Friday, July 27, 2012

Sunny days and good service

It was early in the morning on a Friday. Myself and two of my sailing mates were getting ready to depart for the trip down to Saint JohnI was planning a cruise into the Bay of Fundy the next day. Unfortunately my boat had other plans. Around 100m off of the wharf I discovered that a large amount of water was coming into the boat. My exhaust system had let go.

This problem could have spelled the end of my weekend on the water. Although it did change my plans somewhat, thanks to a couple of helpful local companies I was back on the water the following day. 

Company #1 was Oromocto Plumbing & Heating. They were my supplier of all of the brass fittings that I needed to repair my boat. However, they didn't have the facilities to build the injection pipe that I also needed. The wonderful woman that worked at the store knew that they couldn't do the job but she insisted on calling every metal working company in Oromocto that might be able to help. She must have made a dozen calls before she happened on J&P Auto. She could have just as easily sent us off on our own but instead she went above and beyond. 

Company #2 was J & P Auto Repair. At 4:00pm, on a sunny Friday afternoon, I fully expected to be told that I would have to wait until Monday. Instead, these guys not only latched onto my project as a challenge but also stayed until 1/2 hour after closing to finish the job. They charged a very low price and did excellent work.  

Companies that provide this type of service deserve huge credit. Thanks to their efforts I was able to finish my repair and get back on the water the next day. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mapping my mind with XMind

Mind mapping software is on my mind. 

I've always really liked the idea of Mind Mapping software. I like the idea of capturing ideas in an unrestricted way. Too many software packages force you to conform to the working style and thinking style of their vision.  The reality is that nobody shares exactly the same way of thinking.

The premise of Mind Mapping software is that it is free form and adapts to the user's mind, instead of the other way around. Obviously this is a little Utopian since every software has some sort of constraints but the goal is a good one. 

I've experimented briefly with various vendor's mind mapping software but they never really clicked with me. I think part of my problem has been my reluctance to purchase a piece of software (most aren't cheap) without trying it first. Most of the demos that are offered, by the major brands, are not full functioned and so you don't get a good feeling for what the software is capable of in a real life scenario. You end up not using the demo and then losing interest.

Recently I re-stumbled on XMind. It is an open source mind mapping software that has come a long way recently. It is essentially free software. You only pay if you want to use the collaboration or custom theme functionality.  I haven't found a need for either.

I have been working on a medium length project for the last 2 months that I thought would be a good test bed for the software. I have been immensely happy with the results.

I have been using XMind as the central repository for all information about the project. This includes all technical data, project management information, email references and my own conceptual thinking.

The product is very intuitive to use and has a very easy learning curve. Not only that, most functions are available through keyboard shortcuts so navigation and map creation is fast and easy. 

I have found that by using a combination of internal notes and linked documents I can keep everything organized in a way that makes it easy to keep track of the information and relate disparate data. 

I didn't think that I would use the "marker" functionality (icons) because they look a little clunky but I have actually found that they are invaluable. They give me a quick reference for the statuses of different parts of the project and let me mark risk items so they don't get forgotten.

One functionality that I have found clunky with XMind is attaching or linking to files. Intuitively I want to be able to drag and drop files into my mind map. Unfortunately this can only be done in XMind by navigating a file menu. I hope that functionality is on the short track for inclusion because it would make life much easier. 

The notes functionality is also a little clunky and would be well served to have an improved editor or integration with Word as an editor. 

I am sold on XMind and I am going to continue to use it for all of my information management needs. It is my replacement for Evernote, which I have recently uninstalled.

Have you tried a mind mapping software? What did you like or dislike about it? Do you still use it? Comment below.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Give an accurate ETA

Accurate ETAs help your customers manage their busy schedules. They will appreciate you for it.

Image: photostock /

Whether you are delivering a critical component in a just-in-time manufacturing process, you are providing a business process analysis report, or you are cutting a lawn for a customer, your customers need to have an ETA that is accurate.

The interesting thing about an ETA is that it isn't nearly as important to the person giving it. The ETA is primarily important to the person receiving it. It is easy to think that your particular task isn't important enough for a solid time commitment. That is a mistake.

Take the example of a lawn keeper. Is it really important that the customer know specifically when their lawn is going to be trimmed. Most times, probably not. But what if the customer is planning an outdoor wedding and needs to have your task completed in time for the setup to happen? It is your customer's priorities that determine the importance of the task.

When you are giving an ETA, be realistic or even pessimistic. There are few things that annoy customers more than being late for a deadline. Even if the deadline isn't important to them, it will still be irritating. Setting a deadline with the expectation of pushing it back is setting yourself up for failure.

Ask your customer how important the task is to them. It will help you prioritize the task in your schedule and might change your delivery date.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Is it Evernote or Nevernote?

Evernote, like the elephants that their logo is based on, is great at remembering things. Unfortunately, I use elephants as a reference just as often...
Image: YaiSirichai /
I really like the idea of Evernote. A single place to put all of the notes, pictures, websites, and everything else in your life. What could be better?

I've "used" Evernote for approximately 3 years now. I faithfully clip items and store them in the software, I save webpages, I take pictures of things I might want to reference. I also downloaded the iPhone App and snap pictures on the go into it.

I do all of the things that Evernote is supposed to be good for, except one. I don't actually reference any of that material, ever. 

Why not? Well, I've discovered a few things about the product.

  • It is great at searching, but poor at displaying results.
I find trying to find specific items in the Evernote annoying. Results are cluttered and hard to quickly scan for the right result.
  • It isn't good at showing relationships
A lot of information that I store is only useful if the relationships can be quickly seen between the individual bits. Evernote pukes out all of the bits without any of the context that makes them useful.
  • It isn't great at taking or manipulating screenshots.
The Evernote screenshot utility borderlines on useless compared to other tools. I have completely switched to Screenpresso for taking and manipulating screenshots. (That is a great utility by the way.) It integrates into Evernote as well.
  • It doesn't organize thoughts well.
I am a recent convert to XMind (mindmapping software) as a way to gather thoughts. I find that my mind works in a [loosely] structured way. Searching for my thoughts proves difficult in Evernote. Perusing for my thoughts in XMind is much more intuitive.
  • Information gets stale.
At first I liked the idea of saving websites for future reference. But, I quickly realized that most of the information on websites is organic and continues to be updated and improved. In most cases the information that I want will either still be available online or a better version will be available next time I want it. 

So what are the alternatives?
I use XMind for gathering thoughts, project information and design ideas, I use Screenpresso for taking screenshots, and I use the original sites for web content. Anything else can live in email, browser links, or documents. 

I'd say that I'm switching to these alternatives but the truth is that I never really switched to Evernote in the first place. It is the equivalent to the pile of paper on my desk that will never get organized or used in any meaningful way. Maybe I should recycle that stuff too...

Question: Are you an Evernote fan? Give me your positive or negatives feelings about Evernote below? 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Show you care by focusing on the mundane details

There are few things as frustrating as a service provider that just doesn't care.

We've all had countless experiences like this:

  • Your meal comes to you half cold at a restaurant.
  • Your cable installation guy shows up 3 hours late.
  • You are made to wait an hour past your appointment time at the dentist because they overbooked.
Or, in my case this morning...
  • Your newspaper delivery guy throws your paper underneath your car, in an [F'ing] slush puddle.
These annoyances happen because individuals are going through the (often mundane) tasks of life and forgetting that there is someone at the other end being affected. 

Today, as you are going through your own routines, take a moment to think about what you are doing. Do the extra effort to show your customers that you care. 

Question: What small thing can you do differently today to improve your service?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Crap service

You know that you have good customer service when people rave about your service in an open forum.

I need a new head for my sailboat (that's a toilet for you land-lubbers out there). I won't get into the particulars of the why or the how, since that is the realm of my other blog, but suffice it to say that this is not an optional purchase. What is optional is my choice of replacements.

After a long and arduous research project (I tend to over analyze buying decisions) I decided to purchase a composting toilet rather than the standard store & pump-out variety. As with most products, there are a variety of vendors to choose from. They range from the inexpensive (around $500) to more elaborate and costly (around $3000). While there are definitely technical differences between them, they all accomplish the same [foul] task. 

So, how did I decide on a vendor? Google, of course. I read many reviews of these contraptions on forums and discussion groups. 

Out of my research came two obvious conclusions:
  1. Everyone that has installed a composting toilet is happy with their decision. 
  2. Everyone that dealt with the vendor Airhead Composting Toilets was exceedingly happy with their service.
You know that you have good customer service when people rave about their service experiences in an open forum. 

I can back up those claims by my dealings with Airhead. I had a few questions about installation space requirements and he was very prompt in responding, asked for clarifications before making a recommendation, and even offered to do a AutoCAD diagram of how it would look. 

The Airhead is more costly than their main competitor, which is similar in design by most accounts, but I am moving ahead with my Airhead purchase. I would rather buy from a vendor that has proven they have good service. 

Lesson of the day, if you are in the business of giving crap service, give good service and you will win the customers.

Question: How important is good service to your buying decisions? Comment below.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Customers love flexibility

Flexibility can be difficult to pull off, but your customers will love you for it. 

Let's face it, customers are fickle beasts. Their taste change, their time lines change, and (too often) their requirements change. As service providers we need to do our best to keep up with this.

There are really only two options for dealing with changes:

  • Block them
  • Roll with them
Just because there are only two choices doesn't mean that it will be an easy decision. It shouldn't be. Every time you are presented with a change from a customer you need to really think about the impact of that change and make sure that it will work for you and your customer. 

The worst thing that you can do is try to accommodate a change that you can't execute. 

A prime example, I am currently working on a project for a customer that is scheduled for 6 weeks. But the customer has some issues with the project that are going to push the timeline out by a couple more weeks. 

Do I block the change, and force the timeline, or do I try to accommodate? It would be easy to block. "Sorry but this is the project schedule and I am going to stick with it." If my schedule was booked solid with back-to-back projects I might have to block this change. I wouldn't want to impact other customer projects because of this one. 

In this case, because I don't normally do project work, I have the luxury of being flexible. I can push the schedule however the client needs. There will definitely be some pain associated with push it since I do have a "day job" but it is not unreasonable. This will make the client's life easier and they will appreciate the effort. 

It isn't always this easy to accommodate, usually it is much more difficult, but the clients really appreciate it. As a rule I always try to accommodate changes, unless there is a compelling reason not to. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Be a clean inbox zealot

Look around at yourself and your colleagues, I bet that there is a strong correlation between inbox cleanliness and responsiveness.

Storage is cheap these days. Many corporate and internet services now offer huge email storage plans. Why delete email? You virtually never need to clean your inbox again. That's great, right?

I have two email boxes, my personal email uses GMail and my business email uses an internal corporate service.

On my GMail account I hardly ever delete anything. I can always go back, do a search and find it. There are few things in my personal box that are truly critical. If something gets missed down the list it isn't such a big deal. But, it is a mess.

I treat my business account different. Since I have a lot of critical, time sensitive tasks that pass through my inbox, and because it is my task list, I can't just keep letting it pile up. If I do, I lose things. If you receive dozens or hundreds of messages a day it doesn't take long for an important one to slip too far down the scroll bar list to remember.

I am a clean inbox zealot. I learned this skill from my CEO, who also swears by it.  It is my obsession to keep my inbox below 20 items. The ultimate goal is having no scroll bar! If it stays below that level I can usually keep a handle on what is going on. Past that and things start piling up.

Look around at yourself and your colleagues, I bet that there is a strong correlation between inbox cleanliness and responsiveness.

I'm not saying that you should delete all of you messages. That isn't practical.

I used to be a folder organizer. I had a stack of folders in my mail client for every conceivable topic. That worked well but it was a lot of effort. Since search programs are so good now I have switched to a super simple folder structure.

  • Inbox
    • Daily Operations
    • HR
    • Projects
Everything gets sorted into one of the three sub-folders as soon as it is actioned. With the magic of Outlook's conversation view I can sort emails away and they pop back into the conversation when I get a reply.

Question: How do you keep up with your inbox? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Focusing on the important things when they are important

I haven't written a post in nine days. I would like to write at least two a week. Have I failed?

When I started this blog I committed to myself that I would keep it in focus and give it attention. It is a method for me to share my views on service management and business. It is also an important tool for focusing my own thoughts on how I want to do things and improve my own business. It is important. But, is it the most important thing on my priority list? No. Is it more important than some other life priorities? Yes, sometimes.

It is important to take the time to think about your priorities, short and long term. Make a list, mentally or actually so that you can understand where your priorities are. However, don't keep it as a rigid list, allow it to change with the situation. 

I haven't written a post in nine days. I would like to write at least two a week. Have I failed? I don't think so. I think it is a failure if a priority is missed because I couldn't be bothered, didn't remember or chose to work on a lower priority issue because another one seems too difficult.

Let me be clear, I definitely do drop the ball sometimes on personal priorities. But I am trying to improve that. I am trying to be more focused on achieving my goals methodically. 

I am happy about not writing this past week because I achieved some higher priority items and I was conscious about not doing this one. That, I think, is step 1. 

My priority list this past week? (Family and business are always assumed to take top positions)
  1. Scouting event
  2. Fitness
  3. Home renovations
  4. Blogging
  5. Music
  6. Sailing
Next week I am bumping out Scouting to the bottom and moving the rest up. I keep sailing on the list always  because it reminds me of my long term goal of cruising. I should always be working towards that goal, even in the winter!

What tricks do you have for keeping your personal priority list straight? What are your top priorities? Comment below.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The 3 P's of Presenting

There are few skills more useful in business and life than good presentation skills. 

Yesterday evening I spent a couple of hours working with my son on a presentation for school. They had to present on any topic, but it had to be in the format of: "The 3 S's of Something". Where the S and the Something were open to whatever the student wanted.

This was an interesting process. Not because of the subject that my son chose but because it really got me thinking about the fundamentals of presenting to groups.

The topic that he came up with was: "The 3 F's of Food: Friendship, Fresh & Festivity". As a growing 14yr old, my son certainly understands his subject!

I have done a lot of presentations. Most of these have been at conferences or as a consultant to project stakeholders. I've learned what works and what doesn't work when talking to groups. Talking about security  (my specialty as a consultant) there are a lot of opportunities for your audience's eyes to glaze over. Good presentation skills are key.

So, to keep with the format that my son is constrained to, I give you: "The 3 P's of presenting"

The most important things in any presentation is the initial preparation. You need to know your subject, know your audience and know your venue.

Without a thorough knowledge of your subject you will be lost. You will spend the presentation reading notes instead of engaging with your audience. If you know your subject well you will speak from your heart, instead of your paper. The audience will appreciate it.

Knowing your audience is key. If you know your audience you can tailor your subject to them and use examples that ring true. It is much more compelling if you can use the word "you" instead of the words "I" or "some people" in your examples. "You gather with your friends at lunch to socialize. People all around the world do the same as you, that is the power of food."

Your presentation venue should play a big  role in the type of presentation that you will do. If you are presenting in a large hall with 200 people the same techniques won't work that will if you were presenting to a group of 10 around a table.  For a class of 25 grade 9 students, things should be kept fairly loose and interactive.

People will pay attention to your presentation if they can relate to the topic. If you are lucky enough to know your audience ahead of time, plan to present in a way that engages them personally.

If you don't know your audience, try to understand the event and generalize about the type of attendee that might show up.

If you don't know anyone before the event, try to meet at least one person before you start presenting. Use them as an example. People appreciate the personalization, even if it is just someone in the same room as them. "Joanne celebrates Hanuka with her family. Food like latkas are an important part of the tradition."

Presence is all about being (or at least looking!) confident.
  • Stand with good posture or walk confidently around the stage. 
  • Don't fidget.
  • Speak slowly and clearly.
  • Don't use "umm", "like" and other fillers.
  • Look at the audience and engage them visually. Talk to them individually.
  • Entertain.
Armed with these tips my son should be able to pull of a successful presentation to his peers. I have tried to instill in him the importance of public speaking as a skill. There are few skills more useful in business and life than good presentation skills. 

Do you have tips for doing good presentations? Another "P" maybe? Comment below.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Penalizing returning customers. Bad idea.

Want to lose a customer quickly? Charge them $390 for returning as a customer!

Yes, that scenario is real.

Some companies have such a feeling of self importance that they think that it is a privilege for their customers to be served by them.

We have a small business client that uses a particular IT appliance in their environment. We were the reseller of that appliance and we continue to support them. Today, during the process of a normal software maintenance renewal, the vendor of this appliance came back to us with a quote of $293 dollars for the support of this appliance plus a "support synchronization fee" (late fee) of $390.

Now, I understand that there is some difficulty that arises from a customer that doesn't renew their support on time, and there is a cost to that. However, when the cost for the late fee is 1/3 more than the actual support cost. That's crazy.

To make things worse, this support is for a device that costs approximately $600 to buy new. So, that comes out to $683 for support on a $600 device. Nice.

We obviously couldn't put this in front of the customer. Small businesses today are struggling to keep their heads above the water and an unnecessary fee like this is not fair.

Our account rep went back to the vendor to argue our case. It took several communications, and an escalation to our partner manager, but eventually they removed the fee. That's great, but it should not have come to this.

Charging late fees to returning customers is ridiculous. If they were the only game in town they might get away with it. But they aren't. In two years, when the appliance is ready for refresh, we will be shopping around for better service from a vendor that wants the business.

Have any good example of bad customer fees? Comment below.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Not allowing negative comments. That's one strategy, I guess.

I am currently helping to organize a charity Adventure Race with my scouting Venturer group. One of the key items required for this type of a race are quality topographical maps. Since not all of the current trails are on the standard maps (the topo maps in our region haven't been updated since 1983) we need to customize the map with current trails and our checkpoints. 

This isn't a quick or easy task but I finally completed my customized map this week using an online tool. Phew, task complete. Now all that is left is to simply order the map and wait for it to arrive. 

Not so fast, the service that I've chosen to use (there aren't a lot to choose from) has issues in their online ordering process. I wasn't able to properly preview the map before ordering it and when it did preview, there were mistakes. 

I work in the technology industry so I understand that there are bugs in systems. I can deal with that and I am pretty patient. 

I dutifully created a service ticket online and began the waiting process. It has now been 3 days since my initial request and I am no further ahead in getting this map ordered. I have received two marginally helpful emails in response but each has taken over a day to land in my inbox. Meanwhile I wait, credit card in hand, hoping for the chance to give this company my group's hard earned money.

At the bottom of each of the support emails is a link (see image above) asking for feedback. Since I am starting to get annoyed at my service time, I decided that I should give some feedback. 

Now, I admit, the link does say "Give [insert name here] kudos!" And, I do understand what the word kudos means, but, I assumed that the link would forward me to a survey, an email form or at least a star based rating system. That would be a normal way of asking for feedback.

Nope, the link does exactly what it says. Instead of actually giving me a feedback forum I was presented with this page. I had actually given a kudos. 

Apparently, I am not able to actually give critical feedback. I managed to inadvertently give positive feedback.

I guess this is one way to improve your customer satisfaction metrics. It has done nothing to improve my actual satisfaction though.

I am heading to our local Department of Natural Resources office to buy a paper map so that I can update it the old fashioned way. How is that for feedback?

Monday, February 6, 2012

That is one ugly process

Do you have of a process that is ugly? One that is ineffective, time consuming,complicated or costly. 

We sometimes let these processes slide along because we don't have time to make them right, aren't sure of what "right" is or we assume that people can work well enough within that bad process. The job will get done, right?

It is easy to slide along letting an ugly process continue.

An ugly process caused several people on my team grief this weekend (myself included).  One person made a mistake and missed a step in a poor process that occurred months ago, things fell apart.

So how do we recover from this? First, we accept responsibility. Second, we fix the ugly process.

I have a great team that does great work. My job is to enable them with good processes and clear goals. Good processes aren't a guarantee but they can sometimes head off failures.

I don't have the answer yet for this specific ugly process, but I'm working on it. If you have an ugly process, put down what you are doing and work on fixing it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Blue tape - Masking processes

"Blue tape is the start of something new." --Craig Jarrow

There is an excellent blog post at Time Management Ninja talking about red tape and using the comparison of "Blue tape" (painters tape).

[You should read that article first...I'll wait here for you to return]
[Ok, back to my comments]

I really like this analogy. Painters tape is exactly the analogy that we should be striving for as a goal for our processes and policies.

We use processes and policies as a way to provide consistency, repeat-ability and quality control. However, what often happens is that these documents become handcuffs for our staff. They stop them from being creative with their problem solving.

I am not suggesting that we should get rid of processes and policies. Processes are a necessary evil and most organizations need them to maintain regulatory compliance, best practices, quality control and good service. Without any processes or policies I think we would lose some very important qualities.

The other advantage of good policies and processes is that they can remove unnecessary decision points from peoples jobs. If staff aren't repeating the same decision points over and over they can focus on the new problems at hand.

If our policies and processes are used as masking agents they can provide the security required but still leaving the staff room for creative problem solving.

What do you think? How can we maintain processes but keep productivity and staff engagement high? Comment below.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Is geography a thing of the past? I don't think so.

"If you know how to use technology to your advantage, geography is a thing of the past." --Peter Shankman
Image: jscreationzs /
I saw this posted on Twitter this morning and it got my brain turning. I really like the concept but I don't think it tells the whole story.

I manage the operations at an IT services company. Our bread and butter is providing remote technical support to business customers all over the world. Our service model works very well and we have excellent customer satisfaction ratings.

However, there is a percentage of our customers that do not want remote service. They want a person to sit with them and guide them through the process. They want to be able to look someone in the eye to gauge the sincerity of a solution or offering. These people will usually take remote support if that is the only option but it is not their preference.

I can relate to this feeling.

I have similar issues with online purchasing. I have a real mental block when it comes to buying items on eBay. I understand the security and technology (I am also a security consultant) and I believe that the security is reasonable. But, when it comes to laying my money on the line, I much prefer being able to look at a product myself and judge the trustworthiness of the seller in person.

This is the reason that I tend to buy a lot of my items on Kijiji instead. It gives me that in-person comfort.

I don't have the same hangups when it comes to purchasing new products. I regularly shop online for new items from reputable deals.

Maybe that is the difference, commodity products or services have an inherent trust value that lends them to remote service. The trust in the commodity service out-ways the distrust of geographic removal.

I'm not sure that any amount of technology will appease my tinfoil-hat-wearing-mind. We will continue to provide remote support and I will continue to buy things online but I expect that there will always be a certain disconnect that technology can't fix.

What do you think about technology removing geographic boundaries? How much is truth and how much is myth?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Nothing kills motivation like monotony

Nothing kills motivation like monotony 

I spent this past weekend winter camping with my Venture Company (2nd Nashwaaksis Venturers). The main activity that we had for the weekend was to complete the planning for our upcoming adventure race (The Nine Toe Winter Run). The race is a 5 hour orienteering race, on snowshoes. Our task this weekend was to complete a run through of the advanced course.

The advanced course is designed so that we could complete it at a fast hike, knowing where the checkpoints are located, within 7 hours. That would give us a course distance that should be appropriate for a fast racer with good navigation skills to complete it in 5 hours.

We started hiking the course at 5pm on Saturday evening. The first couple of hours were easy going and we didn't have any motivation problems. As the hours started dragging on, and as the kilometers started racking up, the team's motivations started to wain. The mental stress of doing nothing, but putting one foot in front of the other, was too much. It was turning from a nice night hike into a looooong walk.

We came to a crossroads where we had a choice, take a longer detour and follow a highway back to our camp or bushwhack on a direct route. Many of the guys wanted to take the highway because it was predicable and easier. However, we convinced them to do the bushwhacking instead. It was a quicker route and it would be more interesting. A 10km detour on the highway sounded like a death march.

As it turns out, the first part of this bushwhack was very hard. The bush was thick and the woods were pitch black. We were literally crawling through some of the bush.

The interesting thing about this was the effect that it had on moral. Instead of dragging their feet and complaining, the guys were stoked. We were yelling and laughing and charging through the underbrush like madmen. We were faster in that brutal section than we were in any of the actual trail sections. We ended the hike invigorated ...but slept well!

Whether in the bush or at a desk, the best motivation is a challenging task.

Question: What strategies have you used for motivating people?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Celebrate publicly, challenge privately

The tenet "Celebrate publicly, challenge privately" speaks succinctly to the vision of what I want this blog to be.

I was reading a blog post over at about influencing people. [Interesting piece.] A quote at the bottom of the article reads, "Celebrate publicly, challenge privately". I had never heard the quote before but it struck me as salient. The context of Tim's usage of the quote was around gaining influence with authority figures but I think that it is more generally a useful concept.

This tenet speaks succinctly to the vision of what I want this blog will be. I started this blog because of a good service story. I think that it is important to publicly celebrate good service and good corporate citizens. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I don't think it is usually helpful to publicly humiliate or bash a company for specific issues. Every business has issues, the key is to give helpful criticism and encourage them to change.

What if giving pleasant, constructive feedback doesn't work? There are many stories about companies needing to be shamed into good behavior. Dave Caroll and his United Breaks Guitars song is an excellent example of this. Unfortunately, not all companies make the right decisions about customer service. With Twitter, YouTube and the many social media outlets available, the story will get out.

I have been intentionally vague about the specific businesses when criticizing bad service experiences but I do try to go back directly to give my feedback. I have likewise been intentional in my public positive feedback. I will continue to keep this soft approach where I can.

What do you think? Is "Celebrate publicly, challenge privately" the right track? Or, is shaming the right tactic?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Feedback is gold...if you receive it.

Getting bad feedback sucks. Not getting the bad feedback is worse.

Recently I had a meal at a local restaurant. The restaurant has a great reputation, has won awards, has had articles written about it and everyone talks about it. I have eaten their previously with good success.

Yesterday, however, my meal was substandard. My Wild Mushroom Risotto was bland, over-cooked and the portion was too small. I'm not looking for a mammoth, over-consumption-sized meal but I would like to not have to eat a sandwich after my meal. I'm not looking for gourmet but this place is supposed to be pretty high caliber, in our little city.

Did I complain to the server, no. I was with a client and didn't want to create a scene over something as simple as over cooked rice. I wanted to keep the focus of the meal on the client, instead of my plate of mush.

The problem is, the restaurant now has no idea that a customer has gone away unimpressed. This is the worst case scenario for a business.

As a business, I want to know when my customers aren't impressed. I want to know if our service was slow, sloppy or expensive. I want to, at least, apologize for the inadequacy if I can't rectify it. I want to prevent it from happening again.

It isn't always best to complain at the moment that the bad service is happening. However, take the time after-the-fact to jot down your experience or pick up the phone and call about it. If the owner has an appreciation for the importance of service, they will appreciate the feedback.

If you are a business owner, embrace negative comments as a way to improve. Realize that the act of complaining might have been uncomfortable for the client and they probably had a good reason for making it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

DIY is not a four letter word

Sometimes people want to do things themselves.

As I've previously described, I am in the middle of a bathroom renovation. Doing this project myself is not a rational decision. I am much less skilled than a professional, it will take me infinitely longer and it the cost in the end will probably be comparable to hiring a pro.

On a recent hardware store visit, I was dealing with [another] tricky plumbing problem. Old lead pipe welded to a brass fitting that needs to connect to my bathtub drain in a short space.

I described my situation to the sales person at the first store. They responded, "You can't do this yourself. Call a plumber". This is sound advice. However, it completely misses the point. I came to a DIY store specifically so that I could try this myself. Of course I would call a plumber if I couldn't figure it out in the end but this seemed like a reasonable problem to attempt.

The next store took a different approach. The sales woman listened to my problem, told me that "it might be tricky" but offered a few suggestions to try and some pieces that might fit my puzzle.

It worked...although it was tricky and it was time consuming.

In the IT business I see this all of the time. Customers want to do certain aspects of their IT services themselves. You can try to sell the benefits of using professional services but in the end it is their cost versus benefit analysis. Sometimes the best deal is to be there in a supporting role. "Try it yourself and if you get into trouble give us a call."

If our house only had a single bathroom I would have called in the professionals from the start because my tolerance for "outages" would be much smaller. The same goes in others fields. If customers can tolerate slower recovery, more effort or (possibly) less professional results, it might make sense to do it themselves. When they decide that they are done messing around with the problem themselves, and if we have been supportive along the way, maybe we will win that business.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Local charity - Good causes and good marketing

People remember the good things that your business does. 
Giant Tiger #170 (Union St. Fredericton)
I was at a meeting last night and we were talking about buying food and supplies for an upcoming event. Someone at the table immediately piped up and said, "Giant Tiger will have all of that. Wayne is always good to us. Let's just go there."

Wayne Gallant is the manager of one of the Giant Tiger stores in Fredericton. (He also happens to be a close friend of mine and teammates in our adventure racing team, Team Bulletproof.)

One of the things that I find truly great about Giant Tiger (and specifically Wayne's store) is how much they give to the community. Hardly a week goes by where there isn't an announcement about a sponsorship or some other charity event that they are helping with.

For those of you not familiar, Giant Tiger (GT) is a Canadian discount store chain. Their specialty is rock bottom pricing. My expectation of a discount store, and it is probably common, would be that they need to keep costs to an absolute minimum and that things like community involvement would come a distant second. That doesn't seem to be the case with Giant Tiger. And it seems to be working for them.

Wayne has garnered a great deal of loyalty with the people that he supports. His support ranges from the IWK, Liberty Lane, local schools, Scouts and Girl Guides to a variety of sporting events like bike and running races. People who participate in these causes and events really appreciate his efforts and many pay it back in the form of loyalty to his store.

On the Giant Tiger website they state that they have "A progressive, value-oriented, no-nonsense approach to retailing." More companies should share these values. It pays off for the community and for the company. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

4 ways to do better problem escalation and transfers

Everyone can recount a story of calling some service provider and being bounced from department to department, agent to agent, and inevitably being hung-up on mid-transfer. 

One of the biggest pain points that I see in service oriented companies is problem improper escalation. A problem comes in, the person receiving it is busy, doesn't know exactly how to deal with it or just doesn't care enough. So, they simply forward the problem on to the next person they can think of.

Deflection is easy to justify in your mind. I am too busy, someone else probably has more time to deal with this, or they will be better equipped to handle this. Forward.

This causes two main pain points, first, it obviously causes extra delay to the customer, usually unnecessarily.   Secondly, it causes the next person in the chain annoyance. They might know that you could have handled the issue just as well as they can but you chose not to.

Unnecessary escalations are a major issue in customer and staff satisfaction.

How do we deal with this problem?

  1. Ask yourself truthfully before forwarding the problem, is there anything I can do to resolve this myself?
  2. When you do need to forward a problem, clearly explain to the recipient why you had to forward the problem and specifically what you have done. The last thing you want is for them to have to repeat any steps you have already done. 
  3. Explain to the customer, clearly, why you are transferring them. "I'm sorry but I really think that [insert name here] would be better suited to work on this issue." 
  4. If possible, do a soft hand-off of the customer. Join the recipient into the conversation before transferring. "Hello Jon, I have Mary on the phone. She is having this problem. Can you help?"
Customers understand that different people have different expertise. What they won't forgive is a blind circle of transfers. Co-workers understand that some problems require escalation. What they won't forgive is unnecessary transfers.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Turning customer demands into personal expectations

Most of us have customers that we consider "difficult". We use all sorts of adjectives to describe them. 

If you set aside personality differences (since we can't change those), difficult customers are often described with phrases like:

  • "They expect to much for what they are paying."
  • "They are never happy with us."
  • "Everything has to be done yesterday for them."
  • "All they do it point fingers." 
Customers are always going to fight for the best, fastest and cheapest. Some customers have personalities that make them more forceful and demanding. They often end up being seen as the "difficult" ones.

Given this, when we hear or say a comments like these about a customer, step back and consider; How can I turn that into a service goal rather than taking it as a personal attack? Perhaps they are being difficult in the way that they are interacting with you but there is probably some validity to their complaint.

Ask yourself these types of questions instead:
  • How can I give better value?
  • How can I improve my service standards?
  • How can we improve our response or turn around time?
  • How can I be more accountable for our service?
Remind yourself that the [insert expletive descriptor here] might be demanding, but there is probably something to what he is saying.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

4 tips - Keeping good service when times are tough

Stellar service is easy when the coffers are flush. 

Being in the black isn't a guarantee that you will have good service but it makes the job a lot easier. It is easier when there are no compromises required and when you can pull out all of the stops to satisfy the customer. Whether it is more perks, more staff or better systems. It is easy to have good service when there are no constraints.

Many companies today do not have this luxury. They have been forced to deal with constricting budgets, smaller work forces, and customers that (since they are probably also being squeezed) demand more for less.

As a service manager this is difficult. We all have a picture in our heads of what the best possible service is. If we are struggling to meet this ideal we take it personally. Likewise, it is equally difficult for the rest of the staff. They also have their ideas of what good service is (hopefully it jives with your own) and they also hurt when they aren't reaching their ideal.

What can we do to work through these tough service times?

  1. Everyone in the team needs to understand the situation. If everyone understands the constraints, they are more likely to work within them instead of against them. 
  2. Affirm the commitment to good service. The team needs to understand that the number one priority is still to satisfy the customer. 
  3. Streamline process as much as possible. I've discussed process before. It is important that they are only as complicated as required. Especially when short on resources. 
  4. Focus on the simple things that will make your customers happy. You might not be able to take every customer out for a round of golf or something more exciting but you might be able to provide a quick solution to a problem or make one of their daily tasks a little easier. Sometimes the little things have big impact.
Maintaining excellent service isn't a guarantee that business will improve but it might be the advantage that keeps you ahead of your competitors in tough times.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paying for knowledge

Me: "Can you help me with a plumbing question?"
Sales guy: "You can ask me anything, I know it all."
I am a do-it-yourself kind of guy. There are not many projects around the house that I won't attempt. Our current project is a bathroom refit. This isn't a minor paint job but a full gutting and rebuild. part of this obviously includes a significant amount of plumbing. I am no plumbing expert!

I have learned over the years that, like most businesses, some building supply stores are cheap and some of them have good service and expertise. The two rarely meet. Unfortunately I was lured into one of the large box stores by their cheap prices. I needed a lot of supplies and figured that I could save a buck.  

Since I knew that I needed help on my current (PEX vs copper) plumbing question I went directly to the stores "service desk". There was a young man (boy?) at the counter chatting with his co-worker (potential girlfriend?). So I ask him, "Can you help me with a plumbing question?". His reply was, a smug, "You can ask me anything, I know it all." 

Now, that response should have been enough to clue me into the fact that he would be useless, but I humored him. It took approximately 10 minutes for him to fumble through a "solution" to my problem. In the end he didn't have one that gave me any confidence that he knew what he was talking about.

Rather than settle for his half baked solution I decided to venture over to Simms Home Hardware. I know from experience that they are not the cheapest in town but that isn't what I needed right now. I needed a solution. 

They didn't disappoint, it took the man all of 30 seconds to hand me the 5 pieces that I needed to complete my project. He was confident, knew his subject and understood my problem. That is what I needed.

This experience was a firm reminder of why the cheapest price is not necessarily the best solution. It is hard to pass on cheaper prices but good advice pays off every time. 

If you are in a business that is not trying to be the lowest price in town, have good service and you will have me as a customer.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tim Hortons - Why go bigger?

Who am I to question the marketing savvy of Tim Hortons. After all, they are a Canadian institution. They are a cornerstone of Canada itself, right?

They have just launched a new endeavor to renew their cup sizes, increasing the size substantially, to compete with their competitors.

My first impression of this is that it was ridiculous. Why would a company that is incredibly successful in every market that it enters change itself to be more like its competitors? Then it struck me, they have saturated the market. They literally can't squeeze any more people into their stores.

If you have tried to stop for a coffee any morning, any time near 10am or any time mid-afternoon, you know that they are at capacity.

This begs the question, if I am a national chain that is at capacity for customers and I want to increase profits, what do I do? I make the existing customers buy more. I increase the sizes of the items.

This is a brilliant move for Tim Hortons. Although, it is probably bad for the health and well being of the gullible, over-caffeinated,  customers that will buy the new monster size drink being offered.

I think I'll go make myself another coffee.

I am not a problem, I am a customer

Remember that customers are not problems. They are your business. 

While on road trips I  try to eat reasonably healthy. I will regularly stop at a grocery store for a healthy alternative to the regular deep fried fair of the traveler.

On a recent stop at a grocery store I was getting some blueberries to accompany my dinner choice. When the cashier tried to ring in the order the berries would not scan into the system. She was annoyed. Muttering, she walked over to the phone and rang for assistance. Meanwhile I was left standing for several minutes waiting.

Understanding that this was not her fault, and that she was annoyed, I tried to lighten the mood by making small talk. No answer.

Once the manager came to perform a manual override I paid the clerk and said thank you. No answer.

This clerk made the number one client service mistake. She transferred her annoyance of the system onto the customer. It became my fault. All I wanted was some blueberries.

The most important thing that any customer facing employee can do is remember that customers are not problems. They are your business. Whether you are having problems with a cash register or your customer is being difficult on a contract, or whatever the issue is, they are not the problem.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Are you losing your mind to processes?

“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” -Vincent van Gogh

It is obvious, in this quote, that van Gogh was losing his mind to his unrelenting commitment to his work. Read this from a Service Management perspective, however, and it reads differently. This is what I read:

“I put my heart and my soul into my work,  but now have lost my mind to these processes.”

I come from a process background. As a former security consultant I lived and died for processes. As a Service Manager I have seen that processes are a double edged sword. Sure, having great processes gives you uniformity, consistency and repeatability. I understand that and that is why I continue to push for better processes. But, how is it that our best customer service experiences have come in instances where the process wasn't followed? 

Process needs to be kept in check. Consider the following:
  1. Your processes should allow and encourage your desired end-state. 
  2. Your staff should understand why the processes are important.
  3. Your staff should have your support to make exceptions to the process where necessary.
The criteria for defining reasonable exception cases depends entirely on your business requirements and the process in question. Some processes have much less tolerance for exceptions. If you have good staff, and they understand the parameters they need to work in, they will tend to make reasonable choices. 

Empower your staff to make good decisions. Empower them to give exceptional service to your clients. 

This all sounds easy, making this work in the real world is what makes our lives interesting.

What do you think makes a successful process? Please comment below.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Closed" can be an opportunity

"They would have lost our revenue and might have lost our loyalty to a competitor.  That is not what happened."
Often times, while I am travelling to Charlottetown PEI, I visit my favorite local restaurant/brew pub Gahan House. The other night was no different.

A colleague and I planned to go for a bite to eat and some of their stellar beverages. When we got to the restaurant we were disappointed to learn that they were in-fact closed, due to a renovation.

It is common for restaurants (or at least the ones that survive long enough) to eventually need a face lift. Normally we would have been met with a simple "closed" sign and we would have moved on to another restaurant. They would have lost our revenue and might have lost our loyalty to a competitor.  That is not what happened.

Instead, Gahan's had a pleasant woman, a server a presume, standing in the doorway of the closed restaurant with a stack of coupons. Since the parent company (Murphy Group) owns another restaurant across the street, we were pointed to The Brickhouse and offered a coupon for a free pint of Gahan's beer that they keep on tap at the sister restaurant.

We ventured across the street where our server took some time to explain to us that the Gahan House would be open the following week, that they would be maintaining the same neighborhood pub feel and that it would only be an improvement on the admittedly great pub.

These simple actions had three important affects:

  • It maintained loyalty to the Gahan beer brand and restaurant.
  • It coaxed me into a sister property that I had never before visited.
  • It created a positive introduction to the new property (free beer!)
The Brickhouse had an easy job from this point forward creating new (and maintaining old) brand loyalty. 

As a side note, the Vegetable Beggar's Purse was excellent, the sweet and salty chocolate cake was great, and the Gahan's Red was, as anticipated, perfect. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Exceptional service. Really!

Most companies talk about providing exceptional service but few really deliver. What is exceptional service? It is going beyond normal, beyond good and hitting the next level. 

I am not a road warrior, by most standards, but I do a fair amount of travel in my role as Service Manager at Bulletproof Solutions. I travel several times a month, mostly to our offices around Atlantic Canada.

Several years ago I chose the Holiday Inn chain as my primary hotel chain when on the road. They have a good rewards program (Priority Club) and reasonable quality rooms at a reasonable price. I have had few bad experiences at Holiday Inns.

I stay regularly at the Holiday Inn in Charlottetown PE. They have always provided a great experience. They often give room upgrades, they leave candy on the pillow and usually give a complimentary bottle of beer or water on check-in. What more can you ask for? This is good service. Today, however, they went the extra mile.

Anybody who lives in a northern climate understands the pain of scraping a car window in the winter on a miserable day. It is one of those special tortures that we endure throughout the winter. After breakfast this morning I was surprised when going out to my car. It had already been scraped. All of the cars in the parking lot had been scraped or were in the process.

The Holiday Inn promotes a lot of their complimentary services. We come to expect them. This, however, was unexpected. Even though it was a small gesture it helped me to start my day with a smile. This is not a high-end hotel where you pay for amenities, it is a standard one that is going the extra mile. This is exceptional service.

The first thing I did when I got to the office this morning was to tell this story to my staff on our Service Desk. Every business can learn from this. This is what we should strive for.