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Bad to Acceptable

Sorry for the later than usual post. My Internet was out for a lot of the day.

On Service Untitled, I usually babble about how to take your customer service from acceptable to great. I assume (and you know the saying about what happens when you assume) that when people take enough interest to read my blog, they have the acceptable part mastered already.

Well, I am clearly an idiot. A big idiot!

A colleague of mine is trying to deal with a company that makes billing software. While this software isn’t a $3,000,000 CRM application from Oracle, it is not cheap software. It is definitely a few hundred bucks (on the light side) and is quite a powerful application as well. 

The software, though grossly complex to setup and use, is good. The company and the customer service they provide – not so much. As my colleague put it (he is a techy): their support = horrible. To get that wonderful explanation, here is what they have done:

  • He has gotten three different answers about a particular module of the software that he needs to use:
    • It is a premier module, so the company wrote it and it can do recurring billing
    • It is an addon module written by someone else and cannot do recurring billing
    • It is a premier module, but we cannot answer basic questions as to how it works.
  • They told him to call, but did not pick up their phone.
  • Voicemails are not returned.
  • Their replies are slow.

It is very frustrating for everyone. My colleague can’t edit the product and fix the problem himself because it is all encrypted (that is a whole different debate) and now he has to wait for this rather incompetent (at least when it comes to customer service) company to fix the problem. The experience has been terrible and is driving everyone nuts.

They are definitely more on the “bad” side of the bad/acceptable/great scale.

Bad Acceptable   Great
Does not answer phone and/or reply to emails promptly. Answers phones and replies to emails. Has smart, informed, and well trained people answer phone and reply to emails, promptly.
Rude/disrespectful  Average etiquette Great etiqutte. Everything is done right.
Does not care Cares to an extent Lives and breathes customer service

This, of course, is a general table. It isn’t specfic to the company I am talking about, but it can be used as an illustration to see the difference between the types of companies.

To give an example of a company that is literally the opposite, here is a true story. A company that makes a hosted product that also isn’t cheap, but definitely not expenisve donated a copy of their product to an organization I am involved with.

I (blindly – had never spoken to anyone at the company before) asked that they do donate it and though they weren’t really setup to donate it, went out of their way to set the organizatoin up with an account they needed, for free.

The organization had a whole bunch of problems at first, but the company listened (very well) and was always communicating with them about what was going on, what they were doing, etc. You would call them, and if they didn’t pick up right away, they would call you back right away. They responded to emails quickly. They spent an hour or so on the phone trianing a few of the organization’s employees. They even followed up. Throughout the whole experience, one guy dealt with us and was very nice, knew what he was talking about, and helpful.

And they did all of that for a customer that didn’t even pay. Quite frankly, it was a great customer (service) experience. Based on my experience, I am confident the company will continue to do well and provide great customer service.

Oh, and the great company reads this blog, which I like to think helps to an extent. It at least shows they care enough to try and learn about customer service and possibly improve theirs. I wonder (and doubt) if the bad company does.

The thank you note.

Thank you notes are a somewhat tricky thing. While I am no etiquette consultant, I do know roughly what a thank you note should consist of in a business situation. Clients, co-workers, employees, etc. may to you or your company as a holiday gift, a “good job” thanks, or whatever. In the companies I have worked with, it isn’t terribly common, but it does happen.

If someone takes the time to send you something, something you have to do is thank them for it. Though they may not send it in order to get the thank you card, it is certainly nice to hear that you appreciate their time, money, and effort. Sending fits, quite frankly, is a pain and anyone who sends them probably puts some amount of effort into it.

Some things that a thank you note should include:

  • Personalized greeting (Dear Bob Bobsen, Hi Betty!, etc.). Including the last name is arguable. I personally think it makes the greeting less personalized.
  • Optional: Acknowledge you received the gift (and approximately when).
  • The words thank you or thanks.
  • An acknowledgement about what the gift was.
  • An extra bit about the gift to make it more personalized.
  • A sentence related to the occasion (i. e. Happy Holidays, We are glad you are a client, etc.).
  • A relatively informal closing.

Here is an example. Say my client (who we will call <CLIENT>) sent me a nice box of chocolates for Christmas.

Dear <CLIENT>,

I received your gift yesterday and wanted to extend my gratitude to you for sending it. I really like chocolate (<brand of the box I was sent> is actually my favorite type!) and am sure I will enjoy this box of them. Thank you so much for sending it!

I wish you and your family a very happy and safe holiday.

Yours truly,

Many people believe a thank you note should be handwritten and sent over the mail. I am kind of down the middle with this. Personally, I have extremely bad hand writing and I imagine trying to read the note would frustrate the person. I am personally for sending it via the usual methods of communication (i. e. email). It is definitely nice to send handwritten thank you note, assuming both options are available to you (good handwriting and the physical address of the sender).

This template has worked relatively well for me. It isn’t foolproof and it isn’t what the etiquette book I own suggests (I don’t have the book with me right now, but I will talk about what it says this week), but it certainly works.

Whatever you do, just make sure to send a thank you note! Even you don’t like the gift, thank the person for their time and effort (do not tell them your thoughts, unless positive, about the gift). Send the note within 24 hours of receiving whatever the person sends you and remember to be sincere.

Out of Stock?

Now that we have moved past me relating customer service to French Revolution quotes, we’ll get to some actually useful posts.

I am quite surprised I haven’t talked about how to deal with a situation when a company is out of stock. It seems to be one of the most talked about things in customer service writings and I have barely touched it.

My most recent out of stock experience was with Macy’s. I wanted to do a lot of shopping on their web site (side note: Frango chocolates (which Macy’s owns) are really good), but when I went to look, they were sold out of almost everything good. I called them and they had a few of the items, but most were sold out.

So I can provide the best advice to my readers, I am seeking the advice of people who know a lot about this stuff. By that I mean I am pulling out my copy of Defensive Design for the Web by 37signals. It is one of my two books on web usability (the other is Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug) and both are actually quite related to customer service.

The book has an entire chapter on out of stock and unavailable items (Chapter 9) that is about 20 pages (the book is a very easy read) and provides a lot of examples, tips, and advice. Here are their four guidelines:

  1. Be upfront about item unavailability.
  2. If a product will be available at a later date, explain when, provide product details, and take advance orders.
  3. Offer email notification.
  4. Show similar items that are available.

The rules are quite upfront. And so are the examples.

  • Amazon (usually the leader in the relatively perfect e-commerce experience) tells people right away that items are out of stock and provides alternatives, dates when it will be available, as well as an option to order the item when it becomes available.
  • Land’s End (also a leader) does the same. It allows you to backorder the item quite easily and also shows similar items.
  • Some online stores provide an option for you to be added to an email notification list that will notify you when the item becomes available.

None of these things are particularly hard to and quite useful. I believe that Macy’s actually did all of these things (minus the email notification), though I am not 100% sure. When I went back to the site, the out of stock items weren’t listed on the page. When they were, though, I was given an option to order them and such.

What you really should try to do, though, is predict when you will need and how many of the items and stock accordingly. This isn’t exactly easy, but if you know you have a business that will have increased demand during the holidays and you normally get 15% more orders per year during the holidays and have been growing 5% per year, stock accordingly. The math isn’t impossible, but it does require some guesswork and subsequent risk.

Though it may be a little late for your company this year, it isn’t for next year or for other times of high demand.

Geek Squad and Customer Service

On Tuesday, I wrote about how the bloggers were out to get you and how some companies do a great job at working with bloggers while others do not. I said I would focus a post on Tom’s experience as well as the Radio Shack experience sometime later this week. Today is the day.

The Geek Squad:
Look at Tom’s overall experience:

  1. He wrote a post about poor customer service he experienced at The Geek Squad. It listed the frustrations he had experienced and what The Geek Squad could have done better.
  2. Tom got an email from Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens. In his email, Robert said he wanted to work with Tom to resolve any issues. Though Tom doubts that it was actually Robert who sent the email, he worked with several senior and frontline Geek Squad employees and got the issue resolved.
  3. He got off the phone with a senior employee from Geek Squad and had another email from Robert saying it was him.
  4. Tom posted a follow up post about the the experience dealing with the various people.
  5. He summed up the whole experience with another post. The experience was a good one and Geek Squad saved themselves a customer as well as a generated some good worth of mouth among bloggers.

On The Geek Squad’s part, Tom’s experience was not handled much differently than a standard escalation. The only difference was that Tom posted the issue on his blog and a high ranking company executive (in this case, the founder) noticed it and responded to it. The actual issue was handled pretty much the same way any good company would handle an escalation.

It boils down to: not that much work, a lot of benefit.

Perhaps you guys will be seeing an interview with someone from The Geek Squad in the not too distant future. Anyone from the company listening? Send me an email. The email address is on the about page.

Radio Shack:
Radio Shack did pretty much the opposite of what the Geek Squad did. They don’t seem to monitor the blogs or the Internet for feedback about their company and it seems tough to get an issue to be escalated (and resolved) as a customer.

Why can’t they start monitoring (or even hire people) to watch the blogs and the Internet for feedback about their company? It isn’t that hard to do and as we saw in Tom’s example, can certainly pay off.

The Bloggers Are Out To Get You

Writing about bloggerseffect on customer service is fun. Reading about it is even more fun. Lots of links in those two sentences. The first sentence contains links to where I have talked about bloggers’ effect on customer service or more specifically, issue resolution. The second sentence are links to posts about Tom’s experience with The Geek Squad.

Some companies actually do monitor the Internet, including the blogosphere for mentions about their company. HP does. Headsets.com does. Automattic does. And we now know that The Geek Squad does. These are just companies that I have written about and can recall – I’m not even looking too hard to find companies that do.

Some companies believe the bloggers are out to get them. Companies that think like this are usually under the impression that blogs are not professional and have very little influence. They think that every blog is like some teenagers’ LiveJournals where they talk about their friends and what they happened to buy at mall the previous day. This couldn’t be further from the truth and not even all teenagers blog like that.

The thing is, that blogs are an overgrowing medium. Individual blogs are getting more traffic. Blogging networks are getting bigger. Blogs about particular subjects are getting easier to find. Posts about a particular subject are getting easier to find.

If your company gets featured on TechCrunch, well over a hundred thousand people will see it. Your product featured on Engadget and/or Gizmodo? A few hundred thousand more people will read about it. Obviously, not every company or product is featured on such a blog, but for the ones that are, it can make a big difference. If you get a good review, it’ll be good for business. If you get a bad review, it will almost certainly be bad for business.

Expand the scope a bit further.

Read about Seth Godin’s experience at Radio Shack. He wasn’t even directly involved – he was just there. At the time of writing, the post has about 10 trackbacks. It has likely been viewed tens of thousands of times. Radio Shack has already taken a hit about it. Popular blog posts are often featured on digg. This may mean tens of thousand of more readers.

What companies have to do is follow stories like these as they develop and deal with them accordingly. It would be too optimistic (and probably impossible) to prevent failures of customer service like these from happening in the first place, so it is best to at least deal with them when they do happen.

Imagine if an executive from Radio Shack posted a message like this one as a comment:

Hi Seth,

Would you mind emailing me with the name of the store you happened to be at? I’d like to talk to the manager and see if we can find the customer and fix the issue. Radio Shack doesn’t support this type of attitude and we’d like to fix the issue.


Generic Name
Customer Service Manager
Radio Shack, Inc.

Wouldn’t that make a difference? It shows that Radio Shack is listening and cares. The exact words could go be spruced by PR or whoever, but you get the point. Doing nothing is what Radio Shack did wrong.

Doing exactly what I suggested is what The Geek Squad did right (see Tom’s post). The founder of the company emailed Tom and said they were working to resolving the issue. The company stayed on top of things and followed up with Tom. His issue was resolved and the Geek Squad turned a negative customer service experience to a positive one. I’m sure Tom will tell the story quite a few times (heck, even I will) and think about The Geek Squad when he needs his computer fixed.

So why aren’t companies listening? They should and it isn’t hard to do. More about Tom’s experience as well as the Radio Shack experience later this week.

An Etiqutte Follow-up

Remember the guest writer post earlier this month by Jodi R. R. Smith, the author and etiquette consultant? Well, I have a story related to that post that I would like to share.

Jodi and I exchanged a few emails before and after that post. We discussed what type of article would be best to post on Service Untitled, what she does, and a few other things. After the post went up, Jodi asked for my address. After a quick question, I gave her my address and kind of forget that I had given it to her.

A few days ago, I remembered. I got a little package in the mail from Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Massachusetts. I wasn’t too sure what was in the package, but when I opened it, I found a very nice thank you card and a little gift (a very nice leather portfolio/notepad with a pen). To say the least, I was impressed.

Step back and think about it. Jodi was kind enough to let me use an article she had written on my blog for free. She put up with my questions and probably worse, me for at least 5 or 10 emails. Dealing with me is no easy task and she was patient enough to do so.

To me, that’s plenty! But then she really goes and exceeds all expectations (as she suggests to do in her article) and sends me a personal thank you card and a little gift. For those of you who are curious what a perfect thank you card/note sounds like, here is what she sent:

Thank you so much for mentioning Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in your blog regarding the etiquette of customer service. It is fun to be mentioned in a blog and was enjoyable to read!I so appreciate your including Mannersmith and hope you enjoy the enclosed portfolio.

I hope we have the opportunity for our paths to cross again in the future.

This simply does not happen too often, which is why it surprises me so much when it does happen. Plus, it is a darn good follow-up regardless! Kudos to Jodi – Mannersmith will definitely be the first company I recommend if a client or friend is in need of etiquette advice or consulting services of any type.

Imagine if you did this whenever a member of the media, a customer, etc. wrote or said something positive about your company? You think the customers would appreciate it? I can almost guarantee it.

Thank you cards and similarly effective follow-ups are very powerful things. Plus, despite what people say, getting something in the mail is far more personal than an email message.

Think about what opportunities you have to send a personal follow-up, whether it be a thank you or just a “Can we help you with anything else?”. New signups, upgrades, mentions/recommendations by customers or media, etc. comes to mind.

Once you think of the potential opportunities to send such follows-up, do it! Send the follow-ups, the thank you’s, whatever it takes! Little gifts are nice, but aren’t required. It is certainly the thought (and effort) that counts.

Note: This post provides at least some evidence of why I work in customer service and not as a comedian.

Note #2: I do send people who contribute to my blog as interviewees, guest writers, etc. a thank you email, but will start sending a thank you letter. It definitely makes a difference.

Commandments 4-7

I’m continuing my post regarding the Top 10 Commandments of Customer Service. Today, I’m covering commandments 4-7.

4. Make customers feel important appreciated. Amen! Your customers make your business possible and you should certainly appreciate them. Re-read my series on service calls. There are a few things I suggest that companies do to make their customers feel important. See what type of difference it could make? How do you feel when you receive a thank you card? It makes you feel good. How do you feel when a company pays attention and does something to make you feel appreciated? It feels great! Chances are, the company will gain some respect and likely, some business.

5. Help the customer understand your systems. People hate industry or company-specific jargon or terms. They also hate having to learn how to use things. Something that customers hate even more is not having any ways to learn how to use things.

If you have a complicated product, have a few ways for customers to learn how to use it. Have tutorials, have manuals, have FAQs, have videos – whatever it takes. Ask your customers what you can do to make your product easier to understand and use. You may be surprised about what they say.

Here is a story reflecting an experience I had. I was working with a client who happened to deal with storage. For computer savvy folk, what a gigabyte or a megabyte (maybe even a terabyte!) is fairly clear. For someone new to the Internet or online storage? It’s like another language.

I suggested the client to explain what a gigabyte was. A few days later, they posted a page on their site with definitions of terms. Their explanation for a gigabyte? “A gigabyte is 1024 megabytes.” I told the client that the explanation needed a bit more work. This is what I suggested. “A gigabyte is 1024 megabytes. In less technical terms: your average song is about 4 megabytes. This means, about 500 songs equals about 1,000 MB, or about 1 Gigabyte.”

The 4 megabyte song example isn’t 100% accurate, but it helps potential customers who don’t know that much about storage understand the term gigabyte. Try and do that when explaining terms for your product or service.

6. Know the power of “Yes.” Saying yes is so important to customer service. The advice the articles gives (when you get a request that is at least somewhat feasible, say Yes and then figure out how to do it). This is going the extra mile, and your customers will appreciate it. Say no as little as possible and do what you can to fulfill your customers’ requests and make them happy.

7. Know how to apologize. People make mistakes. Everyone realizes that. Admit when/if you make a mistake and offer the customer a sincere apology. Don’t blame others – try to fix the problem. Respond to complaints accordingly and make it so customers know where to voice their feedback and concerns.

I’ll finish the mini-series with commandments 8-10 later this week. Tomorrow’s post is about an experience I had related to an excellent follow up experience. It definitely relates to commandment four and is exemplary of a well handled follow up.

The Blogosphere and Customer Service

A friend and colleague of mine sent this link to me last night. Besides have a word/acronym in the title that I have honestly never heard of before (with an equally interesting meaning), the post is fairly interesting. It talks about how customers and companies now react to poor customer service.

Think about it – what did customers do 50 years ago? They certainly couldn’t write into Service Untitled or Consumerist and complain (I wasn’t alive and I don’t believe Consumerist was even in the works). They couldn’t record the call and post it on YouTube. They couldn’t write a blog post about it or create a web site about it. Access to the general public’s eyes and ears was far more limited 50, 30, and even 15 years ago.

Today, individuals can do so much and get so much attention it is amazing. Perhaps the easiest and most accessible to people are blogs. Anyone can start a blog – it takes about 30 seconds at WordPress.com or Blogger.com and boom, they have a blog. The barrier to entry is zero. In fairness to mainstream media, it is very hard to promote a blog, but some do get well known. If you get a post mentioned on digg, boom your blog is on the map. Here is the key quote from the article:

“One way to make things better: Monitor online conversations about your brand and proactively address problems that come up. Someone motivated enough to post their conversation with a customer service rep on a blog, message board or social network probably isn’t doing it just to cause trouble. They’re likely doing it because they believe they’re being treated unfairly.”

So why don’t more companies monitor the blogosphere and respond to complaints? Things shouldn’t have to be on ABC News to get attention from PR people or companies. Plus, companies don’t even have to hire anyone to do it. You can subscribe to tags on Technorati, use Google Alerts, and anyone of the other hundreds of services out there. You’ll be kept in the loop and know what people are saying about your company.

Take two companies I talk about as an example – Headsets.com and HP. The companies are on completely different scales. Though Headsets.com is larger than a vast majority of Internet businesses, they are not HP in terms of sales or profits. Mike Faith, the CEO of Headsets.com uses Google Alerts to stay in the loop about Headsets.com. This doesn’t cost him anything and pays off in a variety of ways (he discovered Service Untitled, right?).

HP does the same thing, but on a larger scale. I would imagine they use some sort of technology to monitor the blogs and the Internet for mentions of their company. Plus, HP has an entire PR team. They have employees who are responsible for monitoring the company’s brand image and what is said about it. When I was talking to Janice Liu, one of their PR people was on the phone and both of them encouraged me to let them know if I received any complaints about HP’s service or products. They both care about the company and the customers, which is excellent.

Simply put, not monitoring the Internet, particularly blogs and search engines for mentions about your company is ignorant. If you care about your company, you care about your brand. Every time someone posts something bad about your company that is not responded to, your brand goes is negatively affected.

If your brand is giant (like HP) and the posting does not reach many people (like a small blog on Blogger), it won’t do much damage. If that happens a thousand times, it adds up. If one of those posts gets on the frontpage of digg, it makes a bigger impact. If that post remains one of digg’s most popular stories, chances are someone from a mainstream news source has already or will discover it. If the story makes it onto ABC News, it’ll make it to NBC News, then it may make it to Time. See what can happen?

The point is, that now, it is both easier for you to post your dissatisfaction with a company or a product as well as for the company to respond to, and hopefully resolve your issue. Since the customers will keep doing so, the companies need to catch up.

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