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Introducing the Service Untitled Team

When I started Service Untitled back in April 2006, I was the only writer. I’d have occasional guest writers contribute to the blog, but for the most part, Service Untitled was me and me only. Nearly four years later (!), I’m happy to formally announce and introduce Service Untitled’s team of regular writers. The writers page features a listing of the regular contributors to Service Untitled, along with the photos and biographies of the people who bring you customer service advice and insight five days a week.

These people have been writing for Service Untitled for some time, but before today, there was not much information available about who they are or what they specialize in. The writers section is designed to provide that information. The writers section is released along with an entirely re-written and re-designed about section and revised contact and consulting pages.

In the new about section, you’ll also notice a new Service Untitled logo as well. This will be implemented into the main site’s design in the near future, but in the mean time, I want to show it off on the about page. A big thank you is owed to Bruce and his team at Logo Design Consultant for their hard work (and great customer service) in getting the logo designed.

Delta Gets Proactive

About a week ago, I received a letter from Delta Air Lines with some surprising news. Because a flight I took on December 14 was delayed close to five hours due to weather issues at the airport, the airline was giving me a fairly large amount of SkyMiles as a way to apologize. The letter, which was signed by the company’s General Manager of Customer Care, said the gift was a way for Delta to “demonstrate its committment to service excellence and as a gesture of apology for its service failure.”

Needless to say, I was impressed with Delta’s proactive approach. The letter, which arrived less than two weeks after my flight, came without any prompting from me. I didn’t complain to Delta in any way about my delays – no letter, no blog post, not even a phone complaint. They just noticed that my flight was delayed significantly and decided to act on it. Despite having experienced some pretty horrific airline delays in the past, I have never received any sort of proactive apology from an airline, so this was especially interesting to me.

The letter was well written and apologized profusely for an issue that was not Delta’s fault without providing any excuses. The company thanked me for my business and told me how I could check my SkyMiles balance to ensure the credit was added and what I could use the miles for.

When a business goes out of its way to provide proactive credits or some other form of compensation for an outage, failure, delay, etc., customers usually appreciate this gesture. Given the fact that only a small percentage of customers actually complain about something that annoys them, acting proactively can go a long way towards earning a lot of loyalty from customers who might be upset and just not saying anything. Giving something equivalent to frequent flier miles doesn’t really cost anything and encourages customers to continue using your company in the future, so it’s a win-win.

To provide some context, I fly Delta regularly, but not enough where I have frequent flier status at this time. In other words, I’m not an especially important customer to them from a financial standpoint.

Conversation with Toby Richards from Microsoft

Photo courtesy of Microsoft.On Monday, I spoke to Toby Richards, who is the the general manager of Community Support Services for Microsoft. Toby’s background is in marketing and customer satisfaction and he now works with community and online support at Microsoft.

Toby explained to me that community has played a significant role in Microsoft’s long-term success. It is obviously in Microsoft’s best interest for other customers to get productive use out of their investments and having communities of engaged customers helps enable this. His team is made up of about 100 people in 21 countries working on community and online support. His team also directs another 200 or so people around the world who provide actual support in the community. It’s also worth noting that Microsoft has a huge number of people working on some type of community efforts,

Toby and I primarily discussed two aspects of the company’s community and online support efforts.

MVP Program:
The Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Program has been around for about 18 years and according to Toby, is “one of the most recognized tech community influencer programs.” The program’s goal is to thank and recognize influential community leaders for their contributions to the community (which can include frequent posting in news groups and forums, writing a widely read blog, authoring a book, etc.) and then form a community around these people. MVPs are recognized for a specific competency (e. g. Windows). Beyond the recognition, MVPs get a variety of benefits and access to Microsoft’s product and engineering teams. For example, at an MVP gathering in China last month, there were 25 product teams present and the teams talked with MVPs. With the growing popularity of social media, the MVP program has approximately doubled in size over the past five years.

Microsoft Answers:
Microsoft Answers is a support community in which people can ask questions and get answers from their peers. Microsoft’s community support forums are visited by 12 million people unique users each month, so as you can imagine, there is a large number of people asking questions and also providing answers. The forums are in 10 different languages and the company is expecting a big surge in traffic after the release of the new version of Microsoft Office in a couple of months.

When a user gets an answer that he or she is happy with, they click a button indicating a certain post helped them resolve their issue (about 50% of users will actually say their question was answered) and that post is then displayed more prominently. What’s interesting is that answers are viewed over 1,000 times on average, indicating that a much larger group of people than the original question asker get some sort of benefit from the community responding. If necessary, Microsoft employees also participate in the conversation and if applicable, forward feedback, issues, etc. to product teams.

Some other interesting takeaways:

  • Each year, Microsoft hosts a conference for its MVPs in Redmond (where Microsoft is based). Over the course of 2 days, the company conducts 500 product feedback sessions with MVPs. The company covers hotel, food, etc. for the MVPs, but they are responsible for covering their own travel. An average of about 1,300 MVPs come from around the world. The event includes keynotes from Microsoft executives as well, including an introductory keynote from Rich Kaplan, who is Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Customer and Partner Advocacy. During his keynote, Rich goes over specific suggestions that came from specific MVPs and talks about how those suggestions influenced Microsoft products.
  • Toby said that MVPs have told him that they feel that Microsoft has gotten more transparent and responsive to feedback over the years and through programs like the MVP program. An MVP saying they feel their own program helps is obviously a bit biased, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. If you have interacted with Microsoft, what are your thoughts on how they have been handling things over the past five years or so?
  • Microsoft now has a support presence on Twitter at http://twitter.com/microsofthelps.
  • HP and Dell both have communities similar to Microsoft Answers, but the companies work together. Toby told me that philosophically, Microsoft’s main concern is that users are getting answers. Microsoft works with HP, Dell, and other top OEMs and provides them with information on the top issues they encounter, so the information can be incorporated into the companies’ forums and support systems. Microsoft also provides the companies with escalation support if they need it as well.
  • As expected, the communities are tuned to technical audiences because technical audiences have been engaged with communities and community support much longer than other audiences have. There is a very strong IT professional and developer presence. However, the consumer side is growing dramatically.
  • Resource wise, Microsoft has been investing heavily in community support and is continuing to do so.

Over the coming weeks, I will likely be talking to another person or two involved with support at Microsoft. If there are any particular areas of Microsoft’s support that you’re interested in, leave a comment.

Happy Holidays from Service Untitled

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Happy Holidays from Service Untitled!

Take some time off and enjoy the company of your friends and loved ones.

As always, thanks for reading, commenting, emailing in post ideas, and more. At Service Untitled, we will be starting off 2010 with a great interview and some new content. We’re looking forward to a great 2010 and wish you the same.

photo credit: CJeppson

Chick-fil-A Gets Proactive

chick-fil-a-pep-choc-shakeI’ve written about Chick-fil-A before (twice positive and once negative) and how they do things differently than a lot of fast food restaurants. The other day I was Christmas shopping at the mall and got Chick-fil-A for lunch. Given the fact it was a few days before Christmas, the mall was absolutely packed and Chick-fil-A was no exception. Chick-fil-A was good at handling the influx of people, but that wasn’t what was notable about the experience.

What was interesting is that Chick-fil-A sent one of their employees around asking people with Chick-fil-A cups if they wanted refills or needed more sauces or anything like that. If someone said they wanted a refill, he took their cup and came back with their refill a few minutes later. If a person didn’t need anything, he wished them a happy holiday and thanked them for their business.

This isn’t something I have ever seen at a mall before. I’ve seen people walk around Chick-fil-A’s standalone restaurants and ask people how their meal is and if they need anything, but I’ve never noticed that in a mall setting, especially when it is as busy as it was when I was there.

My guess is that the particular location had an extra person who came in (and/or not enough room to get the people who were there to be productive) and the manager said to go around and see if people needed anything. Sending someone around accomplishes a few things:

  • People get their refills without having to wait in line (customer satisfaction bonus as well as less congestion at the actual store).
  • The store gets to use an employee who otherwise might not contribute very much during his or her shift.
  • Customers have the opportunity to be impressed, wowed, etc. by the fact a fast food restaurant is sending people around a mall’s food court and asking if they want refills.

All and all, this was a win-win for Chick-fil-A and a good idea.

Pay Now or Pay Later?

Mark and Pfennig no moreI was getting my car serviced today and was in a rush, so I asked to pay for my oil change before it was done so I could save time once it was finished. Apparently, it was company policy to prohibit customers from paying in advance. When I asked if I could pay in the advance, the guy helping me muttered something about putting a deposit down and how that isn’t allowed and the gist of the message was that I couldn’t pay in advance.

Within reason, policies should be put in place to help customers and make the customer experience smoother. I can’t think of a good reason why a customer should not be allowed to pay for a set price of work in advance. Simple systems can be put in place to make it work and deal with any potential complications that would result from some customers paying in advance.

If there is a legitimate reason that you cannot do something that seems simple, have an explanation of some sort ready. Customers will be a lot more understanding if it sounds like some thought went into the particular policy and if there appears to be a legitimate hardship involved for the company trying to go out of its way. And if something isn’t complicated, but can make a customer happy, consider it seriously. You have very little to lose and a lot to gain.

photo credit: arex

Maximizing Social Media: Part 2 of 2

To see part one of this series, click here.

Networking is also a way to encourage customer storytelling – the best connections glue there is. Network can mean creating on-line events that function as a “watering hole” for customers. Facilitate interactions with other customers. Provide giveaways or drawings to promote a spirit of warmth and camaraderie. Ensure there are value-added takeaways that tie your organization to the network experience. Invite a special person your customers will want to meet.

Effective social media management involves figuring out what makes your customers different from others and then capitalize on it. Try to get inside your customers’ minds to unearth what unique need or desire your service can address. Help your customers feel they are a part of a special group with the same allure that the “The Few, the Proud, the Marines” has for a Marine recruit. When Jeff Bezos started Amazon.com he wanted to create an on-line experience of the neighborhood bookstore. Since there was no bookstore clerk to tell patrons about an obscure new mystery or the best book on crocheting, he turned the job over to customers, encouraging them to write book reviews. The result was a community of book lovers, or to quote Bezos, “neighbors helping neighbors make purchase decisions.”

The twin bean cans with the string was more than a tool for childhood communication. You had a friend on the other end of the string, an important part of your network of buds. You had a means to create a special identity by boldly creating a link that circumvented the oversight of adults. The cans were also a device that enabled secret-sharing, a bonding ritual that made you blood brothers (or sisters).

The advent of social media is revealing more about our customers than simply a faddish version of the cell phone or text messaging. It informs us customers want connections that matter and a means of expression that is valued. Properly understanding the anthropology of social media can be a great boon to the principles of building customer devotion.

P.S. Don’t order the Salisbury steak at Papa Pete’s in Norfolk. But, the fried okra is to die for.

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. They can be reached through www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: bettyx1138

Maximizing Social Media: Part 1 of 2

Phone PollWhen we were kids we use to construct a “phone line” using a long string with an empty bean can on either end. When you spoke right into the bean can, the sound carried over the string to be heard by the ear in the can on the other end. We could tell smutty jokes and trade secrets without parental eavesdropping. Now, we have Facebook, LinkedIn, blogging, and Twitter between “trees.” And, all your friends can have a string connected to your “bean can.”

Organizations are trying to figure what to make of social media and how to capitalize on it. Since they can “listen in” on the “crowdalogue,” some treat it as tool to monitor “chatter” hopefully revealing customer issues and interests. Some are using it as an early warning device actually intervening to right a service wrong in the making. But, few are tapping into the real anthropology—the bean can side.

Customers want connections that are personalized and specific. They do not want to waste time with scattergun clutter from marketers. They want connections that are authentic and natural, not PR pap sanitized and hyped by some speechwriter. They want connections that engage their heart as much as their head—service creativity that creates a story to share. Remember, the goal of communication is not simply to listen. The goal is to turn understanding into meaningful action. Are you using social media to monitor or to make a difference?

Effective social media management helps customers create a network. Examine how cleverly Amazon.com lets you know that “People who bought this book also enjoyed the ones pictured below.” Look at the popularity of NetFlix Friends network which allows customers an online peek at movies their friends have rented and whether they’ve given them the thumbs up or down. Providing a network creates ways of socializing the service experience, thus ramping up affirmation that customers made a wise choice.

In part two, Bell and Patterson will describe how social media can lead to customers telling stories about your business.

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. They can be reached through www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: SpecialKolin

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