A Visit to Napa Valley After the Fires

"I didn't know if I'd have a job to go back to."

That's something Sally and I heard over and over from winery employees, restaurant servers, and other customer service professionals we encountered in Napa Valley.

We visited during the first week in November. By then, the multiple wildfires that spread throughout the valley in October had been extinguished. The loss of life and property was terrible.

Now locals faced another potential disaster—job losses.

An estimated 9,000 people lost their jobs due to the October fires throughout Northern California, including Napa Valley. Many are worried that job losses are yet to come as the local economy deals with the aftermath.

My wife and I consistently heard one message while we were in Napa. "We're open for business. Please come to visit."

The view outside Benessere Vineyards, makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The view outside Benessere Vineyards, makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

What Actually Burned

It's tough to follow a disaster on the news. Print and television media often confused the basic geography of the area when reporting on the fires.

As a result, people I've spoken to from around the country saw coverage of the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties and assumed everything was burning. In reality, there were multiple fires that were large and devastating, though the majority of Napa Valley emerged unscathed.

That's not to say the damage wasn't extensive.

Lives and homes were lost, which is the most tragic consequence. We saw images like these throughout certain parts of the valley.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The hills surrounding parts of the valley were also extensively burned as the fire raged unchecked through the backcountry. For those who haven't visited the area, Napa Valley is quite rural in places.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

One stroke of luck was the grapevines themselves acted as a natural firebreak. Many wineries were saved when the fire was stopped at the edge of the vineyard. At William Hill Estate Winery, one of our favorites, the signed was burned and the flames crept up to the side of the winery.

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Images like this might discourage you from visiting, though the wine was flowing, the wine room and surrounding garden were still intact, and the hospitality was still warm and friendly.

Even parts of the area that didn't burn were impacted by a thick cloud of ash and smoke that hung over the valley for several days. Some wineries lost grapes not from fire but from the air. Wine made from grapes exposed to smokey air can develop a distinctly unpleasant smoke taste.

Everywhere we looked there were remnants of soot from the fire. Workers at the Soda Canyon Store told us it took them three days to clean the store before they could reopen. I'm happy to report the store is now clean and the sandwiches are as delicious as ever.


The Economic Impact

Sally and I rented a house in downtown Napa for a week-long working vacation.

We secured the rental months earlier. A week or so before our trip we weren't sure if it was still a good idea to go. I emailed the property manager and asked.

She quickly replied and asked us to please come. The house had experienced a number of cancellations during one of the busiest times of the year. Her business, like so many others in the valley, could really use the revenue.

The valley is still sorting out the long-term economic impact of the fires. There will be costs to rebuild houses and businesses as well as replace burned out vehicles. 

We consistently heard about cancellations. The upside is we often had personalized tasting experiences like this one at Saintsbury.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

That was good for us, though not so great for the winery. The Napa Valley Register shared a recent story indicating many wineries have seen the number of visitors decline considerably over this same time last year.


How to Help

The best thing you can do is plan a trip to Napa.

The area is beautiful. Most of the wine and wineries are perfectly fine. The fall can be a special time of year as the leaves on the vines change. Some places are just magical.


You can also buy Napa wine if a trip is not in the works. Your local wine shop is sure to have some great selections. You can also buy directly from a favorite winery and have it shipped directly to you.

Finally, consider a donation to the Napa Valley Community Foundation. This is an organization that works closely with other local nonprofits to funnel money to areas where there's the greatest need such as food, shelter, childcare, and transportation.

The area will recover. This is a close-knit community that became even closer in the wake of a disaster. One of our winery hosts told us, "We're farmers. Farmers help each other."

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

How ecobee Wins Customers With Smart Surveys

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

I recently purchased an ecobee3 lite smart thermostat for The Overlook, a vacation rental property my wife and I own. It's one of those where you can control the temperature remotely via an app.

The decision to go with ecobee came down to service and support. 

The company uses a customer-centric approach to its product design, its pre-sales support, and its customer service. Ecobee also takes voice of customer (VOC) feedback seriously, and does an impressive job deploying both Net Promoter Score (NPS) and Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) surveys.

Ecobee's Director of Customer Service, Andrew Gaichuk, was kind enough to share some insight into how ecobee uses VOC feedback to stay on top.

The Ecobee 3 Lite. Image source: Ecobee

The Ecobee 3 Lite. Image source: Ecobee

My ecobee Experience

I considered a number of different options before purchasing the ecobee3 Lite ($169 on Amazon).

It had received a number of good reviews. A vacation rental I stayed in a few months ago had the same model and it was very easy to use from a guest perspective. Ecobee even has this simple tool on its website that allows you to verify compatibility with your house's heating and cooling system.

These factors, coupled with a poor support experience from one of ecobee's main competitors, cemented the decision.

Installation was a breeze with this helpful online guide. There were also easy-to-follow instructions in the box along with a few extras such as a plate to cover the hole in the wall left behind from your previous thermostat.

Once installed, I downloaded the ecobee app that lets me adjust the heating schedule remotely. This is a big plus since I'll be able to lower the temperature whenever guests check out, which means a lower propane bill this winter.

Best of all, it's easy for guests to use. Temperature adjustment is intuitive and simple, with a slide of the finger being all that's required.


Ecobee and NPS

Customers get an NPS survey two weeks after registering their ecobee. The survey arrives via an email sent by the NPS survey company Delighted.

This is a good way to deploy a Net Promoter Score survey, since it asks how likely a customer is to recommend a company's product or service.


Gaichuck explained the rationale behind sending the NPS survey after two weeks. "This gives the customer enough time to experience the product and feel the benefits of ownership."

This was certainly the case for me. The Overlook had guests the first two weekends after I installed the ecobee, so I was already getting a sense of how the thermostat was working.

Many companies make the mistake of sending out an NPS survey after each customer service transaction. This really isn't the best tool to assess customer service alone, since likelihood to recommend is based on many more factors. 

In the case of ecobee, the purchase experience, installation, and the product itself all weigh on whether a customer would recommend the product to a friend.

Ecobee's NPS survey also has an open comment question. This allows customers to provide additional detail on why they gave a certain rating, which can be analyzed later.


The survey asks just two questions, a rating question and an open comment question, yet it's a powerful tool because Ecobee uses the data correctly.

Ecobee's customer service team follows up with anyone who gives a rating of six or lower on the likelihood to recommend question. In NPS parlance, people who give a 6 or lower are known as detractors, so this is a chance to dig deeper into customer feedback or perhaps even save the customer.

Gaichuk and his team also analyze NPS survey comments for trends.

"We define trends through key words such as Customer Service, Installation, Wifi, etc. to help narrow down what key issues customers are experiencing so we can action it for future improvements. For example if we see any detractor for 'Customer Service' we can investigate the interaction, determine the issue and provide one on one coaching/feedback with the CSR."


Ecobee and CSAT

Customers who contact ecobee's customer service team receive a CSAT survey at the end of the interaction. 

CSAT is a much more appropriate survey type than NPS for service transactions, so it's good to see ecobee using both NPS and CSAT in an appropriate way.

Ecobee uses Zendesk customer service software, which has a built-in survey question that simply asks customers, "Are you satisfied or unsatisfied?"

Like the NPS data, Gaichuk uses these responses to identify trends.

"I can measure these C-Sat scores by department, CSR team or agent level. The Supervisors are each responsible to review the Unsatisfied results with their respective team members and identify areas for improvement."

Ecobee's customer service team currently has an outstanding 91 percent CSAT rate.

The company sends customers a survey as a post-transaction email. My research shows this is a best practice, and Ecobee enjoys a robust 19 percent response rate.

According to Gaichuk, the customer service team uses the survey invitation to create another positive customer touch point.

"In early 2017 we changed our call process so CSR’s are now responsible to email the customer a summary of the call interaction. This is a great way to finish the interaction, wow the customer and provide them any additional information that may help. As a result the customer is provided the ability to rate the CSR’s support they provided."



Writing this blog post means I'm definitely recommending the ecobee3 Lite to friends and colleagues. 

The product is excellent, though I think it's the service and support that really makes the difference. Perhaps most impressive is how Gaichuk and his team at ecobee are using customer feedback to continuously improve.

The New Rules of Employee Empowerment

Note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Customer service leaders frequently ask me about employee empowerment. It sounds so good in theory, but it's often difficult in practice.

When I talk to them, there's usually something missing. Here's an example:

In a technical support contact center, each call was a roll of the dice.

The issue could be resolved in five minutes if one agent answered. That same issue would take more than 30 minutes to resolve if another agent handled the call.

The 5-minute agent was frustrated because she wanted to share the fix with her coworkers, but there wasn't a great way to do it. Ever since a major software update was released, the support team was flooded with calls. There didn't seem to be any time for team meetings or updating knowledge base articles.

The situation was also frustrating for the 30-minute agent because he wanted to solve customers issues faster.

Both agent were empowered in the traditional sense. They had the authority to go the extra mile to serve their customers.

Yet this authority fell short because they weren't truly empowered. Here's why.


The Old Definition of Empowerment

Ask most people to describe employee empowerment and they'll tell you it's entrusting your employees with the authority to do what's needed to serve their customers.

That's only part of it.

The 5-minute agent had the authority to deviate from standard procedures when she discovered a better way to solve an issue. 

The 30-minute agent had the authority to take as much time as he needed to resolve the customer's issue so the customer wouldn't have to contact support a second time.

But there was something missing.

There wasn't a way for the 5-minute agent to easily share her knowledge with the 30-minute agent so he could solve the same issue just as quickly.


The New Definition of Empowerment

Employee empowerment really means giving people the authority, procedures, and resources needed to serve their customers.

  • Authority to go the extra mile to serve customers.
  • Procedures that represent best practices for serving customers effectively.
  • Resources such as knowledge and tools necessary to get the job done.

The support team was able to provide dramatically better support when they added much-needed procedures and resources to the authority they already had.

New procedures included:

  • A documented best practice solution that allowed all agents to solve the same problem in 5 minutes.
  • A standing meeting between the support team manager and development manager to review voice of customer feedback and get insights on new software releases. This allowed new issues to be identified, documented, and fixed. (Which, in turn, reduced call volume.)
  • Daily 5 minute huddles with support team agents that focused solely on top issues, so that the 5-minute agent could share her solution with her peers.

New resources included:

  • A regular bulletin of easy fixes was shared with the support team to promote new solutions to difficult problems.
  • An updated knowledge base that allowed the 30-minute agent to access the solution developed by the 5-minute agent.

Yes, all of this took time to put into place. 

That time was quickly paid back because the 30-minute agent now became a 5-minute agent, too. Spread that out over an entire team and hours of time were saved per week.

That left plenty of time to identify, document, and share new solutions.


Put This Into Action

Customer service leaders frequently tell me the number one reason why employees don't go the extra mile is they don't realize how much they're allowed to do!

Here's a practical way to get started:

Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality at the outsourced contact center FCR, told Shep Hyken on Amazing Business Radio that he regularly asks employees for the top customers requests they have to say "No" to.

He then works with the team to find ways for them to say "Yes." There are many ways this can be done:

  • Sharing alternative solutions
  • Clarifying existing authoring
  • Providing new authority, procedures, or resources

Another easy way to put this into action is to establish clear red lines. These are absolute limits for empowerment.

For example, The Ritz-Carlton is famous for empowering every associate to spend up to $2,000 to help a guest. That doesn't mean they automatically spend $2,000! It simply means $2,000 is the red line that can't be crossed.

The key to making this work is for managers to regularly discuss empowerment actions with employees. Employees should never get in trouble for staying under the red line. What managers can do, however, is have a collaborative discussion about the best ways to handle similar situations in the future. 

You can learn more from this empowerment guide.

Do you have a customer service question I can answer? Contact me and I'll do my best to help!

How Zendesk is Making Customer Service Simple

I was lucky to score an invite to Zendesk's Relate Live user conference in New York last month.

This was my first software user conference, though I was assured by conference leader Sarah Stealey Reed that this wasn't an ordinary experience. The event focused on relationships first, software second.

Zendesk's President of Products, Adrian McDermott, made this crystal clear when he described the convoluted process for adding a security certificate to a website.

"This only works for two technical people having a nerdgasm."

The Zendesk approach is to take something that may be a 22-step process and simplify it down to the push of a button.

McDermott explained that the typical Zendesk customer is a Director of Customer Support. That customer is trying to help her customers, not spend time grappling with technology.

"Our challenge as builders is helping her get that job done," said McDermott.

I've seen this first hand, since many of my clients use Zendesk's customer service software. For instance, legal practice management software provider Clio used Zendesk's built-in survey feature to increase survey responses by 600 percent in just two months.

Another example is Zendesk's Answer Bot, an automated tool that helps customers find self-service resources and avoid contacting a company for support. The major benefit is this frees up agents to focus on helping customers who really need a human.

Omnichannel is another opportunity to make service simple.

Many companies manage various customer service channels such as email, chat, and phone in different silos. If you contact a company via one channel such as email, you'll have to tell your story all over again if you move to another channel such as chat.

Zendesk is putting the customer at the center of all those interactions so it becomes a seamless experience from both the customer and support agent's point of view. This removes a barrier to having a human-to-human conversation.

Mikkel Svane, Zendesk's co-founder and CEO, described the need to keep things simple in his opening remarks.


Svane acknowledged it is sometimes difficult to keep things simple as the Zendesk platform grows and more features are added. For instance, people could signup for Zendesk and configure the software on their own when it was first launched.

Now, laments Svane, we need customers to call us because it's become more complicated.

That's where Zendesk's customer service vision comes into play.

The emphasis is on people and relationships when you contact Zendesk for support. The idea is to connect Zendesk users with a helpful, empathetic support representative who can understand the customer's needs and help them achieve their goals.

The company's elite service culture is why I profiled Zendesk in The Service Culture Handbook, where you can read about how Zendesk developed its vision in Chapter 12.

The Customer Service Bot That Can Save Humanity 

Robots can be scary.

They sometimes feels like a barrier to real customer service. Such as when you find yourself yelling "Human! Human! Human!" into the phone, only to hear an annoyingly pleasant robotic voice respond, "I'm sorry, I don't understand."

Other times, automation can create service failures. A bot once tried to send me to the wrong airport when it re-routed me after a weather delay. Another bot hilariously joined a Tweet chat and quickly became confused.

Of course, some automation is inevitable. We use the Starbucks app to skip the ordering line. A self-service portal allows us to troubleshoot our devices without calling support. Automation even sent this blog post to you if you subscribe via email.

Will automation eliminate people? 

I recently attended Zendesk's user conference, Relate Live, where I learned about one bot that's actually helping people be more human.


The Zendesk Answer Bot

Customers often prefer self-service.

This is especially true for easier issues, such as resetting a password. A challenge occurs when customers can't get the answer they want via self-service so they grudgingly contact the company for live support.

Zendesk's Answer Bot tries to save customers from that extra step. We can see how it works with this example from MailChimp, a marketing automation service that uses Zendesk to power its customer support.

Let's say I want to use MailChimp to automatically send new Inside Customer Service blog posts to email subscribers. I search the MailChimp support site but can't figure out how to do it, so I decide to send an email.

Once I hit send, Answer Bot jumps in and scans my email. It helpfully suggests a couple of articles based on what I wrote:

Ah ha! The second article is exactly what I'm looking for.

Now I can cancel that support ticket. No need to wait for a live person since Answer Bot already solved my problem. I can just click on the article and walk through the how-to steps. 

So how does Answer Bot help humans be more human?


Restoring Humanity

It was a presentation by Brian Crumpley from Dollar Shave Club at Relate Live that helped me see Answer Bot's true potential. 

Crumpley shared an analysis of Dollar Shave Club email interactions. His data revealed that 40 percent could have been handled via self-service. Even worse, these interactions cost a little more and satisfied customers a little less than transactions that truly needed the human touch.

The company wants its agents to have great, personalized interactions with members. It's tough to do that with more transactional issues. The customer generally wants a quick answer and to be on their way. 

High volumes also make personalization difficult. If there's no budget to add extra staff, agents find themselves racing through contacts just to keep up.

Enter Answer Bot.

Dollar Shave Club implemented Answer Bot to help deflect some of those self-serviceable contacts. After six months, Answer Bot was handling nearly 5,000 contacts per month that would otherwise have gone to an agent.

Those contact deflections gave Dollar Shave Club some extra capacity without adding staff. Here's how Crumpley was able to use it:

  • Expanded live chat availability
  • Created a knowledge base task force to further improve self-service
  • Debuted a Customer Insights magazine

Best of all, agents now had bandwidth to provide a bit more human service to customers who really needed it.


What's Next?

Forrester predicts that robots and artificial intelligence (AI), collectively referred to as "bots," will replace 7 percent of US jobs by 2025.

I'm hoping for a different trend.

History tells us the proliferation of automated teller machines actually led to an increase in bank tellers. The teller role just became more sophisticated since they were called upon to handle fewer simple transactions. 

I noted this is a 2016 post:

  • Robots = good at simple transactions
  • Humans = good at complicated transactions

Other customer service roles can follow a similar path. This should free up humans to be more human when customers really need it.