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Interview with Rob Siefker of Zappos – Part 1 of 4

After interviewing Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh  and seeing the company’s HQ outside of Las Vegas, I knew I wanted to learn more about the nuts and bolts and day-to-day operations of Zappos. To get this information, I spoke to Rob Siefker, Director of the Zappos Customer Loyalty Team. In part one of this four part interview, Rob talks about what he does at Zappos, how the company handles operating 24/7, what the training process is like for Zappos employees, and how the company makes the most out of cross-training its employees.

Click “Continue Reading” to see the questions and answers. You can also jump ahead and read part two, three, and/or four.

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Amateur rap video presents an odd approach to Apple culture

Apple Store ShinsaibashiIt seems an Apple rap video was posted on Vimeo and performed by Apple employees in New Hampshire. Obviously the video didn’t last long; it was pulled from the Internet, but besides being somewhat amateurish and mildly ludicrous, the theory of presenting the proper solutions to customers based on their needs still rang through as truth.

Back in July, the Apple Store in the Hong Kong IFC building presented parts of their five-day course in employee training. It is called “Core Training.” On the first day, new employees learn about the company, gain technical training, learn how Apple systems work and the importance of the Apple culture. Days two, three and four teach employees how to interact with customers, teaches about inventory and progresses to the “complete solution” which is finding out what the customer needs, asking them what they need it for, and then proceeds to presenting the product that will satisfy their needs. Day five summarizes the past four days of training and shows employees how to access Apple systems.

So the rap video seemed a bit immature as compared to what Steve Jobs would ever consider acceptable no less proper, but the message came across as far as calling customers “promoters” which simply means happy and satisfied customers are the ones who promote one’s business by recommending, returning and thereby acting as the best word of mouth advertising there is. The “rap stars” spelled out APPLE as the following:

  • A – Approach (how to approach a customer when they walk into the store)
  • P – Position, Permission, Probe (initial questions and follow-up to best help a customer find what they really want and need)
  • P – Present (solution)
  • L – Listen
  • E – End

Perhaps the rap soundtrack could be seen as mildly offensive to some, but it presented an energized and interesting approach to teaching some very important principles of customer service. If one needs an acronym like AAA to remember “Acknowledge, Align, and Assure” to help recognize and handle acceptable standards and procedures that really work when an unhappy customer approaches or calls, and it happens to be chanted, rhyming lyrics that help employees to remember and do their jobs well – maybe it’s just not so bad.

photo credit: matsuyuki

Customer service a lot less friendly in the skies

midtownAccording to US News and World Report Travel, Atlanta-based Delta Airlines scored the worst of major airlines with the dubious honor of ranking first in delays. It had the largest drop in customer satisfaction in a twelve-month period when only 78 percent of their flights arrived on time. Trailing with similar complaints were United, Alaska Airlines, American, and US Airway.

The annual poll entitled Airline Quality Rating Report is compiled by joint professors at Wichita State University and Purdue University and uses “subjective surveys of consumer opinion that are infrequently done with the goal of creating a rating for individual airlines with interval scale properties that is comparable across airlines and across time.”

So besides travelers having to wait on long security lines and enduring inadequate parking facilities, customers frequently are at their wit’s end even before the wheels of the plane touch away from the airport runway. Other lodged complaints compiled were mishandled baggage, delays, and involuntary denied boarding. There was also a general dissatisfaction with substandard meals, rude flight attendants, and baggage fees.

Now we all know that airlines are our favorite subjects when it comes to consumer complaints and lack of customer service along with banks, cell phone providers, and internet companies, but the lack of communication and listening to their customers are the one constant complaint for all of the organizations. On Friday, a lonely Twitter entry stated, “Delta is improving” and linked to a list of awards the airline has won dating back to 2007.

So what’s a consumer to do? Well, we all could take the bus, leave our luggage at home, just use a carry-on, and brown bag our own food, or airlines could start paying attention to consumer opinions. Understandably airlines can be constrained by  federal regulations, weather conditions and security controls, but that doesn’t mean customer service has to be so poor. When airline reports emerge titled, “America’s Meanest Airlines” surely it is time for the companies to listen hard and look at their operation and employees.

Airline employees need more training; it’s as simple as that. Statistically consumers find employee rudeness to be one of the most obvious reasons they will no longer deal with a company. Ground personnel and flight attendants have to be able to deal with the public and remain professional and polite in all circumstances. If an airline is known for its terrible food, isn’t it time the company sat down in a passenger seat and actually tried and tasted the food themselves to put themselves in the place of the passenger? Bad tasting food is pretty universal. And as to one’s baggage not making it to the proper destination? That’s completely controllable also. Why not train baggage carriers to do their jobs better? Again, customer service training is the key.

I know from personal experience, if I had to hurry through the airport, dread the security lines and procedures, but finally made it to my assigned flight, could check my one bag for no additional fee, didn’t have to pay extra to sit in an aisle seat, and I could enjoy a decent snack, a legitimate weather delay wouldn’t irritate me half as much.

photo credit: SpecialKRB

Book Review: Four Seasons – The Story of a Business Philosophy

I just read Four Seasons  The Story of a Business Philosophy by Isadore Sharp, founder, chairman, and CEO of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. The recurring theme in  the book centers around the Golden Rule; if you treat people well and the way you would like to be treated, they will do the same.

Sharp begins the book with his personal story. He came from a modest, unpretentious family with a background in construction. His first motor hotel (motel) opened in Toronto in 1961, and what made it different was his service oriented philosophy. By 1963, his second hotel opened called Toronto’s Inn on the Park, and its resort style setting with its gym claimed instant success. By 1976, the opening of the Four Seasons in San Francisco which entered into a management contract for The Clift already defined true luxury.

When the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue opened, the phenomenal service transformed the hotel owner-operator to a hugely successful management company synonymous with quality and the worldwide reputation of luxury travel. “One way to characterize Four Seasons – exchange of mutual respect performed with an attitude of kindness,” states Sharp, and that same promise remains  today as the Four Seasons continue to have the highest rated 140 luxury hotels in more than 40 countries.

The Four Season’s business plan focused on quality 24 hour service. In the 1970’s, the concentration on exceptional quality set apart business travel. The introduction of hair dryers, concierge service, televisions with concealed doors, non-smoking rooms, and fitness centers provided service and luxury to the sophisticated traveler. Even today, the morning meetings remain an integral part of the four primary elements of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts property.

Every morning service, quality, and culture brand are set forward by the guest relations manager. This includes a recap of the guests staying at the hotel and discussions ranging from a guest needing a hypoallergenic pillow, gluten-free food, or even a special skin cream. The Glitch Report, which is a review of the previous day’s mistakes is a way to make it right with a sincere apology and then doing something special for a guest later on. Every department is represented in the morning meetings from housekeeping to upper management. The team effort is what makes up the cornerstone of the Four Seasons culture, and trusted employees are granted the discretion to do the right thing to make their guests happy.

Sharp’s personal tragedy and his philanthropy reveal the very human side of a vulnerable person. In November 1976, his son Chris, a strapping, six-foot-two athlete was diagnosed with deadly melanoma. On May 10, 1978 Chris lost his battle, but his spirit inspired The Marathon of Hope two years later when a local newspaper carried a story  of a young man Terry Fox who had lost a leg to cancer and was running across Canada on an artificial limb to raise money for cancer research.

Dear Terry:

The Marathon of Hope has just begun. You started it. We will not rest until your dream to find a cure for cancer is realized. I am asking every Four Seasons hotel to organize, along with the local branch of the Canadian Cancer Society, a Terry Fox Marathon of Hope Run to be held on the first Sunday in October. Beginning this year, it will become an annual fund-raising event for the Terry Fox Cancer Research Fund and we will not stop until cancer has been beaten.

Isadore Sharpe

Terry died the following year, but not before he learned his dream had come true. He raised one dollar for every person then living in Canada:$24 million.

In the last few pages of his book, Sharpe tells us who they are, and that is a company that manages the finest hotels, resorts, and residence clubs supported with a “deeply instilled ethic of personal service.” And in response to how they succeed, Sharpe concludes with;

We succeed when every decision is based on a clear understanding of and belief in what we do and when we couple this conviction with sound financial planning. Our greatest asset, and the key to our success, is our people. In all our interactions with guests, customers, business associates, and colleagues, we seek to deal with others as we would have them deal with us.

Bottomline: The book is unpretentious, inspirational, and offers excellent advice about the importance of customer service. It provides some good lessons about the value of long-term service employees and how they are role models for new hires and front end advisers for improvement. The book offers excellent advice on training to help employees realize the importance of consistently amazing customer service.

Pros: The book provides a great personal story of a man who started out with little money and no training. Rising through the years of a sharp recession makes his story more pertinent today. The personal photographs brings in the humanity and compassion of Sharp.

Cons: There were few secondary sources. I found some of the foreign stories one-sided.

Interested: You can purchase this book from Amazon.com for $19.77 in hardcover format or $19.99 in Kindle format. You can buy it here.

Customer service representatives who help their communities

焦糖咖啡星冰楽 (●ω●)Coffee giant Starbucks is changing its hiring, recruiting, and training methods to encourage employees to become more involved in their careers and their communities. Applicants who want to volunteer and work on their personal development which shares a commitment to community work will more likely be offered  new careers as “partners.” Prospects will also be judged on their conversational skills as well as their coffee skills.

Starbucks will work on improvements to their management training, personal development, and learning new skills. They are hoping that by increasing their investment in these skills the turnover rate will decrease and customer service will improve.

Volunteers in the community are the backbone of not-for-profit organizations. Ranging from ambulance drivers, firemen, community support groups, animal welfare to national groups such as Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer, Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity, people contribute of  themselves to give back to the community.

Starbucks recognizes the important link in employee development and their roles in volunteer projects. It’s an essential method of learning new skills as they share their commitment to their own communities. Customer service is not just knowing the words; it is more like the positive relationships we can develop individually as we expand our personal and professional passions.

In the customer service business,  loyal clients and customers are built through the development of positive customer relationships. We seek referrals, and build goodwill by becoming known in our communities because we really care. Many leadership roles are volunteer programs which take our time, energy, talent, and skills. Our purpose for accepting volunteer roles in the first place usually coincides with our personal or professional passions.

When Howard Schultz returned to the CEO seat of Starbucks in 2008, he knew the company needed more than just money to bring a failing  business back to life. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Schultz stated:

I decided against the advice of many people at the time, because it had a high cost attached to it – to take 10,000 store managers to New Orleans. I knew that if I could remind people of our character and values, we could make a difference.

With that commitment and encouraging employees to give of themselves, that effort became the single largest block of community support in the history of New Orleans. With a total contribution of 54,000 volunteer hours and $1 million, volunteers painted, landscaped, and built playgrounds to a community devastated by disaster.

If we hadn’t had New Orleans, we wouldn’t have turned things around. It was real, it was truthful, and it was about leadership.

Interview with Doria Camaraza from American Express – Part 2 of 4

This is part two of a four part interview with Doria Camaraza, the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Fort Lauderdale Service Center for American Express.

This part of the interview includes information on how American Express decides to hire new employees versus promote them from within, more information on the compensation and motivation methods the company is using, how they use Net Promoter, information on the company’s “Relationship Care” program, and more.

To read this part of the interview, click “read more” below. If you want to read part one of the interview, click here.

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Walk Talk

As a member of the Board of Directors for the North East Contact Center Forum, I have the opportunity to speak with a number of Customer Service Managers, Directors and VP’s across multiple industries and geographies. The most common theme among these leaders is the intricate balancing act of providing extraordinary experiences while reducing expenses (and sometimes juggling regulatory risk and/or time constraints).

I have battled with the same dilemmas myself. Over time, I have learned to ask myself and my colleagues a few questions:

  • What do you coach your service representatives on?
  • What are the common conversations in your team and all-hands meetings?
  • What is it that your CEO/COO/VP of Customer Service is evangelizing?

More often than not, the answers sound like: call quality, customer experience, superior service, etc. Some time later, I follow up with another set of questions:

  • What are the key metrics that you look at daily?
  • How do you incent your service representatives?
  • What are the metrics that your boss (whether he or she be the CEO or someone else) are hammering you about?

These answers usually sound like: service level, AHT (average handle time), 50-75% of incentives involve productivity numbers, expenses, cost per account/loan/customer, etc.

Things that make you hmmm.

The terms [triple/quad constraints – click each to a see a picture] and charts are typically used in project management, but apply to our quandary.  One constraint cannot be changed without altering another. Triple or Quad constraints are funny; everything cannot be the most important or the highest priority. Trying to make everything the highest priority will only drive you and your service representatives crazy. It leads to mediocre quality, often subpar cost metrics, low morale, and CEO’s/COO’s/VP’s of Customer Service breathing down your neck.

With all of that in mind, how do you move (walk) forward?

  1. The first step for any recovery program is to admit you have a problem.
    1. Be objective.
    2. Ask your floor representatives what they think you say and what you really focus on.
    3. Listen to calls, review chats, and emails (are your associates rushing, taking too long?).
  2. Force rank your current priorities (create the order that you believe you are presently working under)
    1. Everything cannot be equal
      1. Quality (call quality, defect management, complaints, customer incident surveys)
      2. Cost (AHT, service levels, cost per X, expenses, utilization, occupancy)
      3. Time (are new product releases critical? Service availability?)
      4. Risk (regulatory/legal, credit, reputational)
    2. Make sure you have accurate differentials – use an entire 1-5 scale
  3. Have an honest, direct conversation with senior management about what is the most important priority, what is the second most important priority, and so on.

Now that you have your direction, you need to determine what you are going to change. (Hint: don’t limit yourself to the base of the box, work the edges. Read Seth Godin’s Linchpin for more on that subject.)

  • People – Do you have the right people in the right places to succeed? Do you need to reorganize? How would you incent people to deliver your priority? What do you need to communicate to your associates?
  • Process – What processes would you change? What metrics would you highlight? What dashboard items need to change?
  • Systems – How can you leverage your technical solutions to maximize your priorities? Are you able to walk your talk? Or do you need to change your talk?

Guest Writer Bio: Michael Pace is the Director of Customer Support for Constant Contact’s award winning Customer Support Department and on the Board of Directors for the North East Contact Center Forum. You can connect with him via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

Image Credit: Joe

They’re Just Not That Into You

Love Fireworks :)Have you ever noticed the similarities between attracting a prospective customer and wooing a mate?

There are lots of similarities when you think about it. For example, before the relationship develops, there may be frequent but informal contact. In business, that may look like a weekly e-newsletter that over time (as trust is established) results in a client project. In a personal relationship, it may take the form of frequent encounters at the corner Starbucks.

As it blossoms, there is usually lots of attention and care given to the relationship. In business, this is evidenced by asking questions of understanding, attentive listening, clarifying expectations, and responding to needs. In a personal relationship, these behaviors also apply.

Another similarity is that after the honeymoon phase, personal attention and care tend to diminish. Clients tend to hear from you less often and may need to leave a second message before you respond. And your mate may long for the time when you looked dreamily across the table, a slight smile on your face, while hanging on her every word.

But today you have competing priorities and don’t feel that you can be as responsive as some customers and mates require. And for this reason, among others, not every story has a happy ending…

That said, there are actions you can take immediately whether serving a customer or someone with whom you have a bit more of a, shall we say, intimate relationship, that will keep their eyes from wandering to the “competition.”

  • Express genuine interest. With customers, this is accomplished by making eye contact, smiling, and adding enthusiasm to your voice. Also, asking questions about preferences and being responsive to needs signal genuine interest. Chances are, your significant other appreciates the same type of attention.
  • Offer sincere and specific compliments. Genuine compliments make everyone feel better about themselves. A compliment is verbal sunshine. Shine on.
  • Share unique knowledge. In a customer service setting, this means sharing knowledge that goes beyond job knowledge that is expected (e.g., hours of operation, return policy, etc.). Unique knowledge has character and substance. It is interesting, unique, and unexpected (e.g., the history of the location, privileged “insider” information, etc.). Similarly, personal relationships benefit by sharing insights and feelings that transcend the expected (e.g., “How was work?”) and demonstrate personal interest (e.g., “Tell me about your day.”).
  • Convey authentic enthusiasm. We all do this differently. Some are bubbly. Others are less animated but equally enthusiastic. It’s easy to detect whether at work or home. They move with purpose. The lights are on. They are engaged.
  • Use appropriate humor. The key word is appropriate. With customers you need to use discretion and keep it professional so as not to offend. In personal relationships, you have a bit more leeway. Either way, laughter is the shortest distance between two people.
  • Provide pleasant surprises. Have you ever receive an unexpected upgrade on a flight, at a hotel, or when renting a car? How did it make you feel? It’s a positive feeling that can be replicated again and again with something as simple as a card, a bottle of water, or a single rose…
  • Deliver service heroics. This sort of action is rarely required of us. It’s the exception, not the rule. But when the situation requires it and we go “above and beyond” in order to wow our customer (e.g.. meet an overnight deadline) or impress that someone special (e.g., breakfast in bed), it makes a lasting positive impression that reaffirms her importance and reinforces the relationship.

My hope for everyone reading this post is that you would find some truth in it. Reflect on the quality of your own personal customer service to those people who matter the most to you at work and at home. Are you developing relationships by demonstrating the types of behaviors outlined above or are you communicating indifference by merely going through the motions?

Be intentional about applying these behaviors and I assure you that your most important customers—both at work and at home—will appreciate you for it and, most importantly, will only have eyes for you.

Guest Writer Bio: Steve Curtin is a customer service, training, and public speaking enthusiast based in Denver, CO. His website is www.stevecurtin.com.

photo credit: Beta-J

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