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.

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.

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?

Service is personal (aka Starbucks knows my order)

I started drinking coffee a couple of years ago. I’ve always loved and admired the Starbucks brand, so I started visiting a location near my office here and there, and then more regularly as my coffee addiction grew.

As I became a more regular customer, the Starbucks employees started recognizing me and began to know my drink order. Eventually, I didn’t have to order at all – the staff would see me walk in and start making my drink before I even reached the register.

One day, a barista made my drink incorrectly. When I mentioned it, another employee who I know well said, “That’s Jason, you know!? People are acting crazy around here today!” She then remade my drink herself.

While this one incident wasn’t a dramatic event – more of a little service victory – it reinforced for me that customer service is at its best when it’s personal. That employee recognizing me and taking responsibility for another employee’s mistake made a big impact.

What I took away from this experience:

  1. The best service is personal. This clearly is harder in businesses with high client volume and transactional customers like retail, but it can be done. Knowing even little things about your clients will improve your service level.
  2. The best service professionals cover for their teammates. I see this every day in my own team – top performers help the client in front of them, even if it’s not their mistake, their assigned account or their responsibility.
  3. Little experiences can have a big impact. Sometimes we underestimate what a small positive experience, personalization or win can mean for a customer. These do add up – service is branding.

Verizon gets social service – my experience

I recently was locked out of my Verizon FIOS account. Any time I tried to log in, I ended up in my Verizon Wireless account instead (I am a client of both). I naturally took to Twitter to see if I could get help, and the results were impressive. Inspired by my colleague’s recent post on the connection between service and brand, I wanted to share how well Verizon handled my situation.

I started by following @VerizonSupport, and posted a tweet documenting my situation. I didn’t expect a quick response, but got one fast:

As Verizon recommended, I later started a conversation with a support rep via Twitter direct message. Again, I didn’t expect an immediate reply, but the exchange happened so quickly that it almost seemed like live chat. Every time I checked my direct messages, I had a response from a Verizon rep.

Verizon DM

Unfortunately, the problem couldn’t be solved via Twitter alone, but the Verizon rep had a solution – to kick off a secure live chat so I could share more sensitive information like my username and pin number. There, Reginald reset my password, confirmed I could log in successfully, then… tried an upsell!

Verizon Chat

Now, this was a bold move. You could question whether it was totally necessary. You could ask whether it was truly in the spirit of helping me. But I was receptive to it because the process had gone so well. The outstanding service not only solved my problem, but gave me such a positive brand perception that I was ready to buy. Also, knowing that Reginald likely is paid or bonused on these upsells, I really wanted to reward his great service.

What I liked about this experience:

  1. Service is speed. I like how quickly Verizon responded to all of my inquiries. There never was a note that I would get a response in 24-48 hours. I always got a response quickly. If anything, I was the one who was slow to respond to a tweet or chat message. Note that they had at least two reps staffing the @VerizonSupport Twitter account but the flow was seamless.
  2. Verizon respected my way of communicating. I kicked off the response on Twitter, and at no point did the reps ask me to call a 1-800 number. I love this and can’t say enough how important this is to me. It shows a real commitment to social service – the Twitter account is not just a fake front end for phone service. When they asked me to move to live chat, it was for security reasons (or so they convinced me), so I was receptive. It also was easy – I just clicked a link and went from tweeting with JXJ, MLM and CJH to chatting with Reginald.
  3. I felt better off than before. This is critical in any service reaction – do I feel like I came out ahead when I was done? This is heavy perception, because Verizon just upsold me (which they had been trying to do with direct mail, e-mail and TV pop-ups unsuccessfully), right? But for me, my problem was solved, I got faster FIOS for $5 per month and a free router. I felt better than when I started.

What I learned from this experience:

  1. Service can deliver revenue. I know this from my own teams, but experiencing it myself is always enlightening. When Reginald went for the upsell, I recognized it as such but I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I do the same when Enterprise provides great service at the airport. When this works, it’s a natural payoff of the service interaction. When it doesn’t, it can crash hard. A sales pitch works better when done inside a positive service experience.
  2. Verizon is staffed for true social service. They had multiple reps handling the Twitter account, knew how to seamlessly push me to live chat, and never asked me questions about my account that suggested ineptitude or lack of training. They also never tried to push me to the phone team.
  3. In-app resolution is so important. When I was chatting with Reginald, if he would have told me to check my e-mail for a password reset link, I likely would have bailed (and he would have never gotten to the upsell). Instead, he reset my password for me and waited while I confirmed it worked. The more you can help the client in the current interaction you have, the more likely you are to solve the problem and deliver a positive experience.

Starbucks brand promise

I recently saw (and captured) this Starbucks ad in Time magazine.  I really like how the “barista promise” – a consumer brand promise – is one of service.  It so easily extends to the Starbucks employer brand.  It says, not only will you get great service if you buy coffee at Starbucks, but we’re also a great place to work if you’re inspired by providing that kind of service.  You can either experience the apron or wear it – the ad works both ways.

Starbucks Apron