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Help outside of the help section.

ipodI know this is the second time this week I’ve written about Apple, but I actually had this idea in the queue before I even ordered my computer. I had also talked about a very similar idea with an executive from a company just a few days before I got this particular post idea.

If you use an iPod (like I do – mine looks a lot like the one to the right), you may know about the “On The Go” playlist feature. A lot of iPod users don’t use it (I rarely do), but if you have ever navigated to the menu and look at the playlist when it’s empty, it does something interesting.

What the iPod does that is so interesting (to an extent) is display help documentation about how to use the on the go playlist feature. It actually makes a tremendous amount of sense to display how to use the feature when it isn’t being used. What would Apple put there otherwise – probably something saying “No songs in this playlist.” or something stupid. When you add songs to your on the go playlist, the help message goes away.

This entire aspect of help tips and information within an actual program (or in this case, an interface) and more generally, outside of the help section. is a great idea. More and more products are starting to implement the help within the product idea and that is because it makes so much sense. Customers seem to prefer help within the actual software or interface because they then don’t have to go out of their way to navigate to a separate help section.

Something companies should also do is consider having more help information show when customers just start using a product or service. Then, as they use the features more and get more accustomed to the nuances of the software, the tips and information slowly disappears. It is a classy way to help new users without really forcing it upon them.

I am going to write a post next week about one of the main benefits of moving help outside of the help section: teaching customers how to use parts of your software or service that they may not be familiar with already.

Think about where you can put tips and similar help within your software or within the interface of the product you design. Moving help outside of the help section makes a lot of sense – your customers will probably use it more, it will probably be easier for most customers to understand, and it can teach customers how to use products and features they may not use.

The Importance of a Dashboard

Various companies often have various dashboards to let them know about what’s going on within the company. 37signals, a software company that makes products like Basecamp, has a backend/dashboard that they call Queen Bee. While I’m not a huge fan of the name, I like what they use it for and how they are tying it into their company.

For example, when employees login to the system, they see something like this:


The system provides them with a few important pieces of information:

  • Who is signing up, upgrading, downgrading, and canceling (and for what plan).
  • From which plan to which plan someone is going when they upgrade.
  • When someone cancels, how long they were a customer.
  • When someone signs up, where they came from.
  • When and who did whatever action is mentioned.

I am a bit of data / dashboard nerd myself. I think they’re really valuable and it is important to keep an eye on what is going on at all levels. The color coding and general simplicity of it makes it simple for everyone to understand. It is definitely easy to glance at and it is definitely easy to quickly comprehend (as well designed dashboards should be).

While the actual value of something like this just for real time knowledge’s sake is something you can argue (I’m not sure how valuable it is personally), I would be interested to see what 37signals does with the data. If a one year customer cancels, do they email the customer and see what the problem is? Do they trend the data to see what their customers are doing and how that may tie into their product? I would also be interested to see what they do with the data since they have it real time.

37signals lets all their employees have access to this system. The company is small (in terms of employees) and their organizational structure does not look like a typical company’s organizational structure, but the idea of keeping employees in the loop about what is going on at the company is good.

What sort of backend systems do you use to keep track of things? Tell us about them and how you use them to your advantage.

Image courtesy of 37signals.

Make Managers Responsible

I have always been a big fan of giving autonomy to managers within organizations.

When managers actually are and actually feel responsible for what they’re doing, it has the effect of motivating them to do well. Giving relative autonomy to employees also makes it quite easy to reward those who succeed for great performance and help those who don’t. If you give everyone equal opportunity to succeed, some will and some won’t. Chances are, the ones that do succeed are the best ones (either by luck or by actual talent).

In customer service, there are a lot of ways to give employees and managers autonomy. The general idea is to make people responsible for their own successes and for their own failures. That perspective will hopefully lead people to success instead of in the other direction.

The successful customer service departments that I see are usually given a fair amount of autonomy. Executive leadership lets the customer service manager run the show and make most of the decisions related to customer service. They do work much closer to the frontlines (see this post) and know what it takes to be successful.

This can also be done with various customer service teams: let them innovate and make changes. A lot of times, the changes they make and the things they do are good ideas that can be used elsewhere. The autonomy gives the room and the ability to make those sort of changes that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to do.

To encourage people to do well (once you give them the space to do well), provide bonuses based on specific milestones and metrics. I’ve seen the bonuses range from fairly small to extremely large. If everyone knows what is expected of each other and what will come as a result of either good or bad performance, it makes the entire process much easier.

I’m not sure who said it, but there was a business leader that said something along the lines of “hire smart and experienced people, step back, and let them do their thing.” I generally agree with this idea and I’d like to see it happen more often in customer service.

How do you give managers and employees autonomy within your customer service department?

Apple Ordering Experience

I have something to admit: I have almost no loyalty to a particular computer maker. Over the last seven or eight years, I’ve owned computers made by (in order) HP, Dell, Alienware, Dell, and IBM. I’ve had mostly positive experiences with all of the companies and all of their products have lived up to my appropriate (I think) expectations (I ordered my cheap Dell desktop with a lot lower expectations than my expensive IBM laptop).

Today, though, I am adding yet another computer maker to that list – Apple. I’ve been following the updates (or lack thereof) to Apple’s MacBook Pro laptop since about July of 2007. Since I wasn’t in a particular rush to buy a new computer, I decided to wait until a major update came to the MacBook Pro. That update (finally) came today and I purchased my new computer earlier this morning.

Apple is known for their customer and product experiences. I’ve never owned anything made by Apple except an iPod (which I like), but I have been fairly impressed with the company overall. They have a great reputation and they keep things simple when called for.

One thing that Apple does keep fairly simple is the ordering process. The company starts off on the right foot by having a fairly simple product line: they offer two types of laptops (the MacBook and the MacBook Pro), each with three models. Keeping it simple like this makes choosing a laptop quite a bit easier.

Once you’ve mentally selected which computer you want (Apple makes this easy by having really great product pages that highlight key features and make it very easy to order), you click one of the buttons to place your order. You configure your computer (again, the options are simple, but meaningful) and then you’re asked to login.

Once you get to that point, Apple shows the pricing, estimates the tax, etc., which is all pretty standard. Their checkout page is also simple – it gets the necessary information and lets you order. Apple has a few ways that you can pay, makes upgrading things like shipping easy, and even lets you pay on two credit cards.

Once you order and your order is processed, you’re shown an order confirmation page with all the relevant details. There is a link to track your order and you’re done. A simple ordering process that probably doesn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes.

What could Apple have done better, though?

  • Apple shouldn’t require customers to login or register before they order. Have email / login be a part of the order form.
  • They said I would receive my confirmation email “shortly” after ordering and it took a good hour (which is not “shortly” by Internet standards).

On the other hand, what can we learn from Apple?

  • Keep product offerings simple. It is okay to allow further customizations, but keep the basic offerings simple.
  • Provide lots of helpful product information to the customer before they order.
  • Keep the actual experience of purchasing the computer very simple and consider adding helpful features (two credit cards, Bill Me Later, etc.).
  • Make it easy to track orders.
  • They clearly display their phone number and live chat links.

I was impressed with the ordering process overall. I’m also excited about my new computer and will almost certainly be checking the order status page a couple of times a day until I receive the computer.

Get on the Frontlines

call_center A lot of executives seem out of touch with what actually happens on the frontlines of their customer service department. When executives are out of touch (some are more removed than others), it creates not only a cultural problem, but a problem of the ability to keep frontline employees in mind when making decisions.

An executive’s job is not to answer the phones and as such, they shouldn’t be expected to do so on a daily basis. However, it is an executive’s job to be able to relate to the employees he or she is in charge of. The reality of the corporate world is that the decisions executives make usually have a very significant affect on the frontline employees. The changes that come from the top affect those on the bottom. It isn’t fair to those providing the actual service to customers when executives are making uninformed decisions.

The problem in a lot of businesses and with a lot of executives is that they assume. They assume they know the frontlines of a call center is like and they assume they know what challenges individual employees are facing. It sometimes takes more than surveys, more than manager reviews, and more than consultants to get a thorough understanding, though. Sometimes, it takes sitting in a cubicle and answering the phones.

When an executive spends a couple of hours or even a full day answering phones or replying to emails, he or she can learn a lot about what the frontline employees experience on a day to day basis.

The phones may be bad, the chairs could be uncomfortable, the computers are too slow, the Internet keeps crashing, etc. Suddenly, the complaints on the “other comments” part of the employee satisfaction survey start to make more sense. On the other hand, the experience of helping customers fix a problem or hearing positive feedback about the company’s product is rewarding. It gives executives yet another (very valuable) perspective.

Make it a point to schedule a few hours, or even a full day, to sit in your call center and do what your frontline employees do on a daily basis. I guarantee you that you will learn a lot.

Tour of Headsets.com’s Offices

When I was in San Francisco for Customer Service is the New Marketing, I took some time to meet some folks from Headsets.com and get a tour of their office. My tour guide was Leslie, who currently runs a customer service team at the company and has also held roles related to hiring. Since it was a Saturday (the only open day in my schedule), the office wasn’t open, but there were still people there and interesting sights to be seen.

In addition to some of the thumbnails below, you can view the photos of the tour (about 20 or so) here. There are some ridiculous cubicles and photos (like the middle picture below) as well as some cool things (like their “Wall of Customer Love on the left).

The Headsets.com offices: more photos (along with captions) here.

A Different Type of Survey

This week seems to be the week of surveys for me. Yesterday I wrote about Mailtrust’s One Question Survey and today I received another survey from a software company called TimeBridge. TimeBridge makes scheduling software and they have been pretty persistent at trying to get beta feedback from me.

Today’s email was an interesting one, though. Here is the text of it:

Dear -name-:

We’ve noticed you haven’t used TimeBridge a lot since you signed up.  We’d love to understand what is holding you back.

If you click on one of the links below it would help a lot.

    “Everything is fine, just haven’t had an occasion to use it yet.”   Yes, that’s it.

    “I’m having technical difficulties with TimeBridge.”    Yes, that’s it.

    “Don’t think I’ll be using this, as I don’t have a need for it.”    Yes, that’s it.

    “None of these apply.”     Let me tell you more.

You can always just reply to this email if you’d like.  Thanks for your feedback!



John Stormer | VP Marketing

While I don’t think the email is the most eloquently worded one in the world, it gets the job done. Perhaps most interesting is when you click on one of the links (I’ve put the links’ locations in italics), it not only records that basic response, but has a comments box and another box saying you can put in your email if you’d like a response.

Having the box saying that responses are anonymous by default, but that you can put in your email and receive a response is pretty helpful. I replied to the survey saying I wrote a post about the company and just want to see if anyone replies to my email. Reading the survey results and acting on them accordingly is extremely important.

This survey doesn’t offer any incentive (possible prize, etc.) to filling it out, but once again, it is pretty quick and pretty easy. You can click on the links right from your email and everything else is optional. Surveys that are simple will get a lot higher response rate than those that are long.

I’m not quite sure how helpful the answers to these survey questions by themselves are, but the company knows better than I do about what they need. It is interesting to see how they included the links directly and took a step out of the equation.

Good job TimeBridge.

The One Question Survey

A company called Mailtrust (formerly Webmail.us) hosts a majority of my email. I’ve been using them for several months and have been quite happy. I found a recent survey they sent me fairly interesting and wanted to write about it for today.

On Monday, the company sent me an email with the subject “Mailtrust: 1-Question Survey”. The text of the email was pretty simple and straight forward:

Hi -name-,

We are currently asking our customers to take a one-question survey so that we can rate their level of satisfaction with our company. If you have a few seconds, we would appreciate it if you would answer our one-question survey found by clicking the link below:


Thank you for your continued support

Pat Matthews
CEO, Mailtrust, LLC.

This is really dead simple, but also very effective. It is classic Net Promoter, which is extremely popular among a lot of companies (for good reason).  I like how they included a box for any additional comments instead of choosing to do a longer survey. The actual survey, the one you saw once you clicked on the link, looked like the image below.


Like all surveys run by almost all companies, though, this survey has room for improvement:

1. Utilize the technology further. Mailtrust knows if I have HTML email or not and could easily do a form where I can do the rating right from the email. Making it more convenient will make customers happier and produce a higher response rate.

2. On the survey, show my email address. Customers may not feel like their comments are going into a blackhole (a common concern) if an email address was clearly shown under the comments box. I know the company has my email address because it is in the URL of the link I clicked on, but a lot of customers (especially non-technical ones) won’t notice this or put the two together.

3. Offer some sort of award (or possibility of an award) for participating.
Inc. Magazine sends me regular surveys and when it sends surveys, it says I have a chance at winning an American Express Gift Card or a signed book or something whenever I participate. I actually won a book once, so I believe in the possibility of it actually happening. If Mailtrust gave away something, it would increase the response rate and encourage even more people to participate in the survey.

4. Include a support / help link.
In the email and/or on the actual survey, there should be a link to contact the company directly or at least an email address to contact support. The logo links to their homepage, which subsequently has a link to support, but that isn’t direct enough.

Overall, this was a well done survey. It wins a lot of points for simplicity. The next step (one that perhaps Mailtrust can clue us in on) is how they will use the data and what they can do to increase their response rates (and of course, the ratings) next time around.

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