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.