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One of the most unpredictable things the Internet achieved was to re-define customer service. One of the first people to notice and to write a book about how to do it in the mid-1990s was Jim Sterne. It's just been updated in this second edition.
In the real world, you can pay lip service to customer service and the resultant damage is hidden in the anonymous attrition of customers wandering away to the competition with a sigh and a shake of the head.
The Internet, however, is a ruthless amplifier of weakness in business process. Answer a snail mail letter from a customer within two weeks and they might be satisfied. Fail to answer the email the same customer sends you from your website within four hours and they're already fuming at you for your disinterest in them. As all those surveys about customer dis-satisfaction with websites relentlessly show, it's about service, stupid.
Before going further, I have to declare a bias here: I first became a fan of Jim Sterne when I saw him give a talk in which he illustrated how to use interactivity and personalisation to achieve web `stickiness'. Sterne chose the unlikely-sounding Clairol site - the hair and beauty products company. It allows you to post a digital photo of yourself on the site and then try on several different hairstyles.
The hairstyles come in the form of `virtual wigs' that you stick on your digital head. Sterne had tested the site and showed his audience the result, throwing up a slide of himself, bearded, tie-and-jacket-wearing, grinning defiantly from underneath a long blonde wig. It took several minutes for the audience to recover.
Sterne's wit and his relentless honesty are a powerful combination and come through in this book as much as in person, to make this an entertaining as well as informative read. Honesty? Too many Internet authors revel in complexity. Sterne de-mystifies and de-bunks, using an intentionally naïve-looking approach.
For example, in the book he asks a couple of experts to explain what the modish CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is all about, allowing the differences in their answers, which he produces verbatim, to show that the software industry is all over the place in trying to define CRM, energetically re-branding everything in sight. Salesforce Automation? Nah, that was last year. This year we're calling it CRM...
As well as offering unbiased commentary to help you steer through the maze of software and solutions on offer from the IT vendor community, Sterne takes you step by step through the basics, with impressive attention to detail.
The chapter on managing email, for example, is forty-five pages long and packed with examples of how to get it right (and wrong).
What makes the nuts and bolts `how tos' in this book so compelling is the lacerating wit that Sterne uses to deal with those who get it wrong. There's a four-page evisceration of Volvo Cars, for example, for consistently failing to allow customers to email complaints about their cars through the company's website. Sterne catalogues the failures mercilessly, before concluding: "Volvo has tried to open a receptive ear to the public, but it forgot the Q-Tips".
As well as acting as a manual for developing effective email practises, the book shows you in detail the best ways of approaching now traditional customer help mechanisms like Frequently-Asked Questions (FAQs), how to let customers talk to each other to provide you with vital market knowledge, how to practise personalisation and get to know customers as individuals, and - all-importantly - how to develop measurements that allow you to translate the success of your customer service initiatives into loyalty and retention figures that the Finance Director will listen to.
If you want to learn from Jim face to face, and can make it to London this Fall, Jim will be giving two Masterclasses on 11 and 12 October 2000 on how to do this Internet customer service stuff better. (Email Phil@eCustomerServiceWorld.com for details). I was hoping to conclude with a criticism - that the built-in problem with a book like this is that it becomes redundant as soon as it is in print, as the toddler that is web customer service grows up fast to become a spotty adolescent. The past couple of months, for example, have seen a wave of `assisted buying' software solutions break onto the market which further blur the sales/service departmental divide (a functional business divide that is everywhere in the real world but which, as Sterne shows, does not translate to the Web).
But, there are too many universal fundamentals covered in this book for that criticism to hold true. And, as hard as I tried to find examples of outdated material, this is one of those rarities, a thoroughly updated second edition of a book.