Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.

Listen First, Then Listen More

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Listen First, Then Listen More”

Everyday we hear things, TV, people talking to us, but how much do we listen?

Sometimes, it’s quite easy to talk – if someone tells you about their recent holiday, sometimes it’s tempting to talk to them about your recent holiday the moment you get a chance. But that’s not always what you should do.

Lots of people, starved of good listeners, find actually actively being listened to a very powerful thing. You can gain respect, make friends,  simply by listening to people.

When I tried to do politics, and stood in the 2010 general election for the Pirate Party, we learnt this the hard way.

If you ever get involved in a political campaign in the UK, you’ll find that the best way of engaging with voters, is knocking on their door. This is kind of scary the first 2-300 times, but to some degree the fear subsides.

What we came to learn was that it was much easier, and much more effective to knock on people’s door and ask them what problems they had in the neighbourhood, than knock on the door and try and get them to vote Pirate.

A couple of weeks ago, I read How to Win Friends and Influence People which pretty much codifies, and expands upon what we learnt on the streets: people like being listened to.

During a council election campaign, there was this one council house that we knocked on, and asked if they had any problems with the council. At first they said “nope, we have no problems here”, and then “well there is just one thing” and showed us an uncollected recycling bin, and then “oh well there is one more thing”, and showed a half-smashed window, and another bit where the council hadn’t made a correct modification to accommodate one disabled resident, and a string of other things. When we got back to our base, we had huge wad of issues we knew we could help them with, and we knew their life stories.

In contrast, I remember a lovely lady, I once tried to persuade to vote for me. She’d lived in the area for ~30 years, and I’d lived there for ~2, and in the nicest possible way, she batted questions at me to try and get me to justify myself. I suspect I talked myself out of her vote, simply by answering honestly. It was around then, that I decided that trying to influence politics was less enjoyable than I’d hoped, even at the best of times.

My girlfriend once described me as an extroverted introvert, and I sort of agree:

When you first meet new people, sparing using your words, and encouraging them to do the talking can help you to understand where they’re coming from and how to help them relate to you.

It’s easier this way too – you don’t have to say much, and can get a feel for what they’re interested in, and how best to respond to them.

It can even help over email.

One theoretical problem I’ve often thought about is, “if you meet someone very well known, who you respect the work of, but have little to say to, what should you say?”  What should you say if you met Tom Cruise, or Katy Perry or David Beckham or someone?

It’s complicated, but, my feeling is that relying on pieces of wisdom like these can help:

“Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools speak because they have to say something.”


“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

-Abraham Lincoln

When it comes to customers, and business, encouraging customers to talk about things that they care about can make a great deal of difference. I like rock climbing, and I was looking over this customer’s website, and I noticed the person I was talking to was also a climber, so I asked them where they’d been recently. It was as if I’d opened a floodgate – suddenly they were recommending me places to go to develop my climbing, and suddenly it felt like we were communicating on a friend-to-friend basis, rather than a business-to-business.

Another memorable moment is once when I went to a customer site to work out how we could help them. Talking about the tech they were building, where they were, where they were going, what their challenges were made a real impression on them. I thought I was just sort of gathering information, somehow, by being interested and asking them questions about how they planned to do things, they were delighted to have someone to explain it to. They took me through these details, those plans – and by the time we left, I understood a great deal about their system. The customer was so happy, they broadcasted on social media about it, and still remembered it a few years afterwards.

I think it’s also relevant if someone has some criticism aimed at you, or something you’re in control of. Going and giving them your full attention, and saying “you’re absolutely right, this does sound serious – thanks for bringing it to my attention – I’d like you to tell me all about it”, can make someone feel a lot more valued, and pacified. Do that with enough passion, and it’s completely possible to turn their relationship with your business from frustration to love.

Listening is more difficult than it sounds, but you can learn to do it, and it makes people happy. :)

Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.
Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.

A happy customer service story

A few months ago, I was in Greggs, the bakers or northern fast food chain near Piccadilly station before I went to catch a train.

The guy who served me, as he handed over some delicious cheese and onion pasties, made a passing, one line comment about how he thought my hat really suited me.

The comment stayed with me all day, and kept coming back and making me smile, and so by the time I was heading home, I’d decided to write a letter to the company HQ letting them know how it’d brightened by day – as I’ve done on other occasions I’ve had great customer service and I got back this nice email:

I’ve passed on your feedback to the Area Manager and the shop team involved.

Clearly this is fantastic customer feedback and on behalf of Greggs I’d like to say thank you for passing on such positive comments.

We look forward to seeing you again soon.

Emailing customer service departments nice comments is always good, because 99% of the time those departments will handle complaints, and something nice will probably brighten the day of the person reading it.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was passing through the same station, and decided to acquire myself some more addictively warm pastry-based snacks and stopped passed the same Greggs.

My memory of faces isn’t too great, but I suspected I was being served by the same guy, and he kind of looked at me slightly nervously, and then asked if I was the guy who’d written in about him.

When he found out it was, he erupted into a grin and smiled from ear to ear, thanking me and pointing me out to his colleagues.

What made me happy, was that his simple comment, that he thought my hat “really worked” to a complete stranger, made my day… and hopefully, I managed to repay his random act of kindness…

It strikes me that for a 2 second comment and a 5 minute email, a lot of good things have happened.

Looking for nice things to say to people? Here’s some.

I promise, this isn’t sponsored by Greggs (though if you’re reading, I’ll happily accept free pasties for life!)

Would you thank an awesome customer-droid?

It’s easy to write arsey letters of complaint (or moan about it on social media) when people get stuff wrong – but there’s loads of humans whom we deal with everyday, who are a pleasure to work with but rarely get credit for it.

Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to pass on positive feedback. Sure, it may not be fair if someone gets a positive note from a customer about just genuinely being nice, when there was also a time they went a long long way above the call of duty and got no credit for it, but hopefully this makes up for it.

Don’t get me wrong: I have shitty customer service experiences, but I feel it’s important to shout out about the great ones. If you think how many of the customer facing representatives have rubbish days, and think how many times they’re thanked in a more meaningful way than muttered words, then you can start to understand how a quick letter can brighten someone’s day. But it won’t just brighten one person’s day – “customer service departments” often is the name for “dealing with customer complaints departments” – even for the person whom you’re causing an extra email for, it’s an extra email they will enjoy receiving.

Think about giving it a go sometime – a few kind words that get through to someone’s manager could really make their day.

For me, it’s just about “Today you…. tomorrow me.”

I spend a lot of time on the train, and so frequently train companies have been my target:

Dear Mr Dobson

Thank you for your email dated 9 May 2013.

I was delighted to learn of your satisfaction with the level of service provided by a member of our staff of ScotRail. We have set ourselves high standards and I am glad these have met with your expectations. I will ensure that your comments are passed to the manager for the staff member concerned.

Thank you once again for your kind comments, it is always a pleasure to receive letters such as yours.

Thank you for contacting ScotRail.

(Simply a very helpful and friendly ticket office attendant – from my email “As they say on Ebay, ‘A*** Great seller, would buy from again!'”)


Dear Mr Dobson

Thank you for contacting us about your journey on 14 December 2012. I would like to thank you for your positive comments about the member of our staff who assisted you during the course of your journey.

Whilst we expect our staff to offer the very best possible service, it is always great to read when we have exceeded expectations, especially as I am fully aware that contacting us to provide feedback takes time and effort.

I have made the manager who is responsible for the member of staff concerned, aware of your contact so that they can pass on your kind words. We do have an internal GEM (going the extra mile) award programme and annual customer excellence awards, which also relies on passenger feedback.

I do hope that you did not experience a serious delay on your journey.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us.

Yours sincerely

(A train trolley/person attendant who deescalated/comforted a teenage girl out of confrontation as her mother was thrown off the train, whilst continuing to try and serve tea/coffee)


Dear Mr Dobson

Thank you for contacting us about your journey on 18 June 2011. Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused by the delay to your journey with us on board the 0846 service between Manchester Piccadilly and Windermere on this occasion.

The delay to your journey was caused as the result of a person being hit by a train on the line at Preston. As is policy with an incident involving a death on the railway the line was closed and the British Transport Police took control of the scene. Every effort was made by all concerned to reopen the line as quickly as possible, but First TransPennine Express had no direct control over how soon this happened. As a result of the line closure many of our services were disrupted. In addition some of our trains and staff were displaced from their scheduled location and other services across our network were consequently affected.

As you can appreciate, First TransPennine Express has no way of preventing an incident of this nature and as such, under the National Conditions of Carriage, compensation is not available for the resulting delay to your journey. Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience or distress the event may have caused.

I would like to thank you for your positive comments about the Driver of this service. We expect our staff to deliver the highest standard of customer care and it is always a pleasure to learn that we have achieved this. Any feedback we receive from our customers is important to us and I know it takes a great deal more time and effort to write and compliment any company than it does to pass on negative feedback.

I have made our Train Service Manager who is responsible for the member of staff concerned, aware of your contact so that they can pass on your kind words, which will also be used towards our Reward and Recognition programme.

(A train driver who clearly and honestly communicated personally with passengers why there was a slight delay, without pussyfooting around the issue – a delay in the circumstances was understandably unavoidable, but great communication improved the situation immensely.)

Boom! Just Eat do customer service right!

Not long ago I ordered a Pizza through JustEat. The takeaway in question then took my mobile number (without my permission) and started to send me unsolicited marketing text messages with no way to opt out.

After asking twitter for advice (and got some), but considering I knew of the organisation that was sending me these, I wondered what the best way to just stop receiving these text messages.

I contacted Just Eat’s customer service. Consider the service I received here in comparison to other similar customer services experiences.

Me: A pizza takeaway I once used, is sending me unsolicited marketing SMS from “Herbies” with no way to opt-out. What do I do?

Welcome to Just Eat Customer Services. You are through to Deniece.

Hello Tim,


I am sorry to hear this. You would need to contact the takeaway about this as we do not get involved with this type of marketing activity

The takeaway are independently owned from JUST EAT.

I understand that JUST EAT are not responsible for their actions, and I love you guys.
However given that you were involved in passing my details on to the company, who have then abused the purpose they were given to them for, I think you might be able to help better here.

I imagine you require each of your partner takeaways to agree to terms and conditions, and I’d be surprised if that allowed them to store and use my details for marketing purposes? Is that the case?

Takeaways would have your contact details if you placed an order with them directly as they store phone numbers and address for phone orders. They need this information to be able to deliver to you and contact you if there is a problem with your order. I am happy to call them and request they remove your details, but I can not offer any guarantee that they will do this. Please bear with me.

That would be wonderful.

I would be very happy if you did that.

I have spoken to them and they have said they will remove your number from their database.

Is there anything else I can help you with?

(And I understand that you cannot offer any gurantee’s but the effort is appreicated)

That’s all, thanks for being awesome Deniece. I hope you have a great day and I hope you get some more friendly customers today.

It did sounds as though he was actually doing it while I was on the fingers crossed..

Thank you so much.

You have been very friendly!

No problem at all, I’m happy to help.

Thank you for using Just Eat, you have been speaking to Deniece. I hope you have a good evening. Goodbye.

Deniece has left the conversation.

So let’s look back at this:

It’s not actually Just Eat’s fault that I have this problem – however as the middleman that set up the original transaction, and as a middleman who wants to have future transactions with me – in theory at least – they have an interest in keeping me happy.

They went out of their way to sort out a badly behaved supplier of theirs. The person I spoke to was personable, sounded like a real human, and was easy to empathise with.

This is a big difference compared to eBay.

Well done JustEat, you keep my business! :)

A dilemma of good customer service

Whilst some people have poor customer service experiences with established online retailers, other less established ones have a dilemma on their hands:

  • They can either provide “just as rubbish” customer service, in a race to the bottom
  • They can provide much better customer service.

The problem with the former position is that most small businesses can’t compete with large businesses on price, whether or not, the customer service is any good.

The problem with the latter position is that, given the incredibly poor service people are used to from large organisations, they had difficulty convincing people:

  • That they’re different from other organisations
  • That better customer service is actually a benefit to them

Consider the following scenario:

Retailer messes up slightly and sends someone something *slightly* wrong – not very bad, but still something the customer is mildly annoyed about.

The customer may think that speaking to a customer service department is not worth their time (having branded them all the same), and they’ll just live with it being slightly wrong. However, they may vent their upset to social media, to their friends, and they’re unlikely to happily recommend the business. This is simply because the customer is worried that talking to someone would be more faff than it’s worth, however the end outcome is that everyone loses – the customer doesn’t get exactly what they want and the business loses a happy customer.

In an ideal scenario, the customer speaks to the customer service department, the customer service department reassures them that they’re absolutely right to get in touch, that something went wrong and the company will do something about it straight away, ideally not at the customer’s expense (both in money and time) at all.

If you can surpass the customer’s expectations here, you can really make an impact. For instance, if you’ve sent someone the wrong product, you could tell them to keep the product you sent (“because returning it is too much effort/not cost effective”), and you’ll send out the correct one by next day delivery. You probably wouldn’t get a chance to spend this much time talking to your customer unless they were buying something – customer service is really an opportunity to get to know your customer better and to make the best possible impression on them – a good impression will make a massive difference in whether or not they return.

A few weeks ago whilst shopping with a small retailer I’d never heard of, or used before, I found this statement in my emailed receipt:

“Thanks again for your custom. Don’t forget that we are much more than a faceless internet operation. You can call us at any time and speak to real human beings who will be pleased to help you! We look forward to being of service to you again in the near future.”

Which clearly shows what they’re trying to get across to their customers.

Customer service should not infuriate, but reassure the customer.

Frequently when people say “this provider is good for me”

I’ll ask, “Oh, have you had a problem with them?”

To which they’ll almost inevitably respond: “Nope, I’ve never had any problems with them.”

I feel this is kind of missing the point.

Usually, a good judge of a company, is how they respond when something goes wrong. Things go wrong for everyone, in every field. Sometimes there are procedures to reduce the impact of things going wrong, but things will not go to plan for everything – this is guaranteed.

And when something goes wrong, a customer ends up contacting the customer support department, or whatever it’s called.

I’m a long time Ebay user and I recently had an issue. Consider this recent conversation:

Carol Andrews: Welcome to Live Help, my name is Carol. How may I be of assistance?
Me: Hi there,I’m trying to pay for two items:
URL of item 1
URL of item 2
item: Item ID 1
item: Item ID 2
But every time I try and pay I get:

Your request could not be processed at this time
Sorry, we aren’t able to complete your request at this time.
If you encounter this message more than once, please contact us, and we’ll do our best to help.

Me: This has been affecting em now for 2 days.
Me: *me
Carol Andrews: Thank you for stating your concern.
Carol Andrews: While I am checking this for you, do you have any other questions or concerns today?
Me: that is all.
Carol Andrews: I replicated steps and received the same error.
Carol Andrews: Please be assured that our technical team is working hard to resolve this as quickly as possible.
Me: Please can you tell me more information about the situation?
Carol Andrews: As a workaround, you may contact the seller and inform them about this. You may also ask them to send invoice via PayPal so that you can try pay directly from PayPal site.
Me: Unfortunately, that seems rather inconvenient. Can you explain the technical issue?
Carol Andrews: Currently there are a number of eBay members affected by this and we’re attempting to isolate the problem based on reports, like the one you sent.
Carol Andrews: We try hard to minimize the disruption to our services and provide reliable selling tools to our members. However, unfortunately, we can’t guarantee the uninterrupted performance of all our tools, mainly due to the wide variety of different computer and internet setups in use by our members and the problems that conflicting software can generate.
Me: Thanks for your answers, however given that I find technical information reassuring. I understand you are triaging this issue for your technical team, Can you provide any more information from them as to what the issue is? I work for a SRE team myself so find in-depth technical details reassuring.
Carol Andrews: The team is still working on it to resolve the matter.
Carol Andrews: At present, we do not have any update from them.
Me: Thanks

So let’s look at some of the things that are wrong with this in detail.

Firstly, I refuse to believe that the person I’m talking to is actually called Carol Andrews. I believe it’s likely to be a cover name for a support operative who is located in an offshore location, and has been given an ostentatiously anglo-american name. Whilst there is nothing specifically wrong with this, it breaks down my trust of the organisation.

Secondly, they could replicated the problem, but they couldn’t help other than to suggest vague workarounds and to give me reassurances. Given that the same (almost identically worded) reassurances had been given two days earlier, I didn’t have much faith that there was actually an engineer working on it.

Thirdly, they try to infer the problem is at my end – “the wide variety of different computer and internet setups” – even though they had replicated the problem themselves.

Fourthly, on further inspection, it turns out they practically only had a script and are unable to communicate with anyone with clue, to reassure me further in anyway.

So let’s look at what has been accomplished:

The customer was told a workaround to the problem, but wasn’t reassured that the problem was being fixed or that the company treated it as a priority, or given any sense that they were worth anything at all.

This is customer service, it does actually help, but it’s not very good customer service – it’s customer service that’s “just” good enough to stop the majority of people leaving and just enough to put people off contacting customer service again.

With gritted teeth, I took their advice, explained the situation to the seller, paypal’d them the payment manually, marked the payment as sent. Suddenly, everything worked again.

My technical backseat diagnostics would suggest that there was a validation issue with the item and the data was inconsistent somehow and so the validation code was rudely throwing a wobbly. Had someone technical looked at this they’d have probably seen this straight away and have been able to fix it.

There are many ways the procedure could have gone better, but rather than imaging what they’d be like with good customer service, instead I’m going to blog at some point in future about people who “get” good customer service and do things “right”.

Formal vs Informal: Which works is best?

Consider  this email I sent a few weeks ago:

Hi there,

I’m well aware of everything you’ve said on the website, and I’m not expecting variety or anything at all, but I think it’d be worth letting you know that I’m vegetarian – I don’t eat meat or fish. If you could pass that on to the group leader it’d be awesomely appreciated!


Look at the words and sentence construction I used:

Hi there” – an informal greeting

awesomely appreciated” – clearly informal and unusual sentence construction in place of a simple “please”.

cheers” – an informal way to sign off

The context of the email, is a holiday abroad, the whole nature of the email is informal, casual, but still important and to be dealt with.

Here’s the response I got:

Dear Mr Dobson,

Many thanks for your email. I have notified our agent that you are vegetarian so that they can make adequate preparations for your trip.

I hope that you have a great time. If there is anything else you need before you go please do not hesitate to contact me.

Kind regards,

In my mind, this grates a little.

Dear Mr Dobson” – formal writing

our agent” – more formal and not the language that was initially used

notified“, “adequate preparations” – complicated and/or formal way of saying “OK”.

Kind regards” – largely-formal, way to sign off.

I didn’t want to speak to a business, I wanted a person. I wanted a person to give me a “yes, this is no problem” answer. I’d hoped that by phrasing my initial email in the way it did, this is what I’d get.

If I received my email, I’d have responded:

Hi Tim,

Yep, no problem at all, I’ve let the tour leader know for you.

Have a fun trip!  Do feel free to give me a shout if there’s anything else I can help with,


Now I imagine, some people will be reading this thinking “I’d hate it if someone responded to me in a casual/informal manner – it wouldn’t instill confience at all – I’d much prefer the more formal response – that’s just what I prefer.”

When dealing with customers, it helps when one can adapt to suit the customer.

Being able to switch from cheery casual to serious formal, for the right people, will help the customer feel more comfortable and happy which is generally “a good thing“.

Obviously, the context is important, if you work in an industry where people generally prefer communicating in a more formal manner, and they’re wishing to complain to you about something, then now is [probably] not the time to see whether they’re more comfortable with fewer formalities.

My real problem in this specific instance, was that the context was clearly not “serious business”, I clearly just wanted someone to say “yes, fine”, but they didn’t really adapt and respond to me, in the way that would have been most reassuring.

It’s a tough balance, but in my experience, finding that balance, can make a big difference when working with people.