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“customer service as culture”

I’m at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Club, listening to Lane, Amy and Thor kick off the Customer Service is the New Marketing Summit. They’ve invited some pretty great speakers, who are here to share their experience in making peoples lives better by fulfilling their needs. I’m looking forward to hearing from Michael Murphy, Virgin’s Group Brand Manager for Customer Service (I’m a huge fan of Virgin America), and Alex Frankel (who’s book, “Punching In,” I’m currently enjoying immensely). More updates as things get going.


Unveiling the Company-Customer Pact, an open source initiative to improve relationships between consumers and the companies that serve them.

[the wireless at the Golden Gate Club is dog-slow, but still up – updates will be intermittent]

Tony Hsieh is talking about how Zappos made the decision before it became profitable to stop relying on outside manufacturers to satisfy customer orders. At the time, 75% of their revenue was coming from inventory that they had in-stock and shipped themselves, with 25% coming from orders to manufacturers who shipped direct to customers. Ordering from those manufacturers through Zappos, however, had a cost to the customer relationship – inventor numbers could be incorrect, leading to “out of stock” messages that came after an order had been made, as well as delayed and incomplete shipments.

Zappos wound up asking itself, “Do we want to have the most complete selection of shoes, or the best customer service?” In a painful (and risky) decision for a small company, they chose to cut out their manufacturer relationships and the drop-ship revenue in order to maintain control of the customer experience.

An interesting element of Zappos’ internal culture: to help bring along new employees and keep the conversation open and honest, there’s an internal email address “askanything@zappos.com” where any question can be asked. Recent highlights include, “How do vegetarians feel about Animal Cookies?”.

Zappos also believes that it can’t create a standard operating procedure for every kind of customer service scenario, so it focuses on getting the customer service philosophy adopted by all employees. This is how their customer service reps can handle things like customers who call late in the evening to ask for the numbers of local pizza parlors.

I saw Robert Stevens, founder of Geek Squad, on 60 Minutes a while back. Today, his first slide is a photo of Ramen instant noodles. He calls it, “the international symbol for struggle.” He’s giving a background about himself and his company that is mining some of the same territory that he covered with Leslie Stahl during his interview – “technology is power,” and “jocks need the help of nerds.”

“It’s easy to be great at service when you’re a small company.” The risk, Stevens believes, is maintaining that commitment to customers as the company grows, as the true believers who started everything move further away from the front lines. “When you have no money for marketing, everything you do is marketing.” Showing up on time, following through on what you promise, being pleasant, not talking down to anyone – all of these things contribute to the customer experience.

The Geek Squad logo is apparently based on STP’s logo.

Stevens wanted his company’s service cars to be as evocative as the Batmobile. It was a deliberate decision to not put a phone number on the side of his first vehicle.

“Giving people permission to do the right thing.” Robert and Tony have both made the point that it is impossible to plan in advance what front-line employees should do in every situation. In response, organizations that care about customer service give these employees permission to do what’s necessary to satisfy the needs of the customer. If it’s staying on the phone with a customer for an hour, or finding a creative response to a completely odd request, a dedicated employee who wants to help the customer shouldn’t feel that there is anything prohibiting them from doing what it takes to provide the best possible experience.

Regarding the iconic Geek Squad VW Beetle company cars: “The Agents (Geek Squad employees) were asking me, ‘What happens if VW stops making the Beetle?’ and I say, ‘We’ll just buy the factory in Mexico and keep cranking ’em out.”

“Curiosity, drive and ethics” – three employee traits you can’t train for. “I don’t believe you can ever have total control over the customer experience. But you do have control of the employee experience.” One element of this is the Geek Squad logo embossed into the heel of each Agents’ shoes. Muddy footprints might not be the most ideal marketing, but it is meaningful to the employees – every step reinforces the brand.

Panel: “Scaling customer service”, moderated by Marc Hedlund from Wesabe

Heather Champ spoke briefly about the Flickr pro-user uproar when YahooIDs were made mandatory. To manage the discontent, Heather recommended to Stuart that Flickr reimburse those users pro fees. Final outcome? About 33 users took the money, which totaled about $250. Stuart reimbursed Heather later.

“The loneliest user” report: find the users in social networks who are posting content but have not friended anyone, and send them messaging to ensure they’re aware of the social features.

There’s a danger to “deputizing” users in the forums as support staff – in Heather’s view, it creates an unnecessary and unnatural divide among members of the community. Good community self-support can occur without such a system.

Ross Mayfield from Socialtext made some very nice points about growing small groups within organizations that are focused on codifying process and group knowledge, strongly referencing a Socialtext case study from a while back. [note: Socialtext is a former client of my employer, Adaptive Path]

Michael Murphy, Group Brand Manager for Customer Service, Virgin, “Virgin’s Crown Jewel: Customer Service, across 200 Companies and 29 Countries”

The brand values: fun, value for money, quality, innovation, competitive challenge, and brilliant customer service. These values are taken and interpreted by each company for the industry and geography they’re working in. This is about as much guidance as each company gets when it’s setting up. The only thing they cannot do is change the logo.

“Respect our customers/Love our people” Listening is the easiest way to understand their needs. Where does the customer experience begin? In the case of Virgin Atlantic, the understanding was forged that by the time the customer arrived at the ticket gate, customers were already in bad shape just from trying to get to Heathrow. Solution? Send them a car, and deliver them directly to the Virgin club room – the customer never experiences the true hecticness of the airport.

Virgin’s UK Mobile company developed what they call the Acid Test: “If our name was removed from any part of the customer experience, would customers still know it was Virgin Mobile?” Virgin Trains – take over a portion of British Rail and attempted to turn it into a pleasant experience. [ed note: need to follow up with this for Creative Destruction]

Virgin’s Customer Experience Charter: cataloging the “extra mile” moves and quirky gestures that get performed across the Virgin Group’s companies to address customer needs, in the hope of defining the brand by the small pieces that contribute to it. These wound up informing how the customer experience is built in new industries (a la Mobile).

Challenges: (1) the opening loop of customer communication (hellopeter.com in South Africa, “no one in SA makes a consumer decision before consulting HelloPeter”) [ed note: a template for Satisfaction?] (2) Since Virgin isn’t large enough to compete on price, it must constantly market itself as doing something more/different/innovative than its competitors – e.g. donate my phone when I upgrade it. (3) Customer expectations can kill you if you market yourself as a superior customer experience. The personal touch (on services like Virgin America) are the only thing that can ensure that these expectations are met. (4) When the fulfillment is outsourced (via partnership with 3rd parties), how do you ensure the costumer experience? Make sure that costumer and employee satisfaction are contractual bound to certain metrics. (5) When you aren’t bootstrapping all of these businesses yourself, and putting your brand on them after acquisition, how do you reshape the business’ brand perception, and make sure it doesn’t bite into your own? Invest heavily, rebrand the hell out of the “broken” brand, and enforce all of your core values as you would your own startup.

So what’s the answer? “Keep it simple, do what you say, take the leap of faith (do everything you need to, regardless of constraints), keep on checking (metrics, on every part of the customer experience) stay true to your values, and love the locals (find the fit between your core values and the needs of the customers in your geography).”

Categories: conferences
  1. March 8, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Great Post: 1 Comment is What’s Good For Your Customers Is Good For You – companies should follow this principle more

  1. February 11, 2008 at 1:56 pm

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