Saturday, June 27, 2009

Being a Hub

A few days ago, I received an announcement email for a terrific conference called Voice of the Customer. I attended last year and enjoyed the program immensely. The surroundings are gorgeous, the topics are timely, the speakers are knowledgeable, and the networking opportunities are abundant.

At the end of last year's conference, the producers asked for topics to present this year. One of the ideas that seemed to have some traction was about creating "user groups" as a component of better support. Now, it so happens that I used to be a regional liaison for a large user group program, and had 47 user groups from Maine to Delaware in my region. I offered privately to one of the producers to see if I could get my successor in that position to address the topic. After a few tries, I managed to get the two talking to each other, and there was the session on this year's program. It wasn't a big deal. I just got two people talking to each other about a specific thing.

People often ask me questions like, "Do you know anybody who...?" or "Do you know where I can find..?." As many times as not, I have an answer, and many of those times it's, "Let me ask my friend (insert name). They might know." And, many times, I'm able to provide either the information, or a connection to the information.

In the branch of network theory called social network analysis, there are people who are particularly busy hubs, people with large groups of 'loose ties.' These people can often shortcut searches for information and help.

I'm one of these people. I don't have large family or a small group of active friends, but I have friends from about every walk of life you can imagine, and I can reach out to just about any one of them for an answer or for some expertise at just about any time. And I love to be able to help. It makes me feel like a valuable human being, and that is something all of us can stand to feel more often.

If you're "somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody," you are a "useful" person according to social network analysis, and if you aren't making these kinds of connections, maybe you can learn to do so.

Give it some thought.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In Search of a Better Day

As anyone who watched the US Open knows, it has been very rainy here on the east coast. Up here in Maine, the wet weather refuses to leave, with the storm sitting close enough to the coast to keep it gray, misty and foggy—even more foggy than usual. I feel bad for the people who have planned their Acadia National Park visits for these wet weeks, but the bad weather does tend to drive people to the local stores, so there is an upside.

Maybe the weather has contributed to some less-than-perfect days in my work life, too. I'm unearthing evidence of tasks undone and loose ends untied everywhere I look. For some of the time, I've found that my mood has been as gray as the weather outside.

But every challenge presents an opportunity, and there are many opportunities for me to work with my team to improve. "Continual improvement is an unending journey," say Lloyd Dobens and Clare Crawford Mason.

At times like these, a leader must dig down to a new level of commitment to the goals of the team, and move forward. Take a step in the right direction, and then—as I have said elsewhere—take a second step in the same direction as the first.

Tomorrow I will meet with my team and hear from them something new they each have learned this week. Maybe it will be something they are excited about. Maybe we'll see the sun, at least for a while, and maybe, by day's end, the opportunities will begin to outweigh the challenges.

Give it some thought.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What My GPS Taught Me About Change

I was driving home from the other end of the state last night, cruising up I-295. There is a currently a major repaving project in progress on the road (the Maine saying goes "We have two seasons: winter and road construction") and my GPS was extremely unhappy. I didn't need the GPS to find my way home up the interstate, of course, but it had been a very long day and evening, and wanted the periodic vocal reminders to help keep me focused and alert.

The most efficient way to repave this particular stretch of interstate, someone decided, was to close the northbound lanes completely, detour all the southbound traffic, and swing northbound traffic over to the southbound lanes. So, I was heading north on the southbound side of the road when my GPS started speaking: "Recalibrating. Recalibrating. Recalibrating." A few seconds of silence, then, "Recalibrating. Recalibrating. Recalibrating." I glanced at the little screen, and there was the car icon, dutifully heading up the wrong side of the road. The two sets of lanes are far enough apart to make the GPS take note, and the little unit did not know what to make of it.

The silly little thing doesn't know what to make of the change, I thought. And how often has that happened to me, or to people I know? People wandering around in a daze after a spouse leaves them a note saying, "Color me gone." People who have worked for a company for 30 years suddenly finding themselves to be personae non gratae, and facing the search for another job, another career. People who have always done something the same way, day in and day out, now being told that "It doesn't work that way anymore. Now, you have to do it this way." People who have been used to living in a nice house, suddenly finding themselves without credit and without a home.

Then I thought about how we recalibrate, and how our friends understand—somehow—while we get through it.

Change is inevitable. It is not always good, or productive, or even needed in the great scheme of things. Change just is, and we need to wrap ourselves around it as well as we can.


Give it some thought.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Communicating Change - 3 Things to Remember

One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my favorite TV shows—The West Wing. In one episode, writer Aaron Sorkin has President Barlett say, "Decisions are made by those who show up."

I have seen this happen in my own groups at work, when one of my direct reports misses a meeting and something changes. I've felt it when I've had to miss a meeting myself, or when I wasn't invited in the first place. This often produces a clumsy moment days or weeks later when someone is blindsided by the change resulting from that meeting. If you have had this happen to you, you know how painful and frustrating it can be.

Perhaps it's a trait fostered by my astrological sign (Gemini), if you believe in such things, or perhaps it stems from my being the youngest of three siblings: Communication is paramount to me, and I tend to over—rather than under—communicate (I am not perfect at this! Who is?), and I tend to try to participate as much as possible in everything that's going on.

So, how can we avoid cutting people out of the loop, or assuming that people now something they don't know? Here are three quick tips:

  1. Make sure the right people show up: Check and double check to be inclusive in your meeting invitations
  2. Do pre-meeting communication: Agendas and subtopics should be clearly communicated in advance, so that unidentified stakeholders have the opportunity to come forward
  3. Do post-meeting communication: The results, decisions, and outcomes from the meeting should be as widely distributed as possible without breaking confidentiality. (And give people a way to access this in a relatively permanent manner--not just email. Post information on a wiki, attach minutes to a project plan, whatever works.)
Make sure that people who weren't able to show up still have knowledge about the decisions that have been made. The people who habitually don't show up would rather have other people make their decisions for them.

Give it some thought.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Customer Service: 3 Ways You Can Easily Avoid Mistakes

Last year at about this time, I made my first visit to Colorado Springs to attend a weekend of meetings, and I have returned for the same event this year. After that visit, I wrote a short article about the importance of checklists, following a small oversight at the hotel. I've already rediscovered the checklist solution, and I'll briefly cover the ways you can make a better impression on your customers, no matter what kind of service you provide.

  1. Always look at your service from the point of view of the customer. This is really a no-brainer, and yet I am consistently stunned at the number of service-based businesses which manage not to do this. It requires you to divest yourself of what you already know (something Dan Heath and Chip Heath call "The Curse of Knowledge") and look at your service with nothing but a customer's eye. If you can do this, you'll avoid a lot of fundamental mistakes.
  2. Use checklists. It's really easy to assume that you will do repetitive tasks well because you (or your staff) do them every day. That assumption overlooks distraction, boredom, and carelessness as flaws in your service delivery.
  3. Ask the people who actually do the work where the pain points are. Sometimes, errors and omissions happen because it's just "too hard to get things done the right way," and your staff winds up taking shortcuts or leaving steps out in order to get the expected amount of work done. Listen to the staff, and implement ways of avoiding the shortcuts. Decide what really needs to happen, and make it as easy as possible for it to be done right.

So, there you are - 3 easy ways to avoid the extra work of having to backfill for customer requests, and to ensure that your customer gets a great impression of you on the first contact, and on every contact.

Give it some thought.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Software Support: A Customer Service Story

Over the last several days, I've spent a fair amount of time chasing down some information vital to obtaining some software via download from a major company. We've had dealings with this company before, and they have lived up to their reputation of being hard to contact and difficult to deal with once you do find someone to talk to.

Late yesterday, I'd spent 15 minutes or so on hold, until their automated system decided I'd waiting long enough and kicked me into voicemail. I left as much information as I could articulate clearly over the phone: my contact info, the order info, and what I was trying to accomplish. I had not heard back by the time I left for the day.

This morning, there was a message waiting for me when I arrived in my office, left by a support representative about 20 minutes after I'd left for the day. He said he would call back "in the morning." My faith was less than profound.

Because my level of trust in the company's support was low, I called the support line back first thing and actually did get connected to someone who sounded very far away, and who sounded vaguely Scandinavian—like Stephen Hawking's speech generator. With this assistance, I did gain access to what I needed and touched off several Gigabytes of downloads. This solved my technical problem of getting into the site.

A short while later my phone rang, and I was surprised to hear the very person who had left me voicemail yesterday, a man named Andrew. I let him know I had already gained access, but that I had several questions about why this company's process was so convoluted and what we could do to make it better in the future. He spent about 15 minutes on the phone with me. He pulled up the records of our dealings with the company in question and explained two ways we could improve our experiences. He gave me the phone number of a different group that could go farther to resolve the over-arching issue: Simplification of access and licensing (not handled by his group). I then asked him for his email address so that I could send him something he could share with his supervisor, if possible. Andrew had done an excellent job of turning around what otherwise was a dreadful customer service experience.

About 20 minutes later I sent Andrew a thank you, congratulating him for doing a great job of customer service, in contrast to every other contact I had ever had with the company. Here's exactly what I wrote, except for the name of the company in question:

Andrew, I just want to tell you what a pleasure it was to speak with you. I have been chasing this particular issue around the block for days, and you gave me valuable information for our future purchases from [Company]. Although you had called late in the day yesterday, you said you would call back, and you followed through. You asked for pertinent information and looked into why we might be having the issues we have been seeing (not having access to the downloads associated with our purchases). You gave me some questions to ask within our organization, and some paths to follow to be able to simplify our purchases. Your customer service was exemplary, and I’d be very pleased if you were to share my comments with your supervisor, who is free to call me any time. In short, you rock!
Thanks, Roy

I hope I made Andrew's day a little better. He certainly helped mine, by

  • Following through on a simple commitment
  • Being pleasant and professional in manner
  • Having empathy for the situation
  • Having access to the information he needed in order to help me
  • Passing that information along, and making some suggestions that would help
Have you had a good customer service experience recently? Post a comment and let me know.

(Post updated to clarify some parts of this experience - thanks for your comments, Jeff!)

Give it some thought.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Twitter About Twitter: Episode III

I did learn a little something basic about Twitter yesterday: The "hash" (#) to simplify searching. I included "#hdi" in one of my tweets to enable other HDI people to find it. This little trick I learned from watching other people's tweets, and from tuning into BookTV, which was showing events from BookExpo America, and hearing people mention the tweets that were being posted (#bea or #bea09). So, another small lesson learned.

I also committed an error, replying to a questioning tweet without specifying the topic. Oops. I did indicate to whom I was replying, using the Twitter handle form "@username." So I got it almost right.

Another day, this one including my usual 9.5 hours in my office and about 1.5 hours of commuting, so less time to devote to Twitter. Hopped on at lunch and tweeted about a device that's almost beyond credibility that a colleague had pointed out.

At the end of the day, I caught up a bit, and found again a litany of tweets about Twitter, listed here anonymously, partially, and in no particular order:

  • The Future Of Twitter Visualized
  • Twitter Your Way to Getting Robbed
  • Real Time Events, As Tweeted By The People Who Are Actually There
  • Xbox Gains Facebook and Twitter Integration
  • Blown Cover: A Couple Ways To Stop Those Spymaster Invite DMs (Direct Messages)
  • Twitter to a Job
And so on. It's a little bit like something I call NASCARma: What goes around comes around and around and around and around.

I'll continue to blog about Twitter periodically, but here end the days of consecutive posts. There's too much happening to be staring at the world through this strange little lens very often. Still, I think there might be some value here.

Give it some thought.