Customer Service: The Final Frontier
It's hard being a software or technology company or service provider. With technologies leapfrogging each other, it is tough to keep from getting commoditized, regardless of how big you are or technologically superior you once were (just ask RIM). Customers have short memories, especially when your latest interaction with them isn't working the way they want. So what is your final line of defense? It is your customer service team and the loyalty they endear (or not).
I have recently had three personal customer service experiences with technology providers that are great illustrations. The first was with my home internet provider. They identified by an email to me that I was exceeding my monthly download bandwidth and recommended that I upgrade. I agreed and engaged in a web chat with one of the Customer Service Reps. To make a long story short, they could not deliver what their marketing department suggested I do and ended the chat by saying "Thank You" when I suggested that maybe what I needed to do was cancel my service and find another provider. In this case, I escalated to a friend who is a VP at the company and the issue was resolved.
The second example was an issue with my Blackberry. Rogers, my carrier, could not help because the issue was with my Blackberry Manager sync'ing my Blackberry calendar to Outlook so they gave me a 1-800 number for RIM. RIM does not offer free customer support outside of the 1 year warranty period which leaves a hole between the primary provider Rogers (from whom I bought the phone) and RIM (the manufacturer). Fortunately, someone at RIM was smart enough to empower their Customer Support Reps to make one-time exceptions and handle the call. Four hours later, through first and second level support, the problem was resolved. Somehow, I don't think it was a user error (me) if it took that long to resolve. RIM doesn't know it but their four hours of tech support saved them a customer who has five other Blackberries.
Final story. I am currently upgrading my satellite service at the cottage. The local dealer (great guy) installed the new dish but we couldn't get my router to talk to the satellite modem no matter how hard we tried. I phoned the tech support line of the company and received the standard customer service answer of "if you can connect directly to the internet by plugging your laptop directly into the modem, then it works. It is your router and therefore not our problem" As in the first example, I know senior execs of the company, so I am confident that I will get this problem resolved, but what bothers me is the "not my problem" attitude. It is their problem because my solution to their "not my problem" would be to discontinue their service and find a solution that works. It is what I would have done in example 1, except that I escalated it to a privileged relationship and got it fixed. This is what I would do in this case, except, I am escalating it to another privileged relationship and will also get it fixed.
Only RIM got it right. They empowered their service people to throw away the rule book and fix the customer's problem because if they don't, the customer will take their business somewhere else and tell every one of their friends why they did so.
So why don't companies get this?
I am currently leading a series of customer service workshops with a mid-sized software company. Their challenges are typical of any growing company. At times, their latest product is "not ready for prime time" when released. This is the usual noise that is associated with any growing company and often hides the real problem. Reality is that most of the time, the issues are more basic and very often related to the customer service rep not being able to envision the problem from the client's point of view or not feeling that they have "permission" to solve the problem.
I was fortunate to work for one of the greatest customer service oriented CEO's Dave Duffield. Dave bootstrapped PeopleSoft from zero to $1B in revenue in 10 years. Dave used to proudly tell audiences of employees, customers and prospects that he only wanted to be remembered for one thing on his gravestone that was that "Dave Duffield had happy customers". The way Dave told the story, every employee in the room knew they had permission to do whatever it took to make their customer a success. Being in the enterprise software industry whose competitive rallying cry often was" my software sucks less", Dave knew that his unrelenting focus of customer service would be his differentiator at PeopleSoft. It is also probably one of the reasons that Workday (Dave newest company) has gone from zero in 2005 to an estimated $3B valuation by 2011.
So if you are a CEO, here are some things you can do
- Recognize customer service and customer success are the only sustainable competitive advantage that you likely have for the long run.
- Don't let only your customers with a privileged relationship to you or your exec team get the best service that your company can provide. Figure out a way that every customer gets this, every time.
- Spend money on talent and training in your Customer Service team. They may not generate new revenue but they sure as heck keep it coming in.
- Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Don't make your customer service team your lowest paid players. They are often the final line of defense between keeping and losing a customer.
- Publicly inspire everyone in your company to be customer driven. Publicly proclaim your commitments to customer service and then walk the talk, no matter what the short term pain is.