Managing Expectations: The Myth of the Non-Existent Timeline

If you live and work on planet Earth then you’ve experienced something like this:

Joe: Hey Suzie, can you get me X.

Suzie: You betcha’, but I’m pretty swamped right now. When do you need it?

Joe: No rush… whenever you get to it.

managing expectations

Joe and Suzie think they’re on the same page. Solid.

It seems like a harmless exchange so far. Unfortunately, there’s a decent chance this relationship is about to take a nasty hit. Remember, Suzie said she was busy. What happens to a task that doesn’t have a defined timeline when you’re busy? Usually, nothing. Fast forward 3 weeks…Suzie’s been tied up with “high priority” tasks, some of them were even items for Joe:

Joe (now frustrated): Hey Suzie, where is X?

Suzie (sensing Joe’s frustration and getting defensive): I just haven’t been able to get to it. I thought you needed it “whenever…”

Joe: Well yeah, but that was like 3 weeks ago. What have you been doing all this time? This is a small task!

Suzie: Fine! I’ll drop everything and have it for you tomorrow.

Joe: Fine!

Suzie: Yeah, fine!

miscommunication leads to anger

Turns out, Joe and Suzie weren’t even reading the same book.

Boy…That escalated quickly. The problem all started when Suzie and Joe decided to move forward without agreeing on a delivery date.

Every request comes with an expectation of when it will be delivered, even if the requester can’t or won’t identify it. When someone says “Whenever you get to it” they really mean “This is a really easy task and surely you’ll get it before the next board meeting in 3 weeks, so I’m not going to be pushy and set a date.” Or even “I know when I need it, but I’m not going to tell you because maybe then I’ll get it early.” Or maybe they just haven’t consciously acknowledged that there is a date they need it by. Whatever the case, it’s trouble.

Here’s a personal experience: A few years ago I decided to lease my first brand new car. Upon closing the deal I told my dealer that I was in no rush and that it was ok if it took a week or two to get the car delivered. And I wasn’t lying, it really didn’t matter to me. However, the dealer insisted he was getting me into my new car by the end of the week. It was important to him! With his assurances in mind, every day that week I got a little more excited about my new car and by Friday, I was stoked to go pick up my new ride. So, when I found out my car wasn’t ready, I was pretty annoyed. I grew increasingly annoyed and ended up flat out mad as more days went by. Finally, the car arrived about a week later. It didn’t matter that I’d started out with no firm delivery date in mind, the dealer set a date of his choosing and then missed it, turning a win into a loss by mismanaging my expectations.

So, what should you do when a client asks you to accomplish something but doesn’t give you a deadline or timeframe?

Look at your workload, identify a place where the task fits, add some buffer, and provide a delivery date to the client. If they accept your date, great! Now, you can focus on delivery. If they reject your suggestion, you’ve just uncovered the hidden time constraint. Now, you’ll be in a position to negotiate and agree upon an acceptable date.

Congratulations, you’ve just averted a crisis by successfully managing your client’s expectations! This is easily one of the most important factors for providing great customer service, keeping your client happy, and maintaining a positive relationship during your work together.

Side note: If there really is no due date, then, in my opinion, there shouldn’t be a task. If something is so unimportant that it doesn’t matter when it gets done, why on earth would you ever spend time doing it?

Error Messages Visible During Site Upgrade

During the course of a client web site upgrade today, one of the site’s visitors informed us that the web site was displaying an error and was exposing passwords in the error message.

While a password was in the error message, that password was only valid for the session state database and does not expose any other databases to access, including those with client data.

For those who would like a little more technical detail, the targetFramework error is expected while the site and applications are in transition across the .NET framework boundaries as the site is updated. The presence of the session state password and machine keys was not intended but was a side effect of an issue that has already been addressed. Some of the values are not in use and were commented out, but still displayed in the XML exposed in the error message.

As a result of this exposure, we removed existing accounts and set up new accounts and passwords.

4 Questions a Software Developer Should Ask Each Day

This is my take on a lesson I was taught very early in my career.  It made sense to me right away, but after applying it for over a decade I’m convinced its one of the most important things I’ve ever learned.  I hope to do it justice in sharing it with all of you.  I’ve written this from my perspective as a custom software developer and consultant, but I believe it applies universally to software developers.  If you’re an in-house developer, just think of your clients as the folks you build software for (i.e. the users, your managers and the owners, etc).  Start by asking yourself:

Question #1: Is your client happy?

This should be the first thing on your mind at all times.  A happy client will come back for more. They’ll tell their friends about you.  They’ll promote your brand.  They’ll keep your pipeline full.  Clients are your lifeblood and keeping them happy is the only way to survive long-term.  I know… this is obvious, right?  Well, it’s not that easy to execute on all the time and a lot of developers don’t really understand what it means.  We’re not looking for short-term happiness brought on by just doing whatever they ask or by applying quick fixes in difficult situations. We’re after long-term, sustainable happiness.   How can we achieve that?

Manage Expectations:

This is huge.  You have to start managing your client’s expectations the moment you meet and continue doing so throughout the course of the relationship.  The moment you stop filling their heads with facts, they’ll start filling it with all types of other things.  Expected timelines will creep, visions of features will morph, old conversations will take on slightly skewed meaning in the light of new information that isn’t shared and wasn’t part of the original conversation. Expectation creep is not malicious… its human nature.  Small expectation gaps are like a crack in the foundation of your house.  With effort you can avoid them in the first place, but if allowed to form and grow they can be devastating to a relationship.  Communicate clearly, completely and often. And memorialize EVERYTHING in writing.

Honor your commitments:

Lots of promises are made at the beginning of the job.  Most of them will be recorded in a contract that commits you to honor them. However, not every intention, notion and promise will make it in there.  There will always be a new way to look at a deliverable later on and re-interpret its meaning. This tends to happen when the going gets rough. Maybe things are taking longer than anticipated. Maybe you’ve had staff or personal issues that distracted you from the project.  Stuff happens.  Renegotiate the terms if it’s reasonable to do so, but don’t, under any circumstances hide behind a nuance in the contract language or try to back away from the original spirit of the deal.  You know what you committed to. Honor it and get the job done. It will hurt at times, but your client’s happiness and your reputation depend on it.

Be a partner:

You’ve agreed to help your client solve a problem.  The best way to do that is to look at the issue as your own.  Do your best to see and feel the goals from your client’s perspective.  Own the problem.  Your client can tell the difference between this approach and that of the last firm who was just “doing their job”.

Be Available:

You should return calls/emails in a reasonable and consistent amount of time and you should answer the questions contained in them.  If you take long, random amounts of time to respond you’ll frustrate your clients. If your late response doesn’t answer the question, you’ll infuriate them.

Stick to your principles and do the right thing:

Your client hired you because they don’t have the time, or more likely the expertise to accomplish the task.  Even though you’ve been brought in as the expert, there will come a time where the client insists you to do something that you know will hurt them in the long-run.  It’s your duty to hold your ground in these situations. Take time to explain why this approach will be harmful. Give examples. Be steadfast. Ultimately it’s their decision, but you owe it to them to try and do the right thing.  I often liken this role to that of a personal trainer.  If your client came to the gym and told you they were tired and didn’t feel like working out, you could satisfy their short-term desires, buy them a muffin and a shake and plop them in front of the TV for a little Judge Judy, but that’s the easy way out and it won’t help them accomplish their long-term objectives. It’s your job to get them motivated and on the treadmill.  Don’t be a coward… do your job!

Be enjoyable to work with:

Make a connection with your clients on a personal level.  Ask them about their kids, their pets, their hobbies.  Be human and have a sense of humor.  Your client will like you if you help them solve their business problems.  They’ll love you if you help them have a good time doing it.

Be humble:

I’ve already stated that you’re here as an expert, but that’s probably only true for your specific role in the overall initiative.  Whether you’re building software or developing a social media strategy, you’re doing it for them.  Don’t come in acting like you’re the savior.  Do your part and do it well, but trust that they understand their business better than you do and they have the grand vision.  This is a learning opportunity for you and it’s probably the best part of being a consultant.  Listen intently, learn from them and make sure they know you’re doing it.

Question #2: Is your work correct?

If you’ve executed on the principals from #1, your client’s in a happy place.  Now it’s time to deliver and your solution better work.  It must accurately achieve the goals of the project in a meaningful and sustainable way.  It has to work today so that they can execute their business plans and begin to see some return on investment.  It has to be flexible enough that it can be modified as their business evolves.  It has to be scalable so that it will remain viable as their business grows.  Ultimately, this becomes an extension of #1.  Your product speaks for you when you aren’t around and it should continue the good work you did from the beginning.

Question #3: Is your work on time?

So you’ve got a happy client and a solution that works.  Next, you need to ensure that everything is delivered on-time.  Every project you take on becomes part of some larger business plan.  Once you commit to timelines, your client begins to plan their next steps.  Let’s say they’re planning a major product launch to coincide with the release of the new web site and online catalog you’re building for them.

They’ve got billboards going up, commercials ready to air and an army of trainees preparing to handle the expected influx of business…. and it all hinges on that end of year delivery your promised.  Now imagine its mid-December and you tell them you won’t be hitting your date.  It’s a client happiness catastrophe!  Months of planning is coming unraveled, your client cancels holiday bonuses for their staff because they need to conserve cash to pay the army of trainees with no corresponding revenue offset, they can’t cancel the billboards and commercials and they’re going to look like fools when they don’t deliver the product their hawking; oh… and your client is really starting to worry because they have a family vacation planned for the month after the project was set to be done and now that’s in jeopardy.  This may be an extreme example, but rest assured that your missed deadline will cause problems for you client that you may never even know about.  All you’ll know is that despite “everything you’ve done for them” your competitor wins the next job.

Question #4: Is your work on budget?

I bet you didn’t think it’d take this long to talk money.  Don’t get me wrong… budgets are important, but less so than client happiness, quality and timelines when it comes to your long-term success.  Simply put, you must never sacrifice #’s 1-3 to keep your budget in line.  That’s short-term thinking and it’ll eventually lead to a crippling pile of problems that will crush your business and reputation.  In a recent post titled Keeping Projects on Budget, I explained how an end-to-end project management effort is required to walk this line.  You’ll need to develop a process that works for you and execute it flawlessly.

One key topic to keep in mind along the way: Don’t do Out of Scope work for free!  I mean it… never ever ever ever. Not even small stuff.  Given the flexible nature of software, it’s easy to throw in this tweak or that additional feature.  It seems harmless at the time, but it always leads to problems.  First off, you’re mismanaging expectations.  You’ll be more likely to agree to something extra at the beginning of the project when you have lots of budget then you’ll be at the end when the budget’s winding down.  When you say yes, yes, yes then no, your client starts to feel cheated.  Why are you tightening the reigns now?  This leads to unspoken animosity where the developers think their earlier “generosity” is not appreciated and the client thinks this new strictness means the development team isn’t willing to see their “promises” through to the end. Everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong. It’s a bad situation and it damages relationships.  Secondly, now you’ll have to finish the scoped items with less than the necessary budget. You’re faced with sacrificing quality or sacrificing your profits.  That sucks.  See #2 for advice on what to do.

Summary

Software development can be a tricky business.  Most developers can handle the technology, but many struggle with managing the overall process.  Ask yourself these questions daily and align your efforts with satisfying them in priority order.   It takes time and effort, but if you persistently follow this list you’ll build great relationships, feel good about the work you do and eventually… you’ll make some money too.

I’m always looking for new tips and techniques for keeping my clients happy.  What’s worked for you?

Recommended read: While researching for this post I came across an article I liked so much I had to share.  A short, but important read: Mastering Account Management: 5 Tips for Keeping Clients Happy

Self-Help and What It Means to the Future of Customer Service

Self-help–it’s the sort of thing that everyone wants to be able to do in order to be the most efficient they can be without having to bug someone else or take more time out of their already busy day to track down assistance.  Self-help is becoming the norm in everyday customer service, across many different technology platforms.  But, the question that has yet to be answered is, will the general public accept the self help model of service?  The answer is, if implemented correctly, yes, because it will increase productivity and make customers feel empowered–able to assist themselves without having to ask anyone else for guidance and without having to wait around for answers or instructions.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people complain about having to speak to a Help Desk representative because they often sound like they’re just reading from a script, giving no real advice and providing no real insight. Experiences like these offer very little to instill confidence in a customer about the level of service they’re receive.  By giving customers the option of self-help, we’re putting them in the driver’s seat. They can resolve issues for themselves and feel the pride that’s inherent in fixing something on their own.

Support professionals need to be creative in identifying and creating opportunities for customers to embrace the self-help style of customer service, though, in order to encourage the mainstream adoption of the model. Successful self-help relies on detailed and well-informed knowledge base articles, how-to videos, and tutorials. Compiling lists of frequently asked questions is a great place to start–

If we approach development projects with consideration for where we can build self-help options into the software we’re building, we can make it easier for our customers to use and experience the benefits of our solutions. Finding opportunities to place a link or a button that provides immediate access to knowledge base articles that offer step-by-step procedures on how to fix issues are a great example: tutorials and how-to videos make it much easier for users to “see” the application in use, instead of having to read through steps which might be confusing to some. Identifying ways to incorporate both options, like the use of new “multiscreen” software built into many new Samsung phones and tablets, is fantastic because it gives the user the ability to view the help documentation while walking through the necessary steps in the app at the same time.

As developers and support representatives, we need to keep in mind that, the more we can successfully integrate self-help features into the software we build, the more value we’ll provide to the customers using our solutions and the easier it will be for our customers to stay on task without getting waylaid or frustrated. In a society where time is money and instant gratification is expected, this value can’t be overlooked.

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.

Supporting New Software? No Problem.

One of the first stages of the software development life cycle is the roll-out of brand new software and with it comes that awkward honeymoon phase – it’s anyone’s guess as to what problems might arise during the first few weeks of use. With this comes a sense of uncertainty, but it doesn’t have to be all that scary! Since I’ve started working at Algonquin Studios, I’ve seen many old and grizzled systems scrapped in favor of bright and shiny new ones and I’ve learned a lot about piecing together a support process for when you aren’t totally familiar with the new software. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when venturing into uncharted territory:

There will be bugs. Probably more of them than you expected.

Even if you have the most fantastic software developers imaginable (like we do here at Algonquin), there are going to be unforeseen issues that pop up, so expect a sizable workload increase in the first couple months after releasing a brand new system. This leads to my next point…

Stay organized and consistent with bug tracking.

With an increase in bug reporting, it’s vital that the support team is clearly documenting all bugs reported and all team members tasked speaking with end users are kept up-to date on issues as they develop. Being diligent about your tracking will ensure that when it comes time to fixing those nasty bugs, everyone has as smooth a ride as possible.

Make sure you manage customer expectations.

As with all customer support issues, it’s important to manage expectations about bug fixes and requests for new features (Hey, I actually wrote a whole post about that here!). If there’s an issue or request that a user is anxious about seeing to resolution, let them know that you’ll be documenting the issue to be reviewed, but make no promise of when it will be completed. Not everything can be fixed or added at the same time and it’s best not to give false expectations.

Create and update a Knowledge Base from the get-go.

If you’re not keeping an updated Knowledge Base for your support team, you need to start… And you need to start yesterday. A centralized location for in-house use is crucial to being able to provide consistent answers on issues as they arise. Are you receiving the same questions on how to do a specific task in your software? Create a step-by-step “how-to” that you can send to customers quickly and easily, saving everyone a whole lot of time and confusion.

Have a simple way to escalate issues on a regular basis.

Whether it’s a weekly meeting or a regularly-sent report, there needs to be a way to let upper-level management know what’s going on. It’s ultimately not up to the front-line team to decide what gets fixed and when, but it is their responsibility to make sure the higher-ups are able to hear about the most dire issues. If there’s no process in place to communicate this, make sure you create one so the development life cycle can progress naturally.

Remember, as bleak as handling support may seem at the launch of new software, it will always get easier as time goes on. Implementing a brand new system is a learning process for both end users and support teams, so treat it as such! Look at it as an opportunity to grow your own skills and knowledge and reassure everyone involved that the process will all be worth it in the end. Every company will handle the launch of new software differently; what are some examples of procedures that your team utilizes when implementing a new system? Leave a comment and let us know!

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.