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The Waiting Room

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I had to take my car into for an oil change and tire rotation today. The representative promised me the service would only take an hour or so and I had a book to read, so I went to the waiting room and sat down. The waiting room pleasantly surprised me, though. It was a lot nicer than the typically bland waiting rooms you would see in doctors’ offices. It left those types of waiting rooms in the dust.

This car dealership’s waiting room (it wasn’t even a sales waiting room – it was a service one) not only had a couple of magazines and fairly comfortable chairs like most mediocre waiting rooms, but it also had a big screen TV, popcorn machine, wireless Internet, a coffee maker, a bowl of fruit, three vending machines (if you need them), and computer workstations. The wireless Internet and computer workstations impressed me the most – you don’t see them in waiting rooms very often.

The best thing about this waiting room was it made the wait bearable. I was able to get a bag of popcorn, check my email, and read my book while I waited for almost an hour. Like a lot of people, I usually find myself going crazy from boredom after 15 or 20 minutes in a doctor’s waiting room. If I waited another half hour or forty five minutes in this particular waiting room, it wouldn’t have been a big deal or an inconvenience. I had plenty to do to keep me busy and the experience was pleasant.

If you are going to have a waiting room, invest the time and money in making it a nice place to be. If you find your customers having (or choosing) to wait often, it makes the investment even more valuable. Creating a superior waiting room is not rocket science – it is just a matter of dedicating a little bit of time and the money to doing it. Once you do it, it’s pretty much done. However, the rewards will continue for a long time. Your great waiting room room can make a longer wait tolerable, and maybe even enjoyable for your customers. That should be worth it right there.

Quick Post: How flexible should appointment times be?

A quick post today that was inspired by an email I got from a reader. He asked just how flexible his policy relating to changing and canceling appointment times should be – a terrific question.

Companies are afraid to create liberal polices for fear of them being abused. However, a mindset like that isn’t fair to the majority of customers that won’t abuse the policies (see this post about working for the 99% instead of the 1%). Very few customers will wake up saying “I’m going to try and pull one on Company X today.” The vast majority of customers will have legitimate for using the flexibility and will almost certainly appreciate the added flexibility (i. e. the very liberal return policy at Nordstrom).

Since the majority of customers won’t abuse the policy, design your appointment policy to be as flexible as you can. There is a delicate mix between operational efficiency and policy flexibility that has to maintained and this depends entirely on the company and the business.

For example, if your company is a one man plumber, you can’t have appointments changing all the time because there is only one person to send to customers’ homes. If your company has 50 plumbers on staff, though, it isn’t a big deal to change who goes where because chances are someone will be available. If customers come to you, the same thing applies. If you are a one man doctor’s office, you need to keep appointments fairly strictly. If you have five doctors and plenty of patients, it doesn’t matter as much. It is important to look at your business and what you can handle.

The most important part is to create a policy that you can realistically support. If you find yourself providing bad service as a result of this liberal policy, you should definitely change it.

Giving Back (and Getting) Testimonials

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The other day I sent in a testimonial to Jean MacDonald at SmileOnMyMac (they wrote a guest post about their terrific email newsletters here) about my experience using a program they make called PDFpen.

I’ve had a very positive experience using the software over the last month or so and wanted to send in a testimonial reflecting my experience. The next day, Jean replied back thanking me for my testimonial, telling me it was published on their web site, and also telling about something she tries to do.

What Jean tries to do (and what I try to do as well) is let companies know when they do an exceptionally good job (either by providing great customer service or by offering a great product), usually by sending in a testimonial or positive comment. She labeled it as “giving back.” As a marketing person, Jean appreciates getting testimonials and wants to help other companies as well. I look it at basically the same way; it’s great for your “customer service karma” per say. The testimonial I sent in, while obviously quite positive, was pretty simple – it didn’t take me more than two or three minutes to write and was easy to send in. When I enjoy using a product or service, it’s my pleasure to send in a testimonial and say positive things about the company.

The best thing that a company that wants more testimonials can do is to make the process easy. (That assumes you already have a great product or service worth writing a testimonial about.) Have a simple way to submit testimonials (either using a form or by listing a particular person to send the testimonials to), acknowledge the person sending the testimonials, and publish the testimonials. If the customers are being thanked and the testimonials are being published, they are a lot more likely to take time to write testimonials and send them in.

Of course, another great way to get testimonials (at least if you believe in “customer service karma”) is to send testimonials in to the companies you have great experiences with. Even if sending in the testimonials don’t help you immediately (like making the process easier does), it certainly can’t hurt.

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When Hired, Schedule Reviews

When I work with companies to improve their hiring and training processes, one thing I like to suggest is getting in the mindset of having the entire new employee process very formalized. When I say very formalized, I mean that hiring managers should have it down to an exact science after the first employee or two hired using the new system. Part of having that hiring and training process down to an exact science means scheduling reviews and follow ups as soon as the employee is hired.

At a company I worked with, their official process was to have a follow up meeting after the new employee’s first shift, a one week follow up, and a one month follow up. Each meeting would be about a half hour, sometimes longer. The follow ups would be a mix of a review, critique and suggestions, and “how are you doing?” talks between the new employee and his or her immediate manager. The hiring manager would sometimes participate in the one month follow up and have a separate meeting with the manager to see how things were going and how the hiring process could be tweaked to get better candidates hired. The three (or sometimes four) meetings were added to the employee’s and manager’s calendars immediately after the employee was brought on board. That way, there were no putting them off and no saying “we’ll do it next week.” Both groups were required to have the meetings and there were no exceptions.

The schedule for the follow up meetings was then sent to the employee with the rest of the information once they were formally hired. Along with their login information, contact information for their boss, etc., they were made aware of the formally scheduled meetings. Everything was arranged by the company’s hiring manager and everything went pretty smoothly for both the employee and his or her manager. Taking the responsibility off of the managers and assigning the duty to someone else is very important. It ensures the job gets done and it ensures that no one is brushing it aside.

What makes this process most effective is that it quite frankly, a formalized process that is taken seriously. When companies write down processes and take them seriously (generally done by assigning someone specifically to follow through with it), they are more often than not, fairly helpful and effective. Not all processes and procedures are great, but simple ones like this are almost always a sure bet.

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Customer Connections

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I was exchanging emails with an executive from CARFAX not too long ago and he told me about an interesting program they have called “customer connections.” The program is pretty simple and its goals are even simpler: expose all types of employees to customers and to what the company is doing. It seems like a great culture builder and an interesting program for any type of company.

The way it works is that every employee, from the “receptionist to the President,” is required to have a certain number of customer connection hours every quarter. The hours are determined by the job title and position. Some people need more hours than others. For example, a software engineer (who usually doesn’t interact with customers) might need to have more customer connection hours than a customer support representative whose job it is to interact with customers every single day.

How employees can get hours is really interesting. They can attend consumer focus groups, listen in on phone calls with dealers or customers, visit dealers, work with staff as they answer consumer emails, attend a session with an industry guest speaker, etc. The point is to get that particular employee to step outside of their normal job and their normal element. It lets employees learn about who the “real” customers are, what challenges they’re facing, and how those challenges affect the rest of the company.

Some companies have programs like this, others don’t. I like this program because it’s more flexible than a lot of other ones. When companies have these sorts of programs, they are usually really rigid (“all employees must spend two hours answering support tickets every year). Even worse, a lot of these programs are ignored or brushed aside. Employees get caught up in other things and when things get busy, companies that aren’t serious about these programs brush them aside.

Furthermore, when there are more options available, it seems like less of a chore. You can do something different every quarter or you can keep doing the same thing – whatever works for you. Many educational institutions (secondary and upper level) require that students have a certain number of community service or school service hours to graduate. The programs there are very similar; students can get community or school service hours doing a number of different things and they have to have a certain amount to graduate. The best thing, though, is that the programs aren’t brushed aside. Students have to have the hours in order to graduate. No exceptions.

The Platinum Rule

Platinum Bar
When I was talking Frederick Mendler from Rackspace yesterday, he mentioned the platinum rule. I admittedly did not pick up on the metaphor right away, but Frederick noticed my confusion and quickly explained it me. The golden rule is treat others how you want to be treated. I had heard that before. Like most children, the golden rule had been mentioned to me by my mother, teachers, and relatives about 1000 times between the time I learned to talk and age 10 (after age 10 or so, one’s knowledge of the rule seems to be assumed). The golden rule shows up in business when executives start to have conversations with themselves (and others) about the plight of their customers (“I wouldn’t want to wait on hold for 3 hours and then get transfered to someone else. That just isn’t right!”) and I was familiar with that thinking as well. But the platinum rule was new to me.

The platinum rule, I learned, takes a different approach. It uses the same basic idea of the golden rule (be a nice person) and takes it a step further. The platinum rule is to treat others how they want to be treated. What an interesting idea. I was intrigued and jotted it down for a future post. A bit of research revealed that the “platinum rule” was a term coined by Dr. Tony Alessandra, a speaker, consultant, and author. More importantly, that research revealed a great description of the platinum rule on Dr. Alessandra’s web site:

“Treat others the way they want to be treated.” Ah hah! What a difference. The Platinum Rule accommodates the feelings of others. The focus of relationships shifts from “this is what I want, so I’ll give everyone the same thing” to “let me first understand what they want and then I’ll give it to them.”

Looking at business (and life) that way makes sense. What’s right for you isn’t always right for the customer. While more than a couple companies are known for designing products or offering that originated from their own needs, the idea doesn’t always work. These companies came to the realization that X was needed to do their business, so they created X. When they were designing or creating whatever X was, these entrepreneurs essentially built a product for themselves. It works in many cases and doesn’t work in others.

The problem with the golden rule is it assumes that everyone wants the same thing. If I am a nine year old who can take a joke about being fat, skinny, or any other childish extreme, that doesn’t mean the kid siting next to me will find the same joke as amusing as I do. If I don’t mind jokes, I’m not breaking the golden rule by saying them to another kid; I’m treating him how I want to be treated. However, if I followed the platinum rule, I would need to consider what the other kid wanted specifically. I would learn (through research of some sort) that he doesn’t like those types of jokes, and as a result, I would try to avoid upsetting him by making such jokes. I could even take it a step further and compliment him. The idea makes sense. Imagine if a company like Intuit built accounting software for itself. Chances are, the $2.6 billion software giant needs different things from accounting software than I do for my personal and small business needs.

I think the platinum rule could be rephrased into something as simple as: work for your customers, not yourself. If your customers needs are similar to your needs, great, that makes life easier. If not, that’s okay as well – just make the effort to understand their needs and keep their needs in mind when doing your job.

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Happy Birthday to Service Untitled!

BbigbirthdaycakeIt was on my calendar, but I completely forgot to write about it until now: Service Untitled turned two years old today (it’s a blogiversary). The post I wrote last year was a bit more eloquent, but I’m going to say essentially the same thing this year.

For the last two years, I have blogged about customer service and the customer service experience every single Monday thru Friday (except holidays and occasional days when I’m sick).

I have to say I really like doing it and what I like even more is getting the chance to talk to and meet such interesting people. Not just the people I interview, but the other bloggers, customer service professionals, employees, journalists, and plethora of people I talk to and/or exchange emails with every week. It helps humanize some of the subscriber numbers and makes the writing process a lot more interesting.

The people you meet through blogging (especially customer service blogs) are fascinating and the experience of meeting, talking to, and even working with these people is probably the main reason I keep writing every day.

You can’t take people for granted, though. I am eternally grateful to the amazing people I have met and have had the pleasure of working with through my blog and my consulting work. This includes the wonderful group of customer service bloggers that help me (and I try to help them), my consulting clients, the individuals that allow me to interview them, the people who write guest writer posts every so often on Service Untitled, my advertisers, and everyone else.

Most importantly, this includes my readers. Without the readers, writing this blog would be far too academic and self-reflective (I have never kept a diary consistently). I am thankful to have such a great group of readers – a group that not only reads my posts, but takes the time to email suggestions, post comments, refer my blog to their friends and colleagues, and talk about my blog.

I’ve written another 290 or so posts over the last year. My readership has increased significantly and I continue to get a lot of positive feedback about my blog. It is still exciting to see a post of mine featured on another blog or to see my blog linked to in some random blog’s blogroll. It shows that people reading and enjoying my blog, which is always good to hear.

If my posts are helping companies, individuals, and organizations to improve their customer service and their customer service experience, they’re doing their job and I’m doing my job. I’m looking forward to continuing to my job — as a blogger, as a writer, and as a consultant — for many years to come.

Thanks for the great two years. With your continued support, I am sure there will be many more.

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The Rackspace Fanatical Support Promise

Nordstrom. The Ritz Carlton. Lexus. These are all companies that understand customer service at the deepest level and are able to provide unparalleled customer service consistently, across countries and across continents. As a result of their mastery of the customer service experience, these companies are widely regarded as some of the world’s greatest customer service organizations. Rackspace, an IT hosting company based in San Antonio (TX), aspires to become one of those famed customer service organizations. To help reach this goal, they’ve defined their “Fanatical Support Promise.”

The idea behind Rackspace’s Fanatical Support Promise is to formalize a process in which Rackspace investigates issues that upset customers and subsequently develops a plan for addressing such issues. If the issues can’t be resolved in a way that makes the customer happy, the promise provides a way for the unhappy customer to get out of any existing contracts they might have with the company. By making such a promise (guarantee), Rackspace is admitting that things inevitably do go wrong and that they are making commitment to listen to customers and address those problems when they occur.

Rackspace’s VP of Customer Care Frederick Mendler (who I’ve met and also interviewed here) explained to me that Rackspace doesn’t want to hold unhappy customers hostage. Utility companies hold customers hostage because they’re monopolies and customer satisfaction doesn’t really contribute to the success of the their businesses. Companies like Rackspace, though, would rather provide their customers with an option to move on if all options have been exhausted. It makes more business sense to let the customer move on (thinking relatively highly of the company) than to lock the customer into a contract they don’t want to be in.

Functionally, the promise first comes into play when the customer feels Rackspace has failed them in some way. Rackspace failing the customer in some way can include any number of things from not supporting a service that was assumed to be supported to a failure to communicate something properly. Regardless of the reason, the company then works with the customer to collect specific feedback and come up with a plan of action. If the plan of action is satisfactory to the customer, Rackspace will then do its best to follow through on the plan and ensure it achieves all of the plan’s goals. If the plan isn’t satisfactory to the customer, or for some reason, Rackspace can’t successfully execute the plan, then the customer is given the option to cancel his or her contract without penalties.

As a company, Rackspace lives and breathes what they call Fanatical Support. Part of the Fanatical Support Promise included dividing Fanatical Support into five key areas of focus, each of which have a specific set of goals associated with it (see this page): Responsiveness, Ownership, Resourcefulness, Expertise, and Transparency.

The result is a fairly concrete explanation of a somewhat difficult to grasp concept. Rackspace then ties those five areas into the promise and goes on to describe exactly what it all means for the customer. The promise says, quite simply, if Rackspace doesn’t meet live up to its standards (standards set by both the company and its customers), they will take action to ensure a resolution happens. And if a resolution is impossible or the customer still isn’t happy, they’ll let the customer cancel without any penalty.

Companies can learn from Rackspace’s promise because it sets a standard (based on an existing cultural element within the company) and then backs that standard up with a formal process. If a promise isn’t backed by something, it’s more marketing hype than anything else. The company made their promise simple enough to be easily understood, but deep enough to actually have merit and meaning. This promise addresses both the personal and the professional aspects of a guarantee.

I tend to advocate and recommend concrete service mission statements (or promises or goals or whatever you want to call them) because they provide employees, executives, and customers with something to look back at when they’re making decisions — both long term and short term ones. The Fanatical Support Promise can serve as a great one for Rackspace. What do you have that’s similar?

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