Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to develop exceptional customer service.

Post 341 - Joel Spolsky and Michael Pryor are co-founders of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable! Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. The company also makes FogBugz, a project management system designed to help great teams develop brilliant software, and Fog Creek Copilot, which makes remote desktop access easy. As a startup software company in 2000, Fog Creek couldn’t afford to hire customer service people for the first couple of years, so the founders did it themselves. The time they spent helping customers took away from improving their software, but they learned a lot and now have a much better customer service operation as a result. They believe that when customers have a problem and you fix it, they’re actually going to be even more satisfied than if they never had a problem in the first place.

Spolsky says, "It has to do with expectations. Most people’s experience with tech support and customer service comes from airlines, telephone companies, cable companies, and ISPs, all of whom provide generally awful customer service. It’s so bad you don’t 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, they’re apt to think even more highly of us than someone who never had the opportunity to interact with us and just assumes that we’re average ... So whenever someone calls to complain about a problem, we look on that as a great opportunity to create a fanatically devoted customer, one who will prattle on and on about what a great job we did."

He goes on to say, "The no-questions-asked 90-day money back guarantee was one of the best decisions we ever made at Fog Creek. For example, use Fog Creek Copilot (a job listing service) 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 we’ll give it back to you. Try calling on the 91st or 92nd or 203rd day. You’ll still get it back. We really don’t want your money if you’re not satisfied. I’m pretty sure we’re running the only job listing service around that will refund your money just because your ad didn’t work. This is unheard of, but it means we get a lot more ad listings, because there’s nothing to lose ... Customers know that they have the power in the relationship so they don’t get abusive. Over the last six years or so, letting people return software has cost us just 2%."

Many qualified people get bored with front line customer service. So to compensate for this, Fog Creek doesn’t hire technical people into those positions without first making it part of an explicit career path. As a result, customer support is just the first year of a three-year management training program that includes a master’s degree in technology management from Columbia University. This allows Fog Creek to hire smart, ambitious people who then start out on a terrific career path by talking with customers and solving their problems. The company ends up paying quite a bit more than average for these positions (which includes $25,000 a year in tuition), but it gets far more value out of them too.

So the moral is - listen to customer-facing employees - they're your ear to the pavement. Value them, ask them what they're hearing from customers, and train them how to listen for the right information. As I've noted here before, Customer focus, Collaboration, Coordination and Communication are the four Cs for organizing your business successfully in the 21st century.

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