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Praise publicly.

Customer service focused organizations that really care about their employees make praising employees publicly a big deal. Managers and fellow employees are trained to “catch” employees providing great customer service and then recognize that.

More often than not, employees respond very well to positive reinforcement and public praise. No one argues with a bonus, but getting public recognition in addition to a bonus can be just as valuable. It gives the particular employee a sense of accomplishment, sets a positive example for other employees, and shows to the entire company that great customer service is possible and is an achievable goal. Praising publicly is a win-win-win situation for everyone involved.

There are a number of ways to recognize employees – some are simple, others are more complicated. Great team leaders used to managing exceptional customer service teams do it as a matter of habit. For other managers that aren’t used to that, it’s a habit that can be developed.

  • On the company intranet or on the bulletin board in the back, post the names of the five people with the highest customer satisfaction ratings.
  • Post letters (hopefully positive ones) on the company intranet or bulletin board. For positive letters, highlight the names of the employees involved.
  • It’s amazing how much of a difference a simple email at the end of the day or the week or the month can make. The email can include something as simple as: “Bob got 9 positive customer comments this week. Way to go, Bob!”
  • Alternatively, you can send out a more in-depth report that points out best practices, specifically recognizes employees who have done a good job, and set goals for the upcoming period. It can include charts, averages, comparisons, and everything.
  • During staff meetings, take a moment to recognize people who had a particularaly good day the previous day or earlier in the day. Point out what they did right and how the rest of the employees can obtain similar results.

It’s okay to start small. Start with the simple email that you send out once a week or the staff meeting mentions. Then, move up to a bigger report you send out once a month. As long as you’re recognizing and praising employees publicly, you’re on the right track.

There is no endgame in customer service.

Every now and then I find myself talking to an executive who mentions an endgame, finish line, or a similar sports metaphor that talks about an end of customer service improvement or an overall goal that can be reached.

When I hear this, I have to interrupt and ask a question. My interrupting has nothing to do with the sports metaphors (I don’t use them, but I promise I have nothing against those who do), but instead my interrupting is the result of someone talking about an endgame in customer service.

The fact is that there is no finish line, endgame, or magic goal that can be achieved when it comes to customer service. The best customer service companies know this already. The best companies are constantly improving. For them, 95% customer satisfaction is not good enough.

And when I say 95% is not good enough, that does not mean the actual number will improve significantly (chances are you’ll never reach 100% satisfaction), but the service delivered can certainly improve. I was talking to a CEO yesterday who ran a company that had a satisfaction rating in the very high 90’s – and I told him that the rating is about as good as it’s going to get. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re done with customer service (they knew they weren’t); there is still work to do. If Ritz Carlton’s customer satisfaction rating is in the high 90’s, it may be hard to get that number up, but I do know that there are ways they can improve. Service can be more consistent, it can be faster, it can be more efficient. It can always be better.

I don’t know of one company in the world that has perfect customer service across all divisions, locations, and employees. I don’t think such a company exists. I don’t think such a company can exist. However, I do think that companies can eventually (though not easily) get very close to perfection and they should always be working towards that goal.

I’ll never forget the day I called Nordstrom to request an interview and was politely told that the company doesn’t give interviews about their customer service because they feel there is still a lot of work to do. That type of attitude (while perhaps a bit extreme) is the type of attitude that every company should have. It’s okay to know you’re good, or even to know you’re great, but it’s not okay to think you’re perfect.

The attitude and culture that you should try to instill should be something along the lines of “we’re very good at what we do, but we can always get better.”

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A Million Spam Comments and a Response from GoDaddy

I was looking at the comment spam filter on my blog the other day (provided by Akismet from Automattic) and noticed that it had reached 1,000,000 blocked spam comments.



That’s certainly a large number and I’m impressed. Akismet has definitely saved me a lot of time and aggravation and has made having comments on posts possible.

Another thing that impressed me today was that when I went to check my email, I saw an email from GoDaddy. At first, it seemed automated, but after reading it, I could tell they had read the post, understood what I was saying, and spent time writing a response. I posted their response as a comment to the post here and encourage you to read it. They even said they’re considering changes.

I’m going to take it a step further and ask if GoDaddy is interested in doing an interview with Service Untitled. Regardless of their survey techniques, GoDaddy is an interesting company that I would be interested in learning about. Let’s see what they say.

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Are you sure you want to provide negative feedback?

Apparently, I’m rude. I’m inconsiderate, thoughtless, and downright offensive. I have no regard for the feelings of others and might even go out of my way to make people feel bad. At least, that’s the way GoDaddy made me feel when I filled out a survey they sent me today.

A confirmation box that popped up when I filled out a GoDaddy post-call survey.

Putting the melodrama aside, I was actually quite surprised when GoDaddy asked me if I was sure I wanted to submit negative feedback. Their exact words were: “You are about to submit negative feedback for this survey. Do you wish to continue?” At first, I didn’t believe it. I had to read it again. I had never seen that before. Sure enough, a company was actually asking me to think twice my choice to provide negative feedback.

I’m not if GoDaddy realizes the point of surveying their customers. The point is not to get the best numbers. Instead, the point is (or rather, should be) to get the most honest answers and feedback about their customer service. The best way to avoid getting negative ratings is to provide better service. GoDaddy actively discouraging their customers from rating the company negatively during a survey is counter-productive. GoDaddy is manipulating their own results, which as far as I’m aware, are only used internally. They’re only fooling themselves. This isn’t the right way to conduct or look at surveys.

If a customer has a less than phenomenal customer service experience and rates the experience accordingly in a survey, you should let him or her provide that feedback. In fact, you should value that type of feedback (see this post about keeping your enemies closer); as a customer-centric organization, it is your responsibility to thank the customer for their feedback and see what you can do to make the experience better. You may choose to take it a step further and follow up with the particular customer personally or you can choose to simply consider collective and individual customer feedback when making changes. That’s how surveying works and what it’s designed to do.

Surveying is not a game of company versus customer. If customers are providing positive feedback, it’s probably for a reason. Similarly, if they’re providing negative feedback, it’s for a reason. Surveys are a way of gathering customer feedback and opinions. Doing anything to try and skew those honest opinions (like double checking with customers before accepting negative feedback) is just making it harder to collect that honest feedback and in the long run, harder to provide service that is truly exceptional.

Should the CEO provide support?

I was talking to Mike McDerment, the CEO of FreshBooks today and we had a discussion about founders / CEOs providing support to customers. The company, which has about 20 employees currently, doesn’t have formal support staff members. Instead, they have every employee (including CEO Mike) pitch in and provide support to customers who happen to have questions or concerns.

Mike thinks that having the founder and/or the CEO provide support to customers (on a part time basis, not necessarily as a full time job like Craig Newmark from Craigslist) allows that executive to have a chance to interact with customers first hand and get a firsthand feeling of what customers and the company is going through. Reading reports and surveys only does so much; responding to and talking to customers lets executives really get in touch with customers.

As companies get bigger, CEOs and executives often find themselves getting more and more disconnected with customers and the frontlines. More and more distractions start coming up, more meetings start happening, and everyone finds themselves getting busier and more specialized. As CEOs and executives get more specialized, they tend to specialize towards roles that don’t involve frequent customer contact. Doing support can supplement that lost customer contact.

I’ve written about the importance of getting on the frontlines before and I think it’s a good idea. There are some situations where it might not be appropriate (if the company is going through a major change, the CEO will hopefully have other things to do) and some customers that might not like it (traditional corporate customers might wonder why the CEO is not doing something else), but for most customers and most companies, I think exposing the CEO to the helpdesk on a regular basis can be very beneficial.

Mike wrote a post about the importance of founders doing support on the FreshBooks Blog. He has strong opinions on the subject. I think it’s a good idea in most cases. What do you think?

The Multi-Generational Workforce

I was talking to the person in charge of customer service at Constant Contact, a company that provides email marketing services, today and started off the call with my usual question of “what are your challenges?” One of the answers, handling rapid growth, was not a unique challenge – lots of companies deal with it (it’s probably one of the best challenges to have). The other one, though, was a new challenge that I hadn’t really heard before: dealing with a multi-generational workforce.

What Constant Contact has experienced is a difference in career expectations between different generations. The company has noticed that its new employees who are often members of generation Y want to move through their careers much more quickly than those that are members of the boomer generation or generation X. He explained to me that the boomer generation is a lot more content in one job for several years (assuming growth potential is there) than a gen-Y’er. Gen Y’ers want to move through the company quickly – they’re looking to move around the company and experience different aspects of it.

While these generalizations obviously aren’t true in every single situation, it seems to be the general trend. There have been lots of studies examining the different ways members of different generations look at careers and what it means to have a career path. Constant Contact did their own research and had to make some changes in their existing policies in order to be able to adapt to the different expectations among their employees.

Firstly, what they aimed to do was ensure that the best people for the job got the job, regardless of how long they’ve been at the company, how much experience they have, etc. The company used to have a policy that essentially said employees had to stay in a job for at least a year before moving to another position. Overtime, the policy changed into a less formally enforced guideline. Today, the company looks less at the time an employee has put into a particular job and more at how much the particular employee understands the customers, the product, etc. It takes some employees five months to get that holistic understanding, whereas it takes some employees two years.

Coming to the understanding that time at the company doesn’t necessarily reflect how qualified someone is or is not for a certain job is an important understanding for rapid growth companies to have. Rapid growth companies don’t have time to let their best potential employees stay in one job for a year before moving up. Rapid growth requires flexibility, and as a result, flexible policies. It’s difficult for rapid growth companies to succeed if things are set in stone and can’t change as the company changes. Getting to a point where policies are flexible requires a management team that understands the importance of flexibility.

Exchanging Weekly Reports

Another complex problem that can be combatted with a relatively simple solution is dealing with the issues between customer service and product design / engineering. There is usually a lot of conflict (if there is any sort of communication) between customer service and the groups responsible for developing product. In many companies, the customer service department gets annoyed at the lack of responsiveness from product design and product design gets annoyed at customer service not telling them about what they need to do.

While the exact problems obviously vary from company to company, there are solutions. The main solution is to let each department know what the other is doing. There are a number of simple and relatively informal ways to do this.

My favorite way to encourage communication between customer service and other departments is simply by exchanging weekly reports. Most customer service departments prepare some sort of weekly report that outlines what they’ve been doing over the past week: what sort of issues they’ve been handling, who’s been resolving this, how successful they’ve been, what the most complaints are about, etc. These types of reports can be extremely valuable to other departments as well (for example, marketing).

Imagine how much insight product engineering could gain from such a report. They’ll see that customers complain about problems X a lot, which means they should probably look into fixing Y. The two aren’t always as directly related or easily fixed, but there is almost always something for each department to learn.

On the other hand, when product engineering lets customer service know what they’re up to, it provides the group with a new perspective. They can tell customers that the problem related to X is actually in the development pipeline and should be fixed with the next release due out next March. They can tell customers that yes, the company is listening to their feedback and their complaints are being addressed in the next development cycle. Customer service can use the knowledge to provide better solutions. If they know a certain problem isn’t going to be fixed for a year, they can invest in writing better documentation to explain it. If they know it’ll be fixed next week, they can invest their time and effort elsewhere.

This is a simple solution that can produce great results. It’s more about keeping communication open than anything. When departments know what other departments are doing, it’ll allow them to make better decisions and be more productive.

Who Should Write Documentation?

Documentation is an important aspect of customer service for any company. Because it’s so important, a lot of companies spend a lot of time writing, editing, revising, and keeping up with documentation. Doing so is extremely important (critical for many companies). If a company does not have quality documentation that covers their products, support procedures, etc., their customer service will almost certainly suffer.

With that in mind, who (individual or department) at your company should the actual documentation? The answer seems to vary from company to company and company culture to company culture.

  • Multiple people should be involved in the process. There should be a documentation guy that writes all of the documentation, procedures, tutorials, etc. for the company. The job should be done by multiple people.
  • Involve multiple departments. Customer service might think something is important to include in documentation that engineering assumes everyone knows (or vice versa). Different departments have a different perspective. Documentation that is a result of only one perspective is a lot less useful than documentation that has been seen, edited, and written by people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise.
  • Make it open. There are a number of great wiki products available (MediaWiki is free; Confluence and Socialtext are both great paid products) that are designed to make documenting things simple and easy. They are also designed to foster collaboration and teamwork. If your documentation is in something like a wiki where others can easily edit it, it’s a lot more likely to stay up-to-date and useful (and as a result, be used by employees). An open system also makes it simple for
  • Ensure quality control. No matter how open your system is, you want to ensure quality as well. Some companies prefer to be a bit more restrictive than others (where a senior employee has to approve anything before it’s published), while others go back to edit articles retroactively. Regardless of what you decide to do, there has to be a process that ensures the articles are all accurate and high quality.

Documentation, interestingly enough, is a cultural thing as much as it is an operational thing. Companies that aren’t used to writing things down (usually because there has never been a good system in place for doing so) take longer to get in the groove of writing interesting solutions down. If knowledge share is a problem at your company, you should definitely be looking into writing things down for all to see.

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