Communicate, communicate, communicate

Yesterday I had a phone call from the company that makes the accounting software I use. Apparently they want to expand their offering and wondered if I'd be interested in, for instance, a CRM system. I told them politely NTY.
You can do it if you communicate

(If you aren't au fait with TLAs (three letter acronyms), CRM is 'Customer Relationship Management' - in essence a database of your customers that enables you to give the impression of knowing them to some extent. I made up NTY - 'no thank you.')

I have two types of customer - big direct people like publishers and smaller (in terms of income, though obviously hugely important) indirect people like book readers. Neither of these really fit the CRM profile. I only interact with a handful of publishers - a 'to do' list (I use Apple's Reminders) is fine for that. As far as readers go it's a very ad-hoc relationship that doesn't need that kind of management.

However, the whole business made me think about customer service, something I used to major on in my airline days. I even wrote a (rather good) book about it. But in all honesty, and at risk of sounding like Tony Blair, there are just three things you first need to concentrate on to improve customer service/relations - communicate, communicate and communicate. It's ridiculously simple, and yet so many companies are really bad at it.

Absolutely the most important time for this is when things go wrong. This is why airlines/airports often have a terrible customer service reputation. Because when things go wrong they don't communicate quickly or frequently enough. I've had a really good example recently of a company not quite getting it right.

The company that hosts my websites/mail servers, Webfusion generally is very good. But for over 24 hours now, the server that hosts many of my websites and all my frequently used email addresses has been totally out of action. This is a long time to be offline - and the only way to come out of it smelling of roses is for Webfusion to communicate a lot. So how have they done?

First fail: they didn't let me know that the server was down, I had to find out the hard way. Of course they couldn't email me on my regular address - but they should have both a backup address and, crucially, a number they can text an alert to. Simple, easy to do, informative.

Second partial success: they have a support site with a status page. This has been giving updates of progress (or lack of it). That's good. But it has not been done well enough. The updates have been too infrequent and give no timescale for the next information. I'd suggest every two hours is a sensible period, and each update should tell you when the next one will be up. (And, of course, that next one mustn't be late.)

Third fail: they raised hopes then dashed them. Bad move. Last night at around 10pm they posted a message saying 'We are performing final checks on the system with a view to have the server back online as soon as possible.' This made it sound as if it was about to come back any minute, but it still wasn't working at 8am next morning. A supplementary message wasn't posted until 8.43am.

As of 8.46am when I write this, the server is still not back, so as well as continuing communication with more information content (the latest message is still very much a holding one with no idea of timescale/what's happening), I don't yet know what they will do when it's fixed. There is the biggest challenge of all. I suspect they will just issue a 'Sorry, but it's fixed now,' message. That really won't do. After a failure like this, the final communication should offer some kind of compensation too - and generous at that. This is the point you can turn a disaster into a triumph, but not if you are careless about communicating or stingy with your recompense.

So there we have it. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Simples.