Sunday, November 27, 2011

Was It Customer Service?

A couple of years ago, my (then) employer moved me into a windowless office. I decided to buy a full spectrum desk lamp.  There were two home improvement "big box" stores on my way home from work, practically across the street from each other. I'll call them Orange and Blue. The Blue one was fairly new and I'd never been there, so that's where I went.

After a couple of minutes of looking at the choices, I picked out a nice, inexpensive lamp that I felt would look good on my desk and get the job done. As is usual, there was a display unit and a shelf full of corresponding boxes. The only problem was, I couldn't find the lamp I wanted among the boxes.

I went to find some help, and soon saw someone in the store's blue apron. I asked for assistance with the lamp and was told, "I don't know anything about that department. I'll find someone and send them over to you." Having a little faith, I stood by the lamps for a few minutes, and someone in a blue apron came by. Apparently, however, not the one I'd been hoping for.

"Excuse me," I said, "can you help me with these lamps? I can't seem to find this one," I said, pointing to the one I wanted.
"Whatever we have is on the shelf," said the blue apron.
"OK. I guess you don't have one of these in a box, then?"
"Um, whatever we have in on the shelf."
"Will you be getting more of these?"
"I don't know."
"Well, can I buy this one?" I asked, indicating the one chained to the display.
"No. I can't sell that."
"OK--let me be clear," I said, slowly. "I would like to buy this lamp. If you don't sell me this one, I'm going to go across the street and buy a lamp there."
"Well, I can't sell you that one."

I did go across the street and buy not one lamp, but two.

When I mentioned this episode at work, there was a universal, "Oh yeah--their service is terrible."

I never went back.

Well, the Blue big box home improvement store closed up shop a couple of months ago. It was not because I didn't buy the lamp that day. It was because hundreds of people did not buy their lamps, drills, blinds, carpets, nails, pipes and whatever else they needed or wanted there. And it wasn't because I told a lot of people. The people I mentioned this to already knew that the service was bad. It was because people simply stopped shopping there.

An easy alternative existed, and this business failed to make the commitment to be better. Too bad, so sad, as the saying goes. Now, let me say that Orange does not have the best service I've ever had, but it's orders of magnitude better than Blue.

Moving in to compete? Customer service might be the difference between you and your competitor.

Give it some thought.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I Learned Customer Service from a CEO

There are some people around the web who seem determined to shoot down the customer service community that has taken root here, and one of the things they say is that the people who take part in the discussions and chats don't understand business. Well, I don't understand the kind of business that thinks it's ok to refer to "dumb customers" but that's another story.

I began my customer service education when I was in high school, working part time at a business a few miles from where I grew up. After about a year, I was promoted into the customer service desk, which was seen as a desirable place to work and as a steppingstone to management. This was not a tiny "mom & pop" store; it was a business that was doing over $50 million a year--in the late 1960's.

The CEO of this private corporation was only in his mid-twenties, and had grown up in this business. His father had started him off in the operation where I worked, and ran 5 other, slightly smaller operations himself. The son, "Tommy," and the people he hired gave me a  great education in customer service. We often worked side-by-side doing what we did best: serving customers. Here are a few of the things Tommy taught me:

  • It doesn't matter what your title is; when a customer needs assistance, you assist them.
  • Your employees need to know that you "have their backs" - Tommy never, ever dressed down an employee in front of customers or other employees; he saved his comments for private conversations that were more teaching than "getting yelled at."
  • No job in the business is too "low" for you do do, and it's a really good idea if you know how to do them, or at least how they are done.
  • Even when something happens that indicates that a customer is completely wrong, you treat them with respect. You do your best to come up with a solution on the spot. If you can't, you can escalate it all the way up the chain to the CEO, and be there when the CEO interacts with the customer, so that you can learn.
  • Employees are always held accountable for mistakes, because the ultimate goal is excellence.
  • Without customers, there isn't a business. Every aspect of your operation needs to reflect respect for customers and to go the extra mile to serve them.
  • Know exactly what to do in case of natural disaster or unexpected events, and always put the safety of your customers first.
  • Hire good workers who share your values. The managers Tommy hired either reflected these customer-focused beliefs or learned to, or they didn't last. 
I worked for Tommy for several years, both at the customer service desk and as a manager with responsibility for my own department's profit margins, before moving off into a different business, and I've never forgotten those early lessons, nor the CEO I learned them from. And, by the way, that operation was the most successful and profitable of its kind in North America at that time. (It is still running, by the way.) People traveled for miles, bypassing many alternatives, to do business there, because the goods, layout, selection, technology and people all were put together with the customer in mind. Thank you, Tommy.

Where did you learn about customer service? Who was your mentor?

Give it some thought.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Losing Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs wanted to change the world. I believe that he did.

There was a huge round of blog posts when Steve stepped down from the CEO position, a move that few mistook as anything but a sign that his health was very, very bad. I was, to tell the truth, a little angry about all the accolades begin showered on Mr. Jobs. It wasn't that I didn't feel that the praise was very well deserved; I just wondered where all this sentiment was for all his years at Apple, and during his time away. The fire was there all the time, but many felt the need to belittle it or write it off as some kind of fringe behavior.

It was obvious to many of us that Steve and the products he talked so persuasively about were something special, and that he would, in fact, change the way we use computers, the way we listen to music, the things we can do on the phone, and the way we think of animated movies. (Yes--that little company called Pixar was Steve, too.)

Now since this is primarily a blog about customer service, I would be remiss if I did not point out how important customers were in Steve's mind. Don't think so? Take a look at his 1997 Macworld Expo keynote  and pay extra close attention at around  22:30. Steve says that Apple's customers are its most important core asset, reveals that he calls the support line himself, and doesn't like being kept on hold. One of the very first things Steve did at the beginning of the monumental task of turning Apple around was to focus on customers. I remember it, because I was there, as I so often was. I developed immense respect for the brand and its champions, the greatest of whom was Mr. Jobs. 

And let's not forget one of the other big things: Steve changed the way we present, if we present well. I've had the pleasure to see many great speakers, but no one ever came close to Steve doing one of his keynotes. His beautifully simple slide shows (using Apple's Keynote, so please don't call them "PowerPoint") showed me the great value of using white type on a dark background: The words themselves give out the light your eyes are seeking, and so you are drawn to the words, not some fancy background. Brilliant, and all presenters (and corporate template designers) should take note. Combining Steve's low-key, dark clothing and incredible persuasive power, Steve's talks were amazing.

Some years ago, I heard Sting say that the definition of charisma was the ability to stand still and silent and hold people's attention. Steve had it.
I was lucky enough to be associated with Apple through the Apple Solution Experts and Apple Consultants Network. Before OS X arrived, I was a beta tester, and went through OS X "boot camp" in advance of its public release. I often worked the Apple Help Desk at Macworld, along with other ACN members. When Apple started issuing technical certifications, I was one of the first to earn "ACTC" - Apple Certified Technical Coordinator. I was also an Apple User Groups Northeast Regional Liaison, and was talking in 2003, as this writeup from Macworld shows, about what is now called "social IT" - having user groups as a first line of contact to resolve questions and issues before picking up the phone to anyone else.

Were it not for Mr. Jobs, I might not have been part of the great Apple community and would not have been thinking along those lines. I'm no longer a professional "Mac Geek" but I will always be partial to the design and function of Apple's technology, driven from the insight of Steve Jobs.

I have no doubt that Steve Jobs changed the world, because he certainly helped to change mine, and that's all I have to go by. Thank you, Steve.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Customer Relationship Management: What Does Your Favorite Restaurant Know About You?

I first heard the buzz about a “customer service” saga I’ll call The Steakhouse and Mr S (goodness knows everyone concerned has had enough publicity) from one of the frequent participants of the Tuesday evening #custserv chat on Twitter, suggesting that we discuss the episode. We didn’t, the main reason being that there already was a topic selected. As the week went on, I started seeing more and more about the episode, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. But probably not in the way you’re guessing.

“The Steakhouse must have a great CRM system!” I saw on blogs and in tweets more than once. And what stopped me in my tracks was the notion that restaurants are using customer relationship management (CRM) systems to track transactions in a central way. Now, I’m a fairly savvy guy and I’m all for good CRM, and I understand that we give something up to get something back. When I get my little bar code scanned at the local supermarket, I know that what I buy, how often, where, and how much is all being tracked. In return for providing this information, I get some money off my purchase, and I get coupons that can be used on the items I actually buy. I understand the quid pro quo. Likewise any other loyalty programs I belong to.

But here’s where things get interesting: Nowhere in the many aspects of the saga of The Steakhouse and Mr S (that I’ve seen) has there been any indication that Mr S carries any kind of loyalty card, or is the member of some club. Nowhere on The Steakhouse website is there any mention of such a program or card. So, if The Steakhouse had enough information to track Mr S as a frequent customer, where did they get it? And, more importantly, what, exactly, do they do with it?

Let’s back up a bit: When I chose to get a loyalty card from the supermarket, I had a form to fill out. I knew what information I was giving. And on that form was a privacy statement, letting me know what the supermarket chain was stating they would and would not do with that information (albeit as we know from too many breaches of customer data, what’s stated is not always the case). If there’s no “loyalty card” for The Steakhouse, where did the information come from—right down to his Twitter handle? Let’s think.
  • Directly from Mr S – Well, yes. That’s exactly where they got it. Even if this was not a “stunt,” chances are Mr S gave his favorite restaurant his personal information. If not, that leaves the question at hand unanswered. But where did the rest of the restaurants in the chain get it? Did Mr S know they would?
  • From Mr S’s phone number – Really? How? Does the phone number for which I’m sometimes (not always) asked when I make a reservation trigger a process that gives a restaurant chain permission to look me up (“Google” me?) and store information about me? And I still find this an unsatisfactory explanation. Usually I’m asked for a name (“Roy”) and a phone number. Unless your magic CRM allows you to do reverse lookup on mobile numbers and associate them with Twitter handles, this does not wash. 
  • From the unthinkable - Would a restaurant grab personal information from my credit card? (I’m trying very hard not to think about that one.)
OK, so let’s take it for granted that restaurants, at least the chains, are using—or starting to use—some  kind of central CRM, and that they are gathering information from somewhere, somehow.

  • Was I notified that information was being collected?
  • Was I notified what information was being collected?
  • Was I notified how it was being collected?
  • Do I have any idea how the information is being used?
  • Do I know who is responsible for maintaining the security of my PII (personally identifiable information)? Do they adhere to NIST guidance?

Honestly, I don’t even know the names of the parent companies that own some of the restaurants I go to, so I would not know who to contact to find out what PII they store and how. Nor do I have the kind of time it would take to chase down that information.
When we sign up for services, there is either a printed notice or a link to a privacy policy that states the answers to these questions. I’ve yet to be asked to read and accept the privacy statement at any restaurant I’ve ever been to, unless I was joining some kind of program (which I have not, in the case of restaurants).

I’ll be going to a couple of restaurants this coming week during some travel. Maybe I’ll use a pseudonym when I call, and then pay in cash. Don't meet me at the airport, thanks.

What’s your reaction?

Give it some thought.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

It's a Cooperative Effort

Because I've been involved in customer service and support for a good portion of my life, people I know tend to tell me their best and worst stories. The other day, I was having dinner with my friend and mentor—let's call her Barb. She is one of the smartest people I know, but not super-savvy when it comes to computers. It's not unusual to get an email from Barb with the subject "Help!" and I am always delighted to lend a hand or point her in the right direction to get the assistance she needs.

The other evening, Barb told me about an experience she'd had very recently at a hotel. She was having a devilish time getting her iPad to connect to the hotel's wireless Internet service. She tried getting help from the front desk, but they ran out of suggestions rapidly. They are paid to get customers into and out of the hotel quickly and easily, and take care of their needs as guests—not as technical support people. So Barb called the toll-free number listed on a card in her room for assistance with wireless.

Barb told me that the man who answered her call was polite and patient, and asked her a series of questions about where (exactly) she was, and of course what type of device she was using. Barb told me that he seemed to know more about how to navigate the settings of the iPad than she did, talking her into the exact panel he needed her to look at. While she maneuvered through the settings, she touched the wrong thing a couple of times, meaning that she had to get back to where she was before she could proceed. Her patient assistant stayed right with her. She, on the other hand, was feeling rather inadequate and, to put it the way she did, stupid.

At last, she got to where she needed to be, and the tech support person asked her to read him the device's  hardware address, a specific identifier for the network interface on any network-connected device. When she had read it to him, the tech said some very magic words:

"Thank you for helping me."

Barb told me that her whole mood changed at that exact moment. It was then that she realized that this was  a cooperative effort in problem solving. She didn't need to feel inadequate; she only needed to answer some question and describe the results to the tech. They were working as a team to accomplish a goal.

The iPad was quickly on the network, Barb's email was flowing, and the tech earned a big thank you from her.

In your interactions, whatever they are, can you think of a way to make it a cooperative effort?

Give it some thought.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Not Just a Button, Not Just a Number

As I read a recent post by John Custy about "buying" customer service ratings I also thought of how many companies make the mistake of looking only at some number without putting it in the proper context. "We need to get 9's for customer service" is not the same thing as "We need to offer excellent customer service." So many organizations make the mistake of thinking of Customer Service in the same way they think of, say, quarterly sales projections. Providing good service that keeps customers coming back is difficult to measure at best. Although customer surveys are mostly created carefully and analyzed by experts in the field, customers are basing their feedback largely on feelings. "It took longer than I expected" may not mean the same to me as it does to you. "The salesperson wasn't nice" may be based on a completely different set of expectations for two different customers. (I usually don't like a whole lot of extraneous chat while I'm making a purchase. Other people may perceive chat as being more personable.)

This past week, I spent a couple of days at a hotel that was smack in the middle of a Customer Service campaign. For whatever reason, their survey team chose 7 as their top rating, and all the employees had buttons with a star and the number 7 on them. (Every time I see employee buttons, I think of the famous "15 pieces of flair" scene in the movie Office Space.) I thought, "Oh boy, here we go. I'm going to be very sick of the number 7 before I get out of here." I was completely wrong.

Every single employee I passed in the hallways greeted me with a smile and a hello. Housekeeping was careful not to disturb me while I was working, but quickly made up my room while I was out of it briefly. Even though the hotel dates back to the 1920's, it was impeccably clean and comfortable.

My friend and I wanted to go to a top rated restaurant a short distance from the hotel, and I stopped at the front desk to have them call a taxi. "Oh, we'll take you, sir," the clerk cheerfully said. The hotel shuttle took us to the door of the restaurant, and the driver gave us his cell phone number, so that we could reach him to come back. When we called, he appeared within a few minutes and asked us how we enjoyed our meal. (It had been delicious, by the way, and never once were we interrupted by a waitperson asking how we were doing. Water glasses were refilled silently, and the waitstaff knew exactly when we were ready for a glass of wine or our coffee—because they were paying real attention.)

Throughout my stay, every indication was that all the employees were really attentive and focused on making sure my stay was pleasant and comfortable.

They weren't asking for 7's—they were delivering 10's.

Does your organization focus only on the numbers when you consider Customer Service, or do you create a culture of Customer Focus that shines through the actions of all the employees?

Give it some thought.

Disclaimer: I am employed by the company that published the post by John Custy.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Customer Focus, and Not

It was a fairly typical Saturday afternoon. My spouse and I usually do our grocery shopping on Saturday, and so plan whatever other errands "in town" for the same time. Yesterday, it was library book returns, three local stores, and getting batteries replaced in a couple of watches.

One of the jewelry stores in town is a completely local operation: One store only, and mostly custom made things. We've had a couple of repairs done there before, and they are always courteous and helpful. It's right down the street from the library, so as Spousal Unit (a she likes to be called) returned her books, I walked over to the jewelers. Now, we're not big on Valentine's Day, but a lot of people are, apparently. The store was mobbed. I waited, after being nicely acknowledged, for about two minutes, and one of the nice folks was assisting me. They looked at what I had, and said, "I can't promise them for you today, but we'll do our best. We are open tomorrow, too." I said I would call before we finished up our local errands, and would stop back, but there was no rush on my part. I went up to the library to catch up to SU.

We went on our rounds, including a local liquidation store where we often find great bargains. She found a very inexpensive wooden gift box of postcards, but it had no price. We headed over to the Customer Service desk to see if we could find out how much they cost. (The store doesn't use barcode prices, believe it or not, and there was no little red tag on the box.) As we waited, I looked at the signs posted in the Customer Service alcove. They all began, "Our policy..." or "Store policy..." and there was invariably a "not allow" somewhere. The woman behind the counter was nice enough, and we found the price and purchased the item. But I kept thinking about those signs, and how they reminded me of "Keep Out" and "No Tresspassing." It all sounded like "Stay away, you customers! Don't ask us to help you!"

After our other errands were completed, I called the jeweler back, and he was just finishing up the watch batteries. We went back to the store and I picked them up. It was all personal. I could not find a "store policy" sign anywhere.

Nice job, I thought on the way home. That's Customer Focus.

What messages are you sending your customers?

Give it some thought.

I'll be speaking about a framework for Customer Service Excellence in Las Vegas on April 1.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

3 Characteristics of Great Customer Service Companies

In January 2010, I posted about my sense that Customer Service become increasingly important as a differentiator—separating your business from the rest of the pack—especially with regard to customer loyalty and retention.

This January, I'm going to make a quick review of some of the characteristics that companies with great Customer Service appear to have in common.

First, a Culture of Customer Service. By that I mean a company culture infused with the thought that serving customers is a primary mission of the organization and its employees. This culture is not restricted to the Customer Service department (if there is one), but rather that each employee understands her/his contribution to the providing of good products or services as well as backing up the delivery of those products or services with excellent support. This culture recognizes the business fact that it is less expensive to retain customers than to gain customers, and encourages loyalty by focusing on getting customers what they need to have a long, happy and mutually beneficial relationship with the company.

SecondEmpowered Employees. This doesn't mean that employees can act unilaterally and impose their will on the company. It does mean that employees have a clear understanding of what they can do to help customers, and that they have been given the mission to provide great service. The employees' course of action is not defined by instructions telling them what they can't and shouldn't do, but rather what they can and should. Employees feel valued and respected, and make customers fell the same way.

Third, that there are Clear Feedback Channels. This means that customers have unobstructed ways to give the company their opinions, complaints and praise. There is little more frustrating than trying to give a company a compliment and having to jump through labyrinthine websites or phone trees to do so.

What do you think makes some companies—local, national, brick or click—real standouts on Customer Service? Drop me a comment.

Give it some thought.