Month: November 2010

Where are all the nice companies?

Expensive Hug

I’ve never met a nice company. Sure, I’ve come across plenty of amazing companies. Some companies have gone above and beyond to help me use their products. Some have customer service to die for. I’ve even dealt with companies that upgraded my shipping and gave me discounts without my asking for them. But I’ve never met a truly nice company.

Let’s define what I mean by “nice.” Nice, as in how you’re nice to your mom. Or how your best friend goes out of their way to cheer you up, expecting nothing in return. Or how your spouse brings you flowers or gifts for no reason. People are genuinely nice all the time to people they care about. Why not companies?

How many companies have done something for you, expecting nothing in return? How many companies do you have a meaningful relationship with? How many companies will send you a gift out of the blue, just to say thanks?

The more I think about how much nicer companies could be, the angrier I get. I’ve received gifts from only two companies—ever! And that was because Printfection spends a crazy amount of money with them. What did I get? A coffee mug, some chocolate and some mints, all at Christmas. What about all of those other companies with whom we spend tens of thousands of dollars a year, ones that I never hear from unless I proactively call about a problem? What about all of those companies I pay for in my personal life, even if not thousands of dollars? It would cost them almost nothing to send a gift or say thanks—anything to show they care. But they don’t, ever!

Are you nice to your customers? Do you treat them the way you treat a good friend? When was the last time your organization went out of its way to say thanks, just because, or did something for a customer without asking for anything in return—and certainly without performing the act of kindness as a gimmick to attract more customers?

I’m tired of dealing with companies that don’t care about me. Do your customers feel the same way?

Introductions are harmful

Introduction on Flickr

Why do professional networking events always start with introductions? Same with conference calls! Introductions are harmful. Especially when you’re trying to harness the collective brainpower of a group. After an introduction, you’re immediately put into a bucket. Lawyers in one, programmers in another, the unemployed in a third. Instead of judging people based on the merit of their ideas, you’re subconsciously judging them based on their background and experiences.

Last night I helped put on House of Genius. Instead of introductions, we got down to business. When we started exploding ideas into actionable next-steps, nobody knew if the suggestion was coming from the CTO of a half-billion dollar company or an extremely intelligent high school dropout from a broken home. It was great. Only at the end did everyone reveal their background and their occupation (or lack thereof). Everyone was surprised at the caliber of ideas coming from unlikely candidates.

It’s human nature to put people into buckets and judge. So think about how you can change the underlying structure of your organization or event to create an environment where people are judged solely on the merit of their ideas.

Why cutting costs is the most expensive way to grow your business

You can save money but money can't save you

Automating and reducing waste by adopting more efficient processes is good business, right? For the last 50 years this school of thought has been the driving force behind some of the world’s most successful companies. Outsource everything, continually refine your processes, cut costs and then squeeze out the juice to the bottom line. A recipe for success, right?

Wrong. In this new service economy we live in, being “efficient” is actually wasteful. By cutting costs, you’re also cutting the relationship with your customers. Instead of standing out with remarkable service, you’re now just another company with an unfriendly yet efficient approach that “keeps costs down.” You see this mantra everywhere: email instead of phone calls; self-service instead of full; ATMs instead of tellers. Rejoice! It’s working. The world is more efficient than ever before!

But efficiency does not translate to the bottom line.

Efficiency is expensive

Building this kind of efficiency into your business is usually not worth the money saved. Furthermore, most cost-saving schemes are being adopted by your competitors, too. So, far from being unique, you become just another me-too business:

  • Everyone has automated phone menus with voice recognition. Saving a small percentage of your expenses on labor is not worth frustrating the hell out of your customers.
  • Everyone prefers email to phone calls. But making a strong lasting connection over email is almost impossible.
  • Every B2B company is getting rid of its field sales reps in favor of tele-sales teams. But bonding with senior decision-makers over the phone is hard.

You can’t cut your way to happiness

For the customer, day-to-day interaction with these so-called efficient companies is indistinguishable and anonymous. It doesn’t matter whether I call AT&T, Sprint, Verizon or T-Mobile: before I even pick up the phone I know I’ll be talking to a robot. It doesn’t matter whether AT&T’s phone system is friendlier than Verizon’s: they both still suck compared to a real person. No matter how much optimizing and cost-cutting these companies do with their customer service, I won’t like them for it.

But what if a cell phone company were to answer its 1-800 number on the first ring… and with real people? I bet the word-of-mouth buzz and brand awareness generated would easily cover the cost of the extra reps. Why? Because phone companies all have the same mediocre customer service. Answering the phone on the first ring would be a differentiator. It would get more attention than a Super Bowl ad.

The top three phone companies in the US alone spend $8.2 billion per year on advertising. So it must be an efficient method of customer acquisition, right? Wrong again. These companies are in a bidding war for consumer attention. Yet all of their ads look the same. And consumers aren’t even paying as much attention to mass media as they used to.

Instead of trying to one-up the competition with another me-too ad campaign, what if a company put 25% of its advertising budget into its call center and did something remarkable like answering all phone calls on the first ring. While everyone else would continue zigging with ads, it would be zagging with outstanding service. Instant differentiation, free PR, a million thank-yous from happy customers, a ton of word-of-mouth buzz—all resulting in many more customers than it could have acquired with traditional advertising.

The case for waste

Think of the times you’ve received extraordinary customer service. How many people did you tell about your experience? How loyal are you now to the company? How much more money have you spent on the company over time?

Next time you think of cutting costs, don’t. Fooling yourself into thinking that you’re improving the bottom line is easy. But when the by-products of efficiency are irate customers and damaged relationships, you’re not saving money at all. Being inefficient might just be the cheapest way to stand out and get the attention of millions.

Email outnumbers snail mail 81 to 1, Gmail reports exploding inboxes (infographic)

Everyone knows regular snail mail is on the way out. But with 39.6 billion emails sent every day (of which 81% is spam), how can your message possibly stand out in the inbox? How do you beat new technologies like Google’s Priority Inbox?

Think outside the inbox

Nowadays, when you send something via snail mail, people take notice. When was the last time you got something in the mail from an online company you do business with? Nobody’s doing it! If you take the time to lick a stamp you’re almost guaranteed to make a lasting impression in your customer’s mind. And most importantly, last I checked, the USPS has no plans for a priority inbox!

Email vs Snailmail Infographic - From

How renaming ourselves ‘The Customer Love Team’ helped us think differently about customer service

When I first started working at Printfection, we had one major chore that no one wanted to do. We called it customer service. We’d let support emails pile up. We made excuses and devised ways to avoid talking to our ‘pesky’ customers. We weren’t the only ones: you don’t have to look far to run into mediocre (or worse) customer service.

Like most people, we hate being on the receiving end of horrible customer service, too. This includes:

  • Having to hunt for contact information
  • Convoluted phone trees
  • Being transferred to several people before getting any help
  • Dealing with poorly trained reps with no authority to do anything
  • Intricate policies and fine print.

We were guilty of everything on this list. Our way of handling customer service was time-consuming; by the time we actually started talking to most customers, they weren’t very happy with us, and we in turn started to dread picking up the phone.

Last year we asked ourselves, if we hate being on the receiving end of this, then why do we subject our customers to it? The solution became obvious. So, we ditched the old way of handling customer service and renamed ourselves the Customer Love Team. The name sounds silly, but the important thing is that we changed how we dealt with our partners and customers. All of our changes were simple, including the following:

  • We made it easy for customers to contact us however they want: phone, email, live chat, Twitter, Facebook, even snail mail.
  • Goodbye long phone menu. Now there are just two options: sales or support.
  • The Customer Love Team is able to handle both sales and support requests, no transfer required.
  • The team has the authority to do whatever is required to solve a problem. There are no approvals. We trust our employees’ judgement.
  • We threw out complicated policies in favor of common sense.

The most important change of all was in our attitude to customer care. It’s no longer a chore. And the more we strive to deliver customer love, the easier it becomes to reward our customers with great personalized service. Because of all these small changes, we’ve started to grow our base of loyal customers and our referrals.

Many of the improvements have been gradual. Our staff’s attitude didn’t change overnight. But over time, we’ve all started to show our customers the love. The benefits have been amazing. Customers are happier (we hear “Thank you” a lot more now), those of us on the Customer Love Team are happier, and we aren’t wasting time trying to dodge a major part of our business.

We aren’t the only ones moving away from conventional customer service. In fact, companies such as the famous Zappos have built their business squarely on customer care.

Which companies have blown you away with their dedication to customer service? How are you loving your customers?