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November 12, 2008

How do you respond to your customers' requests?

When I started blogging several weeks ago I remember reading a post from David Meerman Scott talking about the blogging mistakes and the worst about pages. I should have thought more before I selected Blogger as my blogging platform. David, you were right! Free service comes with its "qualities". Right after setting up my blog I submitted two post - my About post and my first post about Staples... Voila! Google decided that I am spammer and blocked my blog. You know - I got the standard message telling me that I need to submit my blog for review by a real person and everything is fine they will unblock it. I did that and verified that I am person.

My goal is not tell you that Blogger sucks but how companies interact with their customers. My request to Google went into black hole. Or at least this was my impression. My expectation was to receive e-mail (even automatic would help) confirming that my request is received and somebody will look at the issue in the next X hours... days... months. Nothing like that happened. I received no e-mail and had no idea whether my request was received, handled, denied or something else. On the next day I went back and submitted the request again... and again on the third day. Nothing. I just moved on. Blogger was not in my list of choices anymore. The feeling that my fate will be decided by the bits of a machine made me feel miserable. Will I be the lucky one who will be randomly chosen to live or will the Terminator erase any sign of my existence?

My next example is Sphinn. As part of the registration I was supposed to receive activation e-mail. For some reason I did not receive it on the e-mail I used for registration. I tried contacting Sphinn team through their Contact Us form using my registration e-mail as well as my Gmail. So far no response. However I really want to use the service and I registered with my Gmail account - surprisingly it worked.

My third example is from the offline world. I am looking for a new car and decided to check Audi Q7 from the local dealer Barrier. Everything was fine - the guy showed me the car, I did a test drive with him, we checked the inventories and so on. I had to leave and asked him to send me what is available as well as what APR they will give me. Two days after that he left me a voice mail asking me whether I need something more to make my decision. Dude, I told you what I need. Where is it? I called him back and left him also voice mail with the exactly same information. I got even a call from some girl in Barrier to ask me what was my experience and she promised to talk with the salesman and get back to me soon. I don't know what they understand with "soon" but it is almost 3 days and I still don't have what I need. And I like the car, and I want to buy it... and in this market where car manufacturer are facing bankruptcy I would expect that dealers will run after me to sell me the stupid car. Ooooh, I am just flying in the sky and thinking that "the customer is god". It seems nobody cares about the customer.

Time to stop complaining - here are my takeaways:

  • If you own a web site make sure you have good feedback channel for your visitors. If somebody sends you a message try to respond within acceptable amount of time - for me this is 24h, but it is your own choice; you may want to respond to such inquiries once a week or once a month but are you sure this person will wait so long to hear back from you. The worst thing you can do is to never reply.
  • Provide link to your feedback channel where you think people will be confused in your workflows. Perfect example for that are error pages (look at my post Staples found an easy way to lose money - AdSense) as well as product and check-out pages. Don't assume that people will go through your web site smoothly and without asking themselves "what the heck does this mean".
  • Don't hide your contact information. Lot of corporations burry their contact information so deep that users get tired of clicking and just give up. It is all for "support cost savings", "deflection" and other stupid reasons. I know it costs money to reply to every message but people get frustrated when they can't find a way to send you a message. And it is even bigger nightmare with the phone numbers. For example I needed to click 2 times to find phone number for Google, while Shpinn's one I couldn't find at all.
  • If you provide phone number (and better you do) make sure there is a option "Speak with customer support representative". In the spirit of "deflection" every company tries to hide the option for "customer representative". Normally this is the last option in the menu if at all mentioned; companies try to change the default 0 to 9 or 8 or #*723#2**# (try to remember that one:)). What happens after such tricks is that people learn and next time thy call they directly go and choose the "customer representative" option just because they are frustrated.
  • Provide alternative feedback channels or ways to contact your company. Email and phone are the standard ones but you can add chat, forum, social web site where you participate or something else. Be creative.
  • I want to iterate - respond promptly. Sending back automatic message when a user sends you request is mandatory. This is the first indication that your system works. In the message include your expected time to respond (or Service Level Agreement - SLA) and stick to it. In all three cases above my expectations were not met (apparently Google enabled my blog but month and a half after I submitted my request and not 20 days as they promised; I still don't know how long Barrier needs to get the list but 1 week I think is too long).
  • When you respond to your customers try to be personal. Don't use case numbers, "madam" or "sir" (I really like the e-mails from Mr. Mumbaga from Zair who offers me $2M and addresses his mails with "Dear Sir"). Use your customer's name - this will make him or her feel much better. I really enjoyed my stay in the hotel in Tokyo not because the hotel was nice but because people there made the effort to say my last name (now try that:)).
  • When you respond to customers give them your name. You can give them any other information that will be helpful for them to find you (unless you think you provided really crappy service:)). You will be surprised but somebody may want to call your manager to say "thank you" and not to complain about you.

Those are just few of the advises I can give you if you are committed to provide great customer support (online or offline). I will be honest and tell you that I broke some of them in certain occasions and I still feel bad about that - everybody makes mistakes but you should try to improve. Just ask yourself the question - what is more important for you? Spending 1h replying to your customer or losing your customer?

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