Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Customer Service Solutions

If you recall, last time around I was spouting off about abysmal customer service and venting my woes upon you, the poor unsuspecting reader. Well, fear not – the rant is over and this issue shall concentrate upon solutions to the difficulties presented by its predecessor.

To Recap

So, let's examine the problem step by step. The first difficulty I experienced was due to misinformation rendered by store staff as to the typical time line associated with instrument repair. It is important to note that despite any marketing initiatives you may have undertaken, public perception of the quality of your business is generally congruent with its opinion of your front line staff. If they are unaware of policy or have not specifically been told to refrain from creating spurious expectation, your clients will definitely harbour ill will toward your organisation should these not be met.

A basic tenet of salesmanship suggests that it is far better to promise little and deliver much than to employ the converse. It's all about managing expectation – consistently delivering a pleasant surprise vs. an unpleasant one. The second area of concern was raised by the apparent lack of knowledge employees exhibited in reference to at what phase articles were in the repair cycle. When queried as to where my instrument was, "not here..." shouldn't have been the response I received from staff. Granted, the repair facility was likely subcontracted to perform the work and thus not directly connected with the store, however, the lack of information flow between these two entities in the information age is less than desirable and on the whole left me questioning the store's commitment to professionalism.

The third and final item which I felt required address was the often cavalier attitude of management toward the whole situation. The "good news Ray, your keyboard is back"  comment (after 2 months with no attempt to repair it) certainly didn't sit well with me when unaccompanied by an earnest apology. Having to verbally fence  with the manager  (after the instrument was finally returned in worse condition than when I had first entrusted it to them) to elicit action left a distinct foul taste in my mouth.

The Cure?

As I stated in the previous instalment, the above situation is not uncommon. So, now that we've isolated problem areas, how is it that this establishment might have improved their performance by way of the appropriate alignment of Information Technology with their business processes? A very simple and relatively inexpensive remedy to many of these concerns would be to implement a groupware solution. Certainly, there are elaborate software packages on the market including the likes of Lotus Domino, which would more than adequately serve, however, cost concerns and the development cycle involved render them impractical in small business scenarios. So how about using something that's probably on your desktop already? - MS Outlook.

Shipping with various versions of MS Office (including Office 2000 for Small Business), Outlook 2000 provides facility for internal and external email, Internet enabled group scheduling and task management, mail tracking, direct publishing to the Internet and excellent contact management capability. Coupled with MS Exchange Server, it is a powerful tool which may be utilised to streamline many of your business processes.

To address the above, a shared server might be located within one of the three music stores owned by the company whereby all activities might be coordinated centrally. The ability of the software to incorporate the utilisation of both public and private folders, the ability to mark specific items as private, as well as the provision for direct publishing of calendars to the Internet would permit the access of partner organisations to pertinent information without the requirement for elaborate supplementary security schemes.

One more time...

Let's step through my repair process with the proposed groupware solution in place shall we?

I telephone the store and inquire as to how long the repair cycle is. The employee on the other end of the line says "Well, let me see... I'll log on to the system and find out how long it will be as of today..." I, as a customer am already impressed. I'm clearly not getting a canned response or guesstimate, but one based on current scheduling data. The employee sees that the repair person has available slots the following week, but as per corporate policy regarding expectation management (posted in the same area as the calendar) tacks on an additional week as a buffer.

I bring in my keyboard and am further impressed by the staff member informing me that he has electronically assigned the task to Mr. Specific Person in Montreal. Printing a waiver of indemnity from the corporate document store directly accessed from within Outlook, the clerk further explains that "as I haven't the original box, the company can't be held responsible for the condition of the instrument upon its return, but that they will certainly do their best to ensure its safety".

The clerk enters my contact information into the system and wishes me a good day. Upon realisation the Mr. Specific Person has broken his arm and won't be available to conduct repairs, his co-worker immediately sends out an email to an Outlook generated distribution list informing the appropriate parties of the mishap. He additionally performs a search for availability of alternative resources and redistributes and reschedules the workload - including this information in the aforementioned email. The stores call all affected persons by way of the contact management facility which is linked to the altered tasks and informs them as to the situation.

After a time I am curious about the progress to date and telephone the store to find that the clerk is able (via the task management provision within Outlook) to inform me that the project is 75% complete. Happy with this seemingly concrete information, I wait until the unit arrives. It arrives damaged, and by virtue of the fact that I signed a waiver, I see anything the store does for me at this point as going above and beyond the call – again managing expectation is key.

Of course Outlook isn't for everybody and it certainly has its quirks – one of the most irritating being the fact that it bogs down your system for operations involving accessing applications via clicking on associated files in Explorer. Yet this and the numerous other petty annoyances it engenders pale in the face of economies to be realised by its implementation. If you truly value your customers, consider the above or a viable alternative... If not, consider bankruptcy.

Originally published in Ottawa Computes! magazine, September, 2000, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

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