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My New Book #6: Manuscript iterations 1 and 2 complete

Progress markers are starting to appear, now with a set of files that seem to look more like something that could become a book, as opposed to drafts, links, images, and notes.  Here are the latest progress points:

  • Completed Chapter 11 on schedule, marking the finish of the ‘first write’ of the manuscript.  The content is mostly there, in sections and sentences, and with graphics. This was due on 10th March and go in about 9 days early.
  • Spent about 3 weeks getting each of the 11 chapters back from the two Technical Editors, with comments and suggestions.  Somewhat laborious work going through each of these 22 chapters and making changes to my original files.  All credit to my editors for turning these round quickly and including lots of comments and extra information. Also noted was able to add more ‘experience’ to the content based on what they’ve seen as well.
  • Completed the Technical Edit incorporations (including many graphic edits) and all sent to publisher on 2nd April.
  • Did count up of the manuscript so far:
    • 227 pages of text – without graphics/final formatting.
    • 241  graphics – mostly screenshots and diagrams
    • 126,000 words approximately
  • Next the draft manuscript goes to editorial review which is a copy-edit cycle for grammar, typo, style etc. As such another long process of reviewing all 11 chapters (+intro and appendix).
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Categories: Customer Service, NewBook

Customer Support for Cloud Services – Expectations

December 18, 2012 Leave a comment

cloudThis is the first post of a series on how the profile of technical support is evolving with the advent of Cloud Computing.

I have worked with these kinds of services for over ten years now, starting back when a cloud on a diagram meant the internet in general, and as new providers and consumers come into the market it is worth sharing a few personal recommendations and considerations.

My hope is that support is not an after-thought and is considered as a core part of cloud service design.

Accessing applications over the internet is hardly new, but exactly what is being offered has reached a tipping point. Using just a modern web browser and a standard internet connection, it is now finally practical to access the internal business systems that were previously the reason people had to travel to an office. Evolution of I.T. security, networking capabilities, and user interface technologies has finally untethered corporate workers, not to mention allowed the delegation of their provision to expert teams, including from outside the organization.

This is all fabulous, however the reality of trying to work with Business Applications that are managed, maintained, and supported externally contains many subtle considerations that many providers seem to leave as an after-thought.

  • Transparent Processes. Often consumers of cloud services are frustrated by the fact they cannot get administrative tasks done quickly. This can be just as bad internally too, however usually someone knows someone who can help. Once you step outside the organization, the provider creates a process black-hole. As such everyone should be clear how each main category of request is raised, and who is responsible for its completion.
  • Severity Setting. If googlemail is unavailable it’s not critical but if work tasks are impossible things escalate quickly. Many people like to use the utility metaphor, inferring uninterrupted operation and consistent quality, but I think it’s more like TV service than water or power, as even a slight or temporary change in quality is obvious. Any issue that impedes task completion is inherently critical, so automatic fail-over or temporary workarounds need to be readily at hand.
  • Time To Resolution.  Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) are certainly good in principle, however they’re often vague commitments based on operating targets, with little negotiation available to include additional consumer requirements. A classic is the response time targets for different categories of problem, where the actual quality of the response is not-specified, meaning that it could just be an update saying thank you and they’re looking into the issue.
  • Service Administration. Like SLA’s, custom service provision is not scalable, however Business Applications require a certain amount of options. Just like website providers offer pre-built templates, utility tools, and ready-to-install components, the Application provider should consider what value-add services surround the applications use and how these can be implemented in a hands-off, totally reliable way. One example I have seen is a integration hub that allows setup and management of messages in-and-out of the application.
  • Functional Administration – Business Applications rely on extensive feature setup, and some of these items have dependencies that spill over into the technology stack. As such it should be documented exactly which features can be configured under the different levels of access available, including what might require assistance of the service provider – and how to get this completed.
  • Technical Administration – With cloud services now including Platform and Infrastructure as a Service, the provision of administrative consoles and management tools to service consumers should not be of concern. The problem is that for Applications they often run in standardized technology stack configurations that are locked-down to ensure consistency and reliability. Also multi-tenant deployments helps provider cheaper services but prevents any one consumer from changing the underlying shared technology components.
  • Configuration and Customization – In exactly the same way, messing with configurations and adding custom objects and code impacts standardization, the foundation of scalable service provision. Modern applications solutions understand the requirement and are offering ways that abstract changes away from the core instance, thereby retaining the stable base whilst offering the features demanding businesses require. More on this in future posts.
  • Troubleshooting Tools – They key here is to understand WHO is expected to do WHAT and WHEN, and WHICH tools are available to do it. Often cloud-based applications offer some diagnostic tools, however they are rarely publicized and getting solutions requires the service providers input, slowing things down considerably.

Future posts will illustrate in more detail how various features and recommendations can be used to enhance these tricky parts of Cloud support.

Stores of the future are ‘Service Locations’

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

With a slew of rumors that more technology and gadget companies (Google, Microsoft etc) are looking to enter the physical high street with their own stores, it seems likely that what they’ll be trading not in boxed products but primarily in associated marketing and advisory services.

This is an interesting transition, and possibly a glimpse of the future.

As online shopping continues its encroachment on traditional brick-and-mortar, it’s increasingly fueled by more and more comparison sites and related shopping apps. But instead of killing the high street, perhaps it simply gives it a different purpose. Less retail and more promotional.

Obviously emulating the Genius Bar or perhaps premium stores’ superior service, retailers may be forced to transform into a Service Location – a place to go for help, advice, maintenance, and most importantly to learn what to buy online.

Having a physical place to go for product information is great, improving things such as:

  • Conversations with face-to-face experts – much richer than web-forms or call-centers
  • See demos and get real hands-on with a product
  • Learn more about complimentary services and related products
  • Get tips and tricks by watching and interacting with like-minded people

And clearly the web has benefits for transactions, for both consumers and retailers:

  • Easy Product Comparisons
  • Peer Reviews and Expert Information nearby
  • Social Media integration to get friends input
  • Lower Overhead Costs (in-store stockrooms are expensive)
  • Delivery right to your door (often free)
  • Economies in Supply Chain and Fulfillment Processing
  • Some environmental benefits (e.g. fewer plastic bags, efficient drop-ship distribution channels)

So I hope that this leads to a high street of the future with more value-add services and infotainment and less trudging around aimlessly, carrying heavy bags, and general exhaustion!

Accepting Blame Makes Customers Happy

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

In customer support teams we’re trained to give empathy (and sometimes sympathy) although companies are reluctant to explicitly accept blame, presumably for fear of being taken to court.

The word “Sorry” is sometimes used, although this tends to be in standard templates and scripts. I am not a lawyer, however I suspect there is difference between saying sorry and accepting blame.

This came up recently as I read an apology letter from Waitrose (high-end UK supermarket) that contained the following interesting mixture of text:

“I have investigated this matter and would like to assure you that it has been taken up with the Partners concerned. I am very sorry that we have failed to provide you with the quality of service you expect from Waitrose.”

I think following points are interesting:

  1. Shifting the ultimate blame to “Partners”. I guess its capitalized to make it clear that’s someone else.
  2. Presumably the “we” is Waitrose and their Partners … although I suspect the same word would mean Waitrose alone as well.
  3. It seems the issue is closed in the “has been taken up”, presumably passing the complaint over. I probably don’t want more follow up personally, but might like some kind of assurance it will not happen again.

I must say the letter was signed in ink by a human (not a scanned signature graphic) and they also included some vouchers to appease me. So whilst this leaves me fairly happy, there were no “partners” visibly involved from my end and the lack of fully accepting blame might be factually legitimate however I don’t really care how they outsource internal tasks.

I propose companies to swallow their pride and accept blame upfront (irrespective of the consequences), with statements like “… we made [XYZ] mistakes here…” – as it will allow everyone to move on towards a solution.

Categories: Customer Service

How To Get A Great Result From Contacting Customer Services

January 13, 2012 Leave a comment

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As Institute of Customer Service accredited member and advocate, past Customer Service Rep, and currently a designer of customer service tools and solutions, I have some insider tricks to help make consumer customer service a positive experience.

Getting To Solutions Faster

  • Provide a potted history, facts, impacts to you, costs in money/frustration/upset, and estimate wasted time. Be clear on what your expectations were and the reasons for them. Similarly, if things are especially complicated and multiple departments are likely to be involved, ask the service rep to make clear notes on the case record and get them to read them back to you to make sure they’re right
  • Be clear you’re determined to get this sorted out. Do not threaten but try to make it clear that you will not go quietly, and you’ll make sure you share the experience. I even half-jokingly say “here is a challenge for you to prove how good your companies customer service can be”.
  • Log all your efforts (problems, calls etc), a factual record with peoples names, places, dates/times is very useful and powerful. Don’t make it up either, lies are easy to detect in your voice and once you loose credibility you might as well give up.
  • Find and use real examples of similar issues and explain how they have what you want or expect. Think about experiences of relations, friends, or even from news stories. Make the similarities clear. Ideally find ones that involve competitors and subtlety state it as a challenge and opportunity to compete.
  • Establish a personal relationship with the service rep, get them personally involved so they care and go the extra mile. Ask their personal advice – what would they do – and ask them if the understand your expectations and empathize. Get the benefit of their experience. If you keep them onside they’re more likely to make an extra effort.
  • If you’re getting nowhere, use escalation requests (ask to speak with a manager) but be clear why and what you hope it will do, such as answer why something cannot be done or speed thing up.
  • Use social media as well, post on their and your Facebook pages and direct message their twitter account. These are so sensitive areas that they’re often staffed with the best people who have more power to sort things out quickly. Sometimes they’ll only be marketing wonks and just palm you off to customer services dept. Do what they suggest (if you haven’t already), but if solution still remains elusive go back to the same social media accounts to follow up and give case numbers etc. Be persistent and consider extend to writing blog posts on the problem and sharing these as well. Start gradually however often the more noise you make the more attention you’ll get.

Getting Some Compensation

  • Be fairly clear on what you want to make you happy again, although it’s not always sensible to be too abrupt and say “I want some free vouchers as compensation”. Just make it clear that your experience has put you off using the company again, how competitor seem more attractive, and they need to remedy the ill feeling and do something to restore your faith in using them again.
  • And be realistic, don’t push beyond what seems fair compensation based on the extent of the experience. Consider alternatives to refunds or money, such as supporting services and peripheral products.

One last word, help make customer service reps job easy, put yourself in their shoes and try encourage some collaboration together to make things as easy as possible for everyone. Help Them To Help Yourself.

Mining Big Data for Customer Service Experiences

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

A tough one for sure, with service work so variable it’s almost impossible to use rule-based analytics to mine through service records (written, voice, social media) to determine valuable key facts, such as “are our service engineers any good?”, “are our customers really happy?”, “and are we providing what customers want?”.

The raw data is there, in troubleshooting tickets, emails, and whenever you hear “this call maybe recorded for quality control”, however mining it for insight remains largely an arduous manual task, or left to spotty and annoying surveys.

So in theory it’s possible to scan “Big Data” like this for specific patterns in request-response exchanges, however it’s the subtle and variable aspects of human interaction that still kills the effectiveness, consistency, and reliability. Ongoing progress in machine learning should turn this around, replacing the brute force keyword-type scans with intelligent interpretation that allows the system to decipher facts.

There is also another challenge right now – upfront cost.  Since service delivery is often considered a “cost-center” it is hard to make large investments in such development projects without solid evidence-based proof that the results will lead to a real return. Now, if-and-when a software organization builds a system that does this well, those upfront costs are reduced to licensing and maintenance, a much lower barrier to entry.

So my hope is that as Apple Inc has demonstrated with Siri, technology companies are starting to build the technology to understand the subtleties of human interactions, and so the complex analysis of human experiences, like service calls, isn’t far away now.

Gamification is not new

December 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Intrigued by the concept, I’ve been doing some reading/watching around gamification in the workplace and whilst reading this piece something finally dawned on me, gamification is already here.

For those keen to climb the corporate ladder, win new customers, and score the big bonus, the elements of game playing and competition are right there. Even those wishing to standout just enough to keep their jobs have to win the praise of management to achieve a a good performance appraisal score.

So I think gamification really just offers the icing on the cake, such as:

  • Better visibility into relative performance
  • More opportunities to compete
  • An engaging process and tool-set for competing
  • Opportunity to make things a bit more fun
  • Opportunity to use more technology!

Clearly there is a difference between competition and gamification, however the whole workplace could be considered one of many games.

Applying software-based games, in my opinion, should increase visualization and engagement, but without proper care is unfair and could be dangerous to enforce across people with different roles, goals, personalities, and unique skills.

Anyway, one amusing example is my daughters school just offered 20 house-points to any child whose parents bake a cake for the Christmas Fair, there you go Gamification in the wild!