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An ‘App’ For Customer Service?

What Is Going On?
While the incessant nail-biting over the economy continues, where’s the renewed vigor to retain current customers and get new ones? It seems like unless there’s “an app for that,” or a Facebook page we’ve forgotten the basics.

I’m out and about as a consumer and I am discouraged at the response to this suppressed economy. Day to day, I get poor service both in person and on the telephone. It’s as though service providers have hoisted the white flag of surrender instead of answering the call to action that today’s contagion of customer tight-fistedness demands.

What else puzzles me is I’m seeing more and more mature workers in front of the public – the ones who grew up with better service – completely checked out about what they are doing.

What Works: Simple, But Not Easy – Operationalize Service!
Successful service leaders across a variety of industries build powerful programs upon three fundamental components: Standards, Awareness and Accountability.

They make explicit commitments that articulate newly defined standards, keeping those standards present in everyday work and holding each team member accountable.

Standards — Foundation of Service
Whether you are tuning-up your performance standards or starting from a blank whiteboard, a fundamental objective is to blur the line between “what people do” (operations) and “how they do it” (service standards). Blending these in this manner is a clear statement that just “doing the task” isn’t enough and sets the stage for higher levels of accountability.

The leaders in service are clear about their interpretation of service and can articulate it in a way that is a) understood by all employees, b) minimizes outside-of-the-standard interpretations, is c) enforceable by management and d) supports employee self-management.

Awareness — Orientation & Reinforcement
Extensive standards and process-analysis work becomes the rudder for determining both the nature and frequency of ongoing training.

As you apply operational sensitivity to blueprint specific content areas that necessitate training design and development, carefully evaluate the delivery media. Everything from self-study/reference to classroom to electronic interactive and multi-media may be options to reach your staff with the most impact.

Each employee must understand the standards and be trained to deliver that service within the context of those standards before improved customer service can be consistently delivered. A continuous training effort encourages improvements and employee independence.

Accountability — Closing the Loop
Clear standards and a rigorous commitment to awareness simplifies managing Service personnel. Once adopted, conversations about performance can be streamlined and more productive for management and employees. Also, once the service personnel have agreed to the standards, opportunities for peer management become a possibility.

Once the standards are declared and employees agree to uphold the standards through impeccable service practices, deviations from standard are easily recognized by management and staff. Corrective action is clearer and more streamlined.

And You’re Waiting For…What?
There’s no indication that the clouds will part soon and sloppy service will once again be rewarded. In fact, it wouldn’t matter if they did. This is as good a time as any to use impeccable service to steal your competition’s lunch…AND EAT IT IN FRONT OF THEM!!!

Mark Morton is “Project Master” at (Don’t Worry) It’s Handled…an expert resource helping small- to medium-sized businesses thrive in the toughest markets.


The ‘Cancer’ of Complacency

Will Your Business ‘Croak’?
At this point, who hasn’t heard the ‘boiling frog’ story? If your hand is raised right now (which would surprise me), allow me to dish you the short version.

A frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough. A frog placed in boiling water will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out (oh yeah, and it’ll die, too!).

A Pond Chock Full of ‘Frog Management’?
Before you say ‘Silly Frogs! Those smooth-brained critters deserve it!,’ consider some of the highest-stakes situations where human life is in the balance. Miles O’Brien, a pilot, airplane owner and freelance journalist blogging at delivers a sobering corroboration:

The brilliant physicist and educator Richard Feynman, who served on the Rogers Commission (which investigated the Challenger accident), summed it up well.

He compared NASA’s decision to keep launching shuttles despite growing evidence of scorched, leaking Solid Rocket O-Rings as “a kind of Russian roulette… (the Shuttle) flies (with O-Ring erosion) and nothing happens. Then it is suggested, therefore, that the risk is no longer so high for the next flights. We can lower our standards a little bit because we got away with it last time.”

Whether or not we like it or are even aware, we gradually and blithely accept greater risk without comprehending what we are really up against.

What You Don’t See
Like the frog who doesn’t notice the increase in temperature, are you complacent because you’re not feeling any hot water…yet? Are you rationalizing a slowdown in sales to what’s ‘out there’ – economy, tightwad customers, a new competitor?

Attracting and retaining customers is a 24/7 job for any profit-seeking organization. The same goes for improving your products and services.

…excellent companies are prepared to confront the deficiencies in good time. Lesser, smugger managements wait until crisis — manufactured by their mismanagement — forces their hands. — Thinking Managers

My clients are terrified about the calls they are not getting, not necessarily about possible service complaints…they are trained to deal with those (and complaints are clues to improvement opportunities).

They can’t do a thing about calls they’re not getting and the people those callers will complain to in their circle; statistics suggest the complaining is FIVE times as likely as positive referrals.

This country needs small- to medium-sized businesses. Stay aware, be proactive and get after new clients and retaining existing clients.

Mark Morton is “Project Master” at (Don’t Worry) It’s Handled…an expert resource helping small- to medium-sized businesses thrive in the toughest markets.

No Accountability, No Peace

More than ever, Americans have parlayed the relative anonymity of the internet into what could be called the world’s largest critic bandwagon where they (the amateur critics) are the stars. The jury is no longer out: everybody’s unsolicited and unqualified opinion now suddenly matters, including the guy blogging from @livinginmomsbasement and it drives big online metrics.

The scary thing…even without much accountability from the sources, your clients are listening.

No surprise, we’ve been very well trained. Radio shows encourage callers to “have a take,” that “take'” most often some critical rant. American Idol, X Factor, Dancing With the Stars and RuPaul’s Drag Race are huge hits along with other, often cruel, “judge-dominant” shows. Sure, the performances of the finalists can be entertaining, but the auditons…oh how we devour the auditions! “Whew! Simon’s gonna rip HIM a new one!”

Internet as “Virtual Permission Slip”?
Whatever you may think of Simon, at least he does what he does “as Simon” and in front of millions of viewers. A good portion of the identity he walks around with every day — and runs to the bank with — is his, that he created. He’s accountable. The guy whose triple soy latte wasn’t exactly 138 degrees one morning and YELPs harshly about it, not so much.

In a Wallstreet Journal article, ‘Internet On, Inhibitions Off: Why We Tell All,’ Matt Ridley writes:

When the medium is impersonal, people are prepared to be personal.

Deep in our psyches, the act of writing a furious online critique of someone’s views does not feel like a confrontation, whereas telling them the same thing over the phone or face to face does. All the cues are missing that would warn us not to risk a revenge attack by being too frank.

So, blogging or it’s close cousin high-profile reviewing with no (or little) accountability, “feels” extremely safe. And predictably, the floodgates are officially open and it’s time for business to intelligently and consistently respond.

Embrace The Dragon
If critiquing (often simply thinly-veiled complaining) has become the new chic, your customers’ low-accountability opinion slinging can be the torpedo heading directly for the bow of your identity…an identity not easily reversed (have you ever tried contacting Yelp?).

Certainly, customer feedback matters. That remains undeniable. What’s noteworthy, is that with the “e-bullhorn” of Social Media that same feedback is now extremely public and extremely unfiltered. Whether you agree with it or not, you best learn about it fast and begin to actively embrace it or hire a team to guide you through the process before the ball of yarn cannot be untangled.

Face it, some (not all) folks are chronic complainers. You hand’em a $10 bill and they’ll wonder why it isn’t two $5 bills instead (“Simons”). Surrender to that and focus on what you can influence which may develop into a significant percentage of potential marketeers for your business.

Mark Morton is “Project Master” at (Don’t Worry) It’s Handled…an expert resource helping small- to medium-sized businesses thrive in the toughest markets.

How To Pay a Freelancer

Ask 100 managers who use outsourced talent this question: “How do you pay your consultants?” The answer? I imagine there’s a range of answers, but bet that range of answers all fit nicely into one box…it’s a box labeled “Blah-blah-blah per hour.”

So maybe you’re asking “Yeah, what’s your point?”

Well, my point is really a more of a question for you:

If an alternative to knee-jerking into an hourly wage a) simplified your scoping/selection process, b) attracted higher-quality experts and/or c) reduced your project management overhead, would you consider changing your freelancer hiring criteria?

I’ve turned away potential clients because I would not quote my hourly pay rate for a freelance project.

  • Reason 1: I don’t have an hourly rate to quote, because that’s not how I’m paid!
  • Reason 2: I don’t want to work for an organization (of any size, regardless of budget) that can’t think outside of that hourly pay rate trap…I mean box.
  • Reason 3: I don’t like being punished for working quickly to resolve my client’s concerns, simply because I’m good at it!

To add insult to injury, many of those potential clients ordered secretaries, HR or personal assistants to call for my ‘magic number’ even before I met to hear about the project details! That’s pre-qualification for an important project requiring consultant expertise? Thanks for the warning!

Without piling on, I believe law firms have done more than their fair share to perpetuate the ‘billing hour’ pay catastrophe that’s polluting the consultant market. Ironically, they’ve been first-in-line abusers with practices like charging clients time for ‘thinking about’ their case, using lower-paid and sometimes free underlings to do research at ‘full boat’ per hour rates, etc. etc.

Same Ol’ Wash, Done 3 Different Ways!
Take a project you’d consider outsourcing to a consultant – it doesn’t even matter what it is – but let’s say I assess it as a project I’d take on for $1500. Some crazy-making options for presenting my quote (before I was steadfast in project-based pricing, that is):

    1. I charge $15/hour and say it’ll take 100 hours – Oh my, that’s a long time! Are you sure you know what you’re doing? How come you’re so cheap? Are you any good? That’s far too long for this!
    2. I charge $1500/hour and say it’ll take 1 hour – Oh my, your rate is insane! If it only takes you an hour, how can you charge THAT!?! You consultants are all alike!
    3. I charge $150/hour and say it’ll take 10 hours – Hmmm, that’s seems reasonable. Hope you get it done faster (and certainly not any slower). Let me see about getting approval for this…I’ll get back to you.
Enough about me, let’s think about it from your (the potential employer’s) perspective:
      • You have a project, a task, some ‘work’ you want done.
      • You either ‘think’ have an idea of what amount of labor it will take to complete it or you have a budget that the project work must fit within.

Pretty typical, agreed?

You have a pile of resumes, business cards, URLs – however you collect possible resources. You set up the meeting and outline the project with each one. They nod knowingly and tell you ‘No problem! Can do!’ and then you tee up the big question:  ‘So, whaddaya charge per hour?’

At this point, you (as the hirer) don’t know if the rate is either high or low. Why? You need another piece of the equation which is the answer to this question (one of my ‘faves’):

‘How many hours do you think it’ll take?’

How else can you ‘back into’ a project price from a per hour model?

Now, it starts getting interesting. Silence, maybe some hemming and hawing, a ‘don’t know’ and if you’re really lucky, a range. Your hot-shot ‘expert’ all of the sudden starts squirming or at the very least gets a little vague! How quickly your cocky gunslinger disappears…even Chris Angel would blush!

So, after Round One of qualification you’ve got a smaller pile of qualified ‘experts,’ rates for each and an open-ended project estimate. Yet, the longer it takes to select one, the closer that deadline becomes. What you really have, in a word, is hope (vs. confidence) – hope that your project will work out not only on time and but also on budget!

Unfortunately in business (or if you worked for me), ‘hope’ is not a strategy!

What To Do?
I bet you already know the answer to this one…ask for (okay, demand if you have to) ‘project pricing’ for every single project you put out to experts. Every single project.

Uncomfortable with that? Then perhaps you should continue being comfortable biting your nails every week, hoping that those hard-to-audit ‘billable hours’ on the invoice you have on your desk actually translated into tangible deliverables. That’s the reality – and one that many, many hirers live with every day as they empty the bottle of antacids on their desk.

Don’t get me wrong, my fellow experts-for-hire aren’t inherently crooked or even sloppy. I’d reckon most are the straightest of shooters. But shouldn’t you expect more from what should be some of the better talent out there? Let the record reflect, I believe so.

The time you spend with fewer experts willing to design a solution for you with ‘no surprises,’ project pricing will pay off for you both immediately and in the future.

Start hunting!

Mark Morton is “Project Master” at (Don’t Worry) It’s Handled…an expert resource helping small- to medium-sized businesses thrive in the toughest markets.

Hire A Consultant For Outsourcing Tactical & Strategic Projects!

Contractor…Hired Gun…Consultant…Independent.

Just about every business I speak with has a consultant story. Most of the ones I hear sound like “Oh yeah, we ‘brought one in’ and all we got was a big bill. Nothing really got done.”

That kills me for three reasons:

  1. I now have to work more than twice as hard to turn a possible client around (thanks previous consultant!) and
  2. Apparently, the project/work didn’t ‘get handled’
  3. It perpetuates the story that consultants are opportunistic, quick-buck artists preying upon companies in crisis

Now there are always at least two sides to every story, but if there is an unresolved perception that the expert-for-hire experience was both expensive and unproductive…well, it was a failure. (Maybe it’s even your story!)

I want to change that perception. If you’re a small to medium-sized business, hiring consultant talent to outsource tactical and strategic projects is a smart business move. In fact, I think it’s an underutilized gold mine.

If you don’t know, or it hasn’t been your experience so far, here’s what I’ve noticed. Freelance experts tend to be more…

  • Market-driven > they are entrepreneurs who, by definition, are not waiting for the next bi-monthly paycheck
  • Focused > they don’t have the productivity-murdering meetings, water cooler rituals and ‘What did ya do last weekend?” distractions
  • Project ‘killers’ > they don’t want ‘the job,’ they thrive on the adventure! (‘friendly mercenaries’ if you will)

Working With One…or Maybe More!
My overriding recommendation, whether you’re new to the game or jaded by your past experience, is simple: these wonderful resources are not your employees, so don’t treat them that way. In many cases, they are sharp enough to be your boss…they just don’t want to be!

  • Be Transparent > the same way your doctor can’t effectively treat your ailment if you don’t provide s/he good data and observations to work with, don’t withhold – deliberately or inadvertently – and expect a miracle at the finish line (If that means signing a Non-disclosure Agreement, have it ready at the first meeting.)
  • Be Humble > this is no time to be wagging your hubris all over the place, you don’t have anything to prove (relax, you’re the customer!)
  • Request A Guarantee > any confident expert-for-hire will be assessing the ‘guarantee-ability’ of your project from the onset
How To Find One
With the number of professionals ‘in between successes’ these days, beware. There’s a temptation to temporarily scoop one up (after a thorough negotiation of course!) simply because they seem plentiful. Consider this if you do: you may be getting more of a ‘plug-in employee’ vs. a true expert-for-hire – not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just a different alternative.

For my money, I want not only the skill, but also the independent ‘package’…the ‘how it gets handled’ behind the ‘what gets handled’ for my project.

Ask your hottest, brightest employees for referrals. You may be surprised how hotshots tend to know other hotshots.

Or, finally…(drum roll, puhleeeeeze!)

Hire an Expert! I don’t mean a temp agency here. My early entry into the expert-for-hire market started this way. We hired an ‘expert hiring expert’ and co-developed hiring criteria. I got some education and outsourcing ‘practice’ in a low-risk environment (and yes, some raised eyebrows from my colleagues!).

Cozy up to a contractor. You’ll be glad you did!

Mark Morton is “Project Master” at (Don’t Worry) It’s Handled…an expert resource helping small- to medium-sized businesses thrive in the toughest markets.