When I lived in Florida, I got to watch my SUV go up in a ball of flames while I was driving it. I was stopped at a red light when a kind gentleman with gonads hanging off his trailer hitch, and a decal of Calvin peeing on the Ford logo, rolled down his window. “Hey partner. You got some flames there,” he said pointing to my hood. I didn’t see any flames, but I got out anyway and opened the hood, at which point I saw a lot of flames. The light turned green, Citizen of the Month Mr. Truck Nuts rolled on by and I started scrambling to empty my truck of everything inside before it got char broiled.
Right about then, I spotted three fire trucks heading my way. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I started jumping up and down, waving my hands, pointing frantically at the flames — I may have even made a suggestive/ambiguous “I need a hose” gesture. But the guys driving the firetruck just smiled, and waved, and drove on by as the flames rose higher and higher and my SUV got meltier and meltier. For the next few months I cursed firetrucks and firefighters nonstop. Until someone explained to me that the headquarters for Pierce (where 25+% of all American fire trucks are manufactured) is about a block and half away from where my SUV had bitten the dust. Those hadn’t been firemen driving past me. They were Pierce workers test-driving the new trucks.
Problem + solution / timing
You’ve got a product. It solves a specific problem. Your customer/user, has that problem plus a credit card. Seems like a match made in heaven – until something stops working. When that something isn’t working on the provider side (like a user’s credit card not authorizing), you dispatch an immediate email, clearly communicate what needs to be corrected, and when, and what the consequences will be if it goes unaddressed – the account will be cancelled, access to files will be limited, or some other kind of wrist-slap. But when a user communicates a problem to the provider, the effect doesn’t always happen in reverse. It should.
Don’t get me wrong, not all customer emails are relevant. But they almost always tell us a story about our organizations — good or bad. Many users, especially of SaaS tools, send emails to customer service because the product either doesn’t work as advertised or they simply don’t understand how it works. When they send that email they are likely smack-dab in the middle of trying to do something timely, perhaps even urgent. The immediate problem for the user is only one of many challenges for the product/company. We read a lot about email overload and how to segment important emails from urgent ones. That’s probably adequate on the user side, but the challenge for products lies in time and transparency.
The time between a problem being identified and solved is not nearly as important as the time between its being identified and a user communication response being dispatched. This time gets conflated and compounded through the transparency of social media and outbound marketing communications. When a user receives a 20% off coupon before getting a real response to their service ticket, it feels like a personal affront. It’s not, but it feels that way. When a user sees a tweet or Facebook post from a brand they are waiting to hear from personally, they start to distrust the brand. Every public communication a brand makes is directed at both the singular user and the using collective. So when the single user has an unresolved issue and sees a communication to the group, which doesn’t address that issue, they make one of two assumptions:
1) The next guy or new user is more important that me.
2) You read but ignored my concern.
You’ll notice that neither of these assumptions include – “perhaps they didn’t get my message.” The SEND button presumes receipt, and tools like Yesware can verify receipt—and open—and reply. Sometimes your users calmly describe a problem, other times they frantically wave their hands and point at a fire that is (or isn’t) there. Customer Service is eventually about discerning real problems. But even before that, it’s about servicing the customer. That may mean extinguishing a real product-related fire, or just letting someone know you heard their concern. When brands have time to communicate to unknown prospects on social media, but don’t have time to respond to customer service emails, the message is clear — “Next in line.”
You may need to provide a candle to light the user’s way. Or a hose to stifle a conflagration. If you do nothing else, respond with a note to say “I hear you.” If you don’t, your old customers will soon be driving past you as you wave to them with coupons, e-vites and surveys. Their fires may have burned out by then, but yours might just be starting to smoke.