Category Archives: Leadership

Support and Customer Development

I spoke to a group of entrepreneurs recently regarding the connection between Support and Customer Development. This has been a favorite subject of mine for some time, but this was the first time I tried to do a comprehensive presentation on the topic. As I put together the presentation, I realized that there was really so much more I could say. Nevertheless, I’m happy with the result, and I’ve uploaded the presentation to SlideShare.

Support as Customer Development
View more presentations from Darius Dunlap

I’d love to hear any thoughts or questions. I think there is much more I could say, so maybe I’ll make this a series.

Why do customers call you?

Call deflection has been a big thing in support for years. Get the customers to look it up themselves; give them some stuff from the knowledge-base before letting them submit a case – heck, some companies even leave customers on hold just so that some of them will go away.

But why are these customers calling you in the first place?

Do you really understand, deeply, the questions they are asking about your company and your service?

Go where the conversation is happening

Customers have always talked about your brand. Those conversations have gone on in the bleachers of the little league game, at weekend parties, over lunch, and of course, at the water cooler. Those conversations were happening, but you had no way of knowing it. There was no way you could find them and listen in, no way to gain insight from what people said to one another while talking about your brand.

But now conversations are happening online – on Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp, and on blogs and forum websites. That means you can find them, you can search them, and you can listen in.

Of course, people know you are listening. So what you hear is not always unaffected. Sometimes they are hoping you are listening, and that corrupts what they say, at least a little. It helps, of course, to look for those conversation that are happening between and among customers and their friends. Here they may have little regard for whether or not you are listening, and so you may hear a more straight message.

Even when people are talking among themselves about your brand or product, the message may still be tainted. People are jockeying for positions of respect, hoping to seem an authority, or playing some other role that changes their comments in ways that may be subtle but important.

Social Media monitoring tools attempt to make some sense of all the chaos in the social web. They try to assess the aggregate sentiment and provide you methods of gleaning the useful grains from the pile of straw (or even manure).

Sometimes, you can even corroborate what people are saying with what they are actually doing.

Still, this unstructured feedback is still better than any focus group. You may still be tempted to put it all in a box with a neat label on it, and you can still pollute the stream with your own notions of  your branding and your product positioning.

So just as with any other listening, it takes more than just hearing the words. You have to hear what’s between the words, what is not being said, but still exists. You have to listen for the real essence of what people think. Out there, you may find it.

But you have to go where the conversation is happening.

Crisis Management – learn from Apple

A quality that I find hugely important but increasingly rare in people is the willingness to admit mistakes.  Growing up I wasn’t really part of a culture in which mistakes are openly discussed and used as an opportunity to learn.  For a long time, my own approach was therefore one of just moving on or trying to fix things without admitting to any mistakes (often compounding the initial mistake in the process).

from Admitting Mistakes, by Albert Wenger on

Apple did not handle the iPhone 4 antenna question perfectly, and it serves as a great case study on what works and what doesn’t. For several weeks, the problem vexed Apple. In the end, the deft handling of the issue at Friday’s press conference likely put the issue to rest, but the mis-steps along the way are also useful to note. Here are a few things I noticed.

Initial Silence

It’s not uncommon for companies to be quiet about an issue when it first appears, and with Apple this seems to be fixed in their culture. When a product problem comes to light, you really don’t know how big a problem you have. Even if you are aware of the underlying issue, you already judged it to be minor, so some reassessment must happen. Still, a simple, clean communication is important. Customers need to know that you take all their questions and concerns seriously and are investigating the matter.

Mistake #1: Apple didn’t say enough, from the beginning

Apple should have assured customers early that while their tests show this is the best iPhone ever, they take ever customer’s questions and concerns seriously and are actively investigating this matter.


Software Problem

On July 2nd, Apple released an open letter to customers, describing a software flaw in the way the number of bars are calculated.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

from Letter from Apple Regarding iPhone 4 by Apple PR

Mistake #2: Apple said too much, too early – when they didn’t have their full story together.

When Apple released information about the algorithm for calculating the number of bars, they were telling the truth about part of the story. While their press release on the issue was carefully worded, this partial solution was sure to be misconstrued as evasive and dishonest. Learn to be a little cynical about your own “spin”.

While it’s critical to keep assuring customers that you are working on the problem, you also don’t want to release partial information that doesn’t stand on its own.


Apple Forums and Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports came out with their review of the iPhone 4, and despite giving it the highest ratings of any smartphone on the market, did not put the phone on their Recommended list. Apple was reported as having removed posts from their customer forums that were pointing to the Consumer Reports review.

Mistake #3: Apple squelched discussion of the issue on their customer forums.

This was so foolish, I didn’t believe it at first. Shel Israel sums it up nicely:

The Apple irony is that there are those pointing out the flaws in the CR study. Apple is circle the wagons when they don’t have to.

shel israel (shelisrael) on twitter



22 Days

When you are getting reports of product problems, it is critical to understand what the problem is and what it isn’t. People talk about the “hastily called press conference”, implying that Apple suddenly decided they had to talk about this problem. But the preparation involved in the presentation made it pretty clear there was nothing “hasty” about the press conference. Apple had been preparing this information for weeks. The timing and short notice of the event was understandable – as soon as Apple had all the information lined up, it called in the press. Why let this all continue over the weekend?

It’s a lot of work sorting out all the details of any systemic product problem, no matter how minor. Apple did a very good job of presenting the case…

This solution comes at the end of 22 days of Apple engineers “working their butts off,” according to Steve, with “physics” ultimately being pinned as the main culprit. Apple claims you can replicate the left-handed “death grip” bar-dropping problem on the BlackBerry Bold 9700, HTC Droid Eris, and Samsung Omnia II, and that “phones aren’t perfect.” Steve also claims that only 0.55% of people who bought the iPhone 4 have called into AppleCare to complain about the antenna, and the phone has a 1.7% return rate at AT&T, compared to 6% with the 3GS, though he would cop to a slight increase in dropped callsover the iPhone 3GS. For this Steve has what he confesses to be a pet theory: that 3GS users were using the case they had from the 3G, and therefore weren’t met with the horrible reality of a naked, call dropping handset. Hence the free case solution, which will probably satisfy some, infuriate others, and never even blip onto the radar of many of the massive horde of consumers that’s devoured this product in unprecedented numbers.

from Apple to give away free cases to iPhone 4 users by Engadget


and most people will be reasonable…

I can’t get myself worked up about the antenna issue. I’m simply not seeing the widespread user complaints that I normally associate with a functional defect in a product. I don’t experience the issue when I hold it normally. Plus, when you slap it in any kind of case, the problem disappears entirely.

from iPhone 4 Press Conference – The Post-Game Wrapup by Andy Ihnatko


even though some people just want attention, such as is evident in Senator Chuck Schumer’s Ridiculous open letter to Apple. Heck, Consumer Reports is even susceptible, evident in their continuing refusal to put the phone on their Recommended list – the phone that they have rated higher than any other!

Well, this is ironic. Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 4, the smartphone that Consumer Reports says it can’t recommend, is also the one ranked highest in its latest ratings. The device scored 76 out of 100 points–two points ahead of its closest rivals, the iPhone 3Gs and the HTC Evo 4G (click on image above to enlarge).

from Despite “Don’t Buy” Recommendation, iPhone 4 is Consumer Reports’ Top-Rated Smartphone – by John Paczkowski on All Things Digital


By the way, the best reporting I’ve seen on the technical issues around the iPhone 4 antenna are in the Anandtech review of the product.The full review is definitely worth reading if you are considering an iPhone 4. They cover all aspects of the product, including the signal strength attenuation issue, with their customary attention to detail:

Now, there are two vastly different possibilities for what happens to the bar visualization after you drop 24 dB. I happen to live less than one block from an AT&T UMTS tower (it’s across the street, literally), and have exceptionally strong signal in all of my house – it’s part of why I chose to live here, actually. Signal is above -65 dBm in every single room, in most cases it’s at -51 dBm. When I incur that worst case drop of 24 dB from squeezing the phone, I fall down to -83 dBm, which is still visualized as 5 bars.

from Apple’s iPhone 4: Thoroughly Reviewed by by Brian Klug & Anand Lal Shimpi on AnandTech


What will happen between now and September 30th, when Apple says it will reassess the case offer? I suspect they will come out with a new coating for the antenna band. This will be a cost reduction for them, as compared to providing cases to everyone, and will also be the sort of permanent solution that Consumer Reports and others seem to be looking for. I think September 30th was picked because they have some confidence that they can in that time complete the engineering on this solution and have it into production.

Have different ideas about how Apple could have handled this better? Or what they did here that was worth emulating? I’d love to hear from you!

Steve’s HR Technology – Journal – The Conference Room Paradox

Steve Boese considers the conference room…

You know you have all been there before. The big conference room paradox. Organizations drag everyone into a central location called ‘the office’, but then parcel out space in small increments of cubes and private offices, and there is hardly any space to actually interact and communicate and collaborate. The ‘big’ conference room becomes highly prized as a gathering place, and slots are tightly distributed by the hour, and snatched up without much thought to importance or value to the enterprise.

Excerpt from: Steve’s HR Technology – Journal – The Conference Room Paradox

The best companies put at least some attention to this issue. The main Google campus, for example, was built by SGI back when it was the hottest thing in Silicon Valley. Group spaces were built in, including many casual areas for gathering and sharing ideas.

One of my tricks for meeting management is to book meetings differently depending on what we’re doing. A deep problem solving session might be booked for 90 minutes or 2.5 hours, whereas a standing status meeting might be booked only for 40 minutes. (and then managed aggressively to that schedule.

Deciding what you are meeting for is crucial. Updating and sharing is different from problem solving or idea creation. And honestly, most teams can do with more of the latter.