23 March 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project



That unlikely heading begins a minirant on the subject of customer service.  Not the usual anecdote of what this or that company did to me, of which we all have plenty, but a relatively calm diatribe (unitribe?  semitribe?) about how easy it is to it better.  I actually do customer service as part of my work experience, so this is not a theoretical exercise.

In a battle with many wounded, doctors perform triage.  This means sorting the wounded to increase the number of survivors.  Without even thinking about looking it up, I would guess that the "tri" part might mean sorting into three groups, and if it doesn't, it should.  Folk etymology.  The three groups in this case would be:

  • Those wounded so seriously that no amount of medical attention will help them
  • Those wounded to the extent that immediate attention will help them
  • Those with sufficiently minor wounds that they can wait for attention

Needless to say, this is a continuum; and depending on how exigent the circumstance, people in the third group might get seen more quickly, or those in the second not quickly enough.  The point is, some sorting is necessary and desirable.

A customer in need is wounded.  Your product is or isn't doing what it shouldn't be or should.  He is eager and anxious, two words that are not synonyms, and wants assistance now!  He sends an email to a company and waits for a response.  And waits and waits, growing crankier by the hour and frequently by the day.  And who can blame him?

The company has an email queue and, since his email is "important to them," they get to it as the length of the queue permits.  Two days later, a specialist reads the question, and responds, typically with a "cut-and-paste" paragraph about how important the email is, and then answers the question.  Wrong!  Wrong!  (Also wrong is the answer, which most likely was to a question that was never asked, but that's a rant for another day.)

Dear Big Company Executive, (many of whom, I'm sure, read this blog first thing in the AM)

You are in management; you know Pareto's law.  You may even know the Sturgeon's Law corollary - 80% of everything is crap.  Here's the Rikl corollary:  80% of your customer's email can be answered, correctly, to the satisfaction of the customer, literally in seconds.  Customer questions, relating to the "triage" heading, come in three broad groups:

  1. Simple questions that can be answered immediately by people with knowledge of your product, service, or web site
  2. Questions that, because customers are customers, are unclear, incomprehensible, or just plain bizarre
  3. More complicated questions, those that need a real specialist to answer

The RIKL 30-Second Email Response Solution

Group 1 cut and paste: 

Dear Customer, thank you for your inquiry! 

  • You can find the answer to this exact question on our web site at this <link>. 
  • (or) 
  • Here's how you can obtain manuals for this product <link>.
  • (or)
  • No, although we provide many customized services, the one you have requested is not in our repertoire, even though you may truly believe it is legal...

Group 2 cut and paste:

Dear Customer, thank you for your inquiry! 

Unfortunately, we don't understand what you are asking.  Would you please resubmit your email including a reference to the <product> <function> <body part> <etc.> you are inquiring about, so that we may research it and provide a proper response?  More information on how to submit an inquiry may be found at <link>.

Group 3 cut and paste:

Dear Customer, thank you for your inquiry! 

This is an unusual inquiry and cannot offer our usual lightning-fast response to it because it will require some research.  We hope to reply in X<hours><days>.

That's it!  Free and really good advice.  The group 1's, perhaps the 80 per cent, will go away happy, and amazed at how good your service is.  The group 2's, at least the ones capable of ratiocination, will re-think their question and be happy they didn't wait days to find out they would be getting no answer.  Finally, the group 3's will know you're on the case.  Is there anything in those responses that can't be communicated in less than a minute by one good person? 

Also extremely helpful:  Give the person answering these questions authoring access to a portion of your web site.  Occasionally I get a question whose answer would benefit other customers as well.  Instead of answering the questioner instantly, I edit the appropriate FAQ on our web site with the Q&A, and then refer him to that.

That's it.  ONE person.  SECONDS per inquiry.  The balance of your "team" free to look at the 20% that cannot be handled with immediate dispatch, but will nonetheless get answered a lot sooner since the 80% are no longer in the queue.

Thank you.  This has been very important to us.

Richard Factor