Love the customers who hate you

I have been a big proponent of online communities and social media – I have written at least two blog posts on this. So when the latest Business Week arrived with the main section titled “Consumer vigilantes” I could not put it down. The most interesting article among many dealing with social media was titled Love the customers who hate you. This is a must read. The net net of the article is captured in “…… Now don’t get mad at these people. Instead, help them get even with you. These angry customers are doing you a great favor. They care enough about your product or service to tell you exactly what went wrong. Other customers may just desert you and head to the competition. But these are telling you what to fix. Listen to them. Help them. Respond to them. Ask their advice—and they’ll give it to you.” – Enjoy reading.

Passion vs. decibels – How to manage vociferous customers

In my product management career, I have always had some users who were more vociferous than most of the others. Their decibel level when they asked for new enhancements or yelled at you for the bugs in the software was orders of magnitude higher than majority of the users. The vast majority of these users were loud because they cared, they were passionate about your product. Hence, don’t discount these users – listen to them, allow them to vent and take action to fix their problems if appropriate.

However, you as a product manager need to do a fine balancing act you – some of the feature requests from these vociferous users could be for functionality that applies just to them, because of what they use your product for or the unique way in which they do a common task. You have to listen to them, but also be willing to say No with a justifiable reason. All of us ask for more, but not everyone expects to get everything they ask for (if you don’t ask, you don’t get – so there is not much downside to asking). As long as you tell them why you would not do something, they will understand – getting back to them tells them you care.

I remember an instance where I was reading through the enhancement requests we had received when I came across a tirade from a user. It was an email bomb filled with expletives how our product sucked and how he thought we were all a bunch of idiots. I picked up the phone and called the user. I introduced myself and told him that I was calling him about the enhancement request he had send in. First thing he said was a sincere apology for having writing such a tirade (I don’t know if he thought I was going to sue him) and said he was having a bad day and the software was not working the way he wanted to get his job done. I asked him not to be apologetic and asked him to help me understand the deficiency in the software. We spend a good 20 minutes on the phone understanding the issue.

Guess what likely happened after the call – I created a passionate user for our product because I took time to read what he had written (however unpleasant),  call him and discuss the issue to see how we could improve our product so that he can be successful with what he does. Do you think he would have shared this experience with his colleagues or other users in his community? I absolutely think he would have. What happens if he encounters someone else who has a similar gripe – he is going to tell them we care and to talk to us. I created another big proponent who is going to spread the word about our product and about us as a company.

Creating passionate users and listening to them is one of the most important parts of your job as a product manager. After all, the answer is not in the building – it is very important for all of us to get out of our busy schedule of internal meetings and take the time to talk to real users.  After all, they are the ones who buy our product.

Help your customers buy …

I bought a new car last week. I was very clear what I needed – a Toyota Camry Hybrid and knew the exact options I needed. I did all my research on the web in reading user generated reviews, dealer invoice prices and so on. After spending about 3 hours doing all this, I was ready to buy. I wanted the car in a day because my previous car was giving me trouble.

I started making phone calls to Toyota dealers. I told them right upfront:

1) Here is the exact car I need – color, options etc.

2) I don’t have time to haggle

3) I am shopping around calling dealers

4) I am looking to buy tomorrow.

The sales person at the three dealers I called listened and they told me their best price and they had the car – they asked me if I would like to come in to test drive the car – no pressure, here is what you need, here is what we want – none of the traditional pressure tactics that auto dealers are well known for.

I ended up buying the car from Bernardi Toyota because they not only had the lowest  price but they also worked with me respecting my intelligence to come up with a win-win situation regarding my trade in. So what two lessons did I learn as a product manager from this personal experience?

1) Get real users to write reviews about your product. This is much more reliable than what you as a vendor can put out there. I went to the Toyota website only to look at the specs, colors, options etc. I did all my research on sites such as edmunds.com. Organizations always worry about user reviews because they fear bad things will be said about their products and that the competition will get hold off these reviews. Think about it, by promoting candid feedback from your user base, you are actually raising the bar for your competition. Everyone has skeletons in their closets – you are forcing the competition’s hand to do the same. My advice – forget about the competition – be more concerned about what your customers have to say – if they have bad things to say, you should be the first one to know because you are in a position to fix the problem. No matter what you put out, you cannot satisfy everyone – there will be someone who will say something bad about your product. If all you get are bad reviews about your product and you choose to ignore it, you are only buying time before the inevitable happens.

2) Teach your sales people to listen to the customer’s needs and to respect the customer as an intelligent human being. Help the customers buy what they want rather than trying to sell to them. We all love to buy and don’t want to be sold to.

Based on this very positive experience, I recommended Bernardi Toyota to my friend who was also looking to buy a new car and he is buying from them today. “Word of mouth” pays.

Customer Service Experience

How often have you called customer service at credit card companies, airlines, medical benefits and you have been asked to enter information such as your credit card number, your zip code, your social security number, your frequent flyer number etc. and then finally when you get to a live person, the first question is what is your XXXX – the same information that you had entered using the keypad …. Huh!!

Do these folks ever try out their own systems to check out the customer experience? Or is just a tactic to balance the call volume – benefit for them and none for the customer.

BTW, if you want to spare yourselves of this torture, check out gethuman.com

Apple customer service complaints!!

My previous post was about the horrible customer experience at the Apple store. I find out that I am not alone – there are more and more stories on the internet how their customer service is bad. Here is a recent post on San Jose Mercury News – very much along the lines of my experience.

Apple’s So-Called Geniuses Can Do Better: In order to fix my daughter’s iPod, a staffer at an Apple store wanted me to request an appointment with one of their ‘geniuses’ — their word, not mine – San Jose Mercury News 10/15/07

Apple is all about sales – customer service sucks

Yesterday, my Mighty Mouse, only 10 months old and the one I purchased with my iMac, stopped working – all I could do was scroll down and not scroll up. I decided to take it to the nearest Apple store in Natick – about 25 miles away. I also had a $600+ gift card from Apple and I intended to spend it. I am a great fan of Apple products (see my previous post where I have raved about Apple products). I walked in like a kid in a candy store confident that I will get a new mouse and then get some more of new toys with my gift card.

I talk to one of the reps at the store only to be asked if I have an appointment to replace my mouse. Excuse me, now I wondered if I have hearing problems. Yes, he was serious – he said I needed an appointment to talk to someone about getting a new mouse. He refers me to the manager who says the same thing – I needed an appointment with the Genius Bar and if I want, I could wait around 2 hours to see if they could squeeze me in – hallo, first of all, I don’t need a Genius to replace my mouse and two, I was not looking for a doctor’s appointment. I could see that there were at least 10 sales reps in the store, some selling new stuff, others just standing around waiting for customers to whom they could sell stuff. Now here I am, a very loyal customer being told to leave, drive back 50 miles, set up an appointment and then drive back another 50 miles the next day all for replacing a mouse.

None of this reasoning would go anywhere with the store Manager. He told me that they had a system in place and we had to follow the system (hallo, I am the customer) and it was put in place to be respectful of other customers – never mind, this customer being insulted. Only when I told him that I was intending to spend $700 in the store did something dawn on the manager. Not immediately, but after about 10 minutes when he saw me looking at the new iPod. He knew that I was serious about spending the money. He came by after 10 minutes and he said he will do me a favor (sure I am the customer and you are doing me a favor) and exchange the mouse. So why all the hoopla, if you could do this – it took him a mere 5 minutes. Amazing !!

Apple got away lucky – I had an Apple gift card and hence I was a captive customer. I could not exchange the card for money to spend it elsewhere – who knows even if I could do, I am sure that would need another Genius Bar appointment. I ended up spending all the money getting my new iPod, iPod shuffle and the Bose sound dock.

While I am happy with my new toys, I can tell you that I am still shocked at the horrible experience. Does this mean that as long as you churn out great products and the world is beating a path to your door, you can get away with horrible customer service? Maybe Apple will – but I don’t think this is a model anyone else would want to follow. After all, history is loaded with examples where companies once market darlings found themselves out of reckoning (Just ask Dell), when they forgot what got them there – the customer !! If my experience is what loyal customers get from Apple, maybe Apple deserves no better. Apple, you have got arrogant.

Wonderful customer experience – Fallon Clinic

My previous post was about how product managers should think more about customer experiences. I had mentioned about how I have had the most memorable product experiences when I bought my iPod and my iMac. Here is another one that is service related that has truly been enjoyable. For the last one year, we have been seeing doctors who are associated with Fallon Clinic. I am truly impressed by their service because of the attention they have paid to details. Everytime, I show up for my appointment, they print a page of labels with all the pertinent information – my name, my phone number, my address etc. on these labels. The doctor then uses the labels on all the forms, prescriptions that he writes. Not a big deal you think until you show up at the pharmacy or at the labs. I no longer have to repeat all this information over and over. I use the pharmacy drive thru, hand off the prescription and off I go – nothing else said – the label has all the information the pharmacy needs.

This is a classic example of walking thru the entire customer experience and then designing a solution. Fallon Clinic did not have to do this, they could have easily dropped this feature and put the onus on me – after all by showing up for the appointment, the clinic get its money. Instead, they chose to make my life easier – net result they have won a long term customer who is now spreading the word.