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4 Ways to Improve Customer Service in Critical Times

I had a couple of telling customer service experiences recently that I wanted to share. There are some lessons that all companies can learn from this experience. I’ve listed them out at the bottom of this post.

Incident 1You can backup, you just can’t restore

I use an online service to maintain backups of this blog. For a small monthly fee they automatically back up the blog and provide a flexible mechanism to restore. Thankfully I hadn’t ever needed to restore anything…until about 2 weeks ago.

Something got corrupted in the blog database. I noticed it on a Sunday morning and thought, “OK…Sundays are a bit slow, we get less traffic on Sundays, so it’s a good time to restore the database.”

I logged into my account on the service’s site, selected the appropriate backup from several days earlier, clicked the Restore button and waited, and waited, and waited.

The progress bar sat at 0% for about an hour. I knew something was amiss and thought, “OK, user error, let me try that again.”

I tried once again, and once again the restore process sat at 0% for a long time. After a couple of hours I decided something was definitely wrong and sent an email into the Support Team at the company. The Support team doesn’t work on weekends. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but for something mission critical like addressing problems in a database restore, it was a big problem.

Late Sunday evening, I gave the restore process one last try and let it run overnight. I got up the next morning to check on the restore and it was still at 0%. At that point, I sent several harsh emails to the company expressing my frustration with the process.

Later in the day on Monday, the problem was resolved and the restore happened and the blog was back, minus a few comments that had been posted since that backup had been done.  But why didn’t the restore work in the first place?

Turns out I had encountered a “bug” in the restore process which they’d fixed to allow my restore to work.  I’d really love to know exactly what the “bug” was.

Keep in mind that this service does exactly 2 things — it backs up a database and it restores a database. That’s it. No other extraneous features. It’s simple and that’s why I chose it…assuming it actually worked! What was I paying them for every month?

Incident 2 – Oops, our typo brought down your blog

About a week later, as I checked the blog in the morning, I saw that my blog was down. It wasn’t displaying posts, I couldn’t log into the admin area and the error message pointed at the backup service as the problem. I immediately went to Twitter to see if others were affected. I found 1 or 2 tweets from people indicating a problem with their blogs. No tweets from the company. I also checked the company’s blog to see if they’d posted anything. Nope. The last blog post was from the previous week.

So, I send a couple of urgent emails into their Support team to get help. Several hours later they fixed the problem and my blog was back.

It turns out that overnight the service pushed out a patch to “a small number of customers” — their words –to close some security holes. But, there was a “misspelling of a word in the code that caused a PHP error”— again, their words —  and it brought down the blogs it was sent to.

When I found this out, I was livid. Last week, I couldn’t restore — because of a “bug”. This week a typo in their patch brought  the blog down.

And while they apologized via email and credited 1 month of the subscription, their view that the issue only affected “a small number of customers” and thus no public announcement on Twitter, their blog was required.

4 Ways to improve customer service in critical times

There are many things companies MUST do to provide REAL customer service. Sadly, many companies, while well intention, fail to understand the basics of customer expectations and what they need to do to help customers through rough waters, especially when it’s the company’s fault!

1. When there are problems, OVER communicate

Large or small, when customers are impacted by the service provider’s mistakes, OVER COMMUNICATION is required.

A single email to individual customers impacted is necessary, but it is NOT SUFFICIENT. There’s nothing wrong with admitting to mistakes. As the Support Engineer wrote to me when I reminding him of the restore problem the previous week:

We all make mistakes but our team will always be transparent and correct issues as fast as possible. We can’t guarantee that we won’t ever make a mistake but we always try our best to prevent them.

Transparency is good, but there’s transparency that primarily benefits the company (e.g. sending private emails) and there’s transparency that benefits the customer and the company (e.g. being public and proactive). It’s the latter that is better and more important.

Be public with your errors. I will trust a company MUCH more that is open and up front, and I’ll give them MUCH more leeway if a problem occurs. Why? Because I can clearly see what happened, know why it happened and know they are or will actively work to fix it.

2. A “small number of customers” is BIG, if I’m part of it

Don’t ever say that “it only affected a small number of customers” as a reason for not following rule #1. It’s only a small number of customers if I’m not part of it. If I’m part of that small group, then it’s a BIG number!

Bean counters, lawyers and hack PR people use phrases like that to try to diminish the impact and thus culpability (legal or otherwise). Being part of a “small number of customers” that were impacted makes the problem worse for me, not better. How unlucky was I?  Why did the problem impact me? Why not other people. Trust me, that phrase doesn’t help in the least.

3. If you’re going to compensate, go the extra mile

My blog was impacted for well over a day by incident 1. It was down for an unknown number of hours due to incident 2. Neither of these were the result of anything that I did incorrectly. And these incidents happened within a week of each other. I spent several hours of my time trying to understand what had happened and trying to fix the problem. Crediting me 1 month of subscription service and an email saying mistakes happen is a far cry from a satisfactory resolution.

When addressing these kinds of issues, just like it’s better to over-communicate, it’s better to over-compensate for the customer’s loss or inconvenience. Not only will this stop customer griping, but it would likely turn that potentially disgruntled customer into an evangelist for your company. Imagine the glowing blog post I would have written had the compensation been a bit more generous.

4. Service IS the new Marketing

If companies don’t understand this, they don’t understand the economic and social pathways to success. Service has ALWAYS been important, but now good AND bad service stories will be shared rapidly and repeatedly. I’ve even done that on occasion. 🙂 Bad customer service is just the nudge most people need to start looking at your competitors. Think about that.

There are many stories of great and not-so-great customer service experiences. It is claimed that the United Breaks Guitars saga had a material impact on the stock price of United’s parent company. Every time a customer faces problems (whether “user error” or not), there is an opportunity to create a POSITIVE memorable experience that that customer will share and broadcast. Given the broad set of options most people have for products and services, it’s shocking that more companies don’t empower their employees to — in the words of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh — deliver happiness.


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