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?