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The Intersection of Policy and Customer Service

Joel Spolsky is a household name to most people in the software business.

He’s been blogging for years about Microsoft, customer service, the software business and even how to build out an office in New York City. Not long ago, he started blogging for Inc. Magazine.

Today, he’s our guest poster and talks about something we spoke of yesterday: The intersection between policies and customer service.

Enjoy. I’m over in Fort Benton Montana covering the State swim meet.

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Banking Customer service Management Restaurants Retail Small Business systems

“Nothing can be done about it.” Phooey.

One of the readers of my newspaper column owns a bar/restaurant.

Recently she told me that one of her bartenders accidentally rang in a $6 charge twice on a debit charge card.

They found the mistake the next day and corrected it by reimbursing the $6 to the customer.

The customer called back and said she had a problem.

Her debit card bank, US Bank in Boise, charged her $160.50 because her debit card (due to the bartender’s error) went over by $2.00.

The owner called the bank there because he found it difficult to believe the customer’s claim of the amount she was charged. The bank verified the fee and said “nothing can be done about it”.

What the bank employee’s “nothing can be done about it” comment really means is likely one of two things:

Either a not-too-customer-centric “I don’t want to do anything about it.” or “My boss won’t let me do anything about it.”

Not wise, but not unusual depending on the management involved.

Of course, my friend the bar/restaurant owner reimbursed her for the $160.50 bank charge.

But she was curious, so she called her business bank here in Montana to discuss their procedures.

She was told that at $27 per overdraft charge, it can add up as far as the computer system shows. However, if the customer were to call (as the bar/restaurant customer did, and as the bar/restaurant owner did)) and explain the errors (restaurant wrongfully double charging, and only $2.00 over her limit) the bank would waive those fees.

I’ve had experiences with this same bank where checks were accidentally written on a closed account. Once the check amounts were paid, the fees were refunded.

In other words, they have a policy (a good thing), and they have some automation in place (usually a good thing) but they also have a human side as well.

A very good thing.

There’s nothing wrong with having strong policies in place. And there’s nothing wrong with using automation to help run your business (I’m the last one you’d find telling you not to automate), but you should always leave room for the personal touch.

There are some businesses that realize this and make a point of empowering their people to make a decision that is right for the company and the customer.

Yours should be one of those.

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air travel airlines Competition Customer service Employees Management Motivation Personal development quality Small Business The Slight Edge

More on the expanse of mediocrity

As we discussed recently, all you have to do to find mediocre anything is jump on an airplane – with a few rare exceptions – to encounter the worst of everything, including your expectations.

In today’s guest post, Chris talks about the culture of mediocrity that many of us have come to expect.

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Employees Leadership Management Personal development Productivity Small Business systems Time management

Life and business control starts with systems

Many business owners would love to have control of their lives, yet they never seem to take any serious steps toward achieving that state.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m no poster boy in this department, but just like me, if you look around, you’ll find someone doing even worse than you at this.

It’s something I have to make a very determined effort to stay on top of.

For me, it all comes back to systems.

My system is fairly simple.

It consists of Outlook, lists and a Smartphone or similar that talks to Outlook and knows what’s on my todo list and calendar.

One thing that makes Outlook far more functional at this is David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) add-in for Outlook.

If you haven’t read David’s book Getting Things Done, I suggest giving it a shot. I’ll warn you – You might not agree with his methods at first.

If you are one of those people with piles all over your desk and all over your office, constantly trying to figure out where things are or finding things late because they were in a pile, then David’s book is a definitely a worthwhile read for you.

Lets get back to the Outlook thing for a minute. GTD for Outlook adds a toolbar to the email viewer screen, and to the main Outlook screen.

One of the most important buttons on that bar is DEFER.

When you get an email that you dont need to deal with for 2 weeks, or it confirms an appointment (and the other user isnt using Outlook’s meeting confirmation/calendaring features), you can simply use the Defer button to quickly create an appointment on your calendar.

Best of all, that appointment has the original email attached to it, along with any files or what not that came along with it.

I’m not going to document the entire product, but that button not only saves me a lot of time (no manual entry of appointments) but it also helps me make sure I am where I’m supposed to be, when I’m supposed to be.

Give the book a read. I think you’ll get something out of it even if you don’t use Outlook. There are other programs (Including another add-in for Outlook) that were designed to work in the GTD system.

Control of everything is impossible, but effectively dealing with the disasters (or just random annoyances) is a lot easier when the controllable stuff is actually under control/management.

Remember, you set the tone for your business.

If you aren’t under control (or at least look it), then your staff won’t see much reason to be either. Or they’ll find an employer who is.

Same goes for clients.

Is your controllable stuff actually under control?

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Competition Customer service ECommerce Employees Management Retail Sales Small Business Software Strategy systems Technology

Don’t make it hard for people to give you money

Emergencies of all forms seem to come at the worst possible times.

How your business manages day to day transactions quite often makes the emergency worse for your clients.

Bear with me, this story – and the lesson that goes with it – requires a bit of background discussion.

Last week was crazy for me. On Friday night, I drove my son to Plains for a swim meet. The next day, we had a baby shower to attend before taking off for a week of Scout camp early on Sunday morning.

The camp is located a few miles from Harvard Idaho, which isn’t what anyone would call a metropolis, and that’s a good thing. See, the more remote a Scout camp is, the better. If the internet doesnt work and cell phones get no signal, it makes for a better week of camp for everyone. And that’s one more reason why Inland Northwest Council’s Camp Grizzly shines.

However, this post isn’t about camp, it’s about an experience I had with Hy-Tek, Ltd., a (if not the) leading swim meet management software vendor, while I was at camp.

When I arrived in Plains for the swim meet, the guy in charge of the touchpad timing system for that team asked me to take a look at the system for them. Each of the teams in our league use a setup owned by the league, and each town has someone who gets to set it up and run it that weekend.

Out of 23 towns, there are 2 geeky people like me who are involved. Me and a guy about 400 miles east of here. Everyone else in the other 21 towns drew the short straw.

Here’s what happened: Recently, Hy-Tek required that we upgrade the meet management software due to a licensing conflict (another story for another time).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t involved in that transaction, which might possibly have avoided this. Turns out that the sales-prevention-department at Hy-Tek didn’t do their research when selling $7000+ worth of meet software to the 23 teams (who buy as a group).

They neglected to look at prior purchases by the same organization and observe that the league purchased a version of the meet software that supported the scoring console that drives the digital scoreboard and collects athlete swim times from the touchpads at the end of the lane.

Bottom line, that means that when I got to Plains, they couldn’t get the meet software to talk to the timing console, the touchpads or the scoreboard. So I dig around a little and find that the licenses sold to each team did not include the ability to use the scoring console – something that should have been part of the sales script / checklist or whatever when any of this software is sold.

At 11pm on Friday night, this isn’t going to get fixed.

I call Hy-Tek on Saturday morning and get voice mail for someone’s cell phone.

Not long after leaving my message, a friendly guy named Bob calls back (Hy-Tek’s support Bob is universally appreciated from what I hear) and tells me that he cant fix it and I have to deal with sales because he isn’t allow to use the software that creates the license file that resolves the problem, much less take our money.

So we use manual timers for this meet, which isn’t the end of the world.

I tell my MotoQ to remind me on Monday morning (when I will be at camp, where there is no cell service) to call the swim league big cheese, explain the situation and then call Hy-Tek sales and get this resolved.

So Monday comes and I manage to drive 30 minutes to find about half a bar of cell service and reach the swim guy, who isn’t home and thus doesnt have the info for the sales call in front of him. We decide to talk on Tuesday so he can get the info from his home and then I can call Hy-Tek.

My call on Tuesday goes off as planned (after another 30 minute drive to get cell service) and shortly after gathering the necessary info, I reach someone in Hy-Tek sales.

I explain the situation and almost get the impression that I am interrupting someone’s day. But we move on, because I have to get this done and return to camp (thankfully, I have 2 other adults in camp to help the boys in my absence).

After explaining the situation to the salesperson, I am told that I should go online to order the upgrade. Isn’t that what a toll-free sales number is for?

Sales 101 – When a customer tries to hand you money for something they clearly want or need, do not tell them to go somewhere else.

I explain that I am in the middle of rural Idaho, have no internet access (not even with my phone, which is rapidly burning battery talk time due to the analog connection) and cannot do so. She tells me they are not setup to take phone orders.

Say what?

Anyhow, she says that she can take my order by entering it for me on their website (credit card merchants everywhere are cringing by now) as I read it over the phone. As I have no choice, we do that and the order is placed.

When delivery is discussed, I ask for email delivery of the license file (which is small enough to email) due to the urgency of getting this fix to the team hosting the meet next weekend, particularly given my limited ability to call/no ability to email this week.

I am told company policy forbids it because teams change computer people and coaches too often and they would have to re-email the software. Even downloading it from a secured area on the site is too much trouble, apparently.

Is it 1988 or 2008? Hmm.

IE: they wont allow email delivery of license files because they dont like issuing license files too often and more likely, because there is no process for doing so – since there are never emergencies in the swimming business, I suppose.

I begin to wonder to myself if they dont like taking money, but I know better than that:) I should note that I’ve been the swim team’s geek for 8 years and will be for at least 3 more. That is of no concern to the salesperson, because her hands are tied by company policy.

Clearly, there is no process in place to email this small file in an emergency.

If there isn’t a process, so be it, but blaming this on the *standard behavior of clients* is dumb.

Thankfully, the CD goes out as promised, gets picked up by the right person and installs without incident, all without me being around:) This is a good thing, since I arrived at the meet at 130am between days 1 and 2 of the meet.

So why this long, wordy bluster?

Simply to ask you to re-examine a few things:

  • Take a look at how you are setup to accelerate the delivery of your product in the event of a client emergency. Is your sales and support staff trained and enabled to make things work for the client, or simply hamstrung by policy and process issues, and thus forced to make your clients sit around and wait?
  • As you know, I’ll be the first to suggest automating what can be, but make sure that your processes allow for emergencies.
  • Take a look at how your sales and support team communicate company policies (smart ones and dumb ones) to your clients. It isn’t their fault your policies and processes are what they are, but they have to communicate and implement them, presumably without torquing your clients.
  • Check your sales process and make sure that your salespeople are not sending clients somewhere else to complete a sale. Obviously, creating work for clients when they are handing you money is not wise.
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Competition Corporate America Employees Management Productivity Small Business

Learning from Google

Today’s guest post is a brief story in Baseline magazine about how Google treats their employees.

Unless you work in an IT shop (ie: a geeky guy like me), you probably haven’t read Baseline, but I highly recommend it.

It was the source of the excellent coverage of the Delta Nervous System years ago that changed how Delta captures and utilizes info about their business, from all parts of their business.

This article, however, is about a visit to Google and some insights gained by observing how things work around there. To be sure, when you have enough cash to wallpaper the Pentagon, your business might do things others wont do, but the details of the implementation can be overlooked in this case.

Look at the consideration taken for the employee. For Google, or for you, they’re a critical piece of your business.

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Customer service Employees Management Positioning Retail Small Business

Do you send the wrong unspoken messages to clients?

What message do you send to clients when you have a live sales chat feature on your website, but no live support chat?

It says to me that I am not as important after the sale as I am before the sale, which is exactly how I felt today when visiting a website whose service I use.

On Wednesday, I was in the Post Office sending some Rotary International grant money via Express Mail.

During our conversation, the agent behind the counter made a comment that “It isn’t Express Mail without tracking.”

As I was stuffing $23,000+ of someone else’s money into the envelope, I was thinking “That’s not the desired result.”

The desired result is that our envelope gets there tomorrow.

The agent made it clear that the importance to the Post Office was not the delivery, but was the process. The paperwork. Not the message that the customer wants to hear – even if they’re filling out the paperwork.

Ask yourself:

  • What unspoken messages do my procedures and business processes send?
  • What written or spoken messages do we send that detract from our reputation, our products/services and our company?

Next – work on correcting, or removing them from your scripts, pitches, company lingo, training, printed materials, websites and most importantly – the silent messages you send.

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Competition Employees Leadership Management Motivation Personal development Positioning Small Business

Is your business more dangerous when injured?

An injured animal is typically a dangerous thing, especially if it’s a sizable creature.

It’s especially so as they age, as they are wiser and less likely to make a mistake that will cost them dearly.

This is especially so when the animal is Tiger Woods.

All day long, despite an injury, despite little stumbles here and there, Tiger kept getting back up, even as Rocco Mediate came at him again and again in the US Open playoff at Torrey Pines today.

Each time, he fell back to his strength. Each time, that fundamental thing, the thing he has worked so hard on, picked him up and kept him in the game.

For Tiger, you might think it’s his drives.

After all, on these long, tight US Open courses, if you leave the driver at home, you’re in big trouble.

Or perhaps it’s his putting. On the always hard, super slick US Open greens, putt well or you become a spectator faster than you can say “3-putt”.

Or maybe, it’s his ability to get up and down, which in golf lingo means “to scramble out of trouble with a shot that stops close to the hole and then drop a putt to avoid losing a stroke”.

I think it’s something else. Something fundamental to golf and to business.

There’s a reason that martial artists practice the same move tens of thousand of times. The same reason that Tiger, Rocco and others hit hundreds or thousands of drives, or chips, or a specific iron every practice day. Sure, muscle memory is a big part of that, but I’m speaking of a fundamental.

Mental toughness.

The ability to do what you do, at your expected level of performance, no matter what’s going on around you, whether you’re hurt or not.

You might be thinking, yeah, but what about the seagull on the 18th green?

After all that Tiger’s dad did to strengthen him mentally, do you really think that seagull bothered Tiger on the 18th green?

No way. I think he used it to make Mediate think about the situation just a little more. To make him think.

And maybe to take a second look at the putt, just in case:)

What can you, your staff and your business accomplish during the worst of times? The toughest situation? The fundamental core ability?

What do you come back with even after watching your strongest competitor hit a home run? Or make a sale you never thought they could close? Your strength.

91 holes after they started, Tiger came back with the ability to just get par, knowing that if anyone was going to be rattled after a classic day of golf, it wasn’t going to be him.

How about you? What builds that sort of strength in you? In your staff? What do you do that competitors know they can’t beat you at? Do you position your business using that capability?

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Customer service Employees Retail Small Business

Going a step past ordinary

fairy tale;bajka
photo credit: TanjaN1

Today’s guest post is (again) from Church of the Customer, where Jackie is talking about a recent dress shopping experience at J. Crew.

Whether you are a retailer or not, how can you use what she experienced in your business?

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Customer service Small Business

Wedding and a funeral create a customer service mashup

Miss me? Between a wedding, an unexpected funeral (is there any other kind?), the joy of Greyhound-esque air travel, no time to post and no access to the net, the blog’s been bit dark since late last week.

I’ve been in various parts of Missouri since Thursday, but I did bring you something: some fine and not-so-fine examples of customer service and related lessons.

Train your people to think creatively

We start on Thursday afternoon, where I board a SkyWest aka United Express flight from Kalispell to Denver. The flight attendant tells us that the potable water on the plane (a Canadair CRJ 200 regional jet) thus coffee will be unavailable and no water will be available in the restroom.

Meanwhile, a couple of cases of bottled water are on this same partially-full flight. I don’t think the flight attendant was dumb, I just think that SkyWest is probably not training their people to be inventive when the situation calls for it. No coffee was a minor thing on an afternoon flight, but it struck me odd that no water was available as a cart full of water rolled past my seat. The overhead light didn’t work. Details, folks. Pay attention to the details.

United Denver customer service

No one, except perhaps myself, expects good customer service from the major airlines these days. Air travel seems to have been reduced to a odd combination of a crowded suburban mall, a Greyhound bus stations, and a parking garage with a dash of McCarthyism. Or something like that.

Upon arriving in Denver, I find out about the date/time of the funeral, and determine that an extra day in Missouri will be necessary. So I read the electronic sign that says customer service stations for United are available at various gates at DIA (IIRC, the sign was backed up by an audio message). Never fear, I head for the one closest to our next gate.

Naturally, it is unstaffed like the overwhelming majority of the United gates at DIA, so I turn around and walk back 20 or so gates to the next one. While standing in line for an amazing 45 minutes despite having only 6 people in front of me, I witness an interesting contrast of service levels from the customer service desk agents:

One agent lies to the next guy in line, telling him her computer is broken (Reality: she was due to go on break). Thing is, it’s the same computer that she’s been using for the last 30 minutes – and we’ve all been watching the whole time. Just a moment after she leaves, another agent sits down and uses the same computer, and a few minutes later helps the same guy who previously couldn’t be helped because of that computer. It’s really OK if you have to go on a 5 minute break, just be honest, folks.

The agent next to the “broken” computer is next up when I’m at the front of the line. I step up and he tells me that he is due to go on break. I’m fine with that, as I’m sure they need a few minutes to decompress after dealing with frustrated travelers all day. A couple minutes later, the guy next to him frees up, so I step up. He tells me he needs a minute or 2 to complete the previous guy’s transaction so I might watch for other agents becoming available.

He completes the transaction for the previous traveler (who has been sent to his gate). I step up and he – at no cost – changes our 5 flights from Sunday evening to Monday. During this process, my flight to KCI starts boarding so he gets the must-do stuff done and sends me to my gate, telling me he will complete the transaction like he did the previous guy’s.

Upon arrival in Kansas City (2 hours late), I head for the rental car shuttle bus while the rest of the gang fetches luggage. I make a mental note that the KCI passenger area reminds me of a parking garage. Dim fluorescent lights, concrete everywhere, and very spartan. Almost seemed like something out of a sci-fi novel. When I arrive at the shuttle bus stop, another shuttle driver offers me a seat in his warm van. It’s almost 20 degrees colder in Kansas City than it was in Kalispell.

The shuttle bus hauls me to the car rental complex and I’m greeted at midnight by a friendly young agent for Enterprise. He makes small talk asking about my trip to KC and we reflect on our grandfathers while he completes the paperwork. When we walk outside, he decides to upgrade me on the spot because a nicer, large-enough car is at the sidewalk. It’s cold, windy, snowy, we’re over two hours behind and he thinks that the Dodge Magnum will work for 5 people and luggage vs walking across the slick, windy parking lot.

And because he took the time to make conversation while getting my paperwork ready, he knows every minute counts because of the 4 hour drive that awaits us. It was a long 4 hours on freezing rain covered roads, and his prompt, friendly handling of the checkout process was appreciated after 9+ hours of airports and airplanes.

Little things make a difference and make people talk about your business

Fast forward to Friday night’s rehearsal dinner. We’re in the private dining room at the Metropolitan Grille in Springfield MO, an upscale restaurant on the city’s East side. I walk into the nicely appointed men’s room and there is a flat screen TV attached to the wall next to the urinals. It’s showing Gladiator. When I return to the dining room, I hear a couple of ladies talking about the ladies room and it’s heated toilet seats. All the guys are talking about the flat screen TV in the men’s room. Yeah, the food was good, but the other little touches are what make people talk about you.

The limo driver

Good service is to be expected from a limo driver, but sometimes they take an extra little step. This one stood at the back of the chapel during the wedding, and was sharp enough to comment to the bride’s mother that he felt it was a very special, touching ceremony (it was) and that he was pleased to have the privilege of seeing it. The bride’s mother was talking about him the next day and made sure the wedding coordinator knew about his comments. I wonder who she and her friends will use the next time they need a limo?

Customers like small town treatment
As we rolled into grandpa’s hometown on Sunday evening for visitation, we stopped at the Piggly Wiggly (that’s a grocery store) for a card. The grocery had been kind enough to put funeral announcements up at the cash register. A nice touch that I hadn’t seen before. I also had a nice conversation with a very savvy funeral director who paid very close attention to details. Sharp guy, 3rd generation director in his family’s business. I’ve seen cold ones and I’ve seen warm ones. This guy was good, but not slick, a fine line in his business.

After visitation, a stop at the Crazy Cone in Higginsville MO proved that teenagers can deliver small town service, even without the McDonald’s playbook. Even though it’s just a little ice cream and sandwich shop that could typically get away with non-descript service, they’ve taken steps to make sure the food and service keep people coming back. Bonus: historical photos of community members and sports teams dating back to the early 1900’s. Oddity of the day: the Crazy Cone shares a building with a tire and auto repair shop, the space between them is open.

The other United Airlines
While checking in at KCI, I found the other United Airlines. Not only did Debbie prove very helpful at check-in (more flight changes), but a young man in a United shirt (unfortunately without a name tag) stepped up to help a crowd at the self check-in kiosks and showed impressive customer service savvy with his patient, caring manner. He wasn’t a skycap, just a young dude in a United polo shirt with a security badge that I couldn’t see. Someone needs to promote that guy, or hire him away. He and Debbie could teach the rest of airline industry a thing or two. Is there something that your “mail room” employees could teach the rest of your staff? Look around.

KCI – parking garage suspicions confirmed

Don’t ever schedule long layovers in Kansas City International. It really is like spending time in a chair sitting in a dimly lit parking garage. Gate areas are small, there are no airport lounges or vendors of any substance in the tiny gate-specific secure area. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be stranded there in bad weather or due to delays. They do have free wireless internet in the terminal, but email ports are blocked, and there’s a grand total of 2 electrical sockets for the 50+ seats at our end of the secure area. Not impressed. I’d be less than inclined to have a national-scale business convention or trade show in Kansas City solely because I wouldn’t want my attendees to be subjected to a substandard airport experience and possibly associate it with my show/convention.

Finally, back to Denver

Before our final Denver to Kalispell leg, we’re sitting in a crowded DIA B terminal stuffed full of travelers dealing with weather delays. Once again the internet appears to be free. Alas, it doesn’t work, but it is free. Whether a service is free or not, people expect it to work.

You can’t teach nice

We arrive after midnight in Kalispell and as we leave the secure area, a smiling airport security officer stands at the security area exit welcoming each traveler to Montana and wishes them a safe ride home. You can’t really teach someone to be nice. You have to hire and then train nice people to do a specific job. For people who have been traveling all day, sitting in a cramped plane or a noisy terminal, he made the end of the day a little bit more pleasant. How does your business do that?