Help yourself help your customers

Kroger app screenshot


Once a company has made things easier for its customers, there are few things as frustrating as having them turn around and make things difficult again.

I experienced this recently at my local Kroger grocery store when they had a sign advertising a coupon for a free item.

Kroger has one of the better shopping apps available for your mobile phone. It offers more than you really need, but it builds upon the company’s shopper’s card, which helps you get discounts at the store. I find the app most helpful for “clipping” coupons to my shopper’s card. It easily replaces the old paper coupons and actually has me using more coupons than I ever did the old-fashioned way.

Back to my recent experience, I spotted a sign in the store for a Free Friday Download, which is a relatively new marketing promotion Kroger is trying. The idea is that you can download a coupon for a free item — in this most recent case, it was for a bottle of pop. So, I decided to try to take advantage of the freebie. That’s when frustration reigned supreme.

My first thought was, “I’ll just open my Kroger app on my phone and grab it from there.” I don’t remember seeing the Free Friday option the last time I was on my app, but since it’s a new thing I figured maybe I just hadn’t noticed it yet. So, I opened the app and searched while following my wife through the store. I searched. And searched. There was no Free Friday download or related coupon. I made my way back to the sign to see if I had missed some direction.

Kroger Free Friday download signWhat I found was a website address. Fine, it’s not as convenient as the app, but if it was mobile-optimized maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. While the site was mobile-optimized, it was not the doorway to a convenient experience. I could see the Free Friday coupon, but I couldn’t download it to anything. The reason is that it required me to log in to my Kroger account via my email address and password.

The reason I have an app, and use it, is because of its convenience and the fact that I don’t have to constantly remember my log-in information. It just opens and works.

I couldn’t remember my log-in and I wasn’t going to waste time standing in a grocery store aisle to try to figure it out. So, I gave up. That means instead of getting a free pop and expressing appreciation for it to anyone who would listen, I am now writing a negative blog post about a customer service and marketing screw-up by a company that does well normally.

If your company an app, then use it, drive people to it, promote more downloads; never abandon it. The marketing sign should have promoted the app. If Kroger wants customers to download something, they should have them download the app, then make the Free Friday coupon available on it.

Kroger has figured out how to help its customers in many ways. Now, it needs to learn how to help itself help its customers even more.


Google offers good customer service in spite of itself


If you follow this blog, you know that recently my Google Glass had a serious hardware breakdown and I sought to get it replaced under the 1-year warranty.

Overall, the experience has been a positive one, but it there were times when I questioned whether a massive technology conglomerate like Google will ever figure out how to handle customer service. At this point I’d have to say they are getting close.

Interacting with Glass Guides, as they are called, has been great as they are very friendly when you talk to them. And Google Glass handles their account on Google Plus well. After noting my foil flaw on Google Plus, the Google Glass team jumped into the thread, apologized for the problem and provided me the link I needed to reach their Guides.

glass helpWhen you go to that link, you can opt to “call” Google, which really means you enter your phone number and press the call me button. It then tells you how long it will probably take for a Guide to call you. I called three times during this incident and each time it told me to expect a call back within 1 minute. All three calls actually came in within about 15 seconds, which is impressive.

The first Guide, Michael, was apologetic for my problems, verified my account info and then said he would send me an email with a questionnaire. He wanted to me to reply to the email with answers to questions about what was going on and include three high-quality photos showing the optics pod foil was in fact damaged. He said that would arrive within about 30 minutes. About 2 hours later I still hadn’t received an email. Given how responsive all the Google Glass interactions have been since I first became an Explorer, I worried there was miscommunication about my email address. Plus, once you start missing your Glass, you are anxious to get it replaced.

My follow-up call with a Glass Guide confirmed that they did indeed have my address, that someone was working on the case file, but that this second guide would jump in and push another email out to me right away. About 15 minutes later I received the email, but from the original Glass Guide.

I didn’t mind having to wait a few hours to receive the email; I would have not worried about it at all if the first guy hadn’t told me “30 minutes” when he meant “a few hours.” In customer service, under-promising and over-delivering tends to bring a smile to a client’s face.

The other disconcerting part of my first call was that Michael said he couldn’t guarantee a replacement but that they would look into the matter thoroughly for me. When you have a $1,500 paperweight in your hand — one that’s too light to really hold down much paper — with a known design problem affecting it you immediately become irritated when someone doesn’t say, “Of course we’ll take care of it!” But I realize that perhaps Google does not authorize every frontline person to make such commitments, even though they should be at every company. 

The email questionnaire was simple and straight-forward; it asked about half a dozen questions that all made sense to me in terms of Google Glass needing it for research purposes on a failed unit.

What happened before issue / breakage?

Any solutions come into contact with Glass?

What was the environment like?

How is the device stored or carried?

How is the device charged (only relevant for power issues)?

After sending my answers with three photos attached, I heard back within 4 days that Google was replacing my Glass and I would be notified when it shipped. Also, they had updated their advance replacement process, so they would send me the new unit without putting a hold on my credit card for the value, and provided me with a return shipping label for the busted unit. Hooray!

I made my third call during those four days, being an anxious customer and wanting to know what the resolution to my problem was going to be. The third Glass Guide I talked to verified that the Glass was going to be replaced. He said it unfortunately can take a week or so to get through the process, but that the good news was once it shipped, it would come by overnight air delivery.

Later that day, I received an email telling me my new Glass had shipped, but that it would take 3-5 business days and that they appreciated my patience. Here again, Google stumbled by providing mixed messages. The entire process took less than a week, but now the shipping would be by standard post, apparently, with a 3 to 5 day delivery period. Why did Glass Guides keep telling me different information? The last misstep by Google in this process was that they then shipped the new unit to me via overnight air delivery.

20140702-184840-67720482.jpgI had asked via email for the UPS tracking number so I could be available to sign for it. (I’m not sure why they didn’t just include the number in the first email; it’s better customer service and more efficient for their team than having to deal with another email or phone call from a customer.) I immediately typed it in and was told the package wasn’t in the system yet. Since they said it would take days to arrive, I figured I would just check 24 hours or so later and start tracking it.

Well, imagine my surprise when I received a notice from UPS via email the next morning that they had tried to deliver a package to me but no one was home to sign for it. That was on the Thursday before Independence Day, so they would try to deliver it again on Monday. No way! I contacted UPS, as I have before, and asked them to hold the package at the customer care center after the driver returned and I would pick it up from them Thursday night. That system always works very well and I’m pleased to say it did this time, too.

This worked out well in the end for me, but it could have been an infuriating situation. If you’re going to ship something overnight, don’t tell me it will take 3 to 5 days. This is one of those times where “under-promise and over-deliver” doesn’t work.

All is well that ends well, and I thoroughly enjoyed having Google Glass available for a July 4th party at my nephew’s house. I also have found the new unit to be incredibly responsive and smooth, details of which I’ll cover in a subsequent post.

But back to my earlier question: can a tech behemoth become a customer service powerhouse, as well? The answer is yes, and Google almost has it figured out. At this point, it’s offering good customer service in spite of itself. All the components are there now: friendly representatives (Glass Guides), an efficient replacement process, and a commitment to fast shipping.

Google HQWhat they need to do now is create a better guide for their Guides. It should include what information should be provided to customers about the units, the replacement process and shipping details. I’ve heard from other Explorers that the way to get the best customer service from Google Glass is to always work with the same Guide. But that shouldn’t be necessary, and other than what turned out to be relatively minor hiccups in my case, working with four different Glass Guides seemed to be fine. Consistency is key. Even if you’re telling your customers that something will take longer than they want to hear, if you’re up front and consistent with them no matter who they talk to, they should still be satisfied.

I have heard about research that shows customers with a problem that is resolved satisfactorily are more likely to say positive things about your company than people who have never had a problem. I don’t know where I read that initially, but I can probably find it on Google.

“OK, Glass…”




Foiled by a design flaw

Google Glass has a fatal design flaw that is resulting in a growing number of complaints and replacements — and now I’ve become the victim, as well.

The end of the optics prism is covered in a silver foil that blocks the light from entering at the end of the prism, which would distort the view at best and make it impossible to see at worst. Trouble happens when the foil bubbles up and sometimes seems to peel away from Glass.

IMG_20140626_133832218 (1)In my case, the foil developed bubbles, which has resulted in a distorted view inside the Glass prism, rendering it almost unusable.

The most unfortunate thing for me — beyond the device becoming a $1,5000 novelty item — is the timing. I was traveling with my family  on vacation and the foil bubbled on the next to last night of our trip. While I had not been using it much due to the nature of our daytime activities, which included a lot of snorkeling, I was planning on breaking out Glass to use during our travels home. I also have another trip planned for this coming week where I was hoping to use Glass and its travel aids.

Upon returning home, I contacted Google Glass to report the issue and determine the next steps. I’m on Day 3 of working with Google to get through the process of getting it replaced. I wasn’t happy that the Glass Guide initially said, “I can’t guarantee you a replacement will be made, but we definitely will look into this.” That’s not what an unhappy customer with a device still under warranty that is suffering from a fatal design flaw wants to hear! Still, I’m reserving judgment until final disposition.

The people involved have been friendly and the process is rather straightforward so far. I had to speak to a Glass Guide about my problem and they emailed me a questionnaire for me to respond to via email and asked for three clear pictures showing the Glass from different angles.  The only glitch in that process so far has been that the Guide told me I’d receive an email from him within 30 minutes. After 2 hours, I called back to make sure they didn’t have my email address wrong. Another Guide opened the file and said she’d take care of getting me an email right away. About 45 minutes later I had an email from the original Guide with my questionnaire.

The delay perturbed me, but mainly because the original Guide was not up front with me about timing. If it’s busy at Glass HQ and it’s going to take a few hours to send me something, then say so. Don’t promise 30 minutes and then leave me hanging.

So, now it’s Saturday and I don’t expect I’ll hear anything until Monday, but perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’ve heard Glass Explorers who get warranty replacements have mixed results — with some getting a replacement sent first and the defective unit returned afterward, and others having to return the bad unit first, which delays the process. Can I live without Glass for a couple of weeks? Sure. Do I want to? Not really. I’ll cover why in an upcoming blog post.

For now, I’ll just become another person with my head down, looking at my mobile phone instead of my surroundings. It’s less Star Trek, but more distracting.




Your best efforts are pointless if your customers don’t know about them

customer-service.0822.12I never intended to start a string of posts about customer service but it seems the more I write about it the more things happen that make me think about another customer service post.

This time, it’s about a business doing something right, but missing out on a huge opportunity to make customers happy because some of us don’t know about this business’ initiative.

One of the vehicles in my stable is a Volkswagen and I have it serviced and maintained at the local dealership where I bought it, Williams Autoworld. Volkswagen service is known for being expensive but detailed, and I’ve found the service department to be very customer friendly, so the cost is a little more palatable. One of the nice things this dealership has always done is wash your car when they finish working on it.

Unfortunately, there are several months here in Michigan when that service simply isn’t available. They have a rule about not washing your car if the temperature is below 29 degrees, because they are concerned about frozen rubber gaskets and more that can be caused by mixing water with crappy Michigan winter weather.

It’s a bummer but understandable. Recently I was in for service and when I received my receipt, there was an ink stamp on it that read:

Sorry, due to the cold weather, we are unable to wash your vehicle. Please return in above-freezing temps and we will wash it free of charge.

The thoughtful gesture impressed me and when I filled out my dealership survey, I took the time to add a note giving them kudos for the car wash offer.

I received an email within 24 hours from an executive at the dealership, noting that he reads all the surveys and pays particular attention to notes included by customers. He was glad that I was pleased by the car wash offer but seemed surprised I didn’t know about it since they had offered that service for some time. He also attached a the text of a sign he was thinking about posting in their waiting room that would alert customers to this offer in case others also weren’t aware of it.

 A shot of my car when it was much happier visiting Florida than it is suffering through Michigan winters.

A shot of my car when it was much happier visiting Florida than it is suffering through Michigan winters.

After offering my opinion on the wording of the sign, I also told him doing so was a great idea, because I have been a customer for about seven years now and I never knew they offered the “come back for a car wash” service until I saw the stamp on my receipt.

The point is that here was a business doing the right thing by offering a an extra free service to customers, and following through by offering it free at another time if they couldn’t complete it at the day and time of your visit. But they were failing in a big way because your best efforts are pointless if your customers don’t know about them.

So if you’re involved with a company or business that goes that extra mile for customers, don’t assume your customers know about it and don’t say anything because they’re ungrateful. It could turn out that they simply are unaware. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. After all, if you won’t, how can your customers?

The customer service war is won on the front lines

tobruk02In any battle, the generals in charge of the plan are important and the front-line officers are the ones who execute that plan successfully or not — but when it comes right down to it, the front-line grunts are the ones who actually get the job done.

It’s time the business world learned that it’s the front line that matters, too. I’ve had three recent customer-service experiences that help highlight what I’m getting at.

First, I had an interaction with Amazon after I found out my Amazon Prime membership was increasing by $20 when it renews later this year. I’m not revolting against the change. I’m not a big fan of higher prices, of course, but I understand that after several years, a company may need to adjust them. But I did look online to see if I could take advantage of renewing my subscription early or possibly buying multiple years to lock in a lower price. Unfortunately, there were no such options online so I decided to write to I asked them about early renewals and suggested they offer multi-year discount packages because they would probably sell a lot of them to people like me. In no time at all, I had an email from an employee telling me that they completely understand what I want to do but neither option is available through their customer service system. They did offer to refund me $20 if I write back to them after my renewal date finally comes up, to help me out for one year, at least. That’s awesome and I greatly appreciate it. But why isn’t something like that available online, since Amazon is an entirely online company, or at least available to their front-line troops to help boost customer satisfaction?

Second, I had a run-in with Apple over their iMessage system, which I tolerated as an iPhone user and now despise as an Android convert. Apparently, when you migrate your number from an iPhone to a Droid, Apple’s system has difficulty breaking up with you and glitches abound. Anyone with an iPhone who tries texting your number will see that an iMessage was sent, but it never actually gets delivered. (iMessage, apparently, is much like the Eagle’s Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!)hotel calif

After completing my online research to find I’m far from alone with this nuisance and attempting a few fixes myself without getting anywhere, I entered into an online chat with an Apple Care employee. They were very friendly, understanding and as helpful as they were allowed to be. Apparently, they did all they could at their level, and suspected something else needed to be done, but it wasn’t a task they were allowed to complete. So they had to “elevate” my problem and arrange a time for another customer service representative to call me. This second employee and I connected by phone the next morning and they took about 5 minutes to run a system check on their end and do a forced cleaning to try to break my phone number away from their system. I’m not sure it’s worked 100 percent, but things do seem better overall. The problem is, why couldn’t that front-line employee push a couple of buttons and wait a few minutes with me while their system processed the cleaning? They knew what I needed and probably how to do it, but instead they had to “elevate” my problem. What too many companies don’t understand is that elevating a customer problem generally just elevates a customer’s frustration, as well.

My third customer-service runaround in the past week has been with SiriusXM Radio. Their online administration system was so screwy that I finally sent them an email complaining about it and noting that they’re worse than Comcast – and that’s a pretty harsh statement! I finally ended up on the phone with one of their employees, as well. The only good news in this case is that although the front-line access via the Internet was useless, the front-line person on the phone was able to do everything I needed. In a nutshell, I was looking at canceling a couple of subscriptions and changing the terms of another. After listening to why I was making the changes to my account, the customer service rep made some suggestions on how I could cancel just one subscription, keep the second one active and change the third. It all ended with me feeling that I got a deal that was good enough to keep me satisfied and keep Sirius from losing more than one annual subscription. I initially wished I could have just dealt with it all online, but the woman on the phone did such a good job that it made me realize there is value in human interaction when it comes to customer service.

I always do my best to never take out my frustrations on customer service representatives, whether in an online chat or on a phone call. These are people trying to do their jobs and often when they can’t it’s because of some policy their company has in place to contain their employees rather than empower them.

But the customer service war — just like any other battle — is won on the front lines. So if you have an opportunity in business to empower those grunts then please do so, even if it means telling a few generals that they just aren’t as important as they might like to believe.

customer service meme

It’s not about you screwing up, it’s about how you handle it that matters

I’m a big fan of technology and gadgets, so my house is filled with them. One of my favorites is my Roku streaming player.roku lt

A few months ago, Roku started offering movies directly through a product called M-Go. When M-GO first launched, they offered a couple of free movies via a credit on all new accounts. I took advantage of the promotion and found  the system to work well. That means I’ll consider streaming movies that way again, which I assume was the point of the promotion.

OK, so far, so good, right? Well, then last week, M-GO sent out an email saying, “Hey, go use your $5 credit!” I, and many others I’m sure, took that to mean that M-GO was offering another credit to Roku customers because they really want us to learn to like the service.

But, wait, that’s not it at all! Apparently, they screwed up and the email was supposed to go out as a reminder to customers who had not yet used up their initial $5 credit. That’s why they sent a follow-up email telling us all too bad, so sad, no free movies for you!

mgoWe’re Sorry! Earlier today, you received an email about a $5 promotional credit on M-GO. This message was sent to you in error. It was intended as a reminder for a small group of Roku users who still have a credit waiting on their accounts. We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused. Thank you for your understanding. We value you as a customer and look forward to offering other great movie and TV promotions in the future.

Oh well, I figured, at least I’ll get a blog post out of a customer service screw up and the poor handling of it afterward.

But, wait, that’s not it at all! A day later, those of us whose hopes of a free movie were dashed suddenly were more important to M-GO than they first let on. It seems we are, indeed, valued customers whom they want to share a long, happy relationship with.

And, so, we received another email.

We made a mistake and frankly, we feel awful about it. Did you ever hit the send button too soon? You scramble to hit undo, but it’s too late. A courtesy email intended for a small group of customers reminding them of a credit in their account inadvertently went to you. We sent an apology email but feel it wasn’t enough. Creating a premium experience for you is our number one priority. So please accept our sincere apologies and our offer of one complimentary movie rental This credit has already been added to your account and expires in 7 days. If you have any questions, we’ve set up a special email for you to reach our customer care team. We look forward to continuing our journey together to bring you the world’s greatest movies and TV anytime, anyplace. Humbly, Traci Lamm Head of Customer Care

Granted, the movie credit is only valid for one week, which means I have to use it up by the end of this weekend. But it was refreshing to see a company say, “Hey, we screwed up. We’re sorry. And here’s something to try to make it right.”

M-GO might actually have a future, Mistakes happen; we’ve all made them and anyone who says they haven’t is making a mistake, because they’re lying to you about their past. More companies need to learn what M-GO just learned: it’s not about you screwing up, it’s about how you handle it that matters.

UPDATED on 3/15/14:

I sent a link of my blog post to M-GO, letting them know how they’re handling of the situation resulted in a blog post that gave them a nod of my head instead of a smack to theirs. They responded within an hour:

M-GO really appreciates your kind words to this sensitive matter. We pride ourselves on customer satisfaction and we are very pleased to hear that you recognize are (sic) efforts. We look forward to providing you with all your entertainment needs and that long lasting relationship you mentioned in your blog. We appreciate your business and thank you for choosing M-GO!

“Sorry” customer service responses vary greatly


Adorable puppy courtesy of

When you complain to or about a company or brand on social media, sometimes you’re just venting and sometimes you are expecting a legitimate response because for some reason we think that’s an acceptable method of communicating our grievances now. Sometimes you want to offer unsolicited advice, which if reacted to makes you feel good but if ignored shouldn’t make you feel bad. After all, it was unsolicited and no one is obliged to listen to your advice if they didn’t ask for it.

In any case, most of the time what customers are seeking when they complain, and especially if they’re just venting, is to hear “We’re sorry.” Maybe the company can’t fix your problem and sometimes all they can do is acknowledge your frustration. Who knows, that may be all you were looking for. Humanizing that response is far superior to offering a form letter reply, because form letters don’t help anyone believe that you really care about their issues. Note that a form letter style of reply is different from a template. Often, the same information should be conveyed as part of your organization’s response, so having similar paragraphs within personalized letters or emails is understandable and acceptable.

I am writing this post as a follow-up to my post about customer service and marketing miscues. I thought it might be of interest to see what reactions I received to my initial customer service complaints and the resulting post about them.

So, in the order established in that other post, here are the reactions:

  • After my post mentioned Walmart and it’s pro-American worker commercial with a theme song by a Canadian band, nothing official happened, although a couple of days after the post ran, I heard from a local lobbyist who works for them. He said “my post did not go unnoticed” and he was sharing it with HQ in Bentonville. That’s actually more than I expected.
  • The credit card company got back to me within a few days of my email complaining to them, noting that the offer indeed was legitimate but that they couldn’t do more for me without having me log in to their secure server. At least there wasn’t a link for me to follow or be concerned about. This was one of those cases where they included a template of security tips gobbledygook in the reply, but I understand why.
  • I’ve heard nothing from the local newspaper, and I rarely hear anything from the media when I complain as a routine member of the public instead of as a press secretary. Granted, the Lansing State Journal was in my post but I did not contact them directly. I suppose maybe no one in that organization is monitoring Google for mentions. It’s a position they should seriously consider adding if they want to truly be a part of the entire local community, both offline and on.
  • comcast googleBelieve it or not, one of the better responses came from Comcast, which I complained about the loudest. The main corporate account didn’t respond, but within minutes of tagging Comcast Cares on Google+, I had a very human response from an employee that said they don’t have an ETA on when the feature I’m looking for would be available. She even added a frowny face emoticon. Nothing says a human replied like an emoticon; it’s better than a bot or a customer service person ordered to use standard company language.
  • I already posted in my earlier blog entry about how the Lansing Board of Water and Light is embroiled in a PR crisis and unlikely to exit unscathed anytime soon. I haven’t heard from them but I didn’t expect a response because, quite honestly, they have much bigger things to worry about than my rantings.
  • And the Meijer store manager responded to my original complaint with a lackluster answer that only made me more frustrated, which is how they ended up in my other blog post originally.

So, a few observations:

  1. If customers contact you directly, respond! It’s fine for an automated response to acknowledge receipt of an email, that way someone isn’t waiting and wondering. But the real reply needs to be sincere and from a real human, not a bot or an automaton spouting propaganda.
  2. Monitor pings of your brand or organization online. It’s not that hard and, if you use a service like Google Alerts, it’s free! Just because they don’t contact you directly doesn’t mean people aren’t complaining about you. In fact, it may be worse because instead of a private outreach, they are publicly saying things that you should respond to but probably aren’t.
  3. In whatever response you offer, send along an “I’m sorry.” It may not seem like much but it can go a long way. If nothing else, you should at least be sorry that the customer had to make an extra effort to reach out to you because of a problem. That’s time they could have spent saying nice things about you, or nothing at all, which is preferable to a few choice words surrounding your brand name.

Customer service and marketing: You Can’t Fix Stupid

ron whiteI am quite certain I’m not alone when shaking my head periodically over stupid marketing mistakes or frustrating customer service travails. Over the past few weeks, I have shaken my head so much though that I’m growing concerned about the impact on my brain from all that jarring movement.

The missteps have involved utility and cable companies, retail stores, a major bank, and a daily newspaper. And there isn’t any social media outreach or clever slogan that can replace simple research or focusing on good customer service instead of focusing on how to address complaints. In other words, stop staring so much at the trees and take a broader look at the forest you’re creating from time to time.

First, let’s talk about marketing miscues.

While watching the Olympics on TV the other night, an ad came on for WalMart, not a bastion of union love and Made in the USA pride for sure. The ad was about how much WalMart is pledging to support U.S-made products and the workers who manufacture them. Unfortunately, the marketing department at WalMart apparently doesn’t have too many classic rock fans on staff. If it did, they would have caught that the theme song they decided to run at full volume during the commercial was Working Man by Rush, which is an iconic Canadian band.

credit offerThen, just this weekend, I received an unsolicited email from one of my credit card companies offering a hassle-free, credit-check free increase in my credit line. I just needed to click the button linked in the email and I would be on my way. Spam! you say? Actually, I think it’s legitimate, but there’s no way to prove it. The most ridiculous part is that the bank has a Secure Messaging Center that allows you to correspond with the bank (and vice-versa) within their system once you’ve securely logged into your account. I have forwarded the email to the address the bank uses for customers to report phishing attempts so that they can either start working on this fraudulent scam or walk down to the marketing department and smack someone upside the head.

I also noticed this weekend that my local daily newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, ran yet another letter to the editor that was factually inaccurate. As a media relations professional, it has always frustrated me how much newspapers claim to pride themselves on truth and accuracy, and then fill their opinion pages with rubbish. I’m not lamenting opinion columns by newspaper staff or the public that might have a different take on an issue than I do. I’m talking about people printing absolute falsehoods because the newspaper fact-checks their news but lets opinion trample the truth. It makes it tough to believe the marketing pitches from a newspaper about how they can be a trusted source when they are printing things that can’t be trusted.

Perhaps all marketing departments should hang a poster in their offices of comedian Ron White and his great line, “You can’t fix stupid.”

Customer service is becoming a bit of an oxymoron in many companies, too, with a focus on outreach through social media to address concerns people have. Here’s a concern I have: your customer service is horrible and whitewashing it with public relations outreach after the fact isn’t going to save you.

A classic example of this is the cable company Comcast. For years now, @ComcastCares on Twitter and other outlets has been touted as a great example of social media customer service that is responsive and well-liked. Unfortunately, Comcast as a company is considered vile by many of its customers. Just say something on Facebook or Google Plus about Comcast and watch the hate mail pour in on your comment stream.

comcast googleI discovered HBO GO is available as a channel on my Roku streaming device. I was excited because it meant I could stop using Comcast’s menu system that is as complicated as the family trees on Game of Thrones. In a strange twist, I actually started watching Game of Thrones after receiving a free subscription to HBO from Comcast because they were trying to make up for a massive billing mistake on their part. Unfortunately, Comcast isn’t one of the cable companies that allows you to log in to HBO GO on Roku. When I lamented about this on Google Plus, I tagged Comcast and ComcastCares. Of course the main account ignored me but ComcastCares responded within minutes. It wasn’t a particularly good or useful response, but at least I knew someone had heard me.

A local municipal utility company in Lansing, Michigan also suffered a massive credibility crisis back in December when ice storms wiped out power lines and the electricity they provide to area residents, in some cases for more than a week. Information was hard to come by and what was being delivered was questionable in terms of accuracy. After a public outcry over the Lansing Board of Water and Light needing to do a better job, the utility’s response was to post an opening for a social media coordinator. Of course! That makes perfect sense. After all, when I’m frustrated with a utility because my pipes are about to burst and food is rotting in my refrigerator, what I really wish I had was some great outreach via Twitter. Or, maybe, I’d rather have my electricity restored. And perhaps the money spent on social media whitewash might be better spent on restoring power and making sure it stays on.

Some days, I don’t think some places even care enough to try anymore.

Take a local store in my town called Meijer. It’s a Michigan-based company so many friends and I have tried to look past problems it has because we want to support the home team. The biggest issue people complain about is growing frustration with a reliance on self-checkout lanes that have lackluster scanners and a cumbersome layout. Most people who lament about not shopping there anymore seem to cite that as reason number one for their decision. I have learned to shop there at night since their checkout system is a bit more tolerable with fewer customers trying to use it.

However, a recent trip there and responses to complaints I filed about my experience have forced me to join the flock of those seeking my groceries and home supplies elsewhere. It was shortly after 10 p.m. when I stopped in to buy a few things, the bulk of which were in the toiletries section. Ten o’clock in the evening is late but not very late and considering the store is open 24 hours, it seemed too early for entire sections to be shut down for cleaning. But, alas, I left empty-handed with not a single toiletry item in my bag. When I inquired at the “customer service” counter about that section of the store being entirely closed off to customers, they shrugged and told me sorry, there was nothing they could do. I reported my frustration with the situation and the response to corporate headquarters. They forwarded it to the store manager who emailed me to say he was sorry, but cleaning was necessary and had to be done some time. I agree, but as I mentioned the store is open 24 hours, so how about cleaning at 2 a.m., or only cleaning certain aisles at a time instead of shutting down an entire corner of your store!?


Frank Eliason, the founder of ComcastCares and now Director of Global Social Media at Citi, recently wrote about social media and customer service on a LinkedIn post. It’s a great read and I recommend taking a look, but here’s the line that really stood out to me:

I have yet to find a more important job than Customer Service. It is sad that people feel it is beneath them, because some day businesses will realize how important it is to their own success (or failure).

Well said. After all, no matter how good your PR and marketing teams are, they will never overcome horrible customer service. Fix the customer service first instead of whitewashing it with cool tech tools. And take the fun stuff away from the marketing teams for a while so they can spend time on the front lines dealing with customers and their personal frustrations. Maybe then you’ll be able to market your product without it resulting in a violent shaking of heads.

UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post about replies I received from the various organizations.

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.

Want customers? Just make your sh*t work

Ari & Jessi at MIS

Me and Jessi Wortley Adler at MIS

How do you make a customer’s experience with your business so great that they want to keep you a part of their life and even promote you to their friends and family? Make the customer experience about what the customer needs instead of about what you think the customer wants.

I started thinking about this after I attended the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. The subject moved to the front burner of my brain again after I heard about Steve Jobs resigning as CEO of Apple.

What do a race car track and a technology company have in common? They have fans — not just of the product they are selling but of themselves. They, and a couple of other companies that come to mind, have figured out what their customers want but also give customers what they need, which turns them into fans.

Let’s start with MIS. I’m not a big fan of NASCAR races and I had heard tales of long traffic backups getting into and out of MIS over the years. So, when I landed a couple of tickets for my wife and I to attend the Pure Michigan 400, I was more excited for her because she is a big NASCAR fan. I, on the other hand, was anxious about surviving the event and figured I’d probably just suck it up and enjoy the day for Jessi’s sake.

Now, granted, I called in a favor and was able to get access to areas not all fans get to visit. But my initial experience at the MIS website for visitor information and traveling in and out of the facility were the same for me as they would be for any customer. And that’s where MIS really shines. For example, the track has worked closely with government officials to improve ingress and egress with dramatic changes to traffic patterns. This has resulted, according to track officials, in dropping the time required to exit the track area from between five and seven hours down to about an hour and a half.

MIS logoAt their website, you can find all kinds of information, including a fan guide and 3D map of the facility. The Grand Stand Gate Policy on what fans can bring with them also is a big selling point. In most places these days, fans are treated like security risks, with the ability to carry anything with you to an event being severely curtailed. Instead, MIS understands that fans are going to spend hours there and they are going to have stuff with them. You can bring coolers, bags and equipment in with you. Sure, there are size restrictions, but they are quite generous. I especially liked the picture MIS put in its guest guide of what a fan carrying everything allowed would look like, to give you a better perspective on how to stay within the rules.

My point here is that MIS has figured out what fans want — to see a NASCAR race in Michigan. But they’ve also figured out what they need — the ability to get home at a reasonable hour, the ability to carry food, drink and other paraphernalia with them throughout their visit, and the need to feel like they are understood and appreciated.

Apple logo

Apple products come to mind when I think about this sort of customer experience, too. Sure, thanks to Steve Jobs we’ve seen the company grow over the years and become a leader in cutting-edge design and performance. But in addition to figuring out what people want, they’ve also figured out what we need. We need computers, tablets and smartphones that make life easier, not more complicated. Perhaps the best explanation of why someone can so easily become a fan of Apple I’ve ever heard is, “Their sh*t just works.”

That’s all we want as customers and we don’t want to have to struggle with your product or you.

I mentioned earlier that a couple of other companies come to mind when I think about this concept. When I sat down with pen and paper (yes, I still use those!) to force myself to think of top companies or products that I use and would recommend, and Evernote got jotted down immediately.

Amazon is still one of the easiest places to go if you want to search for and buy a product. The last time I was on that site to buy something, it took less than 10 minutes from the time one of my kids said, “Hey, it’s on sale!” to receiving an email telling me my order had been received and was being processed. My shopping experience was easy, even though I was paying with a combination of a credit card and rewards points. I got what I wanted — a good price on a product. But also gave me what I needed — simplicity and speed.

Evernote logoEvernote is a fantastic product for keeping all those notes, receipts and other forms of minutiae with you and synchronized across multiple devices. It’s one of my favorite companies because they give me what I want — a way to easily keep track of the many scattered bits of information in my life across the many technology platforms that I use. But they also give me what I need — an easy user interface, speed, and a continually improving product that keeps pace with what I want (sometimes before I even know I want it).

So the next time you have a brainstorming meeting about what you and your colleagues can do to bring in more customers or keep the ones you have happy and coming back, consider the basic desires everyone has. We want to be appreciated and understood. We want  a rewarding experience and we don’t want a big hassle on our hands to get it.

In short, whether you produce widgets or provide a professional service, just make your sh*t work.