Customer Service: How much is a person worth?

Life can get very busy, and I am currently inundated with requests from all angles. Between Empire Avenue, the company I run, and general life, it’s not unusual for me to respond to several hundred e-mails, chat messages, Facebook posts and Twitter messages a day. That’s on a good day, and that doesn’t include support feedback on Empire Avenue and the work I do in between all these messages. Someone asked me this week how I value whom to respond to and whom not to respond to. The question was basically, “Whom do I judge to be the most important?” Such a question goes to the very heart of my entrepreneurial being.

As humans, we make judgement calls every hour of every day when it comes to other humans. “Oh look an email from person XXXX…,” “Another call from my mother (uh oh),” “Should I answer this call from my Credit Card Company?” and so on. Ultimately, we do start thinking about certain groups of people as being important and not so important. And that can become dangerous.

Creating a business is like nurturing a plant from a seedling into a sapling, to a young tree, to a monster oak. If you put in too much water, you can swamp it; if you don’t put enough, the tree withers away. The question of, “How much is a person worth?” becomes a critical part of one’s business. At Empire Avenue, a consumer-driven, consumer-focused application, the person on the other end of the keyboard is the driver for the application; it’s the water for our tree. In fact, I joke that we could take Lincoln’s speech and say Empire Avenue is an application for the People, by the People, and certainly — as you buy and sell — of the People!

The answer to the question is that at Empire Avenue, and for me personally, every individual on our site is of equal worth. Each person is a customer whose cares and concerns need to be addressed as if they were my closest friend. Customer service is, without a doubt, the only way to nurture a small company like ours to become one of the big ones that challenge and disrupt the industry we are in.

In my day, your requests are tended to first. Customer support and messages from our users become the number one priority for all of us. We don’t have many staff members, and we treat customer support as being a three-step process.

First, we need to respond to your request in a timely manner. A response taking longer than three days is bad. We’re human, and some times it happens; if it has happened at Empire Avenue to you, please accept my sincere apologies. That initial response could even just be to tell you we received it: “Hey thanks, a real live human being has seen your feedback!” The feeling that we are listening to your feedback and will act on it, to us, is very important.

Second, we need to act on that request. Somehow or other we must either fix that issue, tell you why we aren’t doing something about it, or work with you to resolve the issue. That’s the support aspect of doing any business.

Third, and the most critical aspect of how we make effective use of support, is as follows: If we are spending time answering the same question over and over again, the answer is not to create a FAQ entry about it (where possible — sometimes that’s the only solution). Instead, we should aim to come up with some innovative fix for it, so that the next person does not need to even ask that question. A key example of this in the last week includes a couple of people who bought an upgrade to buy more than 200 shares, but then complained they could still only buy 200. Absolutely the case: you can only buy 200 shares in people until they are on the site for a week. It just wasn’t at all obvious! Our solution was to make that fact clear on the buy screen of applicable new users. Now, I’m sure we’ll still get that question, but we hope a few people will see that message.

We are, fortunately, only human. Issues slip through the cracks and certainly we might not get to every request that comes in. But I believe customer support doesn’t start from the bottom; it starts from the very core of the organization, and has to be part of the company philosophy – not something that gets added on later. I hope, sincerely, that Empire Avenue customers and users get a level of customer service that is outstanding. By all means, if you haven’t heard from us on an issue, go ahead and nag us! Hopefully you can accept that we (sometimes) take time off on the weekend, but otherwise, we’re fair game.

Recently we even changed our feedback system. We previously went through a third-party site, but we realized it put barriers in between our customers and getting feedback to us. Plus, it wasn’t visible enough to us, and we wanted to respond to each message. Now each bit of feedback sent spawns a personal message to us. We have to respond, and we have to work with you. Our goal is not to *minimize* feedback, but *maximize* the effects of the feedback we get.

There are two things I want Empire Avenue to be known for at the end of the day: a great product and great customer service.

So the answer to how much a person is worth? Each of you is worth a whole lot in my mind!

How are we doing? Can we do better? Tell us! There is a feedback/get help link in yellow on the main site and a very prominent Feedback link on the Facebook App.

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