Monday, October 17, 2011

I Learned Customer Service from a CEO

There are some people around the web who seem determined to shoot down the customer service community that has taken root here, and one of the things they say is that the people who take part in the discussions and chats don't understand business. Well, I don't understand the kind of business that thinks it's ok to refer to "dumb customers" but that's another story.

I began my customer service education when I was in high school, working part time at a business a few miles from where I grew up. After about a year, I was promoted into the customer service desk, which was seen as a desirable place to work and as a steppingstone to management. This was not a tiny "mom & pop" store; it was a business that was doing over $50 million a year--in the late 1960's.

The CEO of this private corporation was only in his mid-twenties, and had grown up in this business. His father had started him off in the operation where I worked, and ran 5 other, slightly smaller operations himself. The son, "Tommy," and the people he hired gave me a  great education in customer service. We often worked side-by-side doing what we did best: serving customers. Here are a few of the things Tommy taught me:

  • It doesn't matter what your title is; when a customer needs assistance, you assist them.
  • Your employees need to know that you "have their backs" - Tommy never, ever dressed down an employee in front of customers or other employees; he saved his comments for private conversations that were more teaching than "getting yelled at."
  • No job in the business is too "low" for you do do, and it's a really good idea if you know how to do them, or at least how they are done.
  • Even when something happens that indicates that a customer is completely wrong, you treat them with respect. You do your best to come up with a solution on the spot. If you can't, you can escalate it all the way up the chain to the CEO, and be there when the CEO interacts with the customer, so that you can learn.
  • Employees are always held accountable for mistakes, because the ultimate goal is excellence.
  • Without customers, there isn't a business. Every aspect of your operation needs to reflect respect for customers and to go the extra mile to serve them.
  • Know exactly what to do in case of natural disaster or unexpected events, and always put the safety of your customers first.
  • Hire good workers who share your values. The managers Tommy hired either reflected these customer-focused beliefs or learned to, or they didn't last. 
I worked for Tommy for several years, both at the customer service desk and as a manager with responsibility for my own department's profit margins, before moving off into a different business, and I've never forgotten those early lessons, nor the CEO I learned them from. And, by the way, that operation was the most successful and profitable of its kind in North America at that time. (It is still running, by the way.) People traveled for miles, bypassing many alternatives, to do business there, because the goods, layout, selection, technology and people all were put together with the customer in mind. Thank you, Tommy.

Where did you learn about customer service? Who was your mentor?

Give it some thought.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Losing Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs wanted to change the world. I believe that he did.

There was a huge round of blog posts when Steve stepped down from the CEO position, a move that few mistook as anything but a sign that his health was very, very bad. I was, to tell the truth, a little angry about all the accolades begin showered on Mr. Jobs. It wasn't that I didn't feel that the praise was very well deserved; I just wondered where all this sentiment was for all his years at Apple, and during his time away. The fire was there all the time, but many felt the need to belittle it or write it off as some kind of fringe behavior.

It was obvious to many of us that Steve and the products he talked so persuasively about were something special, and that he would, in fact, change the way we use computers, the way we listen to music, the things we can do on the phone, and the way we think of animated movies. (Yes--that little company called Pixar was Steve, too.)

Now since this is primarily a blog about customer service, I would be remiss if I did not point out how important customers were in Steve's mind. Don't think so? Take a look at his 1997 Macworld Expo keynote  and pay extra close attention at around  22:30. Steve says that Apple's customers are its most important core asset, reveals that he calls the support line himself, and doesn't like being kept on hold. One of the very first things Steve did at the beginning of the monumental task of turning Apple around was to focus on customers. I remember it, because I was there, as I so often was. I developed immense respect for the brand and its champions, the greatest of whom was Mr. Jobs. 

And let's not forget one of the other big things: Steve changed the way we present, if we present well. I've had the pleasure to see many great speakers, but no one ever came close to Steve doing one of his keynotes. His beautifully simple slide shows (using Apple's Keynote, so please don't call them "PowerPoint") showed me the great value of using white type on a dark background: The words themselves give out the light your eyes are seeking, and so you are drawn to the words, not some fancy background. Brilliant, and all presenters (and corporate template designers) should take note. Combining Steve's low-key, dark clothing and incredible persuasive power, Steve's talks were amazing.

Some years ago, I heard Sting say that the definition of charisma was the ability to stand still and silent and hold people's attention. Steve had it.
I was lucky enough to be associated with Apple through the Apple Solution Experts and Apple Consultants Network. Before OS X arrived, I was a beta tester, and went through OS X "boot camp" in advance of its public release. I often worked the Apple Help Desk at Macworld, along with other ACN members. When Apple started issuing technical certifications, I was one of the first to earn "ACTC" - Apple Certified Technical Coordinator. I was also an Apple User Groups Northeast Regional Liaison, and was talking in 2003, as this writeup from Macworld shows, about what is now called "social IT" - having user groups as a first line of contact to resolve questions and issues before picking up the phone to anyone else.

Were it not for Mr. Jobs, I might not have been part of the great Apple community and would not have been thinking along those lines. I'm no longer a professional "Mac Geek" but I will always be partial to the design and function of Apple's technology, driven from the insight of Steve Jobs.

I have no doubt that Steve Jobs changed the world, because he certainly helped to change mine, and that's all I have to go by. Thank you, Steve.