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Tips for Companies with Remote Workers

Earlier this week I talked about some of the advantages and disadvantages of hiring remote workers for companies. Today I am going to discuss some tips, tools, and the like for owners or managers of companies with remote employees.

  • Read. I suggest this a lot. Read some blogs (like this one, this one, and/or this one) and have your remote employees read them too. They provide tips, advice, tools, and more about how to work either remotely or in general. Definitely some good advice and cool things are discussed there.
  • Use some sort of software. A lot of companies like software such as Basecamp (I prefer the completely free, self-hosted activeCollab, personally) to help manage projects. They use Skype, and other messengers to communicate and often have a company chatroom going. 37signals (who make Basecamp) uses their chat product, Campfire and says it really helps them communicate and get things done.
  • Get employees a computer. I think that it is a good idea to get your remote employees a computer that they can use exclusively for their remote work. Get a cheap one from Dell or HP and install monitoring software on it. Tell employees that the computer is only for work, must be returned if they leave the company, and that it has monitoring software on it that watches X, Y, and Z.

    Having a dedicated computer that watches for things like viruses, spyware, is pre-installed with necessary programs, and is all setup and ready to go is a good way to ensure employees are working most efficiently and not posing a risk to your company.

  • Upgrade their Internet. Before hiring a remote employee, have them do an Internet speed test and see what their Internet speed is. Ask them if their ISP has any faster options. If they do, pay for the upgrade. It will likely be worth it. Another good thing to do is to ensure your company has a dialup account or two that employees can use in case their Internet goes down. 
  • Buy them a phone and a headset. Depending on the setup of your IVR software, you may not have the ability for remote employees to pick up the phone. If they can, though, buy them a good phone and a headset they can use. Even if they can’t pick up the phone, it may be wise to buy them a cellphone they can use for calling customers, co-workers, etc.
  • Support employees. Be sure to provide customer service to your remote employees as well. Have a technical person that they can ask questions, someone they can communicate with if they have job related questions, etc. Have guides for using the software, telephone numbers they can call, and all of those things.

On the subject of remote workers, this is an interesting post about MyBlogLog, which is essentially a virtual company that has been sold to Yahoo. The founders met on LinkedIn and have worked mostly virtually since the company was founded.

Here is an interesting post about the 10 Best (and 10 Worst) Companies for Call Center Service. I will talk about it more this week.

I also came across this post from GetHuman last night. As I pointed out, there were very few A’s in their rankings. In fact, only 1.80% of the companies on their list received an A rating. Only 4.01% received a B. 84.37% got an F. Pretty bad, isn’t it?

Steve Jobs is doing the big keynote for Apple today. I wonder how the customer service will be in their stores after he announces the oh-so-expected iPhone and whatever else. I imagine the stores, the phone lines, and the web site will be awfully crowded, slow, and likely, frustrating. We’ll see!

Adify Customer Service Experience

I recently joined the Washington Post Blogroll and had a good customer service experience with their advertising partner, Adify. The whole process of entering any sort of advertising arrangement can be quite confusing, especially for people not familiar with all of the terms.

After some questions via email and the phone to the guy at the Washington Post I decided to sign up for the blogroll, which also includes the account at their advertising partner, Adify. I signed in to Adify and was somewhat confused by some of the terms and how to do certain things. The guy at the Washington Post said that my questions were getting a bit beyond his level and said he would have the technical manager from Adify call me.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the lady from Adify called me. She introduced herself and was very nice. I asked my questions and gave her my requests. As I was talking, she was working on fixing it. There was no dead air or anything of that sort, she addressed me by name a few times, knew the answers to all of my questions, and was quite helpful. I was impressed by the company’s customer service.

There was even a little humor (though I don’t think she was kidding) – I asked if she had a direct line and she gave me her BlackBerry number and said “I have it with me at all times.” Talk about dedication!

I still had one thing needed to be done. She told me she would be able to do it, but there was no need for me to stay on the phone while she did it. The lady said it’d take a few minutes, but wasn’t a big deal. I hung up. A few minutes later I got an email from her saying she was on a call, but would be doing it soon. An hour or so later I got an email saying it had been done and sure enough, it was done (correctly).

This experience, much like my experience at Tumi was not phenomenal in the sense that she went way above and beyond, completed some customer service miracle, or anything of the sort. It was a great experience, though, because she did what was expected and did it well. Unfortunately, this isn’t terribly common, which is why experiences like this are such a pleasant surprise.

Remote Workers

I often encourage my consulting clients to embrace the possibility of a remote workforce. There are advantages to working in the office and I admit that. However, there are plenty of advantages to hiring remote workers.

I am certain there have been studies done on this that lay out the advantages and disadvantages in a very scientific matter, but here are some of the things I can think of off the top of my head.

Advantages:

  • Happier employees. Many employees are happier when they are at home. Call centers can sometimes be rather depressing and certainly not fun places to be. They are quite often loud and many people who work in them feel that they are just a widget in a machine.
  • Bigger talent pool. When you expand the geography to almost anywhere in the country/world, you have a lot more people to pick from when hiring.
  • Cheaper. You can usually pay employees who work from home a bit less than your in-office employees. If your office is in an expensive area (i. e. NY, LA, San Francisco), the cost of living is likely much higher, and usually wages have to reflect that. In addition to saving on wages, you don’t have to pay for office space, furniture, etc.

Disadvantages:

  • Harder to monitor. It usually harder to monitor productivity and how many hours someone is putting in when they work from home. There are plenty of ways, but it is more difficult than monitoring in-house employees.
  • Possible problems. Internet can go out, power can go out, computers get viruses, etc. These things can all happen in-house too, but when they happen with a remote worker, it is usually quite frustrating for everyone.
  • Communication. If your company does not have a lot of and/or isn’t used to remote employees, communication may be difficult.

Some people argue that there is no replacement to face-to-face meetings and I generally agree that face-to-face meetings are helpful. However, I think remote employees can be very effective at what they do and a very good addition to any team. Many customers deal with companies remotely (i. e. only phone/Internet), so why shouldn’t the employees get used to working that way?

As with any position or job, the level of success is very much dependent on the person hired.

Going Above and Beyond

I read an article today about companies going above and beyond with their customer service. Doing so is something I have talked about before (see search here), but not in much detail.

So what is going above and beyond (I usually call it going the extra mile)? To me, it is doing more than expected and wowing the customer that way. It is a great way to make the customer service experience go from acceptable to great and to make customers happy.  It’s very hard to teach someone how to go above and beyond and how often people do it varies a lot from person to person. However, there are some things you can do:

  • Make going above and beyond part of your company’s culture. Publish stories about going above and beyond, send feedback from customers in the employee newsletter or post it on the staff blog,  and make all of your employees aware of going above and beyond.
  • Give employees the power to do so. In companies where employees have very limited power or authority, it is very tough for them to go above and beyond all the time. Make policies flexible and try to live by a general rule (i. e. “Use your best judgment”) instead of a whole set of specific rules and regulations.
  • Recognize employees. When employees do go above and beyond, recognize them for it. Have an annual award ceremony where employees get prizes, mention them in the company newsletter, whatever it happens to be – make sure to recognize employees for going above and beyond.
  • Make it part of your company’s operating procedures. Remember the series on service calls? It had a lot of examples of going above and beyond being right in the company’s operating procedures. It is things like that that also encourage individual employees to go above and beyond.

A good way to see how you can go above and beyond is to map out the various processes of your business and/or a function of it (like ordering a product). Examine each process and ask yourself “How can we make this better?” Solicit help from customers, employees, friends, consultants, whoever and go through and ask “how can we make this better?” Don’t look only in your industry – look where people are delivering great customer service on a consistent basis.

Once you find out what you can make better, go ahead and start doing it. Then, you’ll notice more and more employees going the extra mile and more and more customers thinking your company’s customer service is great and not just acceptable.

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Handling Customer Service Issues – Part 2 of 2

Ah, the generic PR-issued corporate statements. Some of them are rather interesting and most of them make almost no sense. If they do make sense, they usually aren’t related to what happened. Here are three examples from Microsoft about a patent issue with Novell:

“Microsoft and Novell have agreed to disagree on whether certain open source offerings infringe Microsoft patents and whether certain Microsoft offerings infringe Novell patents. The agreement between our two companies puts in place a workable solution for customers for these issues, without requiring an agreement between our two companies on infringement.

“Both of our companies are fully committed to moving forward with all of the important work under these agreements. The agreements will advance interoperability between Windows and Linux and put in place a new intellectual property bridge between proprietary and open source software. Customers and participants throughout our industry will clearly benefit from these results.

“We at Microsoft respect Novell’s point of view on the patent issue, even while we respectfully take a different view. Novell is absolutely right in stating that it did not admit or acknowledge any patent problems as part of entering into the patent collaboration agreement. At Microsoft we undertook our own analysis of our patent portfolio and concluded that it was necessary and important to create a patent covenant for customers of these products. We are gratified that such a solution is now in place.”

I like the one that says the two companies have agreed to disagree.

By the way, these are not obscure things I tried to find. My search term? Simply: “Microsoft statement”. I know Microsoft is a big company so I tried them to see what statements they give. These are just so thought out and so corporate – and there is room for companies to improve.

Here is a statement I would give:

“Microsoft and Novell have not been able to come to an agreement as to whether certain open source offerings infringe upon Microsoft patents and whether certain Microsoft offerings infringe upon Novell patents. Our additional agreement’s purpose is to put a workable solution in place for both company’s customers.”

I am not even sure if that is factually correct compared to the original statements, but I think it is somewhat close. Some tips for statements:

  • Try to use plain language (no complex words or terms, statements like “have agreed to disagree”, etc.).
  • Make the statements longer if it is necessary to make it easier to understand. Being too brief may confuse people.
  • Use enough pronouns to avoid sounding like a robot (i. e. Microsoft and Novell could say “we”), but don’t use too many.
  • Never accuse a customer. They may be dead wrong in the situation, but never accuse them. If you have to say something like “We understand the customer’s concerns and frustrations, but we do believe the customer’s story may be exaggerated.”
  • If you make a mistake, admit it.
  • Tell what happened that caused the mistake.
  • Tell what you did to fix the mistake.
  • Tell the readers what you are doing to prevent the mistake from happening.
  • Be honest.

Here is an example that I came up with for when a company missed something very obvious in a computer repair (based on something I read about):

“Company XYZ repairs thousands of computers per day. Due to our volume, we occasionally do miss a problem and sometimes do not find the best solution to the problem as quickly as we would like. In this situation, we dropped the ball and are not happy with ourselves for doing so. We have provided our sincere apologies to the concerned customer and are constantly working to further improve the quality level for the repairs we do at Company XYZ.”

The statement is honest, provides information that is actually useful, and does not use any weird lingo. Of course, the types of statement vary greatly from issue to issue and company to company.

Handling Customer Service Issues – Part 1 of 2

An area where company after company seems to mess up is handling the PR side of customer service issues. I know there are at least a few PR people who read Service Untitled, so pay attention!

The story usually goes like this:

  1. Customer does something that isn’t in the script.
  2. Company messes up.
  3. Customer gets mad.
  4. Company doesn’t do anything (right).
  5. Customer gets even more mad.
  6. Customer makes blog post about it, tells other people, etc.
  7. Company ignores.
  8. A few people read it.
  9. Company continues to ignore.
  10. If it’s a good one, it gets more mainstream attention (i. e. first page of digg).
  11. Many companies continue to ignore.
  12. If it is a really good one (like the AOL one), it gets mainstream media attention (ABC News, etc.).
  13. PR firm is enlisted.
  14. PR man/woman learns what a blog is.
  15. PR man/woman tells company to issue some worthless, generic statement.
  16. Readers/listeners/bloggers laugh at previously mentioned worthless, generic statement.
  17. Customer service disaster eventually blows over.

That is how it usually seems to be. Depending on the company and how much they monitor the blogosphere, some of the steps may be in a slightly different order. Many will respond much earlier, which usually helps quite a bit. However, the amount of companies that will respond before it gets on ABC News is more limited than one would think.

In a recent book I read there was a quote from the founder of Neiman Marcus that said “the road to success is paved with well handled mistakes.” I have heard and read a fair number of quotes about how important it is to properly deal with mistakes and I couldn’t agree more.

Here are some tips on how to deal with a situation like the one above. It is the entire process, but with my additional comments/suggestions in the brackets [].

  1. Customer does something that isn’t in the script. [Come up with a corporate and customer service philosophy that empowers employees to make decisions if something doesn’t go 100% as planned. Nordstrom has “use your best judgement”, Geek Squad has something along the lines of “protect our reputation.”]
  2. Company messes up. [Remember, the road to success is paved with well handled mistakes. Consider long term customer value instead of just that one situation.]
  3. Customer gets mad. [See above.]
  4. Company doesn’t do anything (right). [Ask the customer what he or she wants to resolve the issue. Often their suggestion will be less extravagant, and often more helpful, than what you were thinking. If you ask them, there is no room for error.]
  5. Customer gets even more mad. [Can easily be avoided with above step.]
  6. Customer makes blog post about it, tells other people, etc. [Everyone can blog now. It isn’t hard and more blogs than you would think have an actual audience of some size or another. They will be sure tell their friends about their less than perfect experience, and maybe even contact a few existing blogs and media sources to try and get the story covered.]
  7. Company ignores. [Monitor what people say about your company! Use Google Alerts, hire someone to do it, whatever.]
  8. A few people read it. [Best to get to the issue early.]
  9. Company continues to ignore. [See above.]
  10. If it’s a good one, it gets more mainstream attention (i. e. first page of digg). [If you have already dealt with it, chances are the damage will be minimal. If you haven’t, you look bad. Comment wherever the story appears.]
  11. Many companies continue to ignore. [I am assuming by this point you aren’t still ignoring the issue.]
  12. If it is a really good one (like the AOL one), it gets mainstream media attention (ABC News, etc.).  [Start writing your statements and be ready to send out lots of “We’re sorry” credits and such.]
  13. PR firm is enlisted. [Hire a PR firm that “gets it.” Your PR people need to know what blogs are, how important they are, how to deal with them, etc. Consider thinking outside the box and hiring a customer service consultant, having it dealt with internally by an executive, etc.]
  14. PR man/woman learns what a blog is. [See above.]
  15. PR man/woman tells company to issue some worthless, generic statement. [Tomorrow’s post will be about how to avoid worthless, generic statements.]
  16. Readers/listeners/bloggers laugh at previously mentioned worthless, generic statement. [See above.]
  17. Customer service disaster eventually blows over. [You hope!]

It isn’t hard when you think about it and actually work on it. Tomorrow’s post will be about how to write statements that aren’t bad and people actually don’t throw up at slightly when they hear.

You and Customer Service at Parties

Happy New Year’s! This is the first post of 2007.

While this is much more of an etiquette issue than a customer service one, I thought I would provide some brief customer service tips for those of you who may be attending a New Year’s Day party tonight (as I am).

  • Bring a gift. Unless asked specifically not to, bring something. Some appropriate gifts include a bottle of wine, a dessert, a box of chocolates, or something similar.
  • Offer to help. When you arrive, talk for a few minutes and than go to the host or hostess and offer to help. If they accept and ask you to do something, do it. If they everything is okay, accept that and tell him if they need any help later, you will be around.
  • If you leave. If you leave to refill your drink, get more food, etc., offer to get it for the people you are talking to that are immediately around you. Something like “I’m going to get some more food. Does anyone want me to bring them anything?” Most people won’t ask for you to bring a seven course meal to them, so it usually isn’t too much heavy lifting.
  • Be polite. Be polite when asking people to move if they are in your way (excuse me, please), when getting food (use the utensils provided – if there are none, try to touch as little as possible or find something to use), when talking to waitstaff, etc. Being polite will take you a long way.
  • Watch. Watch a few things: where you park (don’t want to get blocked in or block anyone in), how much you drink (no explanation needed), and any valuables you have (it is quite awkward to claim something of yours was stolen at your friend’s party).
  • Have fun. Remember, it is a party after all! Have some fun.

Happy New Year’s from Service Untitled!

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