About David M. Thiemecke

David Thiemecke cares about doggedly solving his clients’ core business problems and getting a little better every day. Currently overseeing the market strategy portfolio at Algonquin Studios, David has been a client too, as outsourced Chief Operating Officer at Big Bear. David co-founded Algonquin Studios in 1998 and lead many development projects in the firm's first six years.

Things I Wish I’d Known Preparing for Ground Truth – Part 2

Ok, in Part 1 of this post, we covered a good chunk of the lessons my team learned during our trip to China with the Executive MBA program at the University at Buffalo.

But, there’s more to earning solid feedback on your product from prospective customers than just delivering a sound demo. If you think there’s a different culture on the west coast of the US relative to the east coast, try meeting your customers in China! Before we grew comfortable listening, watching, and adapting in our new environment, my team risked coming back with nothing or missing the point, several times.

Get local through your errors. Before we departed, every book and coach told us not to drink the tap water. There’s not enough time to adjust on a short trip. Yet, one morning I slurped some while brushing my teeth, and didn’t realize it for several hours. When you adjust, you’ll probably do it by letting go. Just embrace it.

The Bottled Water Acid Test. Yup, we drank a lot of bottled water, and everywhere we went our hosts offered it to us. They watched as we drank it. Over time I thought this must be a stereotype of westerners. Or did it reveal how much I trusted the host? We were sensitive too, after hearing about refilled and resealed bottles. Rituals come in all forms.

Start early and make it easy. We scored seven meetings for two days. To do this, we started reaching out two months earlier. We avoided loading our hosts with any onerous work, especially reading long text blocks or keeping track. We reminded them of our meetings before we left the US. A couple of days before each meeting, we confirmed. One firm still moved a meeting from 10:30am to 8:00am, giving us just enough time to drop breakfast and run.

Forge a connection. To get those meetings, we tried a few strategies. Personal connections worked best, where someone had a cousin in-country and made introductions for us. Shared history scored too: did one of us go to the same school as a prospect? We got a 15% response rate from a targeted email blast to association members. To increase that rate, we could have adapted the request to be more relevant to each recipient. After meeting, most hosts shared a list of people we should speak to next, both inside their firm and at others. How kind!

Who are you talking to? On some of our tours, our hosts clearly spoke to the perceived leader of our crew first, and then to everyone else. It was striking. We soon tried it, using the business cards we received as strong hints about seniority. Would we have given them a disrespectful impression otherwise?

Help me save face! Once, we met with an operator and a manager and asked them to fill out a five minute survey for us. The manager sighed, rubbed his eyes, and said that he couldn’t complete it because he’d forgotten his reading glasses. Being super helpful, we offered to walk him through it. Much later, we realized our big mistake: perhaps his English wasn’t as good as his protégé’s, and he’d offered us a card to help him save face? We’d taken the card and burned it. Ach!

How close is too close? In a giant unfamiliar city, how much time should you place between meetings? In Beijing and Shanghai, one hour worked just fine for taxi travel. They were clean and quick (and almost always Volkswagen Foxes), and we asked our hotel concierge to write out directions in Chinese and English to give to our taxi driver. We brought the hotel card to get home again. We tried hard to keep our meetings to one hour, too.

Localization Details Matter. Localization is more than just translation. Our prospects remarked that they would consider us if we certified compliance with China’s legal framework. English is acceptable, but adding an interface in the legal form of Chinese would be better since it’s more widely understood than a particular dialect. Showing culturally appropriate use cases in our demo would have helped too. For example, Chinese occupants keep their rooms in the mid 70’s F. Who knew that detail beforehand? Our hosts might have wondered, “Why do these people always want me to freeze?”

Challenge or Business Opportunity? The list goes on. For example, there is wide variation between coastal and inland China, and rural and urban China, even more than in the US. At the time, there were no carriers able to deliver packages everywhere in China, and few fulfillment houses distributing for US firms. Each carrier had regional or urban-only coverage. Experience with computers and English varied inland, too.

Needless to say, the next time we collect on-the-ground feedback in China, we’ll be much better prepared. If you’re planning a project like this, consider doing it in stages, with time re-factor your approach each round. Everyone we met with was so helpful that I’d expect improvement to come quickly for you.

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Things I Wish I’d Known Preparing for Ground Truth – Part 1

Since our founding in 1998, Algonquin Studios has acted as a trusted ally for several startups and has even launched a few businesses ourselves. By March, 2010, several Algonquin Studios team members had built a robust hardware prototype: a mesh network of sensors, controllers, and management software. It personalized the environment and access within commercial buildings and hotels. But the team had limited sales and installation experience.

Coincidentally, I had a trip to Beijing and Shanghai forming, as my team needed a capstone project in the University at Buffalo’s Executive MBA program. What a lucky match! Beijing and Shanghai were saddled with surplus real estate following the Olympics and investment booms and firms were hungry for smart competitive advantages. Why wouldn’t this solution work in China? My team set up in-person demonstrations and feedback sessions with hotel and property managers while we were in China, and brought back a trove of on-the-ground observations.

We were surprised at what we learned and the ways that were identified for doing things better the next time around. I’m sure you would be too:

Is that a prototype or a bomb? We brought several black plastic boxes as functional prototypes. Each was the size of a juice box and had LED lights and wires hanging out the side to batteries. Frankly, they looked like bombs to our American eyes. How would we get them through customs in China? It turns out they didn’t care.

Demos will break. How many ways can you give your demo? It had better be a bunch. At our first meeting we fried the Radio Shack step-down transformer we brought with us. But we had rehearsed in the hotel – how unfair! So what? We couldn’t find another transformer in any store. We would have been stuck giving vaporware demos, and our surveys would have just measured the dream in someone’s head. But, we found a way out – powering up with batteries or laptop USB ports. In fact, laptop wall power supplies adjusted to every location with just a reliable plug adapter and laptops could be recharged, unlike plain batteries.

Tricky Demos = No Demos. The developers warned us that the devices would jump to a different port every time we started a demo. My background is development, so I could resolve the problem without anyone noticing. But the rest of my team struggled when we split the team up to do two meetings at the same time. Remember, your goal on the ground is to get feedback and the talent you’ll have won’t necessarily be technical.

What does ‘done’ mean? Following that thought, we realized our demos could have been more polished. We built our demo around what the developers showed us. Why not build it around what evokes meaningful feedback? For that matter, make it look good so you’re not distracting prospects with a bomb, highlighting how far you are from done, and maybe getting them to feel like they should work with a cool outfit like yours.

How will you pay for that? Business credit was new in China in 2010; most paid by bank transfer or online services like AliPay and TenPay. Not one of our prospects chose credit cards as a possible payment method. One kind soul wrote, “There are no credit cards in China.” We could have figured that out from a few web searches, but we didn’t do the due diligence. So, did we miss a chance to get better feedback?

Integration and Management Services. Don’t forget that a hardware solution lives in an existing context. Every one of our prospects asked how we would work with their existing systems and offer administrative tools. If you can’t do this yourself, it’s smart to partner with a firm such as Algonquin Studios.

Sales Channels. Who will your prospects buy from? Our prospects suggested that we partner with a US firm already established in China, increasing trust, avoiding intellectual property theft, and offering integration options. Even a two-person local sales team with an engineer would be better than selling from outside China. You might need local help to get products out of customs delays in port.

Each building is an island. Treat each prospect as a unique case. We met with hotels and property managers, very concrete examples. We were surprised to find that each hotel provided its own utilities and services, including massive electric, water purifying, and emergency outfits. Less literally, don’t make assumptions about the rules. Listen first.

Even if you’ll open your business in your home market, or your foreign market is in the west, there’s more to ground research than just product demos. In fact, we wouldn’t have gotten any feedback without adapting on the fly. How thrilling!

Stayed tuned for Part 2 of this post, which will cover our take-aways on the more “personal” aspects of cross-cultural market research.

Related links that rang true to me:

Tips for On-the-Ground Market Research
Global Health at MIT

Ground Truth and the Importance of Market Research
Karyn Greenstreet

Ground Truth
NASA

Finding The Best Technology Solution Shouldn’t Feel Like Herding Cats

The Value of Requirements Analysis

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that “problem” isn’t a dirty word. Your business solves problems every day; that’s why your customers come to you. Let’s start thinking of problems, not as bad things, but as opportunities.

Imagine that you’re considering a new line of business or you’ve found a process that causes a lot of friction, so you decide to change. You’re probably anxious and we can understand that; there are lots of ways to get off course when you charge a team with change:

  • Each team member goes after a different problem, so the solutions don’t converge. How do we get everyone back on the right page? What is the right page?
  • The project keeps growing and growing. As the team starts solving the problem, you find people adding new features to the solution. The team keeps looping back to revise the plan and each time you do, your budget grows. Nobody saw this coming. How do you stop it?
  • The team implements a solution. A few months go by; you analyze the data and find that the problem is still there. What happened?
  • The team proposes a solution. Senior decision makers hesitate because of budget, lack of in-house talent, or other priorities. Without buy-in, decision makers cancel the project. Does this mean you have to start over?
  • The team recommends a product to fix the problem. But once the product is in place, you find out there are some critical gaps in the solution. How can you bridge these gaps?

Here at Algonquin Studios, we have a process that prevents deviations like these. We call it “Requirements Analysis.” We begin by defining the core problem. We dig deep. We’ll humbly challenge your team by asking “Why?” and we won’t let you down by accepting the first answer as gospel. If there’s more than one problem, that’s OK; we’ll prioritize them. Working together, we’ll define exactly what your problems are and ask your whole team to commit to working on them.

Next, let’s propose solutions — lots of solutions. Don’t limit yourself to technology; you could change people, processes, and policies, too. After brainstorming, we’ll cull ideas together and judge our good ideas by doggedly adhering to the problem definition. A vision should surface — a vision of what your firm looks like operating the solution. You’ll feel good about committing to this vision and we’ll return to it again and again to overcome anticipated barriers and engage your team.

Now you’ve got a defined problem that’s simple to communicate and a vision for its solution. Algonquin Studios finds that these two key ingredients give you clarity, keep your team focused and gaining ground, and can nearly eliminate re-work costs from here on out.

After working through the initial Requirements Analysis (RA) phase detailed above you may determine that you need a new process, and some tools to operate it. By applying our detailed RA process at this stage, we can capture all of the business rules, inputs, outputs and processes to build or adapt those tools while honoring your decisions about scope, phases, and value trade-offs. We’ll start at a high level and break apart complicated processes until we reach simple, atomic ones. A solid detailed RA document becomes the foundation for planning, designing, building, deploying, and training for a good solution.

You might be surprised to find that a policy change is all that’s needed to solve the problem, so there’s nothing to build. And that’s a fine outcome!

We know this sounds potentially uncomfortable and like a lot of work. As a decision maker, you’re already living and breathing your problems every day and are hoping for a vendor to simply roll out the solution you’ve already got in mind. But what if there was a better way? A way to help make sure your solution is an unprecedented one that can grow your business like never before. That’s what we believe the RA process is, and it’s why we’re so committed to it here at Algonquin Studios.

Why Won’t Cross-Sectional Teams Adopt Change? The Technology Adoption Lifecycle.

By starting a fire and carefully kindling it, you can roll out a change at your firm with much less effort.

Let’s say you have a change coming up for your users. It could be something practical, like an update to your billing system. You’ve already decided that this change is worth it: decreasing missed revenue and speeding up accurate billing reports. But the update will require your users to work in a different way. Do you dread holding everyone’s hand through the roll-out? Why can’t your users just follow your instructions? Will this take more effort than it has to? How can you make this easier on everyone, not the least you?

Take a moment aside to think of your most troublesome user. How do they react when posed with a change? Now think about the user who picks up changes faster than you think is prudent. How are they different? Who else resists change or eagerly pounces on it? More than likely, your users’ perspectives on change reflect deep personality traits. Do you consider these traits when you roll out a change?

This gets at an idea called the technology adoption life-cycle. In the late 1950’s, Joe Bolen, George Beal, and Everett Rogers at Iowa State University researched how farmers adopt new ideas. They called it the diffusion process. If you think farmers are nothing like you, think again–they cultivate an investment today or go hungry tomorrow. Later, researchers identified five distinct personality profiles shared by major groups and determined that members look most strongly within their group for ideas to adopt:

  1. Innovators: Enthusiasts
  2. Early Adopters: Visionaries
  3. Early Majority: Pragmatists
  4. Late Majority: Conservatives
  5. Laggards: Skeptics

Think of a bell curve across these groups to grasp the portions. In the early 1990’s, Geoffrey A. Moore developed this idea further within startups in a book called Crossing the Chasm. It remains a useful text, even if you can’t recall the examples. He focused on discontinuous changes – those that cause people to alter their behavior, like your billing system update.

Technology-Adoption-Lifecycle

I believe that you can apply this model to shorten the time it takes to get your firm on board with changes being implemented. How? By speaking differently to the concerns of each group.

If you don’t answer my questions first, I’m not receptive to the rest of your ideas. But if you address my needs, I’ll listen further.

Imagine being each of the people below:

  • Innovators: Tech Enthusiasts
    • Volunteers to try out new tools; gives detailed feedback even if the tools aren’t ready
    • Wants: the truth with no tricks, to be the first, affirmation that their feedback is used, and support from a tech expert
    • Usually lacks buying power; price should be someone else’s concern
    • Let them play
  • Early Adopters: Visionaries
    • Driven by a dream of change: a business goal, not a tech goal
    • Driven by personal recognition; will move to the next project quickly
    • Willing to act as a visible reference on first-time projects
    • Least concerned with price, since this is just the tip of the iceberg
    • Hard to please since they’re buying a dream; manage their expectations
    • Overlooked as a source of seed funding
    • Paint a picture
  • Early Majority: Pragmatists
    • Values productivity: incremental, measurable, predictable business progress
    • In it for the long haul
    • “Pioneers are people with arrows in their back”, “let somebody else fix your change”
    • Will pay for service, quality, support, integration, standards, and reliability
    • Show how you can improve their day
  • Late Majority: Conservatives
    • Prefers tradition to progress; stick with things that work
    • Change should be simple, cheap, and not an interruption
    • Point out pragmatists who didn’t get stung
  • Laggards: Skeptics
    • Only blocks change; isolate them
    • Doubts that the change will bring the promised returns
    • Neutralize them with the big picture gain for your whole firm, not just this change
    • Fortunately, few in number

Go at them one at a time. Some groups influence others and you can use this influence to build a beachhead, getting strong adoption among innovators and then moving on to the next group, early adopters. Word of mouth from pragmatists may amplify your message to conservatives. You can build momentum and get more for your scarce time.

If it works for the person I respect, it will work for me.

So, where do you begin? Show your change to innovators at your firm, first. Let them work it out in practice. Avoid teams made of cross-sections of your entire firm, since the negative comments from laggards will sink your idea. Go in phases–form a pilot group of innovators and perfect your idea then, paint a picture of your vision to early adopters. They’re thirsty for change.

There will come a point when you’re ready to jump to the mainstream with pragmatists, but remember, they won’t value change for its own sake like the early adopters. Instead, they’ll invest in productivity gains. So focus on the early majority one small team at a time with overwhelming service. Their positive reviews will mean something to the late majority too. And just let go of the laggards, like the wisdom of the old serenity prayer. Provided you’ve done your work with the innovators, early adopters, and conservatives, the laggards will no longer have the power or influence to derail the changes you’re implementing.

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 5

OK! We’re in the home stretch of my customer service series.

We’ve followed LEAP; we’ve kept our customer informed and earned their approval for paths forward; and we’ve talked about times when “the customer is always right” benefits everyone and when “proposing a better solution” is worth the extra effort.

So, what else have I learned along the way that might help you?

Well, I’ve found that some customers will behave differently, depending on who they talk to, as they work themselves up the “authority chain.” For example, in the heat of the moment, a customer may yell at your customer service representative even though they work well together daily. But, when you call that same customer to follow up, they act as sweet as pie. What’s really behind this?

The customer may have been under pressure and, in the moment, let loose on your staff member. If so, they’ll probably apologize quickly. But there’s the chance you’re dealing with someone who’s trying to manipulate you and your team. While you’ll never be able to change your customer’s personality, you can coach your customer service team not to give historically difficult customers the privilege of spoiling their day by helping them remember to remain polite, spell out possible solutions, and escalate where necessary. If a customer personally insults a staff member or will not stop yelling, I ask my team to politely state that the conversation will continue at another time and then to hang up the phone. This trains customers that difficult behavior just slows them down.  You may want to consider teaming several people together to play different roles (e.g. good cop, bad cop; sales vs. production). I’ve found approach very effective when dealing with customers who express difficult attitudes. You may also need to offer regularly scheduled meetings for your customer service staff to vent in-house, up stream, in a safe environment.

Sometimes things get really tough and you find yourself continuously dealing with a difficult or manipulative customer. Do a little research here… Does this customer cost you too much to serve them well? While my customer service team doesn’t have the authority to fire a customer, they are empowered to make such a recommendation to the executive management team. If your company continues to work with someone who repeatedly hurls personal insults at your team, and you permit the behavior, you may lose your team’s commitment. Only you can weigh the outcomes, but you owe your employees the humility of listening to them.

Finally, rely on your Terms and Conditions as a guidepost for everyone involved. Your firm’s Terms and Conditions (T&C) are your collected wisdom that protects you and your customer. If a customer can’t see the value in both sides abiding by your T&C, they’re probably not a good fit for your company. But remember, your T&C are a living document; don’t be afraid to change them when appropriate.

What are your war stories from the trenches? It would have taken me a much longer time to develop much of this insight without the help of my two mentors; feel free to share your ideas with us to help continue to conversation!

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 4

So, we’ve followed LEAP – listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, asking clarifying questions and check-downs, and  producing an immediate remedy and long-term process changes to prevent the problem moving forward. Along the way, we’ve kept our customer informed and earned their approval for paths forward. But why go to all this effort when we could just follow the wisdom of “The customer is always right?”

Let’s say that’s true – your customer knows what’s best for them, not you. Your customer has already been inconvenienced with the problem at hand. Why waste their time when you could do what they ask? They’ll come back to you in the future, confident that if things don’t go well then you’ll take care of them. Also, you’ll quickly move on to serving more customers. And, the customer will spread the word about how you took care of them.

In Buffalo, we have a fine grocery store chain that appears to follow this axiom. In practice almost everyone I know who shops there has a story about someone who brought an unsatisfactory item to the store’s customer service desk. Regardless of the problem, even if it was simply that you didn’t like the product, they’d replace the item with something you liked on the spot.

But not every problem is that simple. Does the customer really know the best way to solve the problem? You’re the expert, solving similar problems more often and in greater variety. What if the customer is missing some of the facts? What if you’ve seen their suggested remedy fail for other customers before? What if they’re asking for something that violates your Terms and Conditions? What if it’s not fair as you see it?

It’s hard to frame this in a grocery store scenario–not every business is a grocery store. What if you’re an auto mechanic and your customer suggests a solution that you know would endanger them later? You wouldn’t do it. You honor your customer when you propose a better solution and humbly make the final decision theirs. If they’re not willing to go along, honestly spell out the limits of what you can do. In grey areas, I often find myself negotiating, based on quickly grasping the principles that each side values. Humor goes a long way deflating the stress in the situation.

I think that “the customer is always right” seems to work in simple situations, where facts can quickly be assessed, the cost to get the facts is much higher than the remedy, or the customer isn’t going to hurt themselves. I believe that “propose a better idea” seems to work best when facts are hard to assess well, the cost of fact finding is much lower than the remedy, or the customer could hurt themselves unintentionally. The long term relationship is almost always worth more than the immediate issue, so choose the method that favors your relationship. And remember to go back and improve your process after.

Is there anything I’ve learned from growing my “tough conversations” method over the years? Of course! We’ll talk about that in the next post.

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 3

After two posts in this series, we’ve started with a disgruntled customer escalating a disagreement to senior or executive-level management and we’ve followed a process called LEAP–listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, and asking clarifying questions and check-downs. For produce, we’ve established facts supported by evidence from both sides, proposed an immediate remedy, and proposed process changes to prevent the problem going forward. At this point, we’ve probably sent our customer a lengthy email, detailing all of the above…But do they agree with us? Do they believe our proposal was the best way to solve the problem and will do the best job of preventing similar ones in the future?

When you’ve reached your conclusions about the situation and you know what you’re fairly willing to offer, share your thoughts with your customer using the outline touched on above:

  • Facts
  • Conclusions
  • Immediate Resolution
  • Prevention
  • Approval

That last one is important. If the customer doesn’t believe in the process you’ve suggested, you’re wasting their time and yours. You’ve just accepted responsibility for the whole problem. As an example, I recently received a complaint about screen printing wearing down quickly on garments sold by our customer to a fire department. We took the few garments returned over to our screen printer and asked about the problem. Our screen printer applied an extra curing step to the logos and sent them back to the customer, who promptly complained again. Was this customer just being unreasonable? No, because we failed to discuss our experiment with the customer and get their approval to conduct it. They didn’t participate in the process, so when the garments came back distressed again, we had an even bigger problem.

The next time around we made sure to involve the customer and we discovered that the fire department had an industrial-strength laundry machine built to clean smoke and chemicals out of garments. No normal screen printing could have withstood this mighty behemoth! Now we had our facts and could recommend changes that would truly solve everyone’s problems: switch to embroidery or tackle twill (laser cut decorations that get sewn on). As in this example, it may take several loops through the process to get to the bottom of an issue.

Statistics can be your friend for gaining perspective on a problem. If you consistently make a mistake, it looks bad. If you consistently make a mistake out of thousands of correct operations, it looks different. I once had an airline complain that a logo location varied from shirt to shirt. Even after explaining that the industrial process did not guarantee exact alignment, the customer was unimpressed. But when we sampled hundreds of shirts from a 15,000 shirt order, we found that the variation was within about 3.3 standard deviations (or that around 1 in 1,000 were outliers). These hard numbers changed their perspective. Statistics can help you focus on true bottlenecks.

Another key step in ensuring customer buy-in? As I mentioned earlier, if it wasn’t written, it didn’t happen, so confirm conversations with writing and carbon-copy everyone involved in an issue. Why would you (or your customer) leave someone out? Doing so raises political questions, which almost never contribute to solving the problem or returning to a good relationship. In fact, I find that including everyone often suppresses unreasonable behavior. You may need to take a frank aside with an authority figure to handle a sensitive issue. That’s OK, as long as both parties return to the whole group with information appropriate to the group members’ roles.

For the truly deft, you can position your statements too. I find this handy when used sparingly in politically tough, long-term situations. Are there new people to the conversation? Are there casual readers who need to be kept informed? Are there some people on either side working against the shared relationship? Positioning a statement can help. I might say things like:

  • At the risk of being bold
  • As you know
  • Clearly you would agree that
  • As promised
  • From prior conversations
  • As we agreed

This helps frame the conversation for secondary readers, and forces the primary recipient to either declare their disagreement aloud or passively accept my assertions. This is hardball, and I’d generally avoid manipulating people, but the tool is there if it serves the better interests of your firm and your customer.

Having read all of this, you might ask why I’d go to these measures when I could just follow “The customer is always right” idea and move on quickly? Didn’t I just waste my time? Stay tuned…

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 2

In my first post in this series, I talked about a situation where a disgruntled customer has escalated a problem or disagreement beyond customer service and to senior or executive-level management. We followed a process called LEAP–listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, asking clarifying questions and check-downs, and promising to produce on a way to resolve the problem. But I pointed out the fact that produce hides a lot of detail and can leave you, and your staff, in an ambiguous place about how to completely resolve the customer’s issue. So, how can you make sure your company will take the necessary steps to make things right for your customer?

My second mentor shared tools with me to expand on produce. Yes, starting each conversation with LEAP is great, but you need to change its goal to get the customer’s perspective on the problem. Work on prioritizing the customer’s feedback with him or her; what’s the biggest problem? What other problems have happened as a result? What remedy is the customer looking for and how much time do they have to allow you to reach resolution? It’s important to remember not to take sides at this stage of the process so do your best to distill the customer’s (possibly emotional) perspective down to hard facts. I’d also recommend resisting the temptation to solve complicated problems over the phone. Instead, promise to look into it in more detail and agree to a time to speak again with an update. You’re still adhering to the spirit of the produce step, but I think there’s value in  expanding on it.

Take a look at the unbiased facts you’ve established: What evidence do you have of where the issue went right and where it went wrong? Don’t prejudge and don’t assume that your firm or the customer have diagnosed the problem correctly or have a monopoly on the truth. Start with the first moment of the issue at your firm and follow it until it left your hands but be careful not to end up in an analysis paralysis, diving ever deeper into wasteful facts. Instead, sample a few key points to narrow down the underlying cause of the issue and dig into that spot–kindly challenge your staff, the data in your systems, the paperwork left behind, and any written communication. You’ll likely find things that the customer doesn’t know or didn’t share with you.

Now, let’s assess the facts: Where did the breakdown occur? What does the customer know and of what can you inform them? Where did your staff, and your customer, deviate from the appropriate course of action? List scenarios that explain what happened and eliminate those that don’t match the evidence. You may still have more than one possible scenario. What needs to be done right away to close this issue? How can we fairly make the customer whole? What processes, terms, and conditions could have prevented this?

With facts in hand, explain to your customer an unbiased account of the immediate problem and its underlying cause. Remain clinical and leave emotion out. Distinguish clearly between facts and your opinion and accept blame where it’s fairly due. Most importantly, do not lie. You’ve fixed the source of the leak, now it’s time to drain the basement. You’ve only got two problems left to solve:

First, how can we make the customer whole, immediately and fairly? You still have to solve the customer’s current problem and they’re waiting for that, more than anything else. To me, “whole” means fair to the customer and fair to your company. I find it helps to begin by establishing some principles rather than just splitting the blame. If my team had a verbal agreement about something important enough to cost money and we failed to document it with the customer in writing, then the verbal agreement doesn’t exist and I’ll side with the customer. If we followed our process correctly and the customer missed something, then I’ll suggest that the customer bear the cost to correct it with our help. If both sides made mistakes, then I’ll offer to cover my company’s cost to correct our mistake and suggest the customer do likewise. If our mistake caused a single line item on an invoice to grow more than it should have, I’ll offer to cover the difference on that one item but not to refund the whole invoice. We both follow our Terms and Conditions together, we should solve the problem together, as well.

Second, what can we both do to prevent this problem going forward? Even if the problem begins entirely with our customer’s actions, which I can’t control, I’ll still propose things we can do to watch the customer’s back in the future. That’s just part of a good working relationship. Usually, changes to both sides of an issue can keep it from reoccurring…Until training slips. So, you need to document your processes, update them, and train from your documentation. Does your customer have the power to make the preventative changes on their end? If not, discuss them with someone in authority at their company. I’ve found that customers genuinely appreciate the extra effort.

So, that’s how I often respond to tough customer issues: clarify the problem and then follow two legs: the immediate problem and prevention. But you can still get derailed…What if the customer doesn’t agree with your resolution? What if they don’t believe your remedies will solve the problem? These are the concerns I’ll tackle in my next post.

Turning Around Tough Problems For Your Customers – Part 1

How can I help a disgruntled customer?

When I started as Chief Operating Officer at an Algonquin-sister company almost seven years ago, upset customers scared me. By the time the customer called me, he or she had already exhausted any patience with my customer service team or production manager so now, not only would they bring me their original problem, which usually caught me off guard, but somehow the unsatisfactory treatment from my team compounded thing. Those calls always felt like discovering a car accident at the end of my driveway when I was already late for a vacation flight. The need for escalation stretched their trust in the rest of my staff and the delay caused by working multiple channels in order to get resolution usually meant that they’d been waiting a long time to feel “taken care of.”

Those calls also always left me wondering, how had this happened? Where did all the policies we put in place fail us and our customers? How could we have prevented this?

What does a disgruntled customer want when he or she calls?

In my experience, they’re looking for understanding, an advocate to partner with, a way to make their own customer whole, a way to save their investment and still make money, an opportunity to vent, and, sometimes, just guidance to solve the problem. By the time a problem lands on my desk, my firm has already failed the customer in some way. But, when times get tough, you have to prove your value as a partner. It’s the relationship that matters. Every problem needs to become an opportunity to improve and earn your customer’s continued trust. It’s an honor to serve your customers, even when your firm has failed them, and remember, they could have already moved on to another vendor. Take this to heart because if you don’t learn to address both your customer’s original problem and the way that your firm failed to resolve it, it will follow you to every job. Now is a good time to get better!

When I started my tenure as COO, two mentors shared advice with me. The first introduced me to an acronym “LEAP,” which stands for Listen, Empathize, Ask, and Produce. Listen means to be quiet, take notes, and let the customer tell you everything that’s on their mind. Don’t prejudge, don’t respond prematurely, and wait until the customer has finished. Then empathize, reflecting back how, given their evidence, you would feel similarly. Ask questions, to both clarify and check your facts. Then produce, telling the customer how you’ll handle the problem and follow through with them. Sounds simple, right? I found I could remember this list even when a customer jarred me. But, unfortunately, it didn’t solve all of my customer’s problems.

I found LEAP worked great at calming customers down and returning to a reasonable tone within the scope of a call. It helped my customers feel like “something” would be done after our phone call ended. But the vagueness of that “something” just set me up to fall short of expectations again. Produce was the tricky part. What if I discovered something after the call that changed my perception of the issue? What if my team or I to do exactly what I’d promised on the phone? What if it took me more time to understand the issue? LEAP leaves the resolution to one step and it fails to guide customer service. Should I deviate from our Terms and Conditions? Is this issue worth going “above and beyond?” What if there’s something I didn’t think of on the phone? How do I protect my customer and my job at the same time? What’s fair? Who’s right?

Exhale and relax. I’ll share more soon, in my next post on expanding the “P” in LEAP.