In Customer Service, Genuine Interactions Matter

Our family recently travelled to Bali for a holiday break. It was a week of relaxation at the tail end of a year that has been pretty crazy, and a 2019 that we expect will be even more hectic.

When you travel with kids, conversations can move in varied and interesting directions. Our 7-year old boy took a particular interest in the toilets that were installed throughout the hotel we were staying. The brand — TOTO — is one seen all over the world, but less so in Australia. He was enthralled by the features: from automatic flushing with infrared sensors, to in-built bidets. Even the design of the loos was novel to him. He was fascinated. Next he realised that TOTO had also been responsible for the all of the tapware as well. Incredible!

As a responsible Dad, I kept the toilet banter going, egging him on to explain to me further what he loved about them. I tried to add some interesting educational angles as well. I suggested that as a Japanese company, TOTO probably took great care in their manufacturing processes. I explained how Japan was the cradle of modern manufacturing methods, and how the Toyota Production System changed the world. I’m not sure he bought into my lesson on lean thinking, though. I will have to try again in the future.

Over the length of our stay, our conversations escalated to the point where I suggested we contact TOTO directly to let them know what great work they were doing with their toilet design. He took to that idea! So we did it. My son wrote an email to TOTO Customer Service, noting how impressed he was with their toilets, and expressing his desire to have them installed in our house as well.

I figured that would be the end of it. I didn’t expect to hear back, or if we did, I assumed it would be a boilerplate response. After a few days, we did in fact receive a reply, and it was a wonderful, personal email from TOTO’s Senior Manager of Customer Service. In the email, she expressed gratitude for my son’s kind words, and also offered to send him some tokens of appreciation if we could provide our mailing details.

We replied, and for fun, included a photo of David and I enjoying ourselves in Bali.

A few more conversational emails bounced back and forth between TOTO and ourselves, and they asked if we could send a photo of David with his items once they arrived.

Within the next few week, we received an express mailed package from TOTO in Atlanta, to us in Perth, Australia. Just this concept alone was enough to blow my son’s mind. As promised, we sent another photo back with David holding onto the gifts he had been sent, and this was acknowledged by TOTO with thanks.

I see two key lessons in all of this:

  1. Always embrace crazy conversations with your kids. They’re fun, and you never know where they might end up.
    Genuine customer service — not selling — is the key to building great brand equity. I might never buy a TOTO toilet. My son might never buy a TOTO toilet. But I think both of us will be TOTO brand ambassadors from this point forward. Not because we were sent some trinkets, but because we had a genuine human interaction. We connected with a person who was obviously engaged enough in their own job to engage positively with us. If that employee is happy, then the company must have something going for it, and that’s the kind of company I want to see succeed.
  2. From a business perspective, customer service shouldn’t be about hitting sales targets or avoiding bad press. It should be about working to have people care about your brand.

So thanks TOTO, for bringing fun and joy to me and my son’s lives, and for making sure this particular Bali holiday will have a very strange and unique anchor memory.

Personal Finance Should be Part of Core Education

I believe personal finance should be a core subject taught to our children at school. We should teach how to manage and budget money, the concepts of savings and compound interest, and the risks of credit and deferred payment. Finance and money management education should be threaded through each year of schooling. I think it would offer more practical value – and a better return on investment – than some of the traditional subjects taught.

An opinion piece in The Age by Liora Miller, “Is PayPass the enemy of the young?” reflects on some of the risks of tap and go payments, especially for young people.

Australian Tax Office research this year reveals that only one in five Australians still prefer using cash for purchases.

Last week I bought lunch from a sandwich shop. I paid with cash. The look of surprise on the server’s face was clear; to the point where we both made a joke about the rarity of somebody paying with ‘real money’ as opposed to PayPass tap and go. In Australia, tap and go is essentially the default.

Cash use in Australia has fallen by a third in a period of six years.

That’s about how long tap and go transactions have been available, and I would think the next third of cash usage will decline more rapidly than another six years.

When I use tap and go, I take the extra step of entering the transaction into YNAB on my phone. YNAB’s direct bank import features don’t work with Australian banks but I consider that a feature because entering each transaction keeps me connected to my money and my budget. I recognise, however, that I’m an outlier. Most people are not taking a similar extra step – it’s spend and forget.

A cashless society in the near future appears to be an inevitability. We need to focus on ensuring young people understand the implications of deferred payment.

This is the key point of the article, but unfortunately, Miller fails to suggest how this might happen. This brings us back to my initial premise: that we as a society need to get serious about financial literacy.

I am Treasurer and Director of Midlas, a not-for-profit organisation that offers financial counselling as one of its key community support services. The government provides funding support to enable Midlas to offer this service. Yet demand is outpacing supply, and this is a common refrain across all the providers of financial counselling.

As great as it is that government provides financial support to assist organisations such as Midlas help people in financial stress, the policy settings are wrong. Just like medicine, where spending on prevention is cheaper and more effective than spending on a cure, spending on financial education would be more effective and deliver greater good than spending on help after the damage is done. Avoiding financial stress would lessen the prevalence of issues that often stem from financial stress, such as illness and poor mental health, relationship damage, homelessness, and drug and alcohol abuse. Not only would this benefit the individual but it would help broader society who share the negative impact of these societal problems.

Through us, the government needs to get serious about teaching our kids about personal finance and money management. The growth of tap and go is a lead indicator of a problem that may come to bite us in years to come. We should act before personal indebtedness becomes a national plague.

Value Curve of Service Delivery

It was recently reported and brought to my attention that Elon Musk had issued a memo to the staff of Tesla. I’m no Musk acolyte, but within his commentary there can be found some good stuff. Within this particular memo Musk highlighted a number of productivity boosting tips. One tip jumped out at me because it is aligned with how I explain to my customers the way I aim to deliver the Business Evaluation service of the Entrepreneurs’ Programme. This is fundamental to how I work to be respectful of their time commitment.

Elon Musk was reported as writing:

Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get rid of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.

The aim of my engagement with my customers is not to prove myself, or the worth of the service, by hanging around for hours and hours on end. If something can be achieved in two hours rather than four, then it’s bad business to take the four hours. If the work needs four hours, then I will commit that time. I won’t commit six.

What I say to my customers is that I want to stay with them for as long as I am delivering genuine value that is over and above the time, effort and person-hours they are committing to the process. Once I see the value they are receiving is tapering off, then I will wrap things up. The last thing I want to do is overstay my welcome, using up their time when they could be doing something else that could contribute more to their business success.

Just as Musk implored his staff to keep meetings short, so I remind and encourage myself to only use as much time is necessary – and no more.