Help.com recently got to sit down with Headsets.com CEO Mike Faith about his journey, both in business, and customer service. Mike Faith came to America with only enough money for a hotel for few nights. He's since built two multi-million dollar businesses including Headsets.com, a company known for it's policy of customer love. This is the first part of our interview with Mike, in which we discuss everything from how he developed his philosophy of customer service, to the customer service skills he looks for when hiring.
Mike Faith Interview (Part 1 of 2):
Graham: Thanks for tuning in to Help.com’s most recent interview. Today we’re going to be talking to Mike Faith. Mike is the CEO and founder of Headsets.com. He also runs a website where you can eat dinner with celebrities for their favorite non-profit causes and is an avid player of segway polo. Mike, thanks very much for being with us.
Mike: Graham, thanks very much it’s nice to be here with you today.
Graham: Everyone who is familiar with you and Headsets.com knows how much you love customer service. I’ve enjoyed listening to and reading your interviews, but what I didn’t know is what a great sense of humor you have. I really got a kick out of reading your LinkedIn. How much would you say that sense of humor contributes to your ability to serve customers.
Mike: *laughs* I think it does help actually. We’re into customer love, but to be a little bit irreverent or strange sometimes is really good. We tell people to be themselves on the phone. We say “be yourself, have fun, talk to people. Do something silly if you can.” I think it makes customers appreciate that they’re not talking to a robot or someone with a script, they’re doing something with a real human being.
Graham: Absolutely. When you and I were going over our pre-interview notes you mentioned that you empower employees to send customers a scarf or some other small gift if a customer mentions a favorite football team or something.
At one time though, a customer went and took pictures to help out the mother of someone from your team who was moving. I’ve heard about customers writing glowing reviews, but I’ve never heard something like that. Can you talk about what creates that sort of relationship between Headsets.com and customers. That’s unique to me.
Mike: We often have customers do things for us. We put candies in the box and we’ve had customers send us different candies back. I think if you genuinely relate to customers, you end up having a real relationship and that’s a two way street. You end up competing at what you can do for the other one. That’s a fun relationship. I think it adds a lot of value to the company.
Graham: That camaraderie must be amazing. To that point, can you talk about how you become so customer focused? I know when you were younger you sold candy. Then a bit later bicycles. The first million dollar business, I recall, was selling laminated sheets with zip codes on them, and now we’re at headsets. Can you talk about that evolution?
Mike: I don’t know if you remember when zip codes were changing, you probably don’t. The zip codes were changing a lot and one would split into two, or two into three. At the time there were only twenty area codes but they were changing so fast. I used to pull pages out of the phone book and pin them on my pushboard. It would go brown after a few weeks and curl up, so I’d look for another phonebook to pull the pages out. I wanted to see the area codes, it was useful to see on the caller ID when a call came in to know where it was coming from.
Eventually I thought: This is ridiculous, i’m running out of phone books. So I started just printing them and laminating them. Then other people wanted them. So I started printing them in color and started laminating a lot of them and before you knew it I built a business to three million dollars a year selling laminated maps with area codes.
Here’s the crazy thing: We’d get the information from phone companies about what the changes were, but then the phone companies would buy the maps from us.
Graham: Even they wanted to know what was going on. Was customer service a focus there?
Mike: I can’t say it was unfortunately. I think it was a realization I had a few years into Headsets.com when I realized that I should be doing what I know and love. It was at that time that we switched into an extreme customer love philosophy.
Graham: You've talked about how part of that transition to an extreme customer service model was from exposure to Tom Peters’ work. Can you talk a little bit about your proxy relationship to Tom Peters and then about your relationship with Ken Welsh.
Mike: With Tom Peters, I would just listen to his tapes. One of them was “In Search of Excellence.” I Can remember, I listened in bed one night and he talked about how customer service is a differentiator.
When he taught at Stanford he’d talk about it and his students would say “how is it a differentiator? Anyone can do it.” And he’d say, “they can, but it’s pretty difficult and people don’t. They talk about it, but they don’t do it.” And I thought, “that’s it, we’re going to switch to extreme customer service” and that’s what we did and it was that simple. It was just listening to one of his tapes that did it.
To Ken Welsh I was looking for a voice coach to help us and I narrowed it down to seven people around the world and spent some time talking to each one of them. We settled on Ken Welsh who is in Sydney and who I think is the best voice coach in the world. That was probably ten years ago and he works with us to this day. All new people who are going on the phones have to talk with Ken first. He gives us an assessment as part of the interview process.
He also works with several of us on an ongoing basis in terms of voice and tone and using that so that we communicate better. That’s ultimately what it’s all about.
Graham: You heard a talk and you chose to make a significant change. That’s something that I’ve seen consistently in your interviews. You’re very confident, you have a realization and you act on it immediately. Is there another time that you’ve done that that’s either worked out or hasn’t worked out?
Mike: Good observation there Graham. Thank you for putting it in a positive box of confidence. Sometimes I think I just don’t know how wrong it can go, so sometimes it’s definitely naivete that leads to me doing things impulsively. I think often making bold decisions can be good, you roll the dice, and make it happen. Indecision can often be costly. Patience is good sometimes but other times just jumping in is what’s needed. Big decisions are easier than small decisions. You can give up meat, or cheese, or alcohol but if you give it up in one go it’s easier than doing it incrementally.
Graham: Speaking of big decisions, you sold all of your belongings and moved to America. Talk about big decisions that worked out for you. What was the impetus behind that? I read that it was weather and wealth but was there something else behind that?
Mike: I was just getting married at the time and I didn’t really have much. That made it easier. We raised about $1,000. I was having a tough time in business, the UK recession had been really bad to me. People say it’s brave to do that with no money but I think it’s easier to do it when you don’t have much than when you start accumulating assets.
I came here, had enough for a few nights in a hotel, got myself a job, and that was the start to my new life in another country.
Graham: That’s quite a story. Headsets.com has a very unusual hiring process. Can you talk about what that process is and why it matters so much to Headsets.com?
Mike: Sure. To be a customer service rep at Headsets.com you go through about seven interviews. One is with me, one is with Mike Welsh. We arent’ so worried as what our reps look like as what they sound like so most of them are over the phone. We’ve got some personality tests and some IQ tests. We’re really looking to make sure that its’ the right fit both for us and them.
I think the process helps them appreciate the job. After you spend a whole day listening to someone else on the phone you have a pretty good idea whether or not this is the job for you. Some people do say “this isn’t the job for me.” We want people to have the opportunity to opt out if it’s not for them. Hire slowly, fire quickly.
We didn’t invent that, by the way. We’ve all heard it but I certainly stick with it. If you think about it, someone's going to be with you for years. This is a multi-hundred thousand dollar deal you’re doing. If you do a deal that big you do research, and studying, and put a lot of time into it. In my mind we should do that for everyone we hire.
Graham: After you’re hired at Headsets.com, what sort of training goes on recurringly. How do you keep people at the level that Headset.com feels that it’s important that people be at?
Mike: We have weekly trainings and sometimes different people in the group will present because people become experts at different aspects of what they do. Sometimes our advisors will listen in on each others calls and provide feedback. We also have exams that everyone has to make sure that they pass to ensure that they know and remember what’s going on. If someone is out for a few weeks, we have sabbatical every five years where you can take a paid month off, then they have to take an exam to prove that they’re ready to go.
I think it’s important that people know what they’re doing on the phone so they can truly understand, relate to, and help the customer.
Graham: Can you give me the example of the kind of things that someone can become an expert at that they can then give a presentation on?
Mike: Sure, some people do it on product support because they get proficiency there. Some people focus on email and live chat because they’re really quick minded. With those two it’s less about slow empathy and more about lots of processing and faster decisions.
The personality of our employees often dictates the area in which they specialize.
One person who was a headsets advisor moved into credit approval. They created that function for us because they have that nature and nurture for just what to do in those situations. They could just smell out what to think about before we released.
Graham: You mentioned email and live chat. I would love to hear about what you think of those because Headsets.com is so well known for howthey are on the phone but not as much for email or live chat.
Mike: If you send us an email you’ll get a response within an hour even though the average is eleven minutes right now. If you go to live chat which is on the site, closed at this time of day though, you’ll find that you get a response usually within fifteen seconds. We focus on both speed and quality of responses.
Pretty frequently we’ll go through and do an RSA (random sample audit) where someone will look at one in ten or one in twenty chats and emails to ensure that the quality is where we want it to be. We want to make sure the quality is there as well as the empathy and understanding.
There’s nothing worse, you’ve probably done it, than when you send an email or chat and are told to call the service number. We want to service people in the method that they want.
A lot of companies look at their cheapest channel and try to push customers that way, and I don’t believe that’s right. The customer wants to talk, or email, o ruse chat. Let them do what they want.
Graham: What is the cheapest channel for you?
Mike: I don’t know. I don’t think it matters to us. If we monitored that we’d probably be too interested in steering conversations one way or another. Overall our customer service costs us about 8% of our revenue which is a high number but I think that it’s a really inexpensive number when you consider that it’s marketing as well. It’s not a cost of doing business, it’s part of the relationship you’re getting when people are loving you and you’re loving them. It’s a really inexpensive form of marketing to get when you’re giving great customer service.
Graham: Do you differentiate between customer service and sales?
Mike: Good question. We monitor sales, we celebrate sales, we monitor service, and we celebrate service. They're the same people, and those people are tracked by how customers rate them. Sales are important to us, and we want sell things and we’re in business and we want to make a profit. I love all of those things and I believe in them. I think you’ve got to love the customer first and then you make the sale and then you make the profit. So yes,measure sales and focus on it, but I think it’s important to get things the right way around in terms of how you prioritize.
Graham: Absolutely. Have you ever had an agent do something fun or unique with email or live chat that they can’t do over the phone?
Mike: Yeah, we have people who end up having customer relationships. We have “regular” live chat customers. Some of them come in and say “hey I was bored and wanted to say hi today.” And that’s great, that means you have a relationship. I can’t think of anything outrageous that’s been done but there’s definitely some relationships that people have that are really great on both sides. Some companies want to stop that but we don’t care what you’re talking about. Keep doing it because it will work.
Graham: I love that. Between live chat and email what do you find is the most used channel of those two?
Mike: Live chat we use a lot of. I don’t know the stats but I think we’re doing 50-100 chats a day on live chat.
Maybe we get as many emails but live chat is a lot more intense because you’ll go back and forth six, twelve, fifteen times in a conversation.
Graham: That’s consistent with the trend. Live chat is getting bigger and bigger. Talking about all of the different channels, I know Headsets.com loves A/B testing. When I listened to your mixergy interview in September you were doing four different iterations of your home page. Have you ever done A/B testing with different customer service methods?
Mike: It’s harder to do with people I think. When you do it on the web you can get a very scientific split but to say “half do this and half don’t” with customer service adds in a lot of variables. With customer service we try to think “what’s the right and best thing to do” rather than having one person do one thing and one person do something else.
I’m not against doing A/B testing in principle but it’s not as easy to split test with people as it is with paper or computers.
Graham: So you’ve found that it’s better to trust your interview process and let the people you hire do their thing?
Mike: Yeah, people end up having their own styles on the phone. We want to encourage that. You can’t tell Bob to talk like Mary or Mary to talk like Bob. You can change small things a little bit, but generally you’ve got to let the person do what works for them in terms of relating to customers and that’s going to be different among different people.
Graham: That’s definitely true. Do you find that the agents you hire at Headsets.com are much different than at other companies? You have all of the interviews, you’ve got a number of great resources, you’ve got a neuro-linguistic programmer *Mike laughs*. How are your reps different than someone I talk to at a big ecommerce company or a cable company?
Mike: Two things Graham. We hire for ability more than anything. Yes you’ve got to be able to type and spell, but the key thing is “can you relate to customers all day long, every day.” We don’t care what the agents experience is, we don’t care if you’ve had a rough history. We’ll take them if we think they can do the job here.
We know other companies hire on resume but we even say “please don’t send a resume.” We don’t want the resume. That’s the first test. Can they pass the test and not send a resume. That rules out about 30% of applicants.
The second thing that’s different is that the culture we have makes people comfortable rejoicing in helping customer. We talk about customer love and they need to be comfortable with that term.
The culture that we have helps create a difference as well. I’m sure there are other companies that are similar and do similar things. There are a lot of companies though that hire for a resume, that don’t train, that try to get people off of the phone quickly and just have a wrong attitude. I think that stinks.
Graham: You mentioned culture which I love, we’re big on that at Help.com. You also mentioned earlier that you sometimes talk to remote employees via Skype. Is your team mostly remote or mostly onsite and if they’re mostly on site, how do the remote employees get brought into the team and feel like they’re part of that group?
Mike: We’ve got two teams. One in San Francisco and one in Nashville. Most of our people are in those two places but we’ve got two or three people that are remote.
One girl that worked with us moved, wanted to stay with us, and love what we’re doing. We said “great, we love what you’re doing, keep doing it.”
One person we hired who is remote we hired for their specialized knowledge they’ve got.
Another person lives about forty miles from the office. He’s been with us about twelve years now and over time has spent more and more time at home. What with Skype and IP technology it’s easy to do once you’ve got the trust right.
Part 2 of Help.com's interview with Mike Faith will be up next week.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Questions about the interview or Headsets.com? Let us know in the comments below or @helpdotcom.
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