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Measuring Customer Satisfaction for Less than $250

I work with a small technology company that has a reputation for being a great customer service company. The company is growing fairly quickly, and as a result of that, they’re hiring more and more people. Their growth is great (their rate of growth is manageable, so they don’t really have many growing pains), but as they hire more people, it becomes harder for the company’s founders to watch the level of customer service. As the company grows, all the employees aren’t as knowledgeable as the first couple of employees and the founders.

To help see how they’re doing, the company decided to start surveying their customers. They started with a simple quarterly satisfaction (using Net Promoter) survey and are starting to do a ticket survey that is sent out after each ticket is marked as resolved in their help desk. The company managed to do it all for less than $250, too. Here is how they did it (with my help, but they could have done it themselves without any problems):

1) I already had a copy, but most people will need to buy The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth by Fred Reichheld. It is a pretty good, 200 page book about measuring customer loyalty and satisfaction using the idea of Net Promoter. Total cost: $20

2) Purchased and installed the Lite Version of iSalient (survey software). The software is pretty user friendly – it only took me (a fairly non-technical person) about an hour to fully install and customize. Total cost: $197

The best part of this? It is only a one time cost. They can run this survey any number of times and can setup several other surveys to run as well. They already have the software and the knowledge. There is cheaper survey software (even free software) out there, but this company had already used and liked iSalient. A lot of the software is leasable or setup where you only have to pay by the number of respondents. This makes things pretty cost effective as well. $250 isn’t that much for any company with a couple of employees. Having a good idea about the level of service you’re providing and how happy your customers are is well worth the time and the financial investment involved with setting up some basic survey software and processes.

Take an hour, your credit card, and start measuring your customer satisfaction. You’ll learn a lot about your customer service, your customers, and your company.

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Behind the Name: Service Untitled

I read The Name Inspector and find it to be rather interesting. Naming anything (a company, a product, a person) is a subtle art that requires a great amount of skill and creativity. Which names stick, which names don’t? It’s hard to tell and generally, only time can tell which names, phrases, or slogans will “stick.” There are reasons reason that some names or phrases (Google it) have become ubiquitous while others haven’t (MSN it) and The Name Inspector works to explain those reasons.

Here is the story, the etymology if you want to call it, behind the name Service Untitled:

I am frequently asked what the name Service Untitled means and how it came about. The blog is named such because I couldn’t think of a better name. Due to my disappointing lack of creativity, I named the blog Service Untitled out of pure spite (to whom, I don’t know).

When I explain the etymology of “Service Untitled,” people often become disappointed, hoping the name represents (stands for! defends!) the anonymous service provider, the plight of the consumer, or the untitled service department in an almost undeniably Orwellian organization that is found somewhere on the Fortune 500 list. While I love dystopian literature and the idea of a greater meaning behind the blog’s name certainly makes the blog (and as an extension of that, what I do for a living) seem more glamorous, it simply isn’t the case.

Hopefully that clears things up (and won’t cost me any readers!). I promise great service, the anonymous service provider, the plight of the consumer, the untitled service department, and the Orwellian organization are just as important to me now as they ever were.

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Customer Service of Taxes – Part 2 of 2

As I went to print out my return (I e-filed, but TurboTax suggested printing it as well), I noticed the first line had the wrong social security number. I tried to remember why I might have inputted the wrong social security number, but it was a month ago and I probably made a typo (the information wasn’t confirmed later that I saw).

While half expecting the secret tax police to show up at my door with handcuffs, I frantically searched TurboTax’s web site for help, advice, guidance, or a combination of the three. I couldn’t find anything, so I decided to call them. The phone number was easily accessible.

After one or two menu options and about 10 seconds on hold, I was transfered to a friendly lady. She asked me a few questions, made a couple of jokes and explained that she tried to lighten up the mood with these sort of calls, and helped me out. She explained that the gestapo (her term) wasn’t going to show up at my door and that everything would be fine. She explained that “99.99% of the time, the IRS would likely reject my return.” If they didn’t (even though they did the next day), I could easily file an amendment at no cost. She told me she was going to record all of this on the notes to make sure everyone was on the same page in case I had to call again. As she was doing this, the representative also made fun of how she mistyped the word “rejected” in her notes. Her attitude was upbeat and made me more comfortable. It also made me think positively of TurboTax’s support.

What the TurboTax representative did was just another example of engaging customers on a human level. You don’t necessarily have to ask about the weather – you just need personality that is different from (and hopefully better than) what’s on the script. My customer service experience with TurboTax made me feel that I made the right choice for my tax preparation software. It also made me sure about who I was going to use next year and in years to come.

That’s the underlying goal of customer service and TurboTax (Intuit, actually) obviously understands that.

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Customer Service of Taxes – Part 1 of 2

I dedicated the latter part of today to finishing and paying my taxes. Like all Americans (except Leona Helmsey), I pay taxes.

Even though my taxes aren’t that complicated, the entire process is annoying and confusing. I am usually pretty good with government forms and bureaucracies, but the tax system tends to overwhelm me because of both its depth and breadth. My taxes are different than most people’s because as a consultant, I am paid almost entirely as an independent contractor (1099’s). However, this post isn’t about taxes – it is about the customer service associated with them. (If you want to read a blog about taxes, check out Taxgirl by my friend Kelly Erb.)

I decided not to go with H&R Block or one of those firms because my taxes are actually quite simple – they just involve going through my folder of 1099’s and entering in the numbers and some related information. With that in mind, I did head over to TurboTax. I had seen the commercials, was familiar with the Intuit brand, and had used their more “serious” applications for other things in the past. Registration was fine and the online software was actually pretty nice. They made a point of explaining things in a lot of detail and providing enough help and guidance to make it relatively simple.

What is nice about TurboTax (and most of the products that compete with it) is I didn’t have to pay anything upfront and was able to go at my own pace. This makes sense because most people don’t have the time or patience to do it all at one sitting and quite often, don’t have all the information they need to finish it in one sitting. Not paying upfront is fine because it doesn’t cost Intuit much for me to get started and the more time I invest in using their software, the more likely I am just to pay the money to use the software (you pay before you file). It is definitely a smart business practice that I am sure helps their bottom line.

Thinking my taxes might be even simpler than I thought, I foolishly decided to call the IRS. I waited on hold for about 15 minutes while I worked on a client presentation. I was connected to a lady who was very professional (she said her first and last name and her ID number) and asked me a few questions. She then explained that I had to be transferred to another department. 30 minutes later (I was making progress on the said presentation) and I was talking to another lady. Since my income for one form was reported in box 7, I had to be transfered to the business department. Another 30 minutes (I was finished with the presentation at this point) and I spoke to a nice guy who answered some questions. He was difficult to understand, but did help point me in the right direction. I went back to TurboTax, made a few changes based on what the IRS representative told me, and that was it.

I was paid and filed. Or so I thought. The rest of my tax experience will be posted tomorrow.

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Positive Escalations

I was talking to a customer service manager from a large company about what he called “positive escalations.” Positive escalations are situations in which a customer asks to speak to a manger because of a particularly good experience. They aren’t really common, but they do happen fairly regularly (hopefully). However, the manager told the supervisor not to take them, because they weren’t really necessary and the supervisors don’t have much extra time to take unnecessary calls.

I heard about this and thought it was pretty ridiculous. All supervisors should try to take positive calls. The calls should be recorded (if all calls aren’t already being recorded) and supervisors should take time out of their schedule to thank both the customer and the particular employee. Taking positive calls and hearing/seeing positive feedback is important. It helps morale, it makes people feel they’ve done a good job, and it helps employees learn what they should to do if they want to make customers happy and get positive feedback. It is a positive thing for everyone.

Receiving and sharing both positive and negative feedback is an important role for any supervisor to fill. Supervisors should set aside time in their day to talk to employees on a one-on-one basis and to talk to customers in a less confrontational manner (i. e random calls to customers, positive escalations, etc.). Those two things are just as important as the “primary” parts of the job like taking calls and dealing with scheduling. When supervisors receive feedback from customers, they should try to share it with their employees. Feedback (good and bad) is a great way to learn.

As an interesting aside (and quite ironically) positive escalations occur more in companies with average customer service than those with really terrific customer service (because the expectations are different – great service isn’t exceptional at an exceptional company, it is at mediocre company). If you think about it, it makes sense.

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The Shaper Image Experience

If you’ve tried to use a gift certificate or merchandise credit at The Sharper Image lately, you have experienced unfriendly policies in action. Because the company is going through bankruptcy, they’ve implemented new policies that make it more difficult for customers to use the gift certificates and merchandise credits.
Last night, I went to my call Sharper Image with a $100 merchandise credit I had from something I had returned to the store after Christmas. I walked around the store and found something that I wanted for about $70. I went to the counter to buy it and herd the clerk explaining a new policy to another customer about. Due to the bankruptcy, the company put a policy in place where customers must spend twice the amount of their gift certificate or credit in order to be able to use the credit. Since I had a $100 credit, my minimum purchase would have to be $200. Instead of being able to leave the store spending nothing, I had to leave the store spending $100. Needless to say, I was aggravated, especially since the thing I wanted was only $70. There wasn’t anything that I wanted in the store that cost $200.

This policy has put me strongly against The Sharper Image. I used to be a loyal Sharper Image customer and would specifically buy things from the company because of their flexible, Nordstrom-esque return policies and good customer service. Over time, the policies got stricter and the company’s products started to appeal less to me (mainly because I owned essentially everything I wanted or needed in the store after a few years). However, this change definitely pushed me over the edge.

What other companies can learn from this (my rant is over) is the importance of not alienating your best customers, even when times get tougher. This policy might very well serve the purpose of getting the most money possible per sale, but it doesn’t serve the equally important purpose of making customers loyal and ensuring repeat purchases. It does the exact opposite of that (the other customer was also annoyed at the policy change and walked out). The long term customers who (hopefully) have a lot of nice things about the company are the ones that usually make the difference between success and failure at a particular company.

As for me? I left the store, without purchasing anything, and will continue to discourage people from shopping at The Sharper Image. I don’t like holding grudges against companies, but I also don’t want to shop at The Sharper Image until they change this policy.

The Consumerist has more on this subject.

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Engage People on a Human Level

I was talking to a representative from a major company the other day and he told me about a strategy he uses to improve the level of customer service that he provides. He told me that he tries to engage customers on a human level. How he attempts to engage customers on a human level is really quite simple – he asks about the weather. When the same agent above hears a baby crying, he asks if it is a prince or princess crying in the background. It is just another way to make the customer feel special and less anonymous. These types of questions engage customers on a human level.

Engaging customers on a human level is important because it develops a more personal relationship with individual customers. When customers feel less anonymous and more engaged, they are more likely to continue using the company. Personal customer service often translates into quality customer service. It helps make the tone of the call less formal and more relaxed. Technical support and customer service can sometimes be stressful for both parties, so making it more relaxed is always a positive thing to do.

Asking about the weather is an interesting question because it is a simple topic that everyone can relate to. It is also a safe question (unlike how are you) because people don’t get too upset by the weather (and the weather is independent of the quality of service being provided). You don’t have to ask about the weather, though. Other good questions that agents can ask are about sports team (like T-Mobile) and similar questions that are pretty netural and easily relatable to. The point is to ask questions that won’t upset anyone. You don’t want to ask questions that people have a hard time relating to or it could make the conversation awkward.

This is a great way to kill the dead air time that often occurs during calls, especially technical support calls. It’s small talk, but it’s useful. It is a lot better than just silence. Anything that helps personalize the customer service experience is a step in the right direction.

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What Sort of Support Your Company Should Offer

The other day I talked about the different roles of support within a few companies. We know there are companies that provide regular reactive support, more proactive account management, and of course, very involved consulting. Once the roles are defined, the next question relates to which role fits best for your company. As a service provider, what level of role or roles of support should you fill in order to be competitive? The question actually isn’t difficult to answer.

Consider your product or service.
If you have a simple product or service or a product or service with relatively limited capabilities, you don’t need to provide consulting or sophisticated account management. Web hosting is an interesting example because there is a lot of potential since the scope is so broad. Budget shared web hosts don’t need to offer consulting or account management because their typical customer pays less than $20 per month. On the other hand, higher end web hosts or web hosts that cater more to the enterprise type companies do need more complicated account management and do need to have consulting services available. Since both companies serve totally different markets with different services, their needs are different.

Consider your price point.
As mentioned above, consider the sort of customer you deal with on a day to day basis. Consumers aren’t really used to (nor do they really have any expectations for) high end account management or optional consulting services. Small businesses don’t usually expect (and often can’t afford) consulting, either. Big businesses are more complicated and need more help. Those are all things you have to consider. If you know your customer base, it should be a pretty easy decision.

Consider what you’ve been asked to do.
If your support requests seem to be more along the lines of account management or your consulting requests seem to be more along the lines of support, you may need to adjust (and/or define) your offerings. You want to be delivering the service your customers need (and want) to them. As always, feel free to survey interested customers and ask them what level of service they expect and what level of service they would be willing to pay for.

Don’t hesitate to do it on a small scale.
It is okay to have account managers for your 10 biggest clients, a simple partnership with a consultant instead of a formal agreement, etc. You can start all of your programs and different service options on a small scale basis and expand as you have the time and other resources. You learn a lot by starting off small and then going ahead and doing it all out. You’ll need time to hire the right people, setup the right processes, etc.

It shouldn’t take very long or be very complicated to figure out what is expected of you as a support provider.

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