Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff


Hey Service Providers: I’m Givin’ You One Chance to do the Right Thing

Is service continuing to go downhill or am I just getting more picky?  You’d think in a problematic economy, service – just about the easiest thing to quickly improve and adapt – would be great almost everywhere one turns.   After all, it’s an easy differentiator.  I just don’t see it.  In fact, even considering that I’m feeling like a kinder, gentler and more understanding kinda’ guy these days (don’t laugh, compared to 10 years ago, I’m downright mellow), I’m routinely astonished with how bad service has gotten from sectors ranging from corporate professional services to the guy who plows my driveway.

There are many, of course, who after getting poor service immediately punt on the provider.  I can’t fault this tactic since there often are few excuses for poor service and there are other providers to reward with one’s hard-earned cash.  In the past, I was usually in this camp.  More people, however, roll their eyes, keep quiet and continue to use the service provider regardless of the quality of their performance.  Many of us have just come to expect bad service and assume that it’s bad everywhere.  I’m afraid that there are times when I have been in this camp as well.  Just too lazy to make a change or educate the provider to help improve the service for me or others.

A couple of months ago, I decided to take a new and more consistent tack.  Everyone makes mistakes, so if a service provider I’m using makes one, I give him/her a break – exactly once.  I simply inform them of the mistake they made and leave it up to them to do the right thing.  What’s the right thing?  Well, it varies, but at a minimum, it includes a sincere apology and some additional ass-kissing like having the service rendered for free or at a time/place/price that benefits me in some way.  That’s it, you get one shot.  If you choose not to deliver or you’re just too ignorant to, I’ll go elsewhere.  I think it’s a comfortable and fair model that I can implement without hesitation in all circumstances.

This got me thinking about entrepreneurs with service components in their offerings.  Is service seen as a necessary evil or is it part of the differentiating strategy?  When you think of yourself as a product company alone, for example, the services you provide – yes, including basic training and support – can be treated as ugly stepchildren.  Even great products can be completely derailed in the market with something as small as crappy support forum response times.  Services are often the most visible part of the company.  Getting them right can mean the difference between corporate success and failure.  Are you delivering them well?  If you screw them up, are you doing the right thing?

 December 18th, 2009  
 Customer Focus, Misc Thoughts  

Does Being Nice Take More Effort? Is it Worthwhile?

I think I could write an essay on the breakdown of civility in modern society based on these questions, but in this case, I ask them to question the business advantages of simply being nice.  It’s interesting that being nice to one’s customers is actually a differentiator these days.  Of course, it shouldn’t be, and that fact alone probably keeps many from even trying.  In reality, though, very few businesses practice being nice.  As a result, doing so can actually be a huge advantage to any business that touches it’s customers directly.

This morning, I stopped by Bed, Bath and Beyond, a store in a segment that’s simply falling apart in these tumultuous times.  I was greeted at the door and as I moved around the store, at least four different floor people smiled and said hello, with two of them asking, in an unobtrusive way, if they could help me find what I was looking for.  There was one cashier on duty dealing with the single customer in front of me when I was ready to check out.  Immediately, another cashier came to her register so that I didn’t have to wait.  The cashier asked me if I found everything I was looking for, smiled and wished me a good day.  BFD, right?  Yeah, it is.  I’ll go there before I shop some other store for similar goods the next time.

Contrast that experience with my next stop, the Post Office.  OK, this is probably an unfair comparison, but my guess is that the USPS is in a fight for its life as a business these days.  Yes, the USPS has competitors as well.  The person behind the counter never looked me in the eye, was rude, and never said “thanks,” good day,” or even “rot in hell.”  Nada. 

I had a similar experience once I got back to my office.  I had to resolve an issue on the phone with AT&T concerning my bill.  After I finally got through to a customer support rep who made it sound like I was standing between her and her tenth cigarette of the morning, I was told in curt fashion that I was “obviously” reading my bill incorrectly.  Ten minutes later, she admitted that they had problems with the last billing cycle and my issues were similar to the problems others were seeing.  Why did it take 10 minutes of haggling to get to that point if she already knew?  To top it off, she stated, without apology, that she couldn’t help me and I had to go to a store to resolve the issue.  My loyalty as a customer after this experience – zero.

How hard is it to be nice?  Not very.  Sure, dealing with complaints and questions all day is tough but, if the people you’ve given the job to aren’t cut out for it, don’t have them do it.  Find people who can at least act nice.  Your customers will appreciate that your company is a more pleasant one to do business with.  This feeling builds loyalty for almost no cost.  Or, you can let your employees be assholes to their customers who will in turn write nasty stuff about you on their blogs so that everyone they know will share the same ill will toward you that they do.  Ouch.


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 March 6th, 2009  
 Customer Focus, General Business  

Good Customer Service is Sooooo Easy

Let me get right to the punch line . . . good customer service is so easy because customers’ expectations are so low.  It’s a relative thing.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, it shouldn’t be that way, but it is and aggressive companies should be taking advantage of the fact that their customer’s have been beaten down by suppliers for so long that a simple recognition of the fact that they paid money is enough to make them happy.  In a world with few initial differentiators and almost no sustainable differentiators, customer service can make all the difference in making sure you beat your competition, get repeat sales and have a customer base that is your best and biggest marketing department.

So here’s a story from a recent experience that might make this more clear . . .

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve flown something like a gajillion miles on United Airlines.  There’s a nice trophy stating this fact in a box in my basement somewhere.  As you’d expect, though, other than a mass-produced plaque with my name on it, United never recognizes this fact and it, along with $9.58 might get me a mint, double-hot, no-foam, low-fat, grande mochachino latte at Starbucks.  All of the crappy seats, snitty flight attendants, flight delays and United’s patented smelly lavatories (what’s up with that anyway?) are mine for the taking, just like they are for everyone else.  Further, I don’t look forward to a pleasant or enjoyable flight.  I actually pray for a safe flight that gets me to my destination within some reasonable deviation from the scheduled arrival time.  It’s a school bus with wings and that’s all I’ve come to expect out of it.

So, wasn’t I pleasantly surprised (shocked, actually) when a flight a few weeks ago on United offered a positively memorable experience?  The toilets still stunk and the plane looked like it was previously used to transport cattle, but the crew was phenomenal and it it made the rest of the experience a total non-issue.  From what I could see, this all stemmed from the attitude and direction of the captain who seemed not only responsible for operating the 757, but for the happiness of his passengers, too.  What a concept!

What he did to make this happen – at least the stuff I witnessed – was simple, cost virtually nothing and took little time.  While the passengers were waiting in the boarding area to get on the plane, the captain took the microphone (uh, oh, I thought, this is gonna be bad) and gave us the complete low-down of the flight plan, the plane’s status, the crew and what was happening at both the departure and arrival airports.  No bad news.  No delays.  It’s not like he had to be out there for bad news, he was essentially out there for no news – just for the customers.  He told us that it might get a little bumpy over the Midwest and that they’d try to skirt the storms that were creating the turbulence.  What made this different from the usual pre-flight blather was that he 1. covered a pretty complete list of the stuff a passenger would want to know, 2. showed empathy to those who might be concerned about turbulence and, 3. DID IT FACE-TO-FACE.  Instead of being the anonymous voice in the the speaker, he took the time to explain this stuff standing among us.  Simple, good, unique.

Then, as we boarded the plane, the captain stood at the door and handed out his business card (which had a phone number and email address) to every passenger that boarded.  I asked him if he should be spending his time doing his pre-flight checks and he told me they were already done.  He said: “I just show up a few minutes earlier so that it doesn’t hold up the passengers.”  I have to hire this guy.

To top it all off, about midway through the flight, a flight attendant brought me back another business card from the captain.  This one was signed and had a small note hand-written on the back.  “Thank you Mr. Herman for your support of United and for flying a gajillion miles with us.”  It was in the database, he just chose to use the information to recognize a customer.

His attitude was contagious.   The flight attendants were smiling and attentive, people actually listened when announcements were made and the passengers talked about how great United is during the flight.  My water glass never reached half-empty because there was someone always attentively refilling it, and I don’t only mean that metaphorically. 

Oh yeah, there’s one more thing.  At the arrival gate, the captain waited, shaking people’s hands as they disembarked, thanking them for flying United and asking if they had any questions.  I almost had a stroke.

I’d estimate that virtually everyone on that flight considered United to be a good choice for their next journey – even the jaded ones like me.  Service is so bad that even a small offering of reasonable service changes our entire mind set.  Just think of all the low-cost, easy-to-implement things you could do for your customers to get that same kind of response.

 June 6th, 2007  
 Customer Focus  

Lessons in Customer Support

A few days ago, I wrote a post titled, Caught in a Geek’s Gravitational Field.  The truly unimportant post just outlined the geeky stuff that I have been working on and the fact that the mess I have been making has gotten me into an infinite loop of debugging, fixing and re-breaking many things simultaneously.  In describing the my dilemma, I mentioned several products that I have been having particular difficulties with.  Surprisingly, within hours, I began hearing from representatives of a couple of these companies expressing concern, making suggestions and offering services.

I was shocked for a variety of reasons . . . 

  • First, and like most people, I don’t expect to get good support even when I ask for it and I certainly don’t expect it to be offered without me asking
  • Second, the post was created on a Saturday morning on the East Coast and I had responses that morning
  • Third, the people who responded were not regular readers of this blog so they were searching for people like me
  • Fourth and perhaps most surprising, the two products I got virtual immediate responses about were free versions of the companies’ offerings

You can see some of the interest shown by these companies – Telligent, the creators of Community Server and VMware, the creators of a wide range of computer virtualization products – in the comments following the post.  Both followed up further via email as well, making sure they closed the loop.  Needless to say, I was extremely impressed with both companies’ efforts.

So, if this isn’t an indication of how the business world is changing, I don’t know what is.  Here I am, an individual using free software, getting offers of support from companies on a Saturday morning.  I didn’t complain or bad-mouth these companies. I didn’t advise that others steer clear.  I completely understand the fact that the solutions I was using were free and I get exactly what I pay for.  Nonetheless, these companies or, at least, their representatives, understood the value of a happy customer (perhaps especially one who blogs).  They were actively searching for me to make sure that I had support and to get feedback about how they can make their products better for people like me the next time. 

This is how you create loyalty folks.  Time to step up the support efforts if you want to compete.

The whole situation is even more impressive for me in light of the horrible customer support experience I’m having with another product/company that has been part of my geeking activities.  As part of my server rebuild project, I chose a new 3Ware RAID controller.  The documentation sucked, but the installation was fairly straightforward.  The RAID array (initially 3-750GB drives later to be expanded to 4-750GB drives as part of the project) was slow to initialize and get running, but it was reasonable enough.  Extending the array with the fourth drive took 5 full days.  Even though this is entirely out of whack, I didn’t complain nor put in a support request.  Now, however, I can’t get the Windows Server 2003 to recognize the larger array and this is a problem.  I put in a support request on Saturday and didn’t hear back until Monday.  After explaining my situation in detail via email, the response I got was a terse sentence telling me that the 3Ware controller was right and Windows 2003 was wrong.

That’s it.  That was their response.  Not how to fix it.  Not where to go to read more.  Not even a request for more information.  Just, we’re right and they’re wrong.  Very helpful (dripping of sarcasm).  I took a deep breath and replied politely that the response I got wasn’t very helpful and repeated my problem using words that an 8-year old might understand.  To this, I got another response telling me that I’m calculating Kbytes incorrectly (1,000 vs 1,024) and that I shouldn’t eexpect more space when adding a fouth 750GB drive.  I’ve just responded again suggesting that being off 750GB in a 3TB array could not possibly be because I’m miscalculating the size.  You get the idea here.  I’m frustrated and I’m not holding out a lot of hope for getting this problem resolved.

Would I acquire another product, even one I paid for from Telligent or VMware.  You bet.  From 3Ware, I don’t think so.  The guys I’ve paid $0 are supporting me like a valued customer.  The vendor that I’ve paid loads of money to is putting the least effort into support possible.

There’s the reality of quality customer support. 

 February 6th, 2007  
 Customer Focus  

Why Can’t I Renew Online?

I read loads of magazines every month, most of which I subscribe to.  Sure, the delivery mechanism is so . . . yesterday, but I find the experience richer and the format much easier to manage than the online version of the same information which, of course, is not even always available.

Because I have so many subscriptions, I’m inevitably renewing one or another every month.  And, I’m simply shocked how many publishers won’t allow me to renew online.  I can create a new subscription online almost always but, for some reason, I frequently can’t renew.  What’s up with that?  This pisses me off so much that once in a while I don’t renew just to show them who’s boss.  When I stop receiving a magazine I like, though, I realize that they’re my daddy and I actually have no power at all.

I just got a renewal reminder – although they have my email address, they sent it via the postal service – and followed up by hitting their web site.  On their site, I can enter a new subscription, but there’s no place for a renewal.  I briefly considered just letting my old subscription run out and getting an entirely new one so I could do it online, but I’d miss a copy or two and I’d have to think about it twice – just dumb.  Here’s the really wacky part – the hardcopy renewal they sent me has only one option – renew for one year.  If I subscribe online, though, I can sign up for three years.  Why wouldn’t they want to hook me up for a three year tour of magazine duty with their mailer?

I just don’t get it.  Am I missing something?


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 October 7th, 2006  
 Customer Focus, General Business, Misc Thoughts  
 Comments Off on Why Can’t I Renew Online?

Who’s Your Daddy (er . . . Customer)?

My good friend and intrepid VC, Brad Feld, has a new, thoughtful post on knowing who your customer is titled, The Three ConstituenciesLike Brad, I find that many companies really don’t understand who their customer is.  This simple problem is HUGE and can easily retard the growth or even kill small companies and severely damage large companies.  It’s also not as simple to rectify as it used to be.

Check it out.

 July 15th, 2006  
 Customer Focus, General Business  
 Comments Off on Who’s Your Daddy (er . . . Customer)?