Posts Tagged Todd Miller

Virtuality — Part 1: News for the Hard of Hearing

snl-news-hard-hearingIn “My New Old-Fashioned Company,” I’ve discussed what’s old about my company. Is there anything new?

Oh yes!

My company, gwabbit, is a 100% virtual office (as was my previous company). No bricks & mortar office whatsoever. Seriously!

I went virtual with my previous company, WebFeat, in 1998. If we were not the first successful100% global virtual company, we were certainly among the first. I must admit that, at the time, my motivation for going virtual was driven more by finance than vision. My little bootstrap start-up was short on cash and we simply could no longer afford our cool New York City office flat. Now, 11 years later, I can’t imagine running a business any other way.

When I would tell Silicon Valley colleagues about my virtual company, I found that most simply could not bend their heads around the notion of a 100% virtual office. The conversations usually went something like this:

Silicon Valley Colleague: “Where is your office?” (note: I had already explained to colleague that we were a virtual office)

Todd: “We don’t have an office”

Invariably, my colleague would ask the question again, slowly, as though either my hearing or cognition was impaired:

Silicon Valley Colleague: “where - is - your - office?” He asked, slowly

Todd: “We - don’t - have - an - office.” I repeated, slowly

One colleague actually asked the question a third time, making arm motions as though he were drawing a real office (ironically, in virtual space) as though I did not understand the question the first two times it was posited. It reminded me of when Garrett Morris did the News for the Hard of Hearing on Saturday Night Live by simply yelling at the camera.

Once my colleague reluctantly accepted the fact that I was serious about my virtual office, he would proceed to inform me why it could never succeed. The reasons included:

  • Virtual businesses can’t scale
  • You can’t supervise virtual office employees
  • You can’t have too many direct reports

I’ll knock these down one-by-one:

Virtual businesses can’t scale — invariably, my critics could never explain why they didn’t think a virtual business couldn’t scale. It just couldn’t scale. Like many reactions to the virtual company, this was an attempt to assign a rational sounding argument to an uncomfortable visceral feeling — we’ll talk more about feelings in later installments.

Despite the very worst prognostications of doom, our business somehow managed to scale anyway. At the time I sold my company, we had 40 employees. Still a small business, but I see no reason why it wouldn’t scale to 100 or 100,000

You can’t supervise virtual office employees — this is probably the most absurd argument against the virtual company — the notion that management can’t keep a close eye on their employees. My response to this is a simple one: why would you want to hire people that require supervision? Whether your business is virtual or not, don’t you want employees that can work and produce without supervision?

Too many direct reports – another one of the sillier arguments against the virtual office. More than one of my otherwise brilliant colleagues assumed that virtual officing somehow translated into every employee reporting directly to the virtual corner office. My experience has been that virtual offices utilize similar hierarchies and numbers of direct reports as their traditional counterparts.

So I’ve discussed some of the arguments against the virtual office – what are the arguments in favor?

There are many, which I’ll discuss in future installments, but the most compelling is this: in my 11 year experience with virtual officing, I found that a well-managed virtual office is 200% - 300% more efficient and productive than its traditional counterpart.

That’s right – not 20% or 30% more productive – 200% - 300% more productive!

In my decade long experience with WebFeat, our virtual David went up against not one, not two, but three traditional Goliaths. These companies had up to 100 times the number of employees as WebFeat, with relatively vast cash reserves. WebFeat, with no venture capital, funded entirely from operations, and fielding a comparatively puny cast of dozens, smacked down each of its Gigantor opponents, gaining top market share.

How – you might ask?

For the answer, stay tuned for the next installment of Virtuality!

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My New Old-Fashioned Company — Part 3: Help!

helpHelp!

“When a customer enters my store, forget me. He is king”

John Wanamaker

1838-1922

This is an excerpt from a recent gwabbit product review:

“For the Support and Information on the app, I can’t say enough about gwabbit and Technicopia LLC’s support. They’re fast and helpful. I was very impressed by it. On the scale they’re a perfect 5. They’re really on top of their game and reading their emails. Great job!”

And an excerpt from a recent customer email:

“All I can say is WOW! I am impressed. Not only did a REAL LIVE person answer my email on the SAME day that it was sent, you actually read my questions, understood them, and provided logical responses and suggestions.

This is more than one can say for your competitors who have yet to respond to some product related questions that I have sent them, have sent me only “form letter” responses in other cases, took on the average 3 days to get back to me, and then never really read my question carefully enough to provide a logical or helpful response. Again, my compliments!”

These may seem unimaginable. Many under the age of 30 have never experienced truly great customer service in their lifetime. Many over the age of 30 may wish to forget the time when the “customer was king” because it’s too painful a contrast to today’s sorry state. Today, even if it’s possible to get real time customer support, the odds are high that it will be with an outsourced call basher. Many technology companies will offer support with varying degrees of competence, but you have to pay for it, even if the call was prompted by a product defect. I assume a bad customer support experience every single time I pick up the phone or place my hands on the keyboard to type a help email or chat. My feeling is that if I prepare myself for the worst, I can only be pleasantly surprised. I assume an eternity on the phone, an endless maze of auto-attendant junctures with early primate vocabularies, auto email responses with unfulfilled promises to respond within two or three business days, and uninterested, uninspired, uncaring customer support staff. Why are they uninterested, uninspired, and uncaring? This is typically because they are a direct manefestation of their senior management’s goals and objectives.

As evidence, I present Exhibit A: Why Google Bothered to Appeal a $761 Small Claims Case (and Won)

This is Think Computer Corporation founder Aaron Greenspan’s odyssey in which his company won a $761 small claims court victory against Google, which, astonishingly, Google actually bothered to appeal! The dispute focused on whether or not Google had the right to terminate Mr. Greenspan’s company’s Google AdSense account without providing a valid reason. In the course of the appeal, Google’s counsel appears to have used the usual unctuous courtroom tactics to discredit their opponent (in this particular case, the customer) in the eyes of the judge. The cost to Google of appealing the decision undoubtedly far exceeded the $761 originally awarded Mr. Greenspan’s company. The cost of the thousands of incredulous Tweets, blogs, and Facebook postings that followed the appeal?

Priceless.

No doubt Google has a byzantine rationalization for this stupefying move – perhaps based on a prescient fear of tipping over some precipice of a greater slippery precedent slope. Whatever the rationale, wouldn’t it have been better to: settle the case, make customer happy (or less unhappy), avoid the legal precedent inuring from Mr. Greenspan’s small claims win, avoid the horrible press, as well as the legal fees – please tell me if I’m missing something here. Is this something other than a completely avoidable colossal manmade disaster?

It appears that it is no longer sufficient to merely diss the customer. The company must now crush the customer’s will in order to truly realize today’s modern standards of support.

Many would find Google’s position to be enviable. Its market share and vast reserves enables it to neglect, even abuse its customers and still prosper. Regardless of whether the comparatively lame competitive landscape compels it to serve its customers, I would still encourage Google’s management to remain faithful to its increasing informal “Don’t be evil” motto. You just never know when you’re going to need to call upon your customers’ loyalty.

The conventional wisdom is that great, or even good customer service is too costly for today’s modern business. Moreover many business people assume that most customers’ presumption of service are the same as mine, therefore bad service is not substandard. Despair is the new standard.

This is a classic Tom Peters quote about customer service: “Whether your business is jet engines or whether it’s peddling hamburgers, if you simply treat your customer with common ordinary garden variety courtesy, you can have the lion share of any market because you’d be alone.”

The question is not whether the company can afford to provide excellent customer service. The question is whether the company can afford not to provide it. As my introductory messages illustrate, in the brief period of time we’ve been in business, our little company has already demonstrated that the service it provides its customers is a key competitive differentiator. We don’t just provide good customer service because it is the right thing to do. We provide it because it’s the smart thing to do.

My company is not Google. It does not have billions of dollars in cash reserves. But somehow our little company finds a way to serve our customers. How? It’s because we choose to. It’s simply fascinating that there is often a converse relationship between a company’s financial capacity to provide excellent service and its actual commitment to serve.

I’d like to close this installment with an outline of service standards we try hard to hit at our company. Perhaps you will find these to be useful for your company as well:

  • Support included. The cost of support (preferably the excellent variety) should be factored into the cost of the product. Additional charges should only apply if the customer is being assisted with custom configuration or development
  • Live support. It should be possible for a customer to talk to a human being during reasonable business hours. Support should be available via phone and email. Chat and blogs are also encouraged
  • Self help. Excellent self-help materials should be available, such as FAQs, Help database, documentation, or blogs. It is important to note that self help materials are not considered a substitute for excellent live customer support
  • Hours. Hours for live service for US products should be, at minimum, 9AM ET – 5PM PT (9AM – 8PM ET). Perfect world, hours should be 24×7, particularly if your company has an international presence
  • Responsiveness. Support should respond promptly to support requests. If a customer’s product or service is seriously impaired, the response time is ASAP, not the next business day. Support staff should be in regular contact with the customer (multiple times/day) keeping them informed of progress in resolving their problem. More routine problems and suggestions should also be acknowledged promptly and personally
  • Competence. Support staff should have sufficient training to be capable of addressing the vast majority (at least 80%) of customer issues without escalating
  • Tracking. Companies should have good trouble ticket tracking systems capable of logging and categorizing customer issues, good workflow to route tickets and ensure timely follow-up with the customer, and enrich customer issue databases
  • Support basics. These are some “A” Game support basics:
    • Listen. Tom Peters says that listening is the highest form of courtesy. Moreover, he says that support representatives should listen naively, not as experts determined to be right
    • Be friendly, courteous, and helpful. In short, support representatives should be genuinely nice people who are really interested in helping the customer
    • Empathize. Staff should make a real effort to empathize with and connect with the customer
    • Fix the problem. Oh yes, by-the-way, staff should make a real good-faith effort to resolve the problem
    • Follow-up. If the issue cannot be resolved real-time, and it is one that seriously inhibits the usability of the product, staff should escalate and give the customer a realistic timeframe of when a solution or update can be expected. Staff should follow-up on or before the deadline provided
    • Evaluate the true cost of your support decisions. All of us have those mind-boggling customer support stories in which a company expended far more in hard or opportunity costs to defeat a customer than would have been the case had they simply refunded the customer’s money or offered some other incentive to ameliorate the situation. In addition to quantifiable cost, businesses should factor in the cost of bad will. My companies will never do business with Allied Van Lines or Sprint as a result of horrific experiences I had years ago. Bad service can be expensive.
    • Don’t argue with the customer. Nothing good can come from arguing with the customer
  • Refunds. If an issue that renders the product essentially unusable cannot be resolved, the customer’s money should be refunded. Better to cut your losses and salvage some of the customer relationship than to drag the baggage of an unhappy customer along with your company. Accumulate enough grumpy customers and they become an anchor on the company’s progress – clinging to the customer’s money is simply not worth the associated downsides of drains on support time and company reputation

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DEMO ‘09 Launch of gwabbit for Outlook

This is gwabbit President & Founder Todd Miller’s presentation at DEMO ‘09. gwabbit received the prestigious DEMOgod award, the highest honor bestowed by the nation’s premier technology conference for launching startup companies. See the presentation that started it all!

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