Taco Hell

July 17, 2009 - Leave a Response


I’m an occasional bicyclist but at times I can be avid. During one of those times, I had the daily opportunity to make 25-mile bicycle excursions in the suburbs of Baltimore (thanks to unemployment). And about once a week I found it necessary to offset all this healthiness with a meal from Taco Bell.
Nothing can accentuate a job search like a bean burrito, no onions. Now if you have the poor neurological disposition to frequent “the Bell” you’ll notice they don’t really offer any facilities for the bicycle enthusiast. No bike rack, or poles to lock up a bike to, and they tended to frown upon a sweaty, spandexed man bringing his two-wheeled steed, covered in road grime, into to what I hesitate to refer to as their dining room.
So, I used the drive thru. And had used the drive thru several times until that habit was brought to a halt faster than a bean burrito, no onions, can bolt it’s way out of your lower intestine.
Let me set the scene. I waddled up to the speaker box, and waited for the familiar pre-recorded, ”Welcome to Taco Bell have you tried our Seven Layer Burrito? May I take your order?” (Am I the only one who finds it deeply saddening that the greeting at a drive thru has to be recorded by a company spokes model?) But there was no pre-recorded branding effort, only silence, interrupted by the occasional grumble from my stomach, “Hey! Where’s that stuff that tastes like food but works like a laxative? Let’s get this train a rollin’!”
I could see the Taco Bell Employee (taco taker? Bell boy?) perched in her bulletproof cubicle awaiting (like a trapdoor spider) the next opportunity to serve the unsuspecting public. I surmised that possibly the light weight of my “ride” hadn’t tripped the magic sensor that alerted El employee to my presence, so I cleared my throat and rapped on the speaker box. Still no response. I waved, nothing, said “hello” to the speaker box, whistled that jaunty whistle that Lou Costello used to alert Bud Abbot of the mummy’s immediate presence, but still nothing. Possibly the Bellivator Operator had taken a siesta?
And then she stared at me, correction, glared at me. What had I done wrong? Bike pants don’t have zippers, so that wasn’t it. Had I offended this female in the past? (Do you remember in the film “Terminator” when you would see things from the robot’s point of view? There would be lines of data as he checked his memory for the corresponding information. That’s what happens in my mind when a woman glares at me. Thanks mom.) OK, I thought, I’ve somehow pissed off the person who I’m trying to purchase food from. “Would you like hot or mild employee spit on that?”
She then stepped on the magic button that opens her window and hollered, loudly, “We don’t serve bikes!”. Aghast, yes my life is THAT boring, I looked at the speaker and retorted, “but you’ve served me before.” Long Pause, “Hello?”. (I’ve since surmised that the Taco Bell of the Ball equated communicating through the speaker box as “servicing” me. And since they “don’t serve bikes!”, well you see her conundrum.) I decided that this “We don’t serve bikes!” warranted further investigation.
I waddled up to the window. (explanation: when you road ride you need the bicycle seat higher than the handlebars so you get full leg extension. Instead of “mounting” the bike for short distances you walk it up, which, due to the bike frame, appears as a waddle) I stood directly in front of the Taco Bell employee, mere inches from the bean burrito, no onions, and she would NOT make eye contact. Now I’m used to women ignoring me but this wasn’t a date. After 20 seconds or so I reached out and knocked on the 2-inch thick window. She (we’ll call her Kim) dragged her eyes up and gave me that look which I believe was reserved for dirty diapers and toe nail fungus. It succeeded in saying, “I hate you” and “I don’t recognize your right to exist” all at the same time, while appearing bored as well. Kim pressed the magic foot button; the glass partition opened and she repeated at the same volume, “We don’t serve bikes!”
“Yeah I heard you the first time… Why?”
A look came across Kim’s face that told me her extensive training hadn’t covered this aspect of customer interaction. “I don’t know, we just don’t.”
“But you’ve served me before, what’s changed?”
Kim’s mouth hung open for an awkwardly long time. (If she had been replaced by an evil Star Trek robot she would have repeated “Error! Error! Error!” until her head exploded. Where’s Spock when you need him?)
I interrupted her stupor,” Can I talk to a manager?”
“Tanya! Customer!” Door shuts.
Tanya appeared, but I was under whelmed. Her uniform was eerily similar to Kim’s, maybe a little more “broken in”. (Manager? I think not. Lead prep maybe.) Behind the barrier Kim & Tanya had an intense discussion, they paused, looked at me in tandem with distaste, then continued their intense discussion. Tanya took a deep sigh as if to steal herself, gathered her thoughts, looked me in the eyes (door opened) and said, “We don’t serve bikes.”
NOTE: At this point a “real” customer, i.e. car had pulled into the drive thru. I was now not just an irritant but an irritant blocking the profitability of the entire Taco Bell family of Mexican-like eateries. Can you smell what the bicyclist is cooking?
A question came to my mind, ”Do you serve motorcycles?”
Tanya, rolling her eyes, “Yeeees.”
“Well legally, I’m the same thing.”
Tanya’s mouth was now gaping open as well. (Great, I’d now succeeded in breaking TWO Taco Bell employees. Productivity was gonna’ be way down in store #2416)
I roused her from her mental vacation, “Tanya, can I talk to a real manager?” (I know this comes across as “snippy” but she responded with a palpable look of relief.)
“Roger! Customer!” Door shuts.
Roger appears and he’s wearing a tie! Now I’ve hit fast food pay dirt. And the tie was adorned with little bells! They don’t hand those out to just any night manager, this was a power broker in the world of tortillas. My pulse quickened. Roger, through an intensive fact finding discussion, gathered the events up to this point, looked me over, adjusted his tie, opened the glass and confidently stated, “Sir, we don’t serve bikes.”
I’ll admit, the tie and the “sir” along with Roger’s air of refried bean power were seductive. But the combination of hunger and the strong sarcasm chromosome my people brought to this land kicked in. I went into full district attorney during cross-examination mode.
“Really Roger? You don’t serve bikes? If someone had just told me that we could have avoided all of this unpleasantness.” (It’s hard to write sarcastically, but let’s just say that there was sarcastic collateral damage a quarter mile in all directions) “Let me ask you Roger, why have you served me in the past?”
“Ummm”, Roger countered.
Where does it say you don’t serve bikes in your policy?
Ummm, touché Roger
Do you serve motorcycles?
You know that legally we’re the same thing.
I guess, his left eye was twitching
Do you have a bike rack?
Do you have anyplace I can lock my bike up?
Not really, lower lip quivering
Are bikes allowed in the restaurant?
I don’t think so. Skin ashen, sweat on brow
So, let me condense what you are saying Roger. Although you have no policy, no postings, no legal foot to stand on, you’re saying Roger, although you’ve served me in the past that you won’t allow me to spend my money at your or for that matter any Taco Bell in this fine nation ever again! Is that what you’re saying Roger?
He staggered back, the window closed, I was sure Roger was either going to pass out or vomit. Kim and Tanya looked on in dismay at the quivering hulk that mere seconds ago had been their gordita wrapped leader. He summoned his strength, opened the window a sliver (which I didn’t know you could do) and sputtered, ”Give him what ever he wants Kim.” Roger skulked off to drown his sorrows in whatever fermented taco sauce is called.
I pulled out my slim wallet, opened the Velcro (did I say I looked cool?) and prepared to place my hard fought for order. And there was Kim, my original porter on this Mexican-like escapade. She looked me square in the eyes and said, “I guess all that whining got you what you wanted, didn’t it?”
I was so famished that I didn’t reply, but as my order was being filled, I tattooed upon my frontal lobe the customer service phone number and branch number for Taco Bell’s corporate offices.

I scarfed down my bean burrito with no onions while dialing the number at home. I believe, that I spoke to almost 20 employees at Taco Bell. I spoke with a vice president of marketing, at least five customer service reps, an area manager, a District manager, and the mid-Atlantic vice president. I was invited to lunch with one of the District managers, we sat and chatted about all the things that could be fixed at Taco Bell. It was a long lunch. Then days later, I began to receive coupons, billions and billions of coupons. It has been 15 years since the initial event and I still have never paid for a Taco Bell meal. Somewhere in the stacks of coupons I believe I received an actual deed to a Taco Bell franchise. (I can be very convincing on the phone) It was a Taco Bell somewhere in the deep South so I didn’t really want it, I threw it back, so to say.

Then the weather turned cold, and bicycling was out of the question. When suddenly a day rose like the dawn, warm and full of possibilities. I biked for 25 miles that day, and as the ride was ending I decided to give my local Taco Bell another chance. I bicycled up to the speaker. And I could see behind the glass, a different Taco Bell employee. Not Kim! I looked her in the eyes and she gave me a warm knowing glance, opened the glass, and shouted, “ we don’t serve bikes!”


1 is the lonliest number

July 8, 2009 - Leave a Response

Stephen Wright says, “I think it’s unfair that the game Monoploy is only made by one company.” But, sadly, I believe we will have more monopolies in our future. During this economic downturn companies have gobbled up their competitors at a phenomenal rate. The companies see a chance to solidify their position in the marketplace however, I don’t think they see the possible customer service downside.

Being the sole provider of any service is actually a very dangerous place to be. I use as an example the monolith known as Comcast. Here in Maryland for decades Comcast was the only provider of cable services/ high speed internet. And during those years they built up quite a history of poor customer service. Just Google “Comcast customer service” and be prepared to see thousands of websites dedicated to despising this company. When you are the only company providing a service there is nothing to compare you against. And comparison is how we measure success.

Pepsi versus Coca-Cola, Burger King versus McDonald’s, Ford versus Chevy all examples of competitive environments that have benefited both competitors. By highlighting the differences between the two companies you not only create a measuring stick but a loyal customer base as well. Customers define themselves by which company they support.

But monopolies don’t have this luxury. The only thing that a monopoly is compared against is themselves. And that’s a losing proposition. If your employees fail to improve on every service offering then invariably you create a disappointed customer. The expectation becomes poorer service on every interaction. Additionally, no matter how good the training, employees in a monopoly can be inherently arrogant. If you’re the only show in town, improving the show seems to be the least important priority. Customer service surveys become pointless when the only goal is to defeat yourself.

In Maryland , Verizon has grown dramatically not based on any improved service but ,IMHO, on the years of unmet expectations delivered by Comcast. Customers flock to any competitor when leaving a monopoly. Look at Microsoft, for decades they were despised and hated for their monopolistic activities. But with the recent rise of Apple Microsoft finally has an opportunity to compare themselves against somebody. And this hasthrust them into a better light. In the world of customer service competition and comparison is key.

The motor vehicle administration pops to mind, the MVA has a reputation as a buerocratic monolith. A well-deserved reputation I might add. Their main headquarters here in Maryland is affectionately referred to as the Death Star. Even when they get it right, it’s a lose/lose scenario.

I recently had to get a new driver’s license and I went to my local MVA office with a sense of trepidation. I entered at 11 in the morning on a Thursday, and left the building seven minutes later with a brand-new license and a sense of befuddlement. It was fast, it was efficient, the employees were friendly and I didn’t tell anyone. I ask you, who praises the MVA? Who wants to risk becoming a social pariah? Praising the MVA is akin to praising the IRS. It just isn’t done. Plus, now I feel like I’m set up for the fall. I can guarantee, almost assuredly, that my next MVA interaction will falter by comparison.

So what’s the point? I guess it’s keep your competition. Standing alone, with no comparison, is a very slippery place to be.

Link to PC World

June 4, 2009 - Leave a Response

A good friend sent me very entertaining article written by a “customer service” rep at a large ISP.

VERY honest and a little sad/scary. Please take a look. Thanks RG!

The Endorphin Factor

June 1, 2009 - Leave a Response
High School all over again

High School all over again

Here comes another cliché, it’s a win-win! Meaning, of course, that both parties get something out of the transaction. In the world of business that usually means the customer gets a product or service and the company gets the customer’s money. But what about the employee? What do they get out of it? The logical answer, would be that they get paid {especially in this economy). I don’t think that’s enough. Let me clarify.
I am not a fan of Tim Burton’s remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” but there is a scene within the film that helps make the point that money isn’t everything. In the scene, Charlie has gotten the final golden ticket and he’s decided that it would be smarter to sell the ticket than to take the trip into Willy Wonka’s factory. Charlie’s grandfather pulls him aside and says,” There’s plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket– There are only 5 of them in the whole world, and that’s all there’s ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. “ Even poor movies have great lines sometimes.
Ooh! There’s another movie with a scene that makes the point as well. I am one of the few fans of the deeply flawed but, I feel, greatly underestimated film “Joe versus the Volcano”. It starred Tom Hanks and a pre-plastic surgery Meg Ryan and in this scene Joe, played by Hanks, has just learned that he has a terminal disease and decides to quit his job. He begins to storm out of the office when he realizes that he should say something as a parting commentary, especially to his boss Mr. Waturi.
Joe: This life… Life, what a joke. This situation, this room…”
Mr. Waturi: “Uh, Joe, maybe you should just go.”
Joe: “You look terrible, Mr. Waturi. You look like a bag of bleep stuffed in a cheap suit. Not that anyone could look good under these zombie lights. I… I… I… I can feel them sucking the juice out of my eyeballs. Suck! Suck! Suck! Suck! Suck! $300 a week. That’s the news. For $300 a week I lived in this sink. This used rubber.”
Mr. Waturi: “You watch it, mister. There’s a woman here!”
Joe: “Don’t you think I know that, Frank? Don’t you think I am aware there is a woman here? I can smell her like… like a flower. I can taste her like sugar on my tongue. When I’m 20 feet away, I can hear the fabric of her dress when she moves in her chair. Not that I’ve done anything about it. I’ve gone all day everyday not doing, not saying, not taking the chance for $300 a week. And, Frank, the coffee, it stinks. It tastes like arsenic. These lights give me a headache. If they don’t give you a headache, you must be dead! So, let’s arrange the funeral.”
Mr. Waturi: “You better get outta here. I’m telling you.”
Joe: “You’re not telling me nothing.”
Mr. Waturi: “I’m telling you!”
Joe: “Why, I ask myself, have I put up with you? I can’t imagine. But I know. It’s fear. Yellow, freaking fear. I’ve been too chicken-bleep afraid to live my life, so I sold it to you for $300 freaking dollars a week! You are lucky I don’t kill you! You’re lucky I don’t rip your freaking throat out! But I’m not going to! Maybe you’re not so lucky at that, because I’m going to leave you here, Mr. Whahoo Waturi. What could be worse than that? DeDe?”
DeDe (Meg Ryan): “Yeah?”
Joe: “How about dinner tonight?”
DeDe: “Yeah, okay.”
Okay, I think I’ve drilled that point home enough, I don’t believe customer service employees provide service solely because of the salary. The supervisor might think so, they might think so, but I think many employees stay in customer service because they’re junkies. More specifically, endorphin junkies. It feels good to help people! And that, “feeling good” , produces endorphins and these endorphins are as much a drug as heroin, crack or meth. But they’re all natural!
It makes sense, humans are social animals. But to be social animals there has to be some benefits for the individual members of the herd. What does a herd animal receive when they assist another member of the herd? Endorphins! We say that it’s better to give than receive, but if all you’re doing is giving that’s not necessarily true. You’ve got to get something in return and the something you get is an endorphin rush. And that makes you want to help again.
I’m probably making this sound too clinical. But if companies and managers focus entirely on salary and benefits when trying to motivate the team they are missing a huge chunk of the puzzle. And I understand why, it’s not “cool” to talk about good feelings, it’s hard to bring up endorphins in a team meeting. However, if this area of customer service is ignored or avoided the company and the customer will pay the price. 2 book recommendations here, both in part written by Tom Rath, ”Vital Friends” & “How Full is your Bucket?” Both short, succint tomes that cover this subject better than I ever could. Look into it, you might get some Endorphins out of it. Score!

Re: peeves

May 16, 2009 - One Response

The majority of the comments I received on my last blog about customer service pet peeves were focused on phone trees. We’ve all been there, you call a company’s customer service number and instead of talking to an actual person you are shuttled from one phone prompt to another while your frustration builds.

Let me make one thing clear, in my opinion if you don’t actually talk to or meet face-to-face a representative of the company then you shouldn’t call it customer service. And the computerized female voice that listens to my prompts doesn’t count either. Neither do websites. All of these tools, while informative, don’t provide any service. They are additions to the product or service and in my mind fill the same role as instruction manuals.

Customer service means people talking to people (cue Streisand song) and sadly, while not extinct, this type of service is definitely on the endangered list. And I can see why, hiring, training and motivating staff takes money, time and a commitment that most companies just don’t have. Especially public companies, when you’re focusing on your stock quote it’s easy to be tempted by short-term gains.

Put yourself in the shoes of the CEO. You know that people are your most expensive asset, and talented people are even more pricey. But you also know that your product isn’t perfect and to nullify your customers you need some sort of resource to address them. So you set up a phone tree, it handles more phone calls using less employees and gives the false impression you care. Like a dog chasing their tail you give your customers the illusion of action. But your customers aren’t stupid, they realize what you’re doing and it damages the relationship. Every additional prompt, every additional phone dead end leaves your customers with the impression that you don’t care or even worse you are trying to hide something.

The cry, “I just want to talk to a real person!”, is being expressed with greater and greater volume as this travesty is propagated. Sadly, even when you reach a real person the training they receive leaves them wholly unprepared to deal with an increasingly frustrated and non-trustful customer. Some companies, disturbingly, have gotten rid of people altogether. Go to most major company websites today and you’ll find it difficult, if not impossible, to find a phone number or even company address. They utilize kilobytes of web space answering frequently asked questions, defining their company mission and espousing how customer focused they are. Yet they blatantly cloak themselves at every turn.

Next time you purchase something, anything, ask, “What is your customer support like?”. Is it just websites and phone trees? How easy is it to reach a real person? Where are these people located? Are they your employees? When you ask these questions you start to get an insight into what’s really important to the companies. Everyone talks about quality and value but after the purchase has been made and the money has been spent that’s when you really see what differentiates the good from the bad.

Last thought: someone smarter than me proposed a really cool idea. What if, when we didn’t get the support we wanted from a company or the product didn’t deliver on its promises the money we spent stopped working? Think about it, the toaster you just bought breaks, it doesn’t work, wouldn’t it be neat if the money you gave them stopped being useful as well? The paychecks it was part of, the investments it was in and the stock dividends it was part of all “froze”. That would be so cool! Companies would scurry like ants in a rainstorm to fix whatever problem occurred. They need to make your money work again. I know it’s a dream, but it is one sweeeeeeeet dream.

More 2 come.

Pet “Peeves” Sounds

April 30, 2009 - 2 Responses
Can you feel the BASS?

Can you feel the BASS?

It’s really just three words, “is that all?”. Just a small utterance that can destroy a lovely customer service experience. I know it’s silly, I’m actually a little bit embarrassed to admit it, but there it is.

My deep dislike for the term “is that all?” (ITA) started in the 80s (like so many other bad things). I was in college and starting a small DJ business and the one missing component, literally, was a good pair of speakers. I cobbled together what meager savings I had, took a small loan from my parents, and went out to buy a pair of Bose 901 speakers. In 1986 they cost an astronomical $1000 a pair and that was without stands or any accoutrements included. At that time, these speakers were the single largest purchase I’d ever made. (One statement on the Bose 901 series IV speakers, they still rock! In my opinion, with proper amplification they could vibrate most single-family homes into rubble.)

In the greater Baltimore metropolitan area there were only one or two retail facilities that carried Bose speakers and I went to the cheapest. “Luskin’s”, their motto was ”the cheapest guy in town” and their price on the Bose’s was a few bucks cheaper than the competition. So I took my thousand dollars plus tax into Luskin’s, strolled back to the Bose section, loaded the two separate crates onto my cart and headed toward the checkout. The cashier, loudly snapping her gum, had hair dyed pink and that certain attitude that said, “I hate you but not enough to not take your money.” (I now refer to this look as the dead eyed stripper) She eyed me over with disdain and said the now infamous, “is that all?” I was shocked, appalled, and a little emasculated (yes my life is that sad). She could have said the same thing while pointing at my naked manhood and it wouldn’t have hurt as much.

Is that all? This was every dime I could scrape together! This was my hope for the future, and a rather hefty investment into a fairly questionable career choice. Is that all? Was there something else I need to buy? Is there some dollar limit that, if exceeded, you wouldn’t say “is that all”?

What could she have said instead of ITA? A few suggestions pop to mind. Is that everything? Did you find everything okay? Can I ring this up for you? Even, and I know I’m dreaming here, a possible complement on the fine purchase I had just made? “Oh, these speakers turn me on, let me write down my phone number on the back of your receipt. Call me!” (Wink wink)

Almost 1/4 century has passed since that experience and yet I still bristle when I hear “is that all”. I should move on, shake it off, rub some dirt into the wound, but no! Whether I’m buying a car, groceries or a pack of gum the customer service experience can still be tainted by those three little words.

We’ll that’s my little pet peeve, what’s yours? Do you have a dirty little customer service secret? If so, let me know. Get it off your chest! Admitting that you, or in this case they, have a problem is the first step to closure. Send me your comments and I’ll make sure to pass them along.

(After reading this blog the truly sarcastic of you should of course say, “is that all?”)

From the Mouths of Angry, Angry Babes.

April 25, 2009 - Leave a Response

As some of you might know, about two months ago my position of 8 years was “eliminated” or I was laid off to use the common definition. The Department of Unemployment decided it was time for me and other unemployed folks to take a mandatory class in the basics of job searching. It wasn’t totally awful. I met some nice people, and learned a good deal about some of the training opportunities now offered through the federal government.

The attendees were quite a mix of different ages and experiences, from various industries and with many different attitudes towards their present predicament. Many, as you would expect, came from the customer service industry and 2 attendees said something I found very interesting. One gentleman stated that he had lost all patience with customers and couldn’t do it anymore. Another young woman informed the group that one of the reasons she lost her previous position, according to her supervisor, was because she couldn’t lie well enough. It was, of course, a customer service position.

Let me address the first speaker. What type of job does he think he’s going to find that doesn’t involve customers of some type? The nightmare scenario would be, of course, that he acquires a managerial position that oversees customer service providers. Pray for them.

Let me make one thing clear, he didn’t seem like a bad guy, just burnt out. I truly believe that all employees really want to provide the best possible customer service. They understand intrinsically that happy customers are easy customers and in the long run making your customers happy leads to success and job fulfillment. But then they run into, what I call, a 4 percenter. Let me clarify. (Warning! Statistical information about to be disseminated!) At any point, any company has about 20% to 25% of their customers unhappy about something. Could be minor things, could be major things, but in a world controlled by perceptions, an unhappy customer is an unhappy customer. Companies can lower that number (much more on that in the future) but even in companies that perform immaculate customer service, there is still this 4% anomaly. Whether its Disney or Trader Joe’s or Nordstrom, nothing the company does can eliminate the 4%s. Why is this? Because 4%s are going to be unhappy no matter what you do. I’m no psychologist, but I believe they might be psychopaths. They want a fight. They want employees in panic mode. And like a category five hurricane, they’re only happy when they’ve inflicted the most possible damage. Misery and fear are the only motivators of a 4%er, and they’re not satisfied (I hesitate to use the word happy) until they’ve laid waste to everyone and everything they encounter. (Side note here: I don’t mean to come across as pessimistic but I believe that by failing to address 4%ers we’re doing a great disservice to trainees and their expectations.)

Okay, you’re a new employee, it might be naïve, but you want to make your customers happy. And, you believe you can! But the odds are that, generally, one out of every four of your customers is going to be unhappy. And in the best-case scenario, it’s a guarantee that one out of every 25 customers is going to be a 4%er. Most training doesn’t address this, most managers don’t care, and the employee’s high hopes slowly erode until we are left with the gentleman I saw in training. He believed he had run out of whatever magic fairy dust he needed to deal with customers. And, more sadly, he had lost hope of ever finding it again. So now, he was unemployed and searching for a new position with this type of attitude. Godspeed dear traveler.

Now, let’s address the second attendee. One of the reasons she was selected for a layoff was, according to her, because her supervisor felt she wasn’t a good enough liar. I believe her. I have seen this scenario too often. There are small lies in customer service (please pay attention to the recording as our phone options have recently been changed) and big lies in customer service (I’m sure Mr. Madoff will return your call soon) but they all lead to damage within the customer provider relationship.

Once I called the customer service desk for a major cable company and began speaking with someone who obviously was not raised in the United States and not stationed anywhere in the United States. Yet, when I asked her where she was located she informed me that she was “in the states”. I’m a 43-year-old man and I’ve never had someone refer to his or her location in the US as “in the states”. It was an obvious lie, and everything she said before and after that was now suspect. (I had a similar situation with a client who wanted my employees, who are based in the Baltimore area, to tell customers that they were actually based in Kansas City. I wouldn’t allow it, because even a small lie creates a loss of trust.)

If you’re going to require your employees to lie then don’t call it customer service, call it sales! (Oh great, now I’ve offended all the sales people out there. Chill, I’m just messing with you.) Phone trees, voicemail, websites that distance employees from customers have all created an environment that has raised the stakes when actual customer contact occurs. To cheapen this all-important moment with a lie damages your employees and reduces the value of every product offered.

Does this seem simple? Doesn’t it seem like common sense? Yet companies, and you know this is true, are losing customers and thus millions of dollars every day because they would rather train their employees poorly (or not at all) and provide them with illogical, immoral, standards. It’s an old saying, but I think it applies even more today than it did in the past, “they are stepping over dollars to pick up dimes”, and people are losing their jobs because of it.

Customer Service B.C. (before computers)

April 20, 2009 - 3 Responses

peoplesGrowing up in the 1970s in a small Maryland town we only had one major drugstore, the now defunct Peoples Drug and like most successful drug stores Peoples only had 10% of its shelves dedicated to actual medicine. The rest was taken up with make up and toys, candy and magazines, and all variety of products designed to attract one and all. As a preteen male I shopped there often. I stopped by one summer day to check out the latest issue of National Lampoon (it was one of the few magazines that made me laugh and also showed the occasional naked female) and not having the bravery or monetary wherewithal to purchase the magazine I instead chose my favorite flavor of Bubble Yum (grape, duh) and proceeded to the line. Standing before me in line was an early teen female (we’ll call her Daisy) carrying, what I believe, was the largest package of feminine hygiene product I had ever seen. (I have since encountered a 55-gallon drum of maxi pads but that’s another story) Out the store’s windows I could see Daisy’s mother parked and waiting impatiently in the Fire Lane. Daisy was desperately trying to not make eye contact with anyone as the line slowly crept forward.

Now remember at this time, there were no barcodes on the merchandise, no scanners and no software that allowed the transactions to speed along. The cashier (we’ll call him Chip) had to read the price off the orange sticker on the side of the product, punch the price into the cash register, take the cash from the customer (we didn’t have debit cards) and actually do the calculations in his head to give the proper change. Now these orange price stickers were the flaws in the system, in many cases they were illegible and often missing entirely. When the sticker was AWOL, Chip would call upon (literally) his trusty sidekick (we’ll call him Corky) Corky’s role was to scurry around the store until he found the price/product and shout out the accompanying information to Chip.

I followed my line mate Daisy as we proceeded to the cash register. Put yourself in Daisy’s shoes, she was 13 maybe 14 tops, it was a warm June day and she was buying her mother a gargantuan sized package of unmentionable product which she would acquire with the help of two teenaged boys, the aforementioned Chip and Corky. It probably couldn’t get worse for Daisy but then Mr. Murphy raised his ugly head.

Daisy reached the register, hoisted up her palette of product with a resounding thump and Chip began his perusal. No sticker on that side, not on this side either, maybe Chip should lift it over his head and look on the bottom, nope not there either. Daisy was slowly sinking into a puddle of embarrassment sweat, when Chip grabbed his microphone, and summoned his serf Corky. Chip shouted out the product, brand name, and size of the package and sent Sir Corky scurrying upon his quest. Peoples Drug was at least a 10,000 square foot space, so there was the expected wait, the expected sighs of frustration from those behind Daisy and the expected mortification of Daisy herself. After a few minutes, like a prairie dog scanning the grasslands, Corky raised his head above the aisles and shouted, “Are they the kind you push in with your thumb or the ones you have to hammer in?!”. There was a microsecond of stunned silence, everyone in line was either appalled or, like myself, unaware of just how difficult feminine hygiene products were to utilize. Did the package include a hammer? My respect and fear of the female gender only grew.

Chip, after a second or two of incomprehension shouted what we were all thinking, “What?!”. Noticing the disconcerted look upon Chip and our faces, Corky explained, “Thumbtacks!”. A wave of relief passed over Chip, “No! Playtex!”. The “Oh” look appeared on Corky’s visage, along with a smile, as he hurried to an entirely different part of the store. All eyes now turned to Daisy who had liquefied into a puddle of fluster and humiliation. As if on cue, Daisy’s mother honked in frustration, “What’s the holdup? C’mon already!”.

So why do I bring up this tale of embarrassment and woe? Well, let’s fast-forward the same story to today. Daisy would walk up to a self-checkout or in the worst case scenario an actual cashier and, Bob’s your uncle, 15 seconds later she’s hopping into Mom’s car with no trauma whatsoever. Technology saves the day. Or does it? Everything’s faster, which limits the amount of time you have to impress your customer. And since speed is one of our expectations, anything you do to increase the length of time spent with your customers will seem as an inconvenience to many of those patrons.

My premise is that the speed of life is a major factor leading to a perceived lack of customer service. A vicious cycle that says you increase the rapidity to increase customer satisfaction, which actually reduces your opportunity to deliver great, service which lowers customer satisfaction.

Any chance you do have to interact with the customer better be superior, concentrated service or you may never get that chance again. This is why processes and design can be the customer service factors they never were before. More to come.

Non-Profit Prophet

April 8, 2009 - 2 Responses

Have you ever noticed, and I have, that sometimes you get better service from volunteers than you do from employees? I’ve seen this at various charity events, my local library and school activities. Why? I think there’re several reasons and I believe that businesses can learn something from them. Ask yourself, what makes a volunteer different from an employee? 3 points; they’re not doing it for money, it’s usually for the short-term, and it usually makes them feel good about themselves. How many customer-service employees do you think can say the same?

Let’s break that down into its parts, is it about the money? Could not getting a paycheck actually make a job more worthwhile? I recently volunteered to clean a creek in my area, I wasn’t paid, and the job was hard, dirty and, honestly, pretty disgusting. We’ve all heard “they couldn’t pay me enough to do that job!”, and the creek cleanup was definitely a job that would fit into that category. But I did it, joyfully and felt pretty good about it afterwards. Would I have felt just as good if they paid me? I don’t think so. I honestly think that if I had been paid to clean up the creek it would have been more disgusting, harder and not nearly as much fun. Weird. What about money changes our outlook about the jobs we need to do? I don’t have an answer. I’m just asking.

Point 2; It’s for the short term or, I’m throwing this out there, you can quit whenever you want to without any negative connotations. Maybe it’s because volunteering isn’t a career or in the colloquial a “job”. Maybe the very fact that most jobs are acquired with the long-term in mind changes the way we approach them. I think there’s something to that. Most volunteer jobs have a definite start and stop time. You can see the conclusion or goal and thus get that immediate sense of accomplishment from a goal reached. Plus, because they’re short-term, volunteering allows us to step into someone else’s shoes without the price of ownership. During the creek cleanup I got that dirty grimy feel that I imagine field biologists and archaeologists get all the time. We’ll get back to this point.

I think the last point is the most important. Most volunteers feel good about what they’re doing; they feel like they’re making a difference, making a contribution. And that allows them to perform tasks without pay, with minimal training, that many employees would feel are beneath them. This is key! If I walked up to many volunteers and asked them what their goal or mission is they’d probably have a good answer for me. “I’m making the environment cleaner”, “it’s a good way to support my kids and their school”, “I’m hoping what we do here can help bring an end to this terrible disease.” (Psychology experiment: take two groups of volunteers and tell them to fold towels. Simply give instructions to one group. But tell the other group that these towels will be used in hospitals to swaddle newborn infants. Which group would be faster? Which group would have more fun? Which group’s towels would look better? )

My point is that most volunteers know their short-term goals, have a definite endpoint in mind and can tell you the impact of their labors. I challenge that most customer-service employees wouldn’t be able to give you any of this information.

Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a company that doesn’t have a mission statement or a vision. They bring in consultants; maybe even have an off-site meeting trying to create these statements. Which in most cases their employees don’t understand, don’t know and have no real impact on their lives. Let me drag out my soapbox. Hear ye! Hear ye! To any and all business owners, if it’s not to be used and your employees don’t know it, don’t waste your time! You don’t need another plaque at corporate or another page in your orientation binder. Kill the useless Vision/Mission Statement! Slides the box away.

I believe in my heart of hearts that most people want to make a difference. If you can give your employees something to believe in, something they think will make the world a better place, they might work for free. And probably do a better job than most highly compensated, highly trained employees ever could. Plus, if you give them daily, attainable goals they’ll accomplish much more in the long run. (Side Note here: your employee’s mission doesn’t have to be shared with stockholders. Once they see the money they won’t care anyway. )

“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is sometimes attributed to Confucius. I think it could also go, “Find a company you love, that makes a difference and you’ll never want another job.”

Crush Depth

April 6, 2009 - 3 Responses

Let me familiarize you with the term “Crush Depth”. It comes from the maritime tradition and, specifically, the brave sailors who sail on submarines. It’s a term that makes the blood of submariners run cold. If a submarine is damaged, and it starts to sink, crush depth is the point of no return. The hull buckles, there’s no more buoyancy and death is imminent. It doesn’t matter whether you die in seconds or days, once crush depth is reached there is no going back.

In the world of customer service there are many companies that I feel have reached crush depth. You can see it in the eyes of the employees, you can see the types of customers they attract, heck you can even see it in their advertising and marketing. But since this blog focuses primarily on customer service I’ll address most of my observations in that arena.

Let’s make up an imaginary company, since I don’t want to get sued, and we’ll call it oh I don’t know Jmart! Jmart has been going through some tough times and was recently purchased by umm, let’s call them Fears, another company that’s been sucking wind.(Side note here, whoever approves a merger like this should be shot. Two companies in the same industry, both with the same challenges, both old-school, bureaucratic, dinosaurs who somehow think it’s a good idea to team up! If the only reason for a merger is because one of the companies has the capital, i.e. mullah, then you should not perform that merger.)

Let’s look at some of the reasons that Jmart is a crush depth casualty. Number one, talent acquisition: would you work at Jmart? I didn’t think so. Employees have got to want to be there. They’ve got to like some aspect of their job and not just their paycheck. I’ve seen more motivated employees at the Motor Vehicle Administration than I have at Jmart. That becomes a vicious cycle; you have poor employees, which scares away good employees, which leads to more poor employees etc., etc.. I have a Jmart near my house which I have shopped dozens of times, I don’t see smiles, I don’t hear laughter, and I’ve yet to see an employee of Jmart move with any sense of urgency. They have that morbid mood that reminds me of a family(a deeply dysfunctional family) waiting in the hospital for a loved one to die.

Number two, terrible design: if Target has taught anyone in the big-box industry one thing it’s been that design is king. Target is a little more expensive, their staff is comparable to the competition and their advertising is cute but not really groundbreaking. And yet, they attract a loyal, dedicated customer. Why? Design. And they don’t stand on their laurels either, they redesign, reformat and reposition continuously. From the moment you walk in to any target you are inundated with the brand. Jmart? Not so much. If you were drugged and blindfolded and dropped into the middle of any Jmart not only would you be underwhelmed but you also wouldn’t know what store you are in, what season it was, and what they’re marketing focus was. The only store that would compete with Jmart in the area of poor merchandising would have to be their parent company Sears oops I mean Fears.

Another note here, I’m not saying all Jmarts are bad. I just haven’t found a good one yet and sadly when crush depth is reached, a few good stores cannot turn around a withering organization.

Number three, management and focus: in the big-box store business no matter what the situation, you always staff the registers. Many customers, especially men, go into your store with the goal of “get in fast, find stuff, get out fast”. If you make it hard for your customers to give you their money they won’t.(Another side note here, when I first spotted the growing trend of self-serve registers I was appalled. But as time has passed, while I don’t wholly approve, I do understand the logic. Especially in stores like Home Depot or Wal-Mart. A certain percentage of customers so crave speed and shun human contact that these registers have become a godsend.) I have yet in almost 10 years of shopping had a quick, efficient experience at a Jmart register. I have never seen more than two registers open at any one time, even during the holidays! And yet as you stroll the store you see employees stocking, cleaning (I know I know I didn’t believe it either) and generally doing a lot of busy work. But not helping the customer WTF?! If the primary reason that customers visit your store is because you’re geographically close (and that’s the only reason I visit a Jmart) then the least you can do is make it easy to get out! Often when you do get to the register there is an error. I’ve now gotten into the habit of snapping a quick picture with my phone of the advertised price before taking it to the register. Because, too often, it saves the inexplicably frustrating process of reaching an employee in that department, telling them what the product was, having them find the product, coming back to the register with the information, and then verifying that I, the customer, was actually telling the truth. So let’s review, your stores look shabby, they’re designed poorly, your prices are a bit higher, you make your customers wait to pay, and when they do, your software doesn’t reflect the expected price. And why are you still in business? Like a caveman, waiting for a mammoth to expire due to blood loss, we know what’s going to happen we just don’t know when. Crush Depth.