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Tip for Freelancers: Admitting You’re Behind

You probably think this post is going to be about a negative experience I had with a freelancer? Not quite. It is about me as a freelancer and how I admitted I was behind.

For a majority of my consulting work, I am an independent contractor. I occasionally hire contractors to do some of the more specialized work, but most of the time I work by myself and for myself. I’m not part of a large consulting organization, am hired directly by the company I’m working for, and so on. So, it’s just me. The companies I work with like dealing with me or they probably wouldn’t hire me. However, I am still only one person.

And since I am only one person and I am still human, I inevitably get sick. And unfortunately when I get sick, I get behind. As a result of getting behind, I have to admit the fact to my clients.

The first step is of course realizing that you’re behind. I usually know when I’m behind pretty quickly. I have a lot to do during a given a week and when I’m  not getting a majority of it done, I realize it pretty quickly. A lot of people seem to get in denial about being behind. I’m not a productivity guru, so my suggestions in that area would not be that useful.

Once you realize that you’re behind, you have to admit it. This is a communication and subsequently, very much a customer service thing. This is an area where I think my advice could be useful.

Here is how you communicate with the customers/clients/etc. that are waiting on you:

Remember: no excuses.
There is a fine line between giving an explanation and an excuse. Customers are rarely interested in excuses.

Admit it.
It is okay to admit you took on too much work, you’ve been sick, or something happened. Just be truthful and promptly explain the cause of you being behind.

Explain what you’re doing to fix it.
Like most apologies, explanations, etc. your message or conversation should include an explanation about what you’re doing to fix the problem, get caught up, get that second draft ready, etc. You need to explain what you’re going to do to rectify the problem.

To finish it off, apologize. Make it a sincere apology or you’re just wasting your time.

If you can pro-actively admit you’re behind and explain why, most customers should appreciate it. It is certainly a lot better than just letting them guess what you’ve been up to or having to follow up with you themselves.

Photo courtesy of jivaca.

Fine Isn’t Good Enough

Some companies that try to provide great service will often ask “how was your experience today?” or “did you enjoy your experience/meal/etc.?” From when I’ve asked that question either as both a manager and a consultant, I’ve noticed that a lot of customers will say “fine.”

I tell companies that fine isn’t good enough. When a lot of companies hear a customer answer “fine”, “so far so good”, “okay”, etc., they just move on. The answer didn’t express obvious discontent, so everything is fine and dandy, right? Wrong.

There is a nice little statistic that says if customers rate you as a 3 (usually good) in a survey with a 5 point scale (1-5, with 5 being the highest), they are just as likely to leave your company for a competitor as the same customer who rated you a 1 (very poor). In this context, it means that a customer who says something average like fine isn’t really that happy. Basically, fine isn’t good enough.

From now on, when a customer answers with something like fine or the like, do the following:

Tell the customer.
Tell the customer that your company is striving for something a lot better than fine. Then, you immediately do the next step:

Probe a little.
Ask some more specific questions about the service, the product, the representative the customer they’ve been dealing with, etc. Ask about their favorite and least favorite parts of the experience. It isn’t that hard to probe – just remember to be specific with your questions or you will likely continue to get pretty vague answers.

Ask another question.
This is different than probing. It can be done in addition to or instead of it. When the customer answers fine, ask “what could we have done (or do) to make the experience great?” Some companies like fantastic, terrific, unforgettable, etc. It really depends on what sort of experience you are trying to deliver.

Don’t bug the customer.
There are plenty of customers who say fine just to shut you (the manager) up. You have to read the customer and learn not to bug them. There is a fine line between extracting valuable information and bugging the customer. If their answers continue to be short or they seem to get annoyed, just leave them alone and offer to help if they need any help.

If a customer says something negative, act on it!
It is not uncommon for managers to ask a customer how their experience was, hear the customer say something negative, and then pretty much ignore it. A lot of managers like to stop at “Thanks for the feedback. I apologize about the inconvenience.” This is unacceptable. If a customer says something went wrong, act on it!

Deflation of Standards in Customer Service

In customer service and business in general, there is often a deflation of standards. The deflation of standards shows that more often than not, a customer is happy talking to someone they can understand and that can generally fix their issue. They aren’t expecting bells and whistles (polite representatives, short hold times, etc.). The customer just wants his or her issue resolved.

This is obviously a deflation of standards. The bar is set very low. The customer goes into the experience with low expectations. If the company can meet the low expectations, then they can deliver an acceptable level of customer service. Taking customer service to the next level is what this blog is generally about.

An expectation that many customers have is to receive a reply to their question very promptly. Or to receive a follow up very promptly. Or to get to a person very promptly. People are really impatient – so if you can be prompt, that’s often enough.

As a customer service company that is better than most (right?), you can use these lowered standards to your advantage. You can be more than just prompt. Your replies can also be courteous and informative.

A goal for your company should be this: exceed the expectations.

Instead of just being prompt:

  • be courteous
  • be informative

Instead of just saying you will do something:

  • do it
  • do more than you say you will
  • go beyond the call of duty

And of course you get the gist. To set yourself apart as a customer service organization, you cannot let the deflation of standards get to you. Responding quickly is fine, but it isn’t enough to be anything but average. To be beyond average, to be an exceptional customer service company, you have to go above and beyond.

What are your thoughts about expectations customers have when it comes to customer service?

(I used the image because it was somewhat related and I think that Cingular/AT&T’s raising the bar campaign was really clever.)

The Fundamentals of Company Intranets

I am working with a great company that has an interesting company intranet. Some things about it are really good – others are not so good. It is obvious the company has put a lot of time and effort into designing a useful and effective intranet, but of course, there is room for improvement.

Intranets are really tough to do well. There is a big business around intranets – the creation of them, the software behind them, the maintenance of them, etc. Lots of companies are involved in the business of intranets and making them work. Why? Because when intranets are used effectively, they are incredibly useful.

This company’s intranet has some good things:

Lots of tools.
The intranet had a lot of tools. The tools allowed employees to do things ranging from technical troubleshooting to accounting and everything in between. The tools seemed well designed, useful, and practical. These are great, especially if they are being used by employees.

Integrated with wiki.
Instead of typical, static pages, this company has a useful wiki. Mileage varies a lot when it comes to wikis and this company seemed to be in the middle. However, an effort to make use of a wiki and encourage its use is an excellent start.

Homepage features.
The homepage of the intranet is very simple. It features the navigation bar, the most recent posts from the company’s customer forums, and news (in that order). I really like how the company includes the most recent posts from the forums. This really encourages staff to participate and at the very least, stay informed about what’s going on.

However, they need to improve in some of these areas:

This is the problem with most intranets. They just aren’t organized as well as they could be. This company needs to work on improving the organization of their intranet. Some possible ways to do that include:

  • Changing navigation structure and methods.
  • Listing of all pages (so employees have an idea about what’s there).
  • “Introduction to Intranet” page explaining how to get the most out of the intranet and its features
  • Asking (and paying) a competent, longtime employee to work another 10 or 15 hours to re-organize the intranet.

Broken links.
Like any extensive web site that is likely updated by a lot of people, there are broken links and pages that don’t work. These should be removed or fixed regularly or navigating the intranet can be a pain.

This depends on the company, but this company’s intranet talks about work and the job only. Talking about some non-some work things in your intranet can be really helpful. Talk about places employees like to hang out, hobbies everyone has, etc. Not only will these lighten the mood up a bit, but it may encourage employees to check it out more frequently and get to know their co-workers.

What do you do with your intranet that’s unique?

Photo courtesy of antigone.

Get Satisfaction Launches

My friends at Satisfaction Unlimited launched their product, Get Satisfaction, late last night. I first got in touch with the guys behind Get Satisfaction in July and have had several conversations with them since. The team is a great group and their product is really interesting.

The company describes Satisfaction as people-powered customer service. I think that is a good way to phrase it. For both consumers and companies, the product is incredibly useful. Consumers can get their questions about a variety of companies and products answered by other consumers and companies don’t have to answer those questions.

For example, I wanted to ask when the new MacBook Pros were coming out. Most customers would call Apple, but since I was fortunate enough to be a part of Satisfaction’s beta, I just posted it there. Here is the link if you want to check it out.

I got several useful and in-depth replies. The answer I got from Satisfaction’s users was better than the “We don’t know” that I would get from someone at the Apple Store or on the phone.

Get Satisfaction
An example of Apple’s section on Satisfaction.

My example is just one of many. Satisfaction users (and often employees from these companies) are providing answers for questions about products and services from companies like Pownce, Twitter, Oracle, HP, etc. Officials from the company can respond and get answers and help customers as needed.

Companies should watch Satisfaction, especially as it grows. It will be a great place to get (and respond to) feedback and see what questions customers are asking. Consumers should start using Satisfaction because it is a great place to get answers to your questions.

If I were Satisfaction, I would be concerned about a few things (some of which I know they’re working on):

  • Ensuring the site just doesn’t become a complaint forum.
  • Ensuring companies have a fair chance to voice their opinion.
  • Ensuring the community has plenty of active contributors.

I’m confident that the company will be able to deal with any problems that come up. I’m looking forward to seeing this site develop and seeing what users do with it. The product has a lot of potential.

I suggest signing up for their beta and playing around with the site. Get a site setup for your company or if you work for a company, get yourself approved as an employee / representative.

Be Quick and Decisive and Win Customer Loyalty

Today is a pretty short post simply because the post doesn’t have to be much longer to make the same point.

The other day, I was browsing the web site of a startup that is set to launch a fairly cool product. I noticed that there were a couple of minor errors on their site (old copyright date, a typo or two, etc.), and decided to email the company. Might as well try and be nice and get some good karma, right?

Well, the company exceeded my expectations by a lot. They replied promptly (within 12 hours) thanking me for pointing the errors out and saying they would be fixed. Another 24 hours or so went by and I got another email from the same person saying the errors had been fixed and thanking me again.

I was pleasantly surprised. Doing things like that will help win you customer loyalty. It’s surprising about how much something small like that means. It is also extremely refreshing to see a company that listens to and makes change based on the feedback it receives.

Today’s homework is to look over your email or letters and find one simple change, error, etc. pointed out by a customer. Listen to their feedback and make that change. Then, reply saying you made it and thanking them for their feedback.

[Photo courtesy of hotreactor]

The Flight Attendant Who Said Too Much!

I was made aware of an interesting article about a Southwest Airlines flight attendant who clearly said too much. She told a passenger she was dressed inappropriately and would have to leave the plane before it took off. The flight attendant obviously wasn’t thinking about what she was saying, or she was just stupid.

Southwest’s and the flight attendant’s actions were not typical of Southwest. If you do have a problem like this, how do you stop it from becoming a big issue?

If you aren’t sure, ask.
Before kicking the woman off of the plane, the flight attendant should have asked another flight attendant for his or her opinion. The flight attendant could have also Southwest’s corporate offices and asked for a suggestion. My general suggestion to companies is to encourage their employees to ask if they aren’t sure.

Use discretion if you are going to say something.
If you are going to say something, you need to use discretion. You can’t call the customer out in front of everyone. That isn’t the way to ensure a smooth experience. If you have to say something to a customer that isn’t positive, then you really want to use discretion.

Be ridiculously polite.
Once you have used discretion and have asked the customer to come to the side, go to another room, etc., you need to be very polite. The flight attendant saying Southwest is a “family airline” and that the passenger is not dressed appropriately is not ridiculously polite.

If possible, offer an alternative.
As pointed out in the article, a flight attendant could have offered the customer a jacket, a blanket, or asked her to change the outfit a little. If you are going to do something as serious as kicking a customer off the plane (basically firing the customer), you need to offer an alternative.

If you do screw up, admit it.
Southwest screwed up. However, they didn’t admit it. If they apologized to the customer, sent her a nice letter and a nice travel voucher, the entire issue would have gone away. However, they didn’t admit they were wrong and as such, it’s on the news and the airline is probably going to get sued.

Thanks to Maria for initially posting about this.

Apple Listened to Customers

There has been a lot of news about Apple recently. The company launched new types of iPods and lowered the price of the iPhone by $200 a few months after its initial launch. For the early adopters, who in some cases literally lined up for days and then paid an additional $200, this was tough news. While their phone is still the latest and greatest, it is now the latest and greatest for $400 instead of $600.

Apple has a very vocal customer base. The company’s very vocal customer base complained about price decreases. I’m sure Apple had expected this to happen, but their customers weren’t expecting such a sudden and drastic price drop. As such, they made their point clear – they didn’t like the price drop and thought it was unfair.

In an early interview with the USA Today, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs said that the price decrease was just the way technology worked. His responses to the questions seem rather unsympathetic and the words were definitely not as carefully chosen as they could have been.

After the interview, there was even more outcry. However, Apple continued to monitor the feedback from their customers and was quick to respond. Steve Jobs wrote an open letter to the early iPhone adopters. He basically said “we’re right and have every right to do what we did, but we’re going to give you a $100 store credit because we really like you guys and want you to like us.”

The point of my post is not about what Apple did, but instead that they did something and they did something quickly. From Apple’s handling of this situation, we can learn a few things:

Listen to your customers.
If you are getting a lot of feedback from your customers about a recent change or announcement, at least listen to them. Hear what they have to say and see if it means anything.

Form an action plan and act quickly.
The next step is to form an action plan of some sort and act very quickly. The letter from Steve Jobs was posted pretty quickly. A lot of companies really struggle to move quickly, but Apple seemed to be an exception in this case.

Be ready for your actions.
Apple has promised a lot of customers a $100 store credit. Hopefully they were well on their way to implementing a smooth procedure for all iPhone early adopters to claim those credits, use them, etc. If the experience is smooth, it will help a lot.

(Do the right thing.)
I’m not sure about how altruistic Apple’s motives are with this, but they are making some attempt at doing the right thing. I think that is a positive step for Apple (or any company that does something similar) and probably shows quite a bit about the company.

Also, here is a great post from Seth Godin about the whole situation. His suggestions are great. However, the suggestions above apply to what he suggests as well.

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