A shout-out to Cambridge Savings Bank for great customer service

It sucks to write checks for the IRS. But then again… I’m happy to contribute my share for the greater good. No big deal. A bigger deal would be losing money because of oversight.

So the other day, I had to write a check for what I owed the government. I filled it out, mailed it, out of sight, out of mind. But then, as things go, I remembered this while driving around in my car through beautiful Somerville MA. The morning of that day I had checked my account balance, and for some reason my brain put 1&1 together and surfaced the thought that I don’t have the balance for the check to go through!

Luckily, my bank, local Cambridge Savings Bank, offers text banking! So as I got to a red light… (ha! Thought you had me there, didn’t ya) I reached for the phone that, of course, already sat on my dashboard, and switched to the messaging app. I texted the words “transfer 2000” to the bank. A few seconds (!) later, they confirmed that I had successfully transferred $2000 from my savings to my checkings account.

What had happened? Within a mere 15 or 20 seconds I went from thought of the moment to resolution. And all because my bank got four of the following “now consumer” (me!) expectations right:

They “let me do it”. They “made it mobile”. They “fit into my life”. They “saved me time”.

Here’s another example why I consider myself already a loyal customer. A few months ago I asked them whether they supported Apple Pay with the MasterCard I have. I asked this question on Twitter; a convenient channel for simple customer service inquires. They got back to me. Not in record time, but that wasn’t needed for this type of inquiry. They told me they didn’t support Apple Pay yet, but would tell me once they did – they were working on it. Did I honestly believe they would remember telling me? Not really. However, a few weeks ago, I got a tweet out of the blue: Cambridge Savings Bank informed me that they now support Apple Pay, adding a link to more information. They did remember!

They “know” me. They “made me smarter”.

Finally, I get frequent updates by email from the person that setup my account last year, proactively, without me even asking for it, whether the great interest rate that made me a customer in the first place, was being continued beyond the promotional timeframe or not. (It is.)

OK, one more. Just a few days ago, I needed to deposit a check that had a higher amount than what the deposit function in their mobile app allowed. I wasn’t in the mood for going into the branch, so I asked via email if they could help me somehow. Within an hour or two the mobile deposit limit was raised temporarily. I could deposit the check the same day.

They “made it easy”. 

Here’s a shout out to you, Cambridge Savings Bank. Thanks for providing great customer service. Keep doing what you’re doing. (Oh and if this post brings you a new customer or two, why don’t you keep up that interest rate on my money market account for a bit longer… ;-))

A loyal customer.

How UPS doesn’t Grok Twitter Support, and 5 Lessons for Doing it Right

I have to share this memorable customer experience I “enjoyed” today for your reading pleasure. It started a few days back, when I tried to change the delivery of a package from Apple I was awaiting.

I knew I wouldn’t be home in person for a signature on the expected delivery date, neither did I want to pre-sign, so I opted for a pick-up option at a UPS facility. On the UPS website I found out I had to register for a (free) account to make a change like that. Fine. I tried to register, but the website kept going in a loop of me registering, then trying to change the delivery option, and it telling me to register to do that, then me registering, then trying to change the delivery option, and it telling me to register when trying to do that, then me… you get the idea. A bug. I had no choice but to contact an agent (which is very expensive for UPS vs me using their website). I opted for Web chat. It worked fast and smoothly. I had the agent change my delivery to a drop it at a pick-up location. So far so good…

Today, I got an SMS alert from Apple (love their service) telling me that “today is the day”. I clicked on Track Shipment to find out where to pickup the package from – ie., which UPS facility. The tracking website told me everything about the journey of my package, how it started in China, then went to Korea, then Alaska, Kentucky, finally Massachusetts. What it failed to tell me? Where to pick the package up. All it said was “A pickup facility in Somerville, MA”. Thanks UPS, that’s helpful. Google tells me there are many UPS locations in Somerville. Which one?

Lesson 1: Fix your data.
It’s needs to be self-explanatory, not force the customer to make unnecessary inbound service requests.


I turned to Twitter, asking @UPSHelp for help. Here’s how that journey started:

Uh, yeah… There is. Kinda obvious, no?

Really? I’m contacting you on Twitter and you’re sending me to email? There’s your first mistake, @UPSHelp. I picked Twitter for a reason (simple: I like it – it’s convenient and fast for simple inquiries like this), and you would be perfectly capable of answering my question on this channel.

Lesson 2: Don’t force your customers to switch channels unless they ask for it.


Great. Looks like you got it now. So here is my DM:

Wow. “the local center”. Really UPS? You do know the very reason why I contacted you, don’t you? Also, spotted the second mistake? They responded on the public channel, rather than staying on the DM channel that we had just established through mutual following.

Oh, and – pickup times of 3 hours and only on weekdays? That’s almost disrespectful.

Lesson 3: Once on DM, stay on DM.
I didn’t chose Twitter to make my request public – I chose the channel for its convenience, speed, and simplicity.


I’m still communicating on DM, but their response again happens on the public channel:

I then realized that the pickup times were actually really bad, and I really wanted this package on a Saturday.

Wow. You just completely blew my mind. 20 minutes and you already completely forgot our conversation? That’s unbelievably silly. I don’t care if they had a change of shifts (note that the agent apparently changed from “SB” to “SO”). It’s just unacceptable to be treated like this. I’m starting to lose patience. Also: again the request to switch to email, even though they have clearly demonstrated they could answer my questions on Twitter.

Lesson 4: Never lose context, never force your customers to repeat themselves.


I responded right away, assuming I had their attention. That was naive of me to assume. Of course. I waited 30 minutes for a response. I became impatient.

That may very well be, but what about other facilities nearby? Can the package not be transferred to a facility with better opening hours (assuming those exist in the first place – I don’t know, you tell me)? Please try to solve my problem, not just answer questions.

Lesson 5: Think and help, proactively – don’t just answer questions.


That was my last interaction. I am still waiting for a response, hours later.

Sorry @UPSHelp, but you have a lot to learn (and fix) if you want to get this customer service thing right. Need help in doing it? Talk to my company, we are in the business of fixing bad customer service. Meanwhile, you have one more unhappy customer who happens to be a customer service professional that likes to blog.


Addendum: I did email them, which they had asked me to do, and they responded (6 hours later). In that email response, they told me that the location actually opens in the morning AND in the afternoon. So the info in their tweet was actually wrong! I’m still sitting here, shaking my head.

The Dawn of the Era of “Human-assisted Machine Service” in Customer Care

For the longest time, we have looked at how to complement human labor in the contact center with computer programs – to reduce costs, provide 24×7 service, and offer quicker access to basic information. IVR systems are the prime example of technology that complements human service by pre-qualifying a caller through some simple questions and routing them to the right agent. What we have been finding until recently is that customers usually preferred the “human touch” over automation. The terms “automation,” “bots,” or ”IVR” tend to come with heavily negative connotations. TV ads have been mocking bad IVR systems and showing off with short wait times to get to live operators. Websites such as gethuman.com have been launched to show consumers how to quickest get to an operator.

As another example of how technology is complementing human labor, let’s look at the agent workplace itself. In the contact center, agents are equipped with Internet access, dedicated knowledge bases, document management systems, CRM systems, and more, to have the answer to the customer’s question ready as quickly as possible.

All of this, however, is slowly changing. Rather than having machines assist humans, we’re slowly entering the era of the reverse: algorithm-based customer service, assisted by humans to put the “finishing touches” on an otherwise increasingly impeccable experience. Virtual assistants on websites are recently gaining in popularity as they expose a more natural interface (conversational, “spoken language” style) to finding information vs. manual search. The younger demographic prefers texting to calling. The older ones seem to catch up and agree. We are now carefully sending a text first to check if it is OK to call. What a remarkable change in behavior and expectations!

Why is this change happening?

First and foremost: the mobility revolution. The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 has truly brought the mass consumer market to realize the power of computer technology if applied to their daily lives. For the first time ever did the Internet, an invention that in its current form came into being around 1989, find its way into a pocket-sized device without compromising the user experience. More and more people realized that with a mobile device of this form factor, they had the world of information and communication literally at their fingertips. It suddenly became cool to be a nerd – a person who understands and can program computers. Consumers now seem to shout ”give me an app, I can look this up quicker than your agents!” at any company they do business with.

Other enhancements came with the iPhone and Apple’s insistence on quality user experiences. Siri, Apple’s speech assistant, is only possible as general-purpose data connectivity and required bandwidths allowed overcoming the restrictions of the PSTN (public switched telephone network) in terms of what sound frequency ranges it submits. Sounds such as “s”, “f”, or “th” differ in frequency ranges that are simply cut off in normal telephony (above 8 kHz). Siri can submit the full range of an utterance recording in high definition, which improves speech recognition accuracy. Cloud computing does its share to quickly respond with a transcription of what was said, of which Siri then applies a semantic analysis to truly “understand” the user – at least to the extent that it can perform the operation the user asked for.

Big Data and today’s capability to automatically farm large quantities of data contribute to making systems such as Siri more and more perfect. The formula is simple: the more context you have, the better you can understand someone. While this is even more true for pragmatic context (i.e. dialog history and “world” knowledge), it is even important in the phonetic domain alone. As an example: try to understand a few words of a spoken conversation by only hearing a second or so of what was said. If you don’t have any context at all, you will realize it’s not that easy to do. However, if you heard the domain and topic the conversation is about, and heard what the immediately neighboring words were, your brain uses deduction and other mental techniques in addition to the pure “hearing”, to understand an utterance.

What does all of this have to do with customer service?

Recently, companies and technologies have emerged that invert the paradigm of machines helping humans become better. There are companies out there in the field of IVR technology that are running call centers of people that do nothing but listen to what people tell IVR systems. They never talk to the callers directly, they are merely jumping in if automated speech recognition cannot tell what a caller said, or isn’t confident enough it understood the caller properly (speech recognition engines always associate a likelihood with a recognition hypothesis). When hearing an utterance, they then either quickly type in what they heard, so that the IVR system can move forward, or they click on predefined data items (the so-called “semantic interpretation” of a verbatim utterance) that are expected in the current dialog step. This is a case of “human-assisted machine service” in the field of customer service that is an amazing testament to the change that is taking place.

After great success on TV’s “Jeopardy,” IBM released Watson to developers to build applications that use Watson’s unique cognitive capabilities in creative new ways. A prime use case for Watson, however, is customer service. When done right, Watson can engage with customers, say through chat on a website, as if the customer was talking to a live person. Watson doesn’t merely bring up Web pages that seem to have the information you are asking for – it answers your question. Something that Google also increasingly does on their core search product (try searching for “who wrote Norwegian Wood,” and Google will answer your question – in addition to showing you relevant websites). Watson goes beyond Google, though, in that it can ask back to narrow down your question, to lead you to the right answer. It can deduce. It can learn. Like a child absorbing everything, or a very astute student. Most importantly: Watson learns from unstructured data, i.e. data expressed in human language such as English. That’s a new level of computing, beyond plain big data analysis.

With Watson, humans again take a step back from the spotlight, and operate “behind the scenes.” They need to feed Watson with information, constantly. Watson doesn’t go out by itself to learn. Watson needs to be fed product brochures, manuals, data sheets, research papers, books, etc. Anything that is relevant for the domain of knowledge Watson is operating in.

This is the emerging new role of humans in customer service: make sure that the data is accurate, but let machines do the “talking” and “serving.” Humans then also step in when that “human touch” is really needed: Not to answer the simple questions, but to mitigate in complex situations, to calm down angry customers, to provide a level of confidence and confidentiality when needed, e.g. in the domain of financial advising.

It’s going to be exciting to see what the limits are.

Customer Service – Don’t Treat Us Like We’re Still in the 90ies

I witnessed a conversation on my Facebook wall today that obviously caught my attention, as I am working in the customer service technology industry. I want to share it here:

It is obvious how the recent advances in communication technology simply overwhelm some bigger organizations. While in the past they could compensate lack of speed of adoption as technological progress was slower, it is nowadays pretty much impossible to keep up with the Whatsapps, Snapchats and Secrets of this world. But looking at what my friends here discuss – they really don’t demand much. SMS and email are technologies from the stone-age! SMS celebrated its 20-year anniversary in December 2012! And still today, so many years later, businesses are not using the power of this channel for the most basic B2C customer communication.

And phone calls that ask you to call back on a number that isn’t even the one the call is coming from? Or a text that asks you to call back? Why the forced switch of channel, if obviously I chose to have you reach me via SMS?

It quite frankly blows my mind, knowing what is possible if only modern software and cloud solutions were embraced. How much longer will consumers tolerate companies with customer service technology from the 90ies? Well, research shows that they are increasingly taking their business elsewhere already, so hopefully the dinosaurs of the service industry will either go extinct soon, or adapt. Remember, it’s not the strongest that survive, but the “fittest”, meaning those that can adapt…

How New Technologies Necessitate Customer Care Collaboration

Back in September, I wrote about the need to break up organizational silos in order to improve overall customer service. The rise of the smartphone and the advent of social networks simply necessitate collaboration among different teams and departments to jointly work towards the goal of a consistent customer experience.
 Read more here: http://www.icmi.com/Resources/Technology/2013/09/How-New-Technologies-Necessitate-Customer-Care-Collaboration