Dan's Blog

March 12, 2010

Good service

Filed under: Customer Service — ddswanson01 @ 1:26 pm

Almost every position I’ve held has been in the customer support/service area, and quality of service is important to me. To me, the customer’s perception of quality of service is almost always dependent on the customer’s interaction with an individual service agent. If the agent is good, the service is perceived as being of good quality. Who is a ‘service agent’? My definition is “Anyone in a company or organization who deals with customers on a regular basis”. In my case, I managed Product Support agents, and everyone has dealt with Customer Service agents. But Sales Representatives, receptionists, cashiers, and wait staff are service agents as well.

If your company is in the customer service business (and almost everyone is, no?) there are some corollaries to the observation that the agent determines the customer perception of service quality:

  • If a particular customer almost always deals with the same agent, then your company’s reputation, in the eyes of that customer, is in the care of a single agent. You can’t afford to have a bad agent in this situation. This is one reason why two customers might have widely differing perceptions of your company’s service quality.
  • If a customer’s first experience with one of your agents is bad, it is very difficult to repair your reputation with that customer.
  • If your agents consistently provide a customer with good service, that customer is usually willing to overlook an isolated instance of poor service, but it is not easy to overcome a poor start.
  • If a customer regularly deals with several different agents, and one of them is good and the others are not as good, the customer is going to try to contact the good agent, regardless of the issue. So if you have a poor support rep and a great sales rep, your customers will tend to take their support problems to the sales rep. So a ‘bad’ agent, in almost any department, can make the job tougher on a good agent, even in a totally different department.

Again in my opinion, good agents:

  • Are pleasant, easy to reach, and good listeners
  • Know how to uncover what the customer needs. Customers don’t always say what they need or need what they say. A poor agent solves problems the customer doesn’t really have.
  • Never say “That’s not my job.” The customer’s issue might be ‘not an issue I (or even ‘my group’) can resolve’ but it is ALWAYS a service agent’s job to help the customer. Helping the customer reach someone who can resolve the issue is part of the job. Following up later is also part of the job, and that customer contact is open until the issue is addressed.
  • Usually have the right answer to most customer issues, but when they don’t, they are empowered to say “I don’t know, but I will find out for you”. And then follow up, find the answer, and get back to the customer. It is never acceptable to knowingly give wrong answers to customers to avoid the work of finding out the right answers.

When I was first hired as Manager of Support, I promised my company that nobody who worked for me would ever say “That’s not my job.” I never hired or had to release someone who had that attitude.

I dealt with customer service agents three times yesterday. One of them said “You need to contact <someone else> to help you”. I wasn’t happy to hear that, but she was right. Another one of them said “I don’t know the answer. Hold on and I’ll find it.” And she did. The third one (a guy this time) unraveled what I needed from what I said and gave me the correct answer. Whenever I find good service, I like to acknowledge it, and I did. When I’m the boss, that’s how I want my organization to operate. It should be everywhere you look; unfortunately it’s not.

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March 4, 2010

Discussion Boards in elearning.

Filed under: education,elearning — ddswanson01 @ 7:47 am

A few years ago, I participated in an online program, given by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on ‘How to Teach Online’. We used one of the dominant online learning platforms in the market at the time, so the participants got to find out what it was like to be a student in an online course, in a distance learning environment. One of the biggest time-sinks was the discussion board. I tried to read every post my fellow students made, and I had to log on several times a day to keep current, or I could easily get behind to the point that it took me 45 minutes or longer to catch up.

Participation in the discussions was part of the grade; the instructors had some rubrics for judging both quantity and quality of posts. In discussions, the instructors indicated that evaluating discussion responses took more time than even preparation for the course. At the time, there weren’t many tools included to help in this evaluation. I’ve unfortunately not familiar with the cutting edge improvements in online learning tools, so I hope this post covers new ground – it’s new to me, at least.

After my first couple of days reading the discussion board, I asked my fellow learners if perhaps we could institute a rule that said ‘If all you are going to say to a comment is “I agree” please don’t post.’ There was a lot of pushback on this; for some people, agreeing with what was said was their major contribution to a discussion. I didn’t think of it at the time, but another reason for these short comments is affirmation. Some people are shy about posting (not me!), and seeing several people agreeing with their posts made it easier for these folks to post subsequent messages. But to me, it wasted a lot of screen space, plus my time, having to scroll through all these short messages with virtually no content.

Facebook has addressed this nicely with the “Like” button. This is a neat way for those whose only response to a post is “I agree” to provide that response without taking up screen space. It does more than that; it counts the number of people who agree.  This might be something instructors are interested in.  Combined with other information, this tool might help evaluate student participation in discussions.

The discussion board in this particular platform came with only two tools that I knew about to help evaluate discussions; they counted the number of threads a particular student started, and they counted the number of times a student posted a comment. These didn’t help much in performing a qualitative analysis, though. I don’t know if there was a tool that counted the number of responses a thread got, but a tool that counts ‘significant’ responses to a thread and gives the instructor a way to define ‘significant’ might be useful in the qualtitative analysis of discussion board postings.

What about qualitative analysis, assisted by the computer? It could be useful to see how many keywords each student used in a particular thread, but defining keywords in advance takes a lot of time and thought. How about a tool that reads through a thread when it is finished (or even still in progress), and provides the instructor with a list of words used in that thread?  The list would be appropriately filtered, to keep out ‘a’ and ‘the’, etc, and sorted by frequency of use.  The instructor would select keywords from the list appropriate to the thread and save them in a file associated with that thread.

The instructor can certainly ‘prime’ this list by posting comments that use some of the desired keywords for a particular topic, but this kind of tool would allow students to bring their own ingenuity into the keyword analysis as well. If thread topics and the associated keyword files can be saved in a library separate from any individual course, they can easily be reused in the future.

If I were being interviewed by a Product Manager, I would request this functionality:

  • can run tool on a thread topic which already has a keyword file to add new words to the file
  • keywords already in the file are distinguished from words not in the file
  • can associate an existing keyword list with a new or existing thread topic
  • add keywords words directly to any existing list
  • delete words from a list
  • merge two existing lists

Finally, build another tool that evaluates the keyword density by each participant in a thread. I wouldn’t use this tool on its own, but it could be used as an indicator, particularly for finding students who don’t add much value to a thread, or maybe go off topic a lot.

I know that CollegeBoard has built a similar but much more complex tool for evaluating essays. You feed it several hundred essays on a particular topic, already graded by humans, and it learns the characteristics for good, average, and poor essays on this topic. You can then feed it ungraded essays, and it grades them. The tool is only as good as the sample, and it should never be used as the sole source of a grade, but I understand that the correlation between the grade given by the tool when it is well-trained and the grades given by well-trained human readers is very good, and often better than the correlation between two different human readers.

Of course, a good Product Manager doesn’t just add ‘nifty’ features to a product but instead uncovers the needs of the target audience. In this case, I’m talking as part of the target audience instead of as a Product Manager.

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