The elusive art of joined-up service

Online promise, offline reality and the case of the missing parasol…

Joined-up service

The Great British Summer has finally arrived (though if you blink it might disappear again). So last week, I decided it was out with the old and in with the new – and so began the hunt for the perfect garden furniture set. 

I started online, just to get an idea of what was out there. But I knew I’d have to go offline before buying – just like I do with clothes. I’ve had too many baggy jumpers, misshapen jeans and ill-fitting shoes delivered to ever want to buy online again.

Garden furniture is the same. The potential for lumpy cushions, rickety chairs, impractically small tables, and parasols that don’t provide adequate shade from the sol is enough to send me in store to check out the goods.

Which is exactly what I did, with chain A.

The illusion of choice

Of course they’d have less stock in store than online, but that was OK. I was sure to find something I liked, and could carry it off in my car. Instant gratification was just a short ride away.

And I did quickly find something I liked: a lovely mosaic table, wrought-iron chairs, and a generous parasol. I even used the in-store WiFi to have a video chat with a friend to get a second opinion. We were both agreed that this patio set with the seductively Italian name was the one for me. So I headed to the customer services desk. 

Naturally, they didn’t have it in stock.

They couldn’t order it in, they told me, for some complex systems-related reason. But I could order online. 

Now sure of my choice, I headed home, went onto their website and found the mosaic marvel. Delivery within 5 days, it said. Which was OK – at least I was sure of getting exactly what I wanted. 

But as I got to the payment step, the delivery window suddenly widened: delivery within 14 days. And when I confirmed payment, the confirmation email had no delivery date at all. Instead, I’d have to contact customer services.

Which is what I did, and they arranged a delivery within nine days. Not ideal, but I accepted that I’d have to wait. 

Then the very next day, I was browsing another website and up popped a targeted advert from Chain A. Summer’s here! it trilled, and invited me to buy garden furniture. The advert showed a really nice set for £100 less than I’d paid. 

So I went back to their site (without clicking on the sponsored ad, I now regret to say) to look at this cheaper offer. It was really attractive, so I checked stock availability at my local store. None. And the next nearest store? Bingo! I reserved it online, and resolved to drive the 15 miles to pick it up. 

Just one thing to do: cancel my online order, which was straightforward enough. And then I drove to the other store, with my reservation printout nestling in my wallet. 

Needless to say, there was a problem. Systems-related, again.

The garden furniture set isn’t actually a set, so the elements are picked by one of the warehouse staff individually. And though I had a confirmed reservation, the very last parasol had been sold earlier that morning.

The customer services lady said she was very sorry, but there was nothing she could do. Unless I wanted her to order in the parasol from the next store along in the chain, which meant I’d have to make another 30-mile round trip to pick it up.

I took a deep breath, smiled weakly and politely declined.  

Chain reaction

So I headed home, and went online again. Chain B caught my eye, with their stylish patio set, priced the same as the parasol-less one, and with next-day delivery. PayPal payment, instant confirmation, order tracking, email, text messages, two-hour delivery window.

Never mind trying before you buy. Chain B was sending out all the right signals, so I clicked buy now without a moment’s hesitation. 

The very next day, five days ahead of the original schedule, my garden furniture arrived. In a kit – that was actually a kit. In a big box, so there was no missing parasol, or missing anything in fact. And with the clearest, most well-written instructions I’ve ever seen. 

This was self-assembly, but not like I’d ever experienced it. In fact, it was so easy, it almost assembled itself.

And the moral of the story? That good service isn’t any one thing, but all the little things. That you either get it or you don’t. That your people and systems are either aligned, or they’re not. That you value your customer, or you don’t.

That you’re either Chain A or Chain B.

Naturally, now that I have my new garden furniture installed, the sun has gone in. So much for the Great British Summer.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying better weather. 

10 marketing tips to make you more like Dave

Spinning a story, finding a fix and keeping a smile on your face

[Image courtesy of Robert Sharp at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve almost finished Call me Dave, the unauthorised biography of David Cameron that came out last autumn. You may remember it caused quite a stir at the time, relating as it did the dodgy initiation ceremony he was supposed to have been involved in at Oxford, quickly dubbed ‘pig-gate’.

But it wasn’t the porcine pranks that caught my attention (or at least, not only).

It was the picture that emerged of Cameron as a slightly wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road type who has no strongly held political beliefs. By the time he was elected leader of the Conservative party, he’d only been an MP for four years. 

So what accounts for his success? Some will say it’s his public-school charm and his privileged background, combined with an address book to die for. Certainly there is an element of that, it seems to me.

But it’s also his relentless focus on solutions, his attention to detail and his positive, can-do attitude. Even as a special adviser (or ‘spad’) back in the 90s, he mastered briefs faster and better than anyone, and always came up with a definite course of action.

His years spent in PR at Carlton didn’t do him any harm either, as he learned how to spin a story and always focus on the upside. 

As I read, I thought about how presentation is so important. You may not be the best, or the brightest, or the fastest, or the cheapest. But if you make the right moves and send out the right signals, you can streak ahead.

Here 10 Dave-like things you can do today to change how people see you: 

  1. Laugh at yourself. Recently I was buying something in Holland & Barrett. I gave the chap my loyalty card, then paid using my debit card. As I was putting in my code, he asked me if I had an H&B loyalty card. “Yes, I said,” slightly shortly. “I just gave it to you.” “Sorry,” he replied with a smile. “Memory of a fish.” We both laughed and my irritation disappeared.
  2. Admit your mistakes. Last weekend, I got an email from Pure Gym telling me about restricted access to my club at Canary Wharf. Just one problem – I live in Cambridge. I rolled my eyes heavenwards. And then, an hour later, came a self-deprecating email apologising for their error. Just like the Fish Man, they’d won me back. 
  3. Say it like you mean it. “All I can say is I’m sorry,” said somebody to a friend of mine by way of apology for a customer service #fail experience. He told me this actually made it worse – as if she wasn’t really sorry. It was almost as if she was minimising the problem and throwing in a meaningless apology to appease him. “If only she’d just said ‘I’m sorry’, that would have made all the difference,” he moaned. 
  4. Be unprofessional. Nobody likes corporate speak, and yet we all use it. And the bigger the organisation, the worse the problem. And yet they’re the ones that most need to connect with their readers, users and prospects. So drop the corporate mask, and be yourself in everything you say and do. Challenge the stereotype, just as Dave did, detoxifying the Tories, rewriting the right-wing script and connecting with voters.
  5. Go off-message. “It’s crazy,” said the meter reader to me a couple of months back. “It’s Health & Safety gone mad.” He was talking about the rule that says he and his colleagues aren’t allowed to take off their shoes before entering a customer’s house. Which means sometimes, they’re refused access. As he joked about the rules-is-rules craziness, he kicked off his shoes and read my meter. Off message, but on form. 
  6. Communicate enough – but not too much. Cameron knows all about getting your message out and making sure it’s heard. But it’s a fine line to tread between communicating regularly and bombarding people. The frequency and detail are the two major challenges. So do it regularly, but not too regularly. Include detail, but not too much. Make sure you have something valuable to say, and do the heavy lifting for the reader by summarising ruthlessly. 
  7. Stop talking, start listening. “I need to work on my listening skills,” said a business coach to me at a networking event. No kidding. He spent the next 20 minutes explaining to me why they were important, and how they worked, and how most people get the balance wrong between listening and talking. “We have two ears and one mouth,” he said, clearly pleased with himself, “and we should use them in proportion.” I tried to agree, but couldn’t get a word in. 
  8. If you ask for feedback, take it. Politicians are often very bad at this. They have a pet project, and they look for any and every piece of evidence that will back up their scheme. If they don’t find it, or find something to the contrary, they simply carry on regardless. Just last month, I heard of somebody who asked for honest feedback on their website. When they got it, they exploded – and yet it was sound advice. We all have blind spots, and feedback is vital to the process. But you have to take the rough with the smooth.
  9. Give reassurance at every turn. “All my work comes with a guarantee,” said the bicycle shop guy to me. “And the saddle comes with a 30-day comfort guarantee.” It was one guarantee after another, and I could feel a warm fuzzy feeling as he laid it on thicker and thicker. I didn’t need all that reassurance, as his work is always impeccable. I know it’s guaranteed, but he says it every time. And every time it works. It just does.
  10. Don’t focus on the problem. This is one I struggle with. I can see why: often, dissecting the problem is far more fun than finding a solution. How could I have done that? I ask myself. Look what a mess it is! I say. This will never be right, I predict with grim certainty. And yet where does that get me? Or you? Nowhere. So do what Cameron does: tell yourself ‘we are where we are’, and come up with a solution, however imperfect. In the long run, it saves time, effort and heartache. 

Dave’s not perfect, but he’s good at what counts – mastering the detail, spinning the story and finding fixes. Maybe if I follow in his footsteps – initiation ceremonies (alleged) aside – I’ll be unstoppable too. 

Just Call me Kevin. 

Forget price and product. CX is where it's at.

In the end, customer experience is all that matters

[Image courtesy of Alpha at Flickr Creative Commons]

You know how it is when you hear a word for the first time, and then it keeps popping up everywhere? It happened to me a few months ago, when I saw dob somebody in.

It’s Ozzie slang for informing on somebody (he dobbed me in to the teacher), which explains why I wasn’t familiar with it. And the writer wasn’t from Down Under, so he was using it for the novelty value.

And it was certainly novel to me.

But then a strange thing happened. Dob in started appearing in more and more articles I was reading. Either it had gone viral, or I simply hadn’t noticed it before.

Whatever the case, it’s now firmly on my radar. In fact, I found myself using it to a friend last week, whose look of utter bafflement told me that the virus hadn’t become that widespread.

Not yet. Unlike customer experience

Now you CX, now you don’t

Customer experience is nothing new, but it’s recently moved front and centre (much like the expression front and centre has). In fact, I was waxing lyrical about it over the summer, as I undertook a big project on customer care, and its close relation customer experience. 

And now, just like our old friend dob, it’s all over the place. Everywhere I turn, I see something about customer experience. You may remember that my earlier research suggested that by 2020, customer service (and experience) will have overtaken price and product as the ultimate differentiator.

Well just last week, I came across a compelling survey that doesn’t just talk about customer experience in a nebulous, feelgood way. Instead, it slaps cold hard figures on it, suggesting that an improvement in CX at a $1bn company could lead to an $824m increase in revenue over three years.

Stop and read that again. It’s enough to make anybody sit up and listen, isn’t it?

The survey by the Temkin Group is based on 10,000 US consumers and 293 companies across 20 vertical markets, so it’s pretty thorough. And the findings concur with all the others I was poring over in the summer. The bottom line is that customer experience matters  – and it directly affects your bottom line.

Cards, coffee and customers

But it’s often patchy and unpredictable. I was reminded of this again recently by two very different examples of CX.

The first was at Three, the mobile phone operator.

I’d got a new phone – not through them, as it happens – and needed a SIM card cut down from micro to nano size.

On the face of it, everything was against having a good experience. It was a Saturday afternoon, it was a small job, and to be honest, as a pay-as-you-go customer, I’m small fry. I phoned up my local store to see if they could help.

I was blown away.

My new best friend Tom told me to come around whenever I liked. They were open till 6pm, and it would be a a pleasure to help. When I got there, Tom wasn’t available, but his equally friendly colleague smiled and said she could help me out. In fact, everybody was smiling – customers and assistants alike.

Five minutes and nano SIM later, I left the shop marvelling at what a wonderful (and free) experience I’d had. I’ll never look at Three in quite the same way again. And since then, I’ve been telling everybody what happened.

I then went for a coffee at one of the big chains to play with my new phone. And there, it was quite the opposite experience: sullen staff, tables overflowing with trays, and slow, grudging service.

Now the thing is, it’s not normally like this at the other branches I go to. But this one experience has coloured my whole perception of the chain. That’s the power of customer experience.

And whether it’s a £2.50 cup of coffee or free SIM cutting, it all adds up – sometimes, to hundreds of millions in lost, or gained, sales. The companies who get it right will reap the rewards, and the ones that don’t will pay the price.

By the way, in case you’re wondering why I didn’t mention the coffee chain by name, it’s because I know that we all have bad days, so maybe it’s just a blip on the radar. I’ll leave it a while and go back to see if things have changed.

And if they haven’t I’ll dob them in. Defo.

Customer service, try before you buy and Kevin Spacey

Lessons learned from the flat-panel frontline

[Image courtesy of Paul Townsend at Flickr Creative Commons]

Guess what? I’ve joined the 21st centuy. Yes, that’s right – I’ve got myself a smart TV.

It had got to the point where I was embarrassed to let people into my lounge in case they’d see the CRT monster lurking in the corner. It wasn’t flat panel, it wasn’t HD, and it wasn’t connected to the internet. But it did the job, and I was happy with that. 

But before I get into customer service, let me take a brief detour via try before you buy. For the thing that drove me into the arms of the LED brigade was a whirlwind romance with Netflix. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because it all started with an iPad.

One that a friend no longer had any use for (he’s a serial upgrader) and which he gave to me. It’s one of the original ones that hit the streets way back in 2010. I’ve never been an Apple fanboy, but this was free, so I took it. 

And was I impressed. As a dyed-in-the-wool Android user, I was bowled over. Slick, fast, clear, and eminently usable. The App Store was a revelation, and I quickly filled all the screens with funky little app icons. 

Including Netflix, which was the slippery slope to flat-panel perdition. Somebody told me there was a 30-day trial you could sign up to, so I did. Like the iPad, it was free, so I jumped in feet first. 

You may well think that

And that’s when I discovered House of Cards. I remember the original series in the UK (yes, I’m that old, despite the boyish features) and loved it. But could Kevin Spacey live up to Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart? 

Could he just. Transport the series to the other side of the pond, do a quick name change from Urquhart to Underwood, and 25 years on, the formula is as compelling as ever.

I was hooked. But the prospect of binge-viewing HOC (and 24, and House, and all the other series I’ve missed over the years) on an iPad somehow didn’t seem right. Something was missing. Something 32 inch, with sleek lines and sexy contours. 

Enter Samsung, with their irresistible UE32H6400 TV. Again, I tried before I bought, this time at the Richer Sounds store here in Cambridge, in a perfect example of reverse showrooming (aka ‘webrooming’ – checking it out online, and buying in-store). 

The people at Richer Sounds were just perfect: knowledgeable without being overly technical, helpful without being invasive, accommodating without being sycophantic. They even have a system that registers the product for you, so by the time I brought my slimline beauty back chez moi, a guarantee email was waiting in my In Box. 

But the customer service experience was about to take a turn for the worse. For the TV kept losing its connection to the internet, and when it was connected, Netflix refused to play ball. So I resorted to calling Samsung support on their UK number. 

I couldn’t possibly comment

And they were available, even on Good Friday. Then again, that’s not a holiday everywhere, and the support centre was clearly not in the UK. My guess would be Eastern Europe, but it’ll have to remain a guess. 

As we were trying the usual tactics (factory reset, router reset etc.) I asked the chap who was helping me where he was. 

“I’m not allowed to disclose that information,” he said matter-of-factly.

I thought he was joking, but given the deadpan delivery, I ought to have known better. When I speculated that he wasn’t in the UK, there was silence. Complete silence, followed by another instruction relating to the Samsung Smart Hub. 

He didn’t solve my problem in the end. A convenient system update gave him the chance to end the call, as he assured me that the 800MB file would cure my problems. As one of my problems was the speed of the TV connection to the internet, it took 90 minutes to download. And it fixed nothing. 

In the end, I was the one who solved it, and then thanks to my new best friend, Netflix. Move your TV closer to your router, it suggested. Or failing that, plug it into a WiFi extender. And bingo, House of Cards was on my new TV. Together with the must-see shows from a lost decade.

Sheer. Viewing. Bliss. 

And the lessons I learned from my experience? 

  • Try before you buy is immensely powerful, for services and products.
  • Retail isn’t dead, especially when you want it now.
  • Good service is hard, and bad service is easy. 
  • Everybody in the food chain needs training to be on-message (create a cheet sheet, write a script, make a video, run training, rinse & repeat). 
  • Sometimes, little things can keep a customer very happy (email guarantees, for example). 
  • Other times, they can cause them to fall out of love with you (robotic non-disclosure of current location). 

And one last thing: Kevin Spacey is fabulous. Just fabulous. Must be the name (and no, I don’t mean Spacey).

5 tips for responding to negative criticism

Grace under fire isn’t always easy – but it’s essential in today’s social world

[Image courtesy of Celestine Chua at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently used a well-known holiday accommodation site for the first time. It has properties all around the world, from a simple spare bedroom in somebody’s home to an entire apartment or house.

And of course in the age of Holiday 2.0, guests rate the properties, and the owners… well they don’t go as far as giving stars out of five for the guests, but they can leave feedback about their overall impression. And they have the right to respond to negative criticism.

Several things struck me.

First, negative reviews outweigh positive ones. This is a well-known phenomenon, and I’ve touched on it here before. In fact a study showed some years back that one negative review carries the weight of 10 positive reviews.


Because it’s perceived as honest and realistic, in a world where review inflation is rampant. And where fear of reprisal encourages people to reach for the stars – all five of them.

And so it was with the search for my dream holiday apartment. 10 perfect reviews were outweighed by a single less-than-perfect one. ‘Watch out for the noise in summer’ influenced my decision, even in the depths of winter.

The good, the bad and the ugly

But what really struck me were the owners’ varying approaches to reviews. There were two properties in particular that attracted my attention.

The owner of the first responded to virtually all reviews, thanking those guests who were positive, and appeasing those who were negative. Her language was measured, calm and can-do. She came across as a warm, friendly, reasonable person who would sort problems out quickly and efficiently.

And even when a reviewer left an ill-tempered, nasty review, she responded with grace and aplomb. She was a shining example of how to handle criticism, and how to take the rough with the smooth.

The second owner was completely the opposite. She didn’t bother responding to positive comments, but zeroed in on the negative ones with deadly accuracy. She responded to negativity with negativity, and adopted a snide, self-righteous and pompous tone.

The thing is, the negative criticism was no worse than for the first owner. It was the way she reacted that really set her apart. Instead of trying to defuse the situation, she simply made it worse, drawing attention to the defects of the property – and herself.

So in this 24-hour, always-on social world, how should you deal with criticism? Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. React quickly and positively. Don’t just let a criticism sit there. Get in fast, control the conversation and manage the message. Criticism always hurts, especially if you think you’re doing a really good job, but that shouldn’t stop you moving forward and focusing on solutions.
  2. Never denigrate the criticiser. A negative response is worse than none at all. Maintain the moral high ground, and never respond in kind to somebody who’s negative. Instead, why not ask for suggestions for improvement and engage the criticiser?
  3. Mind your language. Keep it positive, upbeat and friendly. Remember the first rule of copywriting: write as you talk. So don’t go all stiff and formal, if that’s not how you speak in person. Instead, adopt a conversational tone that clearly shows you’re a reasonable person who’s easy to deal with.
  4. Don’t take it personally – even if it’s personal. Remember that all opinions are subjective – including yours. And in our virtual world, people say things online that they’d never say to your face. They can be extreme because they don’t have to feel any embarrassment or emotion. So take the same approach, distance yourself from the criticism, and think about how to turn the situation around.
  5. Remember the audience. In the digital world, the line between private and public is blurred. You’re not talking directly to the client any more. You’re potentially talking to the world – and the competition is watching too. So weigh every word before you respond, and remember that each one affects your company image and your brand.

I’ve now completed the feedback for my weekend stay. Apparently neither the owner nor guest can see feedback until they’ve both submitted it. That way, neither one has the advantage of knowing what’s been said about them, making the whole process more honest and transparent.

I rated the property very highly, and the owner too. I haven’t yet checked back to see if he’s rated me.  I’m sure I’m a model guest, but then as I said, all opinions are subjective.

Perhaps I’ll give it another day. Or two.