Customer Service: Why Zappos is So Good and Comcast is So Bad


Customer service is the new marketing...

Because when you do it right, your customers tell their friends, and your business grows. But when you do it poorly, all it takes is a click until you're the laughing stock of the internet. 

Earlier this week, Ryan Block, who happens to be a tech journalist and the VP of Product at AOL, recorded a gut-wrenching conversation of his attempt to disconnect his Comcast service. Then, he tweeted it, to his almost 90,000 followers. The story was picked up by media outlets such as Ars Technica, NPR, Huffington Post, Good Morning America, and The Washington Post, just to name a few. In just two days, 4.5 million people have listened to the call through soundcloud and added the negative experience as a strike against wanting to do business with Comcast. 

Comcast is now in crisis mode and has issued an apology

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize.  The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action.  While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

But this is likely an issue of too little too late. Part of the reason why this recording went viral is because it rings true with so many people. Comcast has been ranked as the worst customer service in America, in any industry. People empathized with Block because they had likely experienced something similar themselves. That empathy fueled the social sharing and erupted into what is now a big stain on Comcast's reputation. A brand's promise in their commercials means nothing if the experience doesn't match it.

So what went wrong? To contrast, let's compare Comcast with one of America's most loved customer service brands, Zappos.

A Customer Service Mission Makes the Difference

At Zappos, their mission isn't about their product, it's about the people they serve. Their mission puts the customer front and center: to provide the best customer service possible. They've created a culture where their employees know where to take a stand, even in difficult situations like an unhappy customer. The challenge with many conglomerated and publicly traded companies like Comcast is that the individual representing the organization is far removed from the mission and doesn't feel a personal connection to the company. That's why it's important for leaders to use their mission statement as a rallying cry for the culture they want to create. 

Incentives Make the Difference

In Comcast's apology, they indicated that this representative didn't act in accordance with his training. But training is just part of what causes an employee to act. When Comcast investigates this issue, they need to ask themselves if they're incentivizing the right things. The position of this rep is what's known in a call center as a retention representative and in many organizations, if their disconnect ratio is too high, their job is on the line. It's difficult to default to a training guide if you're wondering if you're going to be able to pay your rent next month.

In his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh shares his insights into how measurement can backfire in customer service.  

Most call centers measure their employee's performance based on what's known in the industry as "average handle time," which focuses on how many calls each rep can take in a day. This translates into reps worrying about how quickly they can get a customer off the phone, which in our eyes is not delivering great customer service. Most call centers also have scripts and force their reps to upsell to generate additional revenue. 
At Zappos, we don't measure call times (our longest call was almost six hours long!), and we don't upsell. We just care about whether the rep goes above and beyond for every customer. We don't have scripts because we trust our employees to use their best judgement when dealing with each and every customer. 

So sure, there's the onus on the employee to live up to his training, but the company needs to also make sure they create a culture that supports the values that are in that training. Block agreed that he felt that the problem was much more systemic than a poorly trained employee: 

What do you think? Are there other reasons the customer service at Zappos and Comcast are perceived so differently? Let's keep the conversation going in the comments. 

Tone Wheel: A Tool for Defining Brand Voice and Tone

When I was a kid, my mom often said (or yelled), “Andrea! Use your inside voice.”

You too?

This is a fantastic example of the difference between your brand voice and tone. Our moms didn’t want me to change who we were. They wanted us to adapt our voices to fit the situation. This is exactly what we need to do for our brand.

Your brand's voice is inherent. It doesn’t change often. But there are times where you need to adapt your voice for a specific situation. For example, your brand voice is probably going to be much more casual and conversational when you’re engaging on Twitter than it is when you’re writing an email to an angry customer. Like the walls that defined when I could shout, we can define specific “rooms” of our business and let the folks who create content know what our expectations are.

One brand that does this exceedingly well is MailChimp. Under the leadership of their CEO Ben Chestnut and their Content Lead, Kate Kiefer Lee, MailChimp created an interactive guide to help content creators across their entire business understand how to write for different situations. In an effort to help other brands increase the quality of their own content (and as a result, create a positive impression of MailChimp) they’ve released this guide to the public. Take a look at for an idea of the type of documentation you’ll need to communicate your vision. If you’re a small brand, you may not need something this robust, but if you’re a large brand, this will serve as an excellent example of a tool that communicates your intent and creates consistency across your organization.

Use a Tone Wheel to Define How Your Brand Voice Should Be Used in Different Situations

Here's a tool that I developed to help my clients understand the scope of their communications landscape: the tone wheel. At the center is your brand voice, your personality pillars that are core to your brand personality. On the outside are six key areas that need specific rules. You can adjust the outside "rooms" according to your business model. For example, if you’re a non-profit, you may find that you feel more comfortable referring to “sales” as “fundraising.” If you run a consultancy, you might not have products, so “services” might be a better term do describe your needs.


Each section of your tone wheel has a specific objective. Your job is to achieve this objective while still retaining the core aspects of your brand voice that make your organization distinct. Consistency is key, which is why documenting your expectations becomes a critical part of getting your team on the same page.

Remember, your voice always stays the same, but your tone will change depending on which department you’re in.


Objective: Build an amazing team and keep them engaged.

Before we look outside, the first place we’re going to assess on our tone wheel is how we interact with the people who work hard every day to bring our brand to life. This means we need to take into account our prospective, current, and alumnae employees, contractors and vendors. Some content examples would include:

  • Job Descriptions
  • Feedback & Reviews
  • Culture Building Events
  • Announcements & Memos

Customer Service

Objective: Create an experience that’s worth talking about.

From a profitability standpoint, it’s better to focus on preventing problems before they occur. So, let’s assume that you’ve already laid the groundwork in your operations department for creating a positive purchase experience. And, let’s also assume that your customer service agents are knowledgeable and competent about how to resolve the issue. What should you do then when things go wrong? Use empathy-driven language to let your customers know that you've heard their feedback and then give them a solution. The focus here shouldn't be on playing a blame game, it needs to be on solving problems quickly and effectively. Here are some content examples:

  • Phone Scripts
  • Email Templates
  • User Guides


Objective: Mitigate risk by maximizing clarity.

One place that's often overlooked when we talk about creating content are legal and finance documents. It's worth the time to make sure all of your language, no matter how matter-of-fact its purpose, is easy to understand. Candice Burt, a plain-language attorney and co-owner of the South African communications firm Simplified, tells us, "If business embraces the spirit of the transformative agenda of the legislature, and implements the plain language provisions with a sincere desire to empower, educate and enlighten consumers, it will find as a profitable and coincidental side-effect that there are many business benefits to doing so." Some examples include:

  • Terms and Conditions
  • Contracts
  • Disclaimers
  • Investor Reports


Objective: Demonstrate value and encourage action.

Here's where you can start to let your brand personality shine. In his book, Personality Not Included, Rohit Bhargava outlines what he calls the "Attention Paradox". We are innundated with marketing messages, and as a result, we are quicker at filtering out the ones that don't resonate. Bhargava goes on to say that the way to break the paradox isn't by creating more and more outlandish messages, but to "have a good eye for spotting when you have captured your customer's attention and do more with it." These personality moments help customers research, purchase, interact with, and share your brand story. These moments might include:

  • Proposals
  • Elevator pitches
  • Presentations
  • Brochures
  • Sales pages on your website


Objective: Inform and educate

The way a product is packaged has a big impact on whether or not a customer decides to make a purchase. Product descriptions can go a long way to bring out the personality of a brand. One of my favorite examples is Trader Joe's. They go out of their way to ensure every product that bears their name is filled with copy that is descriptive and witty. Here are some other opportunities for product copy:

  • Product descriptions
  • Product names
  • Reviews or testimonials
  • Instructions

Website/Social Media

Objective: Start a conversation.

Finally, we come to the most conversational of all our rooms: our website and social media content. In this area, our customers expect us to be more casual than in other rooms. The goal is to create a connection and start a conversation. That's hard to do if your language is stiff and formal. Loosen up. Allow those contractions to flow. And focus more on starting a relationship. Here are some examples:

  • Blogs
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest

How about you? Do you have your tone "rooms" defined? Does everyone at your organization know how to adapt your brand's voice to a given situation? Let us know in the comments!

7 Tips to Instantly Give Your Content Personality

Content with personality sells. Brands spend big bucks developing a distinct voice that makes them stand out. Conversational words engage your prospects instead of putting them to sleep, or worse, buying from someone else. This idea of copy that is personable and professional at the same time is what I built my career on. And here are some tips I've learned along the way to help your brand stand out from the pack. 1. Keep words and sentences short. Big words do not make you sound smart. (I actually had to re-write that sentence. Originally it said, "Big words make you sound pretentious." I have to keep even myself in check.) Long sentences make you seem boring. Readers, especially savvy web-oriented ones, don't actually read — they scan. Short sentences keep these scanners more engaged, which leads to more sales. I try to keep most of my sentences to one thought, or clause. Sometimes two. More that that, and I try to break it up into separate sentences. Another way to put this idea is, "write like you talk."

2. Use contractions. When we're talking casually, we use contractions — those "shortcut" words like can't, won't, shouldn't, etc. We say - "I'd love to join you, but I can't. Maybe next time, when I don't have a conflict."  In conversation, we'll use the non-contracted form when we need to clarify or make a point. For example, "Joe, for the last time, I will not go on a date with you. Please, do not ask me again." Using contractions instantly lightens the tone of your communications, and (you guessed it) makes your readers feel more engaged with your content.

3. Choose the "sparkle" word. Which has more personality? "We're happy to announce..." or "We're thrilled to announce..." They essentially mean the same thing, but "thrilled" jumps out just a little more because it's more exact. Happy is generic. It's probably the first word you'll reach for. Stretching just a little bit for that vibrant word can make your copy sing.

4. Write in the present tense, active voice, second person. In non-academic terms, this means - avoid the words "have" or "been" and use the word "you". Writing in this style is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your reader. It puts them in the here and now. It makes it feel like you're having a conversation with them through the screen. Compare, for example, these two sentences: "We have enjoyed working with wonderful clients like you." Versus, "You are a wonderful client. Thank you for your business. It makes ours more fun." See the difference?

5. Know which (few) grammar rules you can break. On occasion, I'll start a sentence with "and". I sometimes end with a preposition, too. That's because these grammar rules help facilitate the conversational style. But there are some rules that when broken, make you look silly, or stupid, or ignorant. Here's just a small sampling.

  • Your (you own it) vs. You're (you are)
  • There (not here) vs. Their (it belongs to them) vs. They're (they are)
  • Assure (give support) vs. Insure (to buy or sell insurance)
  • Affect (verb) vs. Effect (noun - can you put "the" in front of it?)
  • "A lot" is two words.

There are plenty more, and feel free to vent in the comments below. To keep your writing neat and tidy, try typing your opposing words in a search engine with "vs" between them. You can also check out The Grammar Girl.

6. Accessorize with styles. Not to sound like your high-school English teacher, but rhetorical styles such as alliteration, metaphor, similes, rhyme, and repetition are marks of great writing. So use them. A word of caution though; too much of any of these styles, and you can easily swing to the other side of the personality pendulum (the one where you sound like an amateur and we don't want that). It's best to think of these styles like an accessory — add enough to accentuate your content, but not too much where you overwhelm the message.

7. Read out loud before you publish. And by "out loud", I don't mean "really loud and slow but still in my head". It means with your voice, at a natural volume. In addition to catching typos, this form of editing is perfect for making sure your content is conversational. Does it sound natural? If there's a sentence that just doesn't flow, work with it until it sounds right. Then, give your content to someone who hasn't read it yet. Ask them to read it out loud. Then, massage any phrases that tripped them up.

With these simple tweaks, you can transform writing that's bland and impersonal, into content that brings your readers closer to your brand. These are great tips for all sorts of business communications in both print and web. Have a question about how to implement these styles? Have a story about how you turned your copy around? Want to vent about your grammar pet peeves? Put it in the comment below.

Thanks, and happy writing!

10 Tactics for Top-Notch Testimonials

Testimonials - the magical way to turn boasting into evangelism. Sure, they're effective - and their use is hyped in every corner of marketing communications. But just how do you go about gathering them? Here are 10 ideas: 1. Have something worth talking about. Having a mediocre product that simply meets expectations encourages silence. People talk about something that is either 1) really awful or 2) really amazing. The closer you are to the middle, the less chatter you hear.

2. Put a feedback button on your website. Encourage your customers to send you their opinions - regardless of whether they're "good" or "bad". In truth, they're all good.

3. Give to get. The networking organization BNI hypes the benefits of "givers gain". And it's true. Give colleagues a well-written testimonial and ask for one in return.

4. Use LinkedIn. Log in to your LinkedIn account and under the "Service Providers" tab at the top left click on "Request a Recommendation".

5. Paraphrase & e-mail. When a client gives you a verbal testimonial, send a friendly e-mail thanking them for the conversation, paraphrasing what you heard and requesting permission to use their testimonial.

6. Give stories the spotlight. Weight Watchers encourages participants to submit success stories. Stories sell. Bragging bores.

7. Market research sweepstakes. Give respondents a prize for completing a survey about your company. Prizes encourage response rates.

8. Ask for specifics. When writing a survey, break down large, open-ended questions into bite-sized, directive questions which are more likely to receive a response.

9. Give credit. Did a great idea come from customer submitted feedback? Share the credit to entice readers to share their opinions.

10. Strength in numbers. When requesting testimonials, ask for quantitative data. For example, "After hiring Randy, my profit increased by 20%" or "Gina helped reduce my production time from 2 weeks to 3 days."

Related Links

Fastread: How to Get Testimonials for Your Product by WorkatHomeChannel

How to Get Quality Testimonials by Mike Williams

5 Tips for Getting Freakin' Awesome Testimonials by Brent Hodgson

Make your hard work work hard for you.

Twenty years ago intellectual property was a different beast. Creators would put a big chain link fence around their work and say bluntly "back off!" to anyone who tried to spread their ideas. Today, the landscape has changed. I remember sitting down with one of my clients to discuss her blogging strategy. I mentioned a quote I heard from I believe Seth Godin, but please correct me if I'm wrong - "Blogs are a way to create conversation, not control it." With that in mind, the strategy becomes referencing other blogs, commenting often, linking strategically and sprinkling in your own opinion.  This new philosophy was one my client didn't really get. She became concerned with bloggers stealing her ideas or being hunted down by the copyright police if she linked to another blog without their permission.

This is a fine line we walk. Andy Sernovitz posted some excellent insights into this topic.

"'What if someone steals our stuff?' is the wrong question. Ask 'How can we get people to steal our stuff?'...When we advertise, we pay to spread our content. Don't stop customers from doing it for free!" 

I have to say I agree with Andy. Make your ideas useful so your clients will spread the love. Of course as Andy points out, "Do insist that your content is properly credited, with a link to your site, but beyond that ... encourage the sharing."

As for blogging, it's proper etiquette to link to the other blog when you are quoting (like I just did with Andy). You need not ask for permission ahead of time - that's a part of the culture we've created. Linking helps them grow their blog. They will be glad you're sharing their ideas with your readers. You would be hard pressed to find a blogger that says "No - I must protect my intellectual property. I don't want your link."

Why Link Love is Bad for Your Blog

Fresh out of college I worked selling ad space for a regional lifestyle magazine. It was a tough sell because the magazine was about 80% advertising and 20% editorial - and people caught on. The lack of original content was ultimately what caused the magazine's demise. Similarly, I can predict the same fate for blogs who evangelize link love strategies. Simply creating a list of other blogs or writing a post to the effect of "Read this blog - it's good" is an ineffective long term strategy for building a quality blog.

If you look at some of the best blogs out there - blogs like ProBlogger, Seth Godin, Copyblogger, or How to Change the World, you'll notice they never re-hash other people's ideas. If they do link to another blog it's with a purpose. If they reference an article they state their opinion. If they use a "tactic" it's subtle and buffered with mounds of original content.

Unsure you have what it takes to come up with original content on a regular basis? Maybe you shouldn't be blogging in the first place.