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Dealing with an unexpected rush.

My post on Monday talked about dealing with the rush in general. This post was supposed to go up yesterday, but there was slight confusion. Today’s post talks about how to deal with the rush that is unexpected.

Have formal operating procedures.
The first step to being able to deal with that huge, unexpected rush is to have formal operating procedures in place about how to deal with the said rush. Like any other operating procedure, your procedure for dealing with a big rush should be thought out, written down, and employees should be aware of it (and know how to do it).

Get the staff in.
Get as many employees as you can to work. Call them at home and get them to come in. Explain things are really busy. If you need to, pay them more than usual – give them a bonus at the end of the day or pay them time and a half. Whatever you have to do, do it. You’ll need extra help.

Remove people from jobs that don’t have to be done right that second.
You probably have bookkeepers, designers, marketers, stock people, etc. around that work for longer term things. Or they work behind the scenes. When you are really busy and can’t get enough , you need to move them to the frontlines. What you do with them depends on their expertise and what is needed (see below).

Use people that aren’t as experienced as support, not leads.
You know the bookkeepers and accountants you just took from behind the scenes? Don’t make them your star employees from the day. Have them do support roles. That way the people who are more used to being on the frontlines can do other things. What exactly a support role is varies from business to business, but it can be anything from assigning ticket numbers routing phone calls to directing customers to the right line.

Delegate simple tasks that can be done right.
Every business has simple tasks that can be done right (like the ones discussed above). I would delegate all the simple tasks (like routing phone calls) that are easy to do and can be done right (easily). This will let your more experiences representatives concentrate on the more complicated things.

Apologize to customers.
Your customers can probably tell things are really busy. However, you should apologize to them. Apologize about the wait. Apologize about things being a bit hectic. Apologize about it taking four transfers to get them to the right extension. Just explain that things are busy, everyone is trying their best, and that you sincerely appreciate their patience and understanding. (Don’t make excuses if possible.)

Offer to follow up later.
For customers that you feel could use extra attention, but you lack the time to do it during the busy day, offer to follow up later. If they accept (which many will), actually follow up. Offer a private appointment. Offer for them to come in next week. Just offer to follow up and then actually do it.

What employees should be kept in the loop about.

Yesterday I shared about how to keep employees in the loop. Today’s post is about what employees should be kept in the loop about. What should they be told? What shouldn’t they be told?

There are a lot of answers to that question. It can depend on what group or department (engineering, customer service, etc.) the employee is in, what level they are at (frontline, executive, etc.), and what type of information it is.

This post is going to discuss mainly what customer service employees should be kept in the loop about.

If there is an outage or similar downtime event, the customer service staff should be the second group that should be notified (engineering or whoever is in charge of fixing it should be notified first). Chances are, though, that they already know about the outage.

As usual, with updates relating to things like outages and downtime, you want to answer the common questions:

  • What happened.
  • What caused it.
  • What’s being done about it.
  • When it will be back up and running.
  • What’s being done to prevent the problem from happening in the future.
  • What, if any, compensation the client will get.
  • Who to ask if you have any more questions.

The customer service team should know all of those answers – that way they can pass the answers onto the customer.

Bug fixes.
Most modern technology companies have some sort of software to keep track of bugs and what is being done about them. Customer service should have access to this software and should be kept in the loop about reports.

Product roadmap.
The product development groups should keep customer service in the loop about about what is planned, what’s coming when, etc. That way, customer service can tell customers about when they can expect certain features and developments.

If marketing is planning a huge campaign, customer service should know all about it. If the campaign is successful, there will be a lot of new customers/upgrades/etc., which is very resource intensive. At the very least, customer service will probably have to answer a lot of pre-sales questions and deal with billing issues.

Even though I claim customer service isn’t about metrics, everyone likes to see numbers. The customer service staff should be given frequent updates about their satisfaction scores, how many emails they are replying to, average number of time it takes for a resolution, total number of elevations, etc. Having numbers allows everyone to see how they are doing.

As a customer service representative or manager, what information do you find useful? What should employees, particularly in customer service, be kept in the loop about?

The Welcome Email

The welcome email is important. It is the beginning of the actual customer experience.

What you say in your welcome email can have a lot to do with your customer experience. If it’s informative (and assuming people read it), it’ll drastically cut down on the number of support requests. If it’s vague (or people don’t read it), you’ll find yourself answering the same questions over and over again. While these questions are easy to answer, a lot of them add up to be a very big expense.

If you feel that you can do a good job, then it may be worth it to have a vague welcome email (see question #11 (part two) of this interview with Paul English). However, if your goal is to cut down on the number of support requests, then it is a good idea to have a welcome email that people will read and get use of.

Here are the four things I think are important to consider when writing welcome emails:

Is the email well written and informative? If it isn’t well written and informative, it isn’t even worth reading. I would highly suggest hiring a professional writer to write your welcome email or at the very least, reading up on some copy writing techniques and tips. I suggest Copyblogger.

Is it the right length? Super long emails won’t get read, but short emails may not be that useful. You have to find the right blend between short and useful (see clarity below).

In emails, this is important. Actually, it’s crucial. Divide the content well, use bullets, use lists, etc. Big long blobs of text accomplish nothing because no one reads them. If I ge tan email that is nicely formatted with lists and short paragraphs, I’m a lot more likely to read it than if I get one giant paragraph or three really long paragraphs of text.

Clarity and action.
The email needs to make it clear about what the customer needs to do now, what they need to do tomorrow, and what they need to do next week. It should focus on what they need to do now and tell them how to find the information about what they need to do tomorrow and next week. Don’t send too much information or customers will find themselves overwhelmed.

Here is an interesting perspective on the welcome email. 37signals is obsessed with design, simplicity, and clarity. They are good principles to live by and as you can see from their welcome email, it works out. It’s short, provides useful links and information, and is to the point.

A quick little challenge: write a welcome email like normal (or use your existing one). Then, hand it to someone else (ideally the professional writer you have hired) and ask them to write the welcome email in half the number of words that you used.

What does your welcome email contain? Post yours in the comments and I’ll feature them with some critiques.

Transparency in Numbers

HostGator is a relatively large web hosting company that has been experiencing rapid growth for a long time. They recently moved to Houston and hired 50 new employees, bringing their total headcount to about 100 or so. They plan to grow much larger in the next year or so.

I was happy to see that the company started a blog. They posted a letter from the CEO, a tour of their new office, and some of the standard promotional things you see on a blog. Not a bad start. Recently, though, a post about their live chat numbers sparked my interest.

June 1 to June 14, 2007

Total Number of Chats: 13,355
Total Surveys Returned: 4,170

Overall HostGator Experience
Excellent: 1,895
Very Good: 984
Good: 784
Fair: 378
Poor: 129

Chat Technician Rating
Awesome: 2,301
Good: 1,464
Needs Improvement: 396

As you can tell from looking at the numbers (reposted above with permission), HostGator has a lot of volume: 7,000 chats a week. The stats given don’t show the total amount of tickets or phone calls (maybe someone from HostGator can send them our way?), but 1,000 chats a day is quite a lot. HostGator has been growing very fast and it is quite obvious they are doing something right just by the number of customers that they have.

Something that is interesting is the return rate for the chats. It’s over 30%, which is really good. This gives HostGator a lot of data to work with and probably a fairly diverse survey base.

Customer service know how (and more scientific studies) say that unless people give you one of the top two ratings (Excellent and Very Good or some variation thereof), they are just as likely to defer to the competition as those who rate you as poor. For example, if a company rated HostGator’s service as Good (say a 3), they are just as likely to go to a competitor as someone who rates HostGator’s service as Terrible (say a 1).

More customer service know how tells us that people who are unhappy are more likely to fill out the survey than those that are happy. Furthermore, if someone just closes the chat window, they aren’t shown a survey. Therefore, the people filling out the survey are the most savvy and unhappy of the bunch, which is worth noting.

With that in mind, HostGator’s satisfaction rating for the overall experience (from the chat) is like 69% or so. That means most people think their service is between Very Good (80%) and Good (60%). The 69% number shows that a majority of customers are generally happy, but chances are that an employee going above and beyond and providing really great customer service is not super common. In layman’s terms, HostGator is providing customer service that is definitely acceptable, but they haven’t gotten it to the “next level” just yet.

The chat technician rating is interesting as well. Assuming that “Awesome” is the top two grades, the chat technician average rating is about 55%. That is a bit low for comfort. However, I’m pretty sure that if HostGator expanded it to Excellent, Very Good, Good, etc., that the numbers would go up quite a bit. Awesome is a strong word, and as such, people who weren’t supper happy (i. e. the top rating) are less likely to rate a tech as awesome.

Some numbers and exercises for HostGator to consider crunching/doing:

  • Are the number of live chats and the satisfaction score a representative gets related? (Does more chats = less satisfaction?) (How many chats did Kevin N (who get the highest satisfaction rating) do?)
  • Has that satisfaction number increased over time? By how much?
  • Have an employee only do one chat a time for a day. See how his or her numbers do compared to other days.
  • Don’t base “top scores” purely on volume. Come up with a combination of volume and quality. Maybe 50% volume, 50% quality.
  • Send out a similar survey after tickets and see what the results are.
  • Research some alternative wording to Very Good, Good, etc. that is more “harsh.” (Example: Completely Unsatisfactory, Needs improvement, Acceptable, Good, Very Good or a variation of that).

Today’s post talked about what the numbers mean and how to get more accurate numbers. More on how HostGator can improve the numbers tomorrow.

Disclosure: I know and have worked with some of the executives at HostGator on both customer service and other projects. HostGator did not pay for this post.

Interested in having your numbers analyzed like this? Let us know!


The Best Email Signatures

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An important part of email signatures is how well you know the person and what type of interaction you’re having. In some industries, a mailing address may not be that relevant, but in others it could be very important. I wouldn’t consider any of the signatures posted perfect. Some of them are fine, but others are pretty much unacceptable.

  • If a CEO was writing a letter to the board and signed it as J, it’d be unacceptable.
  • If you were writing a note to your spouse asking where to go to dinner that night, there is no need to include the full signature with every contact type imaginable.

My general rule of thumb is I include my phone number for more formal message to people I know would be likely to call me. If the person doesn’t usually call me, I leave my phone number out. If I know they use Skype, I include my Skype address. I almost always include my blog URL, because I think almost everyone could benefit from it (I’m so humble!).

Glenn Ross pointed out that signatures attached to emails that go out to other people shouldn’t include just an inward dial number, but a regular number (as well or instead of). If you are sending an email to someone who you don’t work with, an inward dial number doesn’t do much good. Glenn also suggested that the signature block should include the company’s main number and the voicemail message should let you reach an operator. All good suggestions. An example of a good phone number section would probably be:

800-123-4567 ext. 202

That way, the caller obviously knows the main number, but also has the person’s extension. Internal callers can just put in extension 202. It works great for everyone.

So the best email signatures:

  • are customized. One email signature does not fit all.
  • have ways for people inside and outside the company to contact you.
  • are flexible (phone and Skype listed)
  • have a nice closing (best regards, sincerely, etc.)
  • meet the needs of the people you communicate with

With that in mind, let’s continue looking for the (near) perfect email signature. If you find it, post it in the comments.

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Sample Email Signatures

A lot of the last have been about little things. The subject is my specialty and one of my favorite things to talk about. I’m going to continue with the Little Things, Big Differences theme and talk about email signatures today.

I’ve seen every variation of every possible email signature in the world. That’s a pretty broad statement, but I am 99% sure I have seen pretty much everything one can do with their email signature.

Our hypothetical person today is John Smith. He is the CEO of Company XYZ, which is based at 123 Main Street, Anytown, NY 10011. His office phone number is 800-123-4567. His cell phone number is 123-456-7891. Email is john@companyxyz.com. Fax number is 123-888-4341. John also writes a blog called XYZNews. And of course, his Skype username is johnsmith. People can certainly be contacted a lot of ways.

Here are some examples of various signatures from different people at different companies that I have sitting around my email:

john smith
Company XYZ, CEO
office: 800-123-4567, cell: 123-456-7891

John Smith
Office – 800-123-4567
Wireless – 123-456-7891
Company XYZ
123 Main Street
Anytown NY 10011

John Smith
Chief Executive Officer
Company XYZ

John Smith
Company XYZ, Inc.
Skype: johnsmith

John Smith
CEO, Company XYZ
Work – (800) 123-4567
Cell – (123) 456-7891
Fax – (123) 888-4341

123 Main Street
Anytown, NY


John Smith
Company XYZ

John Smith
Company XYZ
Chief Executive Officer
Office 800.123.4567  Mobile 123.456.7891

Best regards,
John Smith
John Smith
John Smith
Company XYZ
— John

Personally, I use:

Best regards,
John Smith


Best regards,

John Smith
Company XYZ

There are hundreds more. It’s amazing how something as simple as an email signature can be varied so much. A majority of letter signatures are pretty much the same, but email signatures are very, very different. Most of these signatures aren’t bad – some are. More about which type of email signature is best tomorrow.

In the mean time, post your comments and thoughts. What type of signature do you use?

When you go above and beyond – flaunt it.

I saw an ad for Rackspace a while back and I’ve included the text below:

Headline: “Luckily, the hurricane didn’t blow us away. But Fanatical Support did.”

Body: “Hurricane Ivan hit our corporate offices in Pensacola, Florida and essentially shut us down. To our surprise, we got a call from Rackspace offering to handle our phone lines, our support requests, even our sales orders. Thanks to them, we were signing up customers as the hurricane was coming ashore. Now, if that’s not fanatical, I don’t know what is.” – Joel Smith, CTO, AppRiver

Going above and beyond to keep customers online is one definition of Fanatical Support. What will yours be?

Watch Joel’s story at www.rackspace.com/fanatical

Now that’s impressive. I have no idea if that actually happened, how much Rackspace charged for it, etc., but it certainly makes for good ad copy. If it went like the ad says, it is definitely going way above and beyond the standard call of duty. Rackspace has a series of similar ads that promote their Fanatical Support offerings and what they mean.

I always advise companies to advertise it when the company as a whole or at least a particular employee goes above and beyond. When I say advertising, it doesn’t have to be buying an ad in Fortune Magazine (like Rackspcae did). In fact, printing out an email or a letter and posting it on the comapny bulletin board often does the trick.

People love to brag about how well they are doing and tell others about how their actions are helping the rest of the planet overcome its problems. Obviously, people exegerate, but if you can provide your employees with “best practices” examples of employees going above and beyond, it helps. Reward the employees (besides recognition – they often like money) that do go above and beyond to add even more encouragement.

I was working with a company the other day and noticed they offered to do something that many companies in their industry wouldn’t. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was beyond the standard call of duty. I suggested they summarize it in a blog post. They agreed and are going to post soon. That’s all it takes. Not a huge deal – just enough to recongize the people involved and show that your company does go above and beyond.

So that is today’s homework. Recall a time (recently) when you went above and beyond the expected call of duty. Then, feature it somewhere. Write a blog post, post the story on the bulletin board, or buy an ad in Fortune Magazine. Just feature it – somewhere!

Who’s accountable?

While accounting and the like may very well be interesting, I promise this post is not about accounting.

I read this post the other day at Customers Are Always. A reader at the blog provided an interesting suggestion, which I have re-printed below (with some minor formatting change):

I have a pretty straight forward clear cut idea on how to improve customer service. 

Every business should create a web site that contains a database of numbers, and have each of their employees represented by their own individual set of numbers.  The computer will automatically print the numbers of the employee on the back of the receipt that they give you at the end of the transaction, whether it be a cashier, a food server, a bank clerk etc. 

On the back of the receipt, make note that (upon returning home) if the customer logs in to the site and rates the performance of their customer service agent that the customer will receive a discount or some type of incentive upon their next visit to the establishment.  With this being known to the employees, it will automatically prompt them to perform with a higher level of Professionalism and there should be a reward system set up for them as well. 

People just wish to feel appreciated, therefore treat your employees with respect and appreciation and they will in turn feel inclined to do likewise for your customers. 

Happy employees + Satisfied customers = Thriving Business; it all adds up!

Sounds like the three legged stool, eh? Actually, this suggestion is all about accountability. If there are a few buzz words that make for good customer service, accountability is definitely one of them (along with empathy, resolution, etc.).

When people are held accountable, they generally take more pride in their work. If someone does well, they can easily be recognized and rewarded. On the other hand, if someone does poorly, it’s very easy to find out who is responsible. Accountability is great for things like that.

The suggestion above is practical accountability. It is also a great way to collect feedback – good and bad. The incentive (discount, points, etc.) will hopefully ensure a higher return rate. If representatives are instructed to tell people about it, the return rate may be even higher.

This tackles a lot: give the customers an excellent way to provide feedback, make employees accountable, reward employees who do well, and work with employees who don’t do well.

To take it a step further, let customers do the survey using text messages, regular voice phone calls, IM, etc. The more ways (and the easier it is) for them to complete the survey, the more likely they will be to do it.

In short, great idea. Definitely worth looking into and if possible, doing.

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