Saturday, October 13, 2007

Customer Service Everywhere

“In most corporate cultures, customer service is regarded as an afterthought and a cost center,” said Craig Newmark, explaining why great customer service is the exception, not the norm. Craig is the founder of craigslist, the world’s most popular forum for classified advertising. It handles 8 billion page requests per month across 450 craigslist sites, each covering a specific geographic region in all 50 U.S. states and more than 50 countries (more info at craigslist’s fact sheet). By his choice, Craig’s full-time job is customer service representative, addressing craigslist users’ questions, complaints, and problems.

Although almost any executive would agree with Craig’s advocacy for better customer service, I see few following Craig’s method of doing something about it, even part-time. To be clear, I am not counting executives who “talk to customers” by talking to executives at their biggest accounts. While that’s good and appropriate, it’s rarely the same as talking to the people who actually use your product.

An executive should talk to users directly because whether the executive’s product delivers value is determined at the point of use, not at a power lunch with another exec. It sounds obvious, yet so much of corporate and product strategy is based on assumptions about users by people who do not regularly engage with said users. In theory, “customer intelligence” percolates up the corporate hierarchy and/or is collected independently from customer surveys. In practice there’s no substitute for executives having ongoing, direct interactions with a representative sample of actual customers.

But let’s not restrict this to executives.

Engineers should talk to users directly because it makes problems real. For example, if the people in your organization who regularly talk to users can’t convince the engineer responsible that a problem matters, have the engineer talk to a couple users who have been burned by the problem. Your organization has an issue if you constantly need to invoke this, but on an occasional basis it can be just the right medicine.

Sales people should talk to users—after the sale has been made—to really understand how the product is used. That way, the salesperson can tell a story to prospects that is not just compelling but also realistic. “Realistic” is important because if expectations are set right, a whole class of customer-service problems disappears: those where Sales promised X, but after the product is bought and installed, Customer Service must now answer for the fact the product actually does Y.

Maybe it’s too easy for me to take this position, because most of my career has involved a founder-level role in start-ups and business units within larger companies. In the early days of any effort, founders tend to work directly with customers—the execs, the users, and anyone else that might matter—because no one is more qualified to do so (and/or because no one else is available to do so ;). Along the way, it’s natural to use this customer proximity to learn first-hand how to improve the product and the human processes that support it. These elements all fit together because a founder is often responsible for it all.

For bigger companies with established products, it’s different. There are whole organizations for customer service versus product development versus market/customer research. At one of my start-ups, Personify, we were well down that path when we reached the 100-employee mark. Although I still spent a significant amount of time directly with customers—and often with users specifically—it tended to be with the more challenging ones: the biggest/highest-stakes customers, the most creative customers that were exploring the product’s boundaries, and the most messed-up customers that needed turning around.

This sample was not representative. In retrospect, I think it biased my later product-design decisions in a way that favored the edges of the distribution, not the great middle.

Looking back, I had the advantage of having started from a position of being close to all the early customers. For an executive hired into an already established company, I suspect that the institutional barriers would be even higher to getting customer visibility that is first-hand and representative—short of taking Craig’s path and living on the support desk.

But that’s not a reason to avoid the issue. It’s just a warning to be deliberate rather than having your customer contact occur as a byproduct of something else you’re doing—at least if you’re planning on using what you learn to inform other decisions.

Finally, having so far highlighted the benefits of people outside the customer-service org doing customer service, it’s worth noting the reverse. People in Customer Service are great exports to other parts of the company, assuming you haven’t offshored all of Customer Service and thus permanently siloed those people. At Personify, people who started in Customer Service and then went onto other organizations (such as Business Development, Product Marketing, and Presales) were often better performers than their peers. I believe it was because they had a tangible sense for what the company and its product actually did—and did not do—from the customer’s perspective. We tried to explain it via presentations, documentation, training, and tag-alongs in meetings—all of which were no substitute for actually being there and doing it.

The moral of the story: When it comes to serving customers and particularly users, be there and do it. You don’t have to be Craig Newmark, but be more than the person who only knows customers as concepts.

[Update, 3/30/2009: I randomly ran across this BusinessWeek article about, which says: “To make sure that everyone at Amazon understands how customer service works, each employee, even [CEO Jeff] Bezos, spends two days on the service desk every two years. ‘It’s both fun and useful,’ says Bezos. ‘One call I took many years ago was from a customer who had bought 11 things from 11 sellers—and typed in the wrong shipping address.’”]

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