Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Getting Your Voice Heard: An Interview with CEO of Nevahold

The last time you had a product or service issue, did you tweet the company about the issue, get no response, and wish you had someone to help you get the company's attention?

Back in June, I wrote a blog post about my experience booking a flight for my kids and me through Expedia and the subsequent conversations with American Airlines about my seat assignments. After that post, Kena Amoah, one of the co-founders of Nevahold, reached out to me and asked me if he and his team could share my story through a comic based on my experience. I agreed. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

What follows here is an interview with Kena, where he shares details around the reason he and his partners started Nevahold and how you can enlist Nevahold to get your voice heard.

Kena, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your background?
I am a serial entrepreneur and a consumer advocate. I strongly believe in good customer service, where consumers are treated fairly and get what they paid for.

Why did you start Nevahold? How did you come up with the idea for this concept?
My two co-founders, Lovell and David, and I started Nevahold to help solve a problem many consumers encountered frequently when seeking support from companies.  We came up with the idea when I was trying to assist my mom with getting help from a wireless service with which she has been a customer for decades.

How does it work?
Nevahold is simple, intuitive, and fun to use. A user can request support on the Nevahold website or on Twitter. On the Nevahold website, users can send their questions, complaints, or praise to brands with no character limits using the Shout-Box and adding the company Twitter username (@).  Nevahold then makes sure the user receives a quick response from the company.

On Twitter, adding the Nevahold hashtag (#nevahold ) to a tweet to the company allows users to use the Nevahold service to request support. We are working on the mobile version and the Facebook plugin, so consumers can enjoy the service anytime, anywhere.

Which social media channels are you tracking?
Nevahold is tracking Facebook and Twitter, with support for Google Plus in the next release. 

What has the reception been so far?
Nevahold released the first public beta during the Webit Startup Challenge on October 11, 2012, and received huge response from our early adopters. We have also seen 89.7% response rate from businesses on all Shouts through the platform.

Are you targeting any one industry? If not, which industries are you focusing on right now?
Nevahold is currently focused on the airline, consumer electronics, and wireless industries in the US and UK markets, but consumers are not limited to this; questions, complaints, or praise can still be sent to any other company (in any industry), and Nevahold will get their voices heard.

How do you get responses from companies when consumers can’t? In other words, why would companies’ listen/respond to you and not to consumers?
[Laughs] That’s one of Nevahold’s secret sauces. First of all, Nevahold is here for consumers, so we are the consumers. As to how we do it, the platform leverages the power of social media by allowing consumers to get support from the Nevahold community of consumer advocates to push their questions, complaints, or praise to the companies. Currently, we have about 200 advocates on Facebook and Twitter. So you pose a question, complaint, or praise, which we call Shout on Nevahold, or use our Twitter hashtag (#nevahold), and the service begins to monitor your Shout. After 5 minutes (during business hours) without a response from the company, your question is retweeted by Nevahold’s advocates. The Total number of advocates that retweet your shout increases until the company responds to you. This increases the Shouts’ social influence to help get a quicker response. 

What is an advocate? Can anyone become one?
Advocates are people who opt in to help remedy poor customer service and to bring good customer service to light. Anyone with 50 or more followers can be an advocate. We still have 50 more Nevahold advocate t-shirts to give out this month, for the next 50 people to sign up as an advocate.

We met because you wanted to turn my experience into a comic. Why comics?
We use stories people share with the Nevahold community to create interesting comics. You have most likely had at least one memorable customer service experience:  that very moment when you either wanted to yell in anger or shout for joy over the type of service you received. We encourage consumers to share these stories with us, which we then turn into a nice comic for the world to read. Sharing stories through comics is another way for us to bring various customer service experiences, good or bad, to light in a relatable way.
Do you only follow up on issues and complaints? Do you pass along praise, too?
We don't just handle bad service. On Nevahold, companies can be praised, too. If a consumer praises a company using the Nevahold service, Nevahold advocates retweet it so the world gets to know about it. This is supposed to be a win-win for both sides, so we encourage consumers to praise companies when they do an awesome job.

Who is your competition? Do companies like Gripevine achieve the same goals?
Gripevine and Gripe are competitors. Although they have similar goals of helping consumers resolve their gripes with companies, Nevahold is focused on getting consumers answers to questions and complaints that they need responses within the next few minutes, while gripes may take days to be resolved. But you can still gripe on Nevahold. We are also focused on praising companies with great customer service; we believe that motivation plays a good role in positive achievements.

Are companies like yours a growing trend? Is this the only way customers can get heard?
Yes. There’s definitely a growing trend toward consumers requesting support on Nevahold and similar platforms as a new approach to getting support over traditional support channels.

Why do you think companies don't listen to consumers on social but respond when Nevahold pushes them?
Companies mostly want to resolve consumer issues out of the public domain and, therefore, do not listen or try to shift the conversation from a public channel to a private one. Nevahold helps companies achieve this by providing first a private channel to start a conversation with a consumer but then leverages Nevahold advocates and the consumer’s social power in public channels when they are not getting responses.

Do you think social media helps or inhibits customer service?
Social media helps customer service, as it's a transparent, easy, and quick way to reach out to a company. Social media can serve as a great tool for positive word-of-mouth for companies when managed well and vice versa, when mismanaged.

If readers want more information about Nevahold, where they can they go?
Please ask them to take a look at this video, which gives a brief overview of our service. Otherwise, they can visit the Nevahold website to start using our services.

Thanks, Kena, for your time. I really appreciate what you and your team are doing at Nevahold. Anyone whose mission it is to help consumers get issues resolved and also praises companies for  jobs well done is doing great things in my book!

So there you have it. The next time you tweet a complaint, question, or praise to a company, be sure to include #nevahold in your tweet so that you can experience the benefits of Nevahold.

Images courtesy of Nevahold.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Customer Experience Lessons from the Presidential Debates

Image courtesy of theNerdPatrol
The latest in my series of "Customer Experience Lessons from... " posts is about the presidential debates. What can we learn from the debates, and maybe the entire campaigning process in general, that we can turn around and apply to the customer experience journey?

I'm really excited to continue this series. By writing not only about day-to-day interactions with our customers but also about the day-to-day aspects of our personal lives, my hope is to help people more clearly understand the principles of customer experience through their own life experiences. After all, we ask our employees to live the brand, right? And we say that customer experience is not a department.

Clearly then, why draw the line there? Why not accept that customer experience is not only a part of our professional lives but that we also live this journey every day outside of that, as well. (Well, at least I do... as you can see from some of the areas where I glean lessons!) We live it from both sides of the coin (as practitioners and as consumers), but we can also take away so much from what we experience in our personal lives and apply that to our professional journeys.

Believe it or not, when I sat down for just a few minutes to think about the presidential debates and the presidential campaigns, I came up with quite the extensive list of lessons as they relate to the customer experience. It was almost too easy.

  • The right leadership makes for a successful journey
  • A roadmap to the endgame will help guide the way
  • Know your audience
  • Be prepared for anything
  • Listen to your audience (voice of the customer)
  • Address the concerns of your constituents
  • Know your competition
  • But don't focus on your competition; focus on what you do and what you offer, not what they do or don't
  • Clearly communicate your value proposition, your purpose; people want to know how you differ
  • Stay focused on the topic(s) at hand, stay focused on the customer
  • Understand your customers' needs and painpoints
  • Design your products, services, and marketing around fulfilling those needs and fixing those painpoints
  • Customers will ask tough questions
  • Be prepared to answer tough questions
  • Ask the right questions to get the information you need
  • Know your strategy and be able to speak to it without a doubt
  • Clearly communicate your strategy to your constituents, in detail
  • Be real and believable in your communications
  • Don't over-promise and under-deliver
  • Get/earn buy-in from the grass roots level, inside your organization and outside
  • Grass roots efforts can make or break a campaign; they can make or break your culture and your customer experience success, too
  • Always be prepared to handle tough customers, customers who are irate or inflamed 
  • Patience and composure are important qualities
  • Empathy is, too
  • Don't play on customers' fear and anxiety to manipulate a (service) situation
  • You will have promoters and detractors; embrace, and learn from, both
  • Your advocates will be key to your success
  • Earn and build customers' trust over time, through actions and words
  • Change is good, but clearly communicate why and explain the impact
  • Then embrace the change
  • Continuous improvement is something an organization must build into it's customer experience strategy/journey
  • Don't pay lip service; say what you mean, mean what you say
  • Say what you're going to do, do what you said
  • And don't just say what you think your customers want to hear; put your money where your mouth is
  • Use outside-in thinking because inside-out thinking doesn't work
  • Story telling is an effective tool to help both customers and employees relate to your purpose
  • Customers have a choice. Make it a clear and easy one for them
  • You work for the people; the customer is king
The endgame is winning the hearts, minds, and wallets of your customers... their vote. Customers have a choice. Make it a clear and easy one for them.

What would you add to this list? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting. -Franklin D. Roosevelt

Image courtesy of Wordever Presidential Election 2012 Clips

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Customer Experience Lessons from Lance Armstrong

Image courtesy of Kingchief
Today I'm pleased to share with you a guest post by Linda Ireland.

4 customer experience lessons organizations can take away from Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong has become a fairly polarizing figure the last couple years. Some people love him for his determination to beat one of the most lethal diseases of our time and for the organization he has built to improve the quality of so many lives. Others loathe him for allegedly doping his way to seven Tour de France wins from 1999 through 2005 - wins that have been since stripped of his name - and for the way he has handled the controversy, especially in light of the recent, damning report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

With his sponsors pulling out last week and his stepping down from the board of Livestrong, we are watching a very interesting test of just how much stress a brand’s customer experience can take before it breaks. 

I am often asked how many customer experiences a brand or business can have. In Lance Armstrong’s case, you could argue he has three specific customer experiences: 
  1. His dominant leadership as an athlete in the sport of cycling and impact on the sport and its participants 
  2. His leadership of the nonprofit organization Livestrong and its impact on peoples’ lives
  3. His status as an inspirational human spirit, who has risen above adversity and used his experience to make the world a better place
Right now it might seem likely that only one of those “brand of Lance” customer experiences will emerge unscathed. Love him or hate him, only time will tell whether any or all of these customer experiences will withstand the stress.

In the meantime, I see four early lessons that we can learn from as we watch the story unfold.

Lesson #1: A single touchpoint can’t necessarily kill a great experience
When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Armstrong from professional cycling last August and declared all his wins since 1998 null and void, you might have expected a powerful hit to his personal brand. That didn’t happen. Not even close. Why? Because Armstrong’s commitment to the fight against cancer through his Livestrong Foundation is so strong, so real, that people are willing to look the other way. In fact, an “unscientific” Los Angeles Times poll had more Americans supporting Armstrong than questioning him before the recent news last week.

The numbers show his “customers” are supporting him - at least for now. Armstrong has 3.7 million followers on Twitter. His Livestrong brand is ubiquitous online - and off. The Livestrong Facebook page has more than 1.6 million fans. Clearly, Armstrong’s brand has grown beyond cycling, as I noted above - and he still has fans, despite the allegations against him.

Here’s an example through a personal story. I have been honored to chair the board for Community Health Charities of America, and a colleague and now friend there has battled cancer himself. Bill is an inspiration to me for many reasons, including his recent finish of a half Ironman race. When talking about Armstrong, he’s quick to defend him. Armstrong’s story, told through his books and Livestrong work, has been such a big inspiration to him in his own fight against cancer. For him, the doping allegations are a single part of his Lance Armstrong experience, one that affected, but still has not destroyed, Bill’s potent and positive perceptions.

Lesson #2: You can’t separate the tangible from the emotional
Just like any brand, the Armstrong experience has tangible elements - his Tour de France wins, the books he’s published, the events he led to support the racing community for many years. He has emotional, or intangible, qualities as well: he’s determined, consistent, inspiring. Those are two very separate things, right? But, from a customer experience point of view, it doesn’t really matter. We can mentally sort them into two buckets, but psychologically we can’t make them into two experiences. It’s all one experience. You might choose to ignore the doping allegations, but you can’t separate them from the entire experience Armstrong provides. Lance Armstrong’s brand encompasses his tangible and intangible qualities and his promise as both a star athlete who overcame great odds and is the founder of Livestrong.

You just can’t separate the tangible from the intangible. This is why my friend Bill still has a positive experience in spite of the doping allegations. And it’s why, when I hear “It’s not the product; it’s the experience that’s the problem,” I know that’s only half right.

Lesson #3: You can violate a touchpoint, but you can’t violate key principles
Every organization and customer experience has “defining principles” - those principles that say a lot about what your organization stands for and who you are as a brand. For Armstrong, those principles might be qualities and concepts like “performance,” “determination,” and “commitment.” Has he violated those? I don’t think so. Now, did Armstrong make a mess of certain parts of his “customer experience” with the doping allegations and challenging those allegations over the years? Absolutely. But for at least some, those don’t necessarily touch on the key principles of his customer experience. As a result, I’ll bet some, if not many, will be willing to look past that. They will  focus on his determination to beat cancer - and help others do the same. They’re willing to focus on his commitment to a cause he cares so deeply about. That’s what matters to people. That’s what should matter to your organization - and your customers. What are the 3 or 4 principles or defining factors of your organization’s customer experience?

Lesson #4: A customer’s perception always wins
I’ve worked for and with many organizations and brands over the years. Small and large. And, for some of them, one theme I continue to hear is this: “We need to stay ‘on brand.’” That’s fine, and I understand what leaders mean by this, but here’s the thing: No one cares about being “on brand” but you. All that your customers care about is if, and how well, you solve the needs that trigger their journey to you. It’s all about the customer’s point of view. In Armstrong’s case, he’s certainly had some bad press over the years, but so far, it has affected his standings and his funders more than his “customers.” Like Tiger Wood’s customers, or Bill Clinton’s or even British Petroleum’s, who largely stayed engaged after terrible missteps, I wonder if Lance Armstrong is another test for how much a customer experience can take before it breaks. I imagine that for at least the last of the three needs he solves as I listed above, his customers will still support him - and his fight against cancer. They will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him as he continues this ongoing battle to find a cure.

Those are four lessons that I’ve learned from Armstrong over the years and that I’m watching now. What about you? Any customer experience lessons we can learn from the Livestrong founder?

Linda Ireland is a partner at Aveus, a global strategy and operational change firm based in St. Paul, MN. Linda also blogs at Customer Experience For Profit, and you can find her on Twitter at @LindaIreland.

Note: Photo courtesy of Cain and Todd Benson via FlickR Creative Commons.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Customer Experience Lessons from Peripheral Sparring

Image courtesy of U.S. Army Korea
What on earth can something called "peripheral sparring" teach us about the customer experience?

If you've followed this blog for a while, you know I have two sons in Taekwondo. I've shared lessons from their Taekwondo classes in the past, but it's been a while. Recently, their Master Instructor introduced this new concept, and I sat there thinking, as I usually do, "Hmm. I can totally relate this to customer experience."

Let me start by describing peripheral sparring. Here's how it works. While two kids are sparring with each other, the Master Instructor stands near them and holds up a red pad and a blue pad. He calls out a color, and if he calls either red or blue, the first one to stop sparring and hit the appropriate colored pad gets a point. If he calls out some other color, e.g., black, the kids need to remain focused and continue sparring.

What happens if you focus on the instructor, anticipating his next move or next call, rather than on your partner?  Well, your sparring partner will keep kicking and punching you, and you'll lose the game.

The exercise helps to strengthen and develop two things: (1) peripheral vision and (2) focus/concentration. Ironically, those are two very different things, but I think the lesson here is that you need to focus on what you're doing and use your peripheral vision to remain aware of what's happening around you at all times.

How do I connect that type of sparring to the customer experience? There are a couple different lessons here.

Focus on the task at hand. That "task at hand" for your business is to deliver the best experience for your customers.

But never take your eyes off those around you. Your competitors, as well as other competing forces,  are not your main focus, but you must always be aware of what's going on outside of your main line of sight. They must be in your peripheral vision.

Don't get distracted by shiny objects. Know your purpose and let that be your guiding light. Shiny objects might be sexy, but they aren't worthy of your immediate attention. They suck resources into doing things that detract from your purpose.

A customer-focused culture is challenging. There will be distractions and opposing or dissenting parties, e.g., investors or shareholders who want to see returns on their investments and want you to focus on them and their needs. But what those parties need to understand is that if you focus on the customer, you are focusing on them, as well.

Don't just be there, really be there. Malcolm Forbes said it best when he said, "Presence isn't just being there." When a customer is standing in front of you, asking questions and talking to you, nothing else matters. Focus on the customer's immediate needs. Sure, there are other things happening around you that you might need to be aware of, but the customer standing in front of you is the most important thing to you at that moment.

Nothing focuses the mind better than the constant sight of a competitor who wants to wipe you off the map. -Wayne Calloway

Image courtesy of Taekwondo Information.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Deconstructing an Apology

I'm so excited! This is the 100th post that I've personally written for my site. (I've had a few guest posts sprinkled in between and have several more on the way.) Thank you so much for taking the time to read what I write and to share my posts. I'm looking forward to writing the next 100! 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
There have been a lot of public apologies about product and service failures lately. How do those apologies impact customer perception and the (subsequent) customer experience? How do we know the apologies are meaningful and written/delivered with the customer in mind?

I thought I'd take this opportunity to deconstruct an apology, i.e., break it down into its critical components. What makes an effective apology? What components must be included in an apology?

When I started to list what comprises an apology, I thought I could keep it short and sweet. But as I started writing, the list got longer and more detailed. Here's what I've pared it down to.

An apology must...
  • Be Timely: The sooner it's issued, the better - but not so rushed that it's not well thought out.
  • Be Empathetic: The author must put himself in his customers' shoes and understand the pain or frustration they've gone through.
  • Take Responsibility: Own it. (And hold the right people accountable for decisions that were made that resulted in the screw up.)
  • Be Real: Don't use jargon or robotic, overused language to apologize. Say it from the heart.
  • Be Sincere: Honestly and sincerely express remorse. Make the apology about the issue and how it impacts the customer; it's not about you/the company. Most importantly, it's not a marketing piece.
  • Include an Explanation: Outline the root cause of the issue or failure; this let's customers know that you've given it some thought and investigated the issue thoroughly. It also tells them you know what needs to be fixed.
  • Avoid Excuses: This is self-explanatory. Provide root causes, not excuses.
  • Offer a Resolution: How will or has the issue been resolved? If it's not resolved yet, when will it be? And if it will take some time, what's the workaround?
  • Provide Some Reassurance: The reassurance is about the quality of the resolution and that the issue will not happen again. And why not.
  • Outline WIIFM. What's In It For Me? That means, what does the resolution mean for the individual? How does it impact me as I continue (if I so choose) to interact with your brand?
  • (Optional) Offer Compensation: Depending on the situation, you might offer a credit, reimbursement, voucher or some other form of compensation to make up for the inconvenience.
I realize that's a lot to include and a lot to ask, but if you want customers to believe your apology, I think this is what it must entail.

Cartoon by Tom Fishburne/Marketoonist
But do customers actually believe these apologies? That's a good question. Often, it seems like companies go to "Apologies R Us" to pick an apology card that serves no one but themselves. That's why I like Tom Fishburne's cartoon to the left. It's kinda like that.

Are these apologies more self-serving than customer-serving? Do customers get desensitized and just ignore them because they are meaningless? Have we lost faith in companies?

If companies were making decisions with customers in mind, i.e., in the best interest of customers not of the bottom line, would we have so many corporate apologies? Let's be real here. Does any executive with decision-making authority or anyone - any normal human being - ever find it OK to allow fellow humans to sit in an airplane for eight hours without food, water, or toilets? Those aren't human decisions - those are corporate/shareholder decisions. There's no win-win with that.

Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past. -Tyron Edwards

Friday, October 12, 2012

Customer Experience Lessons from the Space Jump

Image courtesy of Kansir
Have you been following the story about the incredible space jump that Felix Baumgartner is about to make? It was supposed to happen earlier this week but was delayed until Sunday due to weather conditions (namely, wind). It's an insane stunt! And the details are fascinating! 

OK. I'm not here to write about the jump, although I could read and watch videos about it all day! No. I'm going to share some customer experience lessons from this daredevil's mission!

Buckle up. It's going to be a crazy ride! Let's dive in, shall we? (Yea, bad pun intended.)

Have a goal. Define it. Make sure everyone knows the goal. Communicate it. Live it. Breathe it. You know what the goal is: deliver the best end-to-end customer experience, better than your competition.

Focus. Intense focus. Everything you do is in the interest of achieving that goal. Don't just say you're customer-focused. Show it. In the way you treat your employees, treat your customers, design your products, lead your business, hire people, etc.

Relentless, never-ending training. If you want your employees to be successful, if you want them to know what to do when they encounter specific situations with customers, then teach them how to handle those situations. Role play. Make sure employees know your products well. And as the business changes and evolves, so must the training.

Careful, detailed preparation. This goes hand in hand with training, to some degree. The more prepared your employees are, the better they'll be able to handle any situations thrown their way. Have a plan, a roadmap. The more you plan, the better the experience will likely be.

Contingency planning. Have a plan for when things don't go as expected.

Take a test jump. Or two. Test your products for quality and usability. With your customers. Before the products go to market.

Solid, accurate data. The importance of good data, the right data, at your fingertips is critical to making decisions that are right for your customers. Having that data at the right time allows you to make smart decisions in the moment. Making sure everyone, across channels and functional teams, has the same data makes for a much better experience.

Research is extremely helpful. Do your homework. Know your customers.

Timing. Ensuring that the right data is in the right hands at the right time is essential to delivering a great customer experience. And to making that jump.

Abort when conditions aren't right. You know if it's the right time to release a product. You know if you're using the right approach to designing the customer experience. If it doesn't work for your customers, abort and start over. Find a better time, a better way.

The right equipment. Of course, you'll need the right tools to facilitate getting that data where it needs to go and to delivering that great experience. And employees will need the right tools to do their jobs.

Patience. When all else fails, patience truly is a virtue. And an important one. Working with customers can be as challenging as waiting for the right wind conditions! Take a deep breath and do the right thing.

Teamwork. Your employees must work as a team toward a common goal. They must support each other in their efforts to support the customer. Make sure they are all talking to each other.

Supporting staff. Those unsung heroes, the ones that make things happen behind the scenes, are critical to the success of any mission.

Trust. Trust your team. Trust that you have the right people on board to support you through your mission.

Know your space. Understand the marketplace, your competitors, the needs of prospects and customers. Everything going on around you.

Risks and rewards. Take risks. Do what it takes to set yourself apart from the competition. And remember: the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

Instill confidence. Leaders instill confidence in their employees, which in turn, through the experiences they deliver, cause customers to gain confidence in the brand/organization. There is no trust without confidence, and trust is the precursor to loyalty and engagement. Felix says, "I will land safely" with such conviction that I have no doubt he will.

Be passionate! You should watch some of the videos about this mission; you will see just how passionate Felix is about this jump and about being the best of the best. Stoke the passion in your employees. Hire the right employees, the ones who are passionate about your brand.

The air is where I am at home. -Felix Baumgartner

Push the limits. Don't be happy with the status quo. If your business is stagnant, if your customers are not happy, it's time to take a different approach. Innovate.

Do the unexpected. Everyone loves the little unexpected extras. Make them part of your customer experience.

Learn from others who've gone before you. Take what's been done before and do it better. Felix is not the first person to make a jump like this. If he is successful, though, he will be the first person to make the jump at this height/distance, and he will break four world records. Way back in 1960, Joseph Kittinger made the jump from 102,800 feet. (Felix will jump at 120,000 feet, or 23 miles!) Kittinger is still the world record holder. For a few more days. He is part of Team Red Bull Stratos and has been advising Felix on this jump.

Communication. Joseph Kittinger is Felix's biggest supporter and will be the only person talking to him by radio during the jump. This communication is likely critical for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is to keep him calm and focused. I don't think any of us can question the importance of communication with both customers and employees.

Measure your vital signs. Keep track of the health of the organization at all times. Find your metrics and track them closely. Don't focus on the score; focus on the experience. But pay attention to what your vitals are telling you.

Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. I prefer the tried and true method, but occasionally you just need to make things happen without waiting for someone to give you permission or without the data to support what you want to do. Sometimes you truly can anticipate the needs of your customers. And sometimes, if you just let your employees do what needs to be done, great experiences can happen.

It's a journey. The jump has been several years in the making. The actual trip will be much faster! And yes, the customer experience is a journey, as well. It's years in the making, and it's constantly evolving. So will space travel. Not only will this jump be a world record breaking attempt, it will also provide research that will be used for years to come to develop space suits, space travel, etc.

And finally, remember this. While the climb to the top (or to the edge of space) might be a long journey, freefalling back down happens much faster! Enjoy the journey! Make it a good one. And don't get too close to the edge... while Felix might be up for the freefall, I know your organization is not!

Today's final quote comes from Jordan Belfort but was certainly inspirational for Felix...

Update (10/14): Congratulations, Felix, on an amazing jump, for achieving your goals, and for breaking some records!  I sat riveted for two hours, watching the ascent and then the jump. You've inspired a lot of people to just go for it!

It's a historic day for aerospace, as 65 years ago today, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in an experimental rocket plane.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Customer Experience Lessons from The Great Food Truck Race

Image courtesy of foodnetwork.com
Have you ever watched The Great Food Truck Race, which is a food truck competition hosted by Tyler Florence on Food Network? If not, you've missed a great competition and some excellent customer experience lessons. Fear not! I'm here to summarize those lessons for you.

The show just completed its third season last week, and it took a slightly different twist this time around. Eight teams, with no food trucks of their own, competed in a cross-country "race" to win $50,000 and to keep the food truck that had been designed just for them. (In the previous two seasons, each team came with their own truck.) Each team consists of three people, typically a driver and two crew members.

They start in the LA area and then drive to their first city, where they'll need to shop (using seed money that Tyler provides; amount varies by week) for food supplies, find a solid place to park, prepare meals according to the local culture, and open for business. Every week, they move to a new city as they make their way to the East Coast. The team that makes the least money each week goes home.

It's not as easy as it sounds, and there are plenty of challenges along the way, not the least of which are two provided by the show:
  1. Truck Stops, which are cooking challenges that are typically judged by a local culinary expert, provide an advantage for one team for that leg of the race.
  2. Speed Bumps, which are disadvantages inflicted by Tyler, penalize each team; for example, in one episode, Tyler made two of the team members get off the truck, leaving only one person to man the fort.
So what are some of the key lessons gleaned from this show? I'm so glad you asked! After watching for the last three years, I can say that the importance of the following cannot be underestimated when starting and running a business and trying to meet your customers' needs.
  • Spend money wisely. Whether you're starting a business or making decisions about where to invest, resources are often limited. Put your money toward items (products, services, resources, etc.) that will make your customers happy. And that leads me to...
  • Know your customers. You can't meet their needs until you understand who they are and what their needs are. Be aware of the fact that customers in different locations, geographies, cultures, etc. have different needs. Be prepared to address them.
  • Never let them see you sweat. OK, most frontline/customer-facing jobs don't cause you to break out in a sweat, literally or figuratively. And while, for a TV show, I'm sure the stress and panic of "I have 38 minutes left to sell what's on my food truck before Tyler needs to count the money" enticed customers to want to help the trucks by buying more food, that's not the norm. If you're struggling to make your numbers (financial metrics or CX metrics), your customers don't need to know about it.
  • Mingle with customers. Get out there and get to know them. Talk to them. Approach them. Be friendly. Build relationships. Earn their trust. Earn their business.
  • Hire the right people. It's so important that you hire people who are friendly, passionate about what they/you do, want the business to succeed, and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Just as critical is the need to...
  • Work as a team. Teamwork is never more important than when you're crammed into a small food truck and under a ton of pressure. Communication cannot breakdown. In-fighting among the troops can lead to mutiny, and ultimately, derailment. Without a doubt, that leads to...
  • Collaboration is key. If your team cannot work together toward a common goal, if that teamwork begins to crumble, the entire mission is in jeopardy. 
  • Select a strong leader. The leader must instill confidence in the team and inspire them to do great things, to achieve their goals, to collaborate. Employees and teams that do great things create success for the organization.
  • Be open to new ideas. No one individual on a team or within the organization has all the right answers. As a matter of fact, take it outside to come up with new ideas. Go listen to your customers. Go learn about the local needs.
  • Know your brand. Know your purpose. Be true to who you are. Make sure everyone in the organization understands who you are and lives and breathes it every day.
  • Don't forget about quality control. Without a quality control team or process in place, you'll create a lot more future problems for yourself than if you take the time to make sure the product is created right the first time.
  • Convey the value of your products and services. Through solid marketing techniques and tactics, get the word out about your business. Your messaging must be on point. If you forget this piece or only do it half-assed, it could be to the detriment of your business.
  • You're always selling. Regardless of whether you're taking orders, talking to customers, resolving issues, driving from one location to the next... you are always in sales mode. Customers are watching you. Customers are watching how you deal or interact with them and with others.
  • Challenges will come your way. You have competition; there will be challenges. Your position is to do it better than the competition... whatever "it" is. Most importantly, serve your customers better. Make it a better customer experience. They'll be back.
  • And speed bumps are waiting for you. There will be disadvantages along the way. Know that they exist and plan for them. Your biggest advantage is one that you can control: delivering an awesome customer experience, no matter what.
If you've watched The Great Food Truck Race, are there any other lessons you think I should add here? I'd love to get your thoughts!

The single most important thing to remember about any enterprise is that there are no results inside its walls. The result of a business is a satisfied customer. -Peter Drucker

Friday, October 5, 2012

Now THAT'S Customer Service!

In honor of Customer Service Week, today's blog post is about a great (customer service) experience that I had this week. I often write about service and experiences gone wrong, but today, I'm pleased to share a happy story!

First, a factoid about Customer Service Week. Did you know that 20 years ago, it was proclaimed a nationally-recognized event by the U.S. Congress? It occurs the first full week of October every year.

OK, on to the great experience at hand.

The Purchase
On Saturday, my kids and I went to our local Living Spaces showroom to find some sofas for one of the rooms in my house. From the moment we walked in the door, I felt immediately at ease. The salesperson at the front of the store greeted us within seconds of walking in, and she let me know that the salespeople are not on commission, which meant that I could work with anyone on the floor - no pressure, no hovering - they were all there to help.

Honestly, I can't even remember how many people greeted us, asked me if I needed help, engaged in conversation with the kids, offered us cookies and drinks, etc. The employees had clearly been properly trained:
  • Greet your customers when you're within X feet of them
  • Smile, be friendly and courteous
  • Ask customers if they need help
  • Offer refreshments to your customers
  • Let customers know that there's a kids' play area where they can play video games and watch TV while they shop
  • Don't just engage with the purchaser/decision maker, engage with the whole family
  • Make product suggestions
  • Don't hover or smother; give customers space to shop and think
  • But keep an eye on them and don't let them go too long without contact
The entire shopping and purchase process were very easy. Once we found our sofas, I sat with the kids, thinking about the fit in the room and just generally getting comfortable with the purchase. A sales associate approached and asked if I needed help, and I let her know I was ready to buy the sofas we were sitting on. She instructed me to stay put; she would go get the paperwork, and we could fill out all the details while sitting in a comfortable spot.

After the paperwork was completed, we walked to the cash register to pay and schedule the delivery. The checkout process was quick and easy. The sales associate and the cashier clearly explained everything, from the price to the Scotchgard and cleaning kit to the delivery process. It was extremely refreshing. Again, the staff...
  • Was well-trained and knowledgeable
  • Was friendly and courteous
  • Took their time to explain everything
  • Highlighted important information, including their phone number, on the invoice
The Living Spaces tagline is "Buy It Today, Enjoy It Tonight," but since we had plans that evening, I scheduled the delivery for the next day. The cashier was able to give a 6-hour window for the delivery but promised a called from the delivery team later that evening with a smaller delivery window.

As a thank you for our patience and for the purchase, they offered a choice of a t-shirt (USC or UCLA) or a ball (football, basketball, or soccer ball). I grabbed a t-shirt, and we were on our way.

The Delivery
This is the part I think you'll really love! As promised, I got a call on Saturday evening with my specific 3-hour delivery window. Not only did I get a call, but I also got an email, which included a link to click to confirm my delivery. The email is great because it also provides instructions on what to do if I have questions or concerns, e.g., that delivery window doesn't work.

I clicked the link and was pleased to see a note on the confirmation page that said that I could come back to that page the next morning to see the status of my delivery. I wasn't quite sure what that meant at the moment, but I definitely planned to check it out. I had told the boys I would take them to see a movie in the morning and needed to plan the day accordingly.

On Sunday morning, I clicked the link and found this.

Wow! I was so impressed! I could definitely plan my day with that. I checked the status throughout the morning and discreetly while in the movie theater. We were going to be back with time to spare. And shortly before the delivery, the driver called to let me know they were 5-10 minutes away. Now that's service!

The delivery went smoothly.  Lots of kudos here for...
  • Great communication
  • Including the Customer Service number
  • Clean and friendly delivery personnel
  • Speedy delivery and setup
  • Taking care not to smash my walls
  • Cleaning up after themselves
I was happy, and the furniture worked perfectly in the room. Unfortunately, while I had checked the furniture and even signed off that the furniture was damage-free, after the delivery team left, I found a large ding/tear on the corner of one of the arms of the sofa. I immediately called Customer Service.

The Customer Service Call
I didn't have to dig around for the Customer Service number because it was highlighted for me on the invoice. The customer service rep who answered the phone asked me to take a picture of the tear and email it to her along with my order number. She promised to call me back within an hour of receiving the picture. She kept her promise and decided that the tear was too large to just repair; they would do an exchange instead. They could deliver it the next day. I wasn't available on Monday, but we scheduled the delivery for Tuesday afternoon.

Again, great things occurred:
  • Make it easy for the customer
  • Don't question the issue
  • Be responsive
  • Fix the problem
Being on par in terms of price and quality only gets you into the game. Service wins the game.
-Tony Allesandra

The Post-Transaction Survey
On Monday morning, I received a survey asking about my experience. The cashier had let me know that I'd be getting a survey, and I must say that this part is the only thing that I didn't like about the entire experience. The cashier handed me a piece of paper (see image to left) with a copy of the survey (yes, it needs help); as you can see, the answers are highlighted (all 10s, of course). While she didn't say, "Please give us all 10s," she might as well have. This is a big no-no.

1. Don't give customers a copy of the survey.
2. Don't circle the answers on said copy.
3. Don't ask/beg for all 10s (or whatever the highest rating is).

The timing of the survey was great, i.e., the day after the delivery. Of course, had their systems all been talking, they would have waited until after my exchange. But experience tells me that they probably sent a file with all their closed/delivered business for the day to their survey vendor on Saturday night, without waiting for information about follow-up issues. I did not get a second survey (after the exchange).

The Exchange
The exchange was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, and the best way I can sum it up is: lather, rinse, repeat.  I got the call with my 3-hour delivery window, followed up with the email, which I again used to track the progress of my delivery. The good news here is that they have...
  • Consistent processes (sets expectations)
  • Consistency in people (great attitudes, friendly, helpful)
Was the survey difficult to complete? No. Ultimately, it was a great experience, from purchase through delivery and exchange, and I'd be happy to recommend Living Spaces.

You’ll never have a product or price advantage again; they can be easily duplicated. But a strong customer service culture can’t be copied. -Jerry Fritz

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Employee Recognition Gone Wrong

"Time is running out to nominate a United employee for excellent service," said no one, ever.

Oh, wait. Someone actually did say it! Click the image to the left to see an email I received from United a couple of weeks ago telling me exactly that.

This email is wrong on so many levels. Where to begin?

Let's start with the most basic, which is the level of service United (i.e., their people) delivers. I've written two blog posts (The Experience Speaks Louder Than Words and Are We There Yet?) about my less-than-stellar experiences with United, but you and I both know that there are a ton of other examples of bad service at the hands of United staff.

I know there are plenty of examples from American, JetBlue, Ryanair, and other airlines, too, lest you think I'm just picking on United. Take a look at some of these; United has done a great job of angering its passengers in a variety of ways:

An Open Letter To Jeff Smisek, President Of United Airlines
An Open Letter to CEO Jeff Smisek On United Airlines’ Blasphemous Safety Video
United Breaks Guitars ... which led to the startup Gripevine
An Open Letter to United Airlines
And one more... An Open Letter to United Airlines

United earned the the distinct honor of being America's Meanest Airline 2012 by having the highest rate of consumer complaints in 2011. In the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), United ranked dead last.

I could go on and on. You get the picture. Just google "an open letter to United," and the results are endless. But that's not the real point of this post, is it? No, not really. But it is important to the subject at hand: employee recognition.

How do the two relate? Very nicely. Those very employees that United has asked us to recognize for a job well done are the very same employees who earned them all of these complaints. Do they really think that a mea culpa from their CEO a couple months ago results in an immediate turnaround and a United Love Fest?

Employee recognition is a crucial part of any culture focused on the customer experience and, more importantly, the employee experience. Employee recognition rewards a specific action, behavior, or result that is tied to company values or to the brand promise. Employees' actions must be driven by a specific guiding light; as such, those actions done well in support of that guiding light must be appreciated, recognized, and rewarded.

Recognizing employees for delivering outstanding service sends a clear message that...
  • the employee's contributions are valued, and
  • the employee is living the brand promise 
Employee recognition is...
  • Fair
  • Consistent
  • Not subjective
  • Not a game

But let's take a look at the United email and call out some "Glamour don'ts." (Sorry, gentlemen. If you don't know what that is, please google it! Make sure you look at the Images. They will be amusing.)

It appears that United has turned this into a contest. But not just any old contest; it appears to be a marketing promotion that gets travelers to download their app, with a chance to win prizes. Wait a minute. Is this about recognizing the employee for a job well done, or not? I'm confused. I've never gotten an email like this before, from an airline or from any other company, for that matter.

Without great employees you can never have great customer service-Richard F. Gerson

Breaking Down the Email
Here's how you'll know this is nothing but a marketing ploy.

I have 10 days to nominate an employee. In the real world, employee recognition has no time limit. Of course, it's best when it's fresh and as close to the actual behavior being recognized as possible. (My last flight on United was almost two months ago.)

The name of the program is Outperform Recognition Program. This is interesting. The program "rewards eligible employees who provide excellent service and the eligible MileagePlus members who nominate them." So only eligible employees can be nominated, and only eligible members can nominate. In the real world, anyone can recognize. Anyone can be recognized.

The program ends soon. There is no end to employee recognition. If I, as a peer or as a customer, want to recognize an employee, I can do it at any time.

I'm told to "be sure to make any nominations using your Apple or Android device." Employee recognition doesn't come in the form of a nomination. When I think "nomination," I think someone is going to  review my service story and decide whether or not the employee will be recognized. Again, if you want to recognize an employee, any and all can be recognized. And employees should receive all feedback, good or bad. Managers shouldn't pick and choose what to share.

And why must I use my smartphone? Of course, to download their app.

There are prizes. Since when do we give prizes to customers who recognize employees for a job well done? If you have a great experience and want to recognize the employee who delivered it, do it because it's the right thing to do, not because you might win roundtrip airfare for two.

I wanted "complete information," so I went to the website listed at the bottom of the email. In order to nominate someone, I must have the employee's ID number. And, again, I must use the United app or the mobile website. What if I don't have the ID? It's a required field in the submission process. Well, they have a solution for that:

If you are using the latest version of the app, you’ll see a bar code button that allows you to scan the back of the employee’s badge rather than typing in their 4-digit employee number. Select the bar code button and follow the prompts. 

I can't even picture that. Are you kidding me?

If you want employees to be recognized by your customers, make it easy for them to do it. Allow them to do it in whatever format (snail mail, webform, email, social media, phone call, etc.) they want to. Don't inhibit it by putting unnecessary rules around it.

Using the mobile app, I can only enter 120 characters max about my "Service Story." Really? That's less than a tweet! What can I possibly say about the experience within that limitation?

There are sweepstakes rules and information. Sixteen employees are randomly chosen to win a prize, and the people who nominated the winning employees also have a chance to win something. The beauty of recognition is that, really, that's the prize. That feeling of being appreciated and valued for your contributions is the prize. (I'm OK with rewards. That's fine. They just need to be consistent. I don't like the idea of having a drawing for the reward.)

Just above the legal disclaimer, there's a sentence that reads: "Thanks for choosing United. As a loyal United customer, you’re important to us, and we want you to let us know when our employees do an excellent job serving you." That's great. You just have to be OK with telling us on our terms.

And finally, nowhere on the page does it say what they actually do with the recognition and feedback. Yes, I will just have to imagine that it does end up back with the employees and that the employees are truly recognized and feel valued and appreciated. But with limited character space to write a good story, I'm just not convinced this program really adds any value.

The Bottom Line
It's great that you want employees to be recognized for stellar service. But focus first on ensuring that your employees are living the brand and treating customers right. First. Recognition will come out of that.

Don't disguise a marketing ploy as something it's not, especially something like employee recognition, something that should be taken more seriously by companies at a time when employee engagement is at an all-time low. And at a time when customer service is so bad that customers are writing open letters to the airline - and the airline issues an open apology to customers - marketing under the guise of an employee recognition program is pretty shady.

Whether you are big or small, you cannot give good customer service if your employees don’t feel good about coming to work. -Martin Oliver, MD Kwik-Fit Financial Services