Sunday, November 28, 2004

Really, really personal customer service

We consumers have nowadays grown very accustomed to companies looking upon us as a chunk of large meat carrying a wallet. We are no longer irritated by centralized call centers, automated customer service, or pre-written email replies. While this allows companies to save a lot of money, it also means it’s very lucrative to offer a more personal touch to your customer service, as customers will appreciate it so much more, because it’s so rare.

Mind you, by “personalized” I’m not talking about direct mailing where your name is in the greeting phrase, automatically picked from a database. I’m talking about communication to you specifically, not you and 30000 others.

Mr. Johnson an the Fish Truck
When I was a kid, we still had a “Fish truck” come to our house every Tuesday, selling fresh fish, milk, and some other basic groceries. Nobody referred to this as the “Fish truck”, though, or “Fishcorp Inc.”. No, everybody referred to the fish truck as “Mr. Johnson” because he was the one driving the truck. Everybody knew Mr. Johnson, and he knew everyone, by name. Us kids freakin’ loved him, of course, since he would give us a piece of candy every time he arrived. Now, those days are past, and the Fish Truck no longer comes every Tuesday, but it’s still brings a smile to my face every time I think about Mr. Johnson.
Nowadays, the ice cream truck arrives every Tuesday instead. Unfortunately, it lacks any personal touch. I don’t know the person who drives the truck. It’s always a new dude/dudette every time it arrived since this is obviously a low-paying student job. The person driving the truck does not say “Hello, what’s your name?” to the kids, or give them free sample ice cream (which would in the long run make the kids of the entire neighbourhood storm to the truck when it arrived). I don’t even think he or she wears a name tag. Really boring - as this is the kind of service that would benefit enormously from a little personal touch.

The evil bus company
But the prize for worst case of impersonal service goes to the bus company in my county. I often get the same bus driver. I recognize a lot of them. This was especially the case when I was living outside of town. I used to see these people, on average, 5 days a week for 7 years or so, and I don’t know a single one of them by name. And they don’t know mine, although the probably have it on file. They do manage to say “Hi.” when I go onto the bus, though, which got to count for something. I guess it would be better if they said “Good Morning, Mattias. How’s stuff?” but I guess that it’s way too expensive for the company to pay for that many words.
I did get more extensive contact with a bus driver a few months ago. I was outside of town, at my parents home, and I was off to an important meeting. 5 minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive, I realize that I don’t have any cash on me (Damn you, VISA & MasterCard!) and quickly scour the house for spare change, so I can pay the $2.60 bus ticket. 30 seconds before the bus arrival, I find $.50 under the microwave and run off to the bus stop. Bus arrives 3 minutes late (I’ve never ever received an apology from a bus driver for being late, come to think of it) and I get on it.

Bus driver: “That’ll be $3.00.”
A chill of embarrassment shoots up my spine – I really hate these kinds of situations.
Me: “Oh, ah um, I was sure it was $2.60. It has been that previously.”
Bus driver: “That’s new pricing – it’s been that for a while.”
I realize that this can be true, as I had been using a bus card for the last month, and they only announce their new pricing on their web page.
Me: “Oh, I only have $2.60”
Driver: “It’s $3.00.”
Me: “I’m sorry, I did not know that. I only have $2.60”
Driver: *opens doors, implying for me to get off the bus*
Me: (Rather desperate at the moment, as if I miss this bus, I miss an important meeting, since the next bus would not leave until 2 hours later) “Um, can’t you please let me go along for $2.60? I really need to get into town.”
Driver: “Hey man, it’s not your job, not mine.”
Me: “Why on earth would I tell on you?”
Driver: “There’s other people on the bus, too.”
Me: “Well, I’m sure they are all nice people. Geez man, I’m sorry I’m poor at the moment. Can’t you just be a little nice?”
Driver: Yeah yeah.
Me: “Here’s the money. “
Driver: “No, I don’t need them – it’s all or nothing.”
As a walk down the aisle, he speeds up pretty fast, so I fall down, stripping me of my final sheds of dignity in front of the other passengers and spoiling my day.

Thank you, local bus company! Here I am - a loyal customer since many years back, who have probably generated thousands of dollars in revenue for you by this time. They could just have said: “Hey. I see here that you have previously made 5000 trips with us – I believe those 40 cents are on us. Have a nice day!” … and would have ensured me as a loyal customer for quite some time in the future. Instead, they chose to embarrass me and try to throw me off the bus. The worst part is that it didn’t earn them a cent – they actually lost money using that behaviour – instead of taking my $2.60, they just wanted to dump me altogether. Way to go, guys. Someone really needs to tell these people that it’s usually takes 10-20 times as much resources to get a new customer as it takes to sell to an existing one.

WTF! The host cares about me?
I’m currently hosting a little with ADEHost. The dude who runs it, Mike, offers an amazing level of personal support via ICQ. After I’ve signed up (via guidance from Mike via ICQ) he asked me what my site was about. I stared at the message before I could comprehend it. This host wants to know what my site does?! That had never ever happened to me before. Asking about my site was so simple, and took less than 60 seconds of his time, but you can bet your arse that it ensured my loyalty for quite some time in the future. An excellent display of personal service. It’s also a great thing to know the name of the person you are dealing with. When I open a support ticket at HostCorp Inc, I have no idea who is going to respond.

Andrew, the schmoozer
I’ve recently done a print design job for the local section of Sweden Nationwide Theatre in my town. When I asked what their printing costs would be, they answered that they had to check with “Andrew” (a sales guy at a local printing company). They did not ask for quotes from other local print shops. They just used Andrew right away, even though they would probably earn money by requesting quotes from other print shops. Why? Because he visits in person, knows them all by name, and is nice as hell. He’s personal.

My point of all this? If you are a small business, the personal touch rules supreme, as that is your main weapon against the bigger and cheaper guys, as that is the single thing they cannot offer.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Take saturday off... seriously.

I don't do ANY work on saturdays. It's extremely sacred to me in this period of my life. If I dedicate that day to other things than work, I'm at least 50% more productive the rest of the days. I stupidly skipped free saturday recently, and the productivity in the following week went totally to hell.

It has a few advantages:

1. When your brain is focused on seemingly "unproductive" stuff, it has much more processing time to spin up new ideas and solutions to problems. It's mostly when I'm doing something like drinking beer with friends or playing Xbox that I'm struck with a new idea and run to find a pen.

2. A truly must-have day off, that you HAVE to take, creates a neat reverse-psychology effect. At sunday morning, you are so bloody eager to get your hands on some work, because you simply counln't earlier. It creates a reminder that your work is something you choose to do, not something you do because you have to.

3. You never worry about the old "I never have time to enjoy life because I work so much", because your time off is scheduled and immutable.

I'm of the strong belief that you have to take your time off very seriously if you are to take your work seriously.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Another take on perfectionism

A book I have that deals with procrastrination (The Now Habit) talks a bit about perfectionism. According to the author, who treats procrastrinators for a living, pretty much all procrastrinators are perfectionists. Perfectionism is not inherently something that induces procrastrination. It's in combination with associating ones performance with ones self worth that it becomes a problem.

I had a talk with a good friend of mine about my upcoming birthday. I said that I did not intend to celebrate it, because I found the concept of a birthday a bit silly. When she asked why, I explained that since there is no performance associated with the celebrating, it feels kind of empty. It's like, "wow, you managed to get born. You're so great!". After listening to my explanation she promplty told me that she disagreed with me. She said that a birthday was a great way to be celebrated just for who you are, not for something you've done or some position your hold. Just celebrate the unique set of genes and events that lead up to the person that you are, without any need for performance on your part.

I realized that she was very, very right (in many ways, this girl is so much smarter than me). I actually had trouble accepting (as a concept) the notion of "reward without performance", even though that is something that we recieve in abundance as children. It's valuing yourself after what you ARE, not after what you DO.

The difference between the two (are/do) seems small, but it is one of the things that allows you to do like Steve Jobs. He was kicked out of Apple, an enourmous and humiliating defeat. After that, he started a new company called Next, which also failed miserably, and sqandered most of his personal fortune. He was ridiculed so much in the media that it would have cracked anyone. Yet, even after this, he got up, bought Pixar and turned it into the most successful animation company in the world. After that, he stepped up as CEO of a failing Apple Computers and turned it around into the worshipped company it is today.

Getting up after failures like that is simply not possible if you value yourself after your performance. You MUST see yourself for what you CAN achieve, not for what you HAVE achieved. That is pretty much the way you should handle all dark critisism yourself or anyone or anything else inflicts on you. If you don't, it will always hold you back on your way to your goals.

Don't let circumstances affect you. Know who you are, and more importantly, who you can be, and remain true to that. That way, circumstances (like failing multi-million dollar companies)won't matter all that much.