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Scaling Customer Service

Scaling customer service is something that comes up time and time again. I was talking to an executive at a very interesting company today. The company is fairly large (close to 2,000 employees) and as they have grown larger, it becomes harder to scale their customer service.

1. Customer service is not technology.
The executive I spoke to is very technical by training. He was surprisingly well versed about the challenges related to customer service and how to handle them. A lot of technologists (and people in technology companies) have a hard time accepting the fact that scaling customer service is different than scaling technology. You can’t just buy new servers or put three or four really smart people at it and it’ll get done. Working with people is hard and customer service is all about the people.

2. Scale the management team.
The metaphor I used was as companies hire another 100 frontline people a month, they still keep the same number of managers and executives. This does not work! Set a ratio (1 senior executive for every 100 frontline employees) and stick with it as you grow. Keep hiring and promoting managers and executives as you grow.

2.5. Don’t promote exclusively from within.
Many, many companies refuse to hire people into management and other senior positions. For a lot of reasons, this makes sense. For an equal number of reasons, this doesn’t make sense.

  • When you promote from within, you deplete your internal talent. You need people to continue being shift supervisors and if you always promote your best shift supervisors to VPs, it won’t be good.
  • Some people are good at their job, but not good at the new job. I’ve seen situations when fantastic CSRs get promoted to more manager type positions and they do terrible. Some people just aren’t good in management or leadership positions. Others are.
  • When you hire people from elsewhere, it brings an outside and new perspective to the company.

3. Use mentor based training.
Mentor based training is great. It scales from 3 or 4 employees to 50,000 employees. Use formal, mentor based training as your company grows and it should work out okay. The post explains the best practices for mentor based training and it works!

4. Invest in hiring and training.
As a company grows, it needs to invest heavily in hiring and training. Increase the size of your HR staff, dedicate more managers to hiring, hire better recruiters, improve the employee referral program (important!), and so on. Encourage executives and existing staff members to offer jobs to qualified people. Don’t limit that pool to just job seekers, either. Offer jobs to people are prominent in your industry (journalists, consultants, speakers, etc.), people who already have jobs, and people in similar jobs, but different industries. You’ll get a lot of nos, but that’s okay. (No is only the beginning of the conversation). It’s necessary to do that as you grow and something that will be well worth it in the end.

5. Don’t let the message get diluted.
This company has done a tremendous job at articulating their corporate culture, which is very customer service focused. If they keep that message present and continue to make it an important aspect of their company, I am confident that they will do okay.

Customer Service Company?

Short post today. I have a good upcoming series planned, so it will be worth it.

I define a customer service company as a company that uses customer service to help set themselves apart from the competition. It is a big corporate focus and something they do well. They use it as their competitive advantage and hopefully, it has worked.

What customer service companies can you think of?

Big Companies:

  • Four Seasons
  • Ritz Carlton
  • Nordstrom
  • Commerce Bank
  • Southwest Airlines
  • JetBlue Airways
  • Lexus
  • Land’s End
  • Rackspace

Smaller Companies:

  • Headsets.com
  • PrintingForLess.com
  • FeedBurner
  • Plenty of small businesses


  • Disney
  • CarMax
  • Starbucks

There are other companies that I know are spending a lot of time, money, and effort into improving their customer service, but I don’t feel as if they are at that “customer service company” level yet. Examples of these companies would be companies like Best Buy, Dell, HP, etc.

Please provide your suggestions and opinions. I am positive I have forgotten some companies and am always open to suggestions.

United Airlines Customer Service

This is another post written while I am on a plane. This time it is on a United Airlines (actually, TED), not a Frontier Airlines flight. The experience has been slightly different, but once again, not too bad overall.

It is kind of comparing different types of apples (not apples and oranges) because I am leaving this time from a much bigger airport during a busier travel time. However, not every passenger that flies United (or any other airline) gets to fly at a perfect time in a nice little airport, so I think the comparison is still fair. Both my United and Frontier flights were completely full, so they have that in common at least.

The airport experience for United was a lot worse. The line to check in was five or ten times as long. I opted to use the curb side check in and for 2 bucks, it was well worth it. The curb side check in was not something I would consider bad or great – it was between acceptable and bad. Not as good as the Hertz experience, but I got what I needed. Security was longer, but still only took about 20 minutes or so.

The flight was about 20 minutes late, but the airport staff did a good job at providing lots of updates and keeping everyone in the loop. They were available if you had questions and provided updates every couple of minutes. It was easy to understand what they were saying (good PA systems are important!) and the updates were accurate (aka the story did not change).

Onboard, nothing notable happened in terms of customer service. The crew was friendly enough. I must have heard one of the flight attendants say “Welcome aboard.” about 200 times while people were boarding. She was nice and answered any questions that people had. The rest of the crew seemed friendly and helpful enough as well. They didn’t interact very much with the passengers except when someone had a specfic question or during the food times. That seems to be the norm when flying, though.

I would definitely say that it was more enjoyable to fly on Frotiner. The personal TV screens really made a difference and it was useful to be able to see the flight status throughout the whole flight. United didn’t have that.

United did, however, do better than I expected. They were by no means exceptional. When it comes to airlines, though, I would much rather have okay than terrible. There are people who frequently have horror stories to share about flying and traveling in general and I am sure everyone would be happy with just an “okay” experience.

How have your recent airline experiences been? Good, bad, great, ugly, something else?


Advertiser Day

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Hertz did great for doing fine.

Everyone has a point where they experience customer service that is not exceptional, but is fine. When it’s just fine (not bad and not exceptional), it can really stand out. That’s what happened to me at Hertz a week or two ago.

I had to rent a car from Hertz and wasn’t expecting much. In fact, when I went from the airport to the shuttle, I wasn’t impressed. I could barely understand the driver and he wasn’t much help. Needless to say, I didn’t have very high expectations based on my shuttle/bus experience with Hertz.

I was dropped off in front of the office and there was no line. That was nice. I walked up to a guy who seemed friendly and gladly offered to help. I had to show less paperwork than expected and the check in process was pretty quick and easy.

Nothing he did was really spectacular, but nothing he did was bad. There was not really one thing that I would say he did wrong. He was friendly throughout the experience, quite thorough, and answered my countless questions about maps and where I was going.

What Hertz did is a good goal to shoot for. Get the basics down: answer the questions, be friendly, and be competent. That’s a realistic goal that is not impossible to achieve. It’s not an easy goal, but it is not impossible by any means. Hertz did it, so your company probably can too.

I have no idea if the guy who helped me would have gone the extra mile or anything of that sort, but based on what I needed at the time, he did a great job.

This is also one of those situations where the person is the person to give all the credit to. Hertz probably couldn’t train him to be friendly or patient. They did train him how to use their systems and get the actual job done (which is of course very important). If it just stopped at that, though, then this experience could have been bad.

Are you trying to do your actual job before you try to make big improvements? Sometimes you have to start by working on the big things. Once you have a firm handle on those, you move onto the little things.

United Airlines Customer Service

On Saturday, I wanted to call United Airlines to upgrade my seat to an Economy Plus seat. I also signed up for their Mileage Plus (read: an online account) and wanted to get my ticket added to that profile. Simple enough? Not really.

Step 1: Call Mileage Plus.
United was very nice and included the phone for Mileage Plus right in the email they sent me. I called them, pressed 0 a whole bunch of times, and eventually wound up speaking to some lady. She explained that she couldn’t help me, and I had to call Reservations. She gave me the number, a sales pitch for a Visa card, and then I hung up.

Step 2: Call Reservations.
Next I had to call reservations. After a few minutes of trying to navigate their IVR, I gave up. I headed over to GetHuman and got to a human much quicker than the other way. I couldn’t understand what the lady said when she picked up the phone and had to double check that I had actually been transferred to someone at United. I gave the lady my confirmation number and Mileage Plus number and she had no problem adding the flight to my account.

I asked her if I could then upgrade my seat to Economy Plus. Apparently, I wasn’t authorized to do that. The next part of what she said was incoherent, but I managed to get a “I have to do that online” out of what she said. I was in front of a computer, so it wasn’t a problem. I asked her about how I go about doing that. Apparently, she didn’t have that information and I had to be connected to United.com support for that.

Step 3: United.com Support
I was connected to a representative at United.com Support without too much of a problem. I had to push 0 a couple of times, but did manage to get to someone. I repeated my request. After some mumbling and some research, he told me I had to wait until 1 – 24 hours before my flight to do that. Or I could pay something like $300 and I could get an automatic upgrade to Economy Plus every time I fly United (almost never). Useless 5 minutes. End of support interaction.

A common trend that I noticed among the three United Airlines customer service representatives I spoke to: they all had Indian type accents and all of them kept on talking without giving me a chance to talk.

A nice thing that United does, though, is have a message in their IVR that says “I’ll ensure that the representative has all of the information you’ve already given me.” It seemed to work, which was nice. There was also little to no hold time for each department.

I’m hoping my in-air experience with United will be better. I can’t recall ever having flown them before, so it will be a new experience. I was pleasantly surprised with Frontier and really hope to have the same (or better) experience with United.

I didn’t write about it, but I will in the future: I had a good experience with Hertz rental car recently.

Customer Service is Couresty, too.

Part of providing great customer service in your day-to-day, non-call center focused life is being courteous. People lacking common courtesy is unfortunately more common that we’d like to think.

Many people consider themselves courteous when they just utter the occasional please and thank you. Any etiquette book (especially the ones written by Service Untitled guest writer Jodi R. R. Smith) will tell you there a whole bunch more things involved with being courteous than just that. There is a way to be courteous is basically everything you do.

Customer service involves generally being courteous. If you are generally a courteous person, you may very well make a terrific customer service person. Here are some ways that being courteous in day to day life applies very nicely over to customer service:

  • Keeping a smile on your face when someone is rude.
  • Not really complaining.
  • Acknowledging what people say (i. e. saying Yes, Certainly, etc.).
  • Not swearing or insulting people (even if they deserve it).
  • Saying please and thank you.
  • Asking permission to do things.
  • Keeping conversation appropriate for where you are (i. e. not talking about how you don’t like your job in front of customers).
  • Addressing people by their proper name (i. e. Mr, Mrs, etc.) or what they prefer to be called.

Just little things like that contribute to being courteous in a customer service interaction. Good rules for life and for customer service.

How are you courteous? What do you do to make your customer service and daily, non-work interactions courteous and friendly?

In the spirit of courtesy, have a great weekend!

Going to be in Chicago? Watch Service Untitled live.

If you are going to be in Chicago on July 25, you’ll have the chance to watch me speak. I’ll be speaking at HostingCon 2007, the yearly conference for the web hosting industry and speaking the morning of July 25.

The title of my talk is Customer Service As Your Competitive Advantage. I’ll talk about what web hosting companies can do to make customer service one of their main competitive advantages. I’ll highlight a lot of the things I talk about here and provide plenty of “real world” examples about what companies should do.

If any readers of Service Untitled are planning on attending HostingCon, send me an email.

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