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Conversations with a Spambot

You know about spam. Though unless you write a blog, you may not know that spam also affects blogs.]

Automated “spambots” search out blogs for key names, then enter a “comment.”

Some bloggers don’t allow comments, in part because of the hassle of constantly cleaning out their comment lists. I eliminated one entire posting called “seductive statistics,” because the title was attracting on average two fake postings a day, day in and day out. It takes time to clean the stables.

Last June I posted a piece called Trust, Politics and US Healthcare Policy. Probably because of the word “healthcare,” it occasionally attracts spam. As it did yesterday.

Every once in a while, this stuff just pisses me off. This time, I clicked on the spammer’s link, and found a “click here for online customer service.”

So I did.

Here’s the resultant dialogue. Hang on for the punch line.
 

You are now speaking with Daphne of Customer Service.

Charles Green: Why do you use spambot advertising?

Charles Green: You’re filling up my blog comments page.

Daphne: Hello, this is Daphne of Online Customer Care. How may I assist you?

Charles Green: It is annoying, time consuming, and very tasteless

Charles Green: Whoever there makes the decision to send spam to people’s blogs should be made aware of what a boorish, tasteless form of business they are engaging in

Charles Green: Daphne, please pass on the message

Charles Green: Just so you know what I’m talking about, I publish a serious blog about business. One of my postings was about "Trust, Politics and US Healthcare Policy." And what do I get as a comment? A spambot advertisement from you people. Daphne do you feel good personally working for people who decide to use such slimeball tactics? I can’t imagine you do.

Charles Green: Do you like getting robo-calls at dinnertime from mortgage companies? That’s exactly what you folks are doing to me.

Daphne: We are a legitimate company and we operate in compliance with existing federal laws, all medicines provided are obtained from legitimate pharmaceutical wholesalers, or in some cases directly from the US manufacturer. Rest assured our company is committed to meeting and exceeding all government regulations covering this online health care provision.

Charles Green: Daphne don’t give me that "comply with government regulations" crap. That just says what you do hasn’t been made illegal. That doesn’t mean it isn’t disgusting, vile and will eventually be made illegal if enough scumbuckets like your company don’t behave like responsible marketers.

Daphne: Charles, I do apologize for this inconvenience. We are customer support here and we only handle customer related issues.

Charles Green: Daphne, it’s not personal. I know it’s not you doing it, and you have no need to apologize. But please know what it’s doing to your reputation, and pass it on.

Daphne: Charles, we are customer support team for many online companies. Please be so kind and be more specific in order for us to be able to assist you.

Charles Green: Are you kidding? Tramadolhd.com is the one I’m responding to. They send out spambots to legitimate blogs like mine, doing the equivalent of junk mail and email spam. It’s disgusting. That’s what I’m complaining about. Pass it on please to those folks.

Daphne: Charles, You want to be unsubscribed right? May I have your email address, please?

Client Service vs. Client Servility

Most client-serving organizations I know make a pretty big deal about client service. Consulting, law, HR, IT, accounting, and salespeople in complex businesses—client service is right at the top of their list of virtues. And rightly so.

But—sometimes, things can get a little twisted.

What do you make of:

o The administrative assistant who delivers the Officer’s laundered shirts to him at the airport at 9PM. Regularly.

o The project manager who hauls the whole team in on Sunday to re-work the slide deck. Regularly.

o The senior officer who drops in on the staff meeting to “show the flag” but leaves early because “when the client calls, you know…” Regularly.

o The salesperson who cuts price at the drop of the hat when the client demands.  Regularly.

o The VP who cancels the cleanup position on the third round interview because “I had no choice, the client changed the date.” Regularly.

o The manager who joins the training session late and slips out to take calls between blackberry-checking time, because “we’re in the middle of a really tough time for the client—they need me.”  Regularly.

o (The presidential candidate who, in mid-speech, stops to take a phone call from his wife on his cellphone from the podium. More than once.)

The key word is, of course, regularly.  Any one of those examples can be held up as a case of client heroism.  If, that is, it’s an isolated event. IF it’s endemic—then that’s not client service, that’s client servitude.

Client service is not client servitude. Great client service is doing things above and beyond the norm; being willing and able to behave in unusual ways when faced with unusual situations; and doing them selflessly, for the sake of the client.

Being servile is quite another thing. It means seeking out options to give faux service.  Terms related to servile include sycophant, brown-noser, suck-up, boot-licker, ass kisser, obsequious, and toady.

We suspect those who are servile of dishonesty—of speaking falsely in an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Their motives are suspect; which means their credibility is at risk as well.

Ironically, their servility costs them in terms of respect from the very people they are most trying to impress.  Above all, we don’t trust such people.

If we’re honest—no, I’ll just speak for me here—if I’m honest about it, there’s always a tiny touch of servility lurking around the edges of most client service I perform.  It’s hard to be unaware of the value of being perceived as client-serving.

The trick is to not be overcome by a need for recognition. To do the next right thing, yet to be detached from the outcome; particularly whatever benefit clearly might accrue to me from doing the right thing.

This is the heart of it, I think.  Client service is doing good for the client.  Period.  We are not surprised when we get credit for doing it.  But expecting good from doing it is Station 1 on the slippery slope; the End-Station is doing client service  in order to get credit for doing it.

That way lies client servility.

Most clients don’t want servants at their beck and call—they want equal partners at the table who can make a plan and stick to it; who have enough respect for themselves and their own firm that they will, on occasion, push back; who take the partnership seriously enough that they will keep their own team healthy enough to deliver in the long run, rather than burn it out in a never-ending series of  faux client crises. 

And if you really think you have one of those rare clients who wants servants—then put your money where your mouth is.  Give that client to a competitor.

We’ve Got the Hamburgers: a Customer Service Classic

I had a delightful dinner the other night at the home of a client in the Netherlands. It was his birthday, and at the dinner table was a mix of family friends and co-workers—all interesting, in part because all were very well-world-travelled.

One told me the following (possibly apocryphal) story.

When McDonald’s was first entering the market in Moscow, it placed a great deal of training emphasis on the elements of customer service. Fast, friendly, courteous, prompt—these were the principles McDonalds wanted its employees to embody in their relations with patrons.

An employee approached the trainer one day early in the process, with an offer to help. “Listen,” he said, “you seem like a nice person and I’d hate for you to appear foolish in front of the group, so let me explain something to you.”

The trainer was all ears, concerned that he had nearly made a faux pas, and grateful for the help.

“You see,” explained the employee, “we’ve got the hamburgers. The customers don’t. They want them—we’ve got them. They have no choice. They’ve got to go through us. And you don’t want them getting ideas about who holds the power here. Just remember—we’ve got the hamburgers. Now do you understand?”

Of course, it’s tempting to chuckle and say, how quaint, or can you believe the culture in Russia, or how dumb was that guy. Tempting, but wrong.

Because “we’ve got the burgers” syndrome lives on elsewhere.

• While looking at a car at a Saab dealership a few years ago, I asked to test-drive a model. “I really can’t do that now, I’m on break in 10 minutes and tomorrow’s my day off. Could you come back Friday?” Our burgers, our timetable.

• A customer at a discount clothing store was annoyed that the clerk kept talking with a co-worker while checking out—and making a few mistakes in the process. Transaction finished, the employee turned full attention to her conversation. The customer turned to leave, she said, “You know, a simple ‘thank you’ might have been nice.” Not turning to look, the clerk said, “It’s printed on the receipt.” You got your burger, you should be grateful.

• More subliminal, but no less real, is the implicit belief among consulting types that the client is buying knowledge and advice—and therefore is under a moral obligation to pay for any advice given, and to take it willingly. A client looking for the comfort of advance discussions is therefore trying to “get it for free,” and is ethically challenged if they don’t take the advice. How dare you challenge our burgers.

• When a corporate IT department is asked by a user for a capability like Skype, or instant messaging, they may get a lecture on why they don’t need Skype, or IM, but something else instead, and the real solution will take a while, cost more, and not do exactly what Skype or IM would do—but it’ll be great. You can’t handle the truth about our burgers.

“We’ve got the burgers” is not just a metaphor. It’s one symptom of a common disease—the disease of “it’s all about me.”

How about you? What’s your favorite "we’ve got the burgers" moment?

Soliciting Customer Service Feedback: Motives Matter

Ginger Conlon, over at The 1 to 1 Blog,  writes about an excellent midtown New York meal tainted by a flawed customer service feedback process.

When the check arrived it came with two comment cards, encouraging our feedback. [But] the only way to give your feedback was to give the card back to the server. I could walk up and hand it to the host; but perhaps I would like to have mailed it in? There was no address (or email address)…

… if I was to have given negative feedback (I didn’t, the food and service were terrific) and drop that card back in with the check, what’s to stop the server from tossing it in the trash? If this restaurant, or any other establishment, really wants feedback – good or bad – it should make it easy and comfortable to give it.

In this particular case, I think the comment card was really more of a way to get satisfied customers to opt in to the company’s email list.

Agreed, Ginger, and let me pile on.  Not only is this a bad service evaluation process; it also ruined your dining experience (badly enough that you’re blogging about it, and I’m amplifying it).  It made you think about:
 

a. a mildly uncomfortable and totally unnecessary interaction;
b. the possibilty of gaming the system
c. the (possibly nefarious) motives of the restaurant.

And the worst of these is the last.

Let’s go from bad to worse, to worst.

Bad:  when was the last time you filled out a paper service evaluation form at a hotel, airline, restaurant? Probably only when something went really wrong?  Data quality with such low and skewed participation rates is low.

Worse: such low participation rates cause cynicism in customers and employees alike. Bad data can’t support quality decisions.

But the worst—bad motives—can sound very much like good service improvement theory. The theory goes:

• Carefully measure what’s wrong
• Figure out the desired new behaviors
• Reward people on the basis of improved data.

This is management 101, right?  Tell people what you want, then reward them for doing it.  (It’s also Pavlov 101 and Skinner 101, but never mind…)

Unfortunately, when you put such weight on the rewards, you can ruin the motivation for good service. It becomes about money, not pride.

The really good waiters, servers, etc. know how to subordinate the goals to the process—they succeed in spite of, not because of, those following service improvement theory.

But its worst, this approach produces begging. “May I put you down as having received excellent customer service on this call?”  Try saying “no” next time and see what happens.

Here’s what happened with me.

CSR: May I say I provided excellent customer service for you today?
ME: No.
CSR: But—what did I do wrong?
ME: You didn’t do anything wrong, but you weren’t able to solve my problem.
CSR: (Sputtering) But, that wasn’t my fault; it’s the system.
ME: Whatever.  I still didn’t get my problem solved, so I didn’t receive “excellent customer service.”
CSR: But I tried.
ME: Thank you. But is this about your trying, or about my results?
CSR: But this could hurt my ratings and cost me!

This is a bad customer service feedback process, providing bad data.  It ruins the service as well.  And it creates cynicism about bad motives.

But when it turns decent employees into pathetic beggars—abjectly beseeching the very customers they are supposed to be serving—then the process has achieved something truly twisted and dehumanizing.

And all in the name of measurement and reward.

Hey Ginger—any reason not to provide the name of the restaurant?  It’ll be our little blow for improved service analysis.