7 Secrets to Providing Excellent Customer Service

June 30, 2010 – 8:55 pm by Gabe Anderson | 11 Comments »

This post isn’t exactly related to a specific technology, but the tips can apply to any tech (or other) company looking to improve or gain customer satisfaction.

In my six years with Articulate, one thing we as a company have always done well is provide excellent customer service and support. We hear it consistently. It starts with creating a customer-focused culture and practicing excellent service every day. Relentlessly.

Here are 7 easy ways you can build customer loyalty and keep smiles on your customers’ faces:

  1. Use common sense. Providing excellent customer service — be it sales-, technical-, or service-oriented — isn’t rocket science. It simply requires some common sense. Remember the Golden Rule? The whole “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” thing? Use it. Treat people the way you like to be treated. You will keep people happy.
  2. Be responsive. I can’t stress this enough: Respond to your emails and respond to your voicemails. It ties into the common sense thing. If you email or call someone, how do you feel when you don’t get a reply? The most important thing in providing excellent customer service is to respond. And do it as quickly as possible — within a couple of hours during the business day, or no later than first thing the next business day. “I get too much” email shouldn’t be an excuse. Filter out the email you don’t need. Stay on top of your replies. And be responsive. Your customers will thank you for it.
  3. Make it easy to contact you. In order to be responsive, your customers have to know how to reach you. So don’t hide behind your support site or your knowledge base. Use a contact form and put the link to it everywhere. Make sure your company has a contact form with a phone number. Use your email address and phone number in your email signature. You want to make sure people can actually contact you to buy your product or service, and contact you if they need help with it. Don’t be afraid of your customers.
  4. Listen. I’ve worked in customer support and service roles long enough to know that the old adage about the customer always being right isn’t really right. And that’s OK. The important thing is that you listen to the customer; let him vent; don’t tell him he’s wrong. Then acknowledge the issue, try to reach an agreement, and do your best to keep the customer happy. He may not be right, but at least you listened to his point of view, which is the important thing. Usually people just want to be heard.
  5. Adapt. Let customers drive how you interact with them. Though you may not always be able to offer the type of communication channel your customers want, you can still be responsive to their behavior. For example, Articulate does not offer incoming phone support, but we make interacting with our support team as easy as possible. Asking for more help after receiving an email from our support team is as easy as replying to the email. None of this “do not reply to this email” crap. We also don’t make people login to a support portal to contact us. Remove barriers.
  6. Embrace social media. Speaking of adapting, make sure you’re active on Facebook and Twitter. If that’s where your customers are spending their time online and asking questions about your product or service, make sure you’re there to engage directly with them.
  7. Honor your word. If you tell someone you’ll follow-up with them by end of day, then do it. There’s nothing worse than having someone tell you they’ll contact you later, then having to track them down again. Stand by your word.

Follow these tips and you’ll soon realize that the secret to successful customer service is really simple: Just do the right thing and your customers will be happy.

It’s beyond me why so many companies — especially large companies with massive call centers — just can’t get it right.

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Ask & Answer Questions with Aardvark

April 22, 2010 – 8:39 am by Gabe Anderson | No Comments »

Aardvark Aardvark is like having a social network-powered librarian in your pocket (though less qualified than an actual librarian). Both an easy-to-use iPhone app and a website, Aardvark is a question-and-answer service that was acquired by Google for $50 million in February.

Aardvark leverages the power of worldwide social networking to connect users with similar interests to answer questions on just about anything, be it a product or service recommendation or specific data related to light truck sales in 1999, or how to properly price a bottle of 2004 Banfi Castello Brunello di Montalcino.

I first used Aardvark last fall to solicit input on whether it was a good idea to buy a new home theater system from a sale leading up to Black Friday, or to wait until Black Friday itself. I got lots of great input in minutes, and even exchanged a few follow-up messages with a Best Buy employee in Canada. His advice: Buy the system you want before Black Friday since it will generally be higher quality (at a great price) than many of the Black Friday-specific models of TVs, stereos, etc. That’s what I ended up doing.

It’s a fun and powerful concept that adds some human intelligence to simple web searching. You might not always get the answer you want, but you will likely get feedback on your question and at least get pointed in the right direction.

Last night I was browsing through some questions related to topics that I’ve specified I want to answer, and responded to a couple via my iPhone, including this one from the movies category:

aardvark-memento

As my librarian wife pointed out last night as I read some of the questions to her, the types of questions that appear on Aardvark are exactly the types of questions that librarians answer every day. So if you want to get a taste of what it’s like to be a librarian (or at least the reference desk aspect of librarianship), check out Aardvark.

Of course, you could probably get your questions answered by calling your local library, too.

As a test of the response time of the Aardvark network, I posted a new question about 30 minutes ago, when I started writing this post, to see if I’d get a response by the time I finished. Sure enough, I already have two responses to my question (if you enable the push notification feature in the iPhone app, you’ll even be alerted to new responses like a text message):

aardvark-running

There are interesting applications for Aardvark, including for crowd-sourcing technical support, which Google has begun to do for some of its products. I’m all for a community-based approach for tech support, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for direct support from a company (companies like GetSatisfaction offer a blend of the two).

Aardvark allows sign-in and integration with your Facebook account and now, of course, via your Google Apps account as well.

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Use Backblaze for Online Backup

February 23, 2010 – 8:37 am by Gabe Anderson | 2 Comments »

I’m a big fan of set it and forget it technology. Things like anti-virus apps (see Microsoft Security Essentials), disk defragmenting (now built-in to Windows 7), and backup software (I use SyncBackSE for local backup) fall into this category.

When it comes to data backup, though, you can never be too cautious. In addition to my local backup strategy (nightly full drive backup and synchronization of My Docs with other machines on my network), I also use Backblaze for secure online backup.

logo_backblaze

Though it’s unlikely that all of my computers will crash at once, online backup is great for those rare catastrophes that no one really wants to think about: Fire, theft, flood, or earthquake.

Online backup gives you the following benefits:

  • Automatic, continuous backup
  • Off-site data backup
  • Single-file or batch restore

I first started using another online backup product, Mozy, back in 2005. I used it for a number of years, but grew frustrated with ongoing technical issues and the poor technical support. The main issue with Mozy was that every day that I opened Outlook, Outlook would load my local PST archive files, which caused a modification to the file, which caused Mozy to see these giant (GB+) files as changed, so it was constantly trying to upload the PSTs.

So nearly a year ago (04/24/2009, according to my Gmail records) I switched to Backblaze and haven’t looked back. I did have a few hiccups and technical issues at first, but have found the technical support at Backblaze to be far superior and more attentive than that from Mozy. In fact, most of the support I’ve received has been directly from Backblaze CTO Brian Wilson, who’s been very responsive to my issues and open with explaining some of the inner-workings of Backblaze. Backblaze also been open to my ideas about improving the product, including my suggestions about file paths to exclude from default backup settings.

I currently have nearly 200 GB backed up with Backblaze and am confident that any new or changed files on my computer get securely uploaded to Backblaze. I can easily check the status of my backup at any time via the Backblaze Control Panel:

Backblaze Control Panel

Backblaze works with both PCs and Macs. The restore process is easy — you can restore a single file from any recent backup data via the web interface, or in the case of total failure, you can order DVDs or an external storage drive with all of your data:

Whether you have 1 gig or 500 gigs, $5 per month is a small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes with secure off-site data backup.

For those interested in the technical details of the Backblaze hardware infrastructure, there’s a cool blog post on how the company created its own affordable, scalable server that offers 67 petabytes of drive space per custom Backblaze Storage Pod: Petabytes on a budget: How to build cheap cloud storage.

backblaze-storage-pod-main-components

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reMail: Instant Search for the iPhone

January 6, 2010 – 8:41 am by Gabe Anderson | 3 Comments »

remail_logo_i

reMail is like X1 for the iPhone.

As I’ve written here in the past, X1 is a must-have tool for anyone who’s serious about archiving and finding Outlook email — its instant search works so fast and so well partly because it keeps a copy of emails in its search index.

I love my iPhone as much as anyone, but searching my Gmail archives isn’t always easy via the built-in app — since the Mail app only searches what’s in your inbox. If I want to search the full archives, I have to fire up Safari, login to Gmail (since my iPhone often logs me out automatically), and use the browser-based search. This is fine in some circumstances and assuming I have an Internet connection.

learn_more_search

But what if I’m on a plane, overseas, or just want to fire up an app and instantly find the message I’m looking for?

Enter reMail, a great app for the iPhone that downloads your entire email archive to your iPhone and makes it instantly searchable.

Yes, if you’re like me and have many gigs of email in your Gmail or other email app, it could potentially take days to download and index everything, but just plug in your iPhone overnight (or nights) and let reMail work its indexing magic. It’s well worth the wait.

After reMail has downloaded your email, it actually resides on your iPhone, which is also nice from a backup perspective (not that you can actually restore any email via reMail, but it’s comforting knowing it’s there and not only on the Gmail servers).

Once your mail is there, you can search for anything in your archive, and it comes up in no time. The full-text search works brilliantly — and it’s fast.

The app itself is free. There’s support for IMAP email ($3.99) as well as for Rackspace integration ($0.99), so if your company hosts its email there, you can easily index your work email, too.

Among other features, reMail gives you a number of advantages over the built-in iPhone Mail app:

  • Searches Full-text
  • Autocompletes Names
  • Search History
  • Saves attachments on iPhone
  • Advanced search operations (prefix, not, or, etc.)
  • Marks up matches
  • Drastically faster search time
  • All messages stored on phone

The support is superb as well, and I’ve even exchanged a few emails with Gabor Cselle, the man behind reMail, and have offered some product suggestions.

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Check Your Credit Score for Free with CreditKarma

November 13, 2009 – 9:23 am by Gabe Anderson | 3 Comments »

Building and maintaining good credit is a lifelong challenge, and one that can have significant impact on many facets of life, including securing a solid interest rate on a mortgage or car loan, or even getting that dream job with an employer who wants to make sure she’s hiring a responsible individual. So monitoring your credit report — ensuring that no one’s stolen your identity and that the information being reported about you is accurate — should be an ongoing financial goal.

CreditKarma

Sites like the free AnnualCreditReport.com make it easy to check the details of your credit report — you can request one free report from each of three credit bureaus once per year — but until now, you’ve had to pay for your FICO score from sites like myFICO ($15.95/report or $8.95/month to monitor your score).

CreditKarma

We all like free, so enter CreditKarma, a site that gives you your credit score free of charge — and it takes a whole two minutes or so to sign up, see your score, and get a letter grade in various categories, including the following:

  • Open Credit Card Utilization
  • Percent of On-Time Payments
  • Average Age of Open Credit Lines
  • Total Accounts
  • Hard Credit Inquiries
  • Total Debt
  • Debt to Income Ratio

Here are my actual letter grades in a few of the categories (for the record, even though the first one shows 3% on credit card utilization, my wife and I pay off our credit card balance every month; we use a Southwest Airlines credit card for most purchases and bills to earn Rapid Rewards credits, so I’m guessing that 3% refers to our balance at any given time, even though it’s never carried over):

CreditKarma grades

You can also see how you compare with others in your age group, state, and even email domain (e.g., I can see that my credit score puts me in a percentile higher than most in my age group (93.2%), and that Gmail users score among the highest percentile (88.5%), relative to other email domains).

age percentile credit score

It’s not your FICO score, the official number used by the credit reporting industry, but it’s pretty close and a good indication of where you stand. The number and credit reporting data come from TransUnion, one of the three major credit reporting agencies (Experian and Equifax being the other two).

credit score tracking

It’s a great way to make sure your credit is in good standing, and it’s always fun to track data over time — to monitor improvement, to see how you stack up against others, and so on. You can login to CreditKarma as often as you’d like, though your score won’t actually update more than once per month.

The CreditKarma business model is similar to that of Mint.com (my review) in that it offers you a free service and offsets its costs by analyzing data in bulk and tailoring financial offers to you.

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Instapaper: Read it Later on Your iPhone

October 31, 2009 – 4:10 pm by Gabe Anderson | No Comments »

One of the simplest yet most useful iPhone apps I’ve come across is Instapaper, which offers a simple way to bookmark something so that you can read it later.

It solves that problem where someone sends you a link or you stumble across an article online that interests you, but you either don’t have the time or don’t feel like reading it right now.

Instapaper

It’s simple to use. All you do is this:

  1. One-time setup:
    • Drag the Instapaper bookmarklet to your browser’s toolbar.
    • Install either the free or pro version of Instapaper on your iPhone or iTouch.
  2. When you find something that interests you:
    • Click the “Read Later” bookmark on your toolbar.
    • Let Instapaper save the content to your account.
    • Read it later.

Why not just use bookmarks?

Sure, you could use bookmarks, but at least for me, bookmarks are more about sites that I visit regularly, and I don’t want to bother with managing a temporary “to read” folder of bookmarks. Not only that, but if you’re reading articles on your iPhone later (you can also read at your comptuer via the Instapaper site), Instapaper gives you a great interface that’s optimized for the iPhone and is easier on the eyes (no zooming in or worry about horizontal scrolling if the website isn’t optimized for your iPhone).

What else does Instapaper do for me?

Along with optimizing text for reading on your iPhone, Instapaper gives you cool stuff like the following (from the Instapaper site):

  • Saves web pages
  • Offline reading
  • Saves paper
  • Makes you read more (I like that this is listed as a feature!)
  • Remembers your position (very cool)
  • Tilt scrolling
  • Adjustable fonts and text size
  • Lots more

Instapaper is one of those apps (like Evernote) that always makes me say to myself, “Why don’t I use this more?”

Here’s a demo video:

Happy reading!

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Stream Netflix & Hulu to Your TV with Xbox 360

September 30, 2009 – 8:18 am by Gabe Anderson | 10 Comments »

A couple months ago my wife and I downgraded our cable from the fancy $75/month digital package with DVR offered by Time Warner to the most basic cable option — about 20 channels, non-digital, no DVR, and only $12/month. We haven’t missed cable and we still get to watch all of our favorite current TV shows, as well as plenty of movies and recent premium TV series.

The key ingredient? An Xbox 360.

It’s a gaming powerhouse, but, ironically, we own just a single game for it: The 360 incarnation of the Katamari series, which we also own on our iPhones. So it’s clearly not about the gaming, though it’s good to know the option is there. (I haven’t really been much of a video gamer since the Super Nintendo days of Zelda, Street Fighter II, and other now-classics.)

So here’s how to get plenty of entertainment in your living room for about $13/month and about $230 in up-front investment:

Buy an Xbox 360. The $199 arcade version is all you need.

snag-2340

Get a long Ethernet cable to run from your router to your Xbox 360 ($10-20). Don’t want to string a cable through your house? Other options include the $99 Xbox 360 wireless adapter or the DIY bridging of your laptop’s wifi connection (I’ve done this; it works but isn’t too reliable).

cat5_ethernet_cable

Subscribe to the 1-DVD-at-a-time with unlimited streaming $8.99/month or higher Netflix account (I have the 2-DVDs-at-a-time with unlimited streaming $13.99/month account).

Netflix

Hook yourself up with an Xbox Live Gold membership (it’s $49.99/year with options to pay monthly or quarterly, so roughly $4-5/month). That will allow you to use the Xbox 360 to stream Netflix with the high-quality player.

xbox-gold

If you want to stream Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand, and more, pay the one-time $29.99  fee for PlayOn Media Server, which allows your Xbox to stream content from the Internet via your computer (there’s also a Netflix module included with PlayOn, but the quality is not as good as the version built-in to the Xbox 360, which even streams some content in high-definition).

playon1

That’s it! With this setup, you can enjoy streaming movies like Step Brothers, premium channel shows like Dexter (I recently watched Season 1 and am in the middle of Season 2 via Netflix), and even watch new episodes of current shows like Heroes via Hulu — all from the comfort of your living room.

hulu-logo

Sure, you could opt for the $99 Roku Netflix player, but then you’d miss out on streaming Hulu to your TV, along with the ability to playback any video, picture, or music you’ve downloaded to your computer… not only that, but your Xbox Live account gives you access to new movie rentals and a whole universe of gaming, if that’s your thing.

(Thanks, Justin, for introducing me to the beauty of the Xbox 360.)

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Use Screenr to Record & Share Anything on Your Screen

August 24, 2009 – 9:01 am by Gabe Anderson | 2 Comments »

screenr_logo_small Last week we at Articulate released a brand spankin’ new product called Screenr, which allows you to easily record your screen and share it anywhere online: Twitter, YouTube, your website, your blog, email, etc. You can also playback any screencast via iPhone, and you can download an .MP4 QuickTime version to use in Articulate-powered projects or anywhere else.

Since the release on Tuesday, the Twittersphere has been blowing up with mentions of Screenr, either people reviewing the app or posting links to their screencasts.

When we launched, ReadWriteWeb posted a review that was syndicated in The New York Times Online the next day. CNET contacted us to review the new app, and wrote a review called Easiest screencasts ever: Screenr, declaring that Screenr is “the best option for creating screencasts fast and getting them posted immediately. All you do is let the Java-powered recording app load from the Screenr Web page and hit a button to record a screencast of up to five minutes.”

And yup, it really is that easy. Here’s all you do to create a screencast:

  1. Go to Screenr.com.
  2. Click one of the Record buttons.
  3. Size the recording frame to meet your needs:

    screenr recording window

  4. Click the red record button to record and narrate.
  5. Click Done to finish and preview your screencast.
  6. Type an interesting description and click the Tweet It! button to publish & tweet your screencast:

    screenr tweet it

  7. Optionally, check the box to Don’t tweet this screencast, and click the Post It! button to publish.

After that, sharing your screencast is just as easy. Here’s a quick screencast I created that shows you how to share it:

The review on Mashable says this: “If you want to create a simple and straightforward video tutorial that’s less than 5 minutes, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better tool.”

Comments from Twitter users echo that sentiment, and you can browse some of @Screenr’s favorites here.

So whether it’s a software tutorial, a website overview, or even a hurricane update, you can use Screenr to record anything on your screen.

Enjoy!

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How to Make Windows Vista Faster: Give it a Windows 98 Look

June 24, 2009 – 6:05 pm by Gabe Anderson | 2 Comments »

I make a living at the computer. I also enjoy doing lots of other things online. So I spend a lot of time in front of my computer. My mind also jumps around really fast and I’m often doing more than one thing at a time. If my computer can’t keep up with me, I get really frustrated. I waste a lot of time waiting for Windows to finish “thinking” or processing my requests.

And Windows Vista is the worst. Since getting my new Vista machine about a year ago, it’s given me nothing but headaches — even after regularly fine-tuning it and scanning for registry and other issues with great apps like System Mechanic. My 5-year-old XP machine typically runs faster, so I often switch to it while Vista is experiencing some performance problem.

That all changed almost instantly today when I happened to discover the profound impact that Windows Visual Effects can have on the degradation of system performance.

Although they’re nice to have, I really don’t care about all the silly Visual Effects like the following:

  • Animate controls and elements inside windows
  • Fade or slide menus into view
  • Show shadows under mouse pointer
  • Show translucent selection triangle
  • Use drop shadows for icon labels on the desktop

All these Visual Effects just add up to slowing the performance of your system.

If you really want Windows Vista to fly and get incredibly fast performance — to have your computer really live up to the potential of its processor speed — then disable the Windows Visual Effects.

Here’s how to disable the Windows Visual Effects in Vista:

  1. Click the Start menu.
  2. Type (or copy & paste) systempropertiesadvanced.
  3. Hit Enter.
  4. The Advanced tab of System Properties displays.
  5. Under the Performance section, click Settings:
    System Properties: Performance
  6. On the first tab, Visual Effects, select the radio button to Adjust for best performance:
    Adjust for Best Performance
  7. Click Apply and wait a few minutes while your system adjusts the settings.

It may look shocking at first — just like Windows 98, in fact — but you’ll notice an immediate boost in speed that, to me, is well worth the sacrifice in aesthetics.

And, of course, you can play with re-enabling the various Visual Effects settings, if there are some settings you can’t live without. For example, if you like seeing photo thumbnails in Windows Explorer, make sure you re-enable the option to Show thumbnails instead of icons.

You do lose out on some cool Vista features I’ve gotten used to, like being able to Alt-Tab and click your desired application, but I’m willing to live without that.

And you can still set your display to ClearType after you make this change, too:

  1. Click Show desktop.
  2. Right-click on your desktop and select Personalize.
  3. Click Window Color and Appearance.
  4. Click Effects and select the checkbox to Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts (notice my sweet new Windows 98-style window in below screenshot):
    ClearType
  5. Select ClearType from the drop-down menu and click OK.

Enjoy having an insanely fast Windows Vista experience!

Note: One issue I noticed after disabling all Visual Effects is that Chrome kept crashing. But installing the Chrome Beta fixed that problem (thanks, @articulatebrian, for that Chrome Beta tip).

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Use Garmin Connect to Track & Visualize Run Data

May 31, 2009 – 8:15 pm by Gabe Anderson | No Comments »

I was psyched to read this blog post a few days ago: Garmin Connect welcomes all Garmin fitness devices. I’d been waiting for that news for nearly a year — ever since deciding to save some money by purchasing the older Garmin Forerunner 305 vs. the newer 405.

I already had a Garmin Connect account and had even used it to successfully upload some old data off my FR 305 way back when, so I almost immediately jumped on the news and started uploading all of my more recent runs to the site. I was immediately hooked.

garmin-helpful-analysis-01

Along with basic run data like your total distance, pace per mile, and more, you get to visualize data like the following:

  • Elevation
  • Heart rate (I just re-ordered the heart rate monitor I lost last year in Puerto Rico)
  • Speed

You can review all the cool Garmin Connect features here.

One of the coolest features is the ability to Replay Activities, which allows you to play back your run while you watch your route on an integrated Google Map, and your changing pace, elevation, and distance traveled.

You can track goals, see split data, and run reports. You can customize the name, description, and type of each activitiy, and choose whether each one should be public or private, so that you can share links to your runs with your friends, or keep them private.

As a technology guy who’s also hooked on running (training for my third marathon this summer), I love this stuff. I just finished off a record month today (215.8 miles) with a 15-mile run. And now, with Garmin Connect, I can analyze my run data like never before.

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