Serve Your Customer, Save Your Company

When we look at making the best impression on our customers, we look for ways to jazz up our marketing and advertising, come up with new and unique product design efforts, or try to unlock the possibilities that are held in data or financial models. I’m here to tell you that there’s a simple way to enhance your brand and drive sales. It’s not fun or glamorous all the time.

It’s all about customer relations.

What I’m talking about is the innate, gut-level feeling that a customer gets when they think of dealing with your brand. For the longest time, this valuable touch point has been overlooked, but I’m happy to see more and more companies taking serious effort in making sure they provide world class experiences.

It also means every touch point matters significant to the full development of the customer’s impression of your brand. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit -website, social media, etc…but nothing beats when a customer or potential customer actually interacts with a member of your team. That interaction is make or break -and hopefully this will help you see some ways to improve that experience for your company.

a tale of two brands

The best way to describe and show what good and bad methods of customer engagement are to show two examples.

First, we start with the first place winner…of worst customer service. Good ol’ Cable provider, Comcast. Typically, customers will interact with Comcast in one of three ways — phone, in-home technician and in the store. For years they failed all these touch points.

If you had called into Comcast to do anything -report an outage, get clarity on their horribly complex bill or even to buy new services, it was a painful experience. Long wait times would be followed by an outsourced employee reading a script. This made simple requests a silly game of going through 15 steps and questions.

So frustrating.

Then if you had to have a technician come out, things did not improve. They are notorious to give these crazy 5–8 hour windows for the estimated time of arrival for their techs. Come on, what in the world is that?

Finally, when you needed to drop off or pick up equipment or pay a bill, you were met with the Comcast “store” or office that would make a DMV seem like a 5 star- hotel. It was perpetually understaffed, depressing as heck and gave a good indication that they didn’t care about you as the customer one iota.

There is a good news….in the past 5 years they have started to get their act together, reacting to the pressure of cord-cutters and the myriad of ways to consume entertainment.

First off, they’ve create a suite of apps and a better website to make sure the customer can get most information without going through one of the channels of communication. Next, their call centers have upgraded their technology and training, so that they are less scripted, more helpfully answer the phone, and know who you are before you talk to anyone. The in-house technicians are more prompt and carry extra equipment and use new systems to get the problem fixed on the first shot, it seems like more of these techs are contract employees so maybe that was the ticket.

Finally, they have done massive upgrades to their “stores” -the physical layout is much more open and inviting, and allows customers to test out new products and services. There is a streamlined check-in and customer service center, so you can get in and out faster. Kudos, Comcast. I only hope that you made enough changes quickly to shed the perpetual joke of the cable customer service nightmare we’ve all experienced.

To contrast that, I want to look at a new-er comer to the retail world -Lululemon. I have a few of their outrageously priced yoga and running gear. From the get go, walking in the store, you are welcomed and feel like part of a family. This shopping experience could be intimidating-but isn’t at all.

As a vertically challenged man, I was blown away when they also offered in-store tailoring to make sure I was perfectly fit to my gear. I include this example as I recently had an incredible service experience that illustrates what it means to serve your customers.

After looking for hours to find the perfect yoga mat for hot yoga, I settled on the mat from Lulu. More than anything the final factor was that I could go into the store and pick it up, feel it.

Well I was all excited to use this mat, and then something happened in my first few times using it…it sucked. It would slip around in class, wasn’t anything close to what I wanted. I tried a bunch of different things, but nothing would work. I was loathe to bring it back as it had been a few weeks and I thought for sure without a receipt and outside of their return period, I’d be screwed.

Well, I marched right into the store, prepared to give them a song and dance about everything and how disappointed I was, and how I was going to post everywhere about how bad the mat was.

I was ready for war.

I walked in, told them the problem….and before I even had to show my receipt, the team member grabbed a new mat and gave it to me. No problems, no hassles. I was shocked -but this is part of their ethos on how to create a forever consumer.

Off To The Lone Star State

This topic brings me back to one of the more professionally and personally satisfying turnaround project I lead. After a few years of success in growing a new brand for the Princeton Review, the owners decided to ship me down to Houston to deal with their national call center.

This call center was the only hub for 800 calls, and was a terrible underperformer -costing the company significantly more to run than it produced in revenue. My original job charter was to gain as much knowledge, salvage any superstar employees and to find an outsourced provider to handle the calls….and shut the call center down.

When I did my independent audit and analysis I realized what a mess this place was. All of the agents handled both sales and support calls, which seemed in my gut like it was a bad way of doing things. Sales and support are two different personality types and they were asking agents to be both Jekyll and Hyde.

The local offices all around the country distrusted the office and instead of using the center, they were using local phone numbers to route calls to their offices- which were understaffed and under trained to handle these calls. This also robbed the company of valuable data.

Management was frustrated at the lack of sales, the agents were frustrated as they had been under-invested in for years ad and both customers and local offices were receiving sub-par service. A nightmare.

After my intake, I flew to New York and made an impassioned plea to the owners to give me 100 days to make some changes. If not, I would shut the call center down, but I thought there was some gold there that just needed to be panned. I’m not sure why they agreed to give someone with zero call center experience the latitude and investment to make changes, but that was the incredible nature of the original founders and owners of TPR.

I was under the gun so I got back to Houston and started to make changes. It was now or never.

First off -the employees and agents at the call center. They didn’t know me and had no reason to trust me….but during my intake I had spent hours talking with them about their frustrations…and boy they opened up.

I did things to show them that I meant business and was there to advocate for them. For starters I was completely open about the fact that we had 100 days to make some changes and show them we had the right stuff. This brought the team together (after the initial shock and anger subsided) in a huge way.

We split out the sales calls and the customer service calls and moved some of the better service-oriented agents to only handle service. This also freed up the more aggressive sales agents to get after sales all day long. While doing that, we changed the compensation plan to give a huge upside to big earners.

When I got there they difference between the highest seller and lowest was massive in terms of dollar volume but they all earned pretty much the same. That changed and helped to naturally drive out the worst performers while also handsomely benefitting the best sellers.

I wasn’t shy to have a number of the agents making more than me, and they appreciated the chance. I also was able to do a complete remodel of the office -down to the studs, with new furniture, lighting, paint, carpet and technology. This helped the work environment, but also showed that the company was willing to invest in them, which went a long, long way. We had set up a revolving set of personal and professional development sessions to help them understand how to start saving for retirement, especially with their new found huge bonus checks.

To deal with the lack of trust with the local offices, I picked a mix of offices to visit at the start of the turnaround. These included some of the larger sales centers, but also some of the more outspoken critics of the call center.

I was on a mission to win the hearts and winds and also turn this call center into a service center for our local offices.

I flew out to 10 cities in the first 3 weeks, spending at least a full day with the office’s executive director as well as the rest of the staff, gaining insight as to the good (there wasn’t much), bad,(which there was plenty of) and ugly (and even more of this). I would recap the visit with an email while in flight back home and promise actionable steps I would take, along with follow up calls and videoconferencing.

Some of the major changes included “buddying” up call center staff with local staff members so that there was a clear path of communication with the folks on the ground. We also created a Wiki- which back in the early 2000s was rather groundbreaking. This allowed us to update information about each office, so that we could provide incredible local knowledge and information so that it sounded like we were in the callers back yard.

One of the big headaches I saw was that each office was in charge of sending out flyers to students who requested information online. This job was tedious and a time suck of the local officers- so we centralized it in Houston. This not only sped up the time to get this information to potential customers, but also resolved a pain point that most offices didn’t even know they could hand off. And for the company, it meant lower costs and better data. Win-win-win.

The final piece was to upgrade the systems we were utilizing. Everything from giving agents wireless headsets so they could walk around (which leads to a more relaxed conversation) to a better routing and backend telephony system (which lead to better data and a better ability to customize efforts). We also became one of the first public companies to include online chat as both a sales and support channel. This move was HUGE for customers. It allowed us to catch people on the fence or needing more help and gave our agents another source of leads and sales.

We also tied all these systems together, so we knew when someone called if they had been chatting online (and thus we would push that call to the same person they were chatting with), received a brochure (again allowing us to know off the bat what type of services they were looking for) or called in previously (getting them to the previous agent who had a log of these conversations).

The customer service/call center/CRM space has completely exploded in the past 15 years, so there are more tools and systems to give customers the best experience possible, but the most important thing is to remember that people connect with people.

So make sure your most valuable assets- your team members -are trained, excited and happy to be working on the front lines. These efforts will pay back handsomely by every possible metric.

Originally published at




Experienced Entrepreneur | Innovative Operator | Chicago | Nothing is more rewarding than leading organizations & helping people succeed.

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Tom Vranas

Tom Vranas

Experienced Entrepreneur | Innovative Operator | Chicago | Nothing is more rewarding than leading organizations & helping people succeed.

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