Understanding each other: How to get good service.

Help is Only a Phone Call Away!

How to get good service

Another in a series on work called THE REAL WORLD

By Russell D. Hoffman. Copyright (c) 1996 by Russell D. Hoffman.

I had to do something...

I was looking for a job because educational software is a tough way to make a living, so this is one of the few job stories where it's just a 9-to-5 job after I got into computers. This job lasted nine months, when I left it to move to California.

Since I operate a customer service desk of my own now, I need to mention that if you ever don't get good service from us, it's not because we didn't try. Sometimes, the customer has to have patience, too. Rome wasn't built in a nanosecond. This is a story about where I learned to do customer service, and I hope you always feel you get good service from my company, but if you don't, please: let us know what's wrong.

Help Desks. Customer Service. Support Center. Service Department. Call it whatever. What it is is the last line of defense for the company. If the customer is unhappy when they leave our department, there isn't much more the company can do to resolve the problem. So in a good company, Customer Service has a lot of priorities.

The company I worked for was a good company. They made a 4GL DBMS (Fourth Generation Language DataBase Management System) which is used in hundreds of Fortune 500's and by many Government agencies as well, including law enforcement and others. I believe it's still on the market, but the division was sold.

We really were the last line of defense, for both the customer as well as the company. Some of our customers used thousands of copies of the program and had dozens of developers working with it. They had their own help desk staffed with knowledgable workers. And some of those workers had once worked at our support center. When those people couldn't solve the problem, they called us. Our secretary would take the call, determine the rough nature of it, and post it on the cork bulletin board for us to take. The secretary would tell the caller approximately how long the return call would take to come, and ask if that was all right. If it wasn't, she would do something to expedite the call, usually by finding an open person.

And like the Canadian Mounted Police, our creed was to always solve the problem. We hated it when we had to hand off a problem to another service person. No matter how long it took, no matter how complex, we each had a personal goal never to pass on a problem to someone else. One problem, one support person. Which is not to say we couldn't go ask each other anything we wanted, but the service person the customer first contacts usually would provide them with the answer.

It's also not to say we wouldn't "cherry pick" the calls a little as they came in and take the ones we knew the most about! I had an interesting group I would cherry-pick, but more on that later. But other than my group, we were discouraged from virtually all cherry picking because they wanted us to respond to the oldest calls first--and NEVER leave a call unanswered for more than a half day under any circumstances.

It's not what you know, it's who you know

Even though the customer often knew more about the program than we did (after all, sometimes they had been programming with it for years) we could still solve their problems. Of course, the reason was, we had tools that the customer didn't have available to them. We could, for one thing, walk down the hall to the developer's area, find the person who actually coded the thing (or is responsible for that piece of code) and ask them what's going on. Sometimes they would have to go back and look at code, and sometimes, they would have to fix the code!

It was always kind of fun to go back to the customer and tell them that they had initiated a change in the code, because if you explain it to them right, they usually feel vindicated and gratified and like they're part of a team. If you explain it wrong, they might get angry that they had had to be the one to suffer through the problem. We never lied to the customer about anything, which I'm sure showed. So if they had found a bug or a documentation error, we told them so, and a bug report would be generated and the next release of the software would have a fix for the problem.

Each employee had to start with about 10 days of training in New York, and one afternoon each week was additional training and product news summaries. You learned how databases are organized, how to pick keys, and how to maintain the system. You learned to code using the 4GL DBMS the company had developed. Highly technical stuff.

Then, one day, you take your first call. You know you're boss is listening in. She told you she would probably listen to the first few conversations so she could tell you what (if anything) you're doing wrong.

I don't remember that first call.

How to Win Friends and Influence Business

As I mentioned, I was a cherry picker, but no one minded. My boss didn't mind. My coworkers loved me for it.

What happened was, one day we had a meeting about a relationship that had nearly gone sour. The customer was very upset for some reason or other, and had brought one of our service personnel nearly to tears. The meeting was about what we should do when the secretary gets a call from an irate customer, so that the service person has some warning that there may be a problem.

It was decided that the secretary would not enter anything in the database so as not to unfairly (or fairly) taint future contacts with the person, but they would hand-write on the work sheet for the event the phrase "IRATE CUSTOMER" so we would know that we should handle this one quickly and with care.

The first time she did this, I guess I had already dealt with the customer some months before and thought that they and I had gotten along pretty well. So I took that call. Then the next time, it just happened to be the top priority call and I had to take it. Pretty soon, I would fish through all the calls and take any IRATE CUSTOMER calls! And pretty soon after that, my coworkers realized what I had been doing, and then the secretary started to simply pass IRATE CUSTOMER calls on to me without bothering to post them on the cork board.

It's not that I'm cruel

I don't think I'm either a masochist or a sadist. I just didn't take it personally. I wouldn't take their problems home with me, or even to lunch. I didn't mind being yelled at. When they were done screaming and tearing their hair out over the phone, I'd simply tell them I'm sorry that they are upset, and I would like to work with them until we solve the problem, and I won't work on any other problems until they are satisfied that the problem is solved.

This usually calmed them down.

Then I'd give them the fine print. It doesn't mean I'll stay late unless my boss approves the overtime. It doesn't mean I'll try to interrupt somebody else's meeting to try to get an answer from them. It doesn't mean I'll be able to answer any question right away--I might have to study to get the answer.

It just means it will be my highest priority task until it's solved--is that sufficient, I'd ask, and I can never recall it not being sufficient, at least to get the conversation going.

I only recall two cases where the problem had to be escalated to my boss, and one of those ended with the person apologizing (not that I cared). That was considered a pretty excellent track record, and it really took the burden off the other employees.

How to win friends, part 2

Actually this part should go first chronologically. The day I started working, I had both elbows and both knees and my forehead wrapped in bandages. I had been to an Action Park with a friend of mine and his girlfriend the day before I was to start work.

Neither me nor my friend had ever ridden an Alpine Slide before, but his girlfriend had and explained to us how to do it.

The Alpine Slide was a long (maybe a quarter of a mile, in this case) open tube you ride a little cart down. The track is about the width of a 55 gallon drum , cut in half, but made of fiberglass and really smooth with curved edges. The curves are each heavily banked and there's hay bales just in case you do go off.

The cart just has four little coaster wheels and a brake that pushes against the slide to stop you. It's a "dead man's brake" meaning you have to hold it forward constantly, or it will swing back and stop you.

How you do it, it's explained to us, is that first of all, when they ask if you've ever done it before, you say yeah, sure, so they don't put you on the beginner's slope, which is real shallow and straight. Second, when you sit down and wait for the signal to go, you take your sweet time about getting into position. Third, when they tell you "GO" hold off until they're yelling at you. Fourth, don't brake for anything. Go like blazes till you get to the bottom.

Well, she must have trained me well, because when I got to the first big turn, I didn't brake. Even after I fell off, and got fiberglass burns on various extremities, I simply got back on and went hell-bent for leather down to the next curve, which I also fell off and deepened the old wounds and got several new ones. My friend was behind me yelling "go go go!" when I fell off the first time. But the second time, he wasn't anywhere to be found. I coasted gently the rest of the way down the ride, and when he got there, he was bleeding from his ear and had deeper burns even than I did! We decided to call it a day and went back to the car and patched ourselves up and went home.

The girl felt pretty bad too!

The Sympathy Vote

When you start a new job covered with bandages that need to be changed every few hours, everybody notices you. You have a nice conversation starter, and everyone feels sorry for you. I recommend it if you want to make friends with your new coworkers. However, it's not a good idea to go in the next Monday with all the same bandages, and crutches too. Then they think you're accident-prone.

I had gone to a nightclub with a friend, and it had started to rain. The nightclub was located on a pier. When I left, I didn't want to get the bandages wet, so I tried to run to the car. You shouldn't run on wet wood. I slipped and fell and spent the next few weeks on crutches with a sprained ankle. Being accident-prone was a reputation I was unable to live down the rest of my days at that job.

If you enjoyed this story, please check out these others:

(Highlighted entries are currently online. The rest I'm writing as I get time.)

Table of Contents

The Animated Software Company

Mail to: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com
First placed online July 31st, 1996.
Last modified March 27th, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman