Customer Service

A Tale of Two Cities

A couple of years ago, I got the dreaded phone call. I left work, packed up my family, and drove down to Philadelphia to say goodbye to my dad. As we drew close to the city and my mobile phone’s battery hit single digits, we randomly chose a hotel near the hospital and hoped for the best. As you might imagine, it was hardly a well-planned venture. 5 am the next morning found me wandering the halls of the hotel, desperately looking for milk for our toddler (who was, and continues to be, a very poor sleeper). I was strung out, grieving, sleep-deprived, and well aware that an extremely powerful set of lungs were informing would-be sleepers in adjacent rooms that their neighbors were terrible parents. At last I found someone (in my mind’s eye, he looks like Scatman Crothers) – a janitor? Kitchen staff? Bellhop? Night manager? No idea – and asked for help. I would have paid just about anything – all I wanted was some milk, NOW. He took one look at me, went into a back room, and brought out a styrofoam cup full of milk. “No charge, that’s just the way we roll.” He had no way of knowing who I was or what I was going through, and he probably didn’t give the encounter a second thought – but years later I still remember him and cherish his small, anonymous act of kindness.

Fast forward to this past week, when I spent some quality time with my family on Long Island. My brother-in-law and I were planning on going on the shark dive at the Long Island Aquarium, had paid in advance, and psyched ourselves up. I’ve had a long-standing aversion to being torn to pieces and devoured by what amount to swimming digestive tracts with teeth, so this was a big deal for me. Our families came to the aquarium to watch, we went through the introductory info session, then waited. And waited. There was a problem with the comm gear, it appeared. So we waited, and waited some more. After an hour or so, they still weren’t able to get it together, and had to give up. OK, mistakes happen, no big deal, we thought, let’s get our refund and grab some lunch (nothing says “sushi” like a day at the aquarium). And then the most amazing thing happened. When we went to get a refund, we got yelled at. The head(!) of customer service belligerently told us that she would comp an extra day if we decided to come back, but that other than the shark dive tickets, she wouldn’t provide a refund for the entry fees. There were three possible outcomes at that point:

  1. We got our refund and went out for lunch.
  2. We had to fight for our refund – whether or not we got it, we would end up angry and actively hostile toward the aquarium.
  3. We got our refund, as well as free tickets to the butterfly special exhibit, and sea lion kisses for all the kids (OMG OMG OMG SQUEEEE!) – at this point the shark dive snafu would be forgotten, we’d stay for our freebies, eat at the cafeteria and buy stuff from the gift shop, and think the aquarium was awesome.

In negotiation, there’s the idea of Pareto improvements – changes in a negotiated outcome that make one party better off at no cost to the other. Most businesses have benefits they can provide that cost nothing, but which can make a big difference to the customer. Sea lion kisses and free tickets to an exhibit wouldn’t have cost the aquarium anything, but would have been worth a lot to us. In a bizarre way, making a mistake creates a golden opportunity to win a passionate supporter, frequently at little or no cost to yourself. Of the above, #2 is the most costly outcome, yet common enough that we all experience it occasionally. There’s nothing terribly wrong with #1, except that an opportunity has been missed. #3 is sufficiently rare that we remember it when it happens.

Why you care

Of course, you aren’t in customer service, so none of this is relevant to you, right? Except, of course, for all of your internal customers: your boss, peers, business partners, and direct reports. What about job candidates, recruiters, contractors, and vendors? Even if you aren’t on the phone with customers, you have lots of constituencies you need to keep happy. What can you give them that’s meaningful to them, at little or no cost to yourself?

The Dugout

Let’s start with your team. Most managers bring in baked goods or pizza from time to time, take the team out to lunch, set up happy hours, or do team outings, but this is all pretty basic stuff. What else can we do?

  • Give positive feedback

Unless you’re several standard deviations better than the norm, you don’t give enough positive feedback. Seriously – people love it, it’s free, and no one ever does it. So try this exercise for a month: every week – without fail – find one thing to praise for each person on your team. Write it down, and tell them about it. It has to be specific, concrete, and absolutely sincere, not vague or pro forma. If you can’t find anything to praise, then you don’t know what your people are doing.

  • Listen

Once you’ve given your positive feedback, stop talking and listen. This isn’t a monologue. They want to be a part of the conversation, and giving them an opportunity to say thanks and chat is way better than a drive-by. Not giving them a chance to respond can even create the impression that you’re just trying out some fancy management technique you read about on a blog somewhere, not praising because you actually mean it.

I’ve talked about this before, but listening is one of the things that separates the adults from the children. It costs you nothing, demonstrates respect, and can give you additional insight.

  • Make yourself available

Weekly one-on-ones, taking people out to lunch when they first join the team, showing up when someone is doing a public demonstration / tech talk / etc., or just being available when someone wants to talk – all of these demonstrate that you’re invested in the person, their success, and your relationship.

  • Respect

When you’re talking to someone on your team, take a moment to check your body language, the tone of your voice, the way you’re expressing your points. Whether you’re listening, dialoguing, talking at them, or talking down to them. Would you talk to your boss this way? The CEO of the company? How would you treat this person differently if you really cared what she or he thought? Take a deep breath, and start again.

  • Tell the whole story

People hate being cogs in a wheel. If you tell them what to do without telling them why, they’ll only be able to follow exact instructions, instead of coming up with their own creative solutions. Part of your job as manager is to hire people who are smarter, faster, better than you at what they do – artificially hobbling them by withholding context will create a weak, demoralized, ineffective team.

  • Public praise

Your team’s success is not about you – it’s about them. Any public mention of your own part in a success is a failure. Any successfully launched project, initiative, or set of positive results is a good opportunity to let the company (and your team) know they’re doing a great job.

  • Swag

T-shirts are popular, if a little played out. One manager I know got snarky personalized name plates for everyone on his team. What else can you think of?

The point here isn’t that you should be cheap, but rather that if there are things you can do that cost little or nothing, but could make a big difference to your team, why wouldn’t you do them?

Greater than or equal

Peers, business partners, your boss, dotted lines, superiors… All of these are constituents you need to answer to, even when you don’t have resources or time to spare. You’ll frequently find yourself trying to answer the following kinds of questions:

  • How can you help your business partners, even when you can’t give them more resources or faster results?
  • How can you make your boss’s life easier, even if you can’t increase output or quality?
  • How can you help your peers achieve their goals without spending time or resources that might put your own projects at risk?

Some of the answers are similar to the above. Make yourself available to them. Listen to them so you can understand their needs. Demonstrate respect. And – critically – proactively communicate information that could help them. Everyone knows you’re busy. Everyone knows you don’t have resources to spare. Some people will still pester you for help or people, or try to get you to push the team harder, but most reasonable people will just be looking for information to take back to their constituents. Even if they don’t like the answers, it’s never more helpful to others, or in your own best interest, to hide and hope the questions will go away. Keeping everyone up to date on status won’t make a late project complete on time, but it will make a big difference in how other people organize their schedules and priorities.

Everyone else

If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.
– Dave Barry, Dave Barry Turns 50

And then, there’s everyone else. The telemarketer who calls during dinner; the waiter who got your order wrong; the recruiter sending out a form letter; the secretary; the customer service rep. People who don’t have any power over your success, whom you don’t have to be nice to if you don’t want to. Want to spread a little nastiness in the world? These are perfect targets, because there’s very little they can do to you in return.

Most of us don’t think of it that way, of course. We snap at the telemarketer because we imagine that they have agency – that they decided to call us during family time – ignoring the fact that they don’t call the numbers, don’t choose the script, and don’t eat unless they make a sale. We get angry at the tier one customer service rep because she isn’t making an exception – ignoring the fact that she isn’t allowed to, her only options are to placate or escalate. And so it goes.

It seems incredibly trite to say so, but the most important, easiest thing you can do for these people is to treat them like individuals, instead of as instances of a general category. They aren’t “job applicant,” “recruiter,” “contractor,” or “receptionist,” they’re people with their own lives, none of whom want outcome #2. What can you do for them that doesn’t cost you time or resources? Sometimes, the best we can do is just to show a little politeness, respect, or understanding. If there’s something easy, like taking a minute or two to find them a metaphorical cup of milk, you’ve gone way above and beyond.

A penultimate note

I want to be absolutely clear here – this isn’t always easy, and I am in no way suggesting that I’m some kind of paragon of virtue. Most of us suck at this – me included – and desperately need to get better.

Final note

I’m not generally one for inspiring videos, but this one is worth your time.

5 thoughts on “Customer Service

  1. Hi Dan,
    I don’t think of it as a logical argument. I look at it as a poem in a form of an essay, presented as a commencement address.
    I just found it interesting that the topic of the clip – the existential dread of “day in and day out” – could be expanded upon in a very unexpected direction and wanted to share it.

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