When two Posts Collide

Serendipity is an amazing thing.  I just happened to read these two blog posts back to back. I read both of these blogs regularly and I find myself nodding as I read them many times.  Today though, by some chance I read them sequentially and it really set off a firestorm of ideas.

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The first was by Seth Godin, speaking on getting referrals.  He postulates, “The only thing that will make you remarkable is being worth remarking about”.  So that’s on the front side.  Getting people to refer business to you is all about being worthy of their efforts on your behalf.

The second post was by Steve Curtin, speaking about customer retention.  He says (quoting from Exceptional Service Exceptional Profit) “Individual customers are irreplaceable”.  Once you lose a customer, he’s gone for good.  You have to know how much a customer is worth to you over a lifetime and then treat them accordingly.

This all came together in a very concrete way because DirecTV has been trying to get me to come back to them for months.  I switched to cable because I got lousy service.  Plain and simple.  Even before I ditched them, they continually tried to get me to sacrifice my friends and family to their vengeful god by offering me money and discounts.  Honestly, if they had just treated me fairly, I would still be with them.  (I’m lazy.  I don’t change unless I have to.)  If, heaven forbid, they had treated me well, I would have told other about them.  FOR FREE EVEN!

Don’t be DirecTV.  Be fair and you won’t lose irreplaceable customers.  Be excellent and your work will spread beyond your reach.

Trusted Advisor

A guy I knew years ago used to say, “What’s the difference between a consultant and a trusted advisor?”  The answer:  All of your money.  He almost always got a laugh with that one, but just last week I was reminded of just how true that can be. 

How can you tell the difference between a consultant, a hired gun, and a person that you can trust to give you the very best advice for your situation?  Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Time.  I’m sure everyone can think of a professional in their life that dings them for every second possible.  A lawyer, a mechanic, an accountant, maybe?  Not that there’s really a problem with that, after all everyone needs to earn a living.  The trusted advisor goes above and beyond the “billable hours” mentality and really takes the time to understand the business and its needs.   
  2. Perspective.  I think all consultants, both good and bad, want to deliver results.  It seems to me that their point of view can make all the difference.  If I look at a solution from the vantage point of the dollars that I will make first and the value for the client second, that makes me a consultant.  If I have truly taken the time to understand a business, its people and its goals, then I can really understand value first and worry about the money I will make second.
  3. Investment.  I’m talking about truly being (I hate this term because it gets abused so much) a partner.  I honestly feel that your success is my success, your challenges are my challenges and that your failure is my personal failure.  How well you do matters to me.
    I got to witness a great field tech who has achieved all of these things in action last week, and it was a thing of beauty.  That’s the bar to which all of us as service providers should be striving.  Thanks for the reminder, Will.

Golden Rule More Important Than Ever

He who has the gold makes the rules right?  Have you seen gold prices lately?  But seriously, my mom would remind my brother and I of this (amidst eye rolling and sly punches) almost daily.  Who knew it would actually make good business sense?

This is what customer service really boils down to, isn’t it?  If I want to make an impression on a customer, I need to try and empathize with them and then treat them as I would want to be treated myself.  If I want to make a bad impression, I don’t listen, I spout off “company policy” and generally give off the vibe that your situation isn’t worth my time.

My wife took her engagement ring to be repaired recently.  (Anyone who knows her knows that this story won’t be a positive example.)  They messed it up.  Seriously.  So they take it back and say they’re going to fix it.  So she goes to pick it up – for the second time mind you – and it’s now deformed and not at all to her satisfaction.  The lackey that she’s dealing with looks at her (she’s almost in tears at this point) and says to her “What do you want me to do about it?”

Wow.  Epic fail on the service there dude.  I realize that there are times when you just can’t help the customer out.  They want you to change the laws of physics or alter the space-time continuum or connect you with an English speaking operator when you call Dell.  These things will come up and I think most customers understand and have a certain amount of tolerance for.  You lose them as soon as you treat them in a way that you yourself would not want to be treated.  It’s that simple.

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Easy to Talk About, Hard To Do

Reading this blog may have given you the impression that I am the ultimate support person.  OK, I am, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have times when I drop the ball, miss things, or lose Outlook data from my wife’s computer.  (Sorry, honey.)  Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into the gory details of my domestic squabbles here. 

Before I get into my actual point, let me describe the customer interaction pattern that I preach to everyone who isn’t sick of hearing me talk about it:

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  1. Listen to the customer’s problem.
  2. Communicate your plan of attack.
  3. Act on the plan.
  4. Test your fix against the problem identified in step 1 (it’s best if the customers can do this for themselves).
  5. Inform the customer of the results and any further steps needed.
  6. Repeat as needed.
    So this wasn’t a customer situation, really.  I had a friend of mine call me and tell me about several issues he was having with his computers.  He just lives down the road a bit from me, so I went over to see if I could help.  I wasn’t going to take any money for helping my friend (even though he tries to pay me every time).

To make a long story short, I fixed the problems he was having, made some recommendations for some low cost upgrades he could do, and then asked him if there was anything else he needed help with.  He told me about what he called a minor annoyance and said it really was no big deal.  Of course, Super Tech here couldn’t let that go unanswered, so I dug in and figured out the setting that controlled what was annoying him, and changed it.  And then I packed up my stuff and left amidst a shower of thanks and praises, and <ahem> a feeling of smug self-satisfaction.  (Anyone in tech support can already hear the ominous music…)

Like I said, I think I’m a pretty good tech and very good at customer service.  I have a system, for crying out loud.  I have a whole power point presentation on it.  None of this, however,  protected my ego when my friend calls me back 30 minutes later and says “I’m not sure what you did, but I just rebooted and now Outlook doesn’t work, my desktop looks completely different, and I can’t get anything to work right.”  Wow.  Total service failure.  And it was all me. 

The moral of this story is that it’s SO easy to fall down in tech support.  Whether it’s because you’re in a hurry, or you’re overworked, or you’re a chubby computer geek who lives out his super-hero fantasies by saving unsuspecting users from the dark forces of technology problems, you have to stay focused on the person you’re trying to help and think through the law of unintended consequences.  It’ll bite you every time.

The Customer Service Table is Turned on Me

As someone who works for a company that is typically in the role of a vendor, it was an interesting twist to find myself across the table from one of our vendors.  It actually was a great experience for me as it gave me a renewed perspective on what it’s like on the other side.  The timing was even better for me because right before the meeting, I happened to read this great post by Steve Curtain the customer service guru.

Steve talks about the good being the enemy of the best and how many companies are content to let good (or adequate) service be their standard.  This gets them lukewarm customers that jump ship at the drop of a hat.  Few companies, on the other hand, will go out of their way to consistently give the best customer service and this results in loyal customers that promote the company to others. 

I think that when the relationship is in trouble is one the best opportunities to show your customer what kind of service is your standard.  Maybe it will go down like this:

You:  I’m sorry to hear that you’re not happy with our product/service/As-Seen-On-TV Ab-cerciser, Mr. Soares.  Can you tell me about the problem?

Customer:  Yes, I’ve written out 41 points of why I’m not happy with your company.  Shall I read them to you?

You:  Sure let’s take them one by one, and I’ll tell you why you’re wrong not to like us.  Ready go.

Have you ever had to witness something like this?  It’s painful.  How your customer feels is FAR more than the sum of the 41 points he has listed out.  It’s those feelings you have to address above all and make sure that the other person knows you GET them, really and truly understand where they are coming from, and that you will make it right.

What if the conversation started like this:

You:  I am glad that you let me know about your problems with our company, Mr. Soares.  Can you tell me some more details so we can decide on how we’re going to make the situation better?

Customer:  It boils down to the fact that I was expecting X and all I see is Y.  I really NEED it to be like X.

You:  I am very sorry about that.  I know that we can get you to where you need to be.  What if we…

Don’t believe me?  Try it on your next disgruntled customer.  If they don’t turn into a promoter for you, I’ll send you a full refund, no questions asked.

It’s Report Card Time

How do you know if your IT provider is doing a good job?  How do they stack up against someone else you might partner with?  Here are some ways you can figure it out. 

**Check back in with me and I’ll post a spreadsheet with all of this nicely laid out for you.

(BTW:  If you’re an IT provider, you may be tempted to just move on.  Clearly there is a TON of material on YouTube that needs your attention.  Perhaps, though you might want to run through these test and ask yourself, “How do I rate?  What level of service am I providing?”  Just a thought…)

The Metrics

I’m a big believer in gathering data and measuring performance.  Here’s a list of important things to be measuring if you’re using outsourced IT.  (Honestly, these are some of the same things I measure for our internal IT staff also…)

  • Response time – How long from the time of notification of a problem until it BEGINS to be addressed? 
  • Resolution time – How long from the time of notification until the problem is resolved?
  • Incidents per Month – How many times did you have to call?
  • Unresolved Issues – How many things are left outstanding at a time?
  • Incident Cost – How much did you pay each time?
  • Issue Recurrence – How many times did the SAME issue come up?
    Think about how your guys stack up.  Do they give you any kind of usage data about how your partnership is going?  Could you easily get the averages for the above?  If not, why not?

The Relationship

This is the more touchy-feely part of things.  It looks to find out how you overall feel about working with your technology partners.  There are some critical indications here that may even outweigh the metrics we discussed earlier.

On a scale of 1 to 5 rate the following of your IT provider (1 being strongly disagree 5 being strongly agree):

1.  They are there when I need them.

2.  They follow through on their commitments.

3.  I always know where we are in the process.

4.  If I had to change providers tomorrow, it would be fairly painless.

5.  I am comfortable with our disaster recovery and security plans.

6.  Our disaster recovery plan has been successfully tested.

7.  They listen to and understand our business and our problems.

8.  They proactively seek out technology to help us achieve the company’s goals.

9.  They go the extra mile.

10. Their services have improved over the time we have used them.

Total up all of the scores, then multiply by 2.  If they rate lower than a high 70, what are you doing with them?  It’s time to make like Tina and drop your Ike like yesterday’s newspaper.  Seriously, if you can’t rate them higher than a C, what are they really bringing to your partnership.  How successful can your business be with C technology support? 

Basic Anatomy of Customer Service

Primarily, I come at the world from a technology mindset.  Generally that is the hammer and I go about my life looking for nails to bash in.  I am quite a Neanderthal in that respect.  A chubby, hairless one…

Over the course of my career, through a painful evolutionary process, I have come to realize that many times, technology is not the answer.  Sometimes the answer is in the people- sharper focus, better training, clearer priorities, for example. Sometimes the answer is in the process- improved efficiency, reduced waste, defined needs.  Slowly I have become more of a “thinking man” in this respect.

So, as a man who professes to think, what does it mean to actually serve the customer?  Turns out, it has almost nothing to do with technology at all.  The way I see it almost all interactions should be variations on the following five stages:

1. Listen

2. Plan

3. Execute

4. Test

5. Communicate

I can hear some of my geeky brethren now:  “WHAT?!  There’s nothing about servers or MSPs or Twitter even listed in that!  How could it possibly be right.”  Allow me to break it down.

1. Listen

A much used quote is relevant here.

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

If you don’t know what problem you’re solving, it doesn’t really mater what you do next.  The only way you can find that out is…say it with me now…to LISTEN!

The customer doesn’t want to have to talk to their computer guy.  They can’t do their job and they have a boss to answer to, so they suck it up and make the call.  The LEAST you could do is actually listen to what they have to say.  I mean REALLY LISTEN.  I don’t just mean wait until they stop talking so that you can impart your great knowledge and wisdom to them.  They won’t use all the right words, of course, they may even say silly things like “the internet is down”.  (Really? The whole internet is down?  It’s the end of civilization as we know it!!)  The point is you must hear the customer first so that you will at a minimum know what they perceive the problem is.

2. Plan

This step can be as simple as hearing the problem, recognizing it and then fixing it.  Or it might be as complex as a multi-page write-up complete with diagrams and blueprints.  Whatever level is warranted, remember to keep the customer in the loop as to what your thoughts are and what your strategy will be to resolve the issue. 

The other critical piece of this stage is to fix in your mind what the perceived problem was (see above) and plan to address it with the same seriousness and attention to detail that you gave to the actual problem.  If you do not properly handle their concerns (right or wrong), even if you beat up their actual problem and take its lunch money, they will be left with the feeling that you didn’t do a good enough job.

3. Execute

This is where the rubber meets the road.  This is where you show your true mettle.  You can perform to your highest standards, paying attention to the smallest detail, following the plan and documenting what you do.  Or you can phone it in.  Ignore the details, leave the cables looking like a plate of spaghetti gone horribly wrong when you’re done.  Forget about the listening and planning you did in the first steps and let yourself get distracted by something that you weren’t even asked to look at.  Let the next guy document the thing.

What happens at this point is the price of admission, the minimum.  If you can’t get this step right, you shouldn’t even be playing the game.

4. Test

How do you know that step 4 is done and that you should wrap it up with step 5?  You test the original problem.  You see how this all comes together?  If you didn’t identify the problem right at the beginning or didn’t solve the right problem when you were executing, how can the customer EVER be satisfied?  Simple, they can’t.

You test the problem when you think it’s fixed, then have them test it and see if they agree.  If not, you have more work to do.  Why don’t they think it’s fixed?  Is there a perception problem?  This issue must be settled before moving on, or your customer will feel rushed and that you had “better things to do”.

5. Communicate

What more could there possibly be?  Aren’t we done yet?  Can’t we go hit the Denny’s for a Grand Slam?  Clearly not.  You must communicate several things to the customer.  Depending on the situation they could include:

  • Everything that you actually did
  • Anything they might expect to see or happen as a result of what you did
  • A detailed rundown of any further steps or actions that may need to happen
  • When those furthers steps will take place
  • Any helpful tips on preventing the issue in the future

If the customer is left wondering about any of these things, you’ve lost an opportunity to set yourself apart.

 

I’ve clothed all of this in techie garb (free vendor t-shirts and old jeans), but I think the general outline of it holds true for most customer service interchanges.  Think of a great experience you’ve had with some company.  (It took a few minutes didn’t it?)  Now run down the steps and see what they did or didn’t do.  Pretty close, eh?

Now think of a really bad experience.  (Yeah, you had one right off, I know…)  Which of the steps did they neglect?  Maybe they ignored your real problem and just tried to fit you into one of their existing “support channels”.  Maybe they did something for you, but didn’t explain and then just went away, leaving unsure as to what to expect next.

I think these things are widely applicable in almost any setting.  I’d love to hear what you think…