Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What you (and even Steve Jobs) could learn about customer support from JetBlue

Doesn't matter what part of the organization you're in or how high you've gotten. You should still on some routine be doing customer support. When you don't, you risk playing the telephone game like a bunch of grade school kids.

The founder of JetBlue knows this. Here's an excerpt from Norm Brodsky's "The Knack", where Norm describes his flight:


As usual I was flying JetBlue. I boarded the plane with the other passengers, and the door closed. As we sat there, buckling our seat belts and checking out the televisions in front of us, a middle-aged man with slightly graying hair stood up in the front of the plane. He had on the long apron that all the JetBlue flight attendants wear, with his name stitched to it. "Hi," he said, "my name is Dave Needleman, and I'm the CEO of JetBlue. I'm here to serve you this evening, and I'm looking forward to meeting each of you before we land."


I don't understand why more people don't take the time to build the systems and processes that would allow all employees to take part in customer support. Why don't more CEOs serve burgers once every few months at one of the franchises in their empire for 8 hours. Why don't more CEOs answer the phone to answer the questions a home owner has to figure out the complexity of their home insurance policy. Why don't more CEOs spend an 8 hour shift at the customer support desk at their retail store.

When you grow your company you are naturally going to need to hire people to place in customer support positions. And as you continue to grow, you continue to find more and more people between you and your customers. Problem is, customer support is swimming with problems that should be opportunities.

We learned in grade school what happens when messages travel through people. The telephone game. The message starts as one thing, and by the end of the chain it's entirely something else.

My wife and I were amused watching it play out at dinner on Sunday night. We were at a new Greek restaurant across the street that opened just last week. We didn't have water or a waiter for that matter for about 15 minutes after sitting down. Finally a waiter arrived, and wanted to correct the water problem. So he told a busser to get some water. Well the busser was in charge of other bussers. So he told someone else to get water. That person had to go to the kitchen and load a tray of water glasses with water. When he made it back out, now someone else had to actually take the water to us.

You can guess what happened next. This fourth person in the chain had absolutely no idea who to bring the water to. We tried to flag him down, but he didn't see us, as he delivered the water to a table of newly arrived guests.

That's why when a problem comes into Inkling, we all get it. We all can answer it. We could very easily have hired some customer support staff by now, and made them some kind of front line. But then these problems would have to go through them, then sometimes passed to an engineer for further help, then maybe passed to Adam and I. We wouldn't be able to converse and brain storm with our clients like we do today.

Or if we (makers and designers in our business) weren't manning customer support, often problems like "How do I change my password" or "I didn't get my email" might get treated with just a routine boilerplate email pointing to an FAQ or online tutorial.

"Nothing gets you more focused on solving a problem than actually having that problem." - Jason Fried at

Couldn't agree more. That's why I love working on things that I actually use. And doing your own customer support forces your customers' problems onto you. It's expensive to answer routine questions. Most of us makers would rather be making and designing things rather than sludging through log files and sending email troubleshooting browser problems.

So now their problem is my problem. This forces me to focus on making the problem go away for good. Forces me to focus on what we can do to make things easier to understand. Or forces me to pay attention to patterns and look for root causes to a problem.

I can only imagine what would happen if a CEO started doing an 8 hour shift every 3 months at say the Apple Genius Bar? Coming off that shift, and knowing there's another one just 3 months away, is going to light a fire to get some things improved or fixed.

P.S. This buffer between you and your customers is also a good reason to think about tools that better harness the knowledge of these front line customer support folks to answer all sorts of questions an organization is facing. ;)

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