Category Archives: Customer Service

It’s not the big stuff that destroys trust

We like to highlight the big screwups companies make. Perhaps it’s so we can learn from their mistakes. Perhaps it’s relief that it wasn’t us. Perhaps we just can’t imagine how such a big foul-up could happen.

But honestly? Most of the time it’s the little stuff adding up that hurts a company the most.

The bad customer support interactions, the interrupted service with no communication, the extra charge that takes you 30 minutes on the phone to resolve, the advertisements the company sends you even though you’re already signed up for their service. It all builds, creating a consistently negative perception of the company much deeper than that created by a one-off faux pas.

Then the new guy comes along. He has lower rates, looks great, and when you talk to him on the phone he’s incredibly helpful.

Even if the experience once you sign up might be just as bad as with the old guy, you’re comparing the so-far great new guy to the mental list of all the lame things the old guy did. And then: “What? 50% off my first month? And it’s really easy to switch?” It’s all over at that point.

Sure, have crisis plans and avoid massive screwups. But worry less about the giant disasters. Worry more about death by a thousand papercuts.

People usually have a motivation

I’m late to the party, but ever since I discovered Alex Blumberg’s StartUp podcast, I’ve been devouring it nonstop. I recommend it to anyone who works in startups, owns their own business, or might do one of those two things at some point.

But I specifically need to recommend episode 9, We Made A Mistake, to community management professionals, PR professionals, and anyone who deals with crises and customer feedback.

The story is simple: Alex and his team are doing documentary-style interviews with Squarespace users to splice into their Squarespace ad spots. It’s unique, it’s powerful, and it’s real. But out of all the people they interview, Alex’s assistant drops the ball with just one. She forgets to clarify that this will be used for an advertisement for Squarespace. Oh, by the way: they’re interviewing a small child. Yeah, that’s a big oversight. And the mother of the child, Linda Sharps, gets very upset when she discovers this is an advertisement for Squarespace, not an interview for This American Life. She makes a big deal on the internet, and a crisis begins.

Alex and his team watch as the anger spreads through Twitter. They communicate with and apologize to the woman on the back-end, but they don’t make a public announcement until some time into the crisis, apologizing for the mistake. The story threatens to grow bigger, but finally dies down.

Now, sure, there are some logistical lessons to learn here. Pretty obvious ones:

  1. Always tell someone what their interview will be used for
  2. For very important bits of communication, create formal language and a checklist to ensure you’ve communicated these elements
  3. Get out in front of a story like this

I’m pretty sure Alex knew at least number one, and had they followed the second it’s unlikely we’d be talking about this.

But we get a rare chance to really understand the motivations of a rabble-rouser because something very unique happens: After the crisis, Alex actually interviews the person who created it.

As the interview began, I couldn’t help but feel some disdain. Linda was a freelance writer and marketer. Of COURSE she was. She probably couldn’t WAIT to make a big deal out of this.

But as the interview went on, I realized that was far from the case. When she got the email, which one could easily misread as an opportunity to be on This American Life, Linda was excited for her son. So excited, in fact, that she Instagrammed a screenshot of the email before even responding. You can imagine her crushing disappointment when she found out it was for an advertisement…from a friend who had heard the ad.

But why did she stay upset, even after the team apologized to her? Why was she so aggressive on Twitter? “I think the reason also I was upset is…I was a little embarrassed!” she says. “You know what I mean? In retrospect, I kind of felt like the part of me that is prone to self-doubt was like ‘of COURSE it wasn’t a This American Life story’.”

This is a key insight, and something we often overlook…especially when we’re alarmed and frustrated by someone complaining about us. The main source of Linda’s anger was not actually the miscommunication and misuse. It was that SHE looked and felt dumb. Gullible. Excitable. And private apologies don’t address how you look publicly.

Every crisis and blowup is different. We often assume, from our defensive perspective, that the person causing it is mean, or stupid, or unreasonable. We often fail to understand WHY they’re so upset and WHAT would make them less upset.

There’s no perfect formula for this, but what StartUp might have done is:

  1. Get Linda on the phone (which they did) and spend most of the call understanding why she was so upset (it seemed like they were more focused on explaining themselves).
  2. Examined how they could address her specific source of anger. In this case, how could they make her look good online? An early public post saying “oh my god, we totally screwed up and can see how this was absolutely misleading” could have helped.

Humans are rarely just plain mean or evil. Usually, there’s something driving their behavior. Taking the time to understand it pays dividends when trying to clean up a mess like this.

“If we make an exception for one customer, we’ll have to make them for everyone”

no parking signNo, you won’t.

What percentage of your customers contact customer support? 1%? 5%? Let’s be crazy-generous and say 10%.

What percentage of those ask for an exception? Maybe 50%.

So that’s 5% of your customers you’re giving an exception to.

Sure, maybe word spreads and now 75% of those contacting customer support are asking for an exception. That’s still only 7.5% of your customers.

Exceptions are possibly the most powerful tool you have in delighting customers. Who doesn’t rave about how a customer service agent bent the rules to do something nice for them? Zappos practically built their entire reputation and PR on bending the rules.

Yes, you need to have some restrictions so you don’t break the bank. But if 7.5% of your customers leave delighted and tell 5 friends each, you’ve just increased your userbase by 37%. Not too shabby.


Photo via Patricia H.

Your morning cup of empathy

tip jar

The kid who made my chai this morning was a disaster.

It was his first time on the register in the morning, unclear if he had ever made a chai. He couldn’t find the bring-your-own-cup discount on the register, tried to get the cook to make the chai, couldn’t find the nutmeg, put it in a paper cup instead of my mug, etc.

I remember when I worked at a coffee shop, between freshman and softmore year of college. It was a tiny little place in Nevada City that tended more towards the grab’n’go crowd rather than the lounge’n’sippers. I was terrified of screwing up (and I often did). The thing is, the customers see a sign that lists items they can buy, and they expect to be able to buy those exact items, made as specified by the sign. That’s very reasonable. But when you’re new and have maybe never made that item, don’t know that there’s usually a sprinkling of parsley, can’t get the foaming just right – it seems impossible. People are often impatient and condescending; THEY know how this thing is made, why don’t YOU? Again – it’s not unreasonable, but they don’t have the full context of a kitchen with 300 ingredients and various things tucked in corners you’ve never seen.

Why is this story important? Because empathy is key to community management, customer service, and (in my opinion) life.

I believe empathy is imbued at a very early age by the people around you. When I interview, it’s clear some people have this as a core part of their personality and some people find it foreign.

But just because you’re naturally inclined towards empathy doesn’t mean you’ll always have it. Like a natural inclination towards singing or athleticism, practice is required to keep your skills of empathy handy and top-notch.

I frequently hear folks in customer-facing roles – hell, myself included – say that they often don’t have empathy left for the world when they get out of work. They feel pessimistic and mean. It’s understandable; you’ve used a lot of energy being extremely empathetic.

But that doesn’t mean you should only be empathetic at work. If you want to do your best work for your customers, you need to keep this skill sharp. I could have easily been frustrated with my barista this morning, tapping my foot and criticizing and holding back my tip. Instead, I assured him that it was ok, agreed that the register seemed complicated, and gave him a nice tip.

Practice empathy as much as you can, and it’ll come easier when you’re in that tough situation with a customer yelling at you, or a significant other snapping at you.


Photo via Dennis Miyashiro.

Business is simple

“Business is simple. Management’s job is to take care of employees. The employees’ job is to take care of the customers. Happy customers take care of the shareholders. It’s a virtuous cycle.”

John Mackey, Founder and CEO, Whole Foods Market

Love this quote, which I spotted in Chip Conley’s book Peak. Somehow companies keep forgetting that their customers pay the bills. Why would you accept (even build, in some cases) anything that makes them unhappy?

You’re so vain, you probably think this (support) is about (acquisition)

“When your [customer support] representatives start seeing themselves as marketing staff instead of troubleshooters, they can turn questions and problems into opportunities. They can listen to what the customer wants or needs and:

1) Educate customers about your company

2) Upsell your products

3) Build buzz for upcoming product releases”

From Turning Support into Marketing


I promise you if my support team focused on this, our customers would hate us.

I agree with the premise that support should not just be damage control. I agree that the people on the front lines talking to customers are extremely valuable to the company. I even agree that the occasional upsell can make sense (Warby Parker’s support team just upsold me thinner lenses the other day – after doing an amazing job solving my issues.)

"Notice - prices subject to change according to customer's attitude"But putting the support team under sales or marketing is dumb. Those departments are focused on acquiring customers. While some support work can contribute to acquisition & sales, the goal of support should always be on retaining customers. (And if you don’t think that’s valuable, read Jamie Quint’s post on how it can be MORE valuable than acquisition.)

I’m not trash-talking Sales or Marketing – I’m just saying support goals don’t generally fit into their paradigm. It’d be like moving Sales under Engineering. Does the Sales team have value to the Engineering team? Sure: they can provide customer feedback and find beta testers. Does that mean they should work under Engineering and focus on those tasks? Of course not!

It’s distressing to me how acquisition-minded the tech industry continues to be, despite the waning effectiveness of acquisition channels (see Richard White’s UserConf keynote for a great overview of all of this). Retention is hugely important, and the sooner companies realize this and build departments and executive roles around it – encompassing support and community – the sooner they’ll be poised to survive beyond their early success and buzz.


Full Disclosure: I previously worked for UserVoice, a Desk competitor. I’ve got nothing against Desk though…they were always nice to us. 🙂

Ryanair is failing, and I couldn’t be happier

 Ryanair CEOThe problem with the balance between marketing and caring for customers is that marketing is often immediate. You can put an ad out and immediately see people visiting and signing up and spending money. You put effort into customer service, community building, or just basic user experience and you don’t see an immediate result. But us community professionals swear that you will see a long-term benefit.

That’s why I’m so pleased to note that Ryanair is seeing its worst annual revenues in five years. I’ve been saying for years that Ryanair’s tactics were going to explode in their face, but people kept saying “they’re selling tickets, so apparently is not an issue”. To me, this is fantastic validation that caring for your customers does make a difference and treating them badly does affect the bottom line.

Interviews with me

A few very pleasant folks have interviewed me in the last couple of months, so I figured I’d share those here.

Support-Driven Podcast – Scott Tran interviews me about kicking off a community effort, finding your community niche, and combining customer service & community. Also available on iTunes.

Big Door – I discuss why customer loyalty isn’t marketing, the community management trends I see, and metrics one should look at.

Startup Product Summit – A little bit older, but arguably one of my best and most widely-accessible talks. I cover customer feedback, customer-focused product design, and how to understand when data or customers are misleading you. Slides available here.

Hope you find these helpful, useful, or at least entertaining! 🙂

Why I’ll keep giving Sonic.net money even though their service isn’t working yet

phone wrapped in rubber bands

I’ve had issues with my Sonic.net internet since I moved into my new place. I’m not sure what it is yet, but we’ll get a week of great connection and then suddenly have it drop every 15 minutes. This is understandably frustrating. But what’s not frustrating is Sonic.net’s customer service.

Here’s how my latest call went:

  • I dialed the number.
  • I waited 20 seconds.
  • I was immediately connected to a real, live person.
  • I explained my situation and my previous support history.
  • They had already pulled up my account based on caller ID and didn’t ask me any stupid questions that I had already answered with someone else the last time I called in.
  • They compared my current line status to my past line status and explained what could be happening (yes, the front-line support agents can actually DO stuff instead of just read off FAQ answers).
  • When I explained that I had a slightly older modem, they agreed that it could be an issue and asked if they could explain their modem rental program.
  • They left me the option to buy a modem if I didn’t want to rent, and mentioned that if I do choose to rent I can always cancel the rental and buy a modem.
  • (Also, if the rental dies I just get a brand-new rental.)
  • They were knowledgable about the tech and were able to tell me that my specific modem was known for having issues and that’s why they rent a different modem.
  • When I said “ok, ship it” they asked if I wanted it shipped to my home address, which they already had up on their computer.
  • Once we were done they say “All right, have a great night!”, waited for me to reply, and then hung up. No annoying, mandatory call scripts.

Compare this to AT&T, which I had prior to Sonic.net. I had tons of issues with them and they were horrible to interact with. In fact, I wrote a whole blog post about it for UserVoice. They:

  • Asked for my contact information EVERY SINGLE TIME.
  • Recommended the same dumb fixes EVERY SINGLE TIME (yes, I have turned the modem on and off each time I’ve called you).
  • Didn’t actually know anything technical. I had to deal with people reading from the manual before I could get escalated to folks with real technical skills.
  • Had horrible service hours (between 9a-5p is not a window, it’s a workday).
  • Clearly didn’t care. Everyone I talked to was apathetic and unhappy.
  • Didn’t fix the problem (and then charged me for my final month of service, even though I had zero internet connection that whole time).

I almost enjoy getting support from Sonic.net. They have clearly optimized their experience around customer service, and their staff is obviously empowered to actually do shit. They can tell that I am a reasonably tech-savvy person and don’t treat me like an idiot. And their staff sounds engaged and interested instead of sounding like sweatshop workers. I went through maybe 15 AT&T phone calls and nearly cursed them out. I’ll gladly go through another 15 Sonic.net calls if necessary, because their service is superlative.

Companies like AT&T will continue to see customer service as a cost center, providing the minimal required service while pumping money into user acquisition marketing which, ironically, often shows up in my mailbox. Meanwhile, Sonic.net invests just a bit in empowered, smart support agents, great policies, and simple-but-effective support tools and they’ve got my money for life.

THIS is why service is important.

“Pending” status for support tickets might be useless

I’m moving ZOZI from Zendesk’s helpdesk software to UserVoice‘s (full disclosure: I used to work at UserVoice). As part of my due diligence there was one important thing I had to investigate: the “pending” status.

Zendesk has a few statuses for support tickets: new, open, pending, and solved. UserVoice goes the simple route with simply open & closed. ZOZI, like many companies, uses the “pending” status to indicate that we’re waiting to hear back from the customer. If we don’t hear from the customer after x days, we reach out and remind them that we’re waiting to hear from them. This is often folks whose problems we think we solved, but we want to verify.

(It’s worth noting that when we were developing UserVoice’s helpdesk we interviewed dozens of people who used Zendesk and found that, overwhelmingly, most folks used “pending” to represent tickets they needed to follow up on…but most of these people also admitted they never ended up following up on said tickets.)

My mission: to discover whether setting tickets to “pending” was a positive practice that results in more clarity for customers and higher satisfaction ratings for us…or a waste of our time. I looked at 20 tickets that had been “pending” and 20 tickets that were never set to “pending”.

screen shot of ticket When we sent follow-up emails to customers whose tickets were “pending”, only twice out of the 20 instances did the customer actually respond to the follow-up.

Both times they did respond, the customer was waiting on a third party (we work with vendors who actually run the fantastic experiences we sell). They appreciated the follow-up because they had not heard from the vendor.

There were no satisfaction scores given on any of the “pending” tickets that were followed up on. However, there were two (positive) satisfaction ratings to 20 random tickets that did not use the “pending” status.

My Conclusions:

  1. EXCEPTING cases where we’re waiting on a third party, users do not respond to pending follow-ups. If they didn’t respond before, they’re not going to respond now.
  2. Pending follow-ups do not increase customer satisfaction. Again, they were already done with us.
  3. Pending tickets are in fact less likely to get any sort of satisfaction ratings for the same reason.

Although I wouldn’t call this entirely scientific, it’s my conclusion that the “pending” status and process doesn’t actually benefit our users. Customers who don’t respond, won’t respond. Instead, it wastes agent time and may annoy the customer. We will likely be leaving tickets that are waiting on vendors “open” in UserVoice, as it seems clear that this is the one situation in which checking in is useful. But other than that, we’ll happily leave “pending” in the dust.


Photo courtesy of Delwin.

Updated 11/11 to disclose relationship to UserVoice. Updated 11/12 to provide information on UserVoice’s user research when developing our helpdesk product.