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.

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.

Calendar Management for Productivity & Sanity

I lean heavily on my diary to plan ahead, guide me through my days, and establish a rhythm to my life. The type of work I do has a tendency to drift towards haphazard if not controlled, so a calendar helps me establish and maintain order.

The problem I’ve faced in more recent times is having an overabundance of calendars I need to refer to before being able to commit to something. In simpler times, if I had a gap between 9am and 5pm, it was available to be taken up by a meeting. With the added complexity of kids and a wife who has an even more complex and random schedule than my own, things have reached a point where I need to check about 5 different calendars before I could confirm if I actually had availability for a meeting, irrespective of whether there was a gap in my calendar.

This year I made a personal pact to get better at managing this uncertainty. I’ve considered how I could build a system that works better for me and my family, while maintaining flexibility for my clients. Many of the methods I’ve adopted are not new ideas; in fact, some are a blast to the past when people used paper day-runners and had a personal assistant (secretary?) who would prepare things on their behalf. Alas, I have neither of those, so I have leveraged my skills in process design and automation.

Following is an outline of my diary management workflow as it has developed to date. It remains a work in progress and I expect it will continue to change.

Structure

I started by establishing clear and non-negotiable days for which I was available for visiting and meeting with clients. I refer to these as “External” days. The remaining days were locked in as days to spent at the office – my “Internal” days. These days are consistent every week, to help with that rhythm.

When visiting clients a lot of time is lost in transit. By collating these visits into a fewer number of days, I reduce my transit downtime, and have the opportunity to fill those days more effectively.

My “Internal” days facilitate getting into a flow state more often because they aren’t broken up by meetings and appointments. Again, a more productive outcome.

For calendaring, I rely on BusyCal on the Mac and Fantastical on iOS.

Technology – WhenWorks

My next area of improvement was in the way I was booking the meetings with clients on my “External” days. I had been spending too much time and effort bouncing emails back and forth, doing the ‘availability exchange’ – trying to find a time that works for me and them. I needed to find a better way that was efficient but respected the impact of items on my other calendars.

I started with a trial of Calendly. This cloud-based service provides a method for people to book a meeting time that is subject to the parameters I set. Calendly was good, but had its drawbacks. I use FastMail for email/calendars/contacts and it uses standards-compliant IMAP/CalDAV/CardDAV protocols. Unfortunately, Calendly wants to only work well with Office 365/GSuite/iCloud. My employer provides me with an Office 365 account so I could still make use of the service, but it meant that I had to remember to replicate my Fastmail calendars to Office 365. It worked, but it never felt simple and seamless.

Enter, WhenWorks. After trialling this for just a couple of weeks, I have purchased an annual subscription. WhenWorks is fundamentally an iOS app that is supported by a cloud-based booking platform. By running on my device it improves on Calendly because it can access all my calendars, irrespective of what platform they reside upon. WhenWorks can take into consideration the impact of every single calendar when making times available for others to book.

WhenWorks is simply brilliant. It looks great and offers a full range of options without being overwhelming. Most importantly, my clients have used it without any problems whatsoever.

Automation – TextExpander

For the first half of this year I have been using saved email templates in Cloze to correspond with clients and ask them to select a meeting time using my Calendly service.

Now with my change to WhenWorks, I’m moving away from Cloze and back to using TextExpander to send email using Mail.app instead. With TextExpander I can make a few choices upon snippet execution that lets me customise a boilerplate email. This way the email the client receives is quickly and efficiently tailored to the type of meeting we will have, and will prompt them to schedule a meeting using the appropriate WhenWorks meeting template relevant to that meeting type.

Credit to David Sparks for providing some of the tools that helped me get this up and running quickly and easily.

Routine & Preparation – OmniFocus & Daily Papers

The last step is incredibly low-tech, but has made a profound difference to my state of mind at the beginning of each day. It is not a new approach. It is common sense. It is simple. But it requires discipline.

I have set a daily repeating task in OmniFocus that commences at 4pm and is due at 5pm, prompting me to prepare for my next day’s meetings. That’s it; a simple prompt.

This prompt, however, ensures I remember to gather the various documents, information and whatever else I need to have ready to be successful for the events of the next day. Sometimes this process takes 2 minutes, sometimes the full hour.

Since doing this, I’ve found I don’t have stress the next morning, suddenly realising that I’ve got a meeting first thing that I have not prepared for. It creates a calm state of mind for the evening, knowing that I’m ready for the next day. It enables my mind to cogitate on what I have coming up, such that when events unfold I find myself better prepared and ready to roll than I otherwise would have been.

Final Thoughts

Each of these elements is fairly straightforward in and of themselves. Bringing them all together, though, has improved my flow, and has largely resolved the problem of double-booking and calendar mixups.

Of course this stuff is never done, and it will change with workload and circumstance. For now, however, I feel like it has gotten me closer to the concept of ‘mind like water’ than I was previously.

Dealing with Illness

A few months ago I was unfortunate enough to contract Glandular fever and I am still suffering the effects of it now. The virus started out as what appeared to be the flu, but after I couldn’t shake the feeling of fatigue and general malaise for weeks after the flu symptoms ended I decided to go the doctor. Subsequent blood tests confirmed the glandular fever diagnosis. Normally this is a virus associated more with teenagers, so I am surprised to have contracted it at the ripe old age of 40.

The impact this illness has had on my ability to work effectively has been significant. Beyond the physical problems it has been a struggle to establish mental focus and remain concentrated on a task. I have had periods of forgetfulness and an incoherent mind. Making this worse from a working perspective is that there are not any external symptoms of the problem. This can make it hard for others to appreciate the truth that I am struggling to function. In a consulting environment, it becomes hard to step away from work when there aren’t any visible health problems.

Managing customer expectations

The client-focused consulting work that I do is not particularly conducive to long periods of leave linked to sickness. My work is a conduit for the success of other people’s goals and I need to fit in with their operational timelines. I engage with companies on the premise that our work will be done in a timely fashion. Often I am fitting my work around other projects they have on the go so any delays I create can have other knock-on effects. To suddenly need to take a lengthy break because of an illness that is not visibly apparent – but is impacting my mental state considerably – is a difficult thing.

Managing expectations in these circumstances is a challenge, because I don’t even know what I can promise in terms of timelines. The best I have found I can do is to be upfront and honest about the situation, and trust there will be a level of empathy from the client I am working with.

Managing self-imposed pressures

Even harder than managing the expectations of others are managing the expectations I place on myself. I’m self-motivated and I structure my projects and set deadlines to ensure I stay on track and maintain momentum. Having an illness that impacts my ability to meet these deadlines is a frustration that can tend to eat away at me.

I worry that I’m letting others down, and the feeling of ‘falling behind’ is not one I like. I have to take time to remind myself that I can’t always work with maximum efficiency; that I’m a living being who will have ups and downs. I need to let go, give myself time to recover and be assured that I will be able to catch up at a later point.

Ultimately, I just need to accept that stuff will just have to wait, and sometimes there is nothing that can be done about that.

Phone messages

Finally, a note on voicemail. They are the bane of my existence even in normal circumstances. When I’m sick, and a number of them bank up, it’s even worse. Seriously, voicemail is terrible, and it should be banished. With so many other options for communication, why is voicemail still a thing?