I value honesty, fairness and thoughtfulness above many other things. And I believe that the way I conduct myself reflects these values. I don't do this through any real thought process. It's driven by a physical feeling. It's difficult to explain, but I feel it in my chest. When I feel I've been treated unfairly I just have a sensation of unfairness, lack of care and thought. When I see others treated unfairly I have the same feeling. It annoys me, it makes me mad, and it adds to my drive to make sure that I am fair, honest and thoughtful. I want to treat others how I want to be treated.
Annoyance is a negative emotion and I'd like to be a bit more laid back. But unfortunately the phrase "it's like water off a duck's back" doesn't apply to me. When I'm annoyed I look at the thing that's caused the combination of feelings and emotions and analyse what could have been done better and what should have been done with fairness in mind. It's really this that drives my philosophy and passion in customer service.
This might sound like a simple philosophy, and fundamentally it is, but it's actually really difficult. I want to be 100% open and honest but whilst honesty is absolutely possible there are some pieces of information you can't divulge due to contracts, business considerations or simply setting expectations that might not be met. I want to try to correctly set expectations based on the information that I have but there are external factors that can end up impacting the things I've set expectations on. This can lead to letting people down. This can be as easy as saying "I'll get back to you tomorrow morning" and then other things become a bigger priority and I don't get back to somebody until the afternoon or the next day. I feel really bad about this so what are the alternatives?
One is to manage these expectations without committing. This means using words such as "maybe", "possibly" and "probably". Whilst this resolves the issue of guaranteeing that something will be delivered, or that you'll get back to somebody by a certain time, it also has a negative feeling about it. By not committing you never guarantee anything so what's the point? This approach annoys me, so isn't an option.
Ultimately it comes down to setting rock solid expectations and communication.
To set solid expectations this you need as much data as possible to be able to make the right decision. You also need experience to be able to foresee problems or things that might impact estimates. You need to be able to know how much of a buffer to add on to projected delivery dates in order to let others know when they really should expect something.
Communication is actually really easy. We have so many communication tools at our disposal; email, Twitter, blogs, instant messenger and many more. With these there's not reason why we can't keep others informed of progress or even simply let them know that they've not been forgotten and that their problem or query will be dealt with. Sometimes this is enough.
I don't believe a formulae can't be applied here, there are too many factors. It requires experience, common sense a sense of what is right and the authority to be able to make a decision.
In taking on the Developer Evangelist job at Pusher I've also asked to take on the majority of the support. This is sometimes seen as a burden but I think it's a great opportunity to exercise some of my ideas and philosophy as well as to get to know the people using our service. It's also a great way of learning how best to set expectations. And it is a learning process and I don't expect to get things right 100% of the time. But I do guarantee that I'll always be putting myself in the shoes of those making the support request and that I'll do everything I can to make sure their questions are answered to the best of my ability and that their expectations are met.
Ironically, I'm sitting on the train next to a young girl who has booked travel using her company credit card. The ticket she's booked means she needs to bring this credit card with her. After she had booked the ticket she noticed this term so treble-checked with East Coast who told her it would be fine as long as she had ID with her. She had her driving licence with her but was told by the conductor that this wasn't acceptable and was asked to pay for a new ticket. I piped up and said this wasn't fair and couldn't the conductor apply some common sense. No. If it were me I'd have made the common sense decision to ignore this missed rule and taken into account that the girl had actually checked this with East Coast and been mis-informed. The conductor didn't have this authority, nor it seemed really cared - maybe she deals with "chancers" all the time. What the young girl, who clearly isn't lying, has been able to do is provide here contact information so that she doesn't have to pay now and can appeal against the penalty later by post.