Answering the right question

I recently was helping my team with customer emails and chats during a company retreat.  This is one of my favorite times of the year, because I get to make sure my skills are still reasonably sharp, and I can help to offset volume while my employees are getting a break from work.

One lesson I reminded myself of when doing this work is making sure I am answering what the customer is actually asking.  If I move too fast, jump to conclusions or make assumptions, I can be slightly off, which likely means more interactions to solve the issue, and maybe even customer frustration.

One email exchange I jumped into was facing this for a specific reason – the employee was using published macros to respond to the customer, but none of them really addressed his issue.  They were close but slightly missing.  When I dug into the situation, I learned that the customer fundamentally didn’t understand something about the product.  That was actually fine, but never could have been uncovered or answered by a macro.  It was a nice reminder that although macros, talking points, scripts and the like help to provide efficiency and consistency, they are not always the right solution, and they sometimes don’t or can’t actually answer the customer’s question.

In another situation, I caught myself getting too excited because I thought I knew the answer to something, which then resulted in wrong assumptions and customer confusion.  While it felt natural to try to go fast, it led me to answer the wrong question.  In this chat interaction, the behavior showed up when I was making statements rather than asking questions.  Example:

Me: So, the employee has this benefit through an outside provider.


This was dead wrong, because I had made an assumption based on too little information.  While I don’t think the customer cared too much, she had to correct me and the solution took longer than it needed.  After, I thought about how it could have gone better, and realized I could have asked questions to learn more rather than making an assumptive statement:

Me: Does the employee have this benefit through an outside provider?

Or, even more generally:

Me: Can you tell me more about what’s going on and how I can help?

That would have led me to answering the right question much more quickly, and without a customer correction.  Overall, this exchange was a great reminder and something I have been thinking a lot about since – these little efficiency wins (or losses), although seemingly small in the moment, add up as a team scales, and can really hurt in times of increased volume.

My service foundation

When I turned 16, my dad made me get a job.  He gave me a list of places I had to visit to apply.  They were mostly retailers – I remember visiting Blockbuster Video, Toys R Us and Sears specifically.  I knew that I had an “in” at Sears – my dad went to high school with the store manager.  This meant an immediate interview instead of the traditional paper application, and also getting hired in literally minutes after walking into his office.

I really didn’t think to apply anywhere else – my dad told me to get a job and now I had one.  At the time, I really didn’t know that this first gig in customer service would act as a foundation for many years later.  I worked at Sears all through high school, originally as a Sales Associate in sporting goods and then expanding to paint, hardware and lawn and garden when I wanted more hours.  I got paid minimum wage plus commission, so it was also my first experience with pay for performance.  I stayed for five years, working on and off during breaks in college.

I am sharing this story because I interview a lot of candidates and they often ask how I got my start in customer service.  It would be easy to leave a retail job like Sears off a resume, but it really was my foundation in the industry.  So much so, I recently decided to add it to my resume on Indeed and to my LinkedIn profile.

I learned a lot doing that job, especially around integrity and ethics.  One of my favorite team members, and someone I considered a protege, was fired one day for helping someone steal merchandise.  I had to come to grips with that incident and the decisions he had made, which was not easy for a sub-20-year-old.

Another of my most memorable experiences happened one day when I was working the sporting goods floor, and another employee, I’ll call him Vinny, was working in lawn and garden.  Vinny was a Sears “lifer” – he had been in a the job for a very long time, and raised a family along the way.  Vinny was near retirement and never seemed to have much patience for us younger employees.

That day, Vinny was covering lawn and garden solo.  When I think about how often we worked alone, it feels crazy to me now, but it happened all the time.  I would even work double shifts totally alone.  So Vinny was solo, and his department and mine were side by side.  Vinny was with a customer when another customer was looking at a riding lawn mower.  Now, it’s important to know that a riding mower (we actually called them “tractors” in the vernacular) was pretty much the biggest sale you could make in lawn and garden.  So big that when an employee would sell one, you would hear all about it in the folklore and water cooler talk amongst the employees.  Selling one meant you were a killer Sales Associate and would be getting a very nice commission payout in your next check.

Because I had backup in my area, I was walking the floor and the customer near the tractors asked for help.  I knew enough at that point to be dangerous, but really didn’t want to mess with Vinny’s pay (or whatever wrath he would rain down on me).  But the customer asked a second time, and I had to make the call on what was more important, Vinny’s take-home pay or the customer experience.  I ended up helping the customer, and I sold a tractor!

The second that transaction ended and the customer was gone, I turned around and saw Vinny very quickly walking in my direction.  He said nothing.  He grabbed our copy of the receipt, quickly walked back to his register, and voided the transaction.  He then re-did the transaction under his employee ID (this meant that he technically made the sale and would get paid commission for it).

I was more stunned than upset, and didn’t really know what to do.  What Vinny did felt wrong, but I also knew it was his department, not mine, and he had kids to feed.  I had never experienced this type of professional ethical dilemma before.  I decided to ask for some time with the store manager (now someone else, as my dad’s friend had retired), and just told her the story, not expecting anything to happen.  But after hearing what occurred, she got up, walked to the nearest register, and put the sale back in my name.

When I got my check the next week and it had the commission amount for the tractor sale, I was really grateful to work at a place where integrity prevailed.

Looking back, I had so many first service experiences at Sears.  I had a customer hug me for the first time, I had my first escalation (went terribly), I learned to upsell and cross-sell.  We closed my first store and opened a new one.  I watched friends come and go in the same role, and saw many “lifers” keep persevering.

In my last year there, my department manager suggested I apply for the Sears management training program, which, at the time, was highly regarded.  It would have meant moving back home from where I was going to college, so I declined.  But I am grateful for the foundation that job provided to me.  I’ll never leave it off my resume again.

Channel switching usually stinks

Last Fall, I Tweeted about channel switching in customer service:

And I wrote about it lightly as part of my post about how Verizon handles social customer service.

This topic has been on my mind because of an experience I recently had with Chase, the enormous consumer bank. Very oddly, Chase decided one day to put a restriction on all of my accounts, which caused any scheduled bill payments, transfers or ATM withdrawals to fail. When this happened, Chase gave me no warning and no notice until the failures started happening. I have been a customer since I was a teenager, so this approach was pretty surprising and disappointing.

When it was time to fix the problem, they gave me only one support channel option – in person.  This was fine and seemed reasonable based on the severity of the issue.  I visited a branch near my office, and while I was able to clear the block on my accounts, Chase couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me why it happened.

At first I let it go, but I later thought I should check in with them to get the full story.  So I logged into my Chase account and wrote a “secure email” asking for a manager to research what happened and to share the findings.  I said it wasn’t urgent and might need some digging.  Chase quickly responded by saying (1) they didn’t see any previous restriction, and (2) they can only discuss compliance issues via phone.

I tried one last time, by asking them to forward my email request to the compliance team so they could investigate and share their findings.  I was again told that (1) no block was recorded on my accounts and (2) if I did want to know more, I would need to call, although they understood that I prefer email.

While I totally comprehend why you wouldn’t do this kind of sensitive customer service work via social or another channel that is dependent on third-party apps, doing it in their own “secure message center” seemed reasonable.  Trying to honor a customer’s preferred channel, without switching – whenever possible – feels much more supportive.

Eagles and ducks

Eagles soar.  Ducks quack.  It’s that simple.  Yet it’s one of the most impactful things I’ve learned about customer success hiring in my career.

The concept comes from Ken Blanchard, author of many books on leadership.  He says that ducks quack – citing rules, regulations and policies rather than actually helping customers.  Conversely, eagles soar – rising above challenges to own problems and “use their brains” to solve them for customers.

While I agree with and love Blanchard’s original concept, I have applied it slightly differently in hiring.  For me, a duck on a customer service team is problematic because he or she would rather complain (quack) than own an issue and see it to resolution (eagle).  While this isn’t tragic in isolation, ducks influence others to quack, creating what Blanchard calls “duck ponds.”  This negative swirl affects team morale and puts your eagles at risk of leaving because (a) they don’t want to be ducks, and (b) they have to spend so much energy avoiding duck ponds that it affects their ability to soar.

So when I meet candidates, I look for signs of optimism (or conversely, negativity).  Sometimes these things are subtle, other times they hit me over the head.  For example, if the candidate is quick to complain about his or her current employer, that is a sign of quacking.  Now, a little of that can be natural in an interview (he or she is changing jobs for a reason), but if the candidate goes there without my prompting or comes back to it throughout the interview, I know I’m interviewing a duck.  Another spot I check is when candidates talk about what they want in their next employer.  If it’s framed positively – what they truly want and aspire for – I get eagle feelings.  But if the framing is negative – that they want something unlike what they currently have or had before – I know I’m in duck territory.

Adding “eagle or duck” to my interview scorecard is quite likely the most significant change I’ve made to my customer service hiring so far.  If you wake up one day and realize your team is a duck pond, or someone on your management team is a “mallard” (head duck, per Blanchard) there isn’t a lot you can do to change it.  Author Mac Anderson has a book titled, You Can’t Send a Duck to Eagle School, and the title says it all.  It feels basic but the long-term, collective impact of hiring eagles versus ducks is huge.  If you hire for positivity and eagle attributes, you can teach everything else – your product, your industry, your processes.  But you’ll never, ever teach a duck to be an eagle.

Servicing from the inside out

Last November, I attended the Fast Company Innovation Festival at NYU. The one speaker I wanted to see was Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani. He didn’t disappoint. Fast Company followed up that event with an April 2017 cover piece featuring Ulukaya and his full story of creating the world’s leading yogurt brand from an SBA loan and a small group of former Kraft employees who used to work at the yogurt plant he purchased in upstate NY.

Fast Company Innovation Festival, NYU, 2016

One of the most famous stories Ulukaya tells is that when he was just getting started and knew nothing about how to make yogurt or how to run a company, he got the employees together to paint the outside of the plant. He started with his people. He focused inside first. He would continue to focus inside as he built the business.

Fast Company magazine cover, April 2017

Ulukaya’s philosophy of making the employee experience a priority, and trusting that such care will then translate to the product and the customer experience, really resonates with me. It’s about taking care of those around you and trusting they will convert that positive energy externally. From the Fast Company cover story by Rob Brunner:

“He [Ulukaya] has begun to forge a new kind of business leadership, one that fuses competitiveness with an unusually strong sense of compassion.”

The second aspect of Ulukaya’s approach that I admire is his desire to be close to his business. He wants to know how things work, to be in the weeds, to get his hands dirty. He wants to understand his employees, their joys and their challenges. He is not above them; rather, he stands beside them. From the event last year:

“I am a factory worker first…  If I ask my employees to do something, I do it with them.”

And from the Fast Company piece:

“Ulukaya has always had trouble sitting still, and rather than spend his time at a desk, he prefers to roam the floors of his factories, chatting with workers or even sometimes standing off by himself, watching cup after cup skitter down the line to get filled, sealed, boxed, and sent in its way.”

In just 10 years since the brand launched, Ulukaya and his team have grown Chobani to 2,000+ employees and the number one Greek-style yogurt brand in the U.S. With his inside-out approach, he also:

  • Reopened a Kraft yogurt factory in South Edmeston, NY, saving a core team of employees then creating hundreds of jobs
  • Opened the world’s largest yogurt factory in Twin Falls, Idaho, adding 300+ jobs
  • Hired immigrants as 30 percent of his workforce, from more than 15 countries, including more than 400+ refugees. Some employees are provided transportation to the plants and translators on-site.
  • Gave 10 percent of the company to his employees, making some of them millionaires
  • Launched fully paid parental leave

In a hairy time for growing companies where we seem to hear more about culture challenges and misses by CEOs than about the nurturing and care of employees, I optimistically turn to Ulukaya and the Chobani story for guidance.

Service is grit

I recently sat in a restaurant with my family and carefully watched the table next to me. The couple had ordered wine before their meal and looked upset. When the employee taking care of them came back to the table, one of the customers said, “This doesn’t taste good, can we have something else?”

The employee worked with them on a choice, and a few minutes later, brought over a different wine option, then walked away. Upon tasting this latest choice, one of the customers said, fairly loudly, “This tastes terrible.” At that point, my 8-year-old child noted their behavior and asked me about it. She was surprised that they would send wine back at all, much less twice.  She described their reaction as “not nice.”  I agreed.

I began wondering how the employee would react when she came back to the table. Would she get defensive? Upset? Or just battle her way through it?

When she arrived again, the couple reiterated that the wine was “terrible,” and it was decided that beer would be a better choice. At no point did the employee get visibly upset or flustered, although I’m sure some things were stirring inside her. I bet her heartbeat was elevated and she had chosen some words that she would like to say to the couple. Even the greatest customer service employee reacts to a tough customer or tough situation. It’s how you battle through it and recover that matters most.

In this case, the employee gritted through the situation.  She accepted the feedback, brought the beer, and graciously kept servicing the table at a high level.  She could have reacted poorly, had an outburst or done something that would have upset the customer or even put her employment in jeopardy.  Instead, she showed grit in the face of adversity.

I see this every day in my teams.  An employee will have a tough call, and tell me about it with a smile.  That’s grit.  Or she’ll talk about how she could have done better to prevent it from getting escalated to her manager.  Pure grit.

I’ve also seen new employees cry their way off the floor because a call was too tough or too personal.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have grit.  What happens next does – if they come back to the floor with a smile and determination, you’ll know they have grit.  It’s not always the reaction to adversity you need to look for, but the recovery.  Some of my best employees have to walk away after a tough call.  Even I do.  But we come back, do it again, and keep delivering at a high level.  That’s grit.

Stay calm and keep managing

In my career, I’ve of course seen managers not be able to handle adversity or not be willing to take client escalations, but it was a couple recent events that really reinforced with me the importance of calm for customer service managers.

The first example happened when I was interviewing an internal candidate for my Client Services manager development program at Indeed, called Indeed Lead.  I asked this employee to talk about her current manager, and the focus of her description was calm.  This manager kept the team from getting overwhelmed when the workload was heavy, stepped in with a solutions-oriented approach when the Sales team was being tough, and generally brought a sense of calm to the group.  It was clear that this made a huge impact on the employee and was guiding her own approach to becoming a new manager.  She wanted to be calm under pressure too.

As a contrast, the second example was the opposite of a calm manager.  I was at one of my favorite restaurants picking up takeout, and was being helped by the manager.  Suddenly, two employees walked up and suggested that a customer had left without paying.  The manager was struggling with continuing to help me while also supporting his employees.  Ideally, he would have asked another employee to cover the takeout counter while he investigated, or asked the employees to wait while he finished my transaction.  Instead, he blurted out, “You guys are both idiots!” to his employees in clear earshot of customers.  What was even more stunning was that one of the employees responded, “You’re right, we are idiots,” making me think it wasn’t the manager’s first outburst.

When I historically have thought about important service manager competencies, I’ve leaned toward caring, teaching, leading by example and being a product expert.  While those together form a solid foundation, they all can fly out the window in periods of stress if the manager can’t also be a calming influence on the team.

Servicing small businesses

In late 2009, I started my Small Business service team at Indeed with a single employee. At the time, I had no idea what it would become, or how much it would eventually mean to me.

Along with that group’s management team, we scaled the SMB service function incredibly, learned how to automate and simplify processes, brought costs down, and generally turned the team into high-performing service organization.

Those are your HBR headlines and they are great. But my highlights live elsewhere.

1. Elevating the role
In building out the SMB function, we wanted a team that made sense in a business that had previously been mid-market to enterprise-focused. This wasn’t easy because we were hiring for roles we never had before, namely employees to handle the high volume of inbound tickets, phone calls and chats we would be receiving. We didn’t want the typical 40 percent turnover for call center jobs. So we worked to elevate every part of the role – higher base pay, regular bonuses, flexible work hours, work from home, perks, team events, free lunches and the like. We didn’t want a typical call center, nor the typical call center employees, so we elevated the job.

2. Servicing the under-serviced
When this team began, there was the belief that the client base could be successful without customer service altogether (self-service concept). While we always worked to make the product as self-serve as possible, I also knew that the SMB client segment is notoriously under-serviced and would be hungry for help with the product and with hiring best practices in general. That proved to be true, and our commitment to SMB service eventually became a brand differentiator for Indeed. When SMB clients made a hire, it was a celebration for both them and for us.

This combination of an amazing employee experience and a “wow” client experience eventually became my model for customer service no matter the client type. But it was this SMB build-out and evolution that really brought it together for me. That’s a big reason why I’m so excited to have joined Justworks, where SMB owners, entrepreneurs and their employees are our focus. I’m thrilled to be able to apply this model again.

Little service moments matter

The other day I was at Whole Foods and saw a customer with two young sons in the produce section. She had put some blueberries in her cart, and the boys immediately wanted to eat them. Outnumbered, she was looking for help.

She ingeniously walked over to the coffee counter (which is not where you buy food) and asked the barista if she would wash some of the blueberries so her sons could eat them.  I watched on from the bananas to see how this would go – it felt like a great opportunity to help this customer out when she was in a tough situation.

The employee immediately said yes with enthusiasm and washed the blueberries.  The customer was relieved and the boys were pumped.  In the big picture of that day at Whole Foods, it was a tiny moment, yet it was incredibly important.  Here’s why:

  1. If every Whole Foods employee who faces a similar request acts the same way, it creates a culture of service that extends far beyond that moment.
  2. If the above is true, in aggregate those moments can actually elevate the Whole Foods brand.  Customers will gravitate to the brands that treat them well, surprise them with kindness and create special moments.
  3. The employee was asked to do something that is not, on paper, her job, and avoided every service false step along the way.  I never heard, “No, I can’t,” or “That’s not my job” or “You can try asking someone else.”  She enthusiastically said yes, helped the customer and likely made the rest of her day much easier.

But, these small service moments can be harder to isolate:

  1. It’s unlikely that anyone at Whole Foods trained that employee on whether she could or should wash blueberries at the coffee counter for customers – she just had good service instincts.  (This reminds me why I sometimes am critical of training manuals – they will never comprehensively include everything we face in service.)
  2. If the employee would have said “No” or “I can’t,” it’s unlikely her boss or the shift manager would have ever known.  The customer probably would not have complained, so it would have just been a missed opportunity.
  3. As service professionals, we tend to search for big opportunities to satisfy or impress clients.  Doing so can blind us from the smaller opportunities in front of us every day.

Little service moments can add up, elevate a brand and arguably surpass “big” moments in terms of overall client impact.  How can you find some small opportunities like this in your day?

Client Services at Indeed

About a week ago, I finished up as SVP of Client Services at Indeed after nine years, three months and one day. In that time, a few things happened:

  • We grew from one employee (me) to 600+ the week I left
  • We expanded our locations from one to 13 globally
  • We made huge gains in client satisfaction (NPS) and retention
  • We created specialized teams focused on important client segments (SMB, mature accounts), internal service excellence (training and development, product support) and new contact channels (chat, social)
  • We changed the conversation in recruiting to be more about metrics and ROI

All of the above are great, measurable things where we moved the needle, and I am proud of that progress and those accomplishments.  But when I spoke to my employees to give them the news that I was leaving, what choked me up the most was talking about the culture we created of always helping and supporting one another no matter what.

Every week when I met with our new hires, they would always comment on how nice their new teammates were.  This always made an impact on me.  When an employee would falter, his or her teammates would step up to help.  If a tough client call resulted in some tears, the employees around that person would quickly huddle and provide support.  And when a new employee took his or her first client call, the floor would always erupt in applause.

So yes, the metrics matter.  The client experience, NPS and retention matter.  And every day, we walked in the door promising to one another to deliver quality for our clients worldwide.  But at the end of the day, the culture of supporting one another and “being nice” is what mattered most to me.  I know it will continue.

Many have asked me why I left Indeed if the team is so wonderful.  It’s a great question and I think about it a lot.  I am very lucky to have built such an incredible group, and I believe deeply that they will expand on our legacy to get even better.  But I am ready to do it again, to bring that focus somewhere else, to find nice people all over again.

Thank you Indeed Client Services team.  Stay nice, and good luck.