Read this before 'you eat your own dog food'

It has always amused me when people – usually men – say their company or team ‘eats their own dog food’. It has always struck me as a very ‘macho’ thing to say.

I’ve searched for the origin of the phrase ‘ eat your own dog food’ – there seems to be a couple of places it could have come from, but its wide spread technology industry usage dates back to 1988 in Microsoft.

Of course the point of ‘eating your own dog food’ is to demonstrate that you have confidence in your own product and can learn – and improve – from your own internal use of it.

Before I continue – let me say that I think when done correctly, using your commercial product internally can be a very powerful learning and empathy building experience.

Here are some things to consider before ‘eating your own dog food’.

Is making dog food mandatory likely to increase joyful adoption or encourage resentful compliance?

A couple of places I have seen have made ‘dog food’ mandatory. Usually the order comes from the top by someone concerned that the product has quality or user experience problems.

In my experience – how people work and the tools they use should not be made mandatory or imposed in any way. If the product solves a problem that the user has, then they’ll use it. If it doesn’t – that itself is some valuable learning. If it has to be forced then the data you get from the dog food experience may not be authentic.

Understand the risks to your business

You might argue that if your product brings a business to its knees, you would be better off experiencing that yourself first. Or not.

As much as you might not realise it – your company knows more about how your product works – or should work – than your customers. This insider information is hard to ignore.
So invariably, the product as used internally does not often cause the same effects as when used by your customers. Or if they cause the same effects – the knowledge your employees have masks the perception of the effects in a way that your customers’ users don’t.

For example – I had one customer who made security scanning software – the stuff that sits on your machine and scan files and access. Their CTO encouraged their teams to ‘eat their own dog food’ with some dire results.

Given the nature of the work they were doing, the software completely crippled any kind of software development on the employee’s machines. The order remained, except the developers – choosing to do work rather than remain frustrated – tampered with the configuration by effectively disabling it.

Not all dogs are the same – be clear which dog you are.

Sure you might be selling an email client – and you think everyone uses email the same as you do. Before you unleash dog food on your employees – make sure you know what kind of dog you are purporting to be.

Are you a small enterprise simply using email for inter company communications or are you a marketing agency for whom email is an art form? Knowing what kind of customer your company is, will help you exercise your product more comprehensively.

Also knowing what kind of user you are not reminds you not to have false faith in dog food – it is only as good as it is used. If you never exercise some parts of your product internally, you aren’t getting the early warning of how real customers might be using it.

How will you deal with what you find?

At a higher level – dog food is about feedback. Specifically getting real world usage feedback on your product from internal users.

The big question is  – what are you prepared to do about it when you get it and how quickly will you do it?

This is perhaps the biggest problem I see when folk use their own products internally. More often than not, the internal users have no way of getting the broken things fixed quickly – so they continue to endure it.

Where I have seen it work well – the feedback from internal users is treated as an express lane item – because it comes earlier than feedback from external users (who typically are not on the latest versions anyway). By ‘express lane’ I mean, the triage and categorization of the feedback – i.e. urgent bug, enhancement etc – happens very quickly. Repair/remediation also happens very quickly – depending on the stack – the same day.

I’d like to share 3 handy checklists items before you commit your company to eating dog food:

  1. Will this critically affect our ability to run our business?
  2. Which customer usage do we represent?
  3. Are we prepared to respond quickly to what this experience will reveal?

Good luck.

Why Current Ideas of Social Media Customer Service Suck

Reach, responsiveness, engagement, resolution, impact, journey – these are all buzzwords in the brave new world of customer service meets social media.
Undoubtedly, it has all the excitement of a first date – all that uncertainty of how to behave and what to say.  Despite being a new platform, the same rules  apply – being authentic, demonstrating genuine interest and representing something beyond profit.

My ABCs of Customer Service

Great customer service for any business on any platform consists of 3 things in different measure – responsiveness, engagement and resolution.  Let me break it down:

Responsiveness: How quickly is the business responding to enquiries? How long does a customer have to wait for some attention at the till, on the phone , via email and even a reply from a tweet!

Engagement: When they do respond, how well are they at listening, asking relevant questions, being helpful and demonstrating empathy? Do they make the customer feel like they genuinely care about their enquiry?

Resolution: How well do they successfully address the enquiry?  For example, refunds, exchanges, apologies. What are they prepared to do to keep their customers happy.

It is a growing practice to think of customer service as applicable not simply after sales, but at every part of the the customers’ interaction with the business. This is great and I want to see more of it. However it is a long way from being customer-driven which is far more about culture than it is about senior management pronouncements and marketing flim flam.

Imagine you ordered some tickets for a concert and they didn’t arrive. A day before the concert, you are panicking. You call the ticket vendor but, because they are slow to respond, it takes ages for your call to be answered.

Someone finally picks up the phone and you carefully explain you haven’t received your tickets, which incidentally were a birthday present for your partner, whose birthday is on the same day as her favorite band’s concert date – so an extremely special occasion!

After carefully listening – they have pretty good engagement – they explain that their policy is not to offer refunds or exchanges of tickets this close to the event. Never mind about the importance of the occasion.  They apologise but there is nothing they can do. You end the call feeling deeply frustrated, angry and dissatisfied  because their resolution is poor.

On what basis do you think you might ever buy another ticket from this vendor again? The fact that they listened?  Or the fact that, despite good engagement, they didn’t help you out in this most important of situations. Most importantly you thought they ought to be able to help.

I have and continue to interview end customers of businesses like these, in unofficial surveys triggered by data I find on bizbuzzapp.  The stories are interesting and the emotions generated by resolution are big and typically extreme. Successful resolution – where the customer is happy with what the business is going to do to address their enquiry – generates feelings of delight, satisfaction and increased loyalty. Unsuccessful resolution often generates feelings of anger, hopelessness, dissatisfaction, aggression and betrayal.

Clearly, resolution is a huge thing. It is full of promise and opportunity for the businesses that can consistently be great at it. It is also the hardest to achieve. Not because of some divine unchangeable rule – although there are truly unavoidable things like death or natural disasters – but mostly because of a problem of value assessment.

When I was 17, I went from Nigeria to St Kitts with my sister and my dad. Whilst we were there, my Dad took ill and  died.

We had never been to St Kitts before and, even though it is where Dad was born, we were in an unfamiliar place. We had to rely entirely on the kindness of friends to get through. With no idea how we would pay for his funeral, it was an extremely stressful time. Then we discovered that my Dad had a bank account in the UK with NatWest.

My mum contacted them and spoke with the manager (in the days you could still speak to the manager) and although he didn’t know my dad personally – he saw he was a long standing account holder and had either had funds in his account that could be used to bury him or had some kind of life insurance policy.  The manager asked for the contact details of the Funeral director in St Kitts and between them, they sorted everything out.

To this day I have a NatWest account and hold them in high regard. When I first set out as a consultant I opened my business account with them and put over £250K in revenue through their bank. That is the power of resolution.

This bank manager could have made things very difficult. He could have cited some policy that would have made a sad situation desperate. But he didn’t, he valued my Dad’s established custom over all those things and he had the authority to resolve it successfully.  In reality I don’t think it cost them very much because they were covered by insurance or by what was in Dad’s account – but it was hugely valuable to us.

It should come as no surprise that satisfaction increases the further you go down my ABCs.

In the early 1990s, I walked into a Richer Sounds store to enquire about upgrading my entertainment equipment for my new apartment.
As soon as I walked in, a really friendly sales person named Simon walked up and asked how he might assist me. I explained I had just moved into a new apartment and that I wanted to upgrade my equipment.

Simon listened intently, asking relevant questions about my current entertainment kit, how much I wanted to spend and what I wanted to experience from my entertainment unit. We talked through the options and I finally went with his recommendation which was both surprising and delightful.  Simon recommended that I not buy any more equipment, instead to invest in some better cabling. I had a few hundred to spend and I left that store with perhaps £50 worth of gold plated chunky audio cable.

He was absolutely right – it made a huge difference to my enjoyment.

On the face of it, Simon cost Richer Sounds a few hundred pounds by losing them a bigger sale. But in reality, he gained Richer Sounds a lifelong customer by demonstrating excellence at each of my ABCs. I was satisfied at how quickly Simon responded to my presence in his store, happier still that he engaged with me intently, asking relevant questions and collaborating with me through the options. Finally I was totally satisfied by his help in getting me the experience I wanted from my entertainment equipment and unexpectedly saving me money.

When I did finally upgrade my equipment a few years later, I spent a couple of thousand pounds at the same Richer Sounds store!

The Elephant In the Room

Many companies, perhaps through ineffective leadership, policies and/or a culture of disempowerment consistently undervalue the ongoing satisfaction of their customers. They do so whilst playing lip service to the ‘highest levels of customer service’.  What is this thing that always seems to be considered more important than satisfying customers?

Cost. There, I said it. Time and again, businesses choose to not do things that would satisfy their customers because they think it costs more than they are prepared to accept. I say ‘think’ because actually what they are basing this decision on is a short term perceived cost. When the few companies that even consciously do any kind of cost/benefit assessment of what it might take to satisfy the customer, they almost always undervalue the benefit.

Resolution challenges the business with the fundamental question of “what are you prepared to do to keep a customer happy?”. This question bumps straight up against the elephant in the room – that which no one likes to talk about because it feels ‘dirty’ to say you didn’t do the ‘decent’ thing because it would have cost more than you are permitted to spend.

Most companies I know and know of,  at least those with run-of-the-mill typical MBA educated executives, believe they should track cost. Keeping it low is paramount. Unfortunately, this focus on keeping costs low is often at the expense of other things -namely value!.

A vast industry has grownup around cost-driven customer service. There are experts in offshore call centers, IVR software focuses on ‘intelligent’ routing and queuing. Passionate employees are replaced by cheaper outsourced agencies – who might know the product catalog by heart and may be great at the script, but can hardly talk passionately about the business, the products or the vision. I am sad at how cost driven customer service is so prevalent as to seem like the only way customers can be supported.

Customer Service is Fundamentally Simple

Bizarrely all this is rather simple. Humans desire attention, many crave it. We want to connect with other people – even for information that is readily available in non-human form, humans generally choose to receive the information from another human.  We desire attention for many different reasons – to feel less alone, to have our anxieties reassured, to feel heard, to connect with another human being.  Whatever the reasons (and they can be quite complex), we mostly value human to human interaction over other forms.

The trouble is, in the world of business, attention costs money.  To have people on standby to talk to other people (customers and potential customers) is costly.  Businesses have tried to mitigate this with all kinds of strategies. Great examples are contact centers. First they started onshore, but as pressure mounted to reduce costs, the jobs were moved offshore to where labor was cheaper. This was done at the expense of the customer experience – language and cultural misunderstanding.

Another example is IVR  – that annoying ‘interactive voice routing’ that exploded in the late 80s and 90s. Routing customers through a maze of options with the intention of ‘getting them to the right department’, in practice all it mostly succeeded in doing was to frustrate customers even further.  Again, an attempt at appearing to be responsive and feign engagement. With IVR, every customer call was answered in three or four rings and you were kept busy trying to navigate the maze until you either gave up in frustration or had spent a sufficient amount of time to have made it to the top of the queue.

Each one of these strategies focuses on one or two aspects of my ABCs – ignoring that you really need all three (of course , in different measures) to be consistently successful.

I don’t mean to trivialise the challenge of keeping customers happy. In some industries – like the Funeral Services or health sector – it is tremendously hard workand emotionally wearing. But the customers’ needs are fundamentally the same, albeit more amplified. Also, I recognise that there are some customers who expect and often demand what appears to be an unreasonable amount of attention, but without the skills to really understand the needs that are driving such customer ‘demand’ and a more effective way of valuing both satisfied customers and the opportunity cost of dissatisfaction, I don’t know how a business can truly understand what ‘unreasonable’ means.

The Bottom Line

Current ideas of Social Media Customer Service suck because they are leading businesses to measure ineffective things and simultaneously directing investment and focus away from the more effective things. Too much focus is placed on responsiveness (incidentally because it is, in terms of cost and effort, the cheapest and easiest to fix) and relatively very little is done to improve engagement and resolution.

What does it all mean? Well for one thing, it strongly establishes ‘Customer Service’ as one of the last great frontiers of competitiveness. What value you place on having happy and satisfied customers and how your entire operation – people, products and processes – demonstrate that value, is increasingly becoming the biggest business differentiator.

Once there is parity of production, costs, pricing, logistics and content – the last thing we have left to differentiate businesses is how they make us feel when we do business with them.

Now it’s your turn

What aspects of this post resonate with you? What did you find challenging or disagreeable?
I would really love your feedback and experiences and look forward to your comments on how I might improve on this.
Thanks for reading!