The Wiggle Room For Warm And Fuzzies

Posted by Mongo Friday, November 12, 2010

I’m such a mooch. LOL. Once again, I am building on another, probably more well thought out, post from Tees In a Pod, called Being Professional Online: No Suit, No Tie, Oh My! In this post, Amanda Ryan discusses what it means to be a professional in a business where you aren’t exactly dressed in a suit. She gives some great tips and advice on how to stay engaged with your customers while maintaining your own brand image and personality.

Reading the post, I got to thinking.  Looking back on my life, I have spent the better part of my adult life in a Customer Service role.  I started out as a paper boy in my youth, providing a service.  After high school, I spent my summer breaks working in the Amusement Park industry which is considered Hospitality.  While ride operators and sweeps may not exactly be your first thought as a Customer Service type of role, consider this for thought.   The function of a “Sweep” or a “Sweeperette,” as we would call them, is to keep the park clean and tidy.  There is also a very strong customer presence as they are the most easily accessible employee for a guest because they are out in the midway along with all of the patrons.  I remember sweeps would carry maps to the park and answer basic questions like “Where are the restrooms?”  These people didn’t wear a tie or a suit.  In fact, you could say that some of them were in really bad outfits that may be considered to look like a lemon lederhosen.  But still, this was the face of your business.  If they didn’t exude charm and professionalism, there is a very noticeable chink in your professional armor.

After college, I worked a bit in assembly of big screen televisions and then as a ride op at a mini golf / go kart park.   After becoming a certified bartender, I started working in a hotel banquet department.  Not so much a shirt and tie atmosphere as one where I wore a uniform that included a shirt and bow tie.   For three years I poured drinks and made nice with fathers of brides and businesses who used our facilities.    My main concern was making sure everything went off without a hitch.  That meant putting in extra time in to make the coffee station look nice and test out the A/V equipment to ensure working projectors and microphones.   Inevitably, you are going to be faced with a bad day or a bad customer experience.  It doesn’t even have to be something that you did.  They could have spilled their coffee on their suit or forgotten to pack their toothbrush.  The point is that as a Customer Service Professional, it’s your job to make sure their experience is a good one.  That way, they’ll come back.

I hung up my bow tie and vest for an office job as a Customer Service Representative in 2001.  I mainly placed orders for other businesses and did basic troubleshooting of equipment for end users.  I would track orders and locate dealers in the area for people as a small part of my job.  From the market’s standpoint, we were a big player with somewhat more expensive equipment than the other manufacturers.  The thing that set us apart was the added warm fuzzy from the excellent customer service we provided.  A lot of companies wouldn’t go some of the extra steps we would to provide our customers with a positive repeatable experience.    It would be another phone call or a transfer or a “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”  Not us, though.  It would be nothing for me to send out a dollar or two’s worth of replacement items, like filters, to a patient who needed them.   

I’m still with the same company but in a different capacity.  I have internal customers now and I am very engaged in how their experiences are with my product.    Technology has made it easier to get in touch with someone but more in a vanilla environment.    Instant messages, comment forms, emails, and all sorts of media allows an associate to contact me about an issue or a suggestion.  However, nine times out of ten, I will get the message and take the opportunity to walk over to them and help them face to face.  I feel it’s easier for them to explain the issue by showing me.  A lot of times it’s an easy fix that can get over architected in an email because they might feel like they have to give me a long explanation.  The same goes with an answer from me.   

If they are in my building, it’s easy.  If they are in another building or half way across the world, I still feel compelled to engage them the best way I can, by communicating to them, not through a piece of technology.   SLAs and SOWs are fancy abbreviations for commitments of expected service to your customer, but nothing says trustworthy and dependable more than someone who is willing to not hide behind a computer.   Of course, the wiggle room is that you can always under promise and over deliver.   It’s nice to be confident in your ability to solve any problem, but don’t raise the bar so high that you can miss it on occasion.

Bringing you up to my current gig as a shirt designer, I can tell you that the 21st century has provided many tools to keep you shouting, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”  Social media tools, like Facebook and Twitter, give customers a platform in which to engage a business in a very visible way.   Message boards and blogs can hurt you as even if you contact the person, who posted an inflammatory review, that posting has been cached somewhere, passed around, copied, reposted and dugg (Is that how Digg refers to itself in the past tense?) perhaps a thousand times over.  It is very hard to eliminate it from the Internet.

But that is not to say that you cannot offer good customer service and good problem resolution in these types of fracas.  First and foremost, realize that this is a customer and while the old adage that “The customer is always right” should apply, you need to be able to offer something without giving away the world.   First, ask them to explain their issue.  Listen to them, repeat their words, but don’t sound like a machine when you talk to them.    It’s very easy to come off patronizing and phony.  Remember, they are already upset, so you are starting off a point down.   Then, ask them what you can do to make it better.    Don’t ever say, “What do you want me to do about it?”  That’s defensive.   Simply say, “How can I help make this situation better?”  Always keep in the back of your mind that you will probably have to part with something in order to smooth issues over.  But it doesn’t have to be a pound of flesh or a customer that you lose.

Now, in the case of POD (Print On Demand) users like myself, the ability to solve situations are not always easy.  A lot of times you never find out that a customer experience was bad until it’s too late to do something about it.  We can be detached from the everyday customer who surfs a site like CafePress or Zazzle, stumbles onto your product, and buys it.  They are passing by like an ant on the ground, carrying a leaf.   PODs provide shopkeepers with some metrics to their sales but you are usually left with a first name and a city of destination in your sales screens.   It’s hard to be able to reach out to your “one off” customers who buy one item and then are never heard from again.  A week or two goes by and you see a “Cancelled” or “Declined” item in your report.  You never find out why?  Was it the POD who shipped the product?  Was it the design?  Was it just a bad combination of size or color choices made by the customer?  In most cases, if there is an issue with a POD order, the customer takes it up with the POD.   The POD handles it and you never find out about it until later.

So, what can you do in that case?  Use those same social tools and your business to help out.  Encourage people, who buy your products, to become a fan on Facebook or follow you on Twitter.  Just don’t blast them with a constant barrage of sales noise or they might stop listening.  Include contact information so that they can get in touch with you about issues.  And remember, as a POD seller, you have a bit of wiggle room to offer a warm and fuzzy.  Let me give you two examples.

I bought a couple of shirts this week from Skreened.  In case you don’t know, Skreened is a Print on Demand and order fulfillment site just like CafePress and Zazzle, but they also have a brick and mortar store in Columbus, OH.  They aren’t as big as CafePress or Zazzle, but they have a more intimate model of customer interaction and service, which is very nice and engaging.   Sometimes smaller, is much better.  Anyway, I placed an order on Thursday, trying to take advantage of their Free Shipping for orders over $50.  Well, due to either an I-D-10-T error or some fluke with the Interwebz, the order didn’t get placed.   So, when I noticed that I had no email confirmation this morning, I figured I would just replace the order and end just pay shipping and be done.   Just in case, I reached out to them and their excellent customer service team reached back.   I wanted to make sure they didn’t have my original order floating around out there and then a duplicate one to boot.   They confirmed no orders were in the system but offered to waive my shipping with the replacement one.    That’s a warm fuzzy to the nth degree.   By all accounts, I was outside the realm of that window.  For whatever reason, the order did not get placed and they were still nice enough to extend that service to me after the fact.  Kudos!

Example number two comes from my crutch peer, Manz.    A few months ago, I bought one of her tees, Bound For Cairo.    I posted pics of the tees I bought to show them off to my peeps.  A bit later I got an email from Manz asking me what I thought about the shirt.  She commented on how something looked on my picture of the shirt.    I didn’t mind it because I was just geeked to have it.    She said, “Let me replace it for you.”    Now, because I’ve been kind of collaborating on a few things and talking back and forth with her, she could have just thrown a bone to a friend.    Or, it could be that she is a great business person and knows how to put on the warm and fuzzy.   In any case, she’s got a fan for life.

That’s the thing about us POD users, we are paid on commission about 45 days out from the sale.   We make a sale and our royalty goes into our ledger or balance.  After the 30 day return period passes our sale goes from pending to completed.  Then, it’s just a matter of payment schedules, which could be up to fifteen days, depending on the site.   However, if you have a good amount of business, you probably already have a built up pool of fund sitting in your account that you can use for self buys or giveaways or… warm and fuzzies.    Someone has a problem, you can easily resolve it without hitting your own pocket.  You simply send them off a replacement or a freebie and charge it back to your account.

In the end, I’m running a business, and the idea is to make a profit.   And along the way, I’ve spent some of my profit buying my shirts, other peoples’ shirts, and other people shirts.    Whether it be a giveaway or a warm and fuzzy, the wiggle room you have to extend that positive repeatable experience to your customers and friends can go miles in the form of favorable reviews and repeat business.     You just need to know where to play, when to go for it, and when to punt. 

Have a good one!


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