Tag: customer service

Internal and External Service

When we think about service and support, it is very easy to think only of our customers, of the folks who have purchased our products or processes – we answer their questions, ensure their happiness, and so forth.

It’s worth considering that we cannot provide excellent service to our customers without first providing excellent service to one another – it’s always been my position that the very best way to serve a customer is not to put them first. Rather, there are a few groups of people who must be served with excellence and hospitality before we even reach our customers. In a restaurant, these are your vendors and your co-workers. This is sometimes called internal service – as opposed to customer-facing support or service, which would be external service.

This mindset applies to any business, especially in the tech sector – if your internal communications are flawed, if you don’t have a culture of mutual respect and support, it is impossible to extend really excellent hospitality toward your customers. 

Wait Time Distribution

Let’s do some napkin math on wait times and wait distribution among customers using an email or ticket-based support system. Here are the big assumptions I’m carrying into this one:

  1. There are enough tickets and customer support staff that averages work out as expected over time without major aberrations
  2. Staff is sufficiently well trained that each staffer can answer any particular ticket in the same amount of time

Wait time, defined here as the period of time between when a customer submits a ticket (or email), and when a staff member responds to it, is something on the forefront of anyone providing customer support in the world today. This is something cafe operators think about, this is something Operations Managers obsess over, it’s a really fun problem to chew on and try to figure out.

In this particular context, we have some flexibility that organizations like Subway lack – we get to choose the order in which we respond to our inputs. At Subway, you help the next person in line. It would be nice to group all of the meatball subs together, but that isn’t the way that their model operates. There are lots of ways we can batch incoming tickets – by difficulty, by product, by language, but the only kind of batching that I’m thinking about today is batching replies by ownership.

What do I mean by ownership? For this particular post, I’m thinking of ticket ownership in this way: once a ticket has been replied to once, it is owned by the operator that replied. That’s all. Once a ticket has a response from The Company and is awaiting a new reply from the Customer, that ticket and its ongoing conversation is owned.

The goal of ticket ownership is to ensure that customers who have created a relationship, whose tickets are owned, get priority. You respond to tickets that you already own first, before going on to new, unanswered, unowned tickets. There is a long history of hospitality leading customer interactions in this way – restaurants don’t usually switch up your waiters mid-meal, right?

I’m going to bastardize some operations management tools to work on this – namely a little bit of process diagramming. Here’s how a process diagram works:


Squares are customer activity, triangles represent wait time. Interactions from the customer side are fairly simple: you submit a ticket, you wait for a reply. When you hear back, you reply again, and wait some more. This goes on until your issue is resolved. From the support side, this would be much more complicated; seeking answers from developers, doing some research, etc etc.

Here’s a fact about support: without bringing in additional staff, making big changes to your training or management systems, or changing your approach in other ways, your average response time is going to stay pretty much static from day to day. When we look at response systems like ticket ownership, we aren’t really talking about decreasing our average wait time, but rather changing the way that it’s distributed. Let’s consider three approaches:

A.) Support staff reply first to tickets which they own, then move on to new tickets.

B.) Support staff ignore ownership, and reply to the tickets experiencing the longest wait time regardless of previous replies.

C.) Support staff ignore ownership, and reply to tickets experiencing the shortest wait time regardless of previous replies.

There are arguments for each of these, and there are many more ways we could break down the approach, but let’s focus on just these three.

Here’s what these would look like (roughly) diagrammed:



Or, a terrible graph:


We can see that what we’re really doing is simply moving our wait times around; approaching online support through ticket ownership is a way of front-loading our wait time – essentially saying “Once we get to you, we’ll reply more quickly.” It’s not obvious to me that this is the very best way to approach this. It seems like each of these approaches could be equally valid, at least in the abstract, and I can see arguments for all of them.

The good news is that we can experiment! Every support department should have a feedback mechanism through which their customers can close a feedback loop. I encourage you to mix up your approach – spend a month using Approach B rather than Approach A – or, if you really want to mix it up, give C a try. Be careful with C, as if you aren’t able to clear all of your tickets every day, your oldest tickets will become asymptotic to the wait time axis, and that’s not good for anyone.

Give it an honest shake; try to reserve judgment as to how the system is working – you’re iterating and collecting data, after all – and, and the end of the month, compare your feedback numbers. Let the data speak for itself – if nothing else, you and your team will have shifted mindsets about how to approach the question of wait time distribution.


Vimeo Support Team Portraits

Something that I really enjoy about well-done Support is the way that is goes from a business transaction (think of the last time you called your cable or internet provider) to a more personal interaction. At WordPress.com we’ve recently added a bar of our Happiness Engineers’ Gravatars, like this:

In poking around Vimeo’s documentation today, I noticed they’ve taken this to the next level, with some neat hover states and built-in animation, and I really dig it. Check it out:

Innovating Context: Wireless Internet

(This post is part of an ongoing series of posts regarding how we retail progressive coffee. The first post is HERE)
Wireless Internet: an ongoing debate within our industry. The cause of countless lost Yelp stars, many a facebook argument, and certainly a broken heart or two.

For a line barista, my thinking about free wireless is parallel to my thinking about large soy caramel mocha lattes: if your shop has it, your shop has it. If you are not a decision maker in your company, the best move is to align your thinking along optimization: how can I make this experience the best one it can be? I’d say, generally, an eye-roll never positively contributes to that goal.

For folks in leadership/ownership positions: I don’t think the approach is all that different. As in many things, I think the first step is to consider your vision: what kind of experience do you want your customers to have? Once that experience is defined, you must advance toward it ruthlessly. If you strive to have a community space where people feel comfortable sitting for hours, sipping on free refills and running into their neighbors, then free wireless is probably a good fit for your vision. If you want to focus on the culinary side of things, engage your customers more like a cocktail bar or restaurant than the classic American coffee shop, then free wireless is probably not for you.

It is tempting to give in to public demand (aka “whinging”) and offer free wifi, but attempt to keep folks from camping out all day by reducing the signal strength, or periodically creating outages to roust these folks from their collective perches. This is certainly bad hospitality; offering something, then not actually following through on your offer with authentic effort and pride, is not the way to deal with the wireless problem.

I can imagine a space where free wireless could fit into the vision of excellent, progressive coffee. This is not to say that the two are incompatible; rather, wifi should not be an afterthought, or included because it is something one must do. It will certainly impact the customer base and nature of interactions in your shop, which is something you should approach intentionally, with an eye to your final vision.

Like many of these posts, we get to a point where there is a great deal of tension between our vision for our own spaces and the prevailing patterns of our communities. Much like menu construction or ordering style, if the context of your space fits the bill of a space that ought to have wireless internet, people will expect you to offer wireless internet. Whether this expectation is fair or not is, frankly, not up for debate. The fact is, if your customers arrive certain of what sort of place they are in – and you tell them they are wrong, by not having free wireless internet, or by only serving one sort of cappuccino, or by offering no blended beverages – that is not their fault. It is your fault.

I would posit that if your customers enter your space and are confused as to what sort of place they are in, this is a superior situation to them arriving, being certain of the place, and then being told that their certainty is misplaced – because it is not misplaced. We all live in the same world, and we all recognize the same patterns.

Free Wireless really gets to the heart of the Context Problem, as we have heaps of signifiers which would tell our customers “This is the kind of place with free wifi,” but no signifiers that would indicate otherwise. How can we change our contexts to remedy this?

Innovating Context: Ordering

(This post is a part of a series on innovating retail spaces for progressive coffee shops. The original post can be found HERE)

One of the most common features we find in coffee shops, from local meeting spots to high-end uber-progressive places, is the ordering style. One waits in line, one orders at the counter, pays, then waits for their beverage to be called out.

This feature is common in a much larger context than just coffee shops; this is how Chipotle works, this is how White Castle works, this is how virtually an entire segment of the food industry operates its ordering system – and for good reason! It’s efficient, it allows for a low labor cost, and it is so familiar to American consumers that they require no signage or instruction – we see the counter, we see the style of place, we know the drill. Let’s call this order style Counter Service.

I think that as progressive coffee people, we need to break this kind of context. If we keep presenting excellent coffee in the same style and context as folks serving less-stellar coffee, we can’t expect our customers to identify the difference between these places. Selling our coffee using the Counter Service model is perhaps not presenting ourselves as well as we could. This isn’t because we have poor customer service (though we sometimes do), but rather that humans identify patterns, and the Counter Service style is so familiar, and so associated with a certain kind of product, that it is a little crazy to do battle with those expectations.

What are the alternatives?

Well, what contexts do we associate with high quality food? To me, Table Service seems to be the highest broad ordering context that I associate with quality food – a party enters, is seated, and orders from someone who comes to them, and the food is then brought to them, and cleared, and so forth.

This kind of service could behoove what I think of as a classic continental cafe; ample food offerings, beer and wine, as well as an espresso menu. The more progressive American cafe seems less interested in food offerings – at least prepared foods, as we all know scones and muffins aren’t going anywhere. Without a broad food menu, I doubt the average ticket could support that kind of labor investment.

If we want to stick to high-end coffee, and avoid extensive prepared food menus (which may or may not be the best way to go – I think good food and good coffee can coexist), what is our best move? How can we combine the low-cost of Counter Service with the more desirable context of Table Service?