Innovation in Anonymity

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

I recently had two MRI scans on my back. Magnetic resonance imaging is a wonderful technology that enables doctors to see inside the body with depth and precision that conventional x-rays can’t match.

But MRIs are also mysterious and even frightening procedures for patients. A person is drawn inside a small cylinder and subjected to a series of loud noises for as much as 45 minutes. The attending radiologist told me that about 80% of patients experience some kind of claustrophobic stress, forcing technicians to frequently paused the procedure to calm them down.

I should have known about all this because my MRI provider’s website features a wonderful interactive experience that describes the benefits of MRI in a collage of high-resolution images and video tutorials. It also has a multimedia tour of the MRI experience that even includes samples of the odd sounds patients hear. This information would have been immensely useful to me if I’d known it existed, but I didn’t learn of the feature until weeks after the procedures, when I stumbled upon it in the context of a different discussion.

In fact, at no time during my interactions with people at the MRI center did anyone inform me that this resource existed. It wasn’t listed on the company’s letterhead or the preparatory documents sent to patients. A software project that had no doubt cost the company thousands of dollars was barely even referenced on the provider’s homepage.

Failure to Promote

This situation is all too common in businesses. Technology innovators dream up clever new ways to serve their customers and then don’t tell anyone about it. Customer service reps and automated voice response systems routinely refer visitors to generic homepages with meaningless statements like, “more information is available on our website.” But who has the time to go and find it?

Somewhere inside these companies a disconnect has occurred between the technologists and the people who interact with customers. Businesses assume it’s okay to hire service reps who haven’t a shred of technical expertise because those skills aren’t required to interact with the public. IT people are taught to do their jobs and then go home. Cooperating with others to promote the tools they build isn’t part of the job description.

But it should be. Today’s customers are too busy to spend time searching for resources they don’t know exist. The people who commission customer-facing projects may move on to other jobs or companies, leaving their creations without a sponsor.

IT people need to step up to the plate and promote the fruits of their labors because no one else is going to do it. Here are some steps my MRI provider could have taken:

If you are a as if it is a Promote the resource in printed documents – Health-care providers produce lots of paper, yet none of the informational documents I received even mentioned the website experience.

Post signs — A poster in the lobby or window could have alerted me to the existence of this great application.

Train customer service personnel — In my multiple phone calls with the clerical staff, no one recommended that I even visit the website.

Set up a lobby demo — PCs are cheap; why not make it easy for customers in the waiting room to learn what the company has offer?

This adds up to an opportunity missed for some innovative IT person whose creativity and hard work won’t receive the recognition it deserves. Don’t let your good work go to waste because you forgot to tell anyone about it.

Making It or Breaking It with Customer Service

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

On June 13, Vincent Ferrari decided he no longer needed his $14.95-per-month account with a major online service provider. Ferrari had heard stories about the company’s notoriously poor customer service, so on a hunch, he wired his phone to record the conversation.

What he got is a marketer’s nightmare. After waiting 15 minutes on hold, Ferrari finally spoke to a customer service rep who spent the next five minutes insisting that he shouldn’t cancel the account. Despite Ferrari’s repeated requests to “Cancel…the…account,” the agent wouldn’t give up. The exchange reached the height of absurdity when the rep asked to speak to Ferrari’s father. Ferrari is 30.

There was a time when a story like this would have been shared and laughed over with a few friends. But this is the age of the blog and Ferrari did what any self-respecting blogger does these days. He posted the recording.

The response was overwhelming. More than 1,000 readers weighed in with comments, many lamenting their own customer service horror stories with the vendor. Ferrari was interviewed on the Today show. Google news lists 32 news accounts of the incident. The recording was downloaded more than 65,000 times from YouTube. Demand was so high that Ferrari’s blog server crashed. You can read his story here.

The conventional wisdom that a dissatisfied customer tells 10 people about a bad experience is outdated. Today, they tell millions. Social media is unforgiving in this way. Consider the poor vendor in this situation. One negative exchange with a customer resulted in a firestorm of bad publicity that was wholly out of proportion to the offense. Ferrari had a juicy story to tell and the media loves a juicy story.

For many businesses, customer service is a neglected afterthought. Squeezed to cut costs, businesses are increasingly marginalizing the customer experience by inserting automated phone systems and ponderous Web interfaces between themselves and their clients. Or they’re outsourcing the whole thing overseas. The result is that customers are becoming more and more disenfranchised. And they’re going to sites like The Consumerist to vent their frustration.

I set out today to write about innovative customer service, but in researching the topic, I discovered so much rancor about the state of customer service that I changed course. It seems to me that in the outsourced, cost-controlled, Webified and automated business world, innovative customer service is increasingly about going back to basics. It’s about providing your customers with a speedy, hassle-free exchange with a pleasant human being who genuinely appreciates the customer’s business.

Think of the businesses you patronize that give you good customer service. What do they do right? Chances are they make a positive customer experience part of their value system. Whether it’s an efficient web design, a helpful e-mail newsletter service, a pleasant telephone support staff or a cheerful hello at the checkout counter, they show you that they appreciate you as a person, not just an account number.

So innovative customer service these days isn’t about innovation so much as it’s about core values. Getting back to basics. Sweating the details. How important is a happy customer to you? How dangerous is an unhappy one?

Let’s close with a positive anecdote. The other day, my regular Federal Express delivery guy rang my doorbell just to tell me that it was starting to rain and he had noticed the top was down on my convertible. He didn’t have tell me that; I’m sure he had plenty of deliveries to make. But he took literally one minute out of his day to help a steady customer. I will remember that small courtesy for a long time and will tell other people about it. In fact, I just did!

What are businesses doing to make you a happy customer? Share your stories in the comments below.