Lessons From the Overlook: Interview with Dr. Fred van Bennekom

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

You can get a false sense of security when things are going well.

Sally and I have owned The Overlook for a little over a year now. Revenue is up, guests are happy, and we feel like we've gotten a handle on operations. 

That's dangerous.

Right when you think you know it all, something happens to remind you that you don't. For us, it was a group of guests in December who did some minor damage and stole a few items including a bluetooth speaker from the game room.

The damage has been fixed and the game room has a new speaker, but I still used the opportunity to seek some advice.

I called Dr. Fred van Bennekom, a customer service expert whose company, Great Brook Consulting, helps companies listen to their customers.

Van Bennekom recently sold a vacation rental property in Harpswell, Maine that he had owned for more than ten years. (You can see photos and a short video tour here.) He had plenty of lessons to share.

Before the theft.

Before the theft.

After the theft. Why was the picture off the wall?!

After the theft. Why was the picture off the wall?!

Interview with Dr. Fred van Bennekom

Q: How have customer expectations changed since you first bought your property?

"Customer expectations have changed dramatically in the past ten years. Ten years ago, house rentals were a cottage industry. People did it, but it wasn't widely known.

"If there were some rough edges in the property or the furnishings, people were okay with it. I think it reinforced the idea they were getting a bargain.

"Today, HomeAway has TV ads of a family renting this gorgeous house on the ocean with an in-ground pool so they can bring their dog on vacation. How many of the homes in HomeAway's inventory actually look like the house in the ad? Probably very few, but that ad creates a certain expectation.

"People today are less tolerant of rough edges. Even kitschy furniture that used to be a plus can now be viewed as a negative. People expect to rent a 3-bedroom house on the ocean at about the same price as a hotel room—but have the amenities and services of a hotel."


Q: Have you seen a shift in guest demographics?

"In later years, I started to have more guests who didn't really understand how renting a house is different than renting a hotel room.

"For example, we provide a set of linens and towels for each guest plus a few extra towels. In a hotel, the housekeeper will come each day and change your towels or you can call the front desk and ask for more.

"It's different in a rental house. You need to wash your own towels if they get dirty and we do have a washer and dryer. 

"I got a call one Tuesday night after 10pm. My guests had checked in over the weekend and now wanted to wash the towels but they were complaining that the washing machine was not working. 

"The washing machine worked just fine, but they didn't know how to turn on the water shut off valve. I think they rented an apartment and weren't familiar with how things work in a house.

"I put instructions for things like this in the house guide and even email a copy to guests at booking, but they don't always read it. By the way, two days later this guest called because the dishwasher wasn’t working. The kitchen is directly over the washer, and he had apparently turned off the hot water valve to the kitchen sink when trying to get the washer working and didn’t turn it back on."


Q: Did you do anything different over the years as guest expectations changed?

"When I first bought the house, it was not customary to provide guests with consumables such as paper towels, toilet paper, and dish soap.

"The next year, I went on a trip to Ireland with my family where we rented a house. The very first thing we had to do was go out and buy consumables; there were none in the house. I realized this was a hassle for guests so I decided to provide all the basic consumables at my rental property. You can buy these pretty cheaply in bulk at Costco. 

"That year, the Costco-size supply of toilet paper was left in plain view and someone took it all! People would also throw smaller bottles of laundry detergent into their car. After that, I started providing “starter supplies” of consumables. I put two rolls of toilet paper in each bathroom, and I bought a really big laundry bottle and kept refilling it."


Q: Speaking of taking things, what was your experience with theft and damage?

"The first year we had the place we outfitted it with cute little knickknacks, but we quickly realized things get lost, damaged, or stolen—not sure which. My wife and I played a game called, “What ever happened to the…?” You shouldn't put anything in your vacation rental that you really don't want to lose.

"The one I really remember was my Maine Gazetter—a large, detailed atlas of the state. I’d owned it for decades and had my own notations on the map, so I was really disappointed to lose it."

"One summer, someone once forgot to lower the umbrella on the deck table. There was a major windstorm and the whole table blew off the deck! I put a picture of that on the front cover of the house guide as if to say, 'this is why you need to know this information.'

"An off-season renter got into some sort of fight with her boyfriend and he broke four of the rugged dining chairs and damaged several walls. She tried to glue the legs back on one of the chairs but it completely fell apart. 

"I also found coins and sand in the dryer, as if someone had gotten their pants wet and then just tossed them in the dryer without cleaning them off or emptying the pockets. The dryer’s bushings died a few months later, no doubt from the sand.

"Those experiences reinforced the practice of communicating with guests and having your property manager inspect the place so you can charge the guest out of their security deposit when there is damage or theft."


Q: What was the toughest part about owning a vacation rental property?

"The stress of having to deal with crisis situations when you don't have resolutions and knowing at any time the phone might ring with some new crisis.

"I once got a call on Monday that there was no water at the house. I live 2.5 hours away, so I had to work with my property manager to diagnose the problem. We had guests arriving that Thursday for their kid’s college graduation, so I had to reach out and tell them I wasn't sure whether there would be running water when they arrived.

"It turned out that the well pump had died. Fortunately, I was able to get it fixed in 24 hours, but the work pales in comparison to the stress."


Q: What did you like best about owning a vacation rental property?

"I actually enjoyed interacting with renters during the sales process. It was nice having conversations with people about the local area and helping them make plans.

"Maybe only one out of ten guests was a major headache. The rest were really enjoyable. But, boy, those ‘ones’ wear on you after a few years. That’s why we sold."

Insider Perspectives: Evan Watson on Using Improv

Evan Watson, Improv Actor & Customer Service Professional

Evan Watson, Improv Actor & Customer Service Professional

Improvisational theater, or improv, is unscripted.

Actors are typically given a suggestion for a scene and they must make up their lines on the spot. The best improv actors seem to effortlessly generate interesting dialogue with instantaneous creativity.

Just like in customer service.

Many of the principles are the same. Your aim is harmony rather than disagreement. You have to risk feeling uncomfortable at times. And you need to work as a team with your fellow actors (or your customer) to create a successful scene.

Evan Watson is an avid improv actor. When he was working as a customer service agent for a large professional membership organization, Watson noticed he was using many of his improv skills to serve customers. Whether it was de-escalating an upset customer, providing product information, or just being a better listener, his improv training helped keep the conversation going.

Watson was able to convince his management team to try an experiment where he could teach improv skills to other employees. 

He was kind enough to spend some time with me sharing his experience along with a few tips for implementing improv training with your customer service team. You can also find him sharing customer service insight on Twitter.

Q: What do improv and customer service have in common?

"Improv is any kind of unscripted theater. There's usually a suggestion for a scene and the actors spontaneously create their lines based upon that suggestion. For instance, someone might say 'You're on a spaceship' and suddenly you're doing a scene about being in space.

"In customer service, I use a lot of improv skills. I don’t know what the other person is going to say next, or what they’re calling about when the call comes in. My improv training gave me confidence in the uncertainty. I sometimes treat the interaction with the customer as a scene and I'm playing a character in that scene. The scene just happens to be a customer service interaction. 

"It's helped me to not take it personally when a customer is upset. I can distance myself a little by imagining the customer's character is yelling at my character and it's up to my character to smooth things over."


Q: What's an example of an improv skill you use when serving a customer?

"One technique is called 'Yes, and.' The idea is to acknowledge what the other person is saying and then build on that.

"In improv, one actor might say 'We're on a spaceship!' and the other actor might say, 'Yes, and this spaceship is really cold!' This type of dialogue allows the actors to work as a team to build a scene rather than competing with each other.

"In customer service, you have to acknowledge the customer’s experience and needs. A customer might say, 'This product is really expensive!' and I could say, 'Yes, I understand your concern about the cost, and I’m going to help you get the most for your money.'

"The key is to make the distinction between acknowledging what the customer is saying and bending the rules. Notice I'm not saying, 'Yes, it is too expensive, and I'll give you 50 percent off today.' I'm just using the principle of agreement to be a better listener and try to help the customer."


Q: How did you introduce improv to your contact center?

"I had an opportunity to help train a class of new hires, so I thought it would be a good time to suggest to my management team that I take a couple of hours in the training to teach improv skills to our new agents.

"I was a finalist for ICMI's Best Contact Center Agent Award in 2015. Once I explained that improv skills contributed to my success, my management team was onboard with me trying out an experiment.

"There was another new hire class held at the same time, so I got a chance to compare the results of my class with the other one. Initially, we saw the new hires with improv training take less time to meet our minimum performance targets than the other class. Over time, we've also seen much better employee retention from the new hires who learned improv skills."


Q: How did you incorporate improv into training?

The exercises we incorporate into training are very different from what you might see performed in a comedy show. Each exercise is designed to isolate and develop a fundamental skill, like listening or focusing on your scene partner.

"We'd start by reminding participants that they are a character. This is not you. We want them to get out of their own head a little and concentrate on what their character might say. The first games are for the whole group to warm up and focus, so no one is thrown into the spotlight alone. Then we build up to games where you’re making up more dialogue, and always connect it back to the relevant skills for the job.

"So if I'm teaching the 'Yes, and' technique, I might have them do a few scenes that aren't related to work. We'll have them be in a zoo or at a theme park, or wherever.

"Then, as they become more comfortable with the skill, we'll move to a job-related scene. This might be a role-play around a particular issue that they could actually encounter when serving a customer."


Q: What advice do you have to customer service leaders who want to use improv?

"The best thing you can do is to see if there’s a local improv theater in your area that will come and do workshops. Get somebody with an improv background to come in and help you. It's much easier when you can start off working with someone who knows the skills, and you will get more out of the workshop than a fun time shouting random funny things.

"There are also a lot of resources online for improv games and other training resources.

"It becomes a way of thinking. The more you do improv, the more connections you'll see between customer service and improv."

Insider Perspectives: Brent Abshire on Disaster Planning

Brent Abshire, Earthcare Management

Brent Abshire, Earthcare Management

Is your business ready for a disaster?

A disaster has the potential to have an extreme negative impact on your customers, your employees, and the future of your business.

You might experience a technical disaster, such as the computer malfunctions that have caused several airlines to ground their flights. It could be a PR disaster, such as the one many companies have recently faced when they got caught in a political crossfire.

Or your business could experience a natural disaster, such as the flood that submerged parts of Houston, Texas in April 2016.

Earthcare Management, a full-service landscape management company, suffered millions of dollars in damage when its office and equipment yard flooded.

I spoke with Brent Abshire, Earthcare Management's President and Owner, to hear how he and his team handled the disaster, avoided layoffs, and came back stronger than ever.

Q: When did you first learn your business had been flooded?

"It started raining pretty heavily on Sunday, but it wasn't until Monday when the flooding happened. I woke up Monday morning, turned on the local news and saw an aerial view of my shop from the station's helicopter!

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

"I could tell the shop was flooded from the picture on television, but I didn't know how bad it was going to be."


Q: What did you do once you learned about the flooding?

"There was flooding in the streets around the neighborhood where I live, so I was stuck at home on Monday and couldn't get in to the office.

"I knew it was probably going to be pretty bad, though, so I immediately started making calls and hunting down replacement vehicles and equipment. I called the John Deere guy and ordered about 100 machines [lawnmowers, etc.]. I called my truck guy and rented 65 trucks. I ordered about 1,000 tons of gravel rock to put down in our equipment yard because I knew that was going to be a mess too.

"I was able to meet with my management team on Tuesday by mid-day. The shop was still flooded, so they came over to my house and we made a plan to assess the damage, clean everything up, and get back up and running.

"We were able to get to the shop by Wednesday. We had to wade in the last 1/4 mile because there was still water.

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

"My insurance agent came out to help assess the damage. The office itself was a total loss, but we started cleaning up and salvaging whatever equipment, trailers, and tools that we could.

"I had the whole family help. Friends came and helped us too."


Q: How did the flooding impact your clients?

"When I met with my management team on Tuesday after the flood, we targeted the following Monday to get back to our normal operations.

"Many of our landscape management clients experienced the same flooding we did, so their properties had a lot of debris. We called them and said, 'We can't mow, but we can pick up trash and help you get cleaned up.' They were happy to hear from us.

"By Thursday, we got about 25 rented trucks in, so we were able to start sending out crews to our client sites to help them get cleaned up. We kept at it through Sunday while other employees stayed at the shop pulling equipment out, putting new rock in the yard, and cleaning up tools.

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

Photo courtesy of Brent Abshire

"We were able to resume our normal schedules by the next Monday."


Q: Disasters like this can have a big impact on employees who risk losing their jobs when there's no work. What happened to your employees?

"Nobody lost their job. We actually grew as a result of the flood.

"My employees are really committed. It was a team effort throughout the whole process. I think they thought, 'If the flood didn't stop this guy, we'll do anything!' I know many of our employees had friends or family members who lost jobs because the place where they worked flooded too, so it probably made an impact that we got people working so quickly.

"We're also contractually obligated to serve our clients, so it was very important that we keep our deals."


Q: Were you able to learn anything from this experience to help you prepare for another disaster in the future?

"We did some research and learned that once rainfall reaches 8 inches, we should start evacuating the equipment yard. The office is pretty seamless since we have offsite backups for the computers. What really hurts is losing our equipment because that's what we take out every day to make money. 

"A couple of weeks ago, we did a small-scale simulation where we practiced a procedure for moving vehicles and equipment out of the yard. It went well, so now we're going to run a large-scale simulation.

"The plan is to practice our disaster plan one or two times per year and never stop practicing, so everyone will know what to do if this happens again."

Insider Perspectives: Ideal's Don Teemsma on Field Service

Don Teemsma, President of Ideal Plumbing, Heating, Air, & Electrical

Don Teemsma, President of Ideal Plumbing, Heating, Air, & Electrical

Every home owner needs a few go-to service providers.

One of mine is Ideal Plumbing, Heating, Air, & Electrical. This company is my first and only phone call anytime I need a plumber, HVAC technician, or electrician. 

Ideal has remodeled two bathrooms in my house, installed a new heating and air conditioning system, installed a new hot water heater, fixed a slab leak, installed a new electrical panel, and made numerous smaller repairs over the years.

Yes, I'm a huge fan.

The work is first-rate, the prices are reasonable, and Ideal's technicians are consistently friendly, helpful, and reliable. The company consistently earns top customer service honors from companies such as Houzz and Angie's List.

If you live in San Diego, you should have this company on speed-dial!

There's one aspect of Ideal's service that particularly fascinates me. How does the company get its field service technicians to consistently arrive on time, do great work, and provide great service?

I sat down with Don Teemsma, Ideal's President and Owner, to ask him how his company sustains a customer-focused culture with its field service technicians.

Q: Ideal offers two-hour appointment windows and your technicians are always on-time or even early. How do you manage this while other service companies struggle to maintain a four-hour appointment window?

"We've tried four-hour appointment windows, but people really don't like that, so we've made a commitment to stick with a two-hour window.

"It starts with our dispatch team. We keep track of all our appointments and technicians via computer and a dispatch board. It's the service manager's job to make sure we're on schedule.

"We're constantly moving the board around to make sure we can fulfill that two-hour commitment. If we see a service call is taking longer than expected, the service manager can proactively call the next customer to let them know there will be a delay or find another qualified technician to move the call to.

"Our service area is also an important factor. We really try to keep our service area tight and not overcommit. That's why we generally don't serve cities in [San Diego's] North County like San Marcos or Escondido. There are too many unknowns like traffic conditions that would make it difficult to keep our appointments and provide a rapid response.

"Maintaining the right parts and supplies on our trucks is also important. We try to keep our trucks fully-stocked so they can handle 80 percent of service calls with the parts on the truck."


Q: There's a stereotype of a typical repair technician who is pushy and will try to suggest a lot of expensive repairs. How does Ideal avoid that?

"A lot of field service technicians work on commission. This pay structure means it's in their best interest to try to sell additional repairs and services to their customers.

"We don't want to create that incentive because our business is built on relationships. We'd rather earn a customer's repeat business or get new business through referrals from customers who trust us.

"Our technicians don't work on commission. They tend to prefer it that way. They're in this business because they like to fix stuff and make people happy.

"Many of our technicians will refer to a customer as 'my customer,' because they take a lot of ownership and personal pride in helping the people they serve."


Q: What else do you do to ensure your technicians are customer-focused?

"It starts with hiring the right people. 

"We look for integrity in our hiring process. If we don't feel someone has an innate honesty about them, we won't hire them.

"Our interview process includes a few assessments but we also put candidates through three interviews to see if they will fit our culture. For example, one of the things I ask candidates about is whether they perform any service in their community. Are they involved in their church or do they volunteer for a nonprofit organization? People who give back to their community in some way are more likely to be successful in our culture.

"One of the things we do around here is encourage people to constantly improve. If you're not the best at a particular skill, keep working on getting better. Our culture is not to be perfect, but to perfect.

"We really strive to inspire technical excellence. Having good skills allows you to perform better work, get jobs done faster, and solve challenging problems. 

"Over the years we've hired a lot of technicians with good skills who have been nurtured by their coworkers until they've gotten really good at their trade.

"We also have an Ideal Mascot: Mr. Bill. He truly embodies our culture and is a great ambassador for showing care towards our customers."

[Editor's note: Bill has worked the front counter in Ideal's showroom for over 17 years and is a wizard at locating hard-to-find parts. His friendly and helpful service was one of the reasons I personally became an Ideal customer. He helped me track down a part for a leaking toilet tank that I couldn't find at any of the big-box hardware stores.]


Q: Ideal's managed to maintain a reputation for outstanding service for many years. How do you keep everyone continuously focused?

"We talk about service a lot. We have company-wide meetings four to six times per year. All of our technicians attend a smaller meeting every other week where we talk about customer service, share customer feedback, and discuss opportunities to improve.

"We're also fortunate that most of our customers are repeat customers or they came to us because they were referred by a customer. These customers tend to be understanding that things can and will go wrong occasionally because we've had a great relationship with them and they trust us to do a good job.

"Many of our technicians have worked here for a long time. They like working for a company with a great reputation and they like the culture, so they work hard to help us continuously deliver great service."

Insider Perspectives: FCR's Jeremy Watkin on Outsourced Service

Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality

Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality

Outsourcing your company's customer service is a leap of faith.

Companies like Oregon-based outsourcer FCR can be hired to handle a wide range of customer contacts including phone, email, chat, SMS (Text), and social media. It's often faster and less expensive for small companies and start-ups to use a third-party like FCR than it is to set-up an internal customer service team, but there needs to be a lot of trust.

Will the outsourcer take great care of your customers and do a good job representing your brand?

Jeremy Watkin, FCR's Head of Quality, recently shared with me some of his secrets to outsourcing success. Watkin is the co-author of the Customer Service Life blog and was named one of ICMI's Top 50 Thought Leaders on Twitter. (If you are on Twitter, do yourself a favor and follow him!)

This is the second time I've interviewed Jeremy for the Inside Customer Service blog. We spoke back in 2015 about the impact of team size on corporate culture.

Q: Many people perceive outsourced customer service as inferior. How is FCR trying to change that perception?

"There may be a stigma around outsourcing where the perception is you're hiring second rate folks, but that's really not the case for us. 

"FCR's contact centers are located in small communities in Oregon where there's often high unemployment because other industries like lumber and fishing have declined. These employees tend to be smart, well-educated, and very dedicated.

"We offer our colleagues [FCR's term for "employee" or "agent"] good, well-paying jobs with opportunities for career growth, and the chance to support well-known brands. It's exciting for many of our colleagues to know they get a chance to provide technical support for a cool start-up. It's really interesting to see how colleagues take a lot of pride in the clients they support."


Q: Do your colleagues support multiple clients or are they dedicated to one account?

"FCR used to have a shared model where colleagues would support multiple clients, but we've moved away from that. We've found that we can provide better service by having colleagues totally dedicated to one particular client.

"One thing that's really cool about our model is we diversify the clients we serve at each of our contact centers. The way it works is we try to balance seasonal needs, so one client might be ramping down after a busy season while another client's busy season is just starting. This allows us to keep more colleagues employed throughout the year while reacting quickly to our clients' seasonal needs."


Q: How do you adapt to the unique service cultures of each client you serve?

"Having colleagues dedicated to a single client helps a lot.

"Another thing that I see that really helps us is FCR is very transparent with our clients. We invite them to visit our contact centers and spend as much or as little time with their team as they want.

"It actually works best when colleagues strongly identify with both FCR and the client they're serving. You'll see colleagues with client swag at their workstations and it's obvious they take a lot of pride in supporting that brand. 

"Many of our clients will also bring in their own trainers when we launch with them to help our colleagues get immersed in their culture. This helps us get to know their service philosophy and adopt their brand voice and style guide if they have one."


Q: How do you keep your colleagues engaged with your clients?

"I have a unique perspective because I came from an FCR client to work here. 

"When I was an FCR client, I realized that using an outsourced model meant someone else was managing people who do support for my company. So one thing that we started doing that's really unique for outsourcers was an employee engagement survey. We actually surveyed the FCR colleagues who were supporting us to see what we could do better.

"A lot of our clients now do that.

"Many of our clients act on feedback from our colleagues to improve their products, processes, or services, and take time to empower our colleagues to serve their customers at the highest level. That helps people feel even more connected.

"I've never had an agent or a colleague refuse to talk when I ask about the pain points they're experiencing. We like to run focus groups with our colleagues when a client does a site visit so our clients can hear first-hand what colleagues are hearing from customers. This might help confirm what our client is already seeing in their customer service surveys or reveal a brand new insight. Our colleagues really appreciate being heard like that."


Q: A lot of outsourcing relationships are based on cost savings, but FCR is known for providing clients with extra value. How do you do that?

"I spend a lot of time talking to clients and looking for ways to improve not only our service, but the client's overall business.

"For example, I might identify a best practice that one of our client teams is using and share that with our other programs. One of our teams had someone who was a wizard when it comes to generating reports in Zendesk [a customer service software platform]. About half of our clients use Zendesk, so we were able to share those insights with all those other teams.

"Another area where we try to add value is through customer service surveys. We try to marry our quality monitoring process with our clients' surveys so we identify what's driving satisfaction or dissatisfaction and share that insight with our clients. We're also able to share a lot of best practices we learn with all of our clients, so when we work with one client to solve an issue, all of our clients can benefit."

Insider Perspectives: Fonolo's Shai Berger on Skipping the Queue

Shai Berger, CEO, Fonolo

Shai Berger, CEO, Fonolo

Waiting on hold is a terrible customer experience.

You dial a customer service phone number, slog through an endless menu of options, and then wait for what seems like forever. All the while listening to hyperactive marketing messages or sleep-inducing music.

No wonder research from Mattersight reveals that 66 percent of customers are frustrated before they even start talking to a customer service representative!

One solution is to provide your customers with a callback option. This allows customers to receive a callback when an agent is ready, freeing up the customer to do other things in the meantime.

I recently spoke with Shai Berger, CEO and co-founder of Fonolo, a leading callback solution provider. He regularly shares practical advice on the Fonolo blog and on Twitter, so I wanted to get his perspective on how companies can make the case for investing in customer-centric technology like callbacks.

Q: How did Fonolo get started?

"My co-founders and I aren't from the call center industry. We started Fonolo by approaching a problem from a consumer perspective. We couldn't understand why call centers were still putting people on hold.

"This was in 2008. Callback solutions had been around for a long time, but the way they were packaged made it difficult for a lot of contact centers to implement. We were able to make it easier for call centers to implement callbacks by offering a cloud-based solution."


Q: Why would a contact center consider offering a callback option?

"Customers don't like being on hold, but its not always preventable. 

"If you really don't want your customers waiting on hold, you can just hire more agents. The problem with that approach is it might be cost-prohibitive. There's a hard cost associated with adding more agents. It's much harder to tie wait times to hard costs.

"If a company is severely understaffed then you really do need to hire more agents. Callbacks can help when your call center is at or near capacity or you get spikes in demand when you're suddenly very busy.

"Demand spikes tend to have a cascading effect. Hold times stretch longer, so you have to juggle around your agent lunch and break schedules, which means there might be fewer agents available later in the day when you need them. It sometimes feels like you can never catch up.

"Callbacks can help smooth out these demand curves so your agents are handling calls at a more predictable rate."


Q: How do callbacks improve the customer experience?

"There are a number of factors that influence a customer's perception of wait time. We call it 'dentist chair time,' where an unpleasant experience feels much longer than it really is. (Side note: here's a list of factors that influence wait time perception.)

"These factors work in other areas of customer service, too, such as a physical store where you see people standing around while customers are waiting in line. It makes customers feel like they're being ignored, which makes us more angry about waiting.

"Offering a callback option often means the customer spends the same amount of time waiting to speak to an agent, but that time is spent differently. The customer doesn't have to wait on hold, so the time seems to go faster. We feel better as customers because it seems like the company is being more gracious and our time is being respected."


Q: From an operational perspective, how do contact centers integrate callbacks into their phone queue?

"There are really two questions that contact centers need to address.

"The first is when is the callback going to happen? One approach is to use an algorithm to predict when an agent will be available based on historical call data. The problem with this approach is you must have a very predictable call volume or else a customer will receive their callback before an agent is ready or there will be agents available while the customer is still waiting for a callback.

"The other way to time the callback is to hold the customer's place in the queue. This way the callback happens when the customer gets to the front of the queue, which is our preferred approach at Fonolo.

"The second question contact centers need to address is who goes first, the agent or the customer? 

"If the agent goes first, the customer doesn't get a callback until an agent is available. This is great for the customer because they're immediately connected, but it also creates some idle time for the agent.

"If the customer goes first, you use your agents more efficiently by eliminating idle time, but you risk calling customers back and then immediately putting them on hold. This creates a really frustrating customer experience."


Q: I can see a lot of penny-pinching executives making callback customers wait for an agent to become available so they could reduce idle time. What's the argument against doing that?

"For many companies, it's a cultural issue. If they're customer focused, they don't want a customer to have to wait on hold again when they receive a call back. The culture in these companies is pointing executives in the right direction.

"We're lucky in that our product appeals to both sides of the equation. A cost-conscious contact center can still save money by implementing callbacks the right way.

"For example, callbacks can lower abandon rates, or the percentage of customers who grow tired of waiting and hang up. If a company is selling a product or service, lower abandon rates mean higher sales."


Discussion question: Have you ever used a callback option when calling a contact center? If so, what was the experience like?

Insider Perspectives: SocialPath's Al Hopper on Social Media

Al Hopper, COO & Founder of SocialPath Solutions.

Al Hopper, COO & Founder of SocialPath Solutions.

A recent experience highlighted the evolution of social media customer service.

I was traveling from San Diego to Milwaukee, connecting through Dallas. My American Airlines flight from San Diego to Dallas was cancelled due to weather. 

A long line of customers trying to get re-booked formed in front of the gate agent. Another group of customers pulled out their phones and dialed reservations, hoping to get a live agent without waiting on hold for too long.

I went to Twitter and sent a direct message to @AmericanAir. Fifteen minutes later, I was booked on a later flight to Chicago, which was a good alternative airport for my destination. My trip was back on track with minimal effort.

Meanwhile, a long line of passengers were still waiting to get help.

To learn more about how companies like American Airlines are leveraging social media, I turned to Al Hopper, the COO and co-founder of SocialPath Solutions. His company provides social media engagement and customer care solutions for its client companies.

Hopper was recently named one of ICMI's Top 50 Thought Leaders to Follow on Twitter and is a co-host of Twitter's weekly #custserv chat (Tuesdays, 6pm Pacific). In 2016, Hopper was named one of Conversocial's Top 30 Most Influential People in Social Customer Service.

Q: Outsourced social customer care might be a new concept for some of my readers. Can you tell me a little about SocialPath Solutions and what it does?

"When we were formed in 2014, most companies were using social media agencies to do a lot of marketing push, but not a lot of engaging. SocialPath was created to put the social back into social media.

"A lot of marketing companies don't want to do that. They want to create a campaign, plug it into an automated schedule, and hope it goes viral.

"But there's a real limitation to that approach. One retailer had set up a marketing campaign to tweet special deals on Black Friday. Each tweet contained a link back to the retailer's website, but the website crashed in the middle of the campaign. Customers started tweeting the company to let them know and ask for help, but there was nobody monitoring the Twitter feed so these customers couldn't get a response. Meanwhile, the next automated marketing tweet was sent out, making the company seem like it was deliberately ignoring its customers.

"SocialPath Solutions helps with that engagement piece. Even if you're already working with a marketing agency they're probably not engaging with your customers. Or if they do, it's really limited. We can provide scalable access to 24/7 social customer support."


Q: Social media customer care is a struggle for many companies. What are some of the major roadblocks that you see?

"Scale is a big one. It takes most companies a minimum of $500,000 to staff a social media team 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"Think about a small team with perhaps two agents per shift and a supervisor. What happens if someone calls in sick or wants to take a vacation day? How do you build in time for training or staff development? And how do you ensure there's coverage every day, all day?

"That might be possible for a large or mid-sized company, but a small business has no hope of being fully present on social media because they're already strapped for time. 

"Even if you get the staffing part down, you need to invest in a platform that's robust enough to allow you to engage in active social listening and can generate the appropriate analytics.

"Analytics are key. A lot of business leaders look at customer care as a cost, including social, so you need to be able to get executives to understand that social customer service is really marketing.

"Outsourcers like SocialPath allow companies to minimize their upfront investment by taking advantage of our ability to help you scale. We have a talented team of social media experts and have already invested in robust platforms to manage social customer care effectively."


Q: You mentioned that social customer service is really marketing. Can you give me an example that's different than traditional advertising? 

"Let's say your company is a regional retailer with a network of stores. A loyal customer who has moved out of your region connects with your brand on social media and says, 'I miss you!' Having a social media presence allows you to respond and say, 'We miss you too! Did you know you can shop with us online?' You can share a link and track it to connect that interaction to sales.

"A lot of fast food restaurants have had big wins like that. The most recent example is Wendy's with their 'never frozen' campaign. Organic engagement just happened, the news caught wind of it, and then suddenly it went viral. (Side note: Adweek put together this great recap.)"


Q: How should a customer service leader get started if they want to engage customers on social media?

"The first thing you've got to have is a plan. What are the potential types of contacts that are going to come up? You can use previous contacts from other channels (phone, email, etc.) as a guidepost to help with your planning.

"Next, you need to think about how you are going to respond. (Side note: develop your brand voice using this excellent guide from Stephanie Schwab at Crackerjack Marketing.)

"You should also consider what sorts of messages you aren't going to respond to. Someone might complain that your website isn't loading properly, but in reality they just need to clear their cache, restart their browser, and everything will be working fine. But if 100 people complain about your website, you'd better have a way to respond internally and externally."


Q: What else do you want business leaders to know about social media customer service?

"People are going to be talking about you whether your brand is present on social media or not. So you're never controlling the conversation, you can only contribute to it.

"Executives sometimes worry about a service failure going viral on social media, but if you think about it, all customer service channels now have that potential. 

"In the last few years, people have posted recordings of bad phone calls, shared videos of in-person experiences, or posted emails or chat sessions. Those used to be exclusively one-on-one interactions, but now they're easy to share.

"Another concern we hear a lot as an outsourcer is business leaders are leery about entrusting their social media to another company. But it's really okay to outsource social media if it's done right. You just want to make sure you find a provider that takes the time to become a true partner with your business.

"This is the same consideration for outsourcing any aspect of your customer service, whether its having another company answer your phone calls or hiring a delivery company to deliver orders to your customers. Anyone that connects with your customers should be invested in providing a great experience, no matter what channel it is."

Insider Perspectives: UL's Nate Brown on Implementing a Vision

Nate Brown, Director of Customer Experience

Nate Brown, Director of Customer Experience

A customer service vision is essential to customer focus.

If you've not heard this term before, a customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that points everyone in the same direction. You can read this backgrounder for more information.

Implementing a customer service vision can be tricky.

Employees may struggle to relate to it, remember it, or incorporate it into their daily activities. Leaders don't always realize the thoughtfulness that goes into creating a great vision or the effort and commitment required to make it stick.

Nate Brown is facing this challenge head-on, and is making great progress.

He's the Director of Customer Experience at UL EHS Sustainability, a company that provides software to help organizations manage environmental health and safety in the workplace. Brown also writes the excellent Customer Centric Support blog and is one of ICMI's Top 50 Thought Leaders to Follow on Twitter.

Brown shared some of his insights and lessons-learned with me.

Q: Why did you decide to create a customer service vision for your team?

"I attended your workshop on getting agents obsessed with service at ICMI's Contact Center Expo conference in Long Beach last May (2016). You talked about the importance of creating a customer service vision, and it sounded like exactly what we needed.

"I had thought a lot about making my team's day-to-day work in the contact center relevant to the company's mission. UL EHS Sustainability is a division of the safety science company UL. The mission statement is Working for a safer world, which makes sense because we're a global safety science company that provides a wide range of services such as consumer product testing and helping manufacturers build safer products.

"UL EHS Sustainability provides software to help employers create healthier, safer and more sustainable workplaces and my team provides technical support, so my team was initially focused on the technical aspect of their jobs. We needed a way to connect our work to the mission."


Q: What did you come up with?

"Our customer service vision is Supporting our customers and each other in a manner that is effortless, accurate, and friendly. 

"The thinking is if we can do these things, our customers will be able to use our software better which ultimately contributes to UL's mission.”


Q: How did you develop the customer service vision statement?

"I initially thought about what I'm trying to drive through our quality management program. Those three words, effortless, accurate, and friendly described what we were already doing. So I took those concepts and put them together in one clear and concise statement.

"For example, I'm a big fan of The Effortless Experience and we've been trying to implement concepts from the book in our contact center.

"Once I developed an initial draft, I shared it with the managers on my leadership team to get their input. It really resonated with them, so we then rolled it out to the entire team on a conference call.

"We talked through the vision and I asked everyone to tell me what they thought. I didn't get any pushback or suggested changes, which I think is because the customer service vision is grounded in what we were already doing."


Q: What are you doing to integrate the vision into your employees' daily activities?

"This is definitely a work in progress, because I'm still working on getting it out in front of employees on a regular basis. We've only had this vision for eight months and it needs to be more widely adopted, but here's what we've done so far:

"We now introduce it to all new hires and then include it in one-on-one coaching. We're trying to get people to see how they can put each part of the vision into practice.

"For example, one part of the vision is effortless. In the past, an employee might answer a customer question by sending a knowledge base article. Now, that same employee might include the article in the email along with some commentary that customizes the solution to the customer's needs. We also are striving for ‘next issue avoidance’ which takes the resolution beyond the surface level issue and resolves that question the customer may not have known to ask.

"Another word in our vision is accurate. We have a big initiative right now to upgrade our knowledge base so that it's fully up to date and easier for our employees to use. If we support the team with the right tools, we can make it easier for them to support their customers with accurate information. I’m starting to see more and more that a great indicator for the health of a support organization is their ability to collect, share and curate knowledge.

"Our marketing department has just gone through a huge re-branding process and one of their guiding factors was trying to create an even more approachable brand, so this naturally ties into the friendly aspect of our vision. We're encouraging agents to develop rapport with their customers to help create a better experience."


Q: What advice would you give to other leaders who are trying to implement a customer service vision?

"The toughest lesson for me is to be more patient. Awhile ago, my boss challenged me to be more of a marathon view versus a sprint mentality. What he meant was that we all want to achieve immediate results, but it takes time for these initiatives to take hold. I've only been in this role for a year now and we've accomplished a lot during that time, but there's still a lot more left to do.

"I've really been influenced by John Kotter's book, Leading Change. It explains that change is a process and you have to have checkpoints along the way to keep things moving. You also have to clarify the benefits of what we're trying to accomplish so everyone will get on board.

"One of the things I'm doing now is creating our 2017 strategy. The customer service vision is the glue that provides consistency from one year to the next. It's wonderful for our contact center to have that ever-present north star."


Q: You mentioned strategy. How has having a customer service vision helped you become more strategic?

"Organizations generally don't look to the contact center to be strategic, but it's so important for customer service leaders to control their own destiny.

"Our customer service vision tells us we need to fight for both a better customer and agent experience. We're going to advance that vision in 2017 in a variety of ways, including a customer experience program that includes all functions of the business.

"I can also show our executive leaders how we're aligning with our brand. The new corporate brand identity focuses on being a friendly brand that feels young, energized, and engaging. That's exactly the way we're supporting the customers who use our software. It’s going to be an awesome year!"

Follow-up: After our interview, Nate wrote his own blog post describing the value a customer service vision has created for his team. It's a good read and highly recommended.

Discussion Question: If you implemented a customer service vision (or are in the process of doing so) what lessons did you learn from the experience?

Insider Perspectives: Keynote Speaker Teresa Allen on Executive Buy-in

Teresa Allen, Keynote Speaker

Teresa Allen, Keynote Speaker

Customer service initiatives won't go anywhere unless your company's top brass gets fully behind it.

That can be a tall order for many customer service leaders. Executives don't always feel they have the time or see the value of fully committing company resources.

I asked Teresa Allen, a veteran customer service trainer and keynote speaker, to share her perspective on getting executive buy-in.

Allen is the author of Common Sense Service and the owner of Common Sense Solutions, a national customer service training and consulting firm. She currently ranks #1 on the Global Gurus list of the top customer service experts in the world. She's also one of ICMI's Top 50 Thought Leaders to Follow on Twitter.

Q: What do customer-focused companies do differently than other organizations?

"The common thread is a fearless leader who considers customer service part of the company mission and culture. 

"Providing great customer service gives you permission to sell to your customers. It's marketing, not an expense, but senior leaders need to believe that. It's got to be a top-down approach. 


Q: Why are these fearless leaders so scarce?

"I generally see two different types of organizations.

"In one type of organization, the top executive is out there every day talking to customers, soliciting feedback, and leading the charge for exceptional customer service. They have often risen from the sales side of the business and have seen the link of service to sales revenue and profits.

"In another organization type, executives are not keyed into the value of a customer service culture.  They look at it as an expense item instead of a revenue generator. In some cases, this is because customer service has never been their world. They may have come from a finance or legal background and thus have never been directly exposed to the customer side of the business.  In this environment, building a service culture can be a real challenge, because a customer service initiative will never be fully successful unless top leadership of the organization are supporting it and driving it.

"Developing a customer service culture can't be a revolution. It has to be an evolutionary process. Executive buy-in combined with hiring of service minded individuals is key.  Training should be designed to support the company’s service objectives across all departments and positions until gradually everybody in the company is on board."


Q: What are some ways that customer leaders can encourage more executive buy-in?

"Customer service leaders in organizations are often not able to prove outcomes, particularly as that relates to the bottom line. If I invest in improving customer service, can I show that it's driving sales and profits?

"Net promoter and customer effort scores are nice metrics, but a good NPS score doesn't prove value to many executives. I can almost hear the Jerry Maguire refrain, 'Show me the money!'”

"Customer service surveys can be helpful if executives use them to drive results. Whenever I get contracted to do a customer service program, I always ask my client to forward any available customer service survey data.  It's okay if they send me the numbers, but what I really want is the comments. I want to look for what I call red lights, yellow lights, and green lights. The red lights indicate pain points that can lead to serious loss of business, the yellow lights are comments illustrating areas to be cautious about, and the green lights are compliments and kudos on exceptional service that serve to strengthen customer relationships.

"Organizations should market to their strengths and train to weaknesses. Companies can evaluate those green lights and find a way to use them as a marketing business building tool. The red lights should be incorporated into the next customer service training program so the problems get solved.

"I ask the leaders I work with, 'How are you sharing this data?' Sadly, I often hear that it is only held by the marketing department.  Survey data is valuable far beyond marketing.  It should be shared with employees so improvements can be made as well as to recognize team members who are growing the success of the organization through exceptional customer service."


Q: Assuming you can get an executive to sign-off on investing in customer service, what are some ways to keep him or her involved?

"Whenever I deliver customer service training or keynotes, I always ask someone from the executive team to introduce the program and tell everyone why it’s important to the organization.

"It would be great if the CEO or President did this, but that's not always possible since they're often very busy people. But some executive should be there, such as the vice president of human resources or the vice president of sales or marketing.

"Customer service can't be perceived as the training ‘flavor of the month.’ With regular executive emphasis and follow through, customer service will be viewed as an integral success strategy and will be more likely to be taken seriously by the organization as a whole.

"When an executive makes a real commitment to being customer-focused, it provides a mandate for the company to do things differently. For example, managers must take the time to hire the right people who can help the company deliver outstanding service.

"A customer focus can also help guide future investments. One executive frustration is the constantly evolving digital service technology that can come at a high cost. While many organizations are investing in these high-tech bells and whistles, recent studies show human interactions can actually be equally if not more important. The more complex an issue, the faster a customer wants to connect with a human who helps to solve it. [Side note: You can see data backing this up here.]  

"The human touch is big!  This means that training representatives in face-to-face and telephone customer service and communication skills is still critical. You can help steer more investment into the right service initiatives if you can show executives this is what customers really want and combine that with solid ROI data."

Insider Perspectives: Hyundai's Sprina Moon on Franchises

Sprina Moon, Sr. Manager Retail Process Improvement

Sprina Moon, Sr. Manager Retail Process Improvement

Customer service is outsourced in many businesses.

That fast food chain may be run by a franchisee, not the brand on the building. Your delivery driver might be an independent contractor. The contact center you call with billing questions might be run by an outsourcer.

This creates a challenge for businesses that want to deliver outstanding customer service, but don't directly control the people that are delivering it.

The automotive industry is set-up this way. The vast majority of new cars, trucks, and SUVs are sold through a network of franchised dealerships.

I spoke with Sprina Moon, Senior Manager, Retail Process Improvement for Hyundai Motor America to ask how her company tackles this challenge.

Moon works with Hyundai dealerships to improve the customer sales experience which ultimately leads to better customer satisfaction and loyalty. Her company is doing quite well as Hyundai has been ranked #1 in customer loyalty for seven years in a row.

Q: How important is customer-focus to the success of Hyundai's dealerships?

"Hyundai typically offers more value than our competitors. What I mean is that for the same dollars or less you get a Hyundai vehicle with more options than the competition, so we should generally win if customers are looking for a vehicle we offer. But if a customer doesn't trust their salesperson, they will go somewhere else. Most Hyundai customers spend a large amount of time researching the vehicle they are interested in buying so when they get to the dealer, they can tell if the sales person is being less than honest. The thing to think about in this day and age is that most OEM’s [original equipment manufacturers] make good quality vehicles, so what separates the good dealers from the bad ones is how well they do with the customer sales experience and added value of why a customer should buy from your dealership.

"Salespeople don't always realize the customer's buying decision is not just about price. People want to buy where they're treated with respect. Respect of their time and respect of their buying decisions. 

"Dealerships don't actually make the bulk of their profit on new car sales margin. They make a large portion of their money from the new car finance and insurance department. Another very important department at the dealership is the service and parts department so you want to start creating a long-term relationship with a customer during the sales process by getting them comfortable with coming to the dealership for their maintenance service needs. 

"That first lease or purchased car can lead to many others. Some people lease a new car every two or three years. Even people who purchase a car are likely to come back within about five years to buy their next one."


Q: How do you help dealerships improve customer satisfaction?

"I do a lot of training around sales, product knowledge, and soft skills. In a dealership, soft skills are things like a proper greeting and doing through needs analysis so that the consumer is buying the right vehicle for their needs. I also work with the dealerships' owners and general managers to help them better understand how customer service can impact their bottom line.

"For example, one project I've been working on is identifying buyers who live near a Hyundai dealership, but purchase a vehicle at another Hyundai dealership that's farther away. I can share this data with a dealership's general manager to help him see how a poor customer experience might be costing the dealership sales.

"Another thing I do is share best practices. One thing I share with dealerships is how to create a wow moment when a customer comes in to pick up their new vehicle. The salesperson can put the vehicle on display in the showroom or put a big over-sized bow on it to make them really feel special when the customer comes in for their new vehicle. This can create a lasting impression that makes the customer feel great about their purchase. 

"Many of the best practices that I review with the dealer are common sense practical items that we experience every day. Some of the things I ask dealers to think about is their non-dealer experiences like how they get treated at their favorite restaurant or when they go shopping at a high end retailer. The customer experience they get is no different than the way that their customers expect to be treated when they buy or service their car at the dealership.

"I also learn a lot from the dealerships too. Hyundai might have a new program that seems great in theory, but it doesn't work for our dealers for some reason. I can share that feedback with our National office and help to make it better."


Q: What are some of the most important skills that a dealership's salespeople should have?

"Salespeople need to be able to ask the right questions to uncover customer needs. Asking a customer what color car they wanted can backfire if they ask for a specific color that's not available. A better approach is to ask if the customer is looking for a lighter or darker car. This might give the salesperson more options to share. 

"One of the biggest and most underrated skills in understanding what your customer vehicle needs are is to not say anything and listen carefully to what your customer is looking for and then ask appropriate open ended questions. 

"It's also helpful to be resourceful. The specific vehicle a customer wants might not be on the dealer's lot, but the dealership can often track it down for the customer.

"Customers visit just 1.4 dealerships on average before purchasing or leasing a vehicle, so it's important to create a positive relationship right away. That's where it helps for a salesperson to have the right attitude. You can teach someone with the right attitude how to sell cars."


Q: What's the biggest challenge you face in your role?

"I look young for my age, so sometimes these veteran sales managers and general managers see me and think, 'Why is this young lady trying to tell me how to sell cars?' Some of the really tough ones will ask, 'Have you ever sold a car before?'

"I tell them, 'No, I haven't. But I have a lot of customer information, and that information can help you get more customers to buy from your dealership.' That usually gets their attention. I also worked at our National office building training curriculum that was designed to help our dealers provide a better sales experience. 

"Employee turnover is a major challenge for some dealerships, so I try to share some best practices with sales managers. A dealership's sales manager is often someone who was a really good salesperson and got promoted. They might be good at selling cars, but they have not had proper training on how to train and motivate their sales teams."


Q: What have you learned from the automotive industry that you think could help people in other industries improve customer-focus?

"I was talking about this with a dealership's General Manager the other day. He was telling me about an experience he had buying a television where he spent a little more money at one store because he felt they treated him with dignity and respect.

"We discussed how this should be the way his customers felt too.

"It's a helpful exercise. Think about the last difficult experience you had as a customer. The customers who are walking in to do business with you could be you in another environment. You would never want to treat your customers the same way you were treated in that bad experience.

"A lot of dealerships are worried about negative online reviews, but if you treat someone with dignity and respect they won't give you negative reviews. We often see someone buy a car from another dealer but still recommend that dealership to a friend and say, 'They didn't have the vehicle I was looking for, but I think you should give them a try.' People tend to write those negative reviews when they feel disrespected."