yourselves. Make nice when the CEO/COO/CIO stops by to eat your cake and tell you how valued you are. There are those of us who truly value your work and think the world of your daily struggle to get it right. Most often, you do get it right. Sometimes very right. You save the customer's day, and you save the company's bacon. Good for you! You have every right to this week of funny hats and pizza, or however it is that you choose to say, "Hey! We're good at what we do!"

Dear Customers:

Yes, the phone trees are frustrating. Yes, that music on hold is not exactly what you want to be listening to. But soon you will be connected to a person (and we all do want to be connected to a person rather than a bot, don't we?) who will help you. They will sort out your bill, or ask you to reboot, or direct you to some information, or just stay on the line with you until your particular service storm has passed, your issue resolved or on the way to resolution. When you are impatient and angry with a product, remember that the person on the phone with you really wants to help, They really do!

From a purely personal perspective, I'd like to thank the Customer Service people at two companies in particular for their consistently high standards and work: L.L. Bean* and American Express. Your companies really understand the Customer Service concept.

What can your company do to improve the level and ease of Customer Service?

Give it some thought.

*Note the quote from Leon Leonwood Bean at the top of the linked page. This company was founded on impeccable service and continues to offer it.

Note: I have no financial or personal connection to either L.L. Bean or American Express other than being a long-time customer of both.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Customer Service Week: What Makes Great Service?

From time to time, we are struck by the quality of service we experience at a particular store, restaurant, or from the support folks associated with a Web site or company. As we approach Customer Service Week, which starts on October 5 this year, let's examine the particular things that make us say, "That was great service."

By great service, I mean the kind of service that makes us change our mind about a purchase or item; it's the kind that not only makes us feel good, but makes us want to tell people about the business, to spread the word, to become an advocate for that business. Anyone in marketing will tell you that this is the most valuable kind of advertising—and they can't get it from an agency.

  • Personal - No one will feel that they have received great service if they do not feel that they were treated like a real person, rather than the recipient of some scripted interaction. On the other hand, making a fleeting, great, personal connection on a customer service (CS) call or at a point of sale can change a day, a week, a whole attitude.
  • Empathetic - If you are calling about a problem, you expect the person on the other end of the phone or Web form to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the source of your frustration or complaint or question. The most exasperating customer service interactions are those in which the representative has no clue why you might have an issue.
  • Available - When you call for customer service, you'd like some attention now. Navigating complicated phone trees and waiting on hold are always mentioned as annoyances. Typing "I hate phone trees" into Google generates about 845,000 returns. "I hate waiting on hold" gets about 2,000,000.
  • Empowered - The last thing you want to hear from any customer service rep any time anywhere is "I can't do anything for you, but thanks for calling." A company generates detractors when it does not have either clear policies about what CS reps can, should, and must do to try to satisfy customers, or a clear escalation path.
  • Professional - We expect a trained, knowledgeable person who can give us the answer to our question, or who can point us to someone who can. Many reps forget about this part, or were not introduced to the concept when they were introduced to the company.
  • Dependable - If you tell me you are going to email me a helpful link, email me the link, and make sure it's helpful and relevant.
What do you think are the elements that made you change your mind about a business or purchase? What makes customer service great for you? Please comment - I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Starting Something New Over Again

September has special meanings for those of us who spent lots of years going to school, and who enjoyed it. I loved getting ready for a new round of classes and teachers, buying new books (except for the money!), and meeting new classmates with whom and from whom to learn. Another year, the next level, new challenges, new opportunities.

Then there's that autumn thing: Crunchy leaves under your feet, the emotions of watching a year die and knowing that the winter is coming on.

Well, I'm not going to school this year, but even now things change in September. Vacation times are over, and rounds of meetings are starting up again. There are new people to meet, and new challenges to face. All of this September anticipation brings me to ask you some questions:

  • What are you learning right now, in your life?
  • What are you reading?
  • What are you writing?
  • What are you doing to meet new people and new challenges?
  • What are you doing to make yourself better?
  • What are you doing to make the world better?
Please use the comment feature of this blog to let me know what you are doing and reading. I'm always finding out about new books and sites from others, and I love to learn about new things. Here's a quick list of blogs I'm following, and I also share from Google Reader.

Reach up and grasp something higher than you have before. Learn, do, change. Make this September the beginning of a new semester of your life.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Would You Believe...

We need a new washer and dryer. We have simply been in denial about it for a while now. The dogs on the agitator in the washer are shot so that it really doesn't wash as well, and the dryer takes much longer to get things dry than it should. That's OK. The current set was bought 5 or 6 years ago, used, from an ad in the company bulletin. They are not as efficient as new ones, and we'd like to do what we can to make the earth a little happier.

We found a really good deal on a set at one of the local appliance stores. Energy-saver rated, low water usage, off means really off, and so on. Special "while supplies last" pricing, and an additional "percent off" if I put it on my store credit card. (It's always paid off in full.) We looked at alternatives, talked about some of the things we'd seen on the Internet, compared notes and decided to go ahead.

Just as we were making up our minds, the salesperson (who happened to be female in this case) said, "There's an extra 10% off if you are..." and she listed a bunch of things which I am not—police officer, EMT, firefighter, etc. I said, no that's OK, I'm not any of those. She said, "Oh--we'll just say you are anyway--they don't require any proof or anything."

I don't think the salesperson realized what was going through my mind right then:
  1. If you'll lie to the company about my eligibility for a discount, what have you lied to me about?
  2. If everyone gets the extra 10% off, there is no courtesy or honor to the first responders the promotion is supposed to support
From that moment on, the sale was in grave jeopardy. Either that washer and dryer would stand on their own merits, or the deal would fail. Frankly, my first impulse was to run far, far away, but it really was a good deal on its own. We took them, but I would not let her apply the 10% discount at the register. She looked at me like she'd seen a ghost, but I was able to walk out of the store with some integrity—a word with which she seemed not to be familiar.

Maybe in some way the salesperson thought I only cared about the price. She obviously hadn't read my blog about The Sign in the Shoe Store. Price is not everything.

I certainly did not get a good customer service feeling from this purchase. I hope my product judgement proves better than the sales person's judgement of me.

Give it some thought.

Afterword: The delivery of the new washer and dryer was scheduled for Friday. The old dryer stopped working Thursday evening. Sometimes the timing is just right.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Consistency Counts

My friend Buzz is a DIY (do-it-yourself) kind of guy. He used to work as a professional in the construction trades, so when he walks into a store to buy some PEX tubing for his house, he knows exactly what, and how much, he needs. He's straightforward and about as honest as you can find, so I know this story happened just as he says.

We have two "big box" supply stores in the area. I won't mention names, but I'll call one Blue and one Orange. You get the picture.

Buzz called Blue to ask if they had the PEX tubing he needed—3 rolls, to be exact. Nope, none to be found in the store, and that was that. And so, since he had to travel into town anyway, he figured he'd just stop at Orange and get what he needed. What he got instead was a small lesson in what inconsistent customer service looks like.

He checked the Plumbing Supply section of the store and found an empty space where the tubing should be. But they carried it, no doubt, because there was a shelf tag for it. There was no one in the section, so he headed to the front of the store to find an employee. He did that, and (having previously having received an education in big box shopping) asked, "Can you help me with something in Plumbing?"

"No," came the answer, "but he can." The employee indicated a colleague who was talking with another employee near the Tools aisle. Buzz walked on over. And he waited, and waited for Mr. Plumbing to acknowledge him. Now here I have to say that Buzz is not easy to overlook: Think Grizzly Adams. The two employees were just passing the time in a chat that was not related to work. And neither seemed to notice Buzz.

After a minute or two, Buzz spoke up and asked if Mr. Plumbing could help him. "Sure," came the answer. So Buzz asked if they had any more PEX tubing.

OK, then, Buzz asked, "Can you tell me when you might have some coming in?"
"Not really. It just comes in."
"Well, can you order it?"
"No, it just comes in."

Buzz calmly walked away, feeling more than a little put out. The next day, he called the store to see if there was some way he could get what he needed. He got through the initial wait for someone from Plumbing to get to the phone, and then asked about the 3 rolls of PEX tubing.

"Hang on just a minute," the person said, "and I'll check to see if we have any squirreled away." A moment later, the person was back on the phone. "No, I'm afraid not. Would you like me to call up to Bangor and see of they have some there? I can have it sent down for you."

This was more like it, Buzz thought. "Yes, please check for me." With another minute on hold, Buzz found out that Bangor had 56 rolls of the tubing.

"Can I have that sent down here for you?"
"I'm planning a trip up there anyway," Buzz said, "so I'll just pick it up when I go."

In a nutshell:
  • Blue had no tubing, and did not offer to get it
  • Orange Employee #1 did not offer to assist Buzz, but just pointed him at Employee #2
  • Employee #2 was engaged in a personal chat with another employee, and Buzz was forced to interrupt
  • Employee #2 did not offer to assist Buzz in any way
  • Orange Employee #3 (on the phone) checked stock, and then checked another store for stock, and offered to get the tubing sent to the store
We've all had similar experiences in one store or another. The only surprise in this story is that Orange Employee #2 and Orange Employee #3 work for the same company.

What is your plan to increase the consistency of your customer service? What do you expect from employees, and how to you measure whether or not they are delivering to those expectations?

Give it some thought.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Right Question, Half an Answer

It was the summer of 1975. It's easy to remember which year, because it was coming up to America's bicentennial celebration (1776-1976). I got a phone call from my friend Ed. His family had been in the jewelry business years ago, and one of Ed's uncles was using the family brand for flag lapel pins. These pins were special: The flag was combined with emblems for the police, firefighters, VFW, and other major groups. Uncle Dick had even gotten approval from NYPD and FDNY for the pins to be displayed on their uniforms.

Ed was calling me to see if I would go with him to the county offices so that he could get a vendor license to go around our suburban county and hawk the pins to various groups. I agreed to go. That afternoon left me with some wisdom, and a great story.

We walked into the county building in Hackensack. To our right was a large glassed-in booth with a sign that read, "Information."

We walked up to the window, and Ed asked, "Where can I get a vendor license?"
"Room 105, down this hallway, and on your left." "Thank you!," said Ed, and off we went to Room 105.

There were a few other people waiting in that room to approach the clerk. We waited, talking about golf, summer, cars, and books we were reading. Soon enough, it was Ed's turn, and he said, "I'd like to get a vendor license." The statement prompted a question: "Are you a vet?" (We took this to mean veteran, not veterinarian.) "Uh, no." And then we were told we'd have to go upstairs to Room 306. And we did that.

Again, we waited our turn, and Ed stated his purpose. "Are you a vet?" came the question. "Uh, no." We were directed to Room 212, and so we went downstairs to 212 and repeated the exercise. "Not a vet? You need to talk to Information." "We did talk to Information." "Well, that's where you need to go." I joked with the ever patient Ed that we had gotten into some enormous, human pinball game as we bounced from room to room.

And so back we went to the glassed-in booth near the front door of the building. This time, a different person was stationed at the window. "I'd like to get a vendor license?" Ed asked more than stated. "And no, I'm not a vet."

"Oh, you can't get a county vendor license if you're not a veteran. You need to go to each town and get a permit from them."

Ed and I looked at each other, shrugged, and left the building.

Each person we had spoken with along the way knew part of what they were supposed to know. The question, "Are you a vet?" was correct. The directions they gave following the question were not correct.

When you equip your Customer Service people with some of the information they need, but not a good overview of policies, procedures, escalations, and—most importantly—the tools to get more answers, you are setting a trap for your customers. Give folks the tools they need, especially the freedom to get more information quickly and easily.

Give it some thought.

By the way: Ed and I were both in the first draft "lottery." My number was 224. Coincidentally, Ed's was 225. I never forgot that he told me he'd enlist if my number came up. If I recall correctly, the highest number called that year was 218. Ed and I remain friends.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Teamwork and Straight Paths Shorten "Extra Mile"

This post, I'll talk about an IT Customer Service story with a happy ending, and some of the reasons it turned out the way it did.

The short version: Annual meeting of the Board of Directors; video wall funded by board member goes down; video wall vendor can't be contacted; call comes to Service Desk from multimedia tech. Note: This video wall does not fall under IT support. Within two hours, the video wall was up and running.

Things that went right:
  • First of all, the multimedia tech had a single place to call - Service Desk
  • Next, Service Desk responded appropriately by giving the incident appropriate attention and getting desktop support in the loop right away—to assess what could be done and when, even though this incident was an exception
  • Desktop support tech responded quickly, and pulled the problem unit to diagnose and repair if possible - a blown power supply appeared to be the issue
  • Inventory manager (a Service Desk function) had stocked an extra oversized power supply "just in case"
  • Multimedia tech was in the communications loop throughout
  • The desktop support tech had appropriate skills
  • The stocked part was available for use without undue red tape or special procedures
The board got to see the video wall in operation, the multimedia tech's bacon was saved, and everyone involved came out a winner.

PS: Thanks were passed all around so that all the people involved were recognized.

How does your organization straighten Winding Paths to get things done?

Give it some thought.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Synchronicity of Praise

It's been a bumpy week. No need to go into details, but the last 7 - 10 days haven't had a lot of bright spots. Humor comes naturally to me, especially wordplay, and I've tried to keep my spirits up by thinking up increasingly painful puns (posted each evening as "Tonight's Groaner" on Twitter) and by digging into some demanding work.

Then, this afternoon, I got a wonderful lift from an unexpected source. (Well, not completely unexpected: Erin Schreyer is dedicated to lifting spirits.) It made a difference to me, and I made sure she knew it.

This seems to happen from time to time. Back when I was in the music business, there would be stretches when things weren't going right in the studio, or with the writing. Or maybe I'd see someone else perform and have to think: Wow! If only I was one tenth as talented or accomplished as that! And then someone who had seen the show would say something absoutely amazing, or I'd get a call from someone I admired with a nice bit of praise.

I'll bet this has happened to you as well. Just as you were thinking you were not worth the ink to sign your name, someone said just the right thing.

So, tomorrow, brighten someone's day. It may make all the difference.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Do Attacks on Twitter Usher in New Age of Cyberwar?

Over the past few days, there has been trouble in Twitter-land. A wave of cyberattacks directed at Facebook and Twitter have caused outages, delays, and the inability to post. For some, this has simply meant that they cannot send out Twitter posts (tweets). I think these outages represent something far more: They are a proof of concept that may have far larger consequences.

If you have not been following the story, hackers first sent out a huge wave of spam email disguised (spoofed) as coming from "Cyxymu," who is a blogger in the former Soviet Union country Georgia. This damaged his online reputation. Next, the hackers focused on sending waves of junk requests to the servers that power Twitter, LiveJournal, Facebook, and YouTube, effectively rendering them temporarily useless, and making it impossible to post to Twitter, whose defenses were not up to the same level as some other companies. This isn't so bad if all you are posting is, "Going to the grocery store now." But Twitter posts are often far more than that.

Weeks ago, turmoil in Iran demonstrated how Twitter could be used as a virtually unstoppable means of communication. People organized, updated and got their news out to the rest of the world by using 140-character bursts of information. The government could shut down or control the phone systems, television, radio, newspapers, and other "traditional" media. But the tweets continued, and the word went out.

In directing attacks against social media, the hackers (it's still unclear exactly who, but pro-Russia, it appears, in the Georgia-Russia disputes) managed to disrupt people's ability to tweet or to post updates to Facebook, effectively jamming those sources of information as one might jam radio communications back in the bad old days of the Cold War. This means that a government, if connected with the "right" people, could shut down the social media as well as radio and TV.

This is a turning point. This is a new world. When large networks of compromised computers (botnets) can be focused on a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack to shut down—or slow down—communications at will, we are in danger of losing the latest means of real-time peer-to-peer information sharing.

Things did not (in my view) turn out well in Iran, but we heard about what was going on while it was going on. I think that next time, wherever and whenever it occurs, things will be different.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Winding Path, Straight Path

Recently, I read a blog post by Naomi Karten about a brief transaction that could have gone another way. It became an example of good customer service only because the front-line worker (in this case a cashier) was allowed to make a customer service decision on the spot—no forms, no blinking lights, no fuss. There was a straight path between the problem (incorrect price) and the solution (correct the price at the register).

Too often, companies decide not to trust their employees to do the right thing. They require copious documentation of any transaction that might be construed as costing money, miring employees and customers alike in time-wasting steps (blinking lights, calls for the manager, authorization codes, and void forms) that do nothing to directly address the original issue. This is the winding path mentality. It makes the customer walk farther from where they are to where they want to be. So, unhappy customers and red-tape-consumed employees don't cost any money? Since when?

There's an architectural parallel. I read some time ago about an architect who, rather than put one of the typical meandering paths between two buildings on a campus, put no walk at all. A couple of years later, the architect came back, and had the path paved where people had repeatedly walked. It was a straight path. If it seems really intuitive to you that people would rather walk in the straight line between two buildings when they are rushing to a class or to a meeting, ask yourself why you so rarely see straight paths on college or corporate campuses.

Companies would do well to make their customer service paths as straight as possible, enabling potential problems to be resolved quickly and easily. Here are some questions that will help you assess your business' proximity to the straight path:
  • Does your Web site have clear, straight paths to customer service?
  • Do you force your customers to pick among predefined communication topics because it's easier for you?
  • Do you prohibit your employees from making decisions that might benefit both the customer and the flow of business?
  • Do you provide customer service training or ongoing discussions about service?
Eventually, every winding path becomes a straight path, because people will walk their own path despite where you attempt to make them go. Will they beat a path your door, or to someone else's?

Give it some thought.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Sign in the Shoe Store

"The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten."

The sign hangs near the front door of a locally-owned shoe store near where I live. It caught my attention because of the use of language. What a great phrase "the bitterness of poor quality" is! That's exactly right. You feel betrayed by shoes, or a car, or new software, or anything you buy that doesn't live up to your expectations of good quality. It's so much more expressive than its more common cousin, "You get what you pay for."

The same is true about the work we do. We pay with our effort, and the goods we take away are the results of that effort. By the work we do, I mean not only the hours we spend in our offices, or driving a taxi, or stocking shelves, or teaching a class. I mean all the work we do—as volunteers, as friends—in short, as people. If we put in little effort, our results are usually not very good. If we put greater effort and more thought into any one of our activities, the results improve measurably. Imagine how our lives could be of we took great care about everything we do!

If you follow me on Twitter, you've probably seen my little mantra: Do. Improve. Repeat. Take an action, improve your action; then repeat the improved action, and so on. And how do you gauge improvement? It's measured in quality of outcome. I know I'm swinging my golf clubs better now because the ball goes farther and straighter than it did. There is no real "perfect" in golf. All you can do is continually improve. There's no real perfect in life. But continual improvement is what we can aspire to.

Give it some thought.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Was Vince Lombardi Wrong?

Coach Lombardi, although great, was wrong when he said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." In fact, I've been thinking recently that this philosophy has caused us all some harm. Was it the singleminded drive to win at any cost that drove Enron, unscrupulous mortgage companies and banks? Bernie Madoff?

Now, I'm not laying the blame for our economic woes at Vince Lombardi's feet. My childhood pastor was Fr. Timothy Moore, one of Lombardi's lifelong friends. So, I grew up knowing about and respecting the Coach, and even sitting in terrific seats at baseball games courtesy of Father Tim's friend. But I think the famous quote leaves out a lot. I believe that the Coach was talking strictly about games, not about life, and not even about business. And I dread the thought that so many of our business leaders and political leaders have adopted this Lombardi quote as a mantra.

Earlier this evening, I read a blog entry by Miki Saxon over at Leadership Turn that reminded me how far off track some people have gotten in the quest to be first, best, top dog at the expense of courtesy, thoughtfulness, responsibility and decency.

Winning is (generally) good. Being the best, or fastest, or smartest, or biggest is not a bad thing. But putting the goal of being "Number One" above all else—or even denying the existence of all else, as this particular Lombardi quote does—can be easily recognized as the road to ruin.

When common decency, ethics, and even humanity are cast aside with reckless abandon in order to win in business or in life (i.e., be the most successful, or even eliminate your competition completely), I don't think Coach Lombardi would approve. I know Father Tim wouldn't.

Great leaders show compassion, respect, trustworthiness, honesty, decency, and other core values that were lost to Mr. Madoff, Jeff Skilling, Ken Lay, and so many others. I have no doubt that core values were something Vince Lombardi stressed at St. Cecilia's High School, at Fordham University, and at the Green Bay Packers. Otherwise, he would not have inspired his teams so well.

Give it some thought.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stand Up and Be Counted: But Count

Some people find it natural to volunteer. We like to be included, we enjoy working hard, we like to learn new skills, and we enjoy helping to accomplish goals above and beyond our everyday jobs. You'll find us involved in nonprofits, recycling drives, associations, scout troops, and just about every other place where we can make a difference.

Some of us, unfortunately, like to volunteer because of the recognition or the title we'll receive, and then just don't pull the necessary weight of our involvement. We say we'll do the work and then, well, we just don't. And it is exceedingly difficult to "fire" a volunteer.

Huge amounts of work happen in this country—and around the world—because of volunteers. But the work has to happen, and that means people have to do it. So, if you aren't doing what's expected, and what you've agreed to do, please step out of the way.

It's great to have the courage to put your hand up when people around you are trying to blend into the walls, but that courage is only valuable if it's backed up by commitment to the organization or cause.

Next time you feel the urge to raise your hand, make sure you're committed to the work.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Some things do take time to happen. Fruit ripens, concrete cures, the earth goes around the sun. Change, however, happens in no time at all, and problems happen when those who are in charge of strategic thinking for organizations are disengaged from the change.

What we need more of is what I will call speedership: Leadership that understands its need to act quickly, and to be looking farther down the road than ever before. If you have ever driven a car at speeds in excess of 100 miles and hour (don't worry, I won't tell, but let's hope you were on a track, or in Germany), you know exactly what this means. Objects and turns appear and are past you before you know it. You have to train yourself to react within very short spans of time, and to focus at the extremes of your ability.

Here are 3 basic tenets of speedership that every leader should understand:
  1. You are in touch with the speed of change in your industry and within your organization—and you understand the gap between the two
  2. You have surrounded yourself with people who can either research and understand rapid change, or who can accomplish rapid change
  3. You do everything in your power to remove barriers to change
Practice speedership every day. If you do not anticipate coming changes and learn how to respond with lightning reflexes, you will certainly wind up watching your competitors, and very possibly your own organization, speeding toward the checkered flag while you are left behind.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Being a Hub

A few days ago, I received an announcement email for a terrific conference called Voice of the Customer. I attended last year and enjoyed the program immensely. The surroundings are gorgeous, the topics are timely, the speakers are knowledgeable, and the networking opportunities are abundant.

At the end of last year's conference, the producers asked for topics to present this year. One of the ideas that seemed to have some traction was about creating "user groups" as a component of better support. Now, it so happens that I used to be a regional liaison for a large user group program, and had 47 user groups from Maine to Delaware in my region. I offered privately to one of the producers to see if I could get my successor in that position to address the topic. After a few tries, I managed to get the two talking to each other, and there was the session on this year's program. It wasn't a big deal. I just got two people talking to each other about a specific thing.

People often ask me questions like, "Do you know anybody who...?" or "Do you know where I can find..?." As many times as not, I have an answer, and many of those times it's, "Let me ask my friend (insert name). They might know." And, many times, I'm able to provide either the information, or a connection to the information.

In the branch of network theory called social network analysis, there are people who are particularly busy hubs, people with large groups of 'loose ties.' These people can often shortcut searches for information and help.

I'm one of these people. I don't have large family or a small group of active friends, but I have friends from about every walk of life you can imagine, and I can reach out to just about any one of them for an answer or for some expertise at just about any time. And I love to be able to help. It makes me feel like a valuable human being, and that is something all of us can stand to feel more often.

If you're "somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody," you are a "useful" person according to social network analysis, and if you aren't making these kinds of connections, maybe you can learn to do so.

Give it some thought.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In Search of a Better Day

As anyone who watched the US Open knows, it has been very rainy here on the east coast. Up here in Maine, the wet weather refuses to leave, with the storm sitting close enough to the coast to keep it gray, misty and foggy—even more foggy than usual. I feel bad for the people who have planned their Acadia National Park visits for these wet weeks, but the bad weather does tend to drive people to the local stores, so there is an upside.

Maybe the weather has contributed to some less-than-perfect days in my work life, too. I'm unearthing evidence of tasks undone and loose ends untied everywhere I look. For some of the time, I've found that my mood has been as gray as the weather outside.

But every challenge presents an opportunity, and there are many opportunities for me to work with my team to improve. "Continual improvement is an unending journey," say Lloyd Dobens and Clare Crawford Mason.

At times like these, a leader must dig down to a new level of commitment to the goals of the team, and move forward. Take a step in the right direction, and then—as I have said elsewhere—take a second step in the same direction as the first.

Tomorrow I will meet with my team and hear from them something new they each have learned this week. Maybe it will be something they are excited about. Maybe we'll see the sun, at least for a while, and maybe, by day's end, the opportunities will begin to outweigh the challenges.

Give it some thought.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What My GPS Taught Me About Change

I was driving home from the other end of the state last night, cruising up I-295. There is a currently a major repaving project in progress on the road (the Maine saying goes "We have two seasons: winter and road construction") and my GPS was extremely unhappy. I didn't need the GPS to find my way home up the interstate, of course, but it had been a very long day and evening, and wanted the periodic vocal reminders to help keep me focused and alert.

The most efficient way to repave this particular stretch of interstate, someone decided, was to close the northbound lanes completely, detour all the southbound traffic, and swing northbound traffic over to the southbound lanes. So, I was heading north on the southbound side of the road when my GPS started speaking: "Recalibrating. Recalibrating. Recalibrating." A few seconds of silence, then, "Recalibrating. Recalibrating. Recalibrating." I glanced at the little screen, and there was the car icon, dutifully heading up the wrong side of the road. The two sets of lanes are far enough apart to make the GPS take note, and the little unit did not know what to make of it.

The silly little thing doesn't know what to make of the change, I thought. And how often has that happened to me, or to people I know? People wandering around in a daze after a spouse leaves them a note saying, "Color me gone." People who have worked for a company for 30 years suddenly finding themselves to be personae non gratae, and facing the search for another job, another career. People who have always done something the same way, day in and day out, now being told that "It doesn't work that way anymore. Now, you have to do it this way." People who have been used to living in a nice house, suddenly finding themselves without credit and without a home.

Then I thought about how we recalibrate, and how our friends understand—somehow—while we get through it.

Change is inevitable. It is not always good, or productive, or even needed in the great scheme of things. Change just is, and we need to wrap ourselves around it as well as we can.


Give it some thought.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Communicating Change - 3 Things to Remember

One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my favorite TV shows—The West Wing. In one episode, writer Aaron Sorkin has President Barlett say, "Decisions are made by those who show up."

I have seen this happen in my own groups at work, when one of my direct reports misses a meeting and something changes. I've felt it when I've had to miss a meeting myself, or when I wasn't invited in the first place. This often produces a clumsy moment days or weeks later when someone is blindsided by the change resulting from that meeting. If you have had this happen to you, you know how painful and frustrating it can be.

Perhaps it's a trait fostered by my astrological sign (Gemini), if you believe in such things, or perhaps it stems from my being the youngest of three siblings: Communication is paramount to me, and I tend to over—rather than under—communicate (I am not perfect at this! Who is?), and I tend to try to participate as much as possible in everything that's going on.

So, how can we avoid cutting people out of the loop, or assuming that people now something they don't know? Here are three quick tips:

  1. Make sure the right people show up: Check and double check to be inclusive in your meeting invitations
  2. Do pre-meeting communication: Agendas and subtopics should be clearly communicated in advance, so that unidentified stakeholders have the opportunity to come forward
  3. Do post-meeting communication: The results, decisions, and outcomes from the meeting should be as widely distributed as possible without breaking confidentiality. (And give people a way to access this in a relatively permanent manner--not just email. Post information on a wiki, attach minutes to a project plan, whatever works.)
Make sure that people who weren't able to show up still have knowledge about the decisions that have been made. The people who habitually don't show up would rather have other people make their decisions for them.

Give it some thought.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Customer Service: 3 Ways You Can Easily Avoid Mistakes

Last year at about this time, I made my first visit to Colorado Springs to attend a weekend of meetings, and I have returned for the same event this year. After that visit, I wrote a short article about the importance of checklists, following a small oversight at the hotel. I've already rediscovered the checklist solution, and I'll briefly cover the ways you can make a better impression on your customers, no matter what kind of service you provide.

  1. Always look at your service from the point of view of the customer. This is really a no-brainer, and yet I am consistently stunned at the number of service-based businesses which manage not to do this. It requires you to divest yourself of what you already know (something Dan Heath and Chip Heath call "The Curse of Knowledge") and look at your service with nothing but a customer's eye. If you can do this, you'll avoid a lot of fundamental mistakes.
  2. Use checklists. It's really easy to assume that you will do repetitive tasks well because you (or your staff) do them every day. That assumption overlooks distraction, boredom, and carelessness as flaws in your service delivery.
  3. Ask the people who actually do the work where the pain points are. Sometimes, errors and omissions happen because it's just "too hard to get things done the right way," and your staff winds up taking shortcuts or leaving steps out in order to get the expected amount of work done. Listen to the staff, and implement ways of avoiding the shortcuts. Decide what really needs to happen, and make it as easy as possible for it to be done right.

So, there you are - 3 easy ways to avoid the extra work of having to backfill for customer requests, and to ensure that your customer gets a great impression of you on the first contact, and on every contact.

Give it some thought.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Software Support: A Customer Service Story

Over the last several days, I've spent a fair amount of time chasing down some information vital to obtaining some software via download from a major company. We've had dealings with this company before, and they have lived up to their reputation of being hard to contact and difficult to deal with once you do find someone to talk to.

Late yesterday, I'd spent 15 minutes or so on hold, until their automated system decided I'd waiting long enough and kicked me into voicemail. I left as much information as I could articulate clearly over the phone: my contact info, the order info, and what I was trying to accomplish. I had not heard back by the time I left for the day.

This morning, there was a message waiting for me when I arrived in my office, left by a support representative about 20 minutes after I'd left for the day. He said he would call back "in the morning." My faith was less than profound.

Because my level of trust in the company's support was low, I called the support line back first thing and actually did get connected to someone who sounded very far away, and who sounded vaguely Scandinavian—like Stephen Hawking's speech generator. With this assistance, I did gain access to what I needed and touched off several Gigabytes of downloads. This solved my technical problem of getting into the site.

A short while later my phone rang, and I was surprised to hear the very person who had left me voicemail yesterday, a man named Andrew. I let him know I had already gained access, but that I had several questions about why this company's process was so convoluted and what we could do to make it better in the future. He spent about 15 minutes on the phone with me. He pulled up the records of our dealings with the company in question and explained two ways we could improve our experiences. He gave me the phone number of a different group that could go farther to resolve the over-arching issue: Simplification of access and licensing (not handled by his group). I then asked him for his email address so that I could send him something he could share with his supervisor, if possible. Andrew had done an excellent job of turning around what otherwise was a dreadful customer service experience.

About 20 minutes later I sent Andrew a thank you, congratulating him for doing a great job of customer service, in contrast to every other contact I had ever had with the company. Here's exactly what I wrote, except for the name of the company in question:

Andrew, I just want to tell you what a pleasure it was to speak with you. I have been chasing this particular issue around the block for days, and you gave me valuable information for our future purchases from [Company]. Although you had called late in the day yesterday, you said you would call back, and you followed through. You asked for pertinent information and looked into why we might be having the issues we have been seeing (not having access to the downloads associated with our purchases). You gave me some questions to ask within our organization, and some paths to follow to be able to simplify our purchases. Your customer service was exemplary, and I’d be very pleased if you were to share my comments with your supervisor, who is free to call me any time. In short, you rock!
Thanks, Roy

I hope I made Andrew's day a little better. He certainly helped mine, by

  • Following through on a simple commitment
  • Being pleasant and professional in manner
  • Having empathy for the situation
  • Having access to the information he needed in order to help me
  • Passing that information along, and making some suggestions that would help
Have you had a good customer service experience recently? Post a comment and let me know.

(Post updated to clarify some parts of this experience - thanks for your comments, Jeff!)

Give it some thought.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Twitter About Twitter: Episode III

I did learn a little something basic about Twitter yesterday: The "hash" (#) to simplify searching. I included "#hdi" in one of my tweets to enable other HDI people to find it. This little trick I learned from watching other people's tweets, and from tuning into BookTV, which was showing events from BookExpo America, and hearing people mention the tweets that were being posted (#bea or #bea09). So, another small lesson learned.

I also committed an error, replying to a questioning tweet without specifying the topic. Oops. I did indicate to whom I was replying, using the Twitter handle form "@username." So I got it almost right.

Another day, this one including my usual 9.5 hours in my office and about 1.5 hours of commuting, so less time to devote to Twitter. Hopped on at lunch and tweeted about a device that's almost beyond credibility that a colleague had pointed out.

At the end of the day, I caught up a bit, and found again a litany of tweets about Twitter, listed here anonymously, partially, and in no particular order:

  • The Future Of Twitter Visualized
  • Twitter Your Way to Getting Robbed
  • Real Time Events, As Tweeted By The People Who Are Actually There
  • Xbox Gains Facebook and Twitter Integration
  • Blown Cover: A Couple Ways To Stop Those Spymaster Invite DMs (Direct Messages)
  • Twitter to a Job
And so on. It's a little bit like something I call NASCARma: What goes around comes around and around and around and around.

I'll continue to blog about Twitter periodically, but here end the days of consecutive posts. There's too much happening to be staring at the world through this strange little lens very often. Still, I think there might be some value here.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Twitter About Twitter: Episode II

Yes, I was up late last night. I was reading, and I was tweeting. The only thing new about that is the tweeting. I have begun to answer the question, "How much work is this going to be?" The answer is, "Not as much as I thought."

Like anything else multidimensional, I could get deeper and deeper and deeper into Twitter. I could analyze the dynamics of "crowdsourcing." I could concentrate on building my personal brand, and fitting that into my work life. I suspect I will do some of each. Here's what I've learned after two whole days:

  • Pay attention - Notice how others are tweeting, both form and content
  • Watch out for the predators who are only following you so that they can sell you something you weren't looking for in the first place
  • Keep your guard up
  • Set some goals for yourself, and some limits, e.g., "I'll tweet at least 4 times today, but I won't stay up 2 hours late"
  • If you are using Twitter as an advertising tool, don't make it personal
  • If you are using Twitter—as many claim to be—as a writing improvement exercise, craft your tweets carefully. They will need to be more poetry than prose, and every word will count
  • Search for people and for content - Look around and absorb
There's plenty of advice out there about how to use Twitter effectively and Twitter 101. Once you decide that you are going to take this plunge, do a little research, and sign up for that account.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Twitter About Twitter

OK--You got me. I am doing social networking. I have been on LinkedIn for quite a while now, and I have now taken the Twitter plunge. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. It's not that I'm resistant to change (I've seen and taken part in huge changes), but rather that I need to see how a change will make an impact for my life and my work, as well as on my life and my work. I need to know that a change has some benefit, because I know there is going to be work involved.

My primary reasons for becoming more visible and more active in the social networking sphere revolve around my work with a professional association, in my case, HDI, and specifically the Northern New England Chapter of HDI. I could not have foreseen 5 or 6 years ago that a challenging and rewarding career in technical support could spawn a challenging and rewarding volunteer career as well.

What pushed me over the edge, finally, was the content of a conference call yesterday with other HDI chapter presidents. The call was organized by my roommate for the HDI 2009 Conference, Phil Gerbyshak, and was an outstanding conversation among peers with common interests.

It took me a little while to get the hang of tweeting, but I found numerous sources of expertise, including Phil's own writing on the subject. I also came armed with my own perspicacity and awareness that, online, little is what it seems to be.

One of the things I noticed right away (it's hard not to) is that many of the tweets I see are about Twitter. "Business needs Twitter." "Twitter as an advertising tool." "How to Twitter Better." (Say that fast, just for fun!) I'm joining in on that score as well, because I'm blogging about Twitter, and then I will tweet about this blog. In then end, perhaps, the 21st century will be about the 21st century.

Don't get me wrong--I've already found new things and read things I might not have noticed otherwise. In searching for one person on Twitter, I found another by the same name, and decided to follow anyway, after looking at the profile.

I'm not sure how far this will intrude into my already sleep-deprived life. I'll let you know the answer to that. In fact, if you are considering taking the dive into social media, perhaps I can serve as your probe. I will update here often, and I will write about my blunders as well as my successes.

Give it some thought. But don't look for me on Facebook just yet.