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The goal in a customer service or support situation is to quickly form a collaborative working relationship and execute an action plan to resolve the situation and get the customer back on the road to success.  The big barrier in the road is the heightened level of stress and/or loss created by the situation itself and the process of asking for help.  When a customer contacts you move quickly to neutralize or reduce stress by empathizing and legitimizing their feelings.  Use the a phrase like  “I understand how you feel about . . . ,  I might feel the same way if I were in your shoes.  Let’s get an action plan together and we can get you back up and running, does that work you?”  Personalize as needed and use the words you are comfortable.  Note we empathized with their  situation and we asked permission to move onto getting the issue resolved.  We neutralize and reduce the tension that could have blocked progress and ask to collaborate with the customer to get the situation resolved.  The exhalation by the customer will be obvious.  Thus we begin a conversation to understand the problem, listening carefully, asking questions to clarify, and asking for feedback on their understanding of what you are saying and the actions you are proposing.

Why not apologize?  Apologizing for something you personally had no role in is an empty gesture and tells the customer not to expect quality, good support, or whatever the issue may be.  This actually creates more tension and can further block your progress in solving the problem.  Customers need an action plan and the confidence that you are working to right their situation and get them back on track.

Next time instead of “I apologize . . .” open with “help me understand your situation” or “how can I help you right now”.

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Customer Service is driven from the top, not by the Customer Service department alone.  Great Customer Service and Customer Support is driven by senior management who must be committed to great service as a strategy, by making the investment to make service and support a proactive feature of the entire organization’s processes. This means all processes.  Customers don’t differentiate between the sales order error, to the shipping mistake, to the bug, to the technical question, they are all “customer service” and they all impact customer success and thus future sales.

If service or support begins when a customer complains, it’s too late and if it results in blaming the person on the frontline or engineering you tell the customer not to expect good service or product quality.  Consumer Service begins with analyzing the entire customer experience and working outward from there to anticipate their needs across EVERY possible touch point to solve problems before they arise, from pre-sales to billing to shipping to marketing to post sales. No area is exempt and every area should have a plan, process, and training to respond.  This is not a daunting goal, it starts with the same outline; pickup the “phone”, get the issue to the right person, track the results and follow-up.  Just imagine your experience if you raise an issue with order entry or a bug with engineering to not only get the problem resolved but also get a call from the person you raised the issue or the engineer who fixed the bug to confirm its resolution, that is the WOW factor.

Fighting fires is a part of business; those all hands on deck events that cancel all previous plans for the day.  While an adrenaline rush, Fire fighting gets in the way of execution, stifles creativity and creates a heroic culture that is not scalable.  Fire fighters get a rush from the excitement and enjoy the praise for a job well done.  But if you don’t work for the city or the county as an actual fire fighter this is not the value you are being paid to deliver.  Fires cause damage and cost money.  While some fires will happen, many are preventable but are hard to stop unless you stop the “arsonist”.

Arsonist are the folks in your organization that can take a set of events/issues and run into the room screaming “fire” by escalating to you, senior executives and around the process and their managers.  In many cases this is to enhance there own position and then act as the fire fighter to claim the glory.  That creates the vicious and downward cycle if not arrested early.  The “fire” often could be handled by the problems resolution processes in place, but now must be treated as a high priority all hands on deck issue.  How do you prevent it?  Make a hero of the person that fixes the process, people, job, or leadership problem that is the root cause and ignore the person who screams fire as well as keep them out of the fight.  Have their manager work with the arsonist on the process and how to handle these issues. People learn the right behavior very quickly when there is no reward for bad behavior.

This is not original but I liked it and I have kept it now for several years.  Unfortunately I can’t remember who wrote it.

1. Personal Responsibility.
“Enron and 9/11 marked the end of an era of individual freedom and the beginning of personal responsibility. You lead today by building teams and placing others first. It’s not about you.”

2. Simplify Constantly.
“I always use Jack [Welch] as my example here. Every leader needs to clearly explain the top three things the organization is working on. If you can’t, then you’re not leading well.”

3. Understand Breadth, Depth, and Context.
“The most important thing I’ve learned since becoming CEO is context. It’s how your company fits in with the world and how you respond to it.”

4. The importance of alignment and time management.
“There is no real magic to being a good leader. But at the end of every week, you have to spend your time around the things that are really important: setting priorities, measuring outcomes, and rewarding them.”

5. Leaders learn constantly and also have to learn how to teach.
“A leader’s primary role is to teach. People who work with you don’t have to agree with you, but they have to feel you’re willing to share what you’ve learned.”

6. Stay true to your own style.
“Leadership is an intense journey into yourself. You can use your own style to get anything done. It’s about being self-aware. Every morning, I look in the mirror and say, ‘I could have done three things better yesterday.’ ”

7. Manage by setting boundaries with freedom in the middle.
“The boundaries are commitment, passion, trust, and teamwork. Within those guidelines, there’s plenty of freedom. But no one can cross those four boundaries.”

8. Stay disciplined and detailed.
“Good leaders are never afraid to intervene personally on things that are important. Michael Dell can tell you how many computers were shipped from Singapore yesterday.”

9. Leave a few things unsaid.
“I may know an answer, but I’ll often let the team find its own way. Sometimes, being an active listener is much more effective than ending a meeting with me enumerating 17 actions.”

10. Like people.
“Today, it’s employment at will. Nobody’s here who doesn’t want to be here. So it’s critical to understand people, to always be fair, and to want the best in them. And when it doesn’t work, they need to know it’s not personal.”

Customer support has been be redefining itself for sometime based not only on SaaS but also the customer evolution process where the customer needs change over time from basic services, such as troubleshooting and startup, to value-added services, such as best practices consulting. SaaS accelerates this process as service organizations climb up through these levels, the nature of the customer relationship is altered from transactional relationships involving commoditized services to partnerships that create real value to insure customer success. Complex support organization such as EDA have been in this space for a long time even without SaaS. Now other support teams are adding; Proactive Services to reduce the number and severity of usage problems by helping customers avoid problems in the first place and; Value-Added Services that help business get more value out of an application by increasing adoption and helping users find and use appropriate  new features.

Several years ago, in another downturn, we where brainstorming ideas to turn business around an executive in the room uttered “we could resolve our sales downturn with a product customers want to buy.” We stopped for a minute at most and then began to laugh.

A downturn like the present one help us to get back to the basics of doing what customers want to buy. They want to buy want helps them with their problems in their lives and their business. They don’t buy value propositions or what comes from focus groups. This is hard work to figure out. But with discipline, open conversation, and careful analysis you can do it.

Even in hard times customers still have problems. If you can solve their problems for less you can leave this downturn even stronger.

I can thank Bill Martin for this rule.  Bill was a veteran EVP of TI and came out of retirement to help his friend with a turnaround.  Bill selected me to help him analyze the sales team performance and had some very specific ideas on how to go about it.  It was not his first rodeo.  I spent a couple of days gathering and formatting the data into a profit and loss statement and then met with Bill to review.  As I was presenting the data I commented on the differences I had observed in the business situation in each of the major regions; Americans, EMEA, and Asia in an attempt to explain the results.  The performance of each was very different with all the company’s bottom results coming from Asia, breakeven in the Americas, and losses in EMEA.    Bill stopped me by telling me those comments are anecdotal and all our competitors face the same issues.  “Son, the numbers just don’t lie and we have some decision to make to right this ship.”   Too many executives make decisions based on personal observations or random incidents rather than systematic evaluation and empirical evidence.   Good people who are delivering results get thrown under the bus rather than the folks who appear to be taking action rather than doing the hard work of leading and building a business.