Effective Customer Service Program
Seven Steps to Remarkable Customer Service
As a bootstrapped software company, Fog Creek couldnt afford to hire customer service people for the first couple of years, so Michael and I did it ourselves. The time we spent helping customers took away from improving our software, but we learned a lot and now we have a much better customer service program as a result.
Here are seven things we learned about providing remarkable customer service. Im using the word remarkable literallythe goal is to provide customer service so good that people remark.
1. Fix everything two ways
Almost every tech support problem has two solutions. The superficial and immediate solution is just to solve the customers problem. But when you think a little harder you can usually find a deeper solution: a way to prevent this particular problem from ever happening again.
Sometimes that means adding more intelligence to the software or the SETUP program; by now, our SETUP program is loaded with special case checks. Sometimes you just need to improve the wording of an error message. Sometimes the best you can come up with is a knowledge base article.
We treat each tech support call like the NTSB treats airliner crashes. Every time a plane crashes, they send out investigators, figure out what happened, and then figure out a new policy to prevent that particular problem from ever happening again. Its worked so well for aviation safety that the very, very rare airliner crashes we still get in the US are always very unusual, one-off situations.
This has two implications.
One: its crucial that tech support have access to the development team. This means that you cant outsource tech support: they have to be right there at the same street address as the developers, with a way to get things fixed. Many software companies still think that its "economical" to run tech support in Bangalore or the Philippines, or to outsource it to another company altogether. Yes, the cost of a single incident might be $10 instead of $50, but youre going to have to pay $10 again and again.
When we handle a tech support incident with a well-qualified person here in New York, chances are thats the last time were ever going to see that particular incident. So with one $50 incident weve eliminated an entire class of problems.
Somehow, the phone companies and the cable companies and the ISPs just dont understand this equation. They outsource their tech support to the cheapest possible provider and end up paying $10 again and again and again fixing the same problem again and again and again instead of fixing it once and for all in the source code. The cheap call centers have no mechanism for getting problems fixed; indeed, they have no incentive to get problems fixed because their income depends on repeat business, and theres nothing they like better than being able to give the same answer to the same question again and again.
The second implication of fixing everything two ways is that eventually, all the common and simple problems are solved, and what youre left with is very weird uncommon problems. Thats fine, because there are far fewer of them, and youre saving a fortune not doing any rote tech support, but the downside is that theres no rote tech support left: only serious debugging and problem solving. You cant just teach new support people ten common solutions: you have to teach them to debug.
For us, the "fix everything two ways" religion has really paid off. We were able to increase our sales tenfold while only doubling the cost of providing tech support.
2. Suggest blowing out the dust
Microsofts Raymond Chen tells the story of a customer who complains that the keyboard isnt working. Of course, its unplugged. If you try asking them if its plugged in, "they will get all insulted and say indignantly, Of course it is! Do I look like an idiot? without actually checking."
"Instead," Chen suggests, "say Okay, sometimes the connection gets a little dusty and the connection gets weak. Could you unplug the connector, blow into it to get the dust out, then plug it back in?
"They will then crawl under the desk, find that they forgot to plug it in (or plugged it into the wrong port), blow out the dust, plug it in, and reply, Um, yeah, that fixed it, thanks."
Many requests for a customer to check something can be phrased this way. Instead of telling them to check a setting, tell them to change the setting and then change it back "just to make sure that the software writes out its settings."
3. Make customers into fans
Every time we need to buy logo gear here at Fog Creek, I get it from Lands End.
Why? Let me tell you a story. We needed some shirts for a trade show. I called up Lands End and ordered two dozen, using the same logo design we had used for some knapsacks we bought earlier. When the shirts arrived, to our dismay, you couldnt read the logo. It turns out that the knapsacks were brighter than the polo shirts. The thread color that looked good on the knapsacks was too dark to read on the shirts.
I called up Lands End. As usual, a human answered the phone even before it started ringing. Im pretty sure that they have a system where the next agent in the queue is told to standby, so customers dont even have to wait one ringy-dingy before theyre talking to a human.
I explained that I screwed up. They said, "Dont worry. You can return those for a full credit, and well redo the shirts with a different color thread." I said, "The trade show is in two days."
They said they would Fedex me a new box of shirts and Id have it tomorrow. I could return the old shirts at my convenience. They paid shipping both ways. I wasnt out a cent. Even though they had no possible use for a bunch of Fog Creek logo shirts with an illegible logo, they ate the cost.
And now I tell this story to everyone who needs swag. In fact I tell this story every time were talking about telephone menu systems. Or customer service. By providing remarkable customer service, theyve gotten me to remark about it.
When customers have a problem and you fix it, theyre actually going to be even more satisfied than if they never had a problem in the first place. It has to do with expectations. Most peoples experience with tech support and customer service comes from airlines, telephone companies, cable companies, and ISPs, all of whom provide generally awful customer service. Its so bad you dont even bother calling any more, do you? So when someone calls Fog Creek, and immediately gets through to a human, with no voice mail or phone menus, and that person turns out to be nice and friendly and actually solves their problem, theyre apt to think even more highly of us than someone who never had the opportunity to interact with us and just assumes that were average.
Now, I wouldnt go so far as to actually make something go wrong, just so we have a chance to demonstrate our superior customer service. Many customers just wont call; theyll fume quietly. But when someone does call, look at it as a great opportunity to create a fanatically devoted customer, one who will prattle on and on about what a great job you did.
4. Take the blame
One morning I needed an extra set of keys to my apartment, so on the way to work, I went to the locksmith around the corner.
13 years living in an apartment in New York City has taught me never to trust a locksmith; half of the time their copies dont work. So I went home to test the new keys, and, lo and behold, one didnt work. I took it back to the locksmith. He made it again. I went back home and tested the new copy. It still didnt work.
Now I was fuming. Squiggly lines were coming up out of my head. I was a half hour late to work and had to go to the locksmith for a third time. I was tempted just to give up on him. But I decided to give this loser one more chance.
I stomped into the store, ready to unleash my fury. "It still doesnt work?" he asked. "Let me see." He looked at it.
I was sputtering, trying to figure out how best to express my rage at being forced to spend the morning going back and forth.
"Ah. Its my fault," he said. And suddenly, I wasnt mad at all. Mysteriously, the words "its my fault" completely defused me. That was all it took. He made the key a third time. I wasnt mad any more. The key worked. And, here I was, on this planet for forty years, and I couldnt believe how much the three words "its my fault" had completely changed my emotions in a matter of seconds.
Most locksmiths in New York are not the kinds of guys to admit that theyre wrong. Saying "its my fault" was completely out of character. But he did it anyway.
5. Memorize awkward phrases
I figured, OK, since the morning is shot anyway, I might as well go to the diner for some breakfast. Its one of those classic New York diners, like the one on Seinfeld. Theres a thirty-page menu and a kitchen the size of a phone booth. It doesnt make sense. They must have Star Trek technology to get all those ingredients into such a small space. Maybe they rearrange atoms on the spot.
I was sitting by the cash register. An older woman came up to pay her check. As she was paying, she said to the owner, "You know, Ive been coming here for years and years, and that waiter was really rather rude to me."
The owner was furious. "What do you mean? No he wasnt! Hes a good waiter! I never had a complaint!
The customer couldnt believe it. Here she was, a loyal customer, and she wanted to help out the owner by letting him know that one of his waiters needed a little bit of help in the manners department, but the owner was arguing with her! "Well, thats fine, but Ive been coming here for years, and everybody is always very nice to me, but that guy was rude to me," she explained, patiently.
"I dont care if youve been coming here forever. My waiters are not rude." The owner proceeded to yell at her. "I never had no problems. Why are you making problems?"
"Look, if youre going to treat me this way I wont come back."
"I dont care!" said the owner. One of the great things about owning a diner in New York is that there are so many people in the city that you can offend every single customer who ever comes into your diner and youll still have a lot of customers. "Dont come back! I dont want you as a customer!"
Good for you, I thought. Heres a 60-something year old man, owner of a diner, and you won some big moral victory against a little old lady. Are you proud of yourself? How macho do you have to be? Does the moral victory make you feel better? Did you really have to lose a repeat customer?
Would it have made you feel totally emasculated to say, "Im so sorry. Ill have a word with him?" Its easy to get caught up in the emotional heat of the moment when someone is complaining.
The solution is to memorize some key phrases, and practice saying them, so that when you need to say them, you can forget your testosterone and make a customer happy.
"Im sorry, its my fault."
"Im sorry, I cant accept your money. The meals on me."
"Thats terrible, please tell me what happened so I can make sure it never happens again."
Its completely natural to have trouble saying "Its my fault." Thats human. But those three words are going to make your angry customers much happier. So youre going to have to say them. And youre going to have to sound like you mean it.
So start practicing. Say "Its my fault" a hundred times one morning in the shower, until it starts to sound like syllabic nonsense. Then youll be able to say it on demand.
One more point. You may think that admitting fault is a strict no-no that can get you sued. This is nonsense. The way to avoid getting sued is not to have people who are mad at you. The best way to do this is to admit fault and fix the damn problem.
6. Practice puppetry
The angry diner owner clearly took things very personally, in a way that the locksmith didnt. When an irate customer is complaining, or venting, its easy to get defensive.
You can never win these arguments, and if you take them personally, its going to be a million times worse. This is when you start to hear business owners saying, "I dont want an **** like you for a customer!" They get excited about their Pyrrhic victory. Wow, isnt it great? When youre a small business owner you get to fire your customers. Charming.
The bottom line is that this is not good for business, and its not even good for your emotional well-being. When you win a victory with a customer by firing them, you still end up feeling riled up and angry, theyll get their money back from the credit card company anyway, and theyll tell a dozen friends. As Patrick McKenzie writes, "You will never win an argument with your customer." There is only one way to survive angry customers emotionally: you have to realize that theyre not angry at you; theyre angry at your business, and you just happen to be a convenient representative of that business.
And since theyre treating you like a puppet, an iconic stand-in for the real business, you need to treat yourself as a puppet, too. Pretend youre a puppeteer. The customer is yelling at the puppet. Theyre not yelling at you. Theyre angry with the puppet. Your job is to figure out, "Gosh, what can I make the puppet say that will make this person a happy customer?"
Youre just a puppeteer. Youre not a party to the argument. When the customer says, "What the hell is wrong with you people?" theyre just playing a role (in this case, theyre quoting Tom Smykowski in the movie Office Space). You, too, get to play a role. "Im sorry. Its my fault." Figure out what to make the puppet do that will make them happy and stop taking it so dang personally.
7. Greed will get you nowhere
Recently I was talking with the people who have been doing most of the customer service for Fog Creek over the last year, and I asked what methods they found most effective for dealing with angry customers. "Frankly," they said, "we have pretty nice customers. We havent really had any angry customers."
Well, OK, we do have nice customers, but it seems rather unusual that in a year of answering the phones, nobody was angry. I thought the nature of working at a call center was dealing with angry people all day long. "Nope. Our customers are nice."
Heres what I think. I think that our customers are nice because theyre not worried. Theyre not worried because we have a ridiculously liberal return policy: "We dont want your money if youre not amazingly happy." Customers know that they have nothing to fear. They have the power in the relationship. So they dont get abusive.
The no-questions-asked 90-day money back guarantee was one of the best decisions we ever made at Fog Creek. Try this: use Fog Creek Copilot for a full 24 hours, call up three months later and say, "hey guys, I need $5 for a cup of coffee. Give me back my money from that Copilot day pass," and well give it back to you. Try calling on the 91st or 92nd or 203rd day. Youll still get it back. We really dont want your money if youre not satisfied. Im pretty sure were running the only job listing service around that will refund your money just because your ad didnt work. This is unheard of, but it means we get a lot more ad listings, because theres nothing to lose.
Over the last six years or so, letting people return software has cost us 2%.
And you know what? Most customers pay with credit cards, and if we didnt refund their money, a bunch of them would have called their bank. This is called a chargeback. They get their money back, we pay a chargeback fee, and if this happens too often, our processing fees go up.
Know what our chargeback rate is at Fog Creek?
Im not kidding.
If we were tougher about offering refunds, the only thing we would possibly have done is angered a few customers, customers who would have ranted and whined on their blogs. We wouldnt even have kept more of their money.
I know of software companies who are very explicit on their web site that you are not entitled to a refund under any circumstances, but the truth is, if you call them up, they will eventually return your money because they know that if they dont, your credit card company will. This is the worst of both worlds. You end up refunding the money anyway, and you dont get to give potential customers the warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, so they hesitate before buying. Or they dont buy at all.
8. (Bonus!) Give customer service people a career path
The last important lesson we learned here at Fog Creek is that you need very highly qualified people talking to customers. A salesperson at Fog Creek needs to have significant experience with the software development process and needs to be able to explain why FogBugz works the way it does, and why it makes software development teams function better. A tech support person at Fog Creek cant get by on canned answers to common questions, because weve eliminated the common questions by fixing the software, so tech support here has to actually troubleshoot which often means debugging.
Many qualified people get bored with front line customer service, and Im OK with that. To compensate for this, I dont hire people into those positions without an explicit career path. Here at Fog Creek, customer support is just the first year of a three-year management training program that includes a masters degree in technology management at Columbia University. This allows us to get ambitious, smart geeks on a terrific career path talking to customers and solving their problems. We end up paying quite a bit more than average for these positions (especially when you consider $25,000 a year in tuition), but we get far more value out of them, too.