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GREAT.  I was able to contact T-mobile and get my phone to ring for much longer, giving me more time to answer a call in lieu of the now-disabled voicemail system picking up.  That alone has already come in handy, as I have been able to pick up calls from my wife and my techs long after it would have kicked over to voicemail, inevitably leading to phone tag and wasted time.  I’ve instructed my technicians that calls asking for me are to be screened aggressively, and only those which they are completely unable to assist should make it to my desk (as in one customer today who inquired about a custom computer and needed to discuss the options for getting that custom computer.)

Because I am being interrupted less often today, I have managed to mostly finish converting a multi-language website for one of my long-time business clients to a PHP-based and easily managed layout, including langauge-coded folders and more standardization across the board.  This has been difficult to work on for days now because of all of the unnecessary interruptions that customer service matters have caused.  Now that only essential issues reach my ears and break my concentration, my productivity is already seeing a significant boost.

This is the way it should be.  A business owner needs to focus on one thing only: the business and making it better.  Customer-oriented approaches to doing business are as crucial to success as ever, but the best advice I can give to a small business owner starting out is this: learn the value of making the people you supervise handle things; that’s what they’re there for, and you can’t do your job of supporting their efforts if you’re too busy doing theirs. A business relies not only on good personnel who know what they’re doing and have enough authority to help customers sufficiently, but also on good managers who can coordinate and support the creative and assistive forces of those personnel to ensure that they work together optimally.  Put another way, it seems impossible to coordinate and supervise your workers if you spend too much time doing their job and not enough doing your own.

Separating myself from customers and letting my people shine, both on the phone as well as in person, is proving to be crucial to my ability to do my job.  My techs can’t be expected to do work if I’m not out there revamping the website or performing SEO or passing out flyers or hitting up local businesses or whatever else I have to do as the most important manager in the business.

I can’t emphasize enough that this doesn’t mean I won’t ever talk to customers or do tech work myself.  It’s important for a manager of any kind to be “in touch” with what’s going on amongst the managed, and to provide guidance and assistance when it is seriously needed.

The problem is that many of us want our business to succeed so badly that we forget about the high-level management stuff as we worry over minutiae.  I’d say that as of today, I’ve learned that lesson, and I hope that this post helps others to do the same.

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“Well, if we’re all done, I’ll just make myself scarce.”  I don’t know where I picked up the expression, but it’s really cute and gets a chuckle now and then.  In a more serious light, though, “making one’s self scarce” is exactly what I’m doing with phone calls, starting today.  Now, me being a small business owner may incite much questioning about this new policy.  Doesn’t a good business owner answer the phone and talk to customers?  What could possibly be the reason behind this?

There is an article that covers this topic well which deserves an honorable mention: Should You Turn Off Your Telephone? Now I’ll answer the question about why and how I am getting away from the telephone.

I have access to three professional telephone numbers: two at the shop which are daisy-chained together by call forwarding, and my own cell phone.  Both sets of phones have voicemail at the end.  Well, had voicemail.  About 15 minutes ago, I cut my T-mobile voicemail service off completely.  Every time I made a voicemail greeting, it would politely recite the shop phone number, insist on calling that number, texting, or calling back in 10 minutes, and explaining what to press to unblock a call, followed by a request, then a demand, to not leave voicemail because I won’t get it.  That request was not respected at all, and my phone would constantly blip up voicemail notification reminders despite my explicit demands to simply wait on a call back! Where did people lose their ability to understand basic English, and to respect my explicitly spelled out request and warning that I don’t check voicemail?

I felt disrespected beyond belief every time someone left a message.  It’s like they said “okay, I’ll leave one anyway because I don’t give a damn about what YOU want, Mister Smarty-Pants Business Owner!”  It’s like someone else spitting in my face.  There’s no excuse for it.  Nowhere in the realm of human decency is ignoring an explicit request even remotely close to existing, yet people do it daily.  I’ve come to realize that many people simply do not consider the human factor of people in business.  The reasons are obvious, but the most significant one is that each ten-minute conversation to them is one ten-minute conversation, while to me it’s just one ten-minute interval in a huge flood of calls that eventually ruins almost half of my potential work time per day.  I need that time to grow my business, write some software, redesign the website, print business cards, and things like that, but instead it is completely drained away having conversations that my technicians could easily handle if callers would stop demanding to talk exclusively to me for anything and everything under the sun.

I want to be available to help everyone, but I am being forced to come to terms with the fact that I am one person with only 16 hours a day to do everything that must be done.  I understand now why corporate types rarely talk to customers: it’s simply not possible to do that and still get their own jobs within the company finished too.

I have decided that I must take charge of my time.  I must manage my time and treat it as the most precious resource in this company, as well as in my life.  It is limited and non-renewable, and I need to make all of it count for as much as possible.  If that means making a customer upset because they can’t speak directly to me, then so be it.  If a customer would refuse to do business with my business simply because they can’t talk directly to me whenever they feel like it, then I wonder whether they are the kind of customer we are in business to serve.  I hired and mentored a team of professionals so that I could extend my capabilities to more people, and it is extremely important that customers take advantage of their knowledge and willingness to help.

Not to mention the fact that some work might actually get finished around here now…

It’s official: something went severely wrong with the Sylvania G netbook I bought in October.  The keyboard AND POWER BUTTON will completely “lock up” at random and QUICKLY, yet the computer itself still runs in the background, and the hard drive developed a couple of bad sectors (which I remedied by doing a zero fill–more on that in another post).  It’s fairly unusable now, and it’s still within the warranty period, so I called up Sylvania’s support number for help.  The company that actually makes these netbooks is called Digital Gadgets, and it is them who I have dealt with.  So, how did it go?

I haven’t been this happy about a customer service experience EVER.

I explained to the tech that I bought the netbook in October 2008, that I run a computer service shop, and detailed heavily what was wrong and the evidence that I had gathered to make my judgment call that the netbook was screwed up.  Apparently the ink used for the serial number sticker is poor, because it had smudged off to the point that it was unreadable, which I made very clear early on in the call.  This is about where you would expect me to spew off about the run-around I was given and the stupid hoops I had to jump through to prove to the person that it was indeed screwed up, because 99.9% of service and support agents have almost no authority to help customers and are usually in the business of preventing warranty returns at any cost.

But that didn’t happen, not even a tiny little bit.  No run-around?  Surely I jest, right?  WRONG!

The tech support agent, named William Lee, promptly started the process of generating an RMA and took my shipping address to send a totally free return shipping box to.  About eight hours later (and after business hours, no less) I had an RMA number in my email inbox, with instructions on what to do when the box arrived.  As of this writing, the box hasn’t yet appeared, but that’s because I only called them a couple of days ago.

It is astonishingly refreshing to be able to deal with someone like William.  He did everything exactly right, without a single flaw in his procedure.  He LISTENED TO THE CUSTOMER’S PROBLEM, taking the time to ensure he understood exactly what was going on from my perspective.  He also BELIEVED THE CUSTOMER’S STORY AND EXHIBITED BELIEF IN THE CUSTOMER’S GOOD FAITH, which is the exact opposite of what most suppot agents do: showing a lack of faith and general distrust of the customer right off the bat.  Because he LISTENED and BELIEVED, this brought about the UNDERSTANDING  that there was a clear issue covered under the warranty which needed to be resolved quickly as possible.  Within a reasonable time frame, he PROVIDED A SPEEDY RESOLUTION TO THE CUSTOMER’S PROBLEM.

Let me explain exactly why I am writing in this fashion.  William’s example should be followed by all companies, and sadly it is almost nonexistent in the corporate customer service landscape of today.  The benefits to the customer (in this case, myself) are fairly obvious: the problem was resolved quickly and the customer’s precious time was not wasted to achieve that resolution.  But what about the benefits of William’s actions to the BUSINESS?

  1. William spent as little time as possible chatting it up on the telephone.  This left William free to service other customers, reducing overall load on the customer service department at Digital Gadgets.  It also made William a much more valuable asset to the company, because William is able to service more customers than an agent who is given no authority and is required by the company to simply  toss customers through hoops.
  2. On the flip side, William did not abbreviate our conversation.  He spent the time required to understand my situation, but did not ask me to perform senseless exercises when it was quite clear that the problem was hardware-related and not fixable over the phone.
  3. I was heard but not patronized, AND a SIMPLE solution was presented QUICKLY.  This greatly increases my faith in Digital Gadgets as one of their customers, increasing the chances that I will purchase from them in the future AND RECOMMEND THEIR PRODUCTS TO OTHERS  AS WELL.  Over time and across many customers who are similarly situated, this leads to MORE SALES, which can quickly and easily exceed the cost of a warranty repair on my one individual netbook.

William is doing it right.  Other businesses could take a few lessons from how he handled my situation.  I can’t wait to get my fixed toy back in good working order, and I’m very happy to have bought a computer from a company that treats me like a customer should be treated.

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