Too Small to Fail

A few years ago, my son Evan and a friend started a board game company. It’s grown quite nicely, allowing them both to quit their jobs and do this full time.

At some point over the past year, they started outsourcing customer service to a wonderful, perpetually cheerful woman named Sarah. She works virtually and part-time, as needed.

Most of her customer service role – all done over email – involves responding to customers whose games were either damaged in transit or never arrived at all.

Everything is shipped through third parties (Amazon, USPS, etc.), and while most of it gets there on time and safely, some of it doesn’t. That’s generally when customers get in touch.

Well, when I saw Evan in November, he happened to mention that Sarah would be going out on maternity leave for about a month in late December.

That’s when I said, and for reasons that I can only assume were alcohol-inspired, “I’ll do it!”

And so, for the past several weeks, I have been spending a couple of hours each day fielding customer emails, logging into the company fulfillment system, and (mostly) shipping replacement games.

It’s actually been a lot of fun. Most people are very pleasant and I have enjoyed being involved for a change in the delivery of physical goods, in contrast to the spouting of inane insights as is a fundamental aspect of my chosen profession.

My time on the customer service front line has also reminded me of one colossal advantage that small companies like ours have over our larger competitors:

The freedom to make smart, long-term-focused decisions.

Here’s what I mean…

Sarah gave me several hours’ worth of training before she left to have the baby. It didn’t take me long, though, to understand that the company’s customer service philosophy can pretty much be boiled down to this: “Solve the customer’s problem.”

It’s not written down anywhere, and nobody explicitly told me that. But based on the instructions I’ve been given, that’s what it amounts to:

If your package was lost or damaged by the delivery service, we send you a replacement, so you don’t have to deal with their claims process.

If your game(s) arrived late for Christmas due to the worst holiday season weather in decades, we gladly take it back and give you a refund.

If you forgot to enter a coupon code when you placed your order, we are happy to refund the difference after the fact.  

If you mistyped your own mailing address for crying out loud, causing the package to be erroneously delivered across the street or across the country, we send you a replacement.

In none of these instances, and many more like them, is it our fault.

But rather than argue with you, negotiate with you, blame somebody else, or require that you provide 10 pages of notarized documentation accompanied by 27 eight-by-ten color glossy pictures, we apologize and make it right.

Big Companies Have Their Hands Tied

As I have written here many times before, it’s not that the people working in large companies are dumb, lazy, or uninterested.

In my experience – and I worked at the cable company for 12 years! – they are, for the most part, anything but. They come to work every day trying to do the best they can. But the need for standardization and trackable metrics gets in the way.

Take customer service, for example. As soon as somebody is put in charge of this function – a function that doesn’t explicitly generate revenue – they understandably focus on reducing cost.

Sure, there are customer satisfaction surveys done all the time. But if you really want to get promoted or hit your year-end bonus, you better find a way to reduce refunds, ship fewer replacement games, and decrease the time spent per customer interaction.

It’s all done for the right reasons – after all, we are not in business to just give things away. But the end result is that it slowly, inexorably (SAT word!) grinds down the customer experience.

That’s not how it works at Evan’s company. They don’t have anyone running customer service; they don’t even have explicit customer service target metrics. They are small enough that they can empower everyone to just focus on making customers happy.

Which is why in my short time on the job, I have lost count of how many emails like this I have read:

“Thank you very much for your quick response and the resolution of this issue. I received the game yesterday and it is all thanks to you and your wonderful customer service. I will definitely be telling others about your great games and your service.”

Pardon me a moment, I’m getting a little choked up.

Everything Is Marketing

I can think of at least two reasons why I love those kinds of customer emails:

#1. Happy, friendly customer emails are way easier to deal with. They feel good. They encourage you to be even friendlier to the next customer (even the occasional nasty ones). It’s a virtuous cycle in which both company and customer benefit.

#2. Yes, in the short term, replacement games cost the company money. But when you fix a problem in a way that exceeds somebody’s expectations, that’s a marketing expense. That person, and dozens more like them, is out there spreading the good word, on their own, every day.

What’s All This Mean for Us?

I don’t know how big Evan’s company can get before it is forced to succumb to a more formalized approach. For all the lip service companies give to the “customer experience,” it tends to be a losing battle when it comes up against the “shareholder experience.”

But for people like you and me, who are small and happy to stay that way, the customer experience is our forever competitive advantage.

We can bend the rules. We can give more than clients expect. We can make the people who interact with our respective businesses so happy that they become our marketing agents out in the world.

Not because we are purely altruistic (although we are exceedingly good-looking), but because for my money, it’s about the best long-term, business-building tactic out there.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever mistakenly agreed to do something while under the influence of alcohol? Send photos.
  2. What’s your favorite SAT word?
  3. What do you do (or could do) in the name of customer service that a large competitor would not?

Share your answers below…

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12 thoughts on “Too Small to Fail

      1. Gail Sas

        I don’t know where to put my answers. But I don’t drink alcohol. So I guess I don’t agree to do much of anything since I’m usually swamped with my own stuff.

        I don’t know what SAT means.

        If all else fails I would get in my RV and deliver the package myself! Right to the door.

  1. Biz Corrow

    Oh my I can relate. A while back I used a shipping company (They will reamain nameless but they are “The largest ship in the shipping business” according to the advertising) to send a computer to the repair shop and have it returned. I paid for both ways. The return shipment came in the form of a box that was completely empty. My $1000 computer with the $250 repair plus the $50 shipping cost was gone. So I called and asked for a replacement. I had to take photos of the empty box, the logo on the bottom of the box that identified the box maker. (never paid much attention to that that ) There were 12 photos in all and they could only be uploaded one at a time because their system couldn’t accommodate more than one at a time. I was transferred from department to department and each new department needed to see all those photos. Did i mention the had to uploaded one at a time?. A lesser man would have given up but I did not. It took seven months. I had to resend all the photos 3 more times. In the end I received about 2/3 of the total cost but it felt like a win because they tried desperately to wear me down. My company ships al the time. Occasionally things do get lost. Because of my experience I just bite the bullet eat the cost and send them new product for the same reason Evan does. It is just smart business. I miss the ice cream socials but live to far away now to attend. P.S. Need you logo on a pen or something?

  2. Kevin Ferguson

    Great post… thank you! I, too, have worked in large and small companies. One thing that I have done, can do, will do, and is easier done in a small company is saying “I’m sorry” to the customer. I know of large companies that discourage a CSR from saying anything that might be construed as acknowledging fault. On the other hand, I also know of many large organizations that are great at service and give their employees the tools and latitude to do what’s necessary. But, it’s easier to do that in a smaller firm. Cheers!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Excellent point. I have learned a lot from Sarah who gave me a bunch of prewritten paragraph explanations to cut and paste as needed in my response emails to customers. She is overwhelming gracioius regardless of how the incoming emails are and I followed her lead. Amazing how people brighten up when they are treated well.

  3. Vickie

    I enjoyed this Father-Son story very much, and love how you’ve tied it in with a business email. Yes, you are the newsletter story-telling master! “Michael Katz, part-time virtual assistant!”

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Vickie. It’s been very cool to watch his business grow from the outside and even more fun to get a look behind the curtain. I keep waiting for a customer to ask to speak with my supervisor so I can say, “Hang on, he’s on the phone with his mom!”


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