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?

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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.

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.

The Top 5 Reasons I Love Our Support Ticketing System

During my time here at Algonquin Studios, we’ve made changes to the customer service tools that we use to support our clients, trying to find the best fit for our team and the best level of service for the client. Our most recent change has been, in my opinion, the best–we made the switch to Zendesk, a support ticketing system that tracks all of our emails and phone calls, almost one year ago today and the past year has been a truly productive one for our team (and our clients).

Honestly, there are quite a few reasons why I love Zendesk but today I’m going to share my Top 5, the ones that help make the most impact on our support workload every day:

1) We have exact details about our conversations with clients
There’s no more guessing about topics that may have been covered by another support rep or things that may have been promised during a previous conversation–everything’s there in black and white, for us to review whenever we need it, whether we just need to remind ourselves of where an issue stands or we need a quick way to bring ourselves up to date when we’re stepping in to handle something on a co-worker’s behalf.

2) Clients are automatically emailed whenever there’s an update
Obviously, an automated update system makes it much easier to keep our clients well-informed. No more worrying about forgetting to send important emails–Zendesk has got us covered! Plus, when we’re troubleshooting a support issue, all we have to do is create one update and we can send it to multiple people, keeping everyone involved in the loop.

3) Managers can log in to view our progress on various issues
Zendesk allows our management team to track our progress on support issues without tracking us down for information. With a quick log in, they can see where we are in the support process, determine if the proper progress is being made on the issue at hand, and ensure our clients are getting the attention they deserve.

4) Reporting!
We can track things like call volume, response rates, and most importantly, client satisfaction. Information is power!

5) Three words: Knowledge Base Articles!
We love it when our clients reach out to us, but we also want to make sure we’re giving them a resource for information they can access on their own. Our Zendesk system actually makes it easy for us to build help/how-to articles that empower our clients to find answers whenever they need them: after-hours, on weekends, or even when they simply can’t get to the phone to give us a call. It’s a win-win situation.

Do you use a system to track your support tickets?  How have your customers reacted to the detailed records you’re keeping?

Encouraging Great Customer Support

Just last night I had to call the support line for a service I recently cancelled but still had a few questions about. The call was frustrating and I didn’t get all the answers I needed before I finally gave up and ended the call, dissatisfied and unlikely to ever work with the company in question again. While the call was painful, the experience got me thinking about the support we here at Algonquin Studios offer and take pride in. As a Support Representative, I genuinely strive to be helpful to our clients and hope that their experiences with us are good ones.

My colleagues and I have written blog posts in the past about how to make your support experience the best it can be and how to ensure you get the most out of the time spent on the phone with us. This week, I wanted to switch things up a bit, though, and share some ways we can all encourage the customer service people we talk to on a daily basis, helping them continue to do a good job for us:

Smile
Support reps can tell when you’re smiling, even through the phone lines. We know you’re likely calling because something is wrong or you’re experiencing some sort of difficulty but smiling helps your voice to sound friendly, warm, and open-minded and puts both of us in a better frame of mind to tackle the issue head-on.

Give Us Details
If you’re calling about an error message you received when using our software, take note of what the actual error message says. The fact that you’ve done a little work on your own, prior to calling us, can make us feel like we’re in this together and that solving your problem is a team effort. Plus, extra effort on the front end will save us both time, help us get to the root of your problem (and it’s solution) more easily, and get you off the phone and back to your real life more quickly.

Don’t Be Afraid To Joke Around
Humor is one of our “Four H’s” here at Algonquin, so we’re definitely not afraid of cracking a joke or two, even at our own expense! In reality, most of us love jokes as much as the next guy and humor can be a great way to de-stress a situation, so my coworkers and I love talking to clients who know that, even in the face of a problem, they can make the best of the situation and crack a joke. It’s another great way to foster a team spirit and show that we’re all in this problem-solving experience together!

Say “Thank You”
Yes, they’re just two little words, but believe me, those two words are powerful! Never underestimate the power of “thank you,” even in the face of a difficult situation or issue that requires additional follow-up. It makes me smile when a client says “thank you” and helps me feel like I’m truly appreciated for the job I’m doing.

So, those are some of the ways our clients can help me feel better about my job. What insights do you wish you could share with people that could make you much happier in your work life?