Category Archives: Customer service

Service karma

A pizza chain recently made a splash on the news after it went above and beyond the requirements of customer service to help a deployed soldier surprise his wife.

The story is published here, and by the time I saw it, it had been tweeted over 600 times, and commented upon approximately 6000 times. The cost to the company: two pizzas, a bouquet of flowers, a couple of hours of working time for two employees, and a 50$ gift certificate. Roughly 150 dollars. That’s a 0.025 cent cost, if you count as contacts only the people who actually engaged with this one article about the event.

Google averages 0.001 in cost per impression, based on my calculations, and bidding in cost per click starts at 0.01. So, from a purely financial perspective, the gesture is clearly advantageous, even if this rough and tumble ad equivalency suffers from all the faults of any ad equivalency (you can’t equate the credibility of news exposure, even on flaky yahoo, with the targeted precision of segmented ads, which are nevertheless inherently suspicious etc.). Furthermore, we have actual engagement of potential customers with the story about the brand, and potential for positive word of mouth, as evinced in the 600 tweets that will get read, responded to and retweeted.

In brief, you simply can’t buy that kind of advertising. Not for 150 dollars, anyway. And that’s why I’ve been hammering the point about customer service in the past few posts.



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Customer Service: A Note About Being Present

Years ago, after a successful “cheese experience” (yes, I am a certified trainer in the “Who Moved My Cheese” method), my organization decided to further use pop psychology and management books to inspire an attitude change in our geographically disparate staff, who’d been through many organizational changes and paradigm shifts, and was adapting unevenly (as is natural). The sequel to our cheesy (couldn’t resist the pun) workshop was a fishy (another obvious pun) one, based on another popular book, Fish! Philosophy.

The book refers to an experience in organizational change inspired by the famous Pike Place Market in Seattle, where the fishmongers transformed their dreary and smelly workplace into a locus of fun, by following what the author identified as four basic principles:

1. Choose your attitude, meaning that while one cannot change the content of their work, one can choose how to approach it: as a burden or chore that you go through grudgingly, or as an opportunity to learn, perfect skills (no matter how basic), meet people, engage colleagues, etc.

Think about the lady behind a public service counter. She chooses to be grumpy, and unhelpful because some real and some imagined wrongs of her workplace. But she could equally choose to be nice and courteous, earning herself if not more money at least some goodwill. She could say I don’t know, or after the question popped up, she could choose to inform herself so that she would know the next time. It sounds naive, but is surprisingly efficient, and it is a matter that rests solely with the individual.

2. Play. Play is a bit harder, because it means finding a fun element in your work. Some jobs seem to have no fun at all. But the fishmongers were able to transform unloading fish into a contest of skill, peppered with jokes, so the lesson is that anything can become fun, if approached playfully and with an intent to discover its creative elements (while keeping within the bounds of respect).

3. Make their day means making a deliberate effort to engage the customer and leave them with a positive feeling. Whether this is a nice compliment, or a smile, or a context appropriate joke, make their day refers to focusing on the customers well being in a non-sales way. For example, a massage therapist will make the customer feel good, but that’s a paid service. Make their day is above that, it’s the nice tip and demonstration on how to self massage the soles of your feet for relief after a day in heels, the compliment about your necklace, or something small, but centered on you, the customer.

4. Be present is probably the easiest and the hardest. It means to be in the moment, to service the customer with your attention upon the service and upon what the customer is saying, not upon your aunt’s bunions, or the cat food that you have to buy upon leaving work. A classic example of NOT being present is when the customer that walks up to the fast-food counter and asks for 3 orders of large fries and mayo, and the server replies “Do you want fries with that?”. Uh, no.

Why am I writing this?

Because I’ve been struggling with placing an online order worth approximately 900 euros and my card payment just doesn’t go through. I’ve talked to the card company and the bank, and the problem is not with the card. So I wrote to the online trader explaining the difficulty, quoting the bank and Mastercard’s response and asking whether a) he can check and fix the issue or 2) he can provide a non-card payment option.

The answer was “We accept payments made with the following credit cards: VISA, MasterCard, AMEX, VISA Debit, VISA Delta, Maestro, and Electron. Our books are priced in Sterling, Euros, US Dollars, Australian Dollars, New Zealand Dollars, Singapore Dollars and Canadian Dollars – there is a select currency dropdown menu at the top right of the homepage to change the currency display into the one most appropriate for you. We charge in the currency selected.”

Well, that really helped.

This is the type of canned response that indicates to the customer that the company doesn’t even bother to read my message, let alone investigate the issue. And it’s preventing me from making a rather large purchase of 30 different items, and attempting future purchases.

Simply put, if an employee is not present, not attentive to the customer’s concerns, the company suffers. It doesn’t take much to be present, just the will to do so. Companies should explain the principle to their employees, train them in its use, and monitor its application. Being present is a personal choice. Employing people who are not present is an organizational one.

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Customer experience and comparative satisfaction

I’m just back from a weekend of dance and fun, that involved my first time in a (literal) saddle. By all accounts, it should have been memorable. My mind held a wealth of reading and imagery associated with being on horseback, from the Old West to riding to hounds in regency England that rendered the occasion both exciting and a bit awe-inspiring. And yet…

ImageThere were five of us riding at the same time, of which four were sitting a horse for the first time and learning how to hold the reins and “tell” the horse where to go. My mare was gentle, and all too prone to following another mare, so while I was going in circles, atop a horse that was being led by an elderly stable hand, I could hear the conversation going on between my friend on the other horse, and the man accompanying her. She was being instructed in holding the reins, connecting with the horse’s mouth and proper posture. All the while, the man leading my horse kept walking in circles behind the plucky mare that my friend was already managing alone. She rode, while I felt like a toddler on training wheels.

I stopped to analyze my frustration.

And I realized that it sprang from perceiving that someone else received more value for the same amount of money. The perception that I wasn’t getting a service as good as someone else was enjoying, overshadowed the fact that the quality of the service I was getting was intrinsically good.

Hence today’s bit of insight:

1. The quality of service must be equal and constant, and equally paying customers should get roughly the same level of (good) service.

2. If there is preferential treatment, there should be a clear and discernible reason (membership, fidelity, level of expenditure) and access to preferential treatment should be clearly explained.

Otherwise, the customers will perceive a lack of fairness that will affect their overall experience. And, as we live in the experience economy, we all know that undermining the quality of the customer experience is a sure fire way to fail.

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Undercover customers, mystery shoppers and other spy-types

My mother is retired, but very active and inquisitive, so she’s always looking for something to do. A friend referred her to a  mystery shopper agency, which was all too glad to recruit this youthful looking, elegant, well spoken lady for its pool of undercover assessors of  retailers and services. She duly signed an agreement in principle, exchanged contacts, and went on with her life. A couple of months later, at around 4 PM, she received a call from the agency asking if she could urgently pop over to the hypermarket across town (before 7 was the requirement) purchase something, and report on her experience by midnight.

My mother, who was otherwise engaged, politely declined. She felt sorry though, imaging that something untoward had happened to require such last minute arrangement.  She felt less sorry and in the end annoyed, when the incident was repeated twice or thrice more. She felt that it was somehow cheating the end client to give him a hasty report from an unprepared individual, whose only ability in assessing service levels was common sense, and experience.

Without being quite so drastic, I think she was right. As a marketer for many organizations with customer-facing functions, I would be horrified if the provider of mystery shopper or undercover assessment services would be so superficial. As a client going to a mystery shopping provider my goal, briefly stated, is to improve the quality of my interactions with clients, and see which are the problems areas. I would create a brief for the service, meet with the agency to devise a survey and agree upon what we should investigate and measure, and what information should be included in the final report.

And, as in any type of research activity, I would expect that the relevant part of information would reach the mystery shopper herself, so that when they are visiting my restaurant, store, car-wash or whatever, they know what to look for, and report on. Am I interested in knowing whether the cashier smiled, or whether the shopping baskets were damaged? These are very different sides of the shopping experience, and unless they are reminded what to check  and what to make note of, people may forget or simply disregard something that to me is important, but to them is obvious or unimportant.

I would expect my provider to:

– Create an assesment tool based on my priorities

– Schedule visits across days of the week and times of the day to achieve a representative sample, and make sure that these visits happen (not scramble at the last minute to find people who will buy something and report on it ASAP, thereby skewing the sample).

– Create scenarios (testing a return, a complaint, a pissy customer) as well as straightforward purchases

– Instruct the mystery shoppers about the targets / aspects to be measured

– Brief them about how to report their findings

In an ideal world I would also expect that the mystery shoppers  would receive some training, or at least general guidelines for their activity upon registering with an agency. And I would also expect that the agency would keep track of the expenses these people made, which I will be charged for, and try to instruct the shopper regarding the type and amount of purchase.

Some agencies do that, some don’t. This post is directed at those who don’t. Perhaps you’ll learn. If you don’t, don’t call my mother.

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Persist, insist, but don’t harass

I received an e-mail today that was so blunt and disturbing in so many ways that I simply had to post about it.

Brief background: a couple of weeks ago, as part of starting up the Romanian operations for my current  employer (yes, this is why I was silent, I found an outlet for my creativity and organization skills, and the collaboration promises to be fruitful), I was requesting price quotes and terms of cooperation for a variety of suppliers. The final decision is not mine, as I am a new employee in my first 90 days as a manager, so oversight and guidance is needed. Also, the operation is new, so as a separate cost center we need to carefully assess all expenses and contracts. And they are so many.

Bottom line, I do no yet have answers on all offers tendered. We comparison shopped for the most important, and kept the others in abeyance, until we had time to devote to them. Here, I’ve made an error: I should have let suppliers know that the process is still ongoing. My bad. My only explanation is the time crunch I’m under, but I’m aware that’s no excuse.

However, my lack of feedback is no excuse for the following e-mail:

“Hello, The lack of a reaction means a negative reaction. Feedback only takes one minute. So tell me, are you interested or not? Thank you.”

The general principle of customer service is that the customer is always right. On this one, however, the customer is plainly wrong. But you still have to treat him with respect, and it is not your job as a service provider to teach him proper behavior. If the customer’s misbehavior is egregious, you just cease commercial relations, If not, tread gently.  This e-mail could have been formulated differently, for example:

“Dear Madam,

The offer we have tendered on such and such date is rapidly approaching its expiration date, and we’ve yet to receive feedback from you. Please let me know if you have reached a decision or, if not, if I can provide any additional information that might aid you in the process.


Such an approach balances a sense of urgency (offers do have limited validity, so I perceive your reminder not as self-serving, for your monthly sales and lead report, but as a gentle service to me) with helpfulness and a show of desire to have me as a customer.

So, sales people, I know you are under pressure, and our lack of concern as clients is often frustrating, but keep in mind that you are forging a potential relationship and bluntness seldom helps.

To be honest, the author of the e-mail later apologized for the tone, and I respect them for that. And I understand that having reported that they sent me an offer, they are probably asked about the outcome on a regular basis, and feel the pressure. I can’t however understand a company that does not teach its employees how to deal with situations when the customer is not right, but still must be courted. I certainly hope my employees will learn that.

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