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A little technology can help customer service.

I’ve worked with a lot of third party helpdesks over the last few years. They all are essentially the same, but do vary. A lot of billing systems have integrated helpdesks, but many of them aren’t too good, so companies use more powerful ones. That’s the standard setup with a lot of small to mid-sized technology companies: help desk, billing system, product. They are all separate systems. However, that presents a problem.

None of the systems are integrated. An integrated system makes things easier. The problem with many integrated systems, though, is that they either lack power or are too bloated. So, what are the advantages of an integrated system? Here’s an example:

At one company I worked with, they used a third party helpdesk, in addition to their billing system. The billing system (UberSmith) is one of my favorites for small to mid-sized companies that do recurring billing (service providers like web hosts, software subscriptions, etc.). It’s easy to use, nice looking, and functional. It has the right mix of power and simplicity.

Like many billing systems, UberSmith has an integrated help desk. In general, it’s terrible. It lacks a lot of features and I seriously doubt it could ever meet the needs of a large company. It’s just terribly inefficient and lacks a lot of options. However, there is a plus.

The system integrates client data. For example, I set it for the client so that all employees had to do was click a drop down box for “standard email” and it would automatically do something like:

Hi -first name-,

Thank you for contacting Company!




Your current balance with Company is $0.00.

The fields for first name and the balance were automatically filled with the customer’s information. This helped automatically do things that I usually try to pound instill into customer service representatives. For example, addressing the customer by name and thanking the customer for contacting the company. The balance and the signature are just nice add-ons.

Perhaps the biggest benefit, though, was that all staff members had to do to learn everything about the customer was click on the client ID. They were able to find out what services the customer had, if they paid their bill, what their login information was, any notes on the customer, and so much more. The system made it so easy that no one even complained about looking something up and had the information to start with (as opposed to just asking the customer for the information).

Customers had to login to submit a support ticket, but by doing this, the customers didn’t have to worry about account verification. I’m sure a programmer could match the emails with the client IDs and have it do the same thing via login (without login). It’s also possible to make it so clients who would rather just email support@company.com from a different email address can do that, too. It’ll take them longer, but it is still good to give customers the option.

Essentially, the system made it dead simple. And, the simplicity for all parties (staff and customer) made the customer service experience better. As a result of the nice blend of technology and customer service, there were fewer unnecessary replies, customers appreciated the little differences, and there was less time wasted. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.

Does your technology work with or against you?

Corporate Transparency

I wanted to talk about another subject related to blogging today, but will save that for another time. Too much about blogs lately, so I’m going to talk about corporate transparency. I will mention blogs, but the blogosphere will not be the main subject.

Mainly due to a Wired Magazine article and a lot of follow up blogs posts, corporate transparency has been discussed a lot lately. Many, many organizations are not transparent. Very few are transparent and even the ones that seem transparent are usually not telling you much.

There is a happy medium between too transparent and just transparent enough. A few organizations can do it and have done it fairly well. Too transparent is bad because you may reveal operating or company secrets; aggravate employees, customers, partners, and/or competitors; or something of the sort. Bigger companies risk upsetting shareholders. Companies of all sizes may be concerned about law suits.

Being too “not transparent” (I’m not sure if the word opaque works) makes your company seem secretive and people don’t have an idea about what’s going on. Customers and employees are curious about what your company is going through. They want to be in the loop and have an idea about what’s going on behind the scenes.

Then, there are some companies that are pretty transparent internally, but not very transparent externally. I’ve worked with a couple of these companies and it works out fine for the employees, but the customers don’t know what’s going on. If you are a customer and ask what’s going on, they will usually tell you, but they certainly don’t volunteer much information.

So, how do you find the happy medium? Very carefully. Here are my suggestions:

  • Start a blog. Start a company blog and have different staff members post to it. Have someone that has a legal understanding (i. e. a business side of the house executive) look at posts for the first couple of weeks, but don’t let legal intervene beyond that. Do not let PR firms or employees read posts in advance.
  • Be honest and complete on your blog. Talk about what’s happening at your company, but do it fully. If you want to talk about the current state of your customer service, don’t only tell a part of a story. If you want to talk about something, talk about in full and honestly.
  • Publish a newsletter. Publish a newsletter and in your newsletter, be honest and complete as well. Don’t make the entire newsletter sales-oriented – talk about what’s going on in your company.
  • Don’t pad things with PR speak. Another advantage to not having PR people look over posts, is that they won’t be padded with PR speak. Don’t let executives that already speak PR to write the posts.
  • More on different employees. Have different employees contribute to being transparent. It can range from first level technical support to the CEO. Southwest’s blog is a good example of this. Meebo (a favorite corporate blog of mine) also does a good job of having different people write to the blog.
  • Ask for feedback. As you are trying to be transparent, ask your customers about what they want to know. Ask employees the same question. Use their feedback to decide where you want to take your transparency efforts and how transparent you should be.

It isn’t all the all inclusive guide to being transparent, but it should get you started. Being transparent is important in customer service. Don’t withhold information from customers or employees and you’ll find it a lot easier to keep the facts straight.

A little customer service tip for bloggers.

In the spirit of Little Things, Big Differences, I would like to provide the readers of Service Untitled with a little story/tip. If you subscribe to Service Untitled, you have likely experienced it already.

Here’s the little inside tip: Anyone who subscribes via email to Service Untitled gets a personalized note from me.

This little email is rarely more than a line or two, but I send it out anyways. I thank the user for subscribing and usually ask how they heard about Service Untitled. I also encourage them to post comments, send in post suggestions, and so on. If they heard about Service Untitled from a specific blogger or web site, I usually check out that web site, too.

Before emailing the person, I try to find out a little bit about them. I’ll Google their email address, look at their email’s domain (i. e. bob@company.com), and so on. I then try to use that information to customize the email as much as possible. I try to learn about my readers and try to write posts that will interest them.

Then, at the bottom of the email, I throw in a little note: This is *not* an automated message. I try to have this email represent what a little thing that makes a difference is and how even bloggers can practice great customer service.

I would do the same thing for RSS, but there isn’t a way to track down specific RSS subscribers. Plus, I have a lot more RSS subscribers than email subscribers.

However, I usually do the same thing for people who comment at Service Untitled. I often email them a quick thank you note with some more information relating to whatever they posted about or just thank them for reading. I’m trying to start replying in the comments (instead of email) more and have been working on that.

My blog is small enough where I can still do things like this. Service Untitled has been growing a lot, but the blog is still relatively small. I’m happy with it that way and look forward to sending many more personalized thank you notes to subscribers and commenters.

Do you make customer service a part of your blog?

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Overstock.com watches the blogosphere.

A while back I read about Tom’s negative experience at Overstock.com. Then, a day or two later, I read how Overstock.com made it right and got the problem resolved. Tom had a similar experience with the Geek Squad. Bad experience, post about it, company’s leader responded. It’s interesting to see these two large companies handling issues like this. Dell has been doing it (more about that later this week probably) and other companies are making an effort to do it.

Tom’s experience at Overstock was bad. They kept giving him false promises and stalling. If you give a customer a promise that a “specialized representative” will be in touch shortly and no one contacts the customer, it makes the experience worse. It’s very important to follow through with what you say you are going to do.

For example, if a “specialized representative” (my guess would be one who deals with shipping issues or complaints in general) did contact Tom, he or she could have resolved the issue, and Tom would have been happy. Having an easily accessible, second level of support is a great idea if you can actually follow through with it.

As a matter a fact, I like the idea of a second level of support specifically for dealing with complaints. To me, it seems like a good plan and would allow regular CSRs to focus on what they do and have other representatives be in charge of dealing with complaints or elevated issues. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Overstock was unable to follow through with their second level of support, so Tom posted about it. I don’t see the time that Tom made his post, but Patrick Byrne, the company’s CEO replied at 2:07 AM. He said he would have someone contact Tom to resolve it in the morning. About three hours later, the company’s customer care director posted a comment as well. as well.

Tom points out that Overstock did the following, which helped make the situation right:

  • Responded quickly. This includes watching the blogosphere to begin with)
  • Apologize. Apologizing is important. If you don’t, the customer probably won’t be happy.
  • Take responsibility. Overstock didn’t try to say it someone else’s fault or problem.
  • Make it right. Overstock resolved the issue by overnighting the item in question to Tom for no extra cost.
  • Count the cost (and savings). Mistakes cost relatively low margin businesses like Overstock a lot of money. Overstock credited Tom the money the item cost and said that him making Overstock aware of the issue was well worth the money.
  • Invite the customer back. The customer care director offered Tom to shop at Overstock again. Since the experience was handled well and resolved, Tom was willing to do so.

Bonus points for Overstock: follow up with Tom in about two weeks and make sure everything went okay and he was happy with the resolution. Maybe send him a t-shirt, or an Overstock mousepad. That would show that they were really paying attention.

If you had an issue with Amazon.com and posted about it on your blog – do you think they would respond? I doubt it. What about with Apple? I haven’t heard of them responding. I am surprised that more companies don’t watch and respond to the blogosphere – it isn’t hard to do and can make a big difference.

Good job Overstock. Keep up the good work!

Your estimated hold time is…

Today I was happily going through my morning email and RSS feeds. Then, it happened. My Internet stopped working. The pages didn’t load and the little animation in Google Reader just keep going. I checked my modem and I only had two lights (I need three).

My Internet situation is weird. My previous ISP was owned by the builder of my community. Comcast recently bought that ISP and is in the process of moving everything over. I’m told I will be using Comcast within about two weeks.

My old ISP refuses to answer their phone when customers have a problem and claims they only work 9-5 on Monday through Friday. They also don’t return voicemails. This is an example of bad customer service. It’s far from acceptable and not even close to great.

So, I decided I would give it a shot and call Comcast. I called Comcast and was pleasantly surprised by the easy menus. Push 1 for technical service, push 2 for Internet service. However, Comcast messed up on the next part. The prompt keep babbling about how my call was important and then it did what was just weird:

Your estimated hold time is: Thank you for calling Comcast! Your call is important to us. [more babbling]

It didn’t actually give me the estimated hold time (which I really wanted to know), much less an option to leave a message and get called back or any of the other nice standards one might expect. I was disappointed that their system did not work and even more disappointed when I continued to wait on hold for 10 minutes and no one picked up.

Comcast decided to have soft jazz as hold music. It wasn’t that bad, but every minute or so, the music would be interrupted by an annoying person telling me that my call was important and that the customer service representatives were busy assisting other customers.

I had a similar experience at GoDaddy the other day.

They didn’t give me an estimated hold time, but they did give an option to hold with or without music. I chose with and the music certainly wasn’t soft jazz. It was more like pop or rock music – which is fine, but it’s tough to tell if all customers will like it. Read this post I wrote a while back about hold music and the expected etiquette that you should consider while making customers wait on hold.

However, GoDaddy did something far more annoying than “your call is important to us.” They interrupted the music every minute or so with a sales pitch. They were trying to sell me while I was on hold to get to technical support! GoDaddy is a relentless marketing company, but I didn’t appreciate getting the sales pitch while I was on the phone as well.

These IVR/PBX systems are really annoying. I would much prefer an operator and some classical music or soft jazz. It isn’t complicated and works best for everyone. What are your “on hold” experiences like?

Ravenswood Winery knows about the little things.

The other day I was reading about Becky Carroll’s experience at Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, California. While I’m not really a wine drinker, I’ve heard of Ravenswood before – my dad likes it and refers it to a lot of people as a fairly good, inexpensive wine. Reading about Becky’s experience at their winery made me think about what type of company they seem to be.

The quick story is that while most wineries don’t cater to children, Ravenswood did. A tasting room manager at the winery took Becky’s children into a backroom and gave them their own drinks (homemade rootbeer), a bouncy ball with the Ravenswood logo on it, and them brought them back out. The kids were much happier and Becky and her husband could enjoy the wine more knowing that their children had something to do.

This is a classic (and very good) example of a Little Thing that made a Big Difference. I am sure the experience at Ravenswood had a whole bunch of things like this. The bouncy ball and rootbeer didn’t cost much, didn’t require a lot of effort on Ravenswood’s parts, and didn’t take a lot of time or other resources. It is just a matter of thinking of it and consistently doing it. This isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible.

Becky mentions that Ravenwood’s attention to detail and desire to make the entire family happy paid off. Whenever they are out shopping for wine, Becky’s kids encourage her to buy Ravenswood. The experience has made Becky and her family loyal customers (and vocal fans) of Ravenswood. I’m sure from the family’s purchases and the positive word of mouth, the company has gotten their money from the bouncy balls and rootbeers back many times over.

Ravenswood is unique in the sense that it doesn’t seem to have a superiority complex. Their slogan is No Wimpy Wines (analyzed a bit here), which definitely shows that they are a bit more down to Earth than the average winery. They don’t believe that only the elite should drink their wines, that they should a whole bunch of terms to make themselves seem sophisticated and all of that.

Becky also points out a podcast with the founder of Ravenswood (Joel Peterson). The podcast talks about how Ravenswood has depended a lot on word of mouth marketing and guerrilla marketing to connect with customers and sell wine.

Oh, and to top it all off, it seems like Ravenswood even watches the blogosphere. Someone from the company commented on Becky’s post thanking her for the positive review.

Wanting is the first step.

I was talking to an executive at a mid-sized (read: ~100 employees) rapid growth company the other day. The company has been having problems with its customer service. They have the basics down – people pick up the phones and do respond to emails, but they have room to improve when it comes to the little things. Their customer service is usually at a level of acceptable, but it isn’t at the point of “great” just yet.

However, this company, especially the executive I spoke to, have one of the most important first steps down: They want to improve their customer service. Wanting to improve your customer service and being dedicated to improving it is one of the biggest challenges. If you aren’t convinced that you want good customer service at your company, it is far less likely to happen.

This executive showed some things that definitely proved to be good news:

  • He was obviously dedicated to improving the customer service experience. As stated above, this is critical.
  • He wanted to know how he could go about improving the customer service experience. Just wanting to isn’t enough, you need someone that is prepared to do what it takes to get great customer service started.
  • He listened carefully. I talk a lot, but the executive listened carefully. He wasn’t, dead though. By his responses, comments, etc., I could tell he was understanding what I was saying and the points I was trying to make.

Those are just a few things that executives looking to improve their company’s customer service need to do/show. They have to be open minded about how to improve the customer service at their organization and they need to be willing to remain dedicated to customer service.

Here is how to get to a point where you want to improve your customer service and the customer service experience:

  • Read about customer service. You can read about customer service at Service Untitled, some of the blogs I link to on the right, in books, in the newspaper, and more. Reading about customer service will not only educate you, but the stories will convince you how powerful (and useful) customer service can be.
  • Talk to a customer service expert. Talk to someone who deals with customer service and realizes how powerful great customer service can be. This could be a blogger, an author, a consultant, and/or an executive. Many of them will talk to you (or at least exchange a few emails) and let you know what they think customer service can do.
  • Look at your competitors. Almost every industry I can think of has at least one company that uses customer service as a primary differentiator. Retail has Nordstrom, web hosting has Rackspace, hotels have the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton, airlines have Southwest and JetBlue, etc. Look at how successful these companies are.
  • Try to model yourself. When you find the customer service-orientated company that is one of your competitors, study what they do. Read articles about them, talk to their employees, and so on.
  • Be creative. These will all help convince you that customer service is important and that you want to improve customer service. Be creative and think about how you can go about convincing yourself customer service is important and that it is well worth the time and effort.

And remember, customer service is hard. There are lots of things that are easy to copy, but consistent customer service across an organization is very tough. It won’t happen right away, but you’ll start seeing changes sooner than later.

Oh, and read the Executive’s (Quick) Guide to Customer Service. It’s worth the one page read.

How to Handle Customers Using Profanity

As I’ve hinted in the past, I constantly go over statistics. One of the statistics I go over are what people search for and what search terms lead them to Service Untitled. A common question/search term I happen to see is how to handle customers using profanity/ones that are cursing.

Service Untitled has an entire category that talks about dealing with angry, upset, or frustrated customers, entitled simply “Angry Customers.” The first post in the category talked about keeping your enemies closer. The next one (one that I liked a lot), talked about how to deal with angry customers posting on forums. After that, I started a series on handling complaints.

Basically, what I am saying is that you should look over the angry customers category. Click on this link to view it starting from the back.

Now, about how to handle customers that are using profanity, cursing, or whatever you’d like to call it. I wrote briefly about this in an early post about when it is appropriate to hang up on a customer. To repeat what I said then:

If a customer is cursing:

  • Tell the customer that cursing/using profanity will not help solve their problem and that they should calm down.
  • If the customer continues to curse, say if they curse again, you will have to hang up on them and they can call back once they’ve calmed down.
  • If the customer continues to curse, say “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have call back once you’ve calmed down.” and hang up immediately.
  • Describe the situation in the call log and make a note of it in the customer’s account.

That’s a very effective operating procedure. It’s not a script, but general guidelines as to what the representative should do. That way when the customer calls back an hour later, the next representative can be prepared for what may happen (a rude and angry customer) and if the customer service representative isn’t good with those situations, transfer the call to someone else.

Pretty simple, right? It’s not rocket science, but I believe that the procedure outlined above would be fairly effective in most situations. The key(s) are to:

  • Remain calm
  • Communicate with the customer that cursing/profanity won’t help
  • Clearly (and firmly) state that cursing/profanity will make it so that you as a representative will have to hang up if they continue.

You shouldn’t get worked up if the customer is cursing at you. That won’t solve anything and will just get you upset and stressed out more. Don’t raise your voice – just stay calm and act like you normally do. If you can do that, you should be okay.

Also, on a note about Service Untitled, I’ve added a contact page to the site. I realized that having the email address somewhat tucked away on the about page wasn’t entirely clear.

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