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Joel on Software

Seven steps to remarkable customer service

by Joel Spolsky
Monday, February 19, 2007

As a bootstrapped software company, Fog Creek couldn’t afford to hire customer service people for the first couple of years, so Michael and I did it ourselves. The time we spent helping customers took away from improving our software, but we learned a lot and now we have a much better customer service operation.

Here are seven things we learned about providing remarkable customer service. I’m using the word remarkable literally—the goal is to provide customer service so good that people remark.

1. Fix everything two ways

Almost every tech support problem has two solutions. The superficial and immediate solution is just to solve the customer’s problem. But when you think a little harder you can usually find a deeper solution: a way to prevent this particular problem from ever happening again.

Sometimes that means adding more intelligence to the software or the SETUP program; by now, our SETUP program is loaded with special case checks. Sometimes you just need to improve the wording of an error message. Sometimes the best you can come up with is a knowledge base article.

We treat each tech support call like the NTSB treats airliner crashes. Every time a plane crashes, they send out investigators, figure out what happened, and then figure out a new policy to prevent that particular problem from ever happening again. It’s worked so well for aviation safety that the very, very rare airliner crashes we still get in the US are always very unusual, one-off situations.

This has two implications.

One: it’s crucial that tech support have access to the development team. This means that you can’t outsource tech support: they have to be right there at the same street address as the developers, with a way to get things fixed. Many software companies still think that it’s “economical” to run tech support in Bangalore or the Philippines, or to outsource it to another company altogether. Yes, the cost of a single incident might be $10 instead of $50, but you’re going to have to pay $10 again and again.

When we handle a tech support incident with a well-qualified person here in New York, chances are that’s the last time we’re ever going to see that particular incident. So with one $50 incident we’ve eliminated an entire class of problems.

Somehow, the phone companies and the cable companies and the ISPs just don’t understand this equation. They outsource their tech support to the cheapest possible provider and end up paying $10 again and again and again fixing the same problem again and again and again instead of fixing it once and for all in the source code. The cheap call centers have no mechanism for getting problems fixed; indeed, they have no incentive to get problems fixed because their income depends on repeat business, and there’s nothing they like better than being able to give the same answer to the same question again and again.

The second implication of fixing everything two ways is that eventually, all the common and simple problems are solved, and what you’re left with is very weird uncommon problems. That’s fine, because there are far fewer of them, and you’re saving a fortune not doing any rote tech support, but the downside is that there’s no rote tech support left: only serious debugging and problem solving. You can’t just teach new support people ten common solutions: you have to teach them to debug.

For us, the “fix everything two ways” religion has really paid off. We were able to increase our sales tenfold while only doubling the cost of providing tech support.

2. Suggest blowing out the dust

Microsoft’s Raymond Chen tells the story of a customer who complains that the keyboard isn’t working. Of course, it’s unplugged. If you try asking them if it’s plugged in, “they will get all insulted and say indignantly, ‘Of course it is! Do I look like an idiot?’ without actually checking.”

“Instead,” Chen suggests, “say ‘Okay, sometimes the connection gets a little dusty and the connection gets weak. Could you unplug the connector, blow into it to get the dust out, then plug it back in?’

“They will then crawl under the desk, find that they forgot to plug it in (or plugged it into the wrong port), blow out the dust, plug it in, and reply, ‘Um, yeah, that fixed it, thanks.’”

Many requests for a customer to check something can be phrased this way. Instead of telling them to check a setting, tell them to change the setting and then change it back “just to make sure that the software writes out its settings.”

3. Make customers into fans

Every time we need to buy logo gear here at Fog Creek, I get it from Lands’ End.

Why?

Let me tell you a story. We needed some shirts for a trade show. I called up Lands’ End and ordered two dozen, using the same logo design we had used for some knapsacks we bought earlier.

When the shirts arrived, to our dismay, you couldn’t read the logo.

It turns out that the knapsacks were brighter than the polo shirts. The thread color that looked good on the knapsacks was too dark to read on the shirts.

I called up Lands’ End. As usual, a human answered the phone even before it started ringing. I’m pretty sure that they have a system where the next agent in the queue is told to standby, so customers don’t even have to wait one ringy-dingy before they’re talking to a human.

I explained that I screwed up.

They said, “Don’t worry. You can return those for a full credit, and we’ll redo the shirts with a different color thread.”

I said, “The trade show is in two days.”

They said they would Fedex me a new box of shirts and I’d have it tomorrow. I could return the old shirts at my convenience.

They paid shipping both ways. I wasn’t out a cent. Even though they had no possible use for a bunch of Fog Creek logo shirts with an illegible logo, they ate the cost.

And now I tell this story to everyone who needs swag. In fact I tell this story every time we’re talking about telephone menu systems. Or customer service. By providing remarkable customer service, they’ve gotten me to remark about it.

When customers have a problem and you fix it, they’re actually going to be even more satisfied than if they never had a problem in the first place.

It has to do with expectations. Most people’s experience with tech support and customer service comes from airlines, telephone companies, cable companies, and ISPs, all of whom provide generally awful customer service. It’s so bad you don’t even bother calling any more, do you? So when someone calls Fog Creek, and immediately gets through to a human, with no voice mail or phone menus, and that person turns out to be nice and friendly and actually solves their problem, they’re apt to think even more highly of us than someone who never had the opportunity to interact with us and just assumes that we’re average.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to actually make something go wrong, just so we have a chance to demonstrate our superior customer service. Many customers just won’t call; they’ll fume quietly.

But when someone does call, look at it as a great opportunity to create fanatically devoted customer, one who will prattle on and on about what a great job you did.

4. Take the blame

One morning I needed an extra set of keys to my apartment, so on the way to work, I went to the locksmith around the corner.

13 years living in an apartment in New York City has taught me never to trust a locksmith; half of the time their copies don’t work. So I went home to test the new keys, and, lo and behold, one didn’t work.

I took it back to the locksmith.

He made it again.

I went back home and tested the new copy.

It still didn’t work.

Now I was fuming. Squiggly lines were coming up out of my head. I was a half hour late to work and had to go to the locksmith for a third time. I was tempted just to give up on him. But I decided to give this loser one more chance.

I stomped into the store, ready to unleash my fury.

“It still doesn’t work?” he asked. “Let me see.”

He looked at it.

I was sputtering, trying to figure out how best to express my rage at being forced to spend the morning going back and forth.

“Ah. It’s my fault,” he said.

And suddenly, I wasn’t mad at all.

Mysteriously, the words “it’s my fault” completely defused me. That was all it took.

He made the key a third time. I wasn’t mad any more. The key worked.

And, here I was, on this planet for forty years, and I couldn’t believe how much the three words “it’s my fault” had completely changed my emotions in a matter of seconds.

Most locksmiths in New York are not the kinds of guys to admit that they’re wrong. Saying “it’s my fault” was completely out of character. But he did it anyway.

5. Memorize awkward phrases

I figured, OK, since the morning is shot anyway, I might as well go to the diner for some breakfast.

It’s one of those classic New York diners, like the one on Seinfeld. There’s a thirty page menu and a kitchen the size of a phone booth. It doesn’t make sense. They must have Star Trek technology to get all those ingredients into such a small space. Maybe they rearrange atoms on the spot.

I was sitting by the cash register.

An older woman came up to pay her check. As she was paying, she said to the owner, “you know, I’ve been coming here for years and years, and that waiter was really rather rude to me.”

The owner was furious.

“What do you mean? No he wasn’t! He’s a good waiter! I never had a complaint!’

The customer couldn’t believe it. Here she was, a loyal customer, and she wanted to help out the owner by letting him know that one of his waiters needed a little bit of help in the manners department, but the owner was arguing with her!

“Well, that’s fine, but I’ve been coming here for years, and everybody is always very nice to me, but that guy was rude to me,” she explained, patiently.

“I don’t care if you’ve been coming here forever. My waiters are not rude.” The owner proceeded to yell at her. “I never had no problems. Why are you making problems?”

“Look, if you’re going to treat me this way I won’t come back.”

“I don’t care!” said the owner. One of the great things about owning a diner in New York is that there are so many people in the city that you can offend every single customer who ever comes into your diner and you’ll still have a lot of customers. “Don’t come back! I don’t want you as a customer!”

Good for you, I thought. Here’s a 60-something year old man, owner of a diner, and you won some big moral victory against a little old lady. Are you proud of yourself? How macho do you have to be? Does the moral victory make you feel better? Did you really have to lose a repeat customer?

Would it have made you feel totally emasculated to say, “I’m so sorry. I’ll have a word with him?”

It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional heat of the moment when someone is complaining.

The solution is to memorize some key phrases, and practice saying them, so that when you need to say them, you can forget your testosterone and make a customer happy.

“I’m sorry, it’s my fault.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t accept your money. The meal’s on me.”

“That’s terrible, please tell me what happened so I can make sure it never happens again.”

It’s completely natural to have trouble saying “It’s my fault.” That’s human. But those three words are going to make your angry customers much happier. So you’re going to have to say them. And you’re going to have to sound like you mean it.

So start practicing.

Say “It’s my fault” a hundred times one morning in the shower, until it starts to sound like syllabic nonsense. Then you’ll be able to say it on demand.

One more point. You may think that admitting fault is a strict no-no that can get you sued. This is nonsense. The way to avoid getting sued is not to have people who are mad at you. The best way to do this is to admit fault and fix the damn problem.

6. Practice puppetry

The angry diner owner clearly took things very personally, in a way that the locksmith didn’t. When an irate customer is complaining, or venting, it’s easy to get defensive.

You can never win these arguments, and if you take them personally, it’s going to be a million times worse. This is when you start to hear business owners saying, “I don’t want an asshole like you for a customer!” They get excited about their Pyrrhic victory. Wow, isn’t it great? When you’re a small business owner you get to fire your customers. Charming.

The bottom line is that this is not good for business, and it’s not even good for your emotional well-being. When you win a victory with a customer by firing them, you still end up feeling riled up and angry, they’ll get their money back from the credit card company anyway, and they’ll tell a dozen friends. As Patrick McKenzie writes, “You will never win an argument with your customer.”

There is only one way to survive angry customers emotionally: you have to realize that they’re not angry at you; they’re angry at your business, and you just happen to be a convenient representative of that business.

And since they’re treating you like a puppet, an iconic stand-in for the real business, you need to treat yourself as a puppet, too.

Pretend you’re a puppeteer. The customer is yelling at the puppet. They’re not yelling at you. They’re angry with the puppet.

Your job is to figure out, “gosh, what can I make the puppet say that will make this person a happy customer?”

You’re just a puppeteer. You’re not a party to the argument. When the customer says, “what the hell is wrong with you people,” they’re just playing a role (in this case, they’re quoting Tom Smykowski in the movie Office Space). You, too, get to play a role. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault.” Figure out what to make the puppet do that will make them happy and stop taking it so dang personally.

7. Greed will get you nowhere

Recently I was talking with the people who have been doing most of the customer service for Fog Creek over the last year, and I asked what methods they found most effective for dealing with angry customers.

“Frankly,” they said, “we have pretty nice customers. We haven’t really had any angry customers.”

Well, OK, we do have nice customers, but it seems rather unusual that in a year of answering the phones, nobody was angry. I thought the nature of working at a call center was dealing with angry people all day long.

“Nope. Our customers are nice.”

Here’s what I think. I think that our customers are nice because they’re not worried. They’re not worried because we have a ridiculously liberal return policy: “We don’t want your money if you’re not amazingly happy.”

Customers know that they have nothing to fear. They have the power in the relationship. So they don’t get abusive.

The no-questions-asked 90-day money back guarantee was one of the best decisions we ever made at Fog Creek. Try this: use Fog Creek Copilot for a full 24 hours, call up three months later and say, “hey guys, I need $5 for a cup of coffee. Give me back my money from that Copilot day pass,” and we’ll give it back to you. Try calling on the 91st or 92nd or 203rd day. You’ll still get it back. We really don’t want your money if you’re not satisfied. I’m pretty sure we’re running the only job listing service around that will refund your money just because your ad didn’t work. This is unheard of, but it means we get a lot more ad listings, because there’s nothing to lose.

Over the last six years or so, letting people return software has cost us 2%.

2%.

And you know what? Most customers pay with credit cards, and if we didn’t refund their money, a bunch of them would have called their bank. This is called a chargeback. They get their money back, we pay a chargeback fee, and if this happens too often, our processing fees go up.

Know what our chargeback rate is at Fog Creek?

0%.

I’m not kidding.

If we were tougher about offering refunds, the only thing we would possibly have done is pissed a few customers off, customers who would have ranted and whined on their blogs. We wouldn’t even have kept more of their money.

I know of software companies who are very explicit on their web site that you are not entitled to a refund under any circumstances, but the truth is, if you call them up, they will eventually return your money because they know that if they don’t, your credit card company will. This is the worst of both worlds. You end up refunding the money anyway, and you don’t get to give potential customers the warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, so they hesitate before buying. Or they don’t buy at all.

8. (Bonus!) Give customer service people a career path

The last important lesson we learned here at Fog Creek is that you need very highly qualified people talking to customers. A salesperson at Fog Creek needs to have significant experience with the software development process and needs to be able to explain why FogBugz works the way it does, and why it makes software development teams function better. A tech support person at Fog Creek can’t get by on canned answers to common questions, because we’ve eliminated the common questions by fixing the software, so tech support here has to actually troubleshoot which often means debugging.

Many qualified people get bored with front line customer service, and I’m OK with that. To compensate for this, I don’t hire people into those positions without an explicit career path. Here at Fog Creek, customer support is just the first year of a three-year management training program that includes a master’s degree in technology management at Columbia University. This allows us to get ambitious, smart geeks on a terrific career path talking to customers and solving their problems. We end up paying quite a bit more than average for these positions (especially when you consider $25,000 a year in tuition), but we get far more value out of them, too.


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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A game of inches



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