Is Social Media and Outsourcing the End of Real Customer Service?

As I’m writing this, I’m trying to decide what my own thoughts are on the matter. Intellectually I probably don’t care that much, but emotionally, I can’t help but think it’s a bad thing.

Background: My wife made what I thought was a wise-crack the other day, that it was actually faster to get a response to a customer service issue if you post something negative on social media, than it is if you call their toll-free number.

She wasn’t joking, and proved it.

A very large retailer had screwed up, not once, but twice, and she spent a long time on the phone trying to sort it out. Naturally, the support centre was based in India, out-sourced, and had no real concept of the original business outside of their database of questions. Long and short; she got nowhere.

The next day, she vented her frustration on Twitter, and within a few hours, a representative from the company HQ contacted her and the issue was resolved that day.

What I took from this is that it’s more important to give the perception of good customer service, than it is to actually give it. As long as no-one knows that your customer service sucks, people will keep buying, and you can keep saving money by outsourcing.

My dilemma is that I can’t decide if I care that the good customer service is genuine, or if the fact that it’s forced now makes it intolerable. Would I really make the fairly significant effort to go to a competitor just because the first vendor doesn’t really care?

I think the answer is yes, I would, because it’s not just about customer service, it’s about how business is done properly. Customer Service is most often associated with reacting when things go wrong, but it’s far more than that. The term ‘business partner‘ sums it up nicely as it’s supposed to be a partnership, not just a business deal, and is only at its best when it’s also pro-active, personal, performed with genuine empathy, and mutually beneficial.

I think what I’m really saying is customer service simply cannot be outsourced. I know it’s very expensive, but perhaps the following may help to offset it;

For one week in every year, EVERY member of staff, from Finance to Sales, from Marketing to IT, works in customer service. This includes the CEO, even the Board of Directors. EVERYONE!

Benefits:

  1. If the CEO talks to real-world customers, as well as sees what goes on every day in the support centre, they will have a much better idea of where his/her company may have gone astray. The CEO is the one responsible for the culture and priorities, so it would be good for them to be reminded of what’s most important;
    o
  2. Sales people often forget what it is they are supposed to be selling, which in almost every company is either a solution to problem, or something someone wants personally. The week they spend in customer service will help them reconnect with their target audience;
    o
  3. Product and Service developers often get too caught up in their day jobs to really understand what it is they are supposed to be developing. Hearing client problems and confusion every day for a week should help to clarify things for them, and maybe even give them ideas for innovation;
    o
  4. Marketing departments too often rely on their previous experience and/or education, so a few angry clients should do wonders for their clarity too, as well as give them ideas for future marketing concepts;
    o
  5. Ancillary departments like finance, IT etc should all have their go too, every employee is part of the culture of a company, everyone must be on the same page, as well as see the impact they are having first hand.

Passion and motivation are hard to maintain if you don’t know where you’re going, or worse, don’t agree with what you’re doing. I think a unified focus on customer service goes a long way to ensuring everyone stays on track.

Of course, your CEO may be a utterly incompetent at dealing with people, but if he/she loses a few clients from poor customer service – their own! – they will probably get the message 🙂

Anyone know any good studies on the effect of social media or outsourcing on customer satisfaction?

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US vs EU

Why US Companies Have a Hard Time in EMEA

As both a US and UK citizen who has spent his whole life almost equally between the two continents, it occurred that I might be well placed to comment on why a lot of US companies have such a hard time getting started over here. You be the judge 🙂

Maybe I shouldn’t comment on our “special relationship”, especially as my wife’s family are Irish-American, lawyers, ridiculously intelligent, and gigantic.

That’s me in the middle, and I’m 6’/220lbs (1.83m/100kg);

Irish Giant Lawyers

There’s your first difference right there; I actually wrote weights and measures both ways so that everyone understands. Europeans and Americans both tend to get rather upset when they have to do the conversions. And don’t get me started on Celsius vs Fahrenheit, miles vs kilometres, S vs Z, or the date (EU 04/07/13 vs US 07/04/13).

These are minor, and amusing differences, but when a business suffers for the reasons I lay out below, no-one’s laughing (except perhaps the Chinese):

  1. Annual Leave – Americans get 2 weeks, and maybe a 3rd after the first 1,000 years of good service, Europeans start out with 4 – 5 weeks. Don’t question it, don’t even comment on it, just accept it. Americans work longer hours than the people of any other country I’ve ever been to (42 at last count). Well, it may be that they are AT work more than any other country, but it’s a mistake to think they work harder. US companies work year round at a certain rate, European countries do very little in August/September, but make up for it in other months. I’m sure someone smarter than me can provide statistics.The European way is better, MUCH better, it’s also healthier and more sustainable;
    o
  2. The Personal Touch – I think because Americans are so busy, the face-to-face aspect of doing business has taken a back seat to email. Even a phone call is too much sometimes. This does not work in Europe, where business is conducted in person, and preferably with ‘friends’. The whole concept of “it’s business, nothing personal” does not fly here.
    For the Americans; go and see your clients, buy them coffee/tea/vodka, talk about football (not your kind), and let your client bring up business when THEY are ready.
    For the Europeans; help the Americans out, if you’re not getting the service / attention you need, just say so, they will not be offended in any way. Suffering in silence, while very British, is outdated and obsolete;
    o
  3. Culture – In the US, it’s pretty much one culture from Washington State to Florida, from Southern California to Maine. It’s one currency, and one language (unless you live in Miami), so there are no issues providing services from anywhere, to anywhere.
    Not so in Europe, where you can drive 5 minutes and find an ancient enemy, a NEW enemy, 15 different dialects, and barter in chickens. OK, slight exaggeration, sheep are the common currency, but you get the point. You have to be careful sending someone from Greece to FYROM (if they’ll go), from Russia to anywhere else in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), from the UK to …well, anywhere else (hooliganism was invented here). And you want to do business in the Middle East too? Better have two passports.
    If you want to do business in France, hire a dedicated salesperson in France. If you want to do business in Germany, better hire a well known salesperson in Germany, and so on. I’ll translate a rather graphic US colloquialism into ‘Poo, or get off the potty.” i.e. commit local resources, or don’t even bother trying to do business there;
    o
  4. Stop With The Discounts! – The American sales process is the most aggressive, and pressure-filled anywhere in the world. End of month, end of quarter, and especially end of year targets force salespeople to almost throw their services away.  And what do European buyers do? They WAIT for the end of month, end of quarter and end of year to GET the discounts!
    Now combine that with selling multi-year deals AT the big discount, and you’ve just tied yourself into a never-ending spiral of price compression. Not smart;
    o
  5. Give Them Time! – Even more important than not discounting, is giving the European salespeople time to build up a pipeline. It takes a good salesperson a year (especially in security) or more to build up a decent client-base, and if you put too much pressure on too soon, they will quit, and you’ll start all over again. Have that happen too many times and you will ruin your reputation from both the client, and the hiring perspective.
    Don’t make the targets too high to reach, or the constant ‘failure’ will destroy their morale. Setting the bar high so they “don’t slack off the pace” is self-defeating, there are many other ways to motivate the sale-force towards excellence.
    Doing business in Europe is a long term investment, treat it as such. Unless of course you’re only out to make as much revenue as you can before you bail, and then by all means, carry on;
    o
  6. Devolve the P&L – No culture likes to be controlled by a foreign nation (yes, I’m biting my tongue), so devolve the P&L to the local country/region. By all means maintain the US control over the goals/KPIs/targets and so on, but leave HOW they get there to local reps. And no offence, make sure the local reps are LOCAL reps, not ex-pats, unless they’re prepared to stay long-term;
    o
  7. No Arbitrage – Nothing causes more consternation that two completely different bottom line reports because each side chose the most ‘favourable’ FX to make their point. Decide on EXACTLY which currency you will report with, and which FX you’re going to use, right from the beginning, and stick with it;
    o
  8. Visit, and Visit Often – America is so vast and so diverse, it’s understandable that coming over to Europe, with our even stranger languages / cultures, and foods, – black pudding anyone? – can seem a little daunting, but it’s absolutely worth it. Not just to see the sights. Again, Europe is a face-to-face culture, if you want to do business here, you must be seen to care. At the highest levels, do a road trip at least once a year to the more significant of your regional offices, to show not only the clients, but the employees that you’re serious, committed, and approachable.

The population of the EU alone exceeds that of America by almost 200 million, the GDP is on par, and if you throw Africa, the ME, and APAC into the mix, the potential is even more enormous (there are 50 countries within a 4 hour flight from London!).

The world is getting smaller, English is the language of business, and most of the planet really does want what the US has to offer.

It just won’t be on the US’s terms.

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Get Customer Service Right, Or You’re Out of the Game

One of my favourite quotes from The Dark Knight; “You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying!

A little dramatic perhaps – not to mention some of the best acting of all time – but this directly applies to customer service.

Your clients don’t get anywhere near as angry if you come to them with a potential issue, it’s when they have to constantly chase you for resolution of a KNOWN issue that things go horribly wrong.  If your customer service is only ever reactive, you have failed, and if you can’t even react well, you are out of the game.

From my favourite website ever, www.despair.com;

customerdisservicedemotivator

Type in the phrase ‘customer service’ into Google and you’ll get over 8 BILLION results. There are institutions and college degrees dedicated to it, books by the thousand, and articles and blogs by the million (this one is very good; 8 Rules for Good Customer Service, by Susan Ward), yet how do organisations STILL get it wrong?

That’s easy, blame the CEO (or equivalent).

Just as a lack of a security culture is the CEOs fault, lack of a Customer Service culture is every bit as much on their shoulders.  As I stated incessantly; “Let’s be very clear; The CEO sets the tone for the entire company: its vision, its values, its direction, and its priorities.  If the organisation fails to achieve [enter goal here], its the CEOs fault, and no-one else’s.

Replace “enter goal here” with “Customer Satisfaction”  and the rest is the same.

The symptoms of the inability of some organisations to provide good customer service (the CEO being the cause) can include;

  1. Poor selling techniques – if salespeople are not trained to sell only what the customer needs (not wants or even asks for), the organisation behind this salesperson will be unable to support the customers questions.  I don’t care how nice you are, or how great your products, if you’ve sold something the client doesn’t need, they will rarely buy from you again;
    o
  2. Poor products or services – there’s a fairly good chance that if your vendor does not provide good customer service, the other services and products provided by them are suspect, and should be reviewed.  Do your research, and ALWAYS ask for a proof of concept (POC) before you buy.  No POC, no purchase;
    o
  3. Black-hole communication – No-one wants to be yelled at, so if your calls and emails are going unanswered, there’s a very good chance you aren’t going to like the answer when you finally get them.  This is also an extension of 2.  And finally, forget how quickly the salesperson comes back to you BEFORE the sale, how are they immediately after?;
    o
  4. No Customer Service SLAs built in – in other words, if you have to ask for SLAs related to communication, or even something as simple as response times, there’s a good chance you won’t get the service you’re looking for;
    o
  5. Very low renewal rates – include this question in your RFP for new services and products, and have them prove it;
    o
  6. Limited, or no references – this one is too obvious  to expand on, but ignore industry awards, they are a farce.

An organisation that truly embraces a customer service culture will probably allude to it in their Vision Statement, and almost definitely in their Values.  Do business with only those organisations that take the term ‘partnership’ seriously, especially in security, and ANY company that bandies around the phrase ‘Trusted Partner’ needs to be taking client satisfaction to the next level.  Are they?

Good customer service is even simpler than security, and far less difficult to achieve, you just have to treat it as a foundation of doing business.  Your clients happiness is more important than your profit.  If you don’t believe that, you don’t care enough about them to give them what they need.

In one respect or another, we are ALL customer service reps, and this (to me) is the definitive guide to being a good rep; How To Win Friends And Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.

Yes I’ve read it …twice, and yes, I still have a lot of work to do 🙂

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