The Customer is Always Right...

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March 28, 2014

A Momentary Humblebrag

Back in my “old life” as I used to call it, before my career pivot out of the music business and being diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, I spent close to 10 years working for singer Lee Ann Womack. When you have that job, that is your life. You become family, all the highs and lows that entails…late nights, tears, laughs, and watching kids grow up.

I met Lee Ann’s eldest daughter, Aubrie, when she was 10 or so, and I was 20 or 21. It was 1999, I believe. I very vividly remember sitting down with her for the first time and her explaining to me the ins and outs of the movie Good Burger. I knew from those early meetings that she was a special kid…smart, funny, mindful, humble, and there’s nothing more she loved doing than reading a good book in her own world. As she grew up, I did too, navigating the insane weirdness that is your 20′s while she had to endure the even more horrible time that is your teens. She never wanted too much to do with me, as I was that strange parental figure in her life who will NEVER be cool to hang out with when you’re 14, but I didn’t care much about that. She was special, talented, and I was privileged to watch her grow up and be a tiny part of that journey.

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When she was about 14, she and I lived in Los Angeles for either a month or six weeks (fuzzy life details!), while she attended the Lee Strasberg program for young actors. At the end of the program, she and her fellow classmates put on a production for family and friends. I distinctly remember thinking, “oh yay! A kids play!” Well, joke’s on me, because I was BLOWN AWAY at just how talented Aubrie was. I should’ve known, she was a special kid, and this was no different.

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Now, Aubrie is 23, and I’m 35. We are 12 years and a day apart. I always loved that our birthdays were back to back, as it was this one little life milestone to be shared. This week, her insane talents as a singer landed her in a piece in Esquire Magazine. The world is starting to be introduced to her talents, the ones that I’ve been privy to in our own little corner for a decade now. I’m sure 10 years down the line I’ll vividly remember the night she came over to my house to play me the first album she recorded. As I got more and more tipsy on Fernet Branca, because that’s what you do when you listen to real, honest music, she nervously sat in the corner and tried to casually watch for my reaction. How does one convey pride? I’m not terribly sure, but that’s the overwhelming feeling I have as I watch her career take off from a distance.

I love you, kid. I’m proud to know you, and I know that your life is going to bring you all the things you’ve worked very hard for.

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March 28, 2014

People People are People Too

I love developers. Some of my dearest friends and partners in crime are developers. But how is it that we came to live in such a developer centric world? As I’m looking for my next career opportunity one thing has become very apparent: we place far less value on the customer, and the people who take care of them, than anyone ever should.

If I was starting a new company, I would make sure that my second or third hire was a people person. Actually, I’d make sure my co-founder was a people person, but at the very least, somewhere in the first five employees. Your product or service needs customers to even exist (if you say “I’m going the ad revenue model route!” stop everything. Now.), and someone needs to find those users, nurture them, and build a community. Customers and people are your business. There is no other way to think about it.

So why is virtually no value put on the people who take care of the people? Is it deemed to be an “easy” job? Do people think anyone can do it? Maybe we think the customers will just take care of themselves? The answer to all of those questions starts with “no,” yet that is the culture I see put down at company after company. Have you seen a developer deal with a customer? No offense to my much beloved developer friends, but I have, and it ain’t pretty. Every second that a developer isn’t developing is wasted time on everyone’s part, most importantly the customer.

How can we fix this? I think the biggest thing we as a business community can even do is admit that it is happening. If you say I’m crazy and it isn’t happening, you’re kidding yourselves. I get it…developers keep the company up and running, but I’ll repeat it again: THERE IS NO COMPANY WITHOUT CUSTOMERS. Period. If people do not pay you money for your goods or services, you do not have a company.

Your companies are probably going to end up developer heavy, and that’s a good thing. Creative minds building great things is beautiful. But in that, you cannot lose sight of the customer. We fix it by admitting there’s a problem, identifying the problem in our own organizations, and doing whatever we can to say, “we value the customer above all, and the people that take care of them are a cornerstone of this company.”

People people are people too. The job takes time, patience, empathy, but above all else, buy in and understanding from everyone that it is an unbelievably needed and valued position. If we treat our people people like second class citizens, how are we truly going to treat our customers?

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March 3, 2014

I Want One

Last week, out of the blue I received a tweet from FedEx asking if I could follow them, they had something they wanted to send me. Clearly how every phishing scam begins, no? After a bit of digging, I realized they were doing a Twitter campaign to bring awareness to their new flat rate shipping options and sending gifts to folks who stated they “wanted” something. Somewhere, someone picked up on this…

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A week later, the craziest, yet truly thoughtful gift showed up on my front porch in a fairly large FedEx flat rate box:

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West Ham gear! Bubbles galore! A gift that meant something to me personally.

It would be hard to ignore that the genesis of this project wasn’t born from the AMAZING West Jet Christmas promotion last year, but this is an incredibly fun and inventive way to raise awareness for a new product. Do you want to spend marketing budget on a commercial that someone is going to fast forward through, or do you want to spend that money doing something that people will ACTUALLY talk about while having a little fun yourself? What delights customers? A 30 second ad that is intrusive and with little meaning, or something that speaks to an individual?

Make people happy, and the awareness will come. I think FedEx learned that the easy way.

(Come on you irons!)

March 1, 2014

The Why

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Believe, love what you do, people will come.

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February 25, 2014

The Customer Journey

It makes me so happy to see this new shift towards customer centric businesses in all facets, with design seemingly leading the charge. Doing some research today, I came across this great resource, The Customer Journey Canvas.*

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I imagine there are parts of this plan that we’ve worked into our processes: personas, how will people hear about our product or service, how will we promote it, etc. But have you ever received buy in from all stakeholders in the product lifecycle, most importantly design? Do designers look at customer data BEFORE jumping into the design process? Do they make all of these other considerations as well?

Which touchpoints do customers experience during the service journey?

Instead of siloing ourselves out through the product idea and design phase…marketing over here, PR over there, customer support isolated elsewhere, all stakeholders are involved from the beginning with design to build a cohesive customer journey from the very beginning. All of these stakeholders bring a unique perspective to the table, different data, and deserve to be heard to give the customer the best possible experience in the end.

What I love about this concept is that it can be applied to any project, big or small. Maybe you only have 2-3 stakeholders. Maybe you have 10. But at the heart of it is the customer journey, which is what we are ALL here for.

*Hat tip to Maria Hayhow and her blog post over at Moz.

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February 23, 2014

Die Macro, Die

In the customer business, scaling is a true concern. If we’re at our best when we are taking care of people one on one, then how to we scale that up when we have thousands or even millions of customers? For many people, outside of just expanding staff, is to create as many shortcuts as we can to answer to most common questions that come in. Widely known as macros, you can use these pre-written answers to quickly populate emails, support tickets, etc., to save time on responding to individual customers.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand why the practice exists, and I’m not 100% against it. I just think we as people who take care of people should actually take the time to take care of people. I personally can spot a macro a mile away, and I imagine your customers can too. When you receive a canned response, how does that make you feel? Like the person responding to you truly cares about your issue and honestly wants to see it resolved? Or, like the person just sees you as another obstacle to punching their timecard at 5pm? I imagine it’s the latter, and it’s truly baffling to me that it’s such a commonly used practice.

When Macros Go Bad

Recently I was looking to cut back on some expenses, so the first thing I thought to cut was my home food delivery service. I emailed to tell them honestly why I wanted to cancel, praised the service and said I’d return once I could. The response I got was clearly a macro explaining to me how to cancel, but first saying “did you know you can pause the service for a week?” Yes, yes I did know that, but clearly you did not read my email as to why I wanted to cancel in the first place.

Truly all this person needed to do was write TWO EXTRA SENTENCES: an intro expressing some sort of empathy towards my situation, and an amendment to the sentence about pausing my account to make sure that I knew I could do that with a bit more understanding of the situation that I presented to them. Would’ve added 10, maybe 15 extra seconds to their day, plus I would’ve left with a far more positive experience than someone reading an email with the subject of “cancel”, and them responding with a canned macro that wasn’t 100% relevant.

People Deserve Better

As I said, I’m not totally against the use of macros, I’ve used them many times in the past. But the key is to use them as a framework for your response, not your entire response. While people might all have the same question, they are all different, and each deserve a response fitting of those differences. So come up with a general message that you’d want to impart to the customer, but add a personal touch. Put their name in the body of the response…”Unfortunately that’s not a current feature Matt” as opposed to “Hi Matt, “. Do anything you can to make it sound like you actually read their email/support ticket/tweet and respond to any according personality you see there. Refrain from the old tired cliches of “I’m sorry to hear you’re having problems, Matt” and “I see you’re having issues.” Have a conversation with them, engage with them, but most importantly, care about them.

People deserve to feel like there is an actual human being on the other end who cares about their issues, and not someone who just hit a button and generated a generic response. We as a collective can do better than that. It may only cost you 10 to 15 extra seconds of your day, but will mean so much more in the long run.

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February 14, 2014

What is Community?

Community for me has always been one of those things that is extremely hard to describe because it is an inherent constant in my life. To commune is to take care of the people, and that’s what I do. But how does that translate to the outside world? And, even more importantly, how does that scale at a reasonable and affordable level?

Emily Castor, the Director of Community Relations at everyone’s favorite new disruptive darling Lyft put together this great presentation on just how community scales. I think she’s nailed it with this notion…

Rituals scale culture organically.

If we truly believe something, it becomes a part of our daily lives, our rituals. That passion and enthusiasm can scale organically to thousands and thousands of people because it is pure and true and gives other people something to believe in.

This doesn’t just happen though, it has to seep into your entire culture. As Emily puts it your rituals start with, “your product, your CRM, community platforms, communications, and events.” I love this notion, start from the ground up with what you love and that will touch everything and everyone moving forward. Sounds easy doesn’t it? If you truly love something, it becomes second nature, no? Or, a ritual.

You’re doing this because you want to change the world. Ask your community to join you in that mission. Give them a sense of purpose.

You plant the seed. If you genuinely love and believe in that seed, it will grow and scale and flourish.

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February 13, 2014

THANKS OBAMA!

Bad customer service stories are everywhere (this is one of my recent favorites from Basecamp), but this one was such a timely and hilarious doozy that I had to share. I’m applying for healthcare via healthcare.gov (seriously, the ACA is a godsend) and stopped midway through the process last week to do a bit more research on how high level of plan I needed to cover me. Yesterday, I went back to finish my enrollment, and hit a dead end right from the get go: some random, meaningless error code. There was live chat on the page, so I hit them up figuring they’d be able to decipher the code and get me on my way. Then, the following happened.

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Not only was this poor person not empowered to help me with what I imagine is a pretty standard error code (hey developers, PUT ENGLISH TO YOUR ERRORS.), but she suggested something so backwards and outdated she was the opposite of “someone who can help.” Make all of the government jokes you want, these things are so simple and easy to fix, they should never happen in the first place. Talk to me like a human, do your best to get as much information you can about the product you’re supporting, but above all else, don’t tell me to use Internet Explorer. Please.

My hope is that one day we will see disruption of large corporations so vast that they take customer service seriously. Idealism, I get it, but it will be their eventual downfall.

(For the record, I refreshed the page about 20 times so the offending developers would have that many errors in their logs.)

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February 12, 2014

The Customer Stakeholder

Working at a bootstrapped startup for six years left me with the bug of consuming as much information as I can on how they tick, which essentially comes down to reading how OTHER startups do business. Given my love of the customer, that’s generally the lens through which I read things…how do other startups view and treat their customers as a part of the overall being? This is the one hard fact: without your customers, your company is NOTHING. You could be the smartest person on the planet and surround yourself with the smartest engineers money can buy, but if no one wants to buy your product or service, then you do not have a company. Period.

A friend of mine sent me this article yesterday, on how Pandora prioritizes its features and stays on a 90 day production cycle. Ambitious, and awesome. However, one part of the article just struck me the wrong way, when it came down to the team that was in charge of feature prioritization.

At Pandora the team consisted of the executive staff. At the start, that meant the CEO, founder Tim Westergren, the VP of Business Development, and the Chief Revenue Officer would pick which features got built. Later on, the team expanded to include the CFO, the Chief Council and the VP of Human Resources.

Where is the customer voice in that group? The head of biz dev? No way. The company lawyer? Hardly. Your lawyer and your CFO can help guide on what legal and financial ramifications would play into certain features, but could they tell you what the users had asked for the in the last quarter? Where your product problems lay? If no one at the decision making table is there to represent the user, how could you ever be certain that you would make the right decisions and not one that would cause you to bleed users from quarter to quarter?

The customer is everything, and should be at the forefront of every product decision you make. If they aren’t, they are for someone else who will take those users faster than you can innovate. Talk to the people that spend all day every day talking to your customer. Or better yet, talk to your customer directly. They hold all the cards, and should be at the core of every product and business decision you make.

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February 6, 2014

Let Me Know How I Can Help

A former teammate of mine passed around a really interesting article recently, arguing for the abolishment of the phrase “let me know how I can help“. It was a great read, and brought me to a stop for a moment as I pondered almost every email with a potential (or even current) customer I would end that way. But I had that moment of insecurity, was I doing everything I could to best serve my customers and ensure them that I truly was there to help without putting the burden back on them?

Inevitably conversations with new clients would reach a point where we needed to discuss solutions, and I thought by letting the client dictate what they wanted from me, I was allowing them to get exactly what they were looking for.

But the reality was this was a load of shit. By ending my emails like this, I was dropping a wheel-barrel full of work on my client’s desk, and saying “here, you deal with it.”

In certain circumstances, like that of a freelancer, I completely understand and agree with his argument. Clients are coming to you with very specific needs, and you are the expert to help them. Tell them what they want to hear, don’t continually put everything back on them. That is a mentality I hadn’t even thought about, and really love. But, I’m not convinced this is the right argument for all situations. When you are in a support or sales role, you want that customer to think that you’re there for them, that you truly care. That last sentence in the email really makes or breaks how you feel about the person and more importantly, the product or service that person represents.

I understand that “let me know how I can help” sounds cliche and actually imparts the opposite feeling of help…in fact, I’d argue that exact statement says “I don’t know what to say here, but this is what I think I should say.” But the sentiment is what we should be focused on. Is there truly anything else I can do go help you? Are there needs you have that just haven’t come up yet? Did this conversation spur another question in your head that you need to ask me? Do you truly believe that I genuinely do want to help you with anything you might need?

Once I realized how disingenuous the phrase “let me know how I can help” sounded, I wanted to come up with something that passed on the same sentiment, but also passed along just how truly and genuinely happy I was to help them with anything they might need. Instead of “let me know how I can help”, I started saying…

If you need anything else, I’m here.

For me, that really summed it up. If you ever need anything, I’m here for you. Not because I have to be, but because I want to be. We don’t take care of people because it is our job. We take care of people because it brings us genuine satisfaction and happiness to do so. That’s not to say a freelance designer/developer doesn’t genuinely enjoy taking care of people, I just think it’s a different circumstance. And sometimes, it is ok to put things back on the customer. We are there for them, and they should know that.

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