Are you providing great customer disservice? – Part 1

Customer Service
Helping Hands

I experienced two customer service fails in the same week. Part 1 describes my odyssey with a well-known audio/video conferencing service that sounds like Kleenex.

I needed to remove a long-discontinued phone number as the default callback number for this conferencing service. Whenever I joined a meeting, it would prompt to callback my old business number. I needed to type in my new number. I searched the company’s Knowledge Base, tried a few actions, and no luck. As a free user (basic functionality, good enough), my customer service interactions are limited to a series of emails.

On the positive side, customer service responded promptly.

Let’s give credit where it’s due. The promptness of responses made me feel as if the company properly staffs itself to handle customer service inquiries across multiple channels.

Then it went downhill.

With the first email, the representative sent a link to uninstall the program. I responded and reminded him that I have a Mac and that he sent me the link to a PC-based program.

He then sent me another link, this time to install the Mac package. While already installed, I figured that a new installation might fix my issue. No dice. I still had the old callback number.

Third time – no charm. He sent me a link to uninstall their program. (Note — he never told me to uninstall and then re-install; I still need the program).

On my own, I figured out that by clicking on an inconspicuous arrow, it shows your saved phone numbers. I deleted the old number there.

Why didn’t he know that?

It’s the simple-stupid fix in a completely questionable location. I informed him about the fix, suggested he update his documentation, and asked him to close the ticket.

One might argue I got what I pay for. But while the situation mildly annoyed me, consider the amount of time the Help Desk technician needed to research, send me responses, rinse, and repeat. If the company has updated, correct documentation, they could save time and money with a first-contact issue resolution. And I would be writing about a customer service success.

You can take three simple actions to improve the customer service you provide.

  1. Review and update your documentation. You should do this at least annually. If you upgrade the product or service you provide, make sure the documentation is accurate prior to rollout.
  2. Analyze your interactions with your customers. Ticketing systems, especially when integrated with email and live chat transcripts, provide insight into how your customers use your product and the problems they have with the product. Take advantage of the information contained within these tools to continuously improve your customer relationships and product functionality.
  3. Communicate changes to your employees, especially those who are customer-facing. A more experienced help desk technician often provides answers based on past calls. They need to know that something has changed and that their responses must change.

Whether your customers use a service you provide or buy one of your products, they are grading you on all of their interactions with you. If they can figure out how to solve a problem before you can, then something needs to be fixed in how you operate.

Photo courtesy of Rinet IT Australia under Creative Commons License.

Discussion (respond below):

  1. Do you have a recent customer service fail you need to vent about?
  2. What steps do you or your company take to remain customer-focused?

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Why you can achieve more with only one goal

Last year, I made a big deal about buying a fancy glass whiteboard to keep all of my 2017 goals directly in front of me in my home office. The picture above shows a nice mind map, some major goals that I circled, and lots of ways to support those goals.

I failed miserably.

I didn’t write a book, although I started one, and I didn’t start a networking group, although I discussed it with some interested colleagues. And I didn’t do this, although I did do that.

I’m the shoemaker. I help companies simplify their strategic plans into achievable components, yet I made overly complex goals. It’s the conundrum of running your own business. Too much time with my head down rather than stepping back and looking at my own big picture.

This year, I decided to publicly proclaim one goal.

Read more books.

This one goal has changed how I tackle my entire day. After waking up and walking Copper, I prepare my breakfast and eat at our kitchen table with the goal of reading one chapter. I used to take my breakfast into my office and pretend to work while “quickly” scanning email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Everyone knows there is almost zero productivity in that.

Now, every morning, I learn something.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve finished four books. They happen to be business-related:

  • Originals– How Nonconformists Move The World – Adam Grant
  • Hit Refresh – Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone – Satya Nadella
  • The Go-Giver – Bob Burg and John David Mann
  • Blue Ocean Shift – Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne

Each day, I feel as if I did one thing that improves how I think or approach my business and clients. Mentally, I am debating the relevance of a specific idea, or determining if there is a way for me to incorporate the idea into improving my company. Most importantly, I feel as if I did something. It completely changes my mindset.

Data exists suggesting successful executives read more. This article from Inc. magazine says most read 4-5 books per month, or one book per week. That may seem like a lot, but once broken down into the average number of words in a book, it equates to 45 minutes per day. I’m averaging about half of that because I’ve framed my goal as one chapter per day, or ~2 books/month. Given that I previously read about 3-5 books/year, that’s a leap.

How has this one goal helped in terms of improving myself and my business?

I’ve begun to compare concepts and ideas and cherry-pick the pieces that make sense for me. I feel more disciplined as I work through my day. For whatever reason, my motivation is greater. I’m not sure I can completely explain that, other than the fact that I don’t have all of these other goals hanging over my head. I do have a task list, and completing those tasks helps to achieve other goals. Somehow, they are getting accomplished despite the fact I haven’t put them in front of me on my whiteboard.

Is this the best method? I don’t know. It’s working for me.

GoalEvery newsletter is supposed to have a “Call to Action.” I’m calling for you to simplify your objectives if you or your team feels overwhelmed. Figure out what is manageable and achievable. You will be surprised how lightening your mental load, or erasing the whiteboard in front of you, will help you become more productive and attain your goals.


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Discussion (Comments below):

  1. What did you fail at in the last year and what did you learn from it?
  2. Do you have a book to recommend?

The 4 things I learned locking myself out of the house

Comfortable while thinking

Last week, I was preparing to participate in a webinar, one I paid to attend. Five minutes before the webinar, I decided to let my dog out onto the deck. Usually, we go out through the sliding door in the kitchen. That day, I opened the door from my office to the deck. It has an upper deadbolt and a regular doorknob lock. You guessed it — I forgot to unlock the doorknob lock.  I unconsciously pulled the door closed, played with Copper for a minute, walked back to the door, tried to turn the doorknob…and my mind started racing.

A few expletives ran through my head. I might have even said them aloud. You’ll have to ask Copper if he remembers. The slider was locked, and I knew all the windows were locked. There was no way in, and my phone sat on my desk.

On the positive side, I’m dressed. Sure, I’m wearing my Uggs slippers (they are really comfortable, and I’m picky). I start down the stairs towards the driveway and run to my friend and neighbor. He’s about five houses down. He has one of those high-tech doorbells that allows him to see who is at the door. No answer. I’m wondering “Is he really not home, or is he looking at his phone thinking ‘Harold’s in his slippers; this seems weird.’?”

I head back to the next house. This time, my other neighbor is home. I tell her my plight and she lets me use her phone to call my wife. She doesn’t know who it is because she’s in her car and doesn’t see the number. I say “it’s your husband and I locked myself out of the house.” She’s 20 minutes away and will drive directly home.

As my feeling of idiocy grew, I headed back to my deck and sat there with Copper, content with lying in the sunspot. I started thinking.

1. If you’re going to lock yourself out of the house in February, do it on a day when it’s nearly 70 degrees.

Take advantage of an unexpected situation and capitalize on it. I sat back in my chair, enjoyed the sun, and cleared my head. While I’m not a meditation kind of guy, I do like to get outside to think. In business, if someone disrupts your business model, what are you going to do? Consider if there are positive aspects that will permit you to take advantage of this new environment.

2. If you’re going to lock yourself out of the house, make sure you have something on your feet.

Engage in some basic risk management. Clothes are always good when you walk outside. In business, we repeat many activities without thinking about them. Take time to review even your most basic processes and determine if any new risks have emerged that require you to change your business-as-usual functions.

3. If you’re going to lock yourself out of the house, turn your loneliness into connectedness.

Embrace the opportunities to reach out to your network. Even though I would be 20-30 minutes late for my webinar, I knew it was being recorded and I could review it later. More importantly, I now had something amusing with which to contact our webinar host and let him know that I missed the beginning of the class for a good reason (almost as good as “my dog ate my homework”). Continue building your relationships with your customers and your network. You never know when one will become the other.

4. If you’re going to lock yourself out of the house, do it with your dog.

Share the experienceHe probably appreciated it more than I did. He got to spend some time in the sun and explore the yard on a beautiful day. How often do you share experiences with your team, your employees, your customers? Are you getting valuable feedback from all of these stakeholders? People love to give their opinions or provide facts that you might not have considered. Don’t take that for granted when you are uncertain about a decision you need to make.

I’m fairly certain that I won’t lock myself out again. I do know that I will take more time to sit in my sunspot, wearing my slippers of course.

Discussion (respond in Comment section below)

  1. Do you wear slippers?
  2. Do you set aside time to think about your business?

Dog days of winter

Customer-focused - tells me everything I need to know
It’s cold

Arctic temperatures and 18″ of snow do not invalidate my dog’s need to go for his walks. Both of us bundle up in coats, I’m wearing thermal underwear and wool sweaters (I know, TMI), I open the door, we look at each other, and Copper trudges out with me in tow.

He’s my canine customer. I do everything possible to make him happy. Regardless of the temperature, the rain or snow, or the time of day, he has to do his business. There are days when it feels like drudgery (well, for me anyway). Predominantly when the wind chill is -15 degrees. I’ve tried numerous times to put dog booties on him, especially with the combination of cold and snow. He won’t have any of it. Again, he’s the customer. I will keep trying, but I can’t guarantee success. UPS is happy, though, delivering and picking up our attempts. Thanks, Amazon Prime.

As my consulting business has steadily improved (woot! / woof?), I consider what I can do better to help my customers. I’ll continue asking more questions and remaining an objective third party. I often ask “What keeps you up at night?” or “Why is that important to you?” I realize that I should be asking “Why is that important to your customer?”

Meeting your customer’s needs leads to success.

That’s a pretty simple statement. However, when you implement your strategic plan, you must tie everything back to the customer. For example, consider the strategic goal of Being the Low-Cost Purveyor of Fine Wines. As a business, it means that you can be competitive by maintaining a price margin that allows you to make some money. Is that important to your customer? Not really. Customers generally assume you’re making money. They implicitly care about the fact that you are able to provide them a fine wine at a value with which they are comfortable.

IT needs to follow this concept too. You can change the conversation from bits and bytes to customer value. Instead of “we need to upgrade the CPU on the database server because it’s at 90% utilization,” try “Our CRM system is so popular with our sales team that we need to add capacity to meet their needs.” Aligning the focus towards the customer instead of the technology helps everyone understand the business problem and often leads to funding. Keep it simple and clear.

Satisfied customer
Satisfied customer

Which leads me back to Copper. I don’t need to explain a lot to him. “Walk”, “treat”, and “ride” trigger immediate four-legged action. Those are important to him as the customer. And maybe a fire hydrant.

Nobody’s perfect, not even a perfect stranger


“Nobody’s perfect, not even a perfect stranger”

My favorite song by The Pretenders played on my music shuffle yesterday during my walk.  “Time the Avenger” has several memorable lines in it, including the opening line noted above.  I’m not sure if it’s irony, humor, a play on words, or how to describe it.  That line is, well, perfect.  We can’t be perfect, and I’m not sure why any of us strives for perfection.

Do you really want your children to be perfect?  I want mine to be good people who care about their families, who treat people decently, and they’re successful enough to support me in retirement.

When companies strive for perfection, they are bound for failure, or at least disappointment.

It’s not the 100/0 rule.  It’s the 80/20 rule.  At some point, achieving ‘good enough’ is good enough.  Get to that point, get something into production or a product out the door, and then look at further incremental improvements that meet your customers’ requirements.

Crawl, walk, run.  Aim, fire, ready.  Both of these expressions capture the essence and endorsement of imperfection.

Even the iPod wasn’t perfect after its introduction.  From Lifewire, “It didn’t have the most storage or the most features, but what it did have was a dead-simple user interface, terrific industrial design, and the simplicity and polish that have come to define Apple products.”

For some, that may have been their notion of perfection. Sounds more like ‘good enough’ to me.

Innovation can be incremental.

Strategic shifts can occur over time. Don’t get it wrong, and never assume it will be perfect.  Measure your successes and failures, ask questions about both, and maintain focus on your goals and your customers.

Time for one more vodka and lime.

Photo by Beck Gusler under Creative Commons license

Discussion (comment below):

  1. What song lyric is perfect?
  2. How do you keep from focusing on perfection?

No such thing as best practices

best practices

I enjoy a nicely grilled steak.  There’s something about a well-seasoned, juicy, char-marked piece of meat that activates all five senses (sorry vegetarians, although I also like grilled veggies).

There are some basic rules about grilling meat.  It should be a certain temperature to ensure safety, but after that, it’s personal taste.  I’m good with a medium-rare to medium steak. Someone else prefers it rare, and another prefers medium-well. Well done?  Why are you eating steak? Chew on your shoe.

But that’s the point.

What’s best for me will not be best for you.

It’s the same for companies.

I attended a conference about a month or so ago, and a speaker said:

“There are no such things as best practices. There are only good practices for your company”.

I’m not sure I agree 100%, but I understand her point. Even the greatest practice has to be customized or has to fit for your specific company. Just because one company has a tremendous “best practice” that you want to copy or adopt doesn’t mean that it will work exactly the same way for your company. You have to decide:

  1. Does this best practice meet our requirements?
  2. Will it achieve our goals? Only you will know based upon how your processes work.
  3. How shall we measure this process?

Most importantly, you recognize that something needs to improve.

Striving towards a benchmark is not necessarily bad or good. I like to think about benchmarks, frameworks, and best practices in terms of guardrails.  First, you build the road, and then you install the guardrails to keep you in between the lines.

If getting closer to a benchmark helps you achieve your goals, then consider implementing that measure.  As you learn and improve through metrics, use the guardrails to help you determine any changes or swerves you need to make.

So whether you use a gas grill, a charcoal grill, your broiler, or a frying pan, your steak will be how you like it, based on your own requirements and best practice. I ask only one thing – please no ketchup.

Photo courtesy of Michael Cote under Creative Commons licensing.

Discussion (comment below):

  1. Gas or charcoal?
  2. Steak sauce?
  3. Do you have a best practice you use in your company that you can share?

Can you see the real me?

message teenage wasteland
Pete Townshend SXSW 2007

Teenage wasteland. You might think that is the title of the iconic song by The Who. The real name is “Baba O’Riley”. Pete Townshend combined two names of influential people he followed. The message of “teenage wasteland” possibly refers to the desolation of the teenagers at Woodstock (Wikipedia link).

Music is art. I suppose that means the message does not have to be 100% clear or necessarily reflect the meaning of the song.

In business, however, you need a clear message.

If your customers aren’t sure what you sell or deliver, why should they buy from you? When the language of your message is flowery, superfluous, extremely vague (much like this sentence), then you are covering up something or don’t have confidence in the product you sell.  When you deliver your message in short, crisp sentences, or even bullets, you are onto something.

  • “We sell widgets that reduced our customers’ injuries by 10%” (and cite your sources)
  • “Our auditing services saved a company $35,000 in 2016 compared to their spending in 2015”

Think about the clarity of these bullets. Both are as direct as can be, short of listing the customers’ names.

Spinning your message leads to distrust.

Having spent over 25 years in corporate America, I (and most of my colleagues) laughed at the names of internal programs developed “as a response to the most recent employee survey”.

  • “Rightsizing our Company”
  • “Enterprise Efficiency Program”
  • “Stop Handling It Twice” (OK, I made up this one, but the acronym is funny).

Wouldn’t it be clearer to call it the “We have too many people, we need to meet our quarterly targets, we’re starting layoffs in three months” program? Year after year, we’d see some version of this. To quote Pete Townshend again, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

Your employees can read between the lines, just as your customers can detect language that doesn’t say anything. Don’t cover up with a clever title that causes them to scratch their heads.  If I’m asking “who are you”, the last thing you want to respond is “I can’t explain”.

Photo by Ron Baker under Creative Commons license
All references to “The Who” songs are the property of The Who.

Discussion (answer in Comments section)

  1. What is your favorite song by The Who?
  2. What is one challenge you have in delivering your message?

One of our container lids is missing

One of Our Submarines is Missing
Blog Title inspired by Thomas Dolby

Lids and socks.  The bane of every household.  Like many families, we have a drawer in the kitchen where we keep the world’s supply of containers and lids.

Rubbermaid, Hefty, and Glad figured out the marketing model for lost socks and applied it to their business.  They know that, inevitably, your average person will cry out in frustration because they have three containers, two lids, and none match.  That customer will march out to BJ’s and purchase the largest set of containers and lids and swear they will remain forever paired.  At least until the next holiday.

I expect that one of the episodes of Storage Wars will have Big Dave yelling “Yuuuup” as he opens a storage locker filled with the world’s missing lids, containers, and socks.

Imagine how your employees feel, or worse, your customers, when they cannot find what they are looking for.

You have some of the documentation for your project, but you are missing critical information.  Or the documentation is out-of-date, rendering it virtually worthless.

This puts your company at risk.

What if an employee refers to older manuals to make configuration changes that are no longer valid?  What if your customer reads your online help files and realizes that the screen shots are from two versions ago?  At a minimum, you have a frustrated customer who now has to call your Help Desk, or perhaps she decides to look at a competitor’s product.  There goes your Net Promoter Score.

You should have a systematic process in place that validates your documentation and retires or removes obsolete manuals, diagrams, test plans, even videos.  Make sure your employees know exactly where the latest, current information resides so they can help themselves and your customers.

By maintaining a library of accurate documents and information, you reduce your risk. Your employees and customers will be as satisfied as you are when you open the dryer and all the socks still match.  Until the next load.

Writing as natural as breathing

Writing Breathing

A friend of mine said he liked my writing.  This is not meant to be self-serving (well, anymore than usual).  I thanked him, and he told me it reminded him of David Brooks of The New York Times.  I don’t read The NY Times, not for any reason other than I live near Boston, I usually read The Boston Globe, and like most other people, I find both my real and fake news on Facebook.

After reading Brooks’ latest column, I realized I have a long way to go.  I responded to my friend with the wish that someday I am half as good as Brooks.

He responded with ‘I, too, long for the day when my writing is as natural as my breath.’  What a great line. My writing is more like my snoring.

Writing is a skill, and like most skills, you can improve with practice.

Companies also have many ‘skills’, or processes, and the more they practice, the better and more efficient they become.  Does it mean they have the right processes, or do they have the wrong process done well?  In theory, practice coupled with analysis and review will provide that answer.

The recent WannaCry malware got me thinking about processes and risk.  (There’s an overly simple, good enough explanation of WannaCry here).  From what I understand, nearly all of the PCs affected were unpatched, either due to poor patch management processes (operational risk #1), or because the computers ran outdated versions of Windows that cannot be patched (operational risk #2 – although Microsoft provided an unprecedented security patch for Windows XP users in this case).  I’m not a security expert, and don’t profess to know what companies need to do, but even a tabletop exercise to consider variables and potential outcomes would prepare companies to handle situations better than doing nothing.

It’s easier to do nothing

That’s a snarky comment.  How often, though, do you or others say “we’ll get to that later”?  Think about all the examples and pick the ones that resonate with you:

  • Hundreds of unread email messages
  • Out-of-date documentation
  • More than a year since your last disaster recovery exercise
  • Ratty concert t-shirts in your dresser

Tying together writing, processes and doing something, I recommend the simple consultant’s view of getting things done:

  • Write it down
  • Act on it
  • Figure out how to improve it
  • Rewrite it again.

You will be better prepared, you will have accomplished something, you will have learned something, and you will have improved something.  Maybe your actions or your writing aren’t as simple as breathing, but they are much better than holding your breath and doing nothing.

Photo by Courtney under Creative Commons licensing.

Discussion (answer in Comments section)

  1. Do you have any ratty concert t-shirts?
  2. Do you have a process you recently improved?

What the hack am I doing?

core competencies
Harold’s little whiteboard

I need a new whiteboard for my office.  I do have a small one off to my side.  The problem is that it is off to my side. It’s not facing me, where I can see it all of the time.  Yes, there are days that I am too lazy to turn my head 90° to the right.

There’s a spot on the wall in front of me that works well.  In a perfect world, I can place a 40″x30″ whiteboard in the spot to maximize utilization.  In this imperfect world, the best I can do is 24″x36″ from the supply stores.

Then I started poking around, asking The Google about custom whiteboards.  It led me to various options, including:

  • Special Dry-Erase paint – turn my wall into a whiteboard.
  • Inexpensive panels at the big-box hardware store – essentially custom building my own whiteboard.
  • A video demonstrating how to take an old picture frame and turn it into a whiteboard. First step?  Go to the Thrift Shop and find an old picture with a glass-enclosed frame.  I might pop some tags while I’m there.

I smack my head and think ‘why am I doing all this?’

Why do I suddenly have all of the time in the world to hack this myself in order to save $30-$70, depending what I really need?

Businesses make these decisions every day

Do I build or buy?

Sure, with the right amount of time and effort, you can build or customize anything.  I could spend hours building, painting, framing, etc., to get a 40″x30″ whiteboard.  But why? If a product or service exists and meets the proverbial 80-20 rule, buy that product.  No product, even if customized, meets every single requirement upon rollout (and if it does, you probably spent a lot of time developing towards perfection).

Is this one of our core competencies?

That’s business jargon for ‘doing something that adds value’.  It is defined as “A unique ability… that cannot be easily imitated. Core competencies are what give a company one or more competitive advantages”.

If you are a training company, for example, one of your core competencies may be the ability to quickly customize a curriculum for a customer.  There is something unique about how you execute that delivers competitive advantage over other training companies.

You might be able to do your own taxes.  But does it add value to your business, and is it a good use of your time?  Go hire an accountant.  While she’s completing your taxes, find another customer, or customize another class for a client and deliver it early.  That will certainly enhance your reputation and provide additional competitive advantage.

I finally bought a 24″x36″ glass whiteboard that looks nice, works well, and is directly in front of my desk. But, I did visit the Thrift Shop.  I might have visited one once in my life.  It was an interesting experience, and I made sure I didn’t spend anymore than the $20 in my pocket.

Discussion questions (answer in Comments below)

  1. Did you ever buy anything in a Thrift Shop?
  2. Do you think ‘good enough’ is good enough?