Postal Service fell flat on customer service after tripping itself

I had a complaint to make to the U.S. Postal Service recently about a series of incidents in which my mail was delivered to another house in my neighborhood that’s on a different street but happens to share my house number.

The Postal Service eventually responded to my satisfaction, but not before making me use a frustrating complaint system and sending an automated reply that further infuriated me about the entire situation.

The customer service link is buried on the Postal Service’s website, a huge mistake to begin with. Then, the system walks you through a form that locks you into selecting categories and other information about your complaint. I was eventually forced to choose something as close to my problem as possible and then putting my real complaint in the narrative section of the form.

Already bothered by the initial problem and a frustrating complaint system, the email the Postal Service sent me three days later didn’t help. There was no reference to my complaint or how they were trying to address what I had sent them. Instead, it was a form letter saying my opinion matters and asking me to complete a survey judging their complaint system.

If you’re going to send an automatic reply to your customers, don’t wait three days to do so. (By the way, it was Tuesday to Friday, so an “it was the weekend” excuse doesn’t work.) I wouldn’t have cared if I had instantly received the email that said “Thanks, your  opinion matters, and please let us know what our feedback system is like.” But three days later, it just shows your customers that you’re either incompetent at customer service or apathetic about it. I’m not sure which is worse.

But here’s the big kicker: the local post office called me on that Saturday. The guy called me at home, on a Saturday, and apologized for bothering me on a weekend but said he wanted to get to the bottom of my problem. I was very pleased with the person’s attitude and his answer. I won’t know if my problem is solved until I don’t hear about my mail being delivered to a neighbor’s house for a while. But I at least feel good about someone caring and trying to do what they can to address the issue.

Unfortunately, my first interaction with the Postal Service was abysmal. By the time the local guy called me to talk about my problem, I was not just a disgruntled customer, I was a disgruntled customer who was frustrated by the Postal Service’s lack of customer service up to that point.

In short, the Postal Service fell flat on customer service after tripping itself. They may have thought a speedy reply was better than a quality one, but speed doesn’t always define customer service. I expected it to take about a week before I would hear anything about my complaint. Why was I sent an automated reply that showed up three days later when a personal phone call was coming four days later? Also, if you want customers to give you feedback on how well your system worked, don’t ask them to do so until the issue is resolved. The last thing customers want when they make a request of you is to be ignored and have you make an ask in return.

Have you looked at your organization’s customer service system from the perspective of an unhappy customer? If not, you might want to put that at the top of your To Do list.

Mailbox photo courtesy of Ashley's Flickr stream.

A lowered flag, a morning salute

I went into work early this morning, thinking about all the things I needed to get done today. I stopped on my way out the door to raise the U.S. flag at my house, waited for a moment of silence, and then lowered it in honor of Heath M. Robinson. I was feeling rushed, trying to get the kids to school and was already tired when I got to work. So I decided to grab a cup of coffee at the closest Biggby. While there, I became frustrated that the cellular networks weren’t working properly and I couldn’t check in on Foursquare.

Then, on my way back to the office, I saw this majestic site:

It’s the Michigan State Capitol, with its flags lowered in honor of Heath M. Robinson and the sunrise glinting off its iconic dome. I paused, thinking what a beautiful view it was for me to witness, all alone on a chilly November morning, so I snapped a picture. Then, because I can’t stand cold weather, I hustled inside to get more of my To Do list marked off.

But then it hit me. I should be happy to be overwhelmed by a To Do list. I should be grateful that I can have such a simple life that something as silly as a failed Foursquare check-in can frustrate me. I should embrace the feeling of cold air entering my lungs. And I should value even more the hugs and kisses I got from my kids this morning as I dropped them off at school.

If you’re reading this post, you should value such things in your life, too. Because Heath M. Robinson and too many of his colleagues can no longer do any of those things. I don’t know Heath M. Robinson, and I never will. He was a Navy SEAL from Petoskey and he was killed in action in Afghanistan on Aug. 6. He was 34 years old. Today, he’s a symbol of bravery, strength, and fortitude. His memory should serve to remind all of us of those who have served and are still serving.

So I’m pushing all of my troubles aside this morning and tipping my coffee cup to that lowered flag atop the Capitol. Won’t you join me?

Thank you, Senior Chief Petty Officer Robinson. Rest in peace.

Sincerity, Transparency, Relevancy & Accuracy are key for social media success

Reprinted from Dome Magazine

Social Media S.T.A.R
August 16, 2011

There have been plenty of discussions over the past two years about social networking and how the online outlets are the new grassroots movement. I’ve often said it myself and encouraged politicians and business leaders to get involved and engage if they want to be successful at interacting with their constituents and customers.

I’m often asked about tips and tricks for how to do that in a way that is beneficial for everyone, so I thought I’d share a few hints here. Of course, there is no perfect way to do anything, especially with the fast-growing and even faster-changing world of social media.

One of the most important lessons I often share comes from comedian Bill Cosby, who is credited with saying, “I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone.” That statement is great anyway, but in the context of social media, it is vital to remember.

Not only will you not please everyone with what you are doing online, the medium allows “everyone” to give you instant feedback on what’s working and what’s not. That can lead you down a tumultuous path of constantly changing your style and content, to the point where no one really knows what to expect. The downside is they could see that as a reason to stop following you and, therefore, stop listening to you.

So it might help if you remembered some basic rules that I have turned into the acronym S.T.A.R. It stands for Sincerity, Transparency, Accuracy and Relevancy.

Sincerity is about being true to yourself and those who follow you. One of the greatest compliments I can receive is to meet someone in real life who has only known me through social networking, and to have that someone realize I’m the same person in both places. I have the same beliefs, the same sense of humor and the same demeanor in person as I do online.

I don’t use any online tools to make myself seem different or better in some way. If people don’t get enough out of what they see when following you online, they can easily stop following you. But if you show them that you are different in each of your online accounts and in real life, they will soon wonder who the real you really is and doubt what you’re saying in all venues.

Transparency is vital for building trust and for establishing relationships with people. Generally, consumers don’t want to follow a brand, they want to interact with people who happen to work for a brand. It helps us get the feeling of being connected behind the scenes somehow.

Politicians are brands, too, now more than ever. That’s why you must clearly state who is operating the Facebook or Twitter accounts you’ve established for your business or your political office.

If more than one person is adding to the account updates, they can be clearly identified by using the ^ symbol and the writer’s initials. There’s nothing wrong with having staff tweet for an elected official or business owner. But you need to be transparent about it to make sure the brand doesn’t lose the trust of those following it.

Accuracy is important in every aspect of our lives, and that is magnified when you’re online. People are used to getting instant information now and acting upon it very quickly.

Another topic for debate some day will be the desire for all of us lately to know everything right away and take immediate action for or against it, rather than waiting until we have all the facts and developing a well thought out plan. But, in the meantime, if you operate a social networking account, you have to make sure that what you are posting is accurate.

If you find you have made an error, declare so as soon as possible and correct it. Simply deleting your inaccurate post and moving on won’t cut it, because you can never truly delete a post from any account. It often will still exist in someone’s Twitter stream or Facebook news feed, or someone may have made a screen capture that can easily be broadcast to the world to show everyone your error.

People are quite willing to overlook human frailties, and they understand that we all make mistakes sometimes. They do not take kindly to being misled, however, which is what happens when you try to cover up a mistake.

Relevancy means keeping track of who is in your audience and sending them updates that are appropriate. One key to good communication is remembering that communicating is about the recipient more than the sender.

That means you need to post updates that matter to the people who are following you on that particular network. I post regularly to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Empire Avenue and Foursquare. I rarely cross-post the exact same message to multiple services.

When I do want to share the same information, I often tweak it so that it is written in a way that would be more appealing to that audience. Sure, it means spending a little more time and effort, but if you aren’t willing to spend those on every form of communication, then why bother communicating at all?

There are several third-party programs available that let you send the same message to multiple outlets with a single click. This, however, is not communication, it is robotic shouting.

It’s important to note that doing all the things in STAR requires some time, effort and patience. None of this is easy or free (although, technically, the pure dollar investment is quite minimal). But, as the old saying goes, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. These days, we should add “multiple times.”

Be careful not to let your worlds collide

George Costanza

I had an interesting conversation with someone recently about how they used to enjoy my Twitter feed more before I became the spokesman for a politician. It was an eye-opening discussion in a couple of ways.

For a bit of background, my personal Twitter feed is @aribadler, but I also am the primary operator of the Twitter account for my employer, Speaker of the House Jase Bolger. That feed is @SpeakerBolger.

I thought I was doing a good job of keeping the two worlds separate, at least as much as you possibly can when it comes to social media. I have no delusions that what I post to both accounts can and will be used against me personally or in my role as the Speaker’s press secretary. So, I’ve been careful with what I’m posting to @aribadler, to make sure I’m not saying or doing anything that can be twisted on me. Of course, the political ideologues will always find a way to use every utterance out of context, but I’m basing my decisions on what reasonable people would think, not those blinded by political rage.

What I had not really considered was whether what I’m doing at work could impact my personal account. I haven’t done much more political ranting on @aribadler than I had in the past, but I’m sure some stuff has shown up there. I have put links to various news stories that I’ve been in on my Twitter feed and on my Facebook page. They weren’t there so much as a way to spread the message contained within, but rather as a way to show my friends and followers what I’ve been up to as a press secretary.

That’s why the conversation from the other night was so enlightening. I’ve been careful not to let comments from my personal world invade into my professional world, and yet I haven’t been as vigilant in the other direction. As this person said, she’s always enjoyed reading my Twitter stream because it was about a lot of things — some interesting to her and some not, some funny and some not. But, she said, it’s not going to be as enjoyable to follow me if I let too much political messaging seep in.

I’ve scrolled through my feed and haven’t seen too much more political stuff there than I had previously, but it does exist. So, I’m going to put up a better barrier — one that keeps my worlds from colliding not just on the work side, but on the personal side, too. I’m sure George Costanza from Seinfeld would agree that’s really for the best.

A royal mad lib

Back in 1775, with a shot heard ’round the world, the colonial states decided to declare independence from the tyrannical rule of a royal family. Why then, are we so enamored with royalty? The latest case in point is the ridiculous story posted by the Associated Press about Prince William and his bride, Kate Middleton. I might have let this go if I’d stumbled across the story in the entertainment or people-watching section of the AP’s news feed. But, alas, this was brought up on my AP Mobile app under “top U.S. news.” Really?

So, in protest to this “news,” I’ve decided the best way to handle it was to turn the article into a royal mad lib. Have fun filling in the blanks with a friend!

AP Photo

LONDON (AP) – Prince William and Kate Middleton look __________ (adverb), __________ (adjective) and very much in ______ (emotion) in official photos released to mark their engagement.

One of the two images by Mario Testino shows the couple, dressed in __________ (noun) and casual __________ (plural noun), smiling in each others’ __________ (body part). The other, more formal, depicts them standing together in a __________ (room) at St. James’ Palace.

The pictures, released Sunday by the prince’s office, were taken by fashion photographer Testino, a royal family favorite who captured some of the most iconic images of William’s late mother, Princess Diana.

Testino said the couple appeared “in their __________ (adjective) and brimming with __________”(adverb) when he photographed them on Nov. 25.

“I have never felt so much __________ (emotion) as when I see them together,” he said.

The Peruvian photographer, who made his name shooting models like Kate Moss, took a series of glamorous black-and-white images of Diana that were published in Vanity Fair in 1997, shortly before her death in a Paris car crash.

William, who is second in line to the British throne, has inherited his mother’s __________(adjective). In both pictures he and Middleton appear entirely __________ (adjective) with the __________ (noun) and each other.

In the formal photos the couple stands on a __________(color) __________ (noun) in the palace’s Council Chamber – in front of __________(noun) of some of William’s ancestors – smiling toward the __________(noun), as Middleton rests her __________(body part) on her fiance’s __________(body party). He wears a __________(noun) and __________(color) __________(noun) over a __________(color) __________(noun), she a smart __________(color) __________(noun) from Reiss.

The more intimate picture shows the pair __________(verb) broadly as they __________(verb) in front of a __________(noun)at the palace, with William wrapping his __________(body part) around Middleton while she puts her __________(body part) on his __________(body part). Clearly visible is the __________(noun) William gave her – a __________(shape) __________(noun) surrounded by __________(plural noun) that belonged to his mother.

Both wear __________(noun), with Middleton sporting a __________(noun) from mid-market retailer Whistles and William wearing a __________(color) __________(noun) over a __________(color) __________(noun) from traditional tailors Turnbull and Asser.

William and Middleton, both 28, announced last month that they will __________(verb) on April 29 at __________(location) in __________(city).

Testino has often photographed members of the royal family, taking portraits to mark Prince William’s 21st birthday in 2003 and his younger brother Prince Harry’s 20th birthday the next year. He also has photographed their father, Prince Charles, for Vogue magazine.

###

By the way, you can view the original article here.

That’s going to leave a mark

UPDATE — I’m not sure when it actually happened, but as of Monday, Sept. 13, the video has been removed by the Michigan GOP. I can’t say for certain that my blog posts, the media coverage and many people joining me in deriding this ad had an effect, but I’d like to think so. Thanks to all who commented or sent notes of support.
~aba
—————

I’ve had active blog posts before, the kind that get people talking and commenting on the page, via Twitter or in person. To date the largest single day of visits came when my post about President Obama’s handling of the Henry Gates situation was featured on CNN.com for a while. And I’ve had many posts that had more visitors than the one I wrote on Tuesday about a Michigan Republican Party YouTube video that I felt sullied the Lansing community. But the “Pure Crap” post has easily claimed the title for drawing the most attention from mainstream media.

After word started spreading about the video and my post railing against it, I was contacted by several reporters while others simply wrote about the situation without talking to me. Tim Nester read the post on his TalkLansing.net show. I was featured in radio segments on City Pulse On Air and Ebling and You. The City Pulse wrote an article, as did Gongwer News Service. And this morning I was mentioned in a political column in The Detroit News.

Certainly, my post wasn’t that extraordinary. What really got the media interested is that I was writing about disagreeing with a Republican video and I’m a former Republican spokesperson, having been the press secretary for a Michigan Senate majority leader. That’s what makes the whole thing newsworthy. And, hopefully, that’s going to leave a mark on the communications strategies for the state Republican and state Democratic parties. Both have been slinging the mud for so long now that people have come to expect it. But that doesn’t make it right and I needed to say it — regardless of my supposed political loyalty. As I mentioned in several of my interviews, many political operatives I speak with say “negative works,” while the average voters on the street I speak to often complain about the negative messaging.

I’ve also been involved in politics long enough to know I’m probably going to be asked by more than one person what I’ve been smoking. But I felt it was important to speak out and leave my mark. I hope that, even if my efforts don’t change the tactics of political operatives in this state, that I might inspire a few more people to stand up and say something when it needs to be said.

So I’m challenging everyone reading this blog to stand up, speak out and leave their mark. Even if it doesn’t change things immediately, it will make you feel better knowing that you tried. And, just maybe, if enough of us inspire others, we might actually see the power of positive change in Michigan. Who is with me?

Politics in Michigan are Pure Crap

UPDATE — I’m not sure when it actually happened, but as of Monday, Sept. 13, the video has been removed by the Michigan GOP. I can’t say for certain that my blog posts, the media coverage and many people joining me in deriding this ad had an effect, but I’d like to think so. Thanks to all who commented or sent notes of support.

~ aba

——–

I saw a video yesterday that offended me. I don’t suppose that’s very newsworthy since people are probably offended by things on YouTube every day. But this was a video from a political party who found  a way to misrepresent the community I live in as part of their attempt to smear the record of their candidate’s opponent.

The Lansing I live in is nothing at all like what the Michigan Republican Party has portrayed it as in their video titled Pure Lansing. Unfortunately, both political parties in this state have been racing to the bottom and simply creating a more jaded electorate with their efforts.

I am not going into great detail to rip apart the video I linked to above. Instead, I’m simply going to disagree and practice what I’ve been preaching. I’m going to be positive.

If you want to know what “Pure Lansing” is really like, you can listen to political operatives pandering for votes, or you can listen to the people who live, work and play in a place they are proud to call home.

If you are on Twitter, follow the hashtag #lovelansing. If you are on Facebook, follow the Lansing Breakfast Club or Lansing Happy Hour Club groups.

Or watch this news piece about Ignite Lansing:

Or this news piece about Kiplinger naming Lansing one of the top 10 cities in America for young professionals:

Is everything in Lansing wonderful? Of course not. Is everything perfect in any city? Hardly. But what makes a city a place you want to call home is the community that exists within it. There are so many examples of good things happening in Michigan’s capital city. Visit our capitol or one of the great museums, like Impression 5. Wander around Potter Park Zoo, stroll through Old Town or enjoy one of the many new restaurants peppering the Washington Square area.

Lansing is changing for the better. I wish Michigan politics could do the same.

(Photo courtesy of Brian Forbes.)

Facebook has never violated my privacy as much as Phonebook

The world is awash in the hysterical gnashing of teeth this morning as the BBC reports that a man apparently wasted time compiling a database of the “private information” of 100 million Facebook users and then posted it online. The news media is all over this in the “We don’t really know what happened but it sounds scary so let’s make it the lead” method of modern journalism.

But all this guy really did was gather data that was already available publicly to anyone looking for it! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again and again: if you don’t want something about your life published online, then do not publish it there! The guy says he deliberately did not mine for data that contained home addresses or phone numbers. Like that’s a big deal anyway. Has anyone ever heard of a little thing called the phonebook?

How come we’ve never seen this story:

Millions of Home Addresses and Phone Numbers Published for the World to See

By Ima Reporter

A high-ranking source at AT&T has confirmed that millions of home addresses and phone numbers have been published and distributed across the country. There are reportedly thousands of versions of something being referred to as “Phonebook.” The information contained within each Phonebook is apparently limited to a geographic region. It appears customers of AT&T were required to provide this information when they signed up for service. Customers were then told their data would be published unless they paid AT&T a fee to keep it private.

Congressional hearings are expected to be be called within the next few days and executives from AT&T are expected to answer some tough questions about invasion of privacy for their customers.

“Many of these folks needed a phone only for emergencies but now they have had to deal with calls from people they don’t even know trying to sell them products and services. It’s a travesty and we cannot let this continue,” said Congressman Eineed Votes.

###

(Photo courtesy of Let Ideas Compete’s Flickr photostream.)

A zoo’s perspective on the social media jungle

Here is part two of my look at Potter Park Zoo’s social media efforts, cross-posted from Digital Pivot:

I recently wrote an article for Ragan.com about the use of social media by zoos, focusing primarily on the success being enjoyed by Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Mich.

For that story, I interviewed Jake Pechtel, Potter Park’s “Swiss army knife” of online activity. As I was reviewing my notes and pulling the basics of my Ragan story out of them, I also found pearls of wisdom and insight that I thought everyone could learn from as well.

Here are some thoughts from Pechtel not just about doing social media for an organization, but doing it in a way that he believes leads to success:

  • “I don’t think I market to people on social media, I’m just having a dialogue. That’s one of the key pieces of the code I follow when making any content.”
  • “I’ve really been pushing that they (a social media operative) are your largest audience spokesperson. They are the person with the biggest voice and capable of great or terrible things. You have to make sure they are responsible to your brand at all times.”
  • “Don’t just throw your fans out to your social media sites; don’t forget about your core Web site. Too many places have decided to drive everyone to their Facebook page. Facebook is really popular right now, but it could go away. Then what?”
  • “People like to throw this job at interns, but it’s not an intern’s job. It’s a big unknown, and it’s really easy to mess up, in that you won’t get people to engage. If anybody is taking it seriously, it’s at least half of somebody’s job. In reality, it could be a full-time position. This person is responsible for creating a lot of creative content. That doesn’t always happen between 9 and 5.”
  • “It is possible for big companies to have one person have a major impact on their business.”
  • “I still feel like there’s no true guru of social media, although there are a lot of self-proclaimed ones. People have called me a guru, but I’m just fumbling my way through it like everyone else. The content of social media changes every day – it’s about what people want to talk about at that moment, and that can change dramatically from week to week. “

Two more notes that caught my attention were about the zoo’s blog and how to handle trouble on a Facebook wall.

Pechtel said they treat that blog as another type of social media, which “really helps tie our site to the rest of social media.”

“We do Q & A pretty successfully with our blog,” Pechtel said. “I researched it and big zoos and organizations had great posts, but no comments. So I had to wonder if we should even do a blog.”

He noted they received 12 comments on their first post and have had comments on almost every post since.

“The idea is to have a glimpse of the zoo from every angle. I write, the veterinarian writes, zookeepers write, docents write. It’s a really cool way for people to get a unique view of the entire operation of the zoo. ”

Regarding the Facebook wall, Pechtel said he monitors it continually, not just during the workday, to see if there is anything inappropriate being posted. But what about the stuff that isn’t obscene or a spam link, but a legitimate concern by folks who are not fans of zoos? Pechtel said leaves those on the wall but tries to respond to the questions or concerns.

“If you truly believe in your product, you should be able to defend it,” he said. “We never argue; we educate. We’re doing what we can with the staff and budget we have. If people complain about how we could be doing something better, I’ll often agree and talk about how we rely on our community and invite them to come out and volunteer and help us do it better.

“We don’t go on safari anymore to capture animals for the wonderment of the white man. These are animals born in captivity to be raised in captivity. Most of the time, we have engaged community members who are responding before I even get to it.”

I hope this glimpse into the workings not just of the Potter Park Zoo’s social media activities but into the mind of the guy running it all proves helpful to you. As always, your comments are welcome, and if you have any questions for him, I’m sure he’d be happy to help. As always, I’m available for simple assistance or more complex consulting here.
Oh, and don’t forget to shut your computer off from time to time and go visit your local zoo!   smiley

“PR” doesn’t stand for Problem Repair

Associated Press Television News photographer Rich Matthews went diving in the Gulf of Mexico to take a closer look. (AP Photo)

The public relations industry is taking a beating lately because of the BP Oil catastrophe since those in charge seem to think PR stands for “Problem Repair.”

Whether it’s customer service, product design, political popularity or a giant gash you cut in the bottom of the ocean, PR can’t fix the root cause of your troubles. Sure, public relations practitioners not adhering to the Code of Ethics can divert attention away from the situation, but they cannot do so indefinitely. At some point, the truth will be revealed, the problem will continue to grow, people will no longer be fooled and the ultimate answer — fixing the problem — will have to be addressed.

Ad Age recently interviewed “Leroy Stick,” the pseudonym of the creator behind @BPGlobalPR on Twitter. In the interview, Stick said:

I started this account because I think most people in PR are liars and most people in the media don’t have the balls to call them out on it. There’s a system set up where companies make press releases and the media regurgitates them. Personally, I’d love it if more journalists delved into why companies say what they say rather than simply presenting what they say.

I can’t help but think a little about the pot calling the kettle black, since “Leroy Stick” won’t reveal his true identity and is, therefore, also a liar. But I digress. The bigger problem is that BP executives and government officials all the way up to President Barack Obama are looking to public relations professionals to make this problem go away. There is only one way to the make the problem of oil flowing into the ocean go away: stop the gusher you created.

Talking about sealing the gash won’t close it. Pointing fingers at who might be responsible won’t let nature start its cleaning process. Demanding money or agreeing to pay it won’t bring back the livelihoods of people affected by oil slicks hitting beaches. Having a photo opportunity with the families of the oil workers killed in the explosion won’t bring those men back. And trying to change the subject to a political agenda pushing for more controls over greenhouse gas emissions won’t save the fish, the birds and the mammals being poisoned to death.

I’ve been involved in media relations and public relations as a journalist, a practitioner and a university instructor for more than 20 years. I’ve learned a few things along the way. One of the things I’ve had to teach to students, colleagues and bosses is that PR can help you explain difficult answers and it can help you repair your reputation after you’ve had to publicly offer a difficult answer. But PR is not the answer.

So if you have horrible customer service, pushing PR messages about how great your Twitter team is handling complaints about it won’t help in the long run.

If you have a dangerous product, pushing PR messages about how much you care about your customers won’t change the fact they are at risk.

If you’re responsible for opening a hole in the Earth that is spewing millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, pushing PR messages about how you’re going to make things right won’t stop the oil flow.

And if you’re the man elected to lead this nation in times of crisis, pushing PR messages about caring for the environment more than the other political party won’t change the fact that people disapprove of your leadership.

Sure, I’ve stood up and said I’m responsible for oil spills. But as a public relations professional, I’m here to tell you we don’t cause bad customer service, dangerous products, holes in the ocean floor or poor leadership decisions. So stop expecting us to be miracle workers. Fix your damn problem; then we can talk.