Reinventing customer service


Two customer service experiences have lured me away from my authorial blog and back to these pages after a long absence. The first was with American Airlines and the second with Vodafone. What they had in common was that I started out as a relatively happy customer and by the end I was baying for blood, creating a one woman Twitter storm and vowing never to use them again. I am now with O2 after many years with Vodafone. In the case of American –  I flew with them twice this year – in both cases through circumstances beyond my control and had been pleasantly surprised. All I wanted to do with Vodafone was to upgrade and with American to request refund of an overpayment I’d made to upgrade to business on one leg of my flight. Should be simple?

I won’t go into the ins and outs of my experiences – but in both cases I had multiple attempts to get through to a sentient being capable of dealing with my issue.

With American the only calls they accept are to sell tickets – everything else is via the website – but I couldn’t make their options work – and  none of  their online forms would submit (after ages filling them in – and trying multiple times). They asked for numbers I didn’t have or documents with names I didn’t understand – “please supply your document number” – WHAT document number? The drop-downs on the website didn’t help and I kept getting the Resubmit Form message. When I felt I was trapped inside an endless loop of customer service hell I took to Twitter. Problem solved – at last I got through to a human being – thanks Twitter!

With Vodafone I made a total of 13 inbound calls, on 3 of which I was cut off without explanation. Each time the Inbound Call system offered options that were not relevant to my problem – I wanted a PAC code – even after one of the assistants told me the numbers to press I still had to be manually transferred “Sorry we don’t give out PAC codes here“. In between I was on hold so long that I now know all the words to “I’m a Man” – not a convincing choice of music to play as I was by then mostly talking to machines. Again I took to Twitter but I’d got my PAC Code before anyone from @Vodafone UK replied – and then the link they sent me to get PAC codes just told me to dial 191 again – something I’d been doing till my fingers were bleeding!

The point of all this is not to have a moan (I do love a good moan!) but to suggest that customer service is well overdue for reinvention. The vast majority of large companies appear to have designed their customer service systems to keep their customers out. I have yet to meet anyone who likes listening to an automated voice and being offered options none of which fit the situation – or use corporate terminology that we customers don’t get.

The constant repetition of lies (Your call is important to us; we are receiving an unusually high number of calls) or truisms (We are currently very busy – so what – aren’t we all!) and then being forced to listen to the same song over and over again while on hold, is alienating. The only reason they get away with it is that they all do it – so as a customer we have no choice. In banking, First Direct is an exception – but they can afford to be different as they are niche – and the others are reliant on customer inertia and the sheer stress of trying to switch your business.

I’d like to imagine a world where things are different. A world where service means service. Where customers are valued. Where humans answer telephones.

Lesson 1 – don’t expect customers to understand your internal jargon – too many acronyms and obscure names for documents and procedures are used.

Lesson 2 – calculate the real cost of a customer contact – when people have to keep ringing back, talking to a series of people unable to deal with the problem it adds significant cost.

Lesson 3 – ill will and reputational damage goes beyond the customer in question. When Vodafone didn’t reply to my tweets I started retweeting other people’s complaints too. Hash tags make this so easy

There must be a case for re-thinking the whole approach. The rationale for use of automated inbound call systems was probably pretty convincing at the time from a financial standpoint – but the only real winners have been the companies who designed and installed them. They are no longer serving the companies who use them and they are certainly not serving customers. For too long technology and dubious measures of productivity have taken precedence over human contact and proper SERVICE. The hidden costs are not calculated.

The time has come for a rethink and a revolution. Force the people who design and buy these systems to spend a day each month calling their own inbound lines with specific example “missions” and see how quickly they see things in a different way. Meanwhile – find me on Twitter at @clarefly – I’m not always ranting!


Make it and Mend it is published

As you may know, as well as my consulting business I am involved in an online business with 3 colleagues. We have just had our first book (of the same name) published by David & Charles in the US, UK and other markets.

Make it and Mend it


The lavishly illustrated book would make a great addition to your Christmas gift list! You can buy online at Amazon in the UK or USA – or at all good bookstores.

The death of the printed word? or why I’m self-publishing

Shelves of  booksSome of you may know, I’ve just completed my first novel. After much thought and discussion, I’ve decided to go it alone and cut out the middleman. This decision means that success or failure will be entirely within my control – depending on whether it’s a good enough book and whether I market it well enough. Maybe I’m a control freak (I am a control freak!) but that’s how I like it. And the good news is we control freak writers have never had it so good with the open doors of Amazon just a few clicks away and the publicity opportunities offered by social media.

This morning I came upon a couple of articles via Twitter, one based on an anonymous insider view from a publisher that Amazon is in the process of killing off the entire publishing industry, and the other bemoaning the innate conservatism in publishing which is causing many excellent authors to take the self publishing route.

I think we’ve actually reached a tipping point in the book industry. According to the Guardian this week, 1 in 40 UK adults got a Kindle in their Christmas stocking. I didn’t – but then I had one already – as do most of my friends and family. I started out reading books on an iPad (great for magazines) but have found the Kindle perfect for reading fiction. I don’t believe that we’re suddenly going to see printed books go the way of illuminated manuscripts – well not entirely – but this is an industry that’s ripe for change – and ripe for disintermediation. To quote the anonymous publisher

Long-term there’s no future in printed books. They’ll be like vinyl: pricey and for collectors only. 95% of people will read digitally. Everybody in publishing knows this but most are in denial about it because moving to becoming a digital company means laying off like 40% of our staffs. And the barriers to entry fall, too. We simply don’t want to think about it. Amazon is thinking about it, though, and they’re targeting the publishers directly.

Leaving aside the venom spat out by rejected authors about publishing houses, there’s a lot of evidence that it’s an industry that has rested on its laurels for too long and has become deeply conservative and fearful of change and experimentation. Before you accuse me of gross generalisations, I know there are exceptions, but most large publishing houses have been doing things in exactly the same way for decades. It also seems unfair that the smallest slice of the money cake is the one that the hard-working author gets – and publishers can get away with that because authors will carry on writing even if they have to give their books away free ( as some of the self-publishers are doing in order to break through).

Another problem with publishing houses these days , from an author’s standpoint, is the dominance of the Marketing department. Now as an ex marketer I should be delighted – but what it means in reality is that niche titles, first-time authors, and books that are a bit different just don’t get the attention that the latest ghosted celebrity oeuvre is going to get. And that’s if the title doesn’t get vetoed by Marketing at the get-go – despite having editors lined up behind it singing its praises.

Amazon Kindle deviceAnother downside for publishers is the way they are lining up to hold back the Amazon tide by setting pricing. Readers are not stupid. They know that e-books save on paper, ink, storage and distribution and expect some acknowledgement of this. I recently bought a copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days for my Kindle – it was £7.99 whereas the paperback was selling for £6.99. Amazon had annotated the price with the words “price set by publisher”. So attached am I now to my Kindle that I bought the book anyway, gritting my teeth with fury. Imagine my anger when I found that the publishers had not even scanned the text correctly – the entire book was littered with typos, sometimes rendering passages completely indecipherable. Amazon refunded the money and removed the book from sale when I highlighted some of the choicer errors to them. This smacks of sloppy profiteering by the publisher – certainly not by the late departed author.

Recently there’s been a reader campaign on Amazon to punish the authors of books with excessive Kindle pricing by rating the books with one miserable star – the works of Iain Banks have apparently been targeted in this way – although on checking now, all his are priced at £4.99, with the new one at £8.99 – a big saving on the hardback price – but maybe that means the campaign worked!.

Amazon, unlike the publishers, has opportunities to really milk a huge amount from its Kindle customers. It’s my first port of call for online sales – I’ve recently bought a vacuum cleaner, printer supplies, DVDs, a camera, a tripod, cushion pads and sewing notions. The lifetime value of a customer like me makes low margins on Kindle book sales a no-brainer for Amazon.

It’s a cut-throat world out there and maybe I’ll wish I’d shown some patience, given up some control and gone down the traditional route. Although as I’m not a footballer’s wife, a pneumatic Essex blonde, an X Factor contender  or a stuffed meerkat I’d probably be left at the back of the queue. Maybe the hassle of formatting the book for different devices, tweeting away, and developing a publicity campaign will have me tearing my hair out. But the book has taken a long time to write and just as long to edit and restructure – if I could afford the effort for that I can afford the effort to get it out into the world. And who knows? – I may even make a bit of pocket-money at the same time!

P&G’s corporate ad campaign

Several clients and colleagues have commented to me about Procter & Gamble venturing into the world of corporate advertising for the first time in the UK, with its Mother’s day campaign “Proud sponsor of Mums”. This is a real departure for my former employers, as the brands were always very much the heroes in my day and the company took incredible pains to stay in the background and keep a low profile. This was not so universally – P&G brand ads have long carried corporate endorsement in Asia as the culture there demanded it.

So why the change of heart here in the UK and does it make sense? P&G are sponsoring the Olympics (sponsorship – another no-no in my day!) and as such need to take a corporate approach rather than a series of  linkups with individual brands. However it seems there are other more compelling reasons.

P&G ran a precursor of the campaign (Proud sponsor of Moms) at the Vancouver Olympics and  apparently it generated an additional $100M in revenue and achieved a 30% improvement in brand recall. Their research indicates that loyal users of one brand are not always aware of  the other brands in the company stable – and that trust and loyalty builds and transfers when people are made aware.

There are an average of 5.7 P&G products in UK homes – leaving plenty of scope to cross sell other ones. The highest reach of any of the brands is Fairy Liquid (one of the brands I was lucky enough to manage back in the day!) and making all those Fairy users aware that the same company also makes Pantene, Pampers, Max Factor, Ariel, Olay and many others, could mean big gains for the company. And P&G is not alone – both Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser have been running corporate ads for a while.

The other aspect of all this is that the first ad in the campaign – see below – is cheap as chips – it’s a few photos (apparently of the families of P&G employees), a voiceover at the end and some library music – so big savings on production costs – always a consideration!

One thing about P&G – it may have a lot of sacred cows – but it isn’t afraid to slaughter them!

Irrelevant Innovation

Last week I went to Inamo, an oriental restaurant in Lower Regent Street, for a pre-theatre meal. My companion suggested it, as he’d heard the food was good (it was – especially the spicy ribs) and it has a new and different twist – computerised dining tables.

In front of each diner is a mouse pad and the whole table is a digitised display. There’s a choice of landscapes for your table – so you can choose your own personal ambiance, from vivid tropical landscape to abstract expressionism. The mouse pad also controls the visual menu, broken down into drinks, starter and main courses, as well as an option to call for a waiter and a games console.

I suppose if you’re in the habit of going for a meal with an incredibly boring person, having a games console on your table during dinner may be an attractive diversion. And if you like the kind of establishment that offers illustrated menus, having one that visualises each dish as if it was a plate in front of you, may have its attractions. For the rest of us it’s a pointless feature.

I found the ordering process surprisingly stressful and time consuming (mouse management!) as well as rather anti-social. My companion ordered a second glass of wine for himself without telling me – when he’d normally have said ‘shall we have another?’ – which made it all seem very individually focused and not very sociable. I  found scrolling through the (picture) menu tedious and frequently got mouse paralysis. The novelty had worn off in about 45 seconds!

All this raises a question. Just exactly what unmet need is a computerised dining table and menu meeting? What is so difficult about looking at a printed menu? It’s MUCH quicker. It allows you to scan the whole offering – as opposed to looking at one item at a time. I can imagine there are benefits for the restaurant – more speedy and accurate transmission of orders from table to kitchen – and the fact that you probably end up spending much more than normal (we certainly did!).

It reduces the waiters to mere delivery vehicles and removes one of the most important elements of dining –  interaction with the waiters. When all they do is plonk something down on your table, it becomes a very souless and impersonal transaction.

Yes, you can apply technology to dining. Inamo have shown that. They delivered everything we ordered in a timely and accurate manner. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should!

I wonder how many of their diners make a return visit. Nice as the food was I won’t. I want to escape from computers when I go out to eat. I want to talk to my companion, not play with a mouse or challenge him to a game. I like to have a bit of repartee with a waiter – or ask for the recommendations – and in doing so glimpse his or her personality, not have a cipher silently deliver dishes to my table. They may as well be androids! And call me old fashioned – but give me  a well starched, linen table cloth in preference to a digital display any day.

What’s Mine is Yours

Review of What’s Mine is Yours – How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live, by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers

I need to declare an interest upfront,  in that I know and have enjoyed working with Rachel Botsman, one of the co-authors of this book. Rachel is a graduate of Oxford and Harvard universites has worked for President Clinton and as a successful management consultant. But no bias on my part – this is an interesting, engaging and important book!

What’s Mine is Yours posits that we are at a tipping point in a new way of living – based on sharing, bartering and helping each other out. This is partly driven by rejection on the part of newer generations towards the excesses in consumption of their Baby Boomer parents, partly by a desire to husband our earthly resources better, partly by increasingly straitened economic circumstances for many, and all of this facilitated by technology and new connectedness that we enjoy now through social networking and mobile communications.

The book is written in an involving anecdotal style, using real stories and experiences to bring the concepts alive. Botsman and Rogers have interviewed a number of key entrepreneurs and opinion formers. It sets up the context for collaborative consumption and explains the socio-demographic and psychological forces that have encouraged the desire to share instead of own, to be more “we” and less “me”. There are plentiful examples to demonstrate what collaborative consumption is, how it has arisen and the many forms it takes. Finally the authors explore how this phenomenon will further evolve and its likely long term impact.

I’ve always been a bit of an early adopter, so several of the emerging organisations and companies practising collaborative consumption were already known to me: I’ve rented a van from StreetCar; rented out my own car several times to strangers through Whipcar; I’m in the process of negotiating a house swap in Australia; I’ve acquired  jars for jam-making via Freecycle and given away furniture through Freecycle and Street Bank; I regularly rent DVDs through Lovefilm and have bought and sold on eBay. I’m also a co-founder of a website dedicated to living sustainably and creatively by making and mending things rather than buying and binning. All that may indicate I’m heavily pre-disposed towards the concept of collaborative consumption, but  as someone who has been an Olympic standard conspicuous consumer and big spender in my time, I think it says more that  if people like me are getting into this, then Botsman and Rogers have identifed a very real element of the zeitgeist and we are going to see a lot more examples of collaborative consumption before long.

Not only is it happening: it also makes a lot of sense. To use an example from the book, when doing a spot of DIY we want the hole not the drill (apparently the average usage of an electric drill is 12 minutes in its entire lifetime!). You want to see the film – not collect plastic boxes to sit idle on your shelf. It’s about access not ownership.

But collaborative consumption is about more than accessing ‘things’ – it’s also about sharing and accessing services and skills. Bartering requires a “double coincidence of wants” a lawyer with a leaking tap might normally struggle to find a plumber in need of legal advice but the Internet has dramatically changed that. Apparently there are already around 500 online barter exchanges in the Americas, including Bartercard with more than 75,000 members across nine countries who exchanged over $2 billion of goods and services though its network in 2009.

Obviously a pre-requisite of collaborative consumption is trust. One of the theses Botsman and Rogers put forward is that  to establish trust we will increasingly rely on our personal reputation capital. At first this sent a chill up my spine – another excuse for people to monitor and spy on my activity online? But already we are all subject to credit checks, like it or not, so checks on our reliability and trustworthiness are probably an inevitable consequence and facilitator of collaborative consumption. This is already operating extensively in peer ratings – as done by the self policing system on eBay – but it does also raise a concern that one’s reputation could be blown by a spiteful comment from an individual – as some hoteliers have found with abusers of Trip Advisor. It means we’ll all need to be vigilant and active in developing and protecting our ‘reputational bank accounts’.

This is a very well researched and thought-provoking book, packed full of entertaining examples and written in a very accessible and conversational story-telling style. You can buy it on Amazon What’s Mine Is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live

The dangers of multi-tasking

A couple of weeks ago, frustrated that I had made little recent progress on my eternally ‘almost finished’ book, I blocked out three days and marked them in the diary as if they were external meetings. I told  colleagues and friends what I was doing to help cut down on unnecessary calls – usually I get lots of Skype  calls throughout the day. The real test came when I had two requests to meet clients during the allocated days (Sod’s Law). I decided to hold firm and (without saying I was working on the book) explained that I couldn’t make the chosen times. Both people suggested alternative dates. Normally I would have just forgone the writing time and accepted the initial suggested meeting timing.  As a result of my standing firm I manged to finish the first draft of the book. I know that would not have happened otherwise.

During those 3 days, I only checked my email at the beginning and end of the day – and used my phone or iPad to do this so I could avoid getting hijacked once I was working on the book on my Mac. I kept my browser closed and only went online (again via my iPad) to fact check when needed. I was amazed at how much I got done – averaging 3000 words a day plus a lot of editing and research.

This afternoon I was reading a piece on information overload, from The McKinsey Quarterly and it rang a lot of bells for me. Today was a classic multi-tasking, always-online, kind of day (including reading the McKinsey piece which I came across while browsing my Twitter stream) and I got done only a fraction of what I wanted to do, despite having no client meetings and only a couple of calls to distract me.

I realise now it was because I was trying to work on several tasks at once and failing to give enough attention to any of them. The McKinsey piece explains why multi tasking , far from being a virtue, can actually be bad for you in terms of productivity, creativity and wellbeing.

It refers to recent research in which participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence.

The same article references a Harvard Business School study among 9000 individuals which showed that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person. That certainly mirrors my own experience.

On top of that multi- tasking also creates anxiety and lowers job satisfaction. So much for us women thinking we had an inherent advantage in being able to multi task better than men!

In this digital, always on age, where we rarely venture forth without a smart phone and where we are always connected and reachable, it’s worth taking stock every now and then and thinking about disconnecting, even if only for blocks of time. I’m also going to do my work in sequence rather than grass-hoppering about between projects and tasks.

I’ll let you know how I get on!