Joel on Software’s 7 Steps (plus a bonus one) to Remarkable Customer Service

Moe’s Tavern

Joel Spolsky’s latest article on Joel on Software not only follows one of the “How to write headlines that get attention” rules that have been making the rounds at Techmeme these days, but it lists some lessons that he says he learned during the early days of Fog Creek Software, when he did tech support:

  1. Fix everything two ways. “Almost every tech support problem has two solutions. The superficial and immediate solution is just to solve the customer’s problem. But when you think a little harder you can usually find a deeper solution: a way to prevent this particular problem from ever happening again.”
  2. Suggest blowing out the dust. Sometimes, a suggestion to do something that may seem obvious won’t be carried out by the customer, who’ll indignantly refuse to do so because “it’s so obvious”. “Instead of telling them to check a setting, tell them to change the setting and then change it back ‘just to make sure that the software writes out its settings.'”
  3. Make customers into fans. “When customers have a problem and you fix it, they’re actually going to be even more satisfied than if they never had a problem in the first place.”
  4. Take the blame. Sometimes the best way to make a customer’s anger disappear is to say “it’s my fault”.
  5. Memorize awkward phrases. “It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional heat of the moment when someone is complaining. The solution is to memorize some key phrases, and practice saying them, so that when you need to say them, you can forget your testosterone and make a customer happy. ‘I’m sorry, it’s my fault.’ ‘I’m sorry, I can’t accept your money. The meal’s on me.’ ‘That’s terrible, please tell me what happened so I can make sure it never happens again.’
  6. Practice puppetry. “There is only one way to survive angry customers emotionally: you have to realize that they’re not angry at you; they’re angry at your business, and you just happen to be a convenient representative of that business. And since they’re treating you like a puppet, an iconic stand-in for the real business, you need to treat yourself as a puppet, too. Pretend you’re a puppeteer. The customer is yelling at the puppet. They’re not yelling at you. They’re angry with the puppet. Your job is to figure out, ‘gosh, what can I make the puppet say that will make this person a happy customer?'”
  7. Greed will get you nowhere. “I know of software companies who are very explicit on their web site that you are not entitled to a refund under any circumstances, but the truth is, if you call them up, they will eventually return your money because they know that if they don’t, your credit card company will. This is the worst of both worlds. You end up refunding the money anyway, and you don’t get to give potential customers the warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, so they hesitate before buying. Or they don’t buy at all.”
  8. Give customer service people a career path. “Many qualified people get bored with front line customer service, and I’m OK with that. To compensate for this, I don’t hire people into those positions without an explicit career path. Here at Fog Creek, customer support is just the first year of a three-year management training program that includes a master’s degree in technology management at Columbia University. This allows us to get ambitious, smart geeks on a terrific career path talking to customers and solving their problems. We end up paying quite a bit more than average for these positions (especially when you consider $25,000 a year in tuition), but we get far more value out of them, too.”