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Phil's Customer Service blog

Does ‘big’ mean your customer service has to suck?

It’s so often big organizations that let us down on customer service, isn’t it. Because their policies are too rigid to fit every circumstance, usually. So, if they don’t allow the frontline to practise common sense, use some discretion, we, as non-standard customers not fitting the policy, don’t exist and don’t get served. I’m thinking of the recent case of the Bank of America customer who was born with no arms, but found himself standing in front of a cashier who said that no, without a thumb print, he couldn’t cash the cheque he wanted to cash. Because that’s the policy.

Bill Taylor, in his Practically Radical blog, over at Harvard, says that the lesson here is that size, as a strategy in itself, is no longer enough. Companies get big because it’s a sign of success and it gives them the muscle, the clout, to carry on getting bigger – their buying power increases, economies of scale kick in, suppliers offer them favourable prices, competitors can’t match their marketing power, blah, blah, blah.

But, says Taylor, if you haven’t figured out how to harness the smarts of the loads of people that work with you, then you are part of the ranks of ‘big and stupid’ companies. And your days are numbered because you aren’t close enough to the customer.

Taylor doesn’t explicitly say this, but when you get really big, you have enough critical mass in terms of brain power to be able to do the ‘wisdom of crowds’ thing – as long as you simplify, streamline, strip out bureaucracy, keep people close to reality so they aren’t cushioned from the world by your very size, then bigger and smarter is what you become.

Only very few big companies do that. Most remain big and dumb. But, they don’t care. Because they think they are big and strong and the odd customer here and there who doesn’t fit their ‘customer service policy’ doesn’t matter. Yeah, right.

“Pete Carril, the Hall of Fame basketball coach, has a trademark expression that sums up the relationship between size and success. ‘The strong take from the weak,’ he likes to say, ‘but the smart take from the strong.’ If you can figure out, as Jack Welch did, how to add to your company’s muscles without atrophying its brain, then maybe you’re not too big to succeed. But most big-company leaders, who don’t share Welch’s fervor for staying close to customers, better figure out how to make their organizations smarter — or they will keep getting weaker.” – Bill Taylor

The airline that offers to clean your glasses

From Tom Peters’ blog…

“Airline service”—I’ve called it the ultimate oxymoron for years and years and then more years. Well, that was before I met Kingfisher Air on a roundtrip to Mumbai last week. First there were the “butlers,” I guess you’d call them, that carried our bags on and off the plane for those of us lucky enough to be in business class.”

Peters goes onto say how the attendant in business class walked down the aisle asking passengers if they needed their glasses cleaned before leaving the plane.
Here’s the post.

Six services that drive customers crazy

Nice post from Joanna Higgins here on Six Services That Drive Customers Crazy. Here’s a preview of what she calls the ‘repeat offenders’:

1. The ‘home delivery’ service that struggles to deliver to your home, between the hours of 6am and 8pm, requires the promise of your firstborn before it can re-direct a parcel to your workplace and whose ‘network’ of depots exist each in a separate galaxy. If your parcel finds its way to one of these depots, pack a change of socks,and don’t forget to write.

2. Air miles. Surely the most glorious proof of loyalty a customer can demonstrate. But try redeeming any of your 90,000 air miles and you’ll find that the next available flight is four years hence, leaving PoDunk airport at 3am, has more legs than a centipede and lands you at your destination 24 hours later than were you to row yourself across. By this time, the last cabbie in the world has clocked off for the night.

3. Voice activated train timetables. You say tomato, it hears banana.

More here .

ATMs: Even a cash machine can be a unique customer experience

With a bit of imagination, any commodity service can be turned into a distinctive customer experience. Even ATM cash withdrawals…

From The BBC today:

A cash machine operator has introduced Cockney rhyming slang to a number of its ATMs in east London.

People using Bank Machine’s ATMs can opt to have their prompts and options given to them in rhyming slang.

As a result they will be asked to enter their Huckleberry Finn, rather than their Pin, and will have to select how much sausage and mash (cash) they want.

The rhyming slang prompts will be available from five cash machines in east London for three months.

Other rhyming slang prompts people can expect include a speckled hen (£10), while the machine may inform users that it is contacting their rattle and tank, rather than bank.

Ron Delnevo, managing director of Bank Machine, said: “We wanted to introduce something fun and of local interest to our London machines.

“Whilst we expect some residents will visit the machine to just have a butcher’s (look), most will be genuinely pleased as this is the first time a financial services provider will have recognised the Cockney language in such a manner.”

The ATMs displaying prompts in Cockney are all free to use, although the majority of the group’s cash machines charge a £1.50 fee.

Customer Genius: Xerox and the Snowmobile story

Peter Fisk’s new book, Customer Genius, was published in May. Peter has been writing his ‘Genius’ series of books and publishing them so fast, I missed this one. They are always readable, illuminating, full of anecdotes and well-researched insight.

I notice the Xerox snowmobile story is in this book. I think Peter and I were at the same CREDO conference in Paris where a guy from Xerox told the story, as I’ve been re-telling it over the years, too.

It’s one of those possibly mythical stories that pass around a company to illustrate ‘how we do things around here.’ If you don’t have any customer-focussed stories circulating virally in your organization, almost spontaneously, then you are in trouble, because you probably don’t have a customer-focussed culture.

Here’s the story:

Xerox Scandinavia ran a promotion to deliver a new copier to any customer in the Stockholm postcode area within 24 hours of the order being received, or the copier would be free.

An order came in by fax from a house that, by a fluke, was halfway up a mountain around the edge of the city, but still with a Stockholm postcode. And it was snowing heavily. The despatcher hired a snowmobile and set off with a colleague. Halfway up, the terrain got too steep for the snowmobile. So, they got off and walked.

Fifteen minutes after the deadline expired, they knocked on the door of the customer, presented him – to his surprise – with a free photocopier, and walked off, desolate, into the snow, to find their snowmobile and go home.

A week later one of the biggest orders they had received for corporate photocopiers came through their fax machine, from the same customer. He had been so impressed with their diligence and efforts that he switched his company’s photocopier contract to Xerox.

Now, I love that story. But, it allegedly took place in the early 90s. Have you ever tried cancelling one of those watertight corporate photocopier contracts at one week’s notice and switching to another supplier? In the early 90s a photocopier contract was like a pair of handcuffs.

That doesn’t matter, though. The point is that at Xerox they tell that story – That’s the way they want to behave. Peter’s book is full of great stories and sharp insights and analysis for turning your organization into an outside-in company.

There’s a link to Peter’s website over there on the left under ‘People I Like’. It’s worth a visit. I always learn stuff from Peter.

The genius of Rackspace

I have been switching our hosting, and the hosting for Leadership Hubs that we run for clients, to Rackspace, because their customer service is so good.

I first noticed that Rackspace was ‘different’ about four years ago, I think, when I was looking on their site and a virtual advisor popped up and asked if they could help. I know that’s common now but it wasn’t then. And it was a real person. When I said I was just looking, they said “Cool. Sorry to bother you. Let me know if I can help at any stage”, or something like that and disappeared.

It stuck in my memory.

Every encounter I’ve had so far with them their people have surprised me with how fast, responsive, helpful, surprising they are. Fanatical about service, they say, and they are. Oh, we had one blip I think, but it was a minor one and you can forgive them when they’re that good 99% of the time. I’m a fan. Unashamedly.

Anyway, I only mention it because The Motley Fool just ran a nice piece on how the genius of Rackspace comes down to their fanatical customer support, and how its led to them growing their customer base and having a ‘doozy of a quarter’ when their competitors are struggling. Who says amazing customer sevice doesn’t generate money? Here’s the Motley Fool article.

The A-Z of Service: Amazon buys Zappos

I must have had my crystal ball turned on without noticing. I’m working on an article on Zappos for a new customer service magazine I’m editor of, and noticed that Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay)’s vision for his company is to become THE service company on the net – expanding from shoes to sell anything. That puts them firmly in Amazon’s territory, I wrote, as Amazon has the same strategy – broadening out from books to selling just about anything. I now have to re-write the piece to take into account the fact that Amazon has just bought Zappos. Smart move Jeff – buy the competition while you still can.

Amazon’s great service is based on ‘the best service is no service’ – eliminating stupid contacts with customers (most customer service department contact is because something didn’t work or went wrong) and anticipating how the customer thinks, buys, uses the site, to head off and avoid those kinds of contacts. They do it very well.

Zappos’ customer service is next-generation. It uses its contact centre to build loyalty. It WANTS customer contact, and even has its call centre number on every page whereas most web retailers, including Amazon, don’t want you calling them. Zappos puts the human back into customer service. Anyway, here’s Amazon founder Jeff Bezos explaining why he bought Zappos:

Re-think core and non-core: It’s what’s around the edge, not what’s in the middle, that counts

The problem with focussing all your resources on core competence is that if the ‘thing’ you provide – product, service, whatever – isn’t that exciting, then it won’t be that memorable. You’ll just ‘get it right’ and, to be frank, so what. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

It brings to mind what the former CEO of Burger King, Barry Gibbon, described as Nightmare Number 1, when he first took up the job and toured Burger Kings to find out more about the customer experience. Nightmare number 1 was this: “Even when we did it right, it was still pretty ordinary”.

Despite all the talk of passion and excellence, most companies provide pretty mundane products and services that customers will never get passionate about or never think “That was excellent!” You’re not going to make customers go ‘Wow!’, for example, if your job is to tell them what time the trains are due to arrive. Or, are you?

You are if you get the core competence right as a basic, a hygiene factor, then add something extra. The ‘something extra’ then goes from being superficial and unnecessary – which is how managers tend to see it – to the reason customers remember you. In other words, what most managers see (or don’t see – it isn’t even on their radar) as pointless and unrelated to the work is, in fact, your competitive advantage.

Here’s a story from the UK to illustrate the point:

“Passengers on the platform at Leicester aren’t just informed of train times; the railway announcer, John Palmer, also gives them a thought for the day (example: “Why is there only one Monopolies Commission?”) or a history lesson.

Last Tuesday he told them that on June 23, 1314, the battle of Bannockburn took place. “It’s a harmless way of brightening up people’s days,” says Palmer. And his bosses agree.

“We get a lot of positive feedback from passengers and hope John will carry on,” says a spokesman for East Midlands Trains.
– From The Week

Good for them. The little things, you see, are now the big things in making a difference to the customer experience. What John Palmer is doing is the best form of innovation in customer service – It’s personal, it’s unique and, hey, it doesn’t cost anything. Did he ask permission? I doubt it. Is there a process or a standard for what he does? Of course not.

Customise your on-hold messages

I gave a keynote talk at the Contact Centre Planning Forum last week on how to improve the customer journey. It was at the Novotel, West London. When I rang the Novotel West London to check my room was booked, I got an on-hold message that was designed to reflect the values of Novotel, which is all about big spaces to relax in with natural light and things like that.

So, the on-hold message says to me something like “While you are waiting for an agent, take these few seconds to breathe deep, refocus, relax, refresh.” Too many organizations might think a branded on-hold experience means having a recorded sales message. That isn’t a pleasurable customer experience. It’s doubly irritating to be kept waiting and then have corporate messages thrown at you while you are a captive audience.

But, the whole idea of adapting your on-hold message to reflect your company values, as Novotel has done is…refreshing. My friend Shaun Smith says the new frontier for contact centres is creating a distinctive branded customer experience to replace the generic experience most contact centres offer.

It’s small but memorable – and low-cost, incidentally – things like customising your on-hold message to actually add value to the customer that will, step by step, move us towards next generation distinctive experiences delivered through the contact centre.

I asked the 450 or so people in the room if they used on-hold messages. They all put their hands up, of course. I asked them if they used a customised message that reflected their organisation’s values, or that added value to the customer, or at least was memorable for being different. No hand went up.

Sounds like an opportunity to me.

Can your contact centre agents tell you what’s really going on? Are you listening?

I had a sales call this week from Standard Life Healthcare. Before the agent could get very far I had to stop her and say I have two endowment policies with Standard Life designed to pay off my mortgage. When I was sold the first one, by a manager at the then Leeds Permanent Building Society (taken over by Halifax, now HBOS) I was told that not only would it pay off our mortgage, it would leave us with enough money to do something special – a trip around the world, for example.

A good number of years on, I now get red letters from Standard Life telling me I need to take action because one of the endowment policies is not going to pay up enough, leaving us £25,000 or so short, probably, by the time the mortgage comes due.

So, said I to the agent, there is no trust there anymore and, no disrespect to her, I wouldn’t dream of taking out a Standard Life Healthcare policy.

“Oh, we’re hearing that a lot,” she said. “Sorry to bother you. I’ll take you off our call list.’

I then asked what I always ask in these situations: “Do you have a mechanism there for feeding up the management chain what I just told you, and for passing on the fact that you are getting the same response from a lot of other calls?”

Eventually the agent said she would make sure she passed that onto a manager. But, I got the impression there is no open channel there with customer information flowing up the chain; that she would make a special effort. Perhaps.

Deep sigh. Amazon has its WOCAS reports (What Our Customers Are Saying) that feed this kind of customer intelligence into the system – front line people are asked to watch for recurring patterns like this. It’s a total waste of resource when most organizations aren’t similarly organized.

Even The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur knows it. In his blog post ’60 Customer Servie Tips’ he features this one:

25. Let Communication Flow – From the top to the first line supervisor, make sure your leadership team knows how to document suggestions and pass them on to the correct person who can properly evaluate and take action if needed.
-Dr. Jay McCurry, McCurry Training and Coaching

Quite right, too. All this stuff about ‘Voice of the customer’ you read about everywhere and organizations drowning in the data, and they aren’t even capturing the important stuff.