Posts tagged “customer service”

ChittahChattah Quickies

Are You Learning as Fast as the World Is Changing? [HBR Blog Network] – Innovation is about the new. It begins with new thinking and typically involves learning new things and being exposed to new ideas. Through our self-funded study, the Omni project, we describe this challenge to keep up with the pace of possibilities in the Transformations theme. Here the author suggests three “habits of mind” (diverse sources of inspiration, copy success from other industries, and collaboration) that promise to keep you learning as fast as the world is changing.

Today, the challenge for leaders at every level is no longer just to out-hustle, out-muscle, and out-maneuver the competition. It is to out-think the competition in ways big and small, to develop a unique point of view about the future and help your organization get there before anyone else does. Which is why a defining challenge of leadership is whether you can answer a question that is as simple as it is powerful: Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?

The human factor in service design [McKinsey Quarterly] – The customer service landscape is continually evolving and responding to the winds of technological change and floods of social media. Here, three company stories illustrate different ways to think about the human side of service interaction. The article suggests that you ask yourself three questions to diagnose opportunities for improvement: How human is your service? How economic is your service? Can your people scale it up? The only question I’d add is: How do you know? since this line of inquiry into the design of services is fueled by research with humans both inside and outside the organization.

When putting together services that are economically attractive and grounded in a good understanding of what motivates customers, companies shouldn’t overlook their own employees-the other human beings involved in a transaction. Companies give themselves a big edge when they design service processes that a widely distributed workforce can easily adopt, understand, automate, and execute.

Let’s Debunk 4 Myths About How Great Companies Innovate [Co.Design] – This “mythbusting” article delivers a punchy dose that dispels any notion that innovative companies are fueled solely by visionary leaders, industry competition, market mimicking, and luck. It appears that we have no excuse not to innovate.

A growing base of consumers with new expectations and new demands only fuels the fire for more products and services. Firms that claim to be fast followers are often merely just followers. As a firm grows and matures, its bureaucracy, decisions, and approvals inhibit its ability to bring a new product to market quickly. The company can’t respond fast enough to innovators or consumer demands. In this period of rapid change and global competition, innovation isn’t a “nice to have” but an important core competence; those firms that can’t keep up will inevitably perish.

Out and About: Tamara in LA

I am missing the sun and beaches of LA from our trip there last week. At least I have these fond memories to keep me warm…

I’ve read about airlines letting passengers choose their seats using social media profiles and finally got to experience a digital/analog collision first hand on our Virgin America flight. I accepted the offer from 12A (aka Vinnie) to chat. Admittedly, I never talked to that stranger as I was engrossed in an inflight film.

I was not surprised by the proliferation of celebrity endorsements in every eating and dining establishment that we entered. I was surprised by what constitutes celebrity.

Dear lucky owner of this gorgeous Manhattan Beach home overlooking the ocean, thank you for using your prime position to promote a message of peace (in 4 different languages).

I am so fond of legacy establishments (like Pink’s Hot Dogs) that make explicit the rules of how to be a customer. I’m also fond of people like Julie’s dad, who insist that we stop at such locations to relive childhood memories when we are in town!

Julie and I both captured images from this Burbank dry cleaners. She focused on the environmental sustainability while I was enamored by the sustainability of their service!

Curating Consumption: Identity Crisis

Yet another collection of random musings from the perspective of a consumer/researcher.


This is awkward on so many levels. Of course there is the bizarre act of turning a fine cut of meat into a hot dog. Most troubling for the polyglot in me is the collision of cultures and languages: Kobe Beef is a Japanese culinary delicacy, it’s offered American Style, it’s touted as the Ultimate Haute Dog bringing French into the conversation and, wait a minute, it’s also a Gourmet Frankfurter so willkommen Germany! I’m sitting here wondering if I am supposed to consume this dog raw or put it on a bun and add ketchup, dijon, or sauerkraut. Mon dieu!


It might appear, on first glance, that this homeowner wants to sell you some fresh eggs. On second glance you might notice that spray-painted notice on the gate that you are absolutely not welcome. Missing from the image is the front porch, apparently a welcoming halfway house for transient felines. If ever I wanted to buy some fresh eggs (hen’s) here, I wouldn’t even know where to begin my purchase journey. I am considering offering some customer service design advice but seriously doubt it would be welcome.


Dear Fresh & Easy, I trust that you have access to some stellar check-out technology. You must; you have all but eliminated the need for any employees at the check-out and empowered me, the consumer, with this task! I typically don’t mind this activity (or I outsource it to my son, who loves to do it) except when it ain’t easy. Allow me to clarify: When the scanner won’t read a UPC code because the sticker has been wrapped unreadably around a package and I have to enter that code and that code is 24-characters long, that is not easy. Also, when I have two of these poorly stickered items and you don’t offer me the chance to enter a quantity so I have to enter the 24-character code twice, that is so not easy I start referring to you as Fresh & Fiercely Annoying.



It IS a big deal…

I’ve got a Dell laptop, and I’ve got two phone numbers for Dell tech support – one for general customers and one for small business. Every time I’ve called either number, the reps have told me that I actually need to be talking to someone via the other number.

Today I told Shane, the Dell support person I was talking to, how I get bounced around. Since I didn’t want to distract from getting my actual tech issue handled, I concluded with, “But it’s not a big deal.”

To my surprise, Shane responded, “It IS a big deal.” And then he proceeded to write an internal email to fix the routing of my calls and confirm what number I should use in the future.

What a shift it made in my mood to have it validated that this call-routing confusion was, in fact, something that is annoying and shouldn’t be happening. Thank you, Shane. Bravo.

The impact of good post-purchase customer service is tremendous, and these little humanizing moments go a long way towards creating that experience.

The Hand-made’s Tale

Real real…


At Verve Coffee Roasters, my favorite cafe in Santa Cruz, each cup of coffee comes with a cup insulator hand-tied from a napkin by the person serving it. It’s a nice little touch that makes that cup of coffee seem special and folksy.

and fake real…


AT&T, keepin’ it unreal with a fake photocopied-annotated-and-passed-around-the-office flyer–a piece of marketing collateral that they mailed to my house. (It’s crumpled because I threw it out, then decided to write about it and rescued it from the trash.)

What are companies thinking when they send us stuff like this? Fake real, with its pretensions to authenticity, is even worse than fake.

Related posts:
Quickies: Fake Authenticity
Don’t Brand Me, Bro
This Space Available
Meet the new authenticity

iTunes helps me help myself

I had to email iTunes the other day about an issue with my account. I composed and sent my message using their web-based contact system, and a little message box popped up.

The message said that since there was a chance iTunes’ response to my inquiry might end up in my Spam box, a test message would be sent within 15 minutes. If I didn’t get the test message, I was given several steps to take, including adding the iTunes email address to my contacts so that the real message would get through.

I’ve never had a site pre-troubleshoot like this for me, and I thought it was a really elegant and collaborative way of making sure I got the communication I was asking for. Nice job on this one, Apple.

It’s interesting to see workaround strategies like this evolving when things like spam filters–conceived as solutions–become problems.

Ins and Outage

Starfucks sticker, Taipei, December 2007

Service outages seem to be common news stories lately. Sure, it’s news when many people in Florida lose power, but also when Pakistan causes a 2-hour YouTube blackout, BlackBerry service goes down, or Hotmail is unavailable.

There’s a sense that we are relying on far too many fragile systems and that as complexity increases, these stories will become even more commonplace (and perhaps even less newsworthy). But being forced to do without something seems to be a tactic companies enjoy using to extract a sense of the value of their service. The Whopper Freakout ad campaign is the most prominent example, but other companies such as Yahoo and Dunkin’ Donuts have conducted (consensual) user research experiments where people go without something and report back on the sense of loss.

But Starbucks pulled off the genius move, closing for a few hours to retrain staff, and making front-page news not for their failure (see: Florida, Blackberry, YouTube, Hotmail above) but for their retraining efforts towards a clarified service promise

Starbucks is welcoming customers back Wednesday with a new promise posted in stores: “Your drink should be perfect, every time. If not, let us know and we’ll make it right.”

This won’t address all of the challenges Starbucks is facing, but it’s a pretty brilliant P.R. success, hitting the denial-of-services hot button and emphasizing the valid, powerful reason behind the outage.

CRM brulee

As diners, an online reservation service like OpenTable has obvious conveniences. But as the NYT explains, “The other end, however, is where the service has real benefit.”

The reservations that pop up on the restaurants’ computer screens, especially those made by regulars, are accompanied by an important tidbit or two.

Doug Washington, a co-owner of Town Hall, said the notes were not just helpful, they are occasionally indispensable. Next to the name of one regular, who has a habit of bringing in women he is not married to, is an instruction to make sure the man’s wife has not booked a separate table for the same day.

Another frequent guest asks the restaurant to send over dessert compliments of the chef but to put the charge on the guest’s bill. Of another, who takes many of his first dates to Town Hall, the instructions read, “Do not treat like a regular!”

Cool to think about the other interfaces into a system and the other tasks being supported.

Empathy and Innovation

BusinessWeek’s Customer Service Champs supports my plan for innovation through empathy that I outlined previously: Everyone – EVERYONE – will go through the process that their “clients” go through, on a regular basis.

But new research from Katzenbach Partners offers an updated metaphor. The firm stresses the importance of an “empathy engine,” which looks at the role of the entire organization, including middle and senior management, in providing great service. If that engine is thought of as a heart, “the whole company has to pump the customer through it,” says Traci Entel, a principal at Katzenbach Partners who recently studied 13 leading service companies’ best practices. “It starts much further back, with how they organize themselves, and how they place value on thinking about the customer.”

Helping employees become more empathetic with customers was a common focus among the brands on our list. For instance, USAA, whose home and auto insurance are only open to military members and their families, serves new employees MREs (meals ready to eat) during orientation so they can better identify with military life. All frontline workers at Cabela’s, the outfitter famous for its massive retail shrines to hunting, fishing, and camping, partake in a free product-loaner program. Staffers are encouraged to borrow any of the company’s more than 200,000 products for up to two months, so long as they write a review that’s shared via a companywide software system when the goods are returned. That’s not only a perk for employees; it also helps them better empathize with product issues customers might have.

But few places make empathizing with customers quite as luxurious an experience as Four Seasons Hotels. At most of its properties, the final piece of the seven-step employee orientation is something the chain’s executives call a “familiarization stay” or “fam trip.” Each worker in these hotels, from housekeepers to front-desk clerks, is given a free night’s stay for themselves and a guest, along with free dining.

While there, employees are asked to grade the hotels on such measures as the number of times the phone rings when calling room service to how long it takes to get items to a room. “We bill it as a training session,” says Ellen Dubois du Bellay, vice-president of learning and development. “They’re learning what it looks like to receive service from the other side.”

Now that’s passion for customer satisfaction

A number of months ago we had an unfortunate experience at the usually stupendous local restaurant, Cafe Gibraltar. Our reservation, made long in advance for dinner with out-of-town visitors, evaporated. The error was theirs but I was made to feel as if I was somehow in the wrong, and it really created some awkwardness on what was supposed to be a special dinner.

I wrote a letter about it and didn’t hear back until recently. But wow, what a response!

Some times we make mistakes, as is human, but not properly dealing with our mistakes is unacceptable. We are only as good as those who represent us.

Seemed a good time to post a great apology after Sunday’s NYT piece about the Southwest employee who is in charge of writing apology letters to passengers – the “senior manager of proactive customer communications.”

Email is back

Appallingly, the ISP that hosts pulled our plug around midnight last night when we exceeded our monthly bandwidth. I am spluttering with rage (really; I am wiping down the screen as I type) and frustration. There was no warning. Indeed, when I got a cryptic automatic warning a month ago and inquired about it, there was no help. I guess blog traffic is pushing me over the edge on bandwidth. That means some form of success, and paying the price for it.

I was able to pay more money and get back into my email, blog, website, etc. And now I’m having Stockholm syndrome. Well, no, but the incredible hassle of moving seems beyond my emotional and technological fortitude at this point – now that this is run with WordPress, I suspect that moving is even hairier than before.

Anyway, very little emailed appeared after this 11 hour absence, and at least one person is reporting a bounceback (that’s not what is supposed to happen, of course). Email is back, so if you sent something and it bounced, please resend.

Classy all the way here. Sheesh. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Keeping spam out of your brand?


I imagine many folks are familiar with the email newsletters from Constant Contact, that feature the SafeUnsubscribe logo above? I’ve received any number of newsletters sent via their service always from business or people I know. Their unsub mechanism has always seemed reliable, and I’ve felt good about the company as an alternative to other ways of sending mass-email that get flagged as spam, etc.

I was surprised, therefore, to get this:

An ad for some online pajama sales. With someone else’s name in the body of the ad (where my name presumably would be). I tried to unsub but the link didn’t work.

[Perhaps this was some sort of phishing scam, like those fake emails we receive from eBay, PayPal and every bank imaginable, asking us to log in and verify our accounts – those messages are clever fakes and don’t come from the companies they appear to come from].

I thought this was semi-legit and so I contacted the company about this messed up message they were sending out. Their less-than-helpful reply.

Dear Steve,

Thank you for contacting Constant Contact Customer Support.

We checked the account from which you received the campaign email and found that you have received a test email of one of the campaigns created in this account.

We understand that you tried to unsubscribe from this listing by clicking on the Unsubscribe link in the campaign but were unsuccessful.

Please be informed that certain features like “Unsubscribe” link do not function in the test email. If you wish to be removed from the mailing list please respond to the person who sent this campaign with your concern.

We are sorry for any inconvenience caused.

If you have any further questions please send us a note.

Constant Contact Support

What? So they aren’t responsible for what is sent out? And send me off to someone else? As far as a test email, that’s absolute bunk. I received three more of the pajama ads, all from different From: addresses. Someone is spamming either with or without the consent of Constant Contact.

If it wasn’t from them at all, you’d think they would have identified that, rather than the ridiculous “test email” story.

I contacted their abuse address, which I should have done in the first place. This was a few wees ago, and they’ve completed ignored me.

Of course, bad customer service is always a bad reflection on your brand, but this company’s core brand seems to be that they are a trusted delivery vehicle for email – their stuff is screened, bonded, whatever, to be NOT spam. They’re used for spam, and they drop the ball, entirely.

How could anyone trust them, or in fact, permit them to send us email, if this is what we are letting ourselves in for. Maybe they are known widely as a spamhaus (as they are called) but I’d never been aware of it. I’m going to assume they are, however.

My second run-in with bad support around service abuse comes from LinkedIn, a social networking site. People connect with others they know; of course, what it means to know someone is up for interpretation and LinkedIn’s own version of what those links should represent has been ignored by many people. A few weeks ago someone appeared to be running amok and sending linking invitations to as many people as humanly possible. I received a direct invitation which I declined (this is not someone I knew at all), but saw them connecting with others I knew later that day.

The next day I received another connection attempt from the same person, this time through the “school colleague” feature of the system. At this point I was fed up; the system expects people to behave reasonably, this person wasn’t, and now I was getting repeated unwanted solicitations. I contacted LinkedIn about it:

Thank you for your email. We apologize for the experience you have had. LinkedIn is very concerned with member experience.

LinkedIn can assure you, LinkedIn was not the source of the spam you received. As stated in LinkedIn’s Privacy Policy:

“Your privacy is our top concern. We work hard to earn and keep your trust, so we adhere to the following principles to protect your privacy:

  • We will never rent or sell your personal information to third parties for marketing purposes
  • We will never share your contact information with another user, unless both of you choose to contact one another
  • Any sensitive information that you provide will be secured with all industry standard protocols and technology”
    • Would you please tell us what spam you received? Is it possible for you to forward copies of the emails (including full header information) so we may investigate the source of the emails?


      Loretta Thomas
      LinkedIn Customer Service

Of course, I described the situation clearly in my first message, but they obviously didn’t read that. I used the “spam” word and that clearly blinds support staff from reading the rest of the message. I sent in the message in question, and of course, have heard nothing weeks later.

Privacy is becoming a ridiculously heated topic now, and it’s intersting to see companies who are offering different forms of introduction/connection services fail to – when it’s right in front of them – protect the privacy and quality of communication that their members receive. All the while, of course, proclaiming how they are indeed doing so. It’s pathetic!

Update: July 12 – I hear back

This account has been cancelled for abuse. It was cancelled on 6/15/06.

Thank you,

Customer Compliance
Constant Contact

Your Inventory Will Soon Expire

We are sending you this email to confirm that you currently have inventory listed on Our records show you have not been to the site for approximately 75 days
In order to ensure your continued success as a seller, we encourage you to make sure your prices, conditions, and descriptions are up to date and correct. We have found that sellers who re-price and refresh their inventory on a regular basis experience higher sales volumes than those who do not. Additionally, it is important for us at to ensure that our buyers are purchasing from active and attentive sellers.
If you do not visit your account by 04-16-2006, your inventory will be suspended. Please take some time to review the items you have for sale and make any modifications you think might be necessary

This is funny timing; I was “interviewing myself” during a recent dog walk (like showering and falling asleep, good times for an interior monologue) about why I had been loyal to for so long and now almost exclusively buy and sell on Amazon. At one point I was given a number of Amazon gift certificates as thanks for some speaking I had done, so I was regularly going back to Amazon to spend them. I also found Half didn’t have the inventory compared to Amazon. also went through a protracted integration with eBay and put us (as sellers) through all sorts of various bullshit, with warnings of changes coming, planning to do away with the service entirely, then changing their minds. It didn’t seem stable, it didn’t seem comfortable. There was at least one more point at which they were eliminating some categories and sent me a notice that some of my inventory would not longer be offered (if I recall, they had initially let you create your own categories for things that they didn’t have ISBN or part numbers etc. for, but did away with that during some revision of their system) past a certain date.

In other words, they were not easy to do business with.

As a customer of Amazon, I’ve had no shortage of hassles with them, but as a seller, it’s been pretty darn painless. I don’t move a lot of stuff, I just have thrown some old books up there and sometimes one of them will sell. Rarely. I guess they make me renew all my listings every sixty days, but that’s a bunch of clicking and not a lot of thinking. Half has always hassled me, and I’ve slowly abandoned them.

But this takes the cake. As I’ve written here before I don’t feel great about being threatened with removal (at least Half is warning me, unlike Starwood in the previous link). Not to mention that their email is incredibly inept since 4/16 was nearly 2 months ago.

Half doesn’t want me? I don’t need them. A customer has been lost.

Don’t Blame the Web When Newspapers Die

I love it when I’m mulling something over and an article appears that sums it up, at least partly. Don’t Blame the Web When Newspapers Die is one such example

The disappearance of the paperboy. I was a paper-boy as a kid. It was good money, and my knocking on doors seeking subscriptions or asking to be paid put a human face on the paper. Circulation grew with the population, but now newspapers must offer free subscriptions to sucker the rubes to renew. These offers come from Mumbai by phone, usually when you’re at dinner. The bean counters love it. Some middle-aged man now delivers the paper out of an old Chevy.

We are reading a lot about people getting their news from the web instead of print, or the failures of news companies (MSM – or “main stream media”) to allow sharing and get with the co-creation program, blah blah blah.

But really, these newspaper companies are messed for other reasons (such as are outlined in the article). They can’t provide their basic service very well – to get a printed piece of a paper to your door every day, and to stop getting you those printed pages when you ask them to.

Every single time I travel I have to put two papers on hold (the SF Chron and the NYT). I’ve started putting them on hold a day early, even though I’d like a paper that day, I have to ensure they actually do stop the paper when they are supposed to.

Last week we went away and I did my usual. One paper still arrived, so I called and spoke to a human who verified my hold was in the system and indicated that they would escalate a notice to some district person to get it stopped. The next day a paper arrived – and I was already in Toronto – so I called long distance (the 800 number doesn’t work outside the US, of course) and restated the situation again and told them I did not want to come home to a pile of papers. “Absolutely, we’ll let the supervisor know and get that sorted out.” The phone call, mind you, cost $8.00 from the hotel. Cheaper than my international roaming charges on Verizon? I dunno.

And we came home to find, indeed, a pile of papers. They didn’t follow the first notice, they didn’t follow the first escalation, or the second escalation, nor did they respond to the pile of papers sitting in the driveway (hey, maybe that would be a clue that they should not be delivering them).

The day after we got back, the other paper didn’t arrive. I had to call in to get that delivery problem sorted out. I’m so fed up with these papers – you can’t get anyone at the main office to take you seriously, all they can do is pass a message onto a mysterious supervisor who presumably deals with the middle-aged man in the old car who drives down my street early in the morning.

One day a few months ago neither paper arrived (and unrelated to any vacation hold, even), so I called both offices. And I actually got a followup call from the carrier, telling me to call them if I had a problem (in other words, don’t let our boss know). And – for the two papers – it was the same carrier!

Meanwhile, I’m feeling totally unresolved about last week’s unwanted deliveries. I’m not calling in and speaking to another drone again; I sent an email asking for a supervisor to call me about an unresolved problem, and I’m thinking about canceling the paper if they don’t take me seriously. The fact is, I need them more than they need me. They aren’t interested in me as a customer – the delivery mechanism is so far removed from the news gathering organization, that there’s no one who is going to respond in any fashion, let alone take any actual steps to keep this from happening. It’s just a lousy single customer for them, but it’s more than inconvenience for me, it’s about home security – there’s nothing worse than a bunch of papers to advertise that the house is prime for breaking and entering and stealing and leaving. If I can’t travel without worrying that a disinterested low-paid employee is going to put my safety and security at risk, then it’s maybe not worth it.

I still like the paper, and I like reading it cover to cover more than I could ever do online. But they don’t deserve my meager business.

I’m not sure if this consistently poor level of customer service is what’s going to further destroy the newspaper business, or if we’ll just tolerate it like we do with banks, HMOs, utilities, phone companies, Best Buy, and so on.

Nice freebie

Our Courtyard by Marriott in Houston had a nice little freebie – they would take a business card and laminate it into a luggage tag, while you waited. I appreciated the free thing and I got a kick out of the fact that it was travel-related; it reinforced the experience you were having with them. Just a clever customer service thing that someone decided to do.


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