A History Of Customer Service

Customer service Thisissamstown

Customer service is dead!

Or maybe not but at a time when CRMs, data, tools would allow to provide flawless, fast and responsive service, it does seem that the quality of service has never been any lower.

It is not even needed to look at – or just think about – the “garçons” calling names on the terraces of Paris. Any random shop around can now offer this kind of terrible quality and lack of respect and still for a more than expensive price.

So what ? Do companies not understand that quality is definitely an asset and a serious means to make a difference ?

It does currently look like people have gotten accustomed to cheaper prices, customisation, fast availability and/or shipping even from the furthest lands. But as much as the wares are available and new brands popping everyday, very little of these do make any difference.

Launching some “exciting” urban clothing range is easy. Get a funky name, send a few dollars to a random Chinese factory, get the clothes, send some to a few urban “artists” and sell them for a premium. Wether you are hip hop or hop hip, never mind, this will be short-lived, money certainly made and customers so daft that they pay a premium for some random street sh*t certainly not worth respecting.

Bear with me, I am giving you a business model, free of charge.

Values what ?

Values is the word. Respect also works.

Offering services, selling goods or any other work in which something is delivered to customers should imply quality and respect.

Failures are acceptable and accepted. sh*tty goods are not. We are currently living in an era of speed-consumption. People buy, a lot, very often, discard, very often and buy again. And everybody hates defects but who should care. Employees are employees, chains are chains, production goes through half a dozen countries and, in the end, no one is responsible. So no one cares.

That is until there is very very serious trouble (think healthcare or car makers).

Bring fantasy figures to kids for a premium and you will be rich and safe.

The circle of customer service ?

Just a look at an old enemy. The customer support department. The most hated one… At least a great picture of the changes and evolutions of the customer service overall.

Years ago, in the previous century, customer support could still be reached by phone, sometimes for free and we could speak to people actually speaking the same language and basically having a clue about what they were doing there. On top of that, these people were basically customers themselves and could go lengths to assist with an issue.

Some years later, these dinosaurs disappeared and a great migration happened. Cheap happened. Those support services were sent in countries such as Morocco, India, Philippines and so on. And the experience definitely changed. The evolution of customer service did create a new kind of experience. Raging customers facing an impersonation of uselessness.

After hours queuing on the phone people mumbling what would be supposed to be your local language would read a script telling you what to do with your microwave when you would actually call for the Internet… . Oh happy days.

In recent years, the trend has seen some changes. We could see various brands in the UK advertise about their local call centres, implying people speaking the language and some kind of quality certification. Fair enough, a step towards this vintage trend ? Quality.

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Are we at a crossroad ?

Recent experience, mine indeed, tends to show that kind of trend.

Customer service and support has evolved. Social networks have changed the face of support and given companies a new option to let customers “speak” to people in writing. Easy – and rather easier – when it comes to handling unhappy customers.

However, new tools or not, the basics remain the same. Understanding the needs and willing – or not – to deliver quality.

My recent experiences with the likes of HSBC, Skype, Ergon or even Dodo have definitely been great if not amazing.

On the other hand some companies have not changed at all and still use the same old templates for their customer support. Mobile and Internet companies in France I am looking at you as service has never shown any sign of getting near acceptable (with an exception for Orange, I must admit).

In any case, coming back to delivering service, be it for external customers or internal customers, the very foundation is to be willing to actually deliver service and quality. This goes through empowering the people who will be delivering it and leaving room outside the scripts and all the (stupid) rules for actually providing help.

And regardless of who you are (“chief” or company), whatever your expertise is, do not pretend to even think you know the tools and can write the processes to make your service “social”.

My recent test of that : having to contact support for a password issue. No problem. Get on the site where there is a menu for support. Click. Enter support page and define I have a problem. Click. Now define type of problem. Click. Now go to standard issues page. Click. No answer matching. Click. Need to contact support… really ? Click. Chat option is preferred. Ok, click. Chat will open, fill question. Type and click. Wait a bit. Ok, click. And… can not connect to server, chat failed.

Repeat above process. Same error. Close browser. Clean. Try again, same error.

Look for phone number. Can not find it. Google. Ask people. Get one. Call, reach South Africa, speak with support (on the second day…) and be told after 15 minutes that they can not help. Yay!

Finally find another U.S. number and get to… India maybe. Expose problem and get told that it is chat only. But the process I read said that if the chat is down, we are allowed to call. Yes but chat only. Yes but process… .

Let us get to the end of it. After about half an hour of arguing (for, basically, no valid reason), waiting for two “check with manager” and definitely seriously considering every kind of option from alcohol to drug to manage to keep as calm as possible, I finally managed to get my case closed successfully, e.g. get the help I needed.

Disrupting the service

Disruption is used a bit too much these days but it may be the right word anyway.

Customer service needs disruption. And startups are actually disrupting it even without saying it. Most startups are useful in this regard because although they tend to “disrupt” markets – or at least view their business as a market disruption – most of them do not really reinvent anything. They just change or add features but the main disruption is in the service provided.

Startups do know about customer service. And most tend to take an oath about quality.

That is where the disruption is. Doing vintage business like a century ago when quality was key and the only kind of customer would be a happy customer.

I bet on red

Thisissamstown.com Roulette

Thinking entrepreneurship while just out from Vegas, how not to draw a parallel between gambling and starting up.

Get a 100$ note out of your wallet, walk to the cashier, have it changed to tokens and head for the roulette table.

Now, go all in on red.

Why red ? Well, just because it is a warm color, the color of passion.

Then, it is a 50-50 chance to get rich(er) or lose it all.

Reminds you of something entrepreneurs ?

That is how it is like in startup life.

At the same time, that is what it is all about.

I have never called entrepreneur a guy who thinks his idea in order to get rich (best example : copying the ideas that have worked and paint them black instead of red … ).

Entrepreneurs do entrepreneurship. They go for it.

It does not mean that there is no thinking at all behind it, nor reason.

The thinking, just like roulette, is just to take out a 100$ note and lose it maybe.

But losing is indeed an option.

And there is more behind playing than just the will to earn millions. It is about following one’s idea. Or passion. And passion.

Las Vegas, or say the desert outside Vegas, made me want to burn a few notes in buying some land, maybe a small cabin and try to do something out of it.

Unreasonable ? To buy a patch of dry land, 200 miles from an airport ? Maybe.

But that is where entrepreneurship takes roots. In believing that there is an opportunity when most people see craziness.

So, following my roulette round, yes, I do bet on passion red.

Entrepreneur of the future, a French student and a train

Startup_Bear

Oh French youth, how happy you make me for once !

Entrepreneur is the word here and building a startup the context. And this has been the basis for a glorious moment of sharing experience and discussing what entrepreneurship really is about. Here is the story of the student and the train.

No fairy tale though. Just the capture of a moment in life. I recently found myself sitting on a train, in the evening, on a journey back home. Nothing to go crazy about and rather a relaxed time at the end of a busy day. That is when a young guy showed up and started randomly asking people if they could provide insight and advice on entrepreneurship and building a startup.

Judging from people’s reactions, that was definitely something unexpected. Nor is it something usual to see someone with enough guts to go around a train coach asking random strangers for advice about startups.

And yes it does require some guts to speak to people. Especially random people who are definitely out of their comfort zone. Especially in Europe where networking is not as natural as it can be in the U.S. for instance (even in dedicated events for startups).

It was quite cool just to see this. On the same note this did remind me of the “rose project”, by Bowei Gai. Bowei, an entrepreneur from the Valley set out on a trip to meet startups all over the world for his initiative, World Startup Report. One of his actions hit me.

Noticing that people in Russia did not act very friendly and did not smile much, he started the rose project. A little experimentation based on offering a rose to random people (ladies) in the streets and getting a smile as a reward.

For what I know of Russia, that could actually have had unexpected – harmful – consequences especially for a foreigner not speaking the language.

Yet, he did go on and could finally post a piece on this project of a day, illuminated with pictures of actual smiles.

With guts and a bit of craziness, he did pull a great result and met his own target.

Back to the train, that is what this young student did too. After he approached me, we ended up chatting for about an hour not only about his project but about what being an entrepreneur means, what building a startup means and what the key points are.

The fact that we had a chat is major for me.

I tend to meet startup founders, young or not, who seek advice but do, at the same time, not really agree to getting advice setting them on a different path than the one they are currently walking. Some others would just look for someone to fix their problems, be they coding, marketing or selling, but would not learn in the process. Be they suicidal or slightly lazy, not all entrepreneurs end up offering a nice moment nor proper chat.

This particular encounter did really encompass the best of it.

Facing someone eager to learn and get the basics right, challenging advice to get the most of them, listening but asking too (hence not leaving me feeling like delivering a lecture at school) and, above all, truly enjoying his time truly made it a great time for me. And that is something I am grateful for too.

And the future looks bright.

Why would it not be in the first place ? Indeed. But we sometimes need reminders.

And what better reminder that there are wonderful people out there, just even starting their journey to success, than a student in his prime, with an entrepreneurial mind, the guts to get s…tuff done (even if pre-stuff work) and the eagerness to learn and get the basics right ?

That is a recipe for success.

And, in any case, one last point I made was about failing while having done things right. Failing after having worked seriously, planned, executed, committed to a project, that is not a failure. Success sometimes only depends on sheer luck. But doing things right and not finding success in the end is what acceptable failure is; a step forward on a learning curve towards success.

So only success awaits … .

Then came the station, the train stopping, the journey coming to an end and this story too.

For now … because the story of this young entrepreneur is only getting started and I just want to think that I have helped an entrepreneur in the making take yet another step forward towards a great and successful entrepreneurial journey.

Thanks again for allowing me to contribute to this journey!

(Picture courtesy of Hubspot free pack)

Entrepreneurs’ collaboration and networking, USA vs Europe

Startup Collaboration.thisissamstown

Startups are cool. Founders are the new hippies/pirates. Setting sail for an entrepreneurial life, filled with passion, freedom, friends and all sorts of failures and successes.

That is the bottom line.

Now, meeting with entrepreneurs from various countries, in various countries too, proves quite an interesting experience.

One reason to that : entrepreneurs are so different in their character, vision and overall understanding of what it means to found a startup.

In my title I mention the USA vs Europe because these two geographies tend to show two opposite ways of being an entrepreneur.

Sure, Berlin’s hipsters can match San Francisco’s. Sure, (startup) parties are of equal greatness in London, Paris, New York or Boulder. Sure, developers are equally amazing. And ideas and passion smashing as well.

The networking of one.

But differences show when we start looking at networking.

What I knew on the large corporation side in Europe seems to remain even at startup level … in Europe.

I have attended a few conferences where the same scheme applies again and again. At networking time, prior, during and after the event (a little less at the “after” time though) people would gather where the food/drinks sit.

Fair enough. Great time to have a chat and get to know the cool founders around. However that, in France or Germany, for instance, would not happen that easily. The usual set up consisting of some small groups of friends or acquaintances, a few introductions happening and various lonely people either making calls or desperately looking at their smartphone screen.

Now, a lone guy trying to reach a cup of coffee is an opportunity for an introduction and a chat. However, funnily enough, the discussion (should it happen meaning the guy would not have run away without a word … ) would consist of giving names, saying a word about each one’s business and the guy would quickly enough find himself in need to a) answer the phone b) catch up with someone c) whatever.

This is uncomfortable networking experience. And that happens in Europe.

Compared to it, my recent experience at an event packed with people from Silicon Valley started with one guy welcoming me at the door. Then, after walking a few steps, another attendee offering me a cup of coffee, a chat and an introduction. Followed by a friend arriving while we were speaking – meaning further introductions and already half a dozen people on my “you have to speak to” list.

That allows me to explore further.

Collaborate or keep secrets secret ?

There is a culture of secrecy in Europe. Ideas do hold a lot of value in the eyes of people having them. It does make sense.

But, at the same time, I am more and more frustrated when meeting founders (or even founders-to-be) who only start the discussion by “NDA”.

Trust is dead. Fair enough. But could we still not consider everybody out there to be some kind of sneaky copy-cat freak ?

People here tend to hold onto their ideas so much that even a friend, asking for advice, would not disclose more information than the kind of company he would want to build and in which industry … . My advice : get some brains .. and balls (balls to have enough courage to believe in his actual idea/product and in advisors around who would be key to his success and brains to not waste my time – or others’ – asking for my time to speak about a close-to-non-existent idea – that is if he would not disclose anything).

Again, compared to the culture in the U.S. and the Valley in particular, Europe seats miles away from the habit to share and challenge ideas through discussion with anybody who is around.

I must admit I rather like to have people speak out loud(er) about their project as it does basically allows them to get not only advice from peers but also mentoring at the same time.

I am quite often surprised to meet with startups where founders, even if very knowledgeable people, seem to ignore the very basics of business (yes dude, a startup is still a company not some kind of 2.0 surfing journey).

That is where getting a good kick from a peer would certainly help (and help high level mentors – which I am not indeed – not waste their time doing kindergarten mentoring).

Time to grow.

From kindergarten onwards. Time to grow … for both populations though.

Maybe people in the Valley gets too “relaxed” and even if people share ideas it does seem that even the average ones (e.g. the umpteenth image sharing social app … ) do net get beaten up enough in the process.

On the over side, people in Europe need to relax a bit, share more and keep developing this proper community spirit that tends to grow (too slowly in my regard).

A back-to-basics for all : think, share, get things done and get organized. Succeed. Or fail, anyway. Restart.

What else ?

Thanks to Hubspot for the picture!

Lost in (poor) quality

Thisissamstown.Lost in (poor) quality

Be it for startups or more “settled” companies, quality, in general, is a key component or should be, at least. However, this seems to be long lost for most businesses and definitely not improving.

Let us look into this matter and the move over the years and industries.

Let me play my old geezer part for a second.

As per my grandmother, when she did buy a fridge or a washing machine in her younger days, the latter would last for 20 or 30 years without facing any major issue.

How long gone is that ? Her recent experience with fridges reads as this :

Brand new fridge number 1 (bought after dinosaur fridge finally died) lasted 2 years. Brand new fridge 2 lasted 6 months before major breakdown which, once fixed, allowed it to survive for another 2 to 3 years. Now on to brand new fridge 3 which has managed a 3+ years so far.

Expect a sudden death any day.

Well, this is history of product quality.

Now, in my regards, when it comes to a company, quality lies not in the products (well, not necessarily) but mainly in the service – and that means the people and processes. Or the people regardless of whatever ‘bullshit’ processes have been implemented.

From the early days of my professional life I had the chance to be in touch and work with great people and entrepreneurs. Those people made a strong difference in their job not by offering anything different than their colleagues or competitors but by providing quality (service, advice or just availability) which helps building trust and improves the overall perception of the offering, be it products or services.

I can even say that the most important lessons I have learned about customer service, about thriving to achieve the highest levels of quality in any action, were actually learned not in startups or actual corporations but during a summer job in one of Gordon Ramsay‘s restaurants, Petrus, in London.

There I discovered some kind of new world, especially in a place boasting one Michelin star (at that time) and people showing such dedication to every task that it has remained with me since then.

I now am more like a pain in the a** for most people I work with since I want to see this search for perfection in every piece of work done.

Striving for quality should be in any entrepreneur’s mind, in any employee’s mind as this is where the real value is created. Not only the value for customers but also for people delivering it too. I recently read a bit by Dharmesh Shah on company/startup culture mentioning the fact that the culture (or values) is something needed for a company – or it does more or less will come anyway.

That was a good post. Yet, my take rather is instead of writing down some usual ‘bullshit’ taken from the Web’s best 7 or 10 values for companies, just write one down : Deliver quality. And keep improving (at least trying to improve).

Now, what did trigger this post on quality ? I am currently living an unsettling relationship with a French mobile phone carrier as I have taken a step towards changing from my current carrier to another sitting among the top 4 in France, SFR.

And I sadly have taken a step too far already by being bold enough to change from something working almost well to a world of trouble. Shall I mention the fact that I am not yet even a customer since my humble web request to maybe become a customer of theirs is still being verified.

Verified by a verification partner after a first online verification and another step by another partner and, and, and… .

So I find myself getting a couple of random emails, not coming from SFR, with no clue on what the next steps are going to be. This brings me to getting in touch with the company but, being a cheap Internet customer it does seem, all of a sudden, that I have no means to touch the real thing that customer service is.

Here I am now, battling through administrative processes which may have been borrowed from the French Government, not having a clue about where my order (and money) is going and almost unable to get in touch with a single human being on the SFR side (apart from a few recent tweets which shall be great material for an upcoming post on how (not) to handle customer service through Twitter).

With this recent experience, I have just had a look around and it is truly unsettling to see that the overall quality of whatever service or product offered (for purchase) not only has decreased over the years but seems to be hitting a bottom low.

There sure might be a France factor in my look at the market – call it the “garçon de café” syndrome – but I have sadly been able to experience that kind of low(er) quality service even when being abroad too. And so have friends, colleagues and others.

I call that a dangerous trend. Dangerous for society in general, where the standards tend to go down and dangerous for businesses too. No company is supreme nowadays. Whatever you are selling, tens or thousands are selling it too. Not only in one country but elsewhere. In my example the only differentiation between phone carriers is … the color of their logo, basically. Same prices, same phones, same options, etc … .

The X factor here is quality.

There is none; so in the end the choice is a default one (e.g. trying to find the one that sucks less). That should not even be offered as a choice.

This is my point to entrepreneurs and startups, be it for your company, for your employees or even just for your own self, strive to deliver the best overall customer experience.

That does not mean business only but that also means personal reward. Why building a startup if you can not take pride in what you have built, achieved and are still achieving ?

Picture from FlickR user Nicolacassa / Creative Commons – Share

Building a startup with friends … hurdles to face

A post usually draws its inspiration in recent experience or trending topics.

This one comes from experience and me finally opening my eyes or, well, just noticing that more and more startups I face are built by a bunch of friends.

I mean, usually early stage startups. I also mean young friends. The fact that I came to my senses during a startup contest held by a university might have helped emphasize this pinpointed view, I must admit.

Yet, my title theme remains valid anyway. Which is quite good, be it only for the sake of this post.

Building a startup is cool. Doing it with close friends might prove even cooler. Succeeding with them would be extreme.

Failing with them might prove difficult, at least.

Quick look at the process of giving birth to a startup:

Some guys (gender-neutral “guys” so my “guys” here is both guy-guy and girl-guy), sitting at a table, sipping some beers, discussing the World.

Idea pops up. Guys like it. Let’s work and build on it! A startup is cool. Let’s build a startup! I like marketing, I am to be the CMO. You had the initial idea and study business, you are our CEO. Open road to success!

When this works out, these guys have the best life and job ever and can enjoy speaker spots at the likes of SXSW, TNW, and so on.

When this does not work out, well, an increasing number of guys I meet are quite unprepared.

Failure sure is an option.

Now, the issue to be faced will occur when it comes to the actual handling of what failure includes.

A startup, be it the coolest one, the initially richest one, etc… is, at first, a company.

And a company has to be managed. And managed quite seriously.

Hurdles, faced by startup founders too

Hurdles, faced by startup founders too

That is where my friendly bunch of “guys” might fail. Talking to these people (various teams, various people, same issue), I asked them about how they were organized, who decided it would be organized this way and, more importantly, how they would handle crisis – and maybe the crisis that their organization would create.

Whatever the reason for failure or crisis, when startups are founded by half a dozen people, it means the revenue drawn from the product sold (assuming it is even sold) will have to cater for the lives of this whole bunch. The more people, the more money is needed. The sad bit is that numbers within the startup do not usually make bigger numbers on the market.

Call it the bodybuilder syndrome. The bigger the muscles, the more they need to eat. If the eating is too light, muscles will feed themselves out of their own selves.

For the startup, it means creating foundations for losing money even before making some.

Then, there is a second hurdle to face for those startups with numerous founders: the roles and responsibilities.

Even if everybody is basically happy to grant themselves C-titles, there might come a time when the skipper (e.g. the guy that everybody “smiled” to the CEO position in the first place) will have to skip.

During harsh times, the boss has to be the boss and act as the boss.

My question to this boss : “Are you ready to sack your friends ?”.

I have had little answers to this question.

As a reminder, a startup is a company. The CEO of a startup is the boss. The boss has to lead the company and make decisions even if the decision is about getting rid of lazy buggers (still friends) or laying off employees (yes, the CMO friend) to reduce costs and pressure on the company.

Too many lack that vision. That sure is the un-sexy part of startups but the sorry real-life though.

Actually, that is the “work hard” part (of the “Work hard, play hard“). A startup is a lot of passion and fun but a startup is also a real company.

So now, guys, work hard ! … And play harder !

[Picture credits : Phil Roeder]