60 posts categorized "customer service"

October 03, 2013

Hobby Lobby: The Intersection of Belief and Business

Hobby_lobby

Hobby Lobby finds itself amidst controversy again this year when, allegedly, some frontline workers expressed some sort of rejection of or indifference towards the business of Jews. 

I've never looked into it, but I can imagine that Hobby Lobby probably attracts people who identify as Christian, just by reputation of the company. However, I wonder if there is a corporate culture that endeavors to teach how Christian principles meet everyday management and interaction with non-Christians. The Bible tells Christians to spread the Good News to all nations, but even as a company that (probably) attracts Christians, what mechanisms do they put in place to provide spiritual guidance to their workers to do that? How does that intersect with what they lawfully can do?

(As far as I know, Hobby Lobby does not discriminate against people for unlawful reasons. The above is conjecture concerning who they probably attract.)

The failure of Hobby Lobby in this case isn't about selling things for Hanukkah -- lots of companies don't sell Hanukkah stuff -- it's about teaching its people how to interact with honest, hardworking people, willing to spend money, who have a simple, unassuming question -- or even those who set out to trap or embarrass them.

The corporate office seems to "get" that the original interaction was flawed. Now we get to see what they do about it.

Photo credit: Fan of Retail 

December 07, 2012

How to Ruin Your Reputation ... And (Partially) Redeem It

A few months back, I had a very negative experience with my energy company that cost me $1500 in unexpected electric bills. I was so frustrated and so sure of the righteousness of my cause that I nearly came out of my self-imposed exile from blogging to publically rip the company in violation rules 1-3 of my "10 Somewhat-Flexible Laws of Blogging About Companies."

  1. Never talk ill of a client or potential client.
  2. Almost everyone is a potential client.
  3. If you must violate rule #1, don't mention the company name.

I'm glad I didn't. Even though they never reimbursed those excessive fees, they eventually implemented a program to make sure my situation never happens again.

A Series of Unfortunate Electric Bills

In July, I received a bill that was about 4.5 times the normal amount (for activity in the month of June). Convinced this was a mistake, I called my electric company about it, and they advised me to have my meter re-read, and that it would take about 10 business days for this to take place, but that they would contact me when the read was done.

I did not hear from them again until I got my next bill, which was also 850% more than it was over the same period the previous year. At that point, I wrote them again on August 7 and asked why they hadn't let me know what the results of the re-read were so that I could look at different options. When they responded (2 weeks later after promising a 24-hour response), they said they never put in a request for a re-read.

While this was happening, I contacted my apartments to have them check my air conditioning to make sure everything was working right. They said it was, but that they cleaned the appliance regardless.

Whenever I called the electric company, instead of helping me figure out why my bills were so high, kept trying to sell me a fixed-rate contract. Sure, doing so would have saved me some money, but the scope of their "fix" would have saved me $10-$12 per month, not $500-$600, which is what I really needed. They had their script, and they were sticking to it. It took escalating the issue two levels before I got someone at the company to admit that something seemed "off" about my bill situation. 

In the middle of a brutal Texas summer, with my dog staying there and while the bill was in dispute, the electric company shut off power to my apartment to force me to pay at least part of the disputed bill (I later found out this was in violation of the Utility Customer Bill of Rights). 

How Energy is Delivered and Billed in Texas

Getting to the bottom of this, I got quite the education on how electricity is delivered and billed in Texas.

Essentially, the company that delivers electricity has nothing to do with how electricity gets billed, and the billing company (which can be one of several) is ready to lose you quickly, because customers are easily replaceable. It can be TXU, Reliant, Green Mountain or any other electric company. All they do is service the billing. Which you choose as a consumer is based on the rates and service you expect to get. 

Thanks to the help of a knowledgable friend, I finally found the real cause of the issue, I called the electric company and asked if they would help with the part of the bill due to their lack of responsiveness. They refused. Eventually I protested through regulatory channels, and a very small portion was refunded. 

Customer Service: It Is Your Job

I finally spoke with a representative of the office of the president in response to this official complaint, and suggested that they need to be more responsive and help people between bills realize if something is happening between billing periods. Not only did she disagree that their lack of responsiveness imparted on them any responsibility for three months of outrageous bills, but she directly told me that, regarding my suggestion that they notify people when their usage seems to spike 850%, "That's not what we do."

Then I took to Twitter, hoping to find someone higher in authority than the last person I spoke with.

The person who monitors their Twitter channel is a marketer, not a customer service person. She had no authority to help resolve the issues of customers, which only further frusterated me, because though she asked me to tell my story, she could not help. To her credit, she seemed sincere in her concern for my frustration (If she wasn't being authentic, she at least faked it well).

This interaction convinced me of the truth of what Oliver Blanchard wrote in Social Media ROI:

"Remember, it is easier to train a good customer support representative to use social media than to train an experienced social media user to be a good customer support professional."

As for the representative within the office of the president, she was just intent on getting me to pay three months of outrageously high bills, not helping me solve my issue or even making me feel heard. She took a very "That's not my job" approach, not only for herself, but also for their entire organization. Had she met me halfway, had she hinted that she understood why I was upset and her company's role in that frustration, my tone in this article would be much different.

So, normally I would have cut off ties with the company regardless. End of story. Although I'm better equipped now -- having learned an awful lot about how electricity works in Texas -- I had no faith that this is the company I wanted to do business with should I ever have any difficulty again.  Then the organization did something that suprised me.

They implemented my recommendation.

Now, I receive a weekly email between bills that tells me my usage for that week. And I am able to spot if something is amiss and don't have to wait an entire billing period -- while the meter is still running -- to discover it. 

Now, I don't presume that I was the first to provide that recommendation, or that they went through with it because of my issue. Something like that takes more time to develop and execute than they had from the time of my first complaint and suggestion.

So someone besides me had to have thought it was a good idea. But the value of that idea did not trickle down to the customer service reps or to the office of the president, or at least they had no interest at all in acknowledging it, or admitting I had a valid point.

Though if they had, I'd not only be naming the company, but praising them to my friends about how well the company treated me, how awesome this service is, and how they should use this company for electricity as well.

How much better could companies do if they only trained and empowered their customer service reps to treat people as people and not means to and end? If they trained them to listen instead of follow a script?

Update: See how a Virginia woman was charged (and is fighting) a $15,000 utility bill

December 30, 2010

Love Thy Customers: Advice for the Next Decade

"You know what the first rule of flying is? ... Love. You can learn all the math in the 'Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as a turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurtin' before she keels. Makes her a home." - Malcom Reynolds, Serenity (2005)

10 There's a scene in the sci-fi classic movie, Serenity, where, after a successful heist perpetrated against the evil Alliance, the crew's captain Mal takes the booty back to the job's sponsors, Fanty and Mingo, to give them their 25% commission and (hopefully) get another job. 

"Well our end is forty, precious," says Fanty. One gets the sense that there was soon going to be a major fight when the dueling parties were distracted by an even more entertaining brawl.

Can you imagine a world without trust?

You're at the checkout counter of the grocery store. You need some ingredients for apple crisp. The clerk, who has been eyeballing you for your entire visit, refuses to put the groceries in the bag until he's seen the money. You refuse to show the money until you're sure he'll let you out of the store with them.

But back up. Because before you get to the checkout, you have to inspect all of the fruit. You want to make sure they're not old, rotten mush. You also need to inspect the bags of sugar to make sure they aren't filled with sawdust. The grocer doesn't want you to open the bags, out of fear that you'll replace his sugar with sawdust. So you'd leave without buying, because you don't trust that beady-eyed grocer.

But back up. Because you can't leave your house anyway to go to the grocery store out of fear that you'll get mugged by the ruffians that patrol the neighborhood. You've never seen them, but you're sure they're there. Anyway, the grocer could never have opened a store in the first place, because no one would trust him with a loan. You get your groceries from a garden out back, which is decimated with insects, because you don't have anyone to sell you pesticides.

Successful, sustained commerce depends on a lot of things. We talk a lot about them in the course of our work. Some of them have value, some of them are hogwash. ROI. CPM. Engagement. Usability engineering. Experience. Product, Price, Place, Promotion. Branding. Income statements, balance sheets, cash flow. Social Media. Customers service.

We go to school, conferences and seminars to understand or execute them better. We send wads of cash to Amazon and Barnes and Noble to gobble up Seth Godin's books. And there's nothing wrong with ANY of that. Why would I begrudge anyone from getting better at the technical aspects of their jobs?

But what if we need something more elemental than all of that?

What if our deepest problem isn't whether we know how to calculate return on investment and successfully predict the future. Specifically, what if our deepest problem is that we don't love our neighbors well? And if that is true, what can we do about it?

What's more, how do we encourage each other to love others better? It seems a little self-serving. For when we say to our neighbors, "Love your neighbor," we're including ourselves in that group. We're saying to them, "Love us better." But as a man in the business of talking to others in business, my advice to all those who wish to be successful is this:

Love your customers better.

Thinking over the last decade, we've seen the likes of Enron, WorldCom, Bernie Madoff, Lehman Brothers -- the entire banking and investment industry -- industries run by "the best and the brightest," who went to the "best" schools run multi-billion dollar businesses into the ground as they sought to enrich themselves. It isn't a question of whether they knew how to do math. It was that they loved themselves more than they loved their neighbors.

Why is love so important to commerce?

  • You don't rob someone you love.
  • You don't try to swindle someone you love.
  • You don't overcharge someone you love.
  • You keep your promises to someone you love.

The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 what love is and just how important it is. Let's look at what he says, particularly about knowledge or the ability to tell the future:

"And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing."

He continues.

"Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away… So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

When you look at the last decade through the lens of improving technologies and products that change the way we communicate, it superficially appears to be a much different environment than in decades past. Could you have imagined Facebook and Twitter a decade ago? Could you have predicted its adoption?

What's more, people who are so inclined have more sophisticated methods to take advantage of/steal from others -- through economics or politics -- and that fosters an abiding suspicion of business, whether the suspicion is well founded in any particular instance or not.

But sometimes you have to take a step back from the pounding you're taking and get back to the basics. None of the things we do in business and marketing makes a difference if we have not love. What's most important to you? What do you want to accomplish? You want to see economic recovery? Then love thy customers. When you do that purely, the circumstances that follow apart from that don't even matter.

- Cam Beck

July 02, 2010

How to Create a Remarkable Experience

About three weeks ago, the inestimable Jay Ehret, AKA "The Marketing Guy" invited me to participate in a webinar about remarkable customer experiences. Jay's always been great to work with, and this project was no exception.

His Customer Experience Map Pack is an impressive piece of work. Very handy.

The funny thing was that I hadn't seen his part, so I had no idea what he was going to talk about specifically. I just know his work overall pretty well, and I was confident that our ideas would align. As it turned out, besides introducing and explaining how to use the Customer Experience Map, his other major theme was "How to break away from industry norms and create a remarkable experience by framing your business with a metaphor."

My part could be summed up thusly: "Your brand is either the parachute or the pavement; your website is the ripcord."

Enjoy! - Cam Beck

June 30, 2009

Branding is Character. What Does Your Character Show?

Stuff happens.

So does branding. This is true whether you call it "branding" or not. As it turns out, branding has less to do with cutesy creative and clever themes than it has to do with your ability to consistently keep promises of your company -- to build your company's reputation as a firm of good character.

Not all promises are created equal, and all people do not assign equal value to all promises. This is why it is so difficult -- and increasingly useless -- to build a brand that pleases all people, all of the time.

Before all else, know who you are and what you stand for. Only then can you focus on making extraordinary promises to an audience that places a high value on those promises -- and then over-deliver. - Cam Beck

March 26, 2009

Empower Your Employees to Pleasantly Surprise Your Customers

This morning I walked into a particular suped-up convenience store/gas station for the first time and marveled at what I saw. I hadn't been into one for a long while (about 12 years), but this one was much nicer than I remembered. I had to ask an employee where the coffee was, and he drew me a map on scented paper.

Kidding! Kidding! But he did point me to where I needed to go, being sure to address me as "my friend."

I was lucky enough to have enough time this morning to evaluate my options. There were a lot of them. While making my selection, I made a mental note about which one I would have to try next time.

I went to check out, and the same attendant was there to ring up my order.

"Is this the first time you've been in [one of our stores], my friend?"

"It is," I somewhat regretfully replied, now realizing what I had been missing.

With one graceful movement, he tore a coupon from a book he had at his station, good for one free coffee.

"Please come back soon."

"I will," I assured him, and I left with a smile.

A free coffee is such a small gesture. But this establishment was committed to getting me to return, so they empowered their employees to not only encourage my return, but nearly guarantee that I will.

Some companies would be nervous about letting their front-line employees give away free stuff. Perhaps the opportunities for doing so seem somewhat limited. Whatever they decide to do, I advise them to find a way to, as Drew McLellan recommends, pleasantly surprise their customers -- especially the ones coming in for the first time. - Cam Beck

February 24, 2009

How to reach your audience without getting in their way

With all the criticism that Facebook received for appreciably changing their terms of service, it's interesting to note the positive way they responded that probably prevented any mass exodus.

Full disclosure: I have to mention that I completely empathize with their predicament. While their membership is growing by leaps and bounds across the world, they've had difficulty implementing an effective means to monetize that takes advantage of their unique data mining methods.

The market is fickle. People don't care that they're getting this awesome platform without any membership fees. When Facebook tried to monetize and launched one of its first initiatives, Beacon, the public revolted. Their 2008 ad revenue, in spite of the vast numbers of people using the platform, is less than that of MySpace.

By the time I got word that Facebook revised their terms of service, people had already started revolting.

Facebook then did two good things well. The first was in direct response to the outcry and threat of lawsuit from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the groundwork from the other was laid long before this was even a blip on the EPICs radar.

  1. They recanted the policy and solicited feedback from the audience
  2. They communicated directly with the members without the normal lawyer-speak.

(To show how fickle the marketplace really is (and what an itchy trigger finger people have),the executive director of the EPIC, Marc Rotenberg, withheld filing the his complaint with the FCC but promised to keep it in his back pocket.)

As for the other issue, here is the message Facebook sent out to all its members at the top of their member home page:

Facebook message

Notice the "Close" call to action in the upper right hand corner?

If the users don't really care about what's going on behind the scenes, they can just close out the message, and it won't return. I imagine Facebook can use this method to communicate any message they need to communicate to their audience about their service.

They kept it short and to the point, and it speaks directly to the people who were raising the fuss in the first place. In 4 short sentences, the Facebook team was able to explain

  • Why they're sending the message.
  • What they're going to do about it.
  • How to get more information.
  • Instructions on how to participate in the conversation.

That's all well and good. But here's the question:

If Facebook can communicate issues before the fact in a manner that provides an easy way to ignore it, if the users wish, can't they just have let their users know, in the same way, that their terms of service were going to change, and have solicited feedback before they pushed it live?

It seems getting feedback from the community before they blow up might be the best way to avoid these sorts of situations in the future.

And in the meantime, they might want to keep Marc Rotenberg's number on speed dial. Especially in a space where privacy is a huge concern, bringing in a privacy advocate (even if he does represent only the most privacy-conscious) for advice just seems smart. - Cam Beck

February 11, 2009

How to destroy a good brand

Badsvc

Inspired by this post by Lewis Green.

January 26, 2009

Managing Negative WOM Through Twitter

Ft60f_black_front_240x298_35 For Christmas, my wife got me a Polar FT60, a cross-training heart rate monitor and general fitness computing aid. It's the first time I've ever owned anything remotely similar. This thing is a technological marvel. It's worn on the wrist like a watch, but it also has a chest strap and optional GPS aid or a pedometer. With a gazillion features and only 4 buttons to manage them, even while scanning (not reading) the manual, I was immediately perplexed, and I said as much on Twitter.

HRM1

As you can see, initially I didn't even mention the brand. I wasn't trying to knock the company or the product. I was just pointing out a problem that's inherent with a feature-rich device that has by necessity only a few buttons with which to interact with the features.

Once I figured out how to capture my heart rate, I posted that I figured it out, and that my heart rate was 61. But then I saw the word "elite," and it didn't seem to match my understanding of human biology. A higher resting heart rate SHOULD mean I'm in worse shape, not better.

Because Twitter was on, I decided to solicit an explanation from Twitter, and for good measure I added a hash tag so it would be seen by Jason Falls' Twit2Fit social media fitness group (which I've written about before), even if they weren't following me on Twitter.

HRM2

I mentioned the brand this time (Polar), but not because I was knocking them, but rather to provide context to what I was seeing so someone could answer my question.

Within a few minutes, I found the page in the manual that explained what I was seeing (that the number wasn't my heart rate, but an index they use to determine fitness).

"Never mind," I posted to Twitter. "HRM told me my 'index' not my heart rate. #twit2fit"

Within an hour, someone called "ChrisPolarUSA," who appears to be an employee of Polar's call center, offered to help me through whatever issue I was having.

HRM3

I didn't see it that night, but I responded the next morning that I figured it out, and he wrote back to let me know that I could contact him if I needed anything. I really appreciated that his response was:

  • Timely
  • Useful
  • Personal
  • Friendly

It hadn't even crossed my mind yet to contact tech support. I wasn't soliciting help from Polar. I also didn't denigrating the brand as someone else in a similar situation may have. But even if I had, ChrisPolarUSA likely would have been right on top of it to help me through my problem.

Not everyone needs to have a presence on Twitter 24/7. I don't know that Polar does this round the clock, but the fact that he responded after 9 p.m. (and again at 7 the next morning) surely indicates that they might.

But even if they don't, they've made a believer out of me by listening. But more than that, they listened where their customers are, not where they wished them to be (such as on their proprietary fitness aid, polarpersonaltrainer.com, which I've been meaning to get around to using but haven't).

So, Polar... If you're listening (and I suspect you are), thank you. Not only for offering to help me solve my problem, but for showing the world that it is possible to deliver great customer service -- even in increments of 140 characters or less. - Cam Beck

P.S. As far as I can tell at this moment, the FT60 rocks!

January 09, 2009

Nothing is free. Not even this headline.

When David Armano describes the "Gift Economy," he rightly puts the word "free" in quotes. He does so, I suspect, because he realizes, like economist Milton Friedman said, "There is no free lunch." More accurately, nothing finite is free. But what we have in infinite abundance is worthless.

Love is free. Commitment is not.

You could say, for instance, that love may be infinite and therefore can be free.

But if I say, "I love my fellow man," yet do nothing to demonstrate that love with my time, what value is it for me to say "I love my fellow man?"

This website is not free.

You may think that this website is free. It isn't. 

If you've gotten this far, you're voluntarily paying me with your attention, and for that payment you probably expect to see or read something entertaining or enlightening.

If I don't deliver, you may be reluctant to return.

If I do, you may subscribe to this blog's RSS feed.

Your attention is valuable.

And lest you believe I don't value your attention, know that between last night and this morning, I probably spent about 45 minutes thinking about this morning's post. I'll also take another 30 minutes or so to write it, given time for editing and proofing.

This says nothing at all of the time I continuously spend trying to improve the veracity of my thoughts or the manner in which I can deliver them in order to gain and keep your trust.

How to love your customers

When you say you love your customers or clients, do you mean it, or do you simply value the revenue stream they represent?

We value money because it is scarce and because it allows us to buy other things that are scarce, but time is the great equalizer. Some people have more money than others, but each of us has the same number of hours in a day.

And we're all going to die one day.

Therefore, the first way you should show your customers you love them is by respecting their time.

If you're not going to help them make their time more enjoyable (and don't overestimate your ability to do that with marketing fluff), help them use their time more effectively. Stop treating them as if their time -- or their loyalty -- is free.

It isn't. Nothing is. Not even this closing sentence. - Cam Beck