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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!

Harnessing the power of social media

When I was sent this book to review, my first thought was “not another book on how to make a fortune from Facebook and Twitter”. Social Nation : How to harness the power of social media to attract customers, motivate employess and grow your business by  Barry Libert is instead a serious book which issues a clarion call to businesses to re-focus on people rather than products and services.

In this 21st century connected world, the old doctrine that, like children, customers are to be seen but not heard, is not only no longer valid – it’s positively dangerous. This is becoming even clearer as I write this – with Wikileaks stealing the headlines, flash-mobbing exploits against corporate  tax evasion by Top Shop and ActionAid’s online campaign against SAB Miller. No, the days of corporations happily ignoring their consumers and constituents are definitely numbered.

But Libert’s book is not a warning, so much as an enticement and encouragement to companies to get out and actively engage with their customers (and employees) and create communities for them. From open innovation and collaborative working to providing information and a forum for customers to air their views and share information and advice with each other, there’s a wide spectrum of ways to tap into the “social nation”. Libert illustrates his points with well-chosen examples from Pepsico to the Jewish grandmother  who offers online daily recipes and a Yiddish word of the day on her website “FeedmeBubbe”. His style is engaging and very quick and easy to read.

The book sets out 7 Guiding Principles to develop a social nation strategy in your company and dedicates a chapter to each, bringing them to life with examples and stories. The first principle is to develop your own social skills in order to become a social leader yourself and the author has an online tool for you to measure your personal Social Quotient. He cites examples and role models – including Andrea Jung of Avon and Meg Whitman when at eBay.

Successful Social Nationhood involves a big cultural shift and the creation of a corporate culture that is people-centric. Again there are well-illustrated examples, notably Zappos and Google.

One of the key principles is surprisingly – but wisely – etiquette (or netiquette) and I liked the simple suggestions of Peter Post (great grandson of Emily Post, the original 1920s arbiter of good manners) for corporate social skills – Be on time and Say please and thank you.

Business is built on trust and trust is built on strong relationships and strong relationships are built on etiquette.

The book contains  an interesting case study on Ducati motorbikes in the USA and how the company was re-engineered around a social community – driving a 60% increase in sales and involving re-deployment of most of the marketing budget into the community rather than traditional media.

Libert has a useful model to differentiate friends and followers  from fans and fanatics and posits the need to develop a strategy to address each nation with the priority that is appropriate for your business. Right now 80% of businesses operate mostly in the bottom left quartile – Apple would be top left. Operating in the top right quartile means benefiting from both the active participation of fans and fanatics as well as the significantly larger more passive community members who will happily follow where the fans and fanatics lead.

So if you’re wondering whether social media could play a bigger part in your business and want to understand it as a long term strategic tool to help make your business more customer-centric, this book is a good place to start.

>> My review of Delivering Happiness (the Zappos story)

>> Do the Social Quotient test


My yellow card to Apple

I need to declare an interest up front. I’m writing this on a Mac, I have an iPod, an iPhone and an iPad. My first ever computer was an old Macintosh and, after years of corporate life which forced me down the PC railroad, I was ecstatic to get back to the Church of Apple. Lately however, while still a believer, I’m beginning to experience some doubts and now I’m wondering  whether Apple’s got just a bit too big for its rebellious nonconformist boots. Here’s why.

To me the big appeal of the Apple brand has always been the way they made things so easy. They took care of the horrible technology and all I had to do was show up and be creatively inspired (or more often not!).

When I had to use a PC after enjoying my first 2 years on a Mac, I nearly cried in despair. I couldn’t understand the complexity of all the directories. Everything was just so difficult and apart from the stupid time-wasting Solitaire game that came as part of the Windows package, I found it all a bit too much for my tiny brain. But needs must. I learned and eventually Windows became second nature, albeit a frustrating a complicated experience.

In contrast Macs were so great because they are intuitive. They work in a very easy to grasp way – they’re almost human! Certainly the user experience is human. Dragging things into folders to tidy them away. Clear and obvious icons. Nothing to worry about but what you wanted to create. And everything so aesthetically pleasing. Little wonder they became such a huge hit with creative people. The badge of honour of the non-business person. My friend Douglas Atkin in his book The Culting of Brands devotes a whole chapter to why Apple is a religious experience for creative people.

But now things are changing. Firstly the wonders of Apple’s almost perfect technology have been dealt a heavy blow by the debacle of the iPhone4 and its wonky antenna. This has come on top of some initial problems with early iPads around wireless capability. The iPad itself is arguably a contradiction of Apple’s own successful Mac vs PC advertising – unlike the fully loaded Mac ready to run when you take it out of the box, the iPad won’t run Flash, has no camera and no USB slot. I’ve never been a Flash fan and I don’t really care about the camera but I really do want that USB slot.

I don’t have an iPhone4 but iPhone 3GS is actually a pretty lousy phone. I can forgive that as I love the apps and the compatibility with everything else Apple I own. But why do I hardly ever get a decent signal? why does it keep dropping texts?  why will it only re-try to send them manually? – and why does that battery last less than a day?

All these points could be temporary blips to be sorted with the next generation hardware and none of them counter the fact that Apple keeps on coming up with game-changing developments in every category it plays in. From iTunes and the iPod which opened up the digital music market, to the Genius Bar which transformed the retail experience, to the way Apple encouraged developers to populate its mobile devices with a plethora of applications that make the user experience so special.

But – and it’s a big but – there is a real risk that the wonderfully human experience of the Apple brand is also being trashed by a customer service experience that is anything but perfect. A Mac RAM and drive disaster caused me to have to go to not one but three Apple stores in quick succession. First of all I have nothing but praise for all the staff I met there – fantastic friendly people who went out of their way to help me and who have restored my Mac to working order – and a special thanks to Alfred at Westfield who convinced me to invest in an external hard drive just before my system crashed – he must have been hired for his psychic powers – he certainly saved my bacon!

No, my problem is the way you have to fit Apple’s idea of customer communication. You can’t use the Genius Bar without an appointment – no matter how willing you are to wait hours for a cancellation or a gap in the schedule – at least that’s the story in the London stores especially Westfield. You can book your appointment online but you can’t cancel it. This means the stores don’t know if they’ll get any no-shows and hence can accommodate the poor suckers who do turn up on spec.

The store phone numbers are a joke. I called the Westfield store 8 times across 2 successive days and each time got a recorded message that I was Number 9 in the queue, a ranking that didn’t improve no matter how long I hung on the line. I called Brent Cross four times and each time I navigated the call system I was greeted with the words “The other person has hung up”. Sorry Apple not good enough! I’d rather talk to someone in a Bangalore call centre  than be unceremoniously dumped after navigating my way at my expense through your multiple choices. When I raised this with the lovely store staff they said “Well we’re really busy and there’s only one person upstairs answering the phone”. Excuse me Apple this is the 21st Century! Maybe call answering technology is not to your taste but a non-Apple experience that results in an answered call is better than the blind anger and frustration that results from your abject failure to answer the bloody phone!

Look this is a bit of a rant. I do love Apple. My Mac is now fixed and I’m so happy to have it back after a week on my HP laptop with its constant downloads of updates and interruptions and muddled directories and my inability to find anything I’m looking for. But as someone who believes in brands and has long rated Apple as one of the best of them, this is your yellow card Steve! A brand is not just about the physical product, breakthrough ideas and fabulous styling: it’s also about every touchpoint with the consumer. Most Apple fanatics have huge reserves of goodwill towards this most iconic and cultish of brands, so please don’t abuse that Apple – that way lies the graveyard of once great brands.

Funny that Apple always stood for creating (Think different!) and now with iPhones, iPads et al is this a move to consuming? And maybe the consequent flood of mass market consumers is what’s causing the human customer experience to look  as though it’s in need of some creativity.

Getting a new business off the ground

Clare Flynn of Make it and Mend it

Credit: Professional Images

Several people have asked me to share the lessons from the talk I gave at the PRIME event for new “mature” entrepreneurs. These lessons are relevant no matter what your age!

>>MIAMI Story_lowres

My Make it and Mend it colleagues and I identified these 8 lessons from our experiences, launching MIAMI about 9 months ago.

There are a lot of other learnings – in particular about marketing and building traffic – but these 8 struck us as particularly relevant to those who like us are juggling a new start-up with existing businesses and other commitments, such as family responsibilities and voluntary work. They are also relevant to people who like us are setting up business as a small team rather than an individual and to people who are building a business offline.

The key themes are

  1. Follow your passion – it’s hard work so you’d better care about it!
  2. Get a stake in the ground – act fast to get going and make it real
  3. Clear roles and communications – and work on the relationship
  4. Exploit social media – ignore this at your peril! Tweet tweet!
  5. Have a clear strategic focus – you need priorities – you’ll never do it all at once
  6. Learn and develop – be humble and thirsty for knowledge – there’s tons to learn
  7. Use the power of the network – and work hard to extend it
  8. Get a sense of balance – between keeping momentum and having a life!

I’d love to hear from any other recent start-ups about your own experiences and we’re ready to help anyone trying to start out now. Just drop use an email, send us a tweet, give us a bell or leave a comment here!

This version is much prettier but it’s 8MB – >> MIAMI Story_lowres

If you’re short of bandwidth this one’s 1.3MB  as I’ve plucked out most of the pictures >>MIAMI Story_nopix

>> Make it and Mend it

Out of balance or steady course?

out-of-balanceI’ve just come across this great ant photograph via Twitter. It’s called “Out of Balance by Janette Oerlemans see it in full here

The picture, which of course is right up our street being about ants, also made me think about the role of leaders in tough times. Holding a steady course through difficult trading periods is vital for all businesses, small or large.

Doing so means starting with a very clear picture of where you want to get to. When times are tough there is a great temptation to be a headless chicken rather than a focused ant and run around doing lots of things.

Instead, leaders need to create a very clear picture of their desired future and make that come alive for everyone around them, so that employees will all engage with the task of delivering the vision.

This sounds obvious, but unfortunately it is far from the norm. Leaders frequently get very hands-on and managerial when crisis looms. That behaviour filters down through the organisation, so that individuals cannot see the big picture and get so focused on the minutiae of “doing the job” that they lose all sight of the true purpose of the business.

If you want to know more about how to set a steady course and inspire the rest of your team to follow it with you, then give us a call on 07967 110096