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Do Be Nice

I think that as consumers, customers, or clients we have a responsibility to provide feedback on our experiences.  For the most part, we provide negative feedback - that's easy.  Complaining is an essential part of the human condition.  One harder step is to offer a constructive suggestion on how to make things better for the next customer.  Harder still is to take the time to provide positive feedback when your experience has been great.  If you want to go over the top, tell them how you found them, why you chose them, and why you're coming back.  Unfortunately, positive feedback is really the most important feedback to provide.  One typically doesn't provide feedback under these conditions because when you're all done, there's apparently very little offered to you in exchange.

I say apparently, because I believe that there is quite a lot for you.  For example, several years ago at a restaurant, my family had a trainee working our table.  You know what?  She did a fantastic job - better than most service we've had at comparable establishments.  Tipping well (which we did) is one way to give an atta-boy/atta-girl, but in this case I chose to ask for a manager and compliment the server directly.  The manager gave us a "coupon" (a note written on his card) for a future visit.  Upon that visit, when we redeemed the coupon we were visited by that manager's boss who wanted to make sure everything was right on this visit and he was pleased when I told him that the we were given the coupon because we had taken the time to report about how good our service was.  This is incentive all around to keep employees that make sure that customers come back.  This means that you are likely to have a good/great experience at this place.  Everybody wins. I also really appreciated that the manager took the time to verify that things were better (he was assuming this was from a bad experience).

In other cases, the benefit is that you are establishing a working relationship and, hopefully, mutual respect.  I'm not afraid to ask for a particular employee who has given me great service in the past.  I'm also quite willing to let the employee know that I've specifically passed on compliments to their boss, just to close the loop.  At this point, the employee will probably remember you in the future and will probably treat you better for it.  And if they're having an off day, you're more likely to be forgiving.

The final benefit is to make sure that a particular product/feature remains available.  If you provide no feedback, then the choice to keep a particular product becomes pure numbers.  By the time you say, "it's a shame that foo is gone, I really liked it," it's probably too late, and the company may lose a customer for the future.

We encounter all of this in technical support at Atalasoft.  Believe it or not, our engineers also handle a fair number of technical support cases and we do try to resolve all cases in a way that is satisfying to our customers in a timely manner.  This approach is rare in the software industry and one that we want to retain as a priority in the future.  There are a number of benefits to taking this approach - the first is that keeping in touch with our customer's experiences is a good way to retain focus that it's really our customers that keep us in business.  Secondly, seeing customer problems gives us the most direct feedback as to the suitability of our model/API.  Thirdly, the engineers who wrote/maintained the code are also the most qualified to answer questions about it.  Finally, our customers try things that we hadn't imagined - seeing that directly is eye-opening and leads to new technologies or new models.

On the down side, support is a distraction from daily work.  I have a personal schedule for our future products, and believe me, it is aggressive. If I lose momentum, it is a big hit trying to get it back.  Support can be a frustrating and disempowering job.  I'm certainly not as good at working on the phone with customers as other people here and at times, I'm in awe of skills in others that I don't possess.  I think the worst cases--and they're fortunately rare--are the ones when we know we can't help a customer and we've botched the politeness side of it as well.  That's a damaged relationship and it's hard to get that back.  The best cases are the ones that we know we nailed and come back with a thank you.  Those are the ones that get forwarded to the whole company.  We do appreciate feedback that we get from our customers through the support channel.

I think that providing good feedback really comes down to following a few key points:

  • Be constructive - how can a bad (or good) experience be made better
  • Be specific - who did you work with, what happened, what stood out, if and why you'll come back/not come back
  • Be polite - there is always room for politeness
  • Be understanding - the people on the other side of the line are still people
  • Don't be vindictive - this is likely to get your feedback ignored

Here's an example.  My spouse and I are building a play structure for our kids and we needed a slide.  In looking around, we found that most online businesses were more or less similar in price but all had shipping that was very high.  I saw a local company that carried the same slides and gave them a call to see if they were in stock.  They needed to call me back, and reported that yes they did, but that they were a little old and that they'd discount them.  When I went to pick them up, the clerk that helped me was terrific and I left with a slide and two swings for less than what some places charge for shipping.  Before I left, I let him know:

  1. How I found their place (specific newspaper, internet follow up)
  2. How I came to choose them (local, no shipping, item I wanted in stock)
  3. My phone experience
  4. That I appreciated his help in getting what I wanted
  5. That I would probably be a repeat customer
All of those things are gold to a small business.  Almost all of them let the business know what's working as opposed to what's not working, and that's terrific feedback.
Published Wednesday, August 01, 2007 4:09 PM by Steve Hawley


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