Do you have a customer service canary?


Coal miners used to depend on canaries as an early warning system for poisonous gases such as carbon dioxide. Miners knew they’d better get out quickly if the canary became sick or died. 

Companies that provide outstanding service have their own version of the coal mine canary. They use early-warning systems to detect and solve small problems before they become big ones.

Credit card companies provide a familiar example. They employ complicated algorithms to detect fraudulent charges. I recently got a call from my credit card company asking me to confirm a suspicious transaction. It wasn’t one that I recognized, so they immediately cancelled the card and sent a new one overnight. 

This was a tiny hassle, but nothing compared to the expense and annoyance that would have resulted if a credit card thief had run amok.

In his book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, Micah Solomon calls this “anticipatory customer service.” Here are some of the major benefits of anticipating problems and solving them before customers notice:

  • Improve customer loyalty by saving them time
  • Avoid the negative word of mouth that comes with repeated service failures
  • Save money proactively fixing small problems instead of reacting to large ones


Customer service canary examples

Call Monitoring. Call centers can use call data to spot trends. For example, a software company shares recorded calls with its development team so they know what types of questions customers are asking about new product releases. This allows the software team to quickly identify and fix bugs.

Seed Lists. Many direct marketers maintain a list of recipients who can provide feedback on the timeliness and condition of deliveries. This list, called a seed list, can help spot problems in mailings. Netflix takes this a step further by periodically sending customers a quick email survey to ask when a particular video was received or sent.

Google Alerts. Automated services like Google Alerts can help you monitor online mentions of your brand, a particular product, or even trends that may affect your organization. I recently learned about a nice review of my book, Service Failure, from Portland Book Review thanks to Google Alerts. 

Here’s a customer service canary for personal use. I keep a list of anything that I’m waiting for, whether it’s a return call from a client, a package from a vendor, or an email from a colleague to confirm a meeting. I review this list once a day for anything that is overdue so I can follow-up quickly before the delay becomes too much of a problem.


Unlike coal miners, don’t run away

It’s hard to imagine coal miners ignoring the ominous sign of a dead canary and continuing their work. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many companies do when it comes to customer service. The warning signs are there, but they get ignored.

When the alarm sounds, you have to do something.

My friend Jason Marcus works at Main Street Hub, a company that helps local businesses manage social media. He recommends actively engaging customers who send out early warning signals by complaining online.

“Through monitoring you can gain a better understanding of your brand perception, and also get great feedback about what you're doing well and what you could be doing better. However, managing online reputation doesn't stop at monitoring. The best companies engage with reviewers.”

Marcus told me about one of his clients, a hotel that received a three-star review on Yelp. The guest felt the hotel was great overall but her room was too noisy. The hotel manager replied to the review by thanking the guest for her feedback and explained that they’d be happy to put her in a quieter room on her next visit. 

Here was her reply:

“I wish every hotel manager was as professional and courteous as you were to me just now. It's what will bring us back :-)"

The guest also upgraded her review to four stars!

Engaging the guest on Yelp helped the hotel beyond earning a higher rating. The guest’s feedback represents valuable information that can be used to prevent more unhappy guests and avoid low Yelp reviews in the future.

Here are just a few ways the hotel might prevent future noise complaints:

  • Market the hotel as having a lively atmosphere (a.k.a. noisy)
  • Ask guests about their room preferences at time of reservation or check-in
  • Provide ear plugs in some of the noisier rooms along with a card that says:
“Our local nightlife can be quite vibrant, so we’ve provided these ear plugs for your comfort. Please inform the front desk if there’s anything else we can do to make your stay more enjoyable.”


Finding your own customer service canaries

Here are my suggestions for finding your own customer service canaries:

  1. Identify your most critical customer interactions.
  2. Ask yourself, “What could go wrong?”
  3. Put a canary in place to signal any problems.

For example, I recently upgraded my website. The transition was generally smooth but I did experience a few problems connecting my new website with Feedburner. (Feedburner is the service I use to broadcast my blog via RSS, Twitter, and email.) 

Broadcasting my blog is critical so obviously it would be a problem if my blog didn’t get sent to subscribers. That’s why I set myself up as a subscriber too so I would know if the blog came through (my canary). When Murphy’s Law kicked in and my first blog post on the new website didn’t get broadcast, I quickly realized it and was able to correct the problem.

I’m still working out a few bugs with the new website, but at least I have my canaries to let me know where they are!

Note: No canaries were harmed while writing this blog post.