Listening to the “This American Life” episode on the GM/Toyota NUMMI plant recently, one particular part struck me as interesting when it comes to culture.

Culture is something that everyone would love to be able to easily replicate. Companies like Etsy, Netflix and others are forging ahead with openness, open source and empowering employees when it comes to their production systems.

NUMMI was an attempt to bring Toyota’s principles in building cars to General Motors, the automotive giant that was struggling hard in the eighties and was eventually bailed out by the American tax payers in 2009.

Toyota’s production line is famous for a simple tool, the Andon cord that allowed every worker on the factory floor to stop the assembly line whenever they encountered a problem. This empowered every employee to work towards a single goal: quality.

At NUMMI, this same system was implemented, and very successfully so. Every worker in the factory initially worked for two weeks with a team at Toyota in Japan to fully experience how teamworks looks like. It didn’t exist inside GM before NUMMI was conceived.

The Andon cord is an essential tool in learning and improving quality continuously. Every stop of the production line is an opportunity to learn and to improve the production process.

Before the NUMMI experiment, and in the rest of GM, the one goal is to never stop the production line. Quantity over quality, at all times.

Quality at NUMMI thrived, and GM looked into implementing this in more of their factories.

This experiment failed as there was a lot of resistance in management, amongst the workers and in the unions (all of whom had been fully onboard at NUMMI).

One bit in particular was interesting about the adoption issues.

The Andon cord was installed in other factories too, but when workers used it, they were reprimanded for stopping the production line. Managers were paid by volume of cars leaving the factory. In other factories, the cord was cut down so it was harder to reach.

I found this bit fascinating in so many ways, and it made me think about culture.

We’d love to just take a blueprint from another company and apply that to ours. But culture is something you need to work hard on, something that takes years of learning and improving to bring about, and it requires continuous nurturing to stay healthy.

You can’t just replicate culture.

Portland I

When we set out to build Travis CI into a product and a business, I had one thing on my agenda that I wanted us to be good at, and that's customer support.

Offering an infrastructure product, we knew upfront that customers are going to have problems setting up their projects, and we knew that there'd be the occasional hard problem to solve.

Customer support turned into our number one priority to get right, and here's how we approached it.

Below are the simple hacks we've learned and applied over the last two years to make sure customers have a good experience when they interact with us. You can apply any and all of these steps instantly to improve your own customer support.

Remember Your Last Bad Support Experience

The simplest thing to help you how to do great customer support is your last bad experience with another company.

We've all had them, responses with blunt links to knowledge bases, canned responses seemingly matching keywords, and a customer support representative who's driven more by the number of calls he's making per hour than by the amount of happiness he's brought a company's customers.

If I'd ask you to sit down and jot down your last five bad experiences with a product and their customer support, the last tweets you fired off into the ether about a bad experience, you'll have a useful list in no time.

All you need to do now is figure out what annoyed you about these responses and incidents and figure out how you'd do it differently, how you would've wanted to be treated.

Great customer support people go out of their way to help a customer, they're the frontline of delivering happiness directly to people beyond simply selling them a good product.

First, Admit You're the Problem

When a customer is frustrated, you can read it in their emails asking for help. Some customers prefer to be snarky, others can say things that aren't very nice. People will say negative things about your product. We may not like it, and we may get easily offended when they do, but that shouldn't impact a positive response.

When your customer is having troubles, you need to think about their pain. When they're frustrated, it's because of your product and your decisions. Always assume that the problem is on your end when a customer is having troubles.

Adopting this approach makes you think twice about your response. It removes a barrier, it frees you from responding with a snarky email or tweet and helps you focus on the problem.

Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

The most important value of interacting with customers, heck, with people, is empathy. Understand that your product is getting in their way rather than solve a problem, and really think about the issue.

It's okay to take a step back, look at all the details you have available and consider the view of the customer.

Empathy means taking the time to understand other people's emotions, their train of thought.

Empathy is the core value of customer support. It's the one thing that makes you great at customer support.

Just coincidentally, empathy also makes you a great customer to work with.

We're all humans, we're all driven by our own goals, and customer support is your one means to align them.

And Honesty Too

If your product can't do something your customer wants, or you can't give them a solution right now, be honest about it.

There's nothing wrong with saying "I don't know", as long as you're willing to take more time to investigate a possible solution.

If you can't find one, it's okay to admit that. We're all humans, and not every problem can be solved. Not every problem should be solved, at least not by your product.

Offer Solutions rather than Excuses

Customers aren't interested in hearing excuses, they're interested in one thing and one thing only, a solution to their problem.

If you can't offer one, that's okay, but a great customer support person goes out of their way to find one, even if it means using another product.

Giving a customer a solution, even if it doesn't involve your product, will make them happier than giving them none, than giving them excuses.

Learn How to Talk to People

You won't turn into a great customer support person overnight, but you can give your brain gentle nudges on how to talk to people better.

For me, reading a few books has helped a lot in shaping my languages. Two in particular have been invaluable, and I'd recommend them to anyone. They're useful not just for customer support interactions, but for all kinds of people interactions.

"How To Win Friends and Influence People" is a timeless classic, and it taught me a lot about empathy and how to approach people in general and disgruntled customers in particular. It's the one book you should read no matter what you do. It shaped my interactions a lot.

"Drop the Pink Elephant" is the perfect companion. It teaches you about saying what you really mean rather than focus on things that remove clarity from a conversation. It's shaped customer interactions and the way we write our public postmortems.

Customer support is your number one differentiator as a company. It takes a lot of work and effort, but it's your best way to make your customers happy, to have meaningful interactions with them.

It pays in the long term to make sure you're doing it right. Great customer support experiences can't be measured in money or in any meaningful way, but it'll help you get loyal customers. Knowing that you're willing to help no matter the problem gives every customer the incentive to come back for more.

But most importantly, great customer support makes your customers feel like they're treated as humans.

Tags: smallbiz

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been avoiding sugar. Not just avoiding eating spoon-fulls of crystal sugar, but avoiding food and drink that contains sugar.

I've thinking about reducing my sugar intake for a while now. There's been enough change in how science sees the sources of weight gain to be convincing.

But regardless, I found myself eating pie on the weekend, grab a sweet snack regularly (the perils of working from home) or regularly get a cookie or cheese cake at the coffee shop. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Of course there'd always be the convincing argument to myself that I could stop anytime I want, the classic trap of letting your irrational self get in the way of rational decisions. Just ask any smoker.

But then I came across an article that pointed to actively saying no being a possible answer. Studies showed that people who said "I don't" were much more likely to resist something than people who said "I can't."

Pretty remarkable, and I wanted to turn that into an experiment with myself.

It made me think of the day when I stopped smoking, on March 30, 1999.

All I said to myself was "I'm not smoking anymore."

I chucked my remaining cigarettes without much further thought, and that was the end of it.

The hardest part of breaking out of a habit is finding a replacement. Rather than resort to a cigarette after lunch or other meals, I went for a coffee instead.

Yes, this is how my coffee affinity started.

There's something powerful in consciously saying no. One day, I decided to just say no to sugar.

That meant cutting out delicious things like cookies, cake, pie and everything else that contains processed sugar, but it's for the good of the bigger picture. Most of these are non-essential foods.

There's no rational downside to saying no to sugar.

But the real power is in consciously saying no to something. Whether it's a habit you want to get rid of, or whether it's a feature you want to add to your product or simple deciding on what you want to do with your day, your month, your life.

Saying no to something can have an incredible effect on your conscious to actually go through with it.

Knowing what not to do can be quite liberating for your mind too. It leaves room for other, more important things to do.

Tags: justsayno