Sunday, November 28, 2010

Empowerment Doesn't Mean Safety

A story published by the New York Times tells the disturbing story of a business so unscrupulous that its owner views threats and abuse of customers as a revenue-generating tool. A comment about the story on Twitter prompted me to do some thinking about the Internet and what it does and does not do for consumers.

  • The Internet empowers shoppers
    • Check competitors' prices right from the store
    • Check online reviews of both product and seller
    • Find rebates or discounts the salesperson may not even know about
  • The Internet empowers businesses
    • Watch what your competition is doing
    • Listen to what your customers are saying
    • "Level the playing field" so small business can play big
So, what went wrong in the Times story? Shouldn't the Internet have protected the victim of the abuse? Short answer: Empowerment is not safety. Having tools only works if you use the tools provided to you. The Internet does not countermand the wise saying caveat emptor (buyer beware), but allows the buyer to access information on a scale unimaginable a generation ago. But the customer in the New York Times story did not use the tools. Now, don't get me wrong--there is absolutely no excuse for the greed-driven horror which a despicable person thinks of as "business." It was absolutely not the victim's fault that she was treated badly.  According to the story, however, she took a top Google ranking as a testimonial and never looked beyond it. This is the same as taking one salesperson's word for it when making a purchase—unless the salesperson is known and trusted.

Does the Internet empower? Yes, beyond a doubt. Does empowerment mean that you are protected from harm? No. It means that you have been given power. Whether you use that power or not is up to you.

Give it some thought.

Update: 12/1/2010

Google has implemented what they term "an algorithmic solution" to this problem. You can read the story on TechCrunch. Thanks to Jeffrey J. Kingman for bringing this to my attention.

Update 12/6/2010
The owner of the business described in the New York Times article linked at the beginning of this post has been arrested and charged with fraud and threatening, according to internet Retailer. Thanks to "hestika" @AngelosTzelepis on Twitter for the update.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Power of Twitter for Customer Service

Twitter, smartphones, connectivity, flight delays, and Customer Service via Social Media.

Back in June, Sabine McElrath wrote about our rediscovery of each other via Twitter—after 35 years—in a post she titled "The Incredible Power of Twitter." This week, I used one of Twitter's other amazing powers to save a trip from becoming wasteful in time and money, and to gain peace of mind. (Yes, really.)

I was ready to fly home after a few days of business. In the airport, the info boards told me my flight would be delayed for about an hour. I connected to the airport's free wireless network and downloaded the Delta Airlines iPhone app, Fly Delta. I checked my connecting flight in New York, and it was scheduled to get off the ground about three minutes after my delayed flight landed. I checked repeatedly as I waited in the airport, and my outbound flight was drifting a few minutes later each time. Not good. It was evident that I would be stuck in New York after my arrival. I used an app called Direct Line to call Delta without  going through their phone tree manually. I spoke with a friendly representative who confirmed that yes, I was going to miss my connecting flight, and was puzzled when I laughed at the thought that she could find another flight later in the evening to my destination—Bangor, Maine. She found me a flight to Bangor from New York, leaving late the next morning. So, I would be hoteling it in NYC, or spending many hours in the airport. Downhearted, I switched the flight. I would not make it home Thursday night. We got off the ground about one and a quarter hours past our originally scheduled time, headed for my New York connection.

Thanks to my gogoinflight Internet connection, I was able to communicate with home and elsewhere via email from the plane in flight, and I checked into the Delta app to keep updated on the flights. Late in my flight, I decided to take one more look at my original flight, after an email from home suggesting that it, too, might be delayed. Sure enough, it was running about one hour late. So, my mission was to get back on that flight as rapidly as possible. Using the Birdbrain app, I found Delta's Twitter account and sent them a tweet asking how I could switch:
A few minutes later, I received a tweet from @DeltaAssist asking for my confirmation number and my desired change via Direct Message, which I sent (number removed):
And then, after about 5 minutes, I got the good news:
I deplaned in NYC, walked up to the gate for my departing flight, got my seat assignment, and was on my way home.

Now, let's not forget that the best Customer Service would have been to get me off the ground on time in the first place, and have neither flight delayed. But, Delta did a great job of responding quickly to my request and getting it done. Thanks JD, whoever you are, for understanding the urgency, for being empowered with the right tools to make the change happen, and for getting me home. I had peace of mind because I didn't have to run around talking to gate agents to make the switch in NYC, and a good, productive day the next day, instead of losing time, effort and money for extra travel.

Does your company have a good Social media strategy for Customer Service?

Give it some thought.

Note: I have no affiliation whatsoever with Delta, gogoinflight, Birdbrain, or Direct Line. They just happen to be the tools I used to accomplish these tasks.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Give It To Me Now, Give It To Me Straight

In this post, I'm going to talk about service from the customer perspective, stepping out of my role as a service provider. Let me state for the record that when I say Customer Service, I am not talking only about a Customer Service "department," or the handling of complaints or returns or problems, although all of these are all parts of the Customer Service world. I'm talking about a philosophy of service that is relevant across the company, and which doesn't lose sight of the fact that a business will only continue to exist as long as it fulfills the needs and expectations of customers, whether those customers are end-users or other businesses. Great Customer Service is evident in every step of the customer's contact with the company. It's useful, I think, to do a quick review of what I consider to be the essential elements of excellent Customer Service from the customer's perspective:

  • Timeliness - Service transactions and information are delivered quickly and appropriately
  • Accessibility - Customers can easily get information or ask questions or report issues through any channel the company provides without "jumping through hoops."
  • Directness - The Customer should always feel that they are getting correct information, and not just a tidbit or statement the company chooses to provide to make them "cool off."
Now for the examples.

Not So Good: A company well known for their Customer Service recently sent us an electronic coupon worth $10. The email stated that it could be used on their website, printed and brought to a retail store, or simply shown at the checkout on a smart phone. Armed with iPhone and coupon, we visited one of their outlets. We brought our purchases to the checkout. The cashier had never heard of or seen the promotion. The cashier's supervisor had never heard of or seen the promotion. They did not know how to handle the electronic coupon, and wound up turning it down because of their distinction between a retail store and an outlet store. This goes to Directness. We now understand  their distinction between one of their big, full-price stores (nearest one is 4 hours away) and their outlets. It should have been clear on the coupon, and the program should have been known to their employees. [Note: This was the first less-than-stellar interaction I've had with the company in 40 years of doing business with them. They explained why they could not take the coupon, but made no attempt to take any responsibility for the interaction.]

Excellent: One of the sites I use to post on the Web suffered a Denial of Service attack last week, and was effectively down. The company scrambled to get out from under the attack. As soon as possible, they sent out one of the best Customer Service communications I've ever seen. In this email, they
  • Explained in plain language what happened, what they did to solve it and how they planned to prevent it from happening again (no excuses, just information)
  • Apologized sincerely, indicating that they understood that the site was down, and what that meant for subscribers
  • Applauded the technical team that had worked without rest to provide a solid, working solution
The information was Direct, Accessible, and Timely. It does not get much better than that.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How Did This Get On My Plate?

It's a struggle. Every day, things are getting on my plate. Some of them get there because I opened the packages (work tickets, project requests, tasks from the boss). Some of the things on my plate are there because I wanted them ("Can you pass me that web update, please?"). But some of them, I just don't know. Something arrived completely out of the blue. Something else I envisioned as being an afternoon's work became a week's work because there were components no one had thought about, or because it tied into three other projects, or because I did not ask enough questions.

That one bites me a lot. I come from the technical side of the house, so much of my work has involved solving problems and fixing broken things—dealing with things that have already happened. It's a constant battle for me to turn my thinking around and deal with things proactively, even though few people feel more strongly that it's better to measure twice and cut once. Habits of thought are difficult to change.

In a business environment that is always time-starved, there isn't a whole lot of in-house mentoring. Sometimes seeking advice is almost impossible because of busy schedules. And If I don't ask enough questions in the opening round, I wind up having to do a lot of "catch-up" later. Here are some key question areas I've learned (the hard way) to cover early:

  • Stakeholders: Who else needs to be involved? 
  • Dependencies: What other work does this work depend on, and what depends on this work?
  • Communications: Who needs to know what, and when?
  • Scope: What can I say no to?
If you establish these quickly, you can be a member of the "Clean Plate Club."

Give it some thought.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Customer Service: Weighing the Options

Knowledge of—and confidence in—a company's culture empowers employees to make decisions and to seek out creative solutions to problems.

After 5 years of delivering newspapers as a kid, I got myself  a "real job" in a high-volume supermarket. I worked for that chain through most of college, and for a couple of years later on as I was getting my music career started. By then, I was a department manager, and had responsibility for minding the store one night a week and a weekend or two a month. As a bagger, cashier, and service desk worker, I had learned the company culture with regard to Customer Service: Stick by the store's reputation, do what you can to please the Customer, don't be afraid to give refunds - but be reasonable. Sometimes Customers are not reasonable, and we cannot help them. Escalate as high as you need to, including the owner of the store, and know that we trust your judgment. Now as a manager I would sometimes be tested.

One evening I was in the front office of the store, making sure the front end staff took appropriate breaks, making sure the shopping carts were collected from the lot, that cashiers got their rolls of quarters, and so on. Suddenly, a couple came in and slammed a package down on the counter in front of the woman who was on the desk that evening. "This is what you sell here?" the woman in the couple roared. "I wouldn't feed this to my dog!" I scanned the security cameras and the front end to make sure this was not a diversion, and then stepped forward as the woman at the desk turned toward me.

I unwrapped the package as I said something like, "What seems to be the problem?" The customer repeated her invective as I got a look at the contents of the package - a few hunks of cooked beef fat. The woman told me how their dinner was ruined by the amount of unusable meat had been in their roast. I thought it was quite a lot of fat until I looked at the sticker on the used wrapper. They had bought a very large roast, and should not have been surprised by this amount of fat. So, I applied my cultural lessons.

  • Stick by the store's reputation - I knew we had one of the best meat departments in the chain of nearly 200 stores, and had huge respect for the master butcher who ran the department and bought the meat. We sold good meat.
  • Do what you can to please the Customer - I immediately grabbed a pad of our refund forms. There was little doubt I would give the customer a refund. But I did not want to do so at the expense of our reputation.
I had a flash of an idea: I picked up the store PA microphone and paged a bagger to the office. I handed him the "package" the people had returned, after removing the price sticker. While I was writing up the refund, I had the bagger go over to one of the produce scales and get me a printout of exactly how much fat had been returned. He quickly came back with a weight that indicated that the fat was less than 3% of the weight of the beef roast. I spoke this finding out loud to the customers has I asked them to sign the refund form, taking extra care not to be accusatory or condescending.

The message: I know you're pulling a stunt to get your money back. You'll get your money back, but I'm telling you that we're better (and smarter) than you think.

The customers wound up thanking me for the refund (of course they did—they got a free roast out of the deal), but left quickly and somewhat sheepishly. I had spent the store's money, but protected our reputation. Having an unhappy, vocal customer on a busy evening was not my idea of good PR.

I wrote up the incident for the store manager, and wound up getting a pat on the back for being imaginative from the store owner a few days later when he visited. We had a conversation about it, and I told him why I thought it would have been the wrong call to refund the people only the price of the fat—it would have been an insult from their point of view, even though they were "putting one over" on us. He agreed. And that, for me, was enough.

Knowledge of—and confidence in—a company's culture empowers employees to make decisions and to seek out creative solutions to problems.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Customer Service Stories Are Everywhere

Recently, I flew to Colorado Springs for a weekend of meetings. Going from Downeast Maine to just about anywhere is not especially straightforward, but I did manage to find economical airfare from Bangor. There were three hops, and on the longest of these (New York City to Dallas-Fort Worth), I found myself sitting next to a delightful woman—I'll call her "Sally"—who asked where I was from, where I was going, and what I did. When I told her that I write about Customer Service, she immediately said she had a couple of stories for me, one "good" one, and one "bad" one, and said I could use them here if I wanted to.

I'll start with the bad one. Sally is living in Vancouver Island, BC, now, but is from the US. She and her husband share a cell phone, and use a pay-as-you-go service. The last time she went to add minutes to the phone, the site would not allow her to complete the transaction without a Zip Code. Since the address is BC, there's a different postal code, and the site would not accept it, nor put in a placeholder zip like 99999. She called the Customer Service number listed on the site. She was connected to a representative who went through the fields on the site with her, but stopped at the Zip Code, saying, "We can't process this without a Zip Code. I'm sorry but I cannot help you." Sally again explained that she was not in the US, and that she had done this before, and that she did not understand what the problem was. Again, the response was, "I'm sorry, but I cannot help you." Sally asked for a supervisor, and, reluctantly, the representative agreed. A short time later, the issue was resolved, but Sally was left to wonder what hurdles she would have to get over next time she needed to add service to the phone. Bottom line? Sally will drop this company like a hot potato as soon as she can find a replacement service.

My comment: If they accept Canadian customers, why not provide a way for the to enter the appropriate information on their payment site? This is not only bad Customer Service but also just plain bad business.

Sally's second story was of an individual act of service "above and beyond" the norm when a Customer Service representative at an airline stayed on the line with her for an hour-and-a-half, walking through all the possibilities to resolve a serious travel issue involving a very sick pet, her husband's schedule, and necessity to change flight plans fast. The airline rep brought other people on the phone, asked questions, explored possibilities, and eventually brought everything to a happy conclusion, at least travel-wise. Again, Sally asked for the supervisor, this time to congratulate the company on a job well done, and to make sure that the representative's efforts did not go unnoticed. Bottom line? Sally will fly this airline whenever and wherever possible.

My comment: Loyalty is built on good experiences. Making the Customer feel valued goes a very long way to creating repeat customers and advocates for the company, both of which affect the bottom line.

Give it some thought. (Thanks, "Sally," for sharing your stories with me!)

Monday, May 31, 2010

Customer Service Can Happen Anywhere

One of the traditions of Memorial Day in many families is going to visit cemeteries, and placing flags there to commemorate the service and sacrifice of those who served in the military. I hope that all of us have spent a little time this Memorial Day reflecting on the human stories represented by those flags.

My friend Cris Buckley told me a story about a very unexpected Customer Service experience this weekend. Cris was visiting a cemetery where a friend is buried. When she arrived, she was offered a questionnaire, and asked if she would fill it out and return it on the way out. She agreed.

The questionnaire asked questions such as:
  • Who are you visiting?
  • What do you think of the plot?
  • How can we improve it?
  • What do you think of the grounds in general?
  • How can we improve them?
There was also an area on the questionnaire to request more information about specific items of interest.

The words "Customer Service" and "cemetery" are not often seen together, but Cris felt like she'd had a great Customer Service experience. And why not? A cemetery is, after all, a business, and one that provides a service that can be very personally sensitive.

Great Customer Service can happen anywhere, at any time. All that's necessary is a relationship of Customer to any business or service. The quality of the service is determined solely by the Customer.

Cris, thanks for sharing your story.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Other Side of Thanks

We all know how great it is to be thanked for doing something well—to be recognized for a job well done. And yes, it's important to thank people for doing the job that's expected, but especially so when people go above and beyond.

Some companies are legendary for excellent Customer Service: Nordstroms, LL Bean, Zappo's—each of us knows some that are consistently attentive, responsive, and courteous, and who understand what we are looking for in the way of service.

And each of us also probably has a list of those whose Customer Service is consistently abysmal, whose policies are byzantine and unfriendly, and whose "Customer Service Representatives" are there more to protect policies and assets then they are to help customers with issues or expedite refunds or replacements. We generally know enough to complain loudly when we are up against such a company, and it's important to do so.

But there's another side. We—equally loudly, I believe, need to sing the praises not only of the companies who do a great job, but of individuals who do a great job. That way, we are rewarding them for getting it right—whether they work for a great company or not—and we also bring to the attention of the company, large or small, the kind of service we expect.

Here are some ideas:

  • Next time you get great service in a restaurant, tip a little extra, sure, but also make the shift manager or owner aware of the excellent service you received.
  • When you get "above and beyond" service on the phone, ask for the contact information of the representative's supervisor, so you can send a thank you. If they won't give you that, do a Web search and get as high up the organization as possible to give kudos.
  • Sing the company's praises on Social Media such as Twitter and Facebook; or say that you ran into an individual at that company who exceeded your expectations.
Get good service on the radar, no matter whether it comes from a company that's known for it or not, and we can get Customer Service on more agendas at more companies.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Customer Service Commitment

It's a strange thing: Businesses know for a fact that it's more expensive to get new customers than to keep existing ones, as I've mentioned elsewhere. Businesses also know that there are certain things they need to do to keep customers. Isn't it reasonable to think that most businesses would commit to making Customer Service paramount? As we know from our last shopping trip or purchase-related phone call, many businesses simply do not get service right.

Why is this the case? Why do companies—large and small alike—spend so much money on marketing to potential customers while they place so much less emphasis on getting the Customer Experience right? I suspect there is not one answer to that question, but that there are many. Here are a few:

There isn't time to do everything right.
How much time did you spend last year trying to win new customers and, more importantly, recover from Customer Service complaints or dissatisfaction? Get it right the first time, build a loyal customer base, and take the time to think about the way customers see your business.

We can't train people; it's too expensive.
"What if we train them and they leave?" is the wrong question. "What if we don't train them and they stay?" is the right question. You don't necessarily have to provide expensive training, either. Work with your new and existing employees to help them understand what you expect from them in the way of Customer Service, and explain how this contributes to their own success as well as yours.

It's hard to get good help.
This may be true, but it also might be worth it to your business to keep looking. There are people who are looking for entry level positions who do get it, and who will work with you if you show them the way.

Before any of this can happen, though, you need to commit to good Customer Service, like Leon L. Bean did, backing up his boots with a 100% guarantee and having to put his money up after the first batch failed.*

Your company, however small, might wind up being legendary for the service you provide to your customers.

Give it some thought.

*Of the 100 pairs of his Maine Hunting Shoes that were ordered and sent, 90 were returned because the tops had separated from the bottoms. Rather than give up his fledgling enterprise, though, Bean honored his guarantee and then borrowed $400 to redesign and perfect his boots (Bean also perfected his guarantee, making it unconditional and, in fact, the essence of Bean's customer service culture through the present day).

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Expectations: How Consistent Is Your Service?

Recently I encountered a disparity of Customer Service that pointed up the necessity of consistency. I was on my way to the HDI 2010 Conference in Orlando, and had chosen to fly into Sanford, Florida, because I could get a direct flight from Bangor, Maine and save 4 hours and a connection. My plane arrived about 20 minutes early. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I had arranged for a shuttle ride from Sanford to the conference. I had the instructions on where to find the shuttle when I emerged from the terminal. I looked, but found no shuttle in the lot.

I walked over to the friendly-looking taxi stand and asked if they knew whether I was in the right place for the shuttle. They said that I was, and suggested I go to the shuttle company booth nearby. I did, and found a very friendly woman named Debbie. She was surprised I was early and suggested that I could get out of the wind and grab a soda or coffee inside the terminal. Then she said, "I'll come and find you when the shuttle gets here." Now, that's a good service attitude, I said to myself.

I didn't go inside, but sat out in the breeze and enjoyed the sunshine. A short while later, the van with the company's logo appeared and parked. I stood up to let the driver know I was there. Quickly, he put up his hand in the "talk to the hand" position and called across the lot, "We're not going anywhere yet," in a less than friendly manner. What a letdown!

We were apparently waiting for another flight to come in, and that one was running late. I say "apparently" because I overheard some other people talking, not because the driver informed me. I was very disappointed. Then, after I got into the van, the driver was missing some papers, and told (not asked) me to get back out so he could check the seat where I was sitting. (I knew there was nothing there and told him as much.)

So, the next time I fly into Sanford, should I take that shuttle? Would I recommend it to my friends? I don't think so. Did I get from the airport to the hotel? Yes. Was it a good experience? No.

Too bad Debbie wasn't driving.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


It was my great privilege this year to be one of the judges for HDI's Team Excellence Awards. The award is meant to single out IT support organizations which exemplify the very best in the industry.

The application process is rigorous, and the criteria are wide-ranging and numerous, covering three major areas: the people, the processes and the technology. Ergonomics, tools, team structure, use of metrics, and the volume of support tickets all count toward the judging criteria.

All the teams who made it to the final rounds were exceptional, and had many characteristics in common. They are focused, thoughtful, trained and dedicated; they know industry best practices. They work together.

Above all else, the very best teams are all committed to two ideas:
• Customers are their purpose
• Continuous improvement is mandatory

Notice I said that the teams are committed. (You probably know the line about commitment being like bacon and eggs: The chicken was involved; the pig was committed.) These teams have a laser-like focus on the reason they exist: To serve the Customer. Whether that Customer be a patient in a healthcare facility, or the user of a credit card, or a company needing data storage, or someone  depending on information from a lawyer, the teams all knew who was at the end of their support chain, and all knew they had to keep working to provide the very best support possible.

I saw the man who applied the HDI logo to the stairs shown in the picture. He took great care to make sure that everything looked right to the thousands who would walk up those stairs this past week. None of us knows his name, though we all know his work. And that's the other part of the lesson: It's not our name or fame or wealth that matters. It's the work and its ultimate purpose, which is to serve the Customer, and to keep getting better and better and better at it. We know we're climbing toward perfection, which is a goal we cannot attain. To climb, to keep climbing and to continuously climb, must be our mission.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Little Human Contact

Even though I write about Customer Service and think about it a lot, I'm not really very hard to please when I shop or go to lunch or dinner. I'm only looking for a few basic things to happen, and it's only when I get none of them that I go away unhappy.

  1. Greet me somehow - When you see me, either say hello, or make some eye contact and maybe give a smile. I find nothing more disconcerting than doing business with someone who never looks at me, and only speaks to tell me the price or ask if I have any coupons.
  2. Help me if I need help - If I have a question, either answer it, or find someone who can. This sounds incredibly basic, but I'll wager you can think of an instance where you were brushed off, or told, "I don't think we do that."
  3. Give me a little space - Don't "service" me to death. If I have a question, I'll ask. There's a disturbing trend in the restaurant business to have servers ask, "Is everything OK?" about every five minutes. That tends to make things not OK.
  4. Thank me - Let me know that you appreciate my business. A bland "Have a nice day" doesn't really cut it, but it's better than the complete absence of acknowledgement.
If you make me feel like a human being through those four phases of our contact, I'll be back. If you get everything right and then some, I might be telling my friends about your business right now.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Last Minute Lunch Order: A Customer Service Quiz

A department of roughly 50 people was going through week-long training, due to end on Friday. The training was being held in two sessions—morning and afternoon—so that only half the desks would be empty at any given time. The morning session ran from 7:30 to 11:30 and the afternoon from 12:30 to 4:30. On Thursday afternoon, the heads of the department decided to buy lunch for everyone on Friday. Their question to the administrative assistant was:
Can you—at 2 PM Thursday—find someone to provide lunch for 50, delivered at 11:30 AM Friday?

The AA started making calls to caterers the department had dealt with before. The first said, "No way." The second conversation went like this:
AA: You might not be able to do this.
Caterer: Try me.
AA: Can you get us lunch for 50, delivered tomorrow at 11:30?
Caterer: No problem! I can give you the same things you ordered last time. Would that be OK?

The AA also made quick arrangements with the facility to have a buffet table and a cart for beverages brought in, and someone to escort the caterer to the location.

Wow. Big points on the board. The caterer said "Try me," indicating a willingness to work with the customer. The caterer said, "No problem," indicating a can-do attitude. The caterer also said, "...the same thing you had last time," highlighting an existing relationship to the customer, and good records.

Flash forward to Friday at 11:30. The facilities people came in with the table and cart. No caterer, no lunch. 11:40. 11:45. The management says, "We'll wait another 10 minutes and then break and go ahead with the afternoon session." At 11:50, the caterer arrives with the food. But there seems to be a problem. There are no plates, no utensils, no napkins. The AA is off and running, and arrives a few minutes later, breathless, with the missing components. (Note: The caterer said "...the same thing you had last time," and last time included plates and utensils.)

  1. What was the first link in the chain of events that could be changed to improve the outcome?
  2. How did the caterer set the expectations of the customer?
  3. What questions could the AA have asked that would have improved the outcome?
Leave a comment with your answers. I'd love to hear from you.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

And Sometimes Ugly

Funny thing, Customer Service. We all need it from time to time. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's bad. And, yes, sometimes it's ugly.

Last week, our home Internet connection simply disappeared. Our Internet Service Provider (ISP) had an outgoing message on their support number that announced a statewide outage of all DSL service. (To me, an IT guy, this screamed "single point of failure" which is never a good thing.) Luckily, my iPhone gets enough signal at our house to keep my email, news and Twitter going. About 2 days later, our service was announced "restored."

None of my connected devices were able to obtain a useful connection. No email in or out, no Web. I followed the directions they gave on their announcement, but to no avail. Nothing worked. I called support.

After being polite and confirming some information, they got me back online when connected directly to the DSL modem, but that was it. (I understand this entirely. Support has limits, and they were making theirs clear. They would have to pass me over to their "advanced support group" to get any help for my network setup. Let's just say that that side of the call quickly got to "I can't help you."

What the heck—I was due for a router upgrade anyway, so I bought one and ran the setup. I still cold not establish a connection to the Internet. Modem worked. Router worked. Configuration went correctly. No net. 

So, I called the router company's support. I got some of the best support ever. The agent walked through every setting on the modem, suggested what some causes of the issue might be, and worked through the entire setup with me until I was satisfied that everything was working correctly.

The ISP's support was OK. Limited, narrowly focused, and just OK. They threw in the towel as soon as their job was technically done. The router company provided me with all the information and help I needed to get to the desired end: Everything worked.

Often, companies are ready to pull the plug on support because they forget that the object of that support is to get the customer happy with whatever product they are using.

The object of business is not opposed to the object of Customer Service. They are the same: Create and keep Customers.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Outcome Is Not Guaranteed

I have always thought of people as fundamentally optimistic. If someone tells us something, we usually believe it. When we buy something, we expect that it will work. We have a symptom, we see a doctor, we get a prescription, and we believe that we will get better.

I've also always thought that this is a naïve approach. Not everyone gets better. Things don't always work as advertised. And this is as true in computer support as it is in health care. No matter how we may wish to make everything perfect, fast, easy, and reliable, we can't always do so. Sometimes the outcome is a frustrated person on each end of the phone or help chat. The support person wants to make things work as the end-user expects; the end-user or expects that it's going to be fixed right now.

As hard as it is for many of us to absorb, not everyone gets well, or has their symptoms ameliorated. Some medical conditions fail to improve; likewise, some computer issues don't respond even after hours of work. There are so many variables in each case.

So, when you are faced with a computer issue and contact your support provider, bear in mind that the outcome may not be as you wish, but you can help minimize the chances that this will happen. The better communication you have with either your health care provider or your computer support person, the more likely you are to get your particular issue resolved.

Some helpful hints for getting the best results from computer support:

  • Be honest - if you dropped the laptop, admit it. You'll save yourself and the support person lots of time.
  • Be patient - lots of variables mean lots of questions and maybe some failed fixes.
  • Be understanding - if you are trying to connect to your office from a hotel, be aware that the service desk at your company has no control over the hotel network, and may not be able to make things work for you
  • Be compliant - if you're asked to restart, or unplug, or call the hotel front desk, please act in your own best interest.
  • Be trusting - don't immediately call your "cousin Bob, who knows a lot about computers" after the support person tells you that you need to do x, y, or z. The support person may, in fact, not be as smart as "cousin Bob," but may have information that Bob does not have about the network, or model of computer, or the state of the Internet at that particular time.
One more request: If you do figure out what the problem was, or if the symptom stops happening, let the support folks know. Believe it or not, we worry about these things, and often spend our off-hours reading and researching the fixes for unresolved issues.

Now, reboot and don't forget to take your medicine.

Give it some thought.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent

The pointed firs stand in defiance of the weight of the snow here in Maine, just as they are designed, fundamentally, by nature to do. It's the beginning of 2010.

This year, I believe that economic conditions will make it imperative for businesses to pay even more attention to the fundamentals. Those fundamentals include quality of product, value, and quality of service. Customers will also be thinking in fundamentals such as price, quality, value, and the Customer Experience. I'd like to think that 2010 is the year that businesses really start to believe that retaining a Customer really is less expensive than winning a new one. (Some sources say it's 5x, some say 7x more expensive to gain than to retain.) The Reference for Business also says:
...a company that increases its number of new customers by 20 percent in a year but retains only 85 percent of its existing customers will have a net growth rate of only 5 percent (20 percent increase less 15 percent decrease). But the company could triple that rate by retaining 95 percent of its clients.

What's the most powerful way to retain customers? Say it with me: Good Customer Service! So, ask yourself why Customer Service is not at the very, very, very (very!) top of every business's list of way to increase revenues and hold costs in check. Customer Service needs to be taught, spoken about, featured, tweeted, IM'd, written, inculcated, and ingrained into every aspect of organizational culture.

Good Customer Service not only means treating your customers with all the respect due to your prime source of revenue, it also means designing every aspect of your business to make the customer experience better.

  • Check to see if your Web site is designed for your Customers' benefit, or for yours. If it's the latter, change it, and change it now. Do not try to tell me (the Customer) what I want from you by planting a limited number of dropdowns or radio buttons. Give me the opportunity to express my concern, frustration, gratitude, rage, or interest. 
  • Have a trained, professional Customer Service representative at the receiving end of every Customer Service transaction.*
  • Treat every single Customer as if they are the most important person your business will ever encounter. (Know what? They are!)
Customer Service extends far beyond the sales counter, the Returns desk, the IT Service Desk, and your Web site. It's a way of life.

Do not let the weight of harsh economic realities snap the branches of your business: Learn how to build your business to adapt, like the pointed firs, to the Winter of Our Discontent.
Give it some thought.
* Considering outsourcing your Customer Service to the lowest-bidding call center? Would you do that to Investor Relations?