Service Stories: Own The Issue

Proactively monitoring customer satisfaction in your business improves everything.   We touched on finding complaints yesterday.  You can’t do enough of that work.

But how your organization reacts to customer complaints is even more important.   If you can’t get complaint resolution right, fold up your tents and quit or sell the company.  You must live by a culture of “every complaint properly handled every time”.  That does not mean robotic greetings and talk tracks that emphasize upsells.

Think of  a business version of The Golden Rule.

We recently saw both sides of the coin at our payroll company.  We love our payroll company.  They are always responsive, the price is reasonable and the service is easy to use.   But we apparently threw them for a loop when we hired an employee in another state.

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Small Business Service With Groupon

Groupon is enduring some well-deserved criticism this week for its edgy Super Bowl commercial featuring actor Timothy Hutton that made light of Tibet’s struggles with China.  American consumers overwhelmingly rejected the ad while continuing to use the service (herein called The GoDaddy Effect) and the company best known for being the startup that earlier spurned $6 billion of Google’s money created another head-scratching moment.

But what impact does this company have on a small business, maybe your small business, when one of those 50% offers launches?

Almost all Groupon customers ask for a second promotion according to a video on the company’s website.   Local merchants now receive mobile applications, free marketing copywriters and tools like a capacity planner. But business owners often go online to complain about margins or are cautioned about exceeding capacity and cutting into margin.   WebProNews did a splendid piece about Groupon tackling the capacity issue head-on and suggested that Groupon should be able to help a small business plan for lots of new customers.

Capacity was the issue I experienced with local merchants.  The worst was a camera store with an offer that swayed me to convert some old film to DVD .  My son picked up the order and paid with the Groupon, which was about $6 more than the cost.  The cashier did not offer a store credit or offer to sell a second conversion an apply a $6 credit.  Nearly half of the $15 savings evaporated so I called the store.

Pause and reflect.

Groupon brought me in when I wouldn’t have looked around for that old birthday party footage.  Then the store had a chance to wow me with their services anf pick up a second conversion plus who knows how many more future orders?

Instead the clerk said no.  The manager went further, telling me that “Not everything is free just because you have Groupon”.  Those frustrated line staff comments are common on web complaint boards.  But now I had a mission so I called the small chain’s headquarters and was told there was no customer service department and “these questions”  were best handled at the store level.  But now I was more focused on the store manager’s attitude and I ended up in the voice mail of someone in store operations.  That person never called back even after a second message was left.

So the fallout for the store is even worse.  Now I’m not only dissatisfied, but when someone comments on the DVD, I tell them to buy online because the local chain has “awful service”.

That is the essence of a merchant’s Groupon dilemma.  The company says all will be well if the merchant is “honest” about their ability to handle big volumes and convert casual consumers to long-term customers.  Your takeaway as a small business leader is to think strategically, not about cash flow or other tactical matters, when considering any coupon service. If you don’t have an upselling, customer-centric culture and your business has tight margins, inviting a horde of discount-loving customers who have no loyalty to your business is an ineffective strategy.

Source:  ”“,, 1/26/2011
Source:  ”Hey, Ellen, Should We Do Groupon?” Restaurant Intelligence, 9/18/2009
Source: “Groupon Talks Managing Capacity…“, Web Pro News, 1/17/2011
Source: “Groupon Rejects $6 Billion Offer From Google“, MSNBC, 12/4/2010
Image:  Eugene Peretz via CC 2.0

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Elton John moaned the lyrics “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” three decades ago.

For many, the word appears to still be difficult.

You likely know about designer Kenneth Cole’s gaffe.  He tweeted from the company’s official account that crowds demonstrating in Cairo had likely gathered because of the company’s fall line.

An hour later, this tweet appeared.

Re Egypt tweet: we weren't intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment -KC
Kenneth Cole Prd

Kenneth Cole is a smart guy with resources.  He went to law school.  His brother-in-law is the governor of New York.   His company (NYSE:KCP) had revenues of more than $400 million last year.  A simpler message might simply have been “I’m truly sorry.  That post was in poor taste and has been removed.”  Or I’m sorry followed by anything.

In a personal situation, I responded to an survey with low marks and an explanation that the flowers were clearly old, looked bad upon delivery and did not last long.  The company thanked me for filling out a survey and wrote “We are sorry you were disappointed…”   The rest was meaningless boilerplate for the situation.  I wasn’t looking for a refund although a smart company might have dropped a coupon on me for a future purchase.  But by sending a token apology at the end of a direct transaction, the company acknowledged that my survey had been coded as “dissatisfied”, yet still failed to own the issue.  Had nothing ever happened, I would have simply assumed that the marketing research folks didn’t pass along my survey.

Your takeaway as a small business owner is to own your company’s mistakes and express regret by starting with a simple apology–”I’m sorry”. You should absolutely elaborate on how you’ll make things better and what happened if that’s appropriate to discuss.  But start with those two simple words and prepare to be amazed at the customer satisfaction that results when you sincerely accept a problem.

Source:  ”Kenneth Cole Egypt Tweets”, CNN Money, 2/6/11
Source:  ”NYSE:KCP Financials”, Google Finance, 2/6/11

Great Customer Service Mystery

I hit a dry patch while preparing a presentation over the holidays,  I needed examples of national brands the audience would immediately consider outstanding customer service organizations.

Many did a good job.  Some did pretty good jobs, but finding the company doing a great job was difficult.

Nordstrom is one obvious fallback, but has almost reached the level of cliche.

Customer service, like marketing, is science and art. But smart local businesses do both

Customer service advocates once tried using the Malcolm Baldridge Award as a proxy for a national customer service award.  That worked early when customer-centric organizations like the now defunct AT&T Universal Card and FedEx won awards for service.


Zappos’ service culture is revered, but the company is slowly absorbing into Amazon, a pretty good service company too, but better at logistics and making markets.  There’s not much there to make customers swoon.

Multiple elements create a world class service envrionment, but first among them is having a world class service or product offering.  Then the organization has to dazzle customers with every transaction, including full empowerment  down to the line staff level.

Ritz Carlton properties still have some of that cachet, but keeping a service quality culture at that level  is darn near impossible when you grow from 4 to 40 sites and sell out to Marriott.

Some companies–Amazon, FedEx,  Disney depending on who is talking–have great national reputations, but they are the exception.   The inability of most national brands to deliver great customer service is an opportunity for small businesses.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is to make customer service a differentiator. If you run a pizza parlor, you can compete with the chains by offering good quality food and great service.  Not every independent bookshop was squeezed out of business by Amazon.  Instead the national chains took a beating, just as Netflix was administering the same style of beating to Blockbuster.  But Joe’s Pizza, at the corner for two generations?   Doing just fine thanks.

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Quicken Ambivalence

Strong words–love and hate.

Those are the words consumers use to describe brand experiences.

My personal affinity for Quicken goes back more than two decades.  I was such an early user of Quicken that the software couldn’t handle the amount of financial data I loaded on there.   In those days, Quicken was barely out of shareware status, and tech support insisted that every year be archived as its own file.  That sounded okay to me, except that you couldn’t report across multiple files.

I analyze web metrics as a big part of my life now.  Do you really think a version of me a generation ago was going to give up access to reporting across years?

But we spent a lot of time on the phone, and I think my efforts helped them build a better product.  In the early days, Scott Cook’s company provided outstanding customer service.  I was in that field then, and they weren’t simply good–they were best of breed.

As the company grew, Quicken and QuickBooks became leaders in their segment.  On their march to multi-billion dollar revenue streams, Intuit introduced big B2B concepts to their smaller business and consumer markets.  They rolled out  ”sunsetting”, a time when your software would no longer work regardless of whether it still met your  needs.   They also insisted on product activation because as Cook noted there were many more tax returns prepared using TurboTax then units sold.

I’ve admired Intuit and faithfully bought their products for years.  My lifetime value was astronomical and the word of mouth sales I generated was even higher.

Now the Quicken home line has introduced something so anti-consumer that the concept is mind-boggling.

Remember that I had years of data stored on a top of the line Quicken release.  Then I began substituting services like (also owned by Intuit) for Quicken until I finally stopped using the product.  A need for some tax-related information sent me scrambling for the data file and then to Staples for a new copy of Quicken.

I no longer needed the top-of-the-line product, but the software and the customer service group insisted that I must upgrade to access my data file.

There was no downward compatibility.  There were no options.  Access to data you created in our best product means you were locked into that product for the future.

I can’t begin to tell you how poor that strategy is for a casual consumer market.  Brand loyal, I ran out to a Staples and purchased a $30 product to gather two facts.  Then I had to pay another $70 to upgrade my product.

My lesson learned?

Remember how I wouldn’t archive the files when they first started?  This weekend’s plan is to do so, but in a format that can be read by other programs.  Because as good as Quicken is and as brand loyal as I was, I felt Intuit abused our relationship.  They got an extra $100 in revenue this year, but the Quicken line has lost my business forever.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that the lessons you learn in one line of business do not always translate to other segments. I’ve often joked that a person will go to work and push around paper representing thousands of dollars of value if not more.   They’ll be agreeable, hold things for extra processing time or may even be delayed in their work with an overflowing inbox.  That same person will come home and spend 20 minutes arguing a $10 overcharge on the phone.

That’s the mindset between business and consumer segments, a lesson Intuit missed applying.

Is There A Fiery Flight Attendant On Your Staff?

Stress.  Worker burnout.  Customer service rage.

All of these may have triggered JetBlue’s Steve Salter to scream profanities at his company’s customers, illegally deploy the aircraft’s emergency chute and run away.

In a world rocked by inflation, wars and sociological changes brought on by increasingly fast technology shifts, Salter hit a raw nerve with folks, especially online.  Alternately lauded as a hero for some previously sated proletariat or the expression of rage for service professionals, Salter is neither.

Worse, his crimes were not victimless.

He damaged the people who own JetBlue stock.  That might be you or your loved ones if you look carefully at your retirement plans and other savings.  He damaged the JetBlue brand and thousands of employees and their families.  And he created an unsafe ramp-area environment for JFK employees on the ground. Peter Finch played a character having a meltdown in Network (clip below NSFW)

But Salter is not Finch’s Howard Beale nor is a hero.   He is a burned out employee who created an international sensation by flaming out in a highly visible way.
I’ve had two Salters in  my career leading people.  Both screamed obscenities–one at a customer and one at her manager in front of dozens of people.   Many might think their situations warranted drastic action and been inclined to forgive them.

They were wrong, just as this flight attendant was wrong


As the person leading them, I was more wrong.

There had already been conversations in one of the instances I related where the manager and I had discussed the employee’s growing resentment of him and the firm.  We saw the burnout signs and tried to muddle by.  In the other instance, I was a young manager and knew in my heart of hearts that the person didn’t belong anywhere near customers.  This employee didn’t care about the company, co-workers or customers.  With just a little more seasoning, I would have taken action before she screamed at a client in a retention-driven business and slammed the phone down.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that you already know where your potential employee issues loom and you need to act now.

Some will undoubtedly take everyone, including you, by surprise.  But if you are compromising now and there isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime emergency situation in your organization, you must act fast before your employee blows and slides down your company’s emergency chute.

Action can be anything from time off to different schedules or job assignments to termination.  But if you know today that the employee is at risk, and you are not actively working to protect your organization, their failure is yours.

Delighted By A Doctor

If you can make a customer look this delighted, your business will enter hypergrowth

A doctor asked me to obtain a medical record from another doctor who had seen one of my children in 1997.  A toddler then, my son is about to enter his senior year in high school.

Leave the flowers and “blink of an eye” stuff to Father’s Day.  1997 was a long time ago.

First I had to find the doctor.  I found him practicing with someone else in another town.  He was on vacation when I called, but had private voice mail so I was able to detail the situation for him.

His follow up and his recall were the stuff of service legend.

His first call buzzed my office phone at 9 a.m. on Monday the day he returned.  I had started work, but had gone for coffee.  We played phone tag and he called me a second time before 10:30.

Vendors I pay lots of money to don’t follow up that fast.

“I don’t have easy access to records that old,” he told me, and I immediately began thinking about how I could meet the new doctor’s requirement.

Then the original doctor astonished me.

He told me where I had worked when he first saw my child.  It was a new job, he remembered, and I groaned because I must have really gone on a lot for him to remember that. Then he told me about my two other children.  He got their sexes and approximate ages correct. When he told me we had been house hunting, I almost accused him of having a chart there.


He got a couple of facts close but wrong.  But he clearly remembered his patient from 13 years ago.  He placed my life in context then–something I hadn’t been able to do as well in the new situation.

And then he offered to write a letter describing his original impressions and confirming that he had treated my son. That letter arrived less than 3 days after we spoke.

He did all of this–the lightning fast phone calls, the letter writing–free. There is no hope for repeat business, little chance of a referral that far away and certainly little upside in making these return calls a priority on his first day back in the office.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is to consider what it would take to delight people so much they write a blog about you.

Our world continues a frantic pace of interconnected information.   What used to be called “user generated content” in the dark days of two years ago is now simply one of thousands of local review sites.

If you delight people, not just customers but anyone interacting with your business, your business will grow faster than any other way imaginable.

And you get to like what you do.  Because only people who love what they do can pull this off and not burn out before next Thursday.

This is more than word-of-mouth.  It’s delight.

Headline Fail – VP is Safe

More blunders as mainstream media attempts to copy what makes web players successful.  This major headline fail occurred on a slow spring Saturday night.  The oil spill was consuming the world, but somehow CNN forgot to mention that the US was fighting wars in two countries and that the US and Europe had massive economic issues.  In fact, the Dow had cratered 300 points just 24 hours before this was the main section on

We had the missing blonde girl again, a sex scandal in the NFL (yes, I read that one),  a porn actor who maybe committed suicide, a car crash, a plane crash and general interest news.  Take a look at the stories (click to make the image bigger)

Besides CNN lacking any sort of credibility that goes with gravitas, look at the circled link.  I was frustrated the second I saw the words, “vice president” and “attack”.  I knew it wasn’t anything major, but I immediately begin thinking of minor things that would warrant a story.

Did someone get close enough to Vice President Biden to throw a liquid on him?

How did the Secret Service allow that person to get close?

Oh man, I sure hope no one threw oil at him.

Because only CNN can do justice to their over-the-top headline, I’ll quote the first two sentences of their article.

Joe Biden came under friendy fire during a summer-kickoff barbeque at the vice president’s residence Saturday.

During the event for White House reporters and their families, the president’s No. 2 was attacked with sqiurt guns by his grandchildren and by children of members of the press corps.

Wait–some grandkids squirted their grandpa with a water gun?   And CNN has the gall to put that in a link with the terms “Vice President” and “attack”?   Writing compelling copy for the web is hard.  The audiences are different, the styles are different and the reading (more often scanning) is far more difficult.

CNN .com’s headline failed because they tried a direct response trick of writing an outrageous headline that generates a click.  Except when we do that in advertising, we anger the prospect unless we deliver the actual event.  They leave the advertiser’s site and the advertiser has paid for the click.   CNN did the same thing and paid not with a 50 cent click, but with continuing erosion of their ability to be reliable and relevant online.

Your takeaway as a small business is to not use wild over-promises to generate web traffic.  At best, you’ll simply waste money.  But you might take brand damage.  And that’s not damage from a water gun, even if you end up all wet.

Free Form Templates From Google

Google did so much this week that one of the more immediately useful announcements may have been overlooked.

You’ve probably heard about Google TV, improvements to Google AdSense for businesses who use that advertising network and the attempt to revive Google Wave by making it available upon request.  For practical purposes that impact small businesses, the item that caught my attention was one I urge you to consider.

Using Google’s easy but powerful forms just got easier with new free fonts and templates.   I also have to give a special hat tip to Googler Melissa Louie, who identified herself this week as the creator of Google Chrome’s Zen/Spring theme.  I’ve used that theme almost exclusively for months, and it has become Google Chrome’s face for me.    Way to go, Melissa. That theme rocks, err, is tranquil and calming.

Why Google’s New Themes Matter

Google Forms is already the easiest, most cost-effective (free) way to gather data online.   I already use Google Docs with dozens of clients and partners.  When I revert to the Microsoft Office swap via email and trying to track version control, I develop a little tic and I’m pretty sure I grind my teeth.

Google's new form themes

Click for detail

With the release of 24 new free fonts and the use of images from iStockphoto, Google Forms are pre-made templates that should satisfy most small business needs.   You can use them internally or with customers.

Surveys and similar data are automatically filed in spreadsheet view.   Even better:  you can share that spreadsheet to anyone with an email address.   It’s perfect for small businesses, but it even works for the small business softball league you’re in because everyone doesn’t have to be on the same domain.

What you see to the left are templates that the Google team has put together for various industries and generics for others.  There are even new social forms like party invitations.

The templates have been added to Google’s free template library.  As I was discussing with my partner yesterday on the phone, Microsoft’s attitude toward templates frustrates me to no end.  Registered owners of expensive Microsoft software (she uses a Mac, I have a PC, but I don’t use IE’s browser most days) can only access Microsoft’s free template library using the company’s browser.  Sure, it’s probably legal.  It’s just dumb customer service.

Google’s free solutions cover at least 80% of what Microsoft offers with the added benefit of being accessible using any browser.  And remember, they’re free.  Free is good for any small business paying attention to cash flow.

Give it a whirl.  I think you’ll like any of the forms you try out.

Use Your Name When Sending Documents To A Client

If you look inside your attachments folder or repository, chances are good that you’ll see a handful of documents and spreadsheets with your company’s name.  They were sent to you by people from other companies.

I still don’t quite understand that.

Remember to put your client first.  When you send a document, it seems counterintuitive to put your name on the document, but your client already has a folder full of documents with their name.  If it makes sense, use both names, but get yours in there.   At the very least, your client can then sort or search for your name when they’re looking for something.

And isn’t the object of all of this to make things easier for your client?