Semi-Offtopic: The Passion of the Customers

I haven’t worked at Quill in years but I just remembered my favorite thing about the place: there is a wall right next to the breakroom which is devoted to customer service (have I mentioned that they’re fanatics about this?) It has daily metrics (I was never quite sure how they were gathered, but I suppose there must be a combination of phone surveys and automagically collected data) covering all the usual suspects: what percentage of customers are very satisfied, satisfied, etc; what percentage of orders had errors and where in the chain that error was localized to (one summer there was a spike on that graph, from “absurdly low” to “industry standard”, directly attributable to my team. You can draw your own conclusions as to how many of us kept our jobs.)

But my favorite part of the wall was letters. Quill had, to my knowledge as a lowly worker bee, two policies regarding letters: first, they were all collected and any workers individually singled out in them had the action noted on a publicly-visible board and in their file (and Quill would FIND you: there was at least one letter addressed to “that lovely Spanish woman with the Texan accent” and, by God, she got the credit for it). Second, the letters and/or copies (some people couldn’t bear to part with them) were posted on the bulletin board next to the numbers.

Anyhow, my favorite letter wasn’t a letter at all. It was a prayer card from a convent in, as I recall, New York. For anonymity’s sake we’ll call them the Sisters of Perpetual Gladness. Oh, they were a happy bunch, and it was contagious. Do you know why we had a prayer card from the Sisters of Perpetual Gladness? I don’t, because the people named on the card (whom the Sisters had dedicated a novena to — thats nine days of prayer, for you non-Catholics in the room) wouldn’t say exactly what they had done. Thats my personal metric for customer excellence: Nuns Praying For You (NPFY). Paypal, yeah, there’s a NPFY-0 business if I ever saw one. Quill probably has the highest NPFY of any any business I’ve ever been associated with. Keep in mind we were earning NPFY60+ for, well, prompt delivery of paper and pens.
But the Sisters were loyal customers and in Order Entry we lived for their call. I got one once — it made my year. And the Sister blessed me, too. I blessed her back, which was probably technically against company policy (although if you’ve been reading closely you know that when stacked against customer satisfaction policies were more like guidelines and guidelines were more like advice and advice was more like suggestions and suggestions were more like comments). Anyhow, for the Sisters, if they had asked Order Entry “We’d like an 18-wheeler filled full of printer paper and the most we’re willing to pay is, hmm, nothing. Oh, overnight delivery, too.” the only thing we would have said is “But Sister, where will we put your cookies?”

There was only one problem with the Sisters. We had some heavy-duty CRM (customer relations management) software at Quill. It supported locking a customer to one particular desk or extension — for example, if you’re the Big Important Government Account with a 6,000 page bid request your order is probably too important to be handled by $10-an-hour me, so you got locked to a specialist. The Sisters did not require any special handling like that. As a matter of fact, they required a specially-written rule to ban handling like that for their account. The reason was that every lowly worker bee could put a special handling restriction on an account, and everyone could take off a restriction from someone at equal-or-less access level, which made the Sisters’ account history look like a Wiki revert war (“They’re MINE!” “NO, they’re MINE!” “My family is from New York! I should get to call them*” “But you’re Jewish!” “So are you!” “Yeah, but I dated a Catholic once!” etc, etc)

* The Sisters’ order always had a problem requiring calling them, immediately. Typically, it was that they had missed an opportunity to get free cookies. At any given time, you see, Quill had hundreds or thousands of promotions running. Dozens of these ended in the punch-line “Free Mrs. Fields’ Cookies”. We got a very stern notice every month “Here are a list of the new promotion codes, in case a customer forgets. Remember, Mrs. Fields’ Cookies are NOT appropriate as a we’re-sorry and the customer must specifically mention the promotion to receive the premium.” An exceptionally morally upright employee would phrase the phone call something like this:

“God bless you. This is Sisters of Perpetual Gladness, Sister Mary speaking. How can I help you?”

“Hello Sister Mary, this is Bob for Quill Corporation Office Supplies. I was wondering if I could speak to you about your order of *checks watch* two minutes ago?”

“Oh, certainly.”

“Well, Sister Mary, we reviewed your order and there seems to be a problem. The last 47 times you’ve ordered with Quill, you ordered one free tub of Mrs. Fields’ Cookies. We see there are no cookies on this order, and wondered if there might be an omission.”

“Oh, thats certainly kind of you, but we didn’t see the free offer…”

Didn’t see? Why, no problem, we can look it up for you. Do you know what catalog you were using?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I don’t have it in front of me.”

“Hmm, I’ll bet it was the *check premium list* California july legal small offices circular.”

“Err, are you sure?”

“Well, did your catalog have the word Quill and some brightly colored office supplies on the front cover?”

“Yes, yes, it did.”

“Well, mystery solved! So did the circular. The promo was on page 437b. Oh, don’t worry, I’ll go right ahead and get this order and your cookies you to you. You don’t have to do a thing.”

“Why, thank you very much young man. God bless you.”

“God bless you too, Sister Mary.”

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3 Comments on “Semi-Offtopic: The Passion of the Customers”

  1. Dan X Says:

    Thank you for your uplifting, inspiring article.

    Unfortunately the object of business is making money, and you do so by serving at least 95% of the customers in a way that makes them happy and makes them will buy from you again.

    At Quill, it’s obvious that their support policy produced this effect.

    However, I don’t see how this applies when selling software.

    If the product is well written, 95% of the customers will NOT require support.

    The rest of 5% will require support.

    You say – offer those 5% an outstanding experience, be extremely helpful, and bend over backwards for them.

    I say – offer those 5% a standard support experience which helps the customer but doesn’t cost you a lot of time and money.

    Then, take the (time & money) savings obtained this way and invest it in satisfying the rest of the customers (the 95%) that don’t require support. Offer them a substantial free upgrade, for example, or offer them a coupon for downloading 5 free MP3s from Yahoo Music (or Zune).

    I claim that my strategy is a lot more likely to generate word of mouth.

  2. Dan X Says:

    by “word of mouth” I mean that happy customers will tell other people that the product is great, and the other people will buy it.

  3. Lou Says:

    I believe in over-the-top support that makes people think that they can’t live without your product. Almost all of the time, this takes no more time than standard support — as long as it can be done via email and forums.

    Mostly, it’s just being nice, empathizing with them — apologizing for inconvenience. I find that it gets appreciated. The difference between that and standard shows up in fewer returns by people who get frustrated and give up. Once someone has given you money, the cost to keep that is much lower than the cost to acquire a new customer, I think.

    But I agree on improving the product as being the best support.


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