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Holiday Cards

Yes. I know.

I realize it is six days before Christmas and we already are four days into Hanukkah (I think). No one said customer service bloggers have to be on top of things 100% – better late than never, right? Actually, you can use this guide quite effectively for next year or for future holidays.

First of all, unless you are almost positive about what religion someone celebrates (as in: they have told you what their plans for Christmas are, etc. – not by last name, appearance, etc.), stick to something more generic like Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings. Happy Holidays, to me at least, is somewhat more personable. Season’s Greeting is very professional.

Secondly, if you are using a regular card template, be sure to actually handwrite something on the card besides your name. Some suggestions include:

  • Happy Holidays to you and your family.
  • I wish you and your family a very happy and safe holiday season.
  • It was a pleasure making your acquaintance (and/or working with you) in 2006.
  • Have a very happy holiday.
  • Thank you for your help and advice. Have a very happy and safe holiday season.
  • Thank you for your business in 2006. We look forward to serving you in 2007.
  • etc.

These are just some suggestions that I have heard and seen over the last few weeks. There are tons of others – be somewhat creative and try to personalize it somewhat. What you say varies on the relationship type (client, boss, friend, family member, etc.) and your personality. Some people are more bubbly than others and what you write should reflect your personality (to make the card seem personal and not ultra-generic).

Send the holiday cards out by mail if you have the person’s address. If you don’t, send it out via email. There are lots of sites you can use to send e-cards and they work just fine – just make sure it is a trustworthy site that won’t spam you. I used to have a link to a good site for it, but unfortunately, I can’t seem to find it. If you have any suggestions for good sites, please do post them in the comments.

On another note, this post at Linehacker talks about how to politely decline a holiday card. Some ideas:

  • Simply accept the card (this is the customer service thing to do)
  • Suggest sending the card to a troop overseas
  • Send e-cards instead

Personally, I believe if someone offers to send you a card, accept it. They want to make the effort to send it to you and show they care enough to ask you, so accept it.

This is a good post from Slacker Manager about how to write a holiday card to your staff. It can be applied to other relationships as well and is definitely helpful.

The thank you note.

Thank you notes are a somewhat tricky thing. While I am no etiquette consultant, I do know roughly what a thank you note should consist of in a business situation. Clients, co-workers, employees, etc. may to you or your company as a holiday gift, a “good job” thanks, or whatever. In the companies I have worked with, it isn’t terribly common, but it does happen.

If someone takes the time to send you something, something you have to do is thank them for it. Though they may not send it in order to get the thank you card, it is certainly nice to hear that you appreciate their time, money, and effort. Sending fits, quite frankly, is a pain and anyone who sends them probably puts some amount of effort into it.

Some things that a thank you note should include:

  • Personalized greeting (Dear Bob Bobsen, Hi Betty!, etc.). Including the last name is arguable. I personally think it makes the greeting less personalized.
  • Optional: Acknowledge you received the gift (and approximately when).
  • The words thank you or thanks.
  • An acknowledgement about what the gift was.
  • An extra bit about the gift to make it more personalized.
  • A sentence related to the occasion (i. e. Happy Holidays, We are glad you are a client, etc.).
  • A relatively informal closing.

Here is an example. Say my client (who we will call <CLIENT>) sent me a nice box of chocolates for Christmas.

Dear <CLIENT>,

I received your gift yesterday and wanted to extend my gratitude to you for sending it. I really like chocolate (<brand of the box I was sent> is actually my favorite type!) and am sure I will enjoy this box of them. Thank you so much for sending it!

I wish you and your family a very happy and safe holiday.

Yours truly,

Many people believe a thank you note should be handwritten and sent over the mail. I am kind of down the middle with this. Personally, I have extremely bad hand writing and I imagine trying to read the note would frustrate the person. I am personally for sending it via the usual methods of communication (i. e. email). It is definitely nice to send handwritten thank you note, assuming both options are available to you (good handwriting and the physical address of the sender).

This template has worked relatively well for me. It isn’t foolproof and it isn’t what the etiquette book I own suggests (I don’t have the book with me right now, but I will talk about what it says this week), but it certainly works.

Whatever you do, just make sure to send a thank you note! Even you don’t like the gift, thank the person for their time and effort (do not tell them your thoughts, unless positive, about the gift). Send the note within 24 hours of receiving whatever the person sends you and remember to be sincere.

The Big List of Things Not to Say

In early November, I said I was working on The Big List of Things Not to Say.

Well, here it is. I’ve taken the time to go through quite a few posts, organize, and add to a long list of things that bloggers and their readers suggested that customer service representatives not say.

The Big List of Things Not to Say is available in PDF form completely free. It contains an introduction, about 15 phrases with alternatives suggestions and explanations, and more.

Since everyone has different browser settings and such, here is an easy way to download the file:

  1. Go to http://www.serviceuntitled.com/downloads.
  2. Click the file titled “NotToSay.pdf”.
  3. Click Save and save the document to your Desktop or a folder of your choice.
  4. Open the file using Adobe Acrobat Reader or Foxit Reader (my personal favorite).
  5. Read and enjoy!

If clicking the file does not work, you may need to right click it and choose an option like “Save Target As”. One of those two ways seems to work on pretty much every computer.

You are free (and encouraged) to distribute the article around to friends and colleagues – just ensure you follow the terms outlined at the end (basically, don’t remove anything). The article will hopefully be helpful to you and/or people within your company.

There will be many more downloadable PDF articles on customer service available on Service Untitled in the upcoming months. Now that the Big List of Things Not to Say has been released, I expect I will go through some old posts and pick out the “gems” and make those available as PDFs as well.

I’d like to extend a special thanks to the following people who helped out by contributing “things not to say”, their alternatives, ideas, and suggestions:

Thanks again and please do enjoy the article! If you any questions, comments, or concerns, please let me know.

Customer Service in Unexpected Places

The typical post for a title like this would be me talking about how I went to some store that you usually don’t expect good customer service at and having a very positive customer service experience.

My experience was actually talking to an executive at a Fortune 100 company that isn’t particularly known for customer service (at least not on a Nordstrom-like level). The company isn’t bad, but it’s not great, either (at least as far as I knew). This executive worked at a another company that was acquired by the big company and a big part of his job now is improving the customer service at this very large company.

Him and I spoke for quite a while about what the company was doing to improve its customer service. We talked about things ranging from the big picture of customer service to very, very small details that they were working on. I realized a few minutes into the conversation that this guy really did care about customer service and that he really was working hard on improving the company’s customer service.

That is what the funny thing about talking to people within companies is. You will often be surprised about the differences between the company as a whole (or what it seems externally) and the one executive. I am prepared to bet that a majority of companies (big companies, at least) have one or more executives that truly do care about customer service. They care about it a lot and want to make their companies customer service leaders.

The executive at the company I spoke with put me under the impression that the big company is trying to improve their customer service. However, with the scale they are working at, it’s tough and quite complicated. A little change can cost millions of dollars and change the way thousands of people do their jobs.

A majority of my posts are targeted at small to medium sized company, but don’t think they can’t be applied on a larger scale. If you are an executive at a big company and see something I talk about that interests you and want more details so you can try to apply it on a large scale, send me an email and we can talk about it. I’m more than happy to talk with you about implementing these things on a large scale.

The problem is that the management doesn’t always to cooperate. That may be where the Executive’s (Quick) Guide to Customer Service comes in (this post is good, too), but quite frankly, it just requires a lot of hard (and persistent) work. As “that executive” who cares about customer service – don’t give up hope. Management will eventually be convinced that customer service is beneficial and the way to go. It may take some (or a lot) of convincing, but it is possible.

Out of Stock?

Now that we have moved past me relating customer service to French Revolution quotes, we’ll get to some actually useful posts.

I am quite surprised I haven’t talked about how to deal with a situation when a company is out of stock. It seems to be one of the most talked about things in customer service writings and I have barely touched it.

My most recent out of stock experience was with Macy’s. I wanted to do a lot of shopping on their web site (side note: Frango chocolates (which Macy’s owns) are really good), but when I went to look, they were sold out of almost everything good. I called them and they had a few of the items, but most were sold out.

So I can provide the best advice to my readers, I am seeking the advice of people who know a lot about this stuff. By that I mean I am pulling out my copy of Defensive Design for the Web by 37signals. It is one of my two books on web usability (the other is Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug) and both are actually quite related to customer service.

The book has an entire chapter on out of stock and unavailable items (Chapter 9) that is about 20 pages (the book is a very easy read) and provides a lot of examples, tips, and advice. Here are their four guidelines:

  1. Be upfront about item unavailability.
  2. If a product will be available at a later date, explain when, provide product details, and take advance orders.
  3. Offer email notification.
  4. Show similar items that are available.

The rules are quite upfront. And so are the examples.

  • Amazon (usually the leader in the relatively perfect e-commerce experience) tells people right away that items are out of stock and provides alternatives, dates when it will be available, as well as an option to order the item when it becomes available.
  • Land’s End (also a leader) does the same. It allows you to backorder the item quite easily and also shows similar items.
  • Some online stores provide an option for you to be added to an email notification list that will notify you when the item becomes available.

None of these things are particularly hard to and quite useful. I believe that Macy’s actually did all of these things (minus the email notification), though I am not 100% sure. When I went back to the site, the out of stock items weren’t listed on the page. When they were, though, I was given an option to order them and such.

What you really should try to do, though, is predict when you will need and how many of the items and stock accordingly. This isn’t exactly easy, but if you know you have a business that will have increased demand during the holidays and you normally get 15% more orders per year during the holidays and have been growing 5% per year, stock accordingly. The math isn’t impossible, but it does require some guesswork and subsequent risk.

Though it may be a little late for your company this year, it isn’t for next year or for other times of high demand.

Not a revolt – a revolution.

This post will hopefully show that I have at least somewhat more “academic” intelligence than it seems. Though it may (not) seem like it, I find history quite interesting. A little history mixed with customer service. It may be a first (have to be innovative somehow). A particularly interesting time in history was the time of the French Revolution (1789 is the year it started).

There is at least a somewhat famous conversation that occurred between Louis XVI (the French king at the time) and a duke on the night of July 14, 1789. The duke came to inform Louis that the prison/fortress of Bastille had been taken over by a mob. The duke explained what had happened and here is how the last part of the conversation went:

Louis XVI: Then it’s a revolt?
Duke: No, sire, it’s a revolution.

Now, I am going to (try to) apply this quote to modern times, particularly business.

Louis didn’t understand the scale of what was happening because he was not informed. He wasn’t involved enough to understand that things weren’t going well in France and that people were upset enough (and that the problems were widespread enough) to have a revolution. The duke, however, was closer to the frontlines and realized what was happening. By the time Louis learned about what was happening, it was kind of late to fix anything (besides his mental limitations – he was supposedly quite stupid).

As an executive or manager, are you informed about what is going on in your customer service department? If you aren’t involved directly, do you talk to people who are? You need to be aware of what is happening in key departments of your company. It may be through a quick conversation with the customer service manager (“How’s customer service today?”) or by formal weekly or monthly reports.

Customer service representatives should make their bosses aware of what is happening. Supervisors should make their bosses aware. Supervisors need to make their bosses aware, and so on. That way, everyone at every level is informed about what is happening.

Mike Faith used the metaphor of the frog jumping in war. If a frog jumps in boiling water, it will notice it and jump out. If the water slowly heats up to a boil, the frog will not notice and will die, unless rescued or somehow made aware of the problem. Louis didn’t realize the scale of the problem until something sudden happened (say if the temperature suddenly jumped 40 degrees) and by then, it was too late.

What do you do to ensure that everyone stays informed about what is happening? Occasional reports only cover so much. It usually takes more than that – sometimes you need to make more of an effort (talk to people (customers and employees), read the tickets, listen to the phone calls, have consultants help audit things, etc.).

Customer Service Using Features

If you are a product manager, developer, or designer, you should try to understand that you actually have more to do with customer service than you think. Essentially, you are (partly) responsible for a large part of the customer experience, which is the product.

The limitations of the product and its supporting systems have a lot to do with the customer experience. Can it do this, but not that? Why? This is too complicated. This is so easy, but the product cannot do it. Things like that influence what the customer thinks of the product and subsequently the company.

The amount of customer service inquires almost directly correlates with how easy a product is to use and understand. Simple = few customer service inquires. Complicated = a lot of customer service inquires. Design and implementation has a lot to do with controlling that relationship.

In fairness to product managers, designers, creators, etc., they are often limited by what the company wants to give them. It may be limited by the team having a limited budget (and therefore no resources to develop such features) or by other departments (like shipping operations) not wishing to cooperate.

For example:

I have been doing a lot of online shopping over the last week or so. I’ve chosen a few places to get a majority of holiday gifts for friends, family, clients, and co-workers at and I’ve further tweaked my buying decisions based on how convenient the web site is to use and get what I need done. Here is how some of the stores stacked up:

  • Macy’s. I had intended to buy a majority of my gifts at Macy’s web site, but most of them were sold out (and not available until January) when I went to look earlier this weekend.
  • Amazon. The classic web superstore (that I use rather often) has a wide selection of a lot of items, but most of items I wanted to purchase as holiday gifts were not stocked and sold by Amazon, but their partners (which eliminated my free three day shipping, one of my perks as a “Prime” customer).
  • Starbucks. Starbucks is especially popular and a lot of people like their products, but their web site is probably one of the least flexible I have seen when it comes to buying holiday gifts. They only let you ship to one address, they have minimum orders, and a whole bunch of other things that makes the site annoying to shop at.
  • Godiva. Godiva is my new favorite online store. They make the process of shipping to multiple addresses very simple, you can buy cards to insert into packages, their payment options are flexible, and so on. The site is easy to shop at, they have a wide selection of products, and do everything you need to. Plus, they seem to have 24/7 service. Not too shabby.

See what the difference is? I am sure Starbucks has the technical capability to add the features that Godiva has, but they don’t want to. Maybe it isn’t profitable for them to do it or they don’t realize customers are unhappy.

So today’s questions to ask yourself and your customers are:

  • Does our product (web site or whatever) offer you the features you need?
  • If not, what can we do to make it so it meets your needs?

Your customers will appreciate you asking and they will likely provide some interesting suggestions and insight.

Automattic and Customer Service (and an interview)

Quite frankly, Automattic is a cool company.

They run WordPress.com, which hosts over 500,000 WordPress blogs and are largely responsbility (along with thousands of contributors) for WordPress, the popular blogging platform (which I use at Service Untitled). In addition to WordPress, they have a lot to do with bbPress, which is a bulletin board program as well as the popular spam filtering program for blogs called Akismet (which I also use at Service Untitled).

I’ve actually talked about Automattic before (mainly here) and how well they handled a wide scale outage with Akismet. I’ve heard good things about them from just reading the major blogs as well as from friends who use WordPress and Akismet on a wide scale.

I recently had a very good experience with the company. For some resaon, the Akismet on my blog just stopped working. As usual, I assumed the problem was my fault. I tried troubleshooting it, but spam kept going through.

I went over to Akismet’s site and submitted a support ticket. I didn’t expect to recieve a response, but I was wrong – within about 24 hours I recieved a response from Matt Mullenweg (who is the founding developer of WordPress) telling me there was a problem with the key I was using, that it had been fixed, and to contact him if the problem kept on happening. Boom, it was fixed. Not one spam has gotten through to my comments since. Impressive, eh?

To add to this post I have an interview with Toni Schneider, who is the CEO of Automattic. A former executive at Yahoo, he joined Automattic earlier this year (January 2006) and provided some great answers to my questions.

Question 1: How do you think blogging has affected customer service?
Answer: Blogs provide a great new way for companies to connect with their customers. Blogs are used to announce new features and upgrades, gather and respond to feedback, and generally create a better and more direct connection between companies and customers. All of those things help a great deal in improving customer service.

Question 2: Automattic provides support to more than 500,000 WordPress.com users. What challenges do you guys regularly encounter and how do you deal with them?
Answer: We’re lucky to have a tremendous primary support person with great backup from the entire Automattic team. We personally respond to everyone who needs help. The challenge is to keep doing that and to make sure the entire team stays involved in the support process. Support is a great way to stay in close touch with our customers’ needs, so it’s key that the whole team be part of it.

Question 3: What about the support that Automattic provides to enterprise users for Akismet and through your Support Network? How is that different than support to the average user? How is it similar?
Answer: Enterprise support is more technical with questions about scaling or developing plugins. Consumer support is more about the general usage of the product, how to personalize your blog or add photos, etc.

Question 4: Automattic seems to monitor the blogosphere and be very responsive to bloggers. Any tips for companies on how best to do these two things?
Answer: Two things: First is to publish a blog and be part of the conversation, that’s how you keep your finger on the pulse. Second is to have alerts and RSS feeds setup for mentions of your products and company and empower everyone on your team to respond when things come up.

Question 5: WordPress has a huge community. What suggestions do you have for companies wishing to use a community to their advantage when providing customer service?
Answer: I’d say treat your customers not as users of your product, but as collaborators in creating and supporting your product. Also, take your time and be thoughtful and respectful when building a community.

Question 6: Your company seems to be very laid back, what effect do you think this has had on the customer service you provide?
Answer: We try to keep things simple and strip away a lot of the trappings of bigger companies. When it comes to customer service this manifests itself in a few ways. For example, we try and stay away from impersonal support systems and canned or automated responses. Instead, we personally talk to our users. And we don’t think of customer service as something that should be outsourced to some other team. The people who are building a product should be in direct touch with their customers, instead of having some anonymous product manager making decisions while leaving the actual customer support and interaction to someone else.


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