Behind Customer Service

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Image credit: Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash

There are all kinds of things I miss and will continue missing about being at BWW Media Group. My coworkers, of course. The comradery. The sense of being part of something bigger than yourself. But the thing I’ll miss the most is my regular interactions with George Coll, who was (and still is) somewhat paradoxically a partner, boss, mentor, and friend. To the outside world, George was either well-known or unknown, I guess, depending on your interactions with our sites. But for those who needed help, George was inarguably the most crucial piece of our customer service puzzle. And those are some big shoes to fill.

I’ve learned a lot from George, but if I had to try and whittle it down to one very specific skill I admire the most, it is his ability to analyze whatever problems a customer might be having, make it right from their perspective as quickly and politely as possible, and then, when necessary, do the work behind the scenes to set it right on our end. From the outside, problems were simply addressed and fixed. From the inside, problems often triggered discussions that could change the way we did things, or change the back-end systems we used, or at least the ways in which we used them.

But watching George work from afar, seeing him live this customer-focused philosophy day in and day out, was both humbling and instructive. Everyone is built differently, and we all have a different set of life experiences and genetics that shape us. But I saw something in George that I found troubling about myself because he is so much better than me in this regard. Where I can be short with people and react poorly too quickly, George is patient, kind, and understanding. He claims to get angry sometimes, and I’m sure it’s true. But I very rarely ever witnessed that, and I certainly never once witnessed or became aware of even a single instance in which he didn’t just do the right thing for our customers, no matter the issue. It was both inspiring and terrifying.

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And now he’s gone. At least from your perspective. Because you’re stuck with me now. Sorry.

But what he left in his wake, fortunately, was the benefit of his mentoring. Not just of me, but also of Laurent, who most of you know for his work on the news each day. But Laurent plays a bigger role both here at and at Petri than you probably understand, as he splits his time between each site every day. And that is due largely to George, who challenges people to learn and do things that are perhaps outside of their expectations. Laurent has clearly grown as a result of this work. And I should not let this moment pass without acknowledging how much I appreciate what he does, not just with the news, which is on point, but with the help desk and the related tasks we work on together like figuring out which site improvements and changes to make each month.

In any event, the customer service role that George so ably provided before is now split between me, Laurent, and my wife. I maintain my normal front-end role, Laurent mans the help desk and triages and often solves customer service requests on his own, and my wife handles the back-end finances and, interestingly, many SEO and business development aspects of the site. And I very much need their help, as I have a decided blind spot, weakness, or lack of experience—whatever you wish to call it—when it comes to dealing with customers. It’s something I’d been shielded from almost my entire career.

Obviously, you might characterize some of my interactions in article comments, forums, Twitter, email, or whatever else as a form of customer service. And sure, those are things I’ve engaged in for decades, though I tend to think of that stuff more as just normal back and forth. Parts of a larger conversation around personal technology or whatever topic, like-minded people discussing their shared passions and interests. But when the real customer service issues arose—technical issues with the site, perhaps, or payment issues since we have a Premium subscription on—that was always above my paygrade, so to speak. I could forward them to someone—George, for the previous 8 years—who would figure it out and keep me and the customer in the loop as it was fixed.

But now I have to exercise a muscle I never really used. Laurent does much of the day-to-day work on customer issues, but he sometimes has to forward things to me, or ping me on Teams, to discuss those issues he can’t fix. And ultimately, I am on the line. It’s my company now, I need to figure out what’s wrong, and I need to set things straight. And between Laurent and I, and sometimes my wife and I, we continue to try and do the right things for people having issues. Anyone can see the results of that in the improvements to the site, which are feedback-based. And individuals with specific issues can see it in the responses they get to help desk queries.

And I suspect many of you rarely think about this stuff. I certainly didn’t: as noted, I was pretty much shielded from this for decades. Fortunately, George guided this along over our years together, involving me in issues, explaining how things are fixed, and discussing and debating improvements we might make. And he continues to help me, post-transition, as he has done just this past week, helping me figure out where I turn to solve problems when the systems I need to use are unfamiliar or, in some cases, literally unknown.

Let me give you a specific example.

Early this past week, Laurent forwarded me a help desk email from the son of a reader who is now elderly and requires medical supervision. This son has power of attorney to manage his dad’s finances, and he’s understandably going through his expenses and unsubscribing him from services and so on. It’s probably a horrible task. But he contacted me because we had just charged him for an annual Thurrott Premium subscription that his dad can no longer use. And he asked if we could please cancel that subscription and, if possible, refund the charge.

Of course. But because of the way that Thurrott Premium memberships are implemented in WordPress, this is a multi-step process that involves our management back end, the e-commerce service we use, and some payment provider, which is either Stripe or PayPal, neither of which provides us with any personal information like credit card numbers and so on. And it’s not something I knew how to do until very recently.

As it turns out, there are right ways and wrong ways to handle this kind of thing. For example, I could log into Stripe or PayPal directly, find the charge, and reverse it there. But this wouldn’t show up in our e-commerce and back-end systems. And so I engaged with George, who walked me through the right way to do this via Teams screen-sharing. It’s a multi-step process that involves canceling the subscription and setting an end date in one interface, ensuring that the account continues but minus Thurrott Premium in another, and then refunding the charge in our e-commerce service, which creates a paper trail for us and pushes the refund through whatever payment provider the customer used (Stripe, in this case). So I did all that. And then I wrote the son back and explained what I had done. The net result was that he got what he needed, which is always nice. And I learned how to make this happen, which is crucial.

Of course, many customer service interactions are not this positive. Unfortunately, when you deal with the public, you will run into people who are genuinely horrible or perhaps just having a bad day. I saw this in my years in banking, when I often stood between a human being and their money. I observed this recently while interacting with my doctor and various nurses, as you may have read, as I realized the terribleness of them having to often deliver bad health news to people. And I run into it on (and on Twitter and even Windows Weekly sometimes), where people correctly or incorrectly perceive some bias or anger or whatever on my part and react badly, take a criticism against a company, a product, or even a country poorly, or perhaps even see something that isn’t there and react negatively. These aren’t the spammers I discussed recently. These are people. And it’s an obvious but hard thing to remember, at least for me, that all these people are experiencing whatever lives they have and are often struggling in ways I don’t know about. It’s easy to lash out when you feel wronged, and I won’t always get it right.

Oddly, Thurrott Premium can exacerbate this problem because these customers are paying for a service, and it’s literally on me now to ensure that this service is worth the price and that they are happy with it. And Premium members are understandably sensitive to things like ads, which they’re not supposed to see. So there is a heightened sense of responsibility there.

Another recent example: the introduction of the Windows Intelligence newsletter last month took a long time to come together, in part because I had many concerns, not the least of which was how Premium members, in particular, would perceive this change. I worried that some might not give it a chance, and, as importantly, that whatever promotional UIs we put on the site should impact them minimally or not at all. This required a lot of discussions with JR Raphael and his team, with the back-end web developers that would implement the changes, and with my wife and Laurent.

These things can get complicated. Stepping back a bit, one of the many things that my wife did as part of her taking control of the business development of the site months ago was to actually look at this thing and provide feedback across the board. In doing this, she subscribed to our previous newsletters … and then never received a single issue. And so we looked at the back-end system and realized that something was broken. We were able to manually add her, but we then found some months’ worth of others who had likewise subscribed but had never gotten through. And so we figured out how we could get them on the list we were transferring to JR.

But Stephanie was also confused by what she saw in the daily newsletter when she finally did receive it. It was just a listing of some of the articles we had published each day, and there was little in the way of promotion or advertising, no sense that this thing could in any way make money. And what we discovered was that newsletters are hard. Hard to make, hard to publish, and expensive. Like, really expensive. And part of the reason we ended up with JR was that he had figured out a way for this to work that didn’t cost us money and could, over the long term, even become a revenue generator. (Another reason was the quality of his writing and first newsletter.) We were going to give up on this because it was too expensive. And we got a lifeline that we felt would be a net improvement for readers, a better newsletter. It was a win-win.

But the customer service issue was a concern. And so a big part of what we did was a proactive effort to minimize problems. We spent money building out the site changes it required, checking again and again to make sure they were implemented correctly and respected the promises we made to Premium members. And then we went live and hoped for the best. I guess the response was better than expected, but we will still tweak things as needed. As I’ve said before, JR and his team are feedback-driven. They will do right by all of us.

As with comment moderation, there is so much to this topic, so much more we could discuss. And there will be more: I will follow up soon with some thoughts on our community guidelines, which is a set of rules—for all of us—that are designed to make our interactions as positive, helpful, and free of toxicity as possible. But for now, I’ll leave this here as an introduction to what is, for me, an unfamiliar part of my new job. And with the promise that I will keep trying to improve and live up to the high bar that George set.

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