Customer service: it’s not an issue that’s unique to companies in the 3D printing game, but it certainly is widespread. Too many companies today are run inflexibly, meaning the people working there aren’t allowed to place even one toe out of line at risk of breaking company policy and attracting the ire of their superiors. Tom and Tracy Hazzard talk about the one philosophy that should run in these companies, especially within customer service divisions: exceptional customer service doesn’t happen without exceptions. Each customer comes with a unique set of circumstances and needs, and not allowing any wiggle room for their needs to come to light will just repel them. It’s time to start bending the script where it applies to get more customers to stay with this just-flourishing industry.
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You Don’t Get Exceptional Customer Service Without Exceptions
Exceptional customer service is critical whether you are a start up or a major cooperation. In this episode, Tom and Tracy discuss why 3D print companies need to eliminate the finger pointing and solve the problem at hand. Examples of companies that have done it right, done it wrong, and some that made us into the investigator but still worked to fix the problem.
Because of the conversations earlier this week, where we were talking about Dan Clark and then we were talking about tech support in the Netherlands on Tech Tuesday, it got us thinking about something Dan Clark said: Exceptional customer service doesn’t happen without exceptions. I would love every manufacturer of a 3D printer to listen to that right there.
It’s an empowerment issue, and it’s a systems issue. I think it happens at both places in the development of a company and a business, and that is a problem with start-ups and also really mature companies. You have it at both ends.
Start-ups don’t feel empowered enough because they are still in a hands-on CEO kind of thing. They are afraid to do something. The Chief Everything Officer is the only person who can do anything. At the start-up stage, you are worried about money, so making exceptions on things or doing something exceptionable, like sending out replacements, is costly scary. Or there is a whole level there where there is not any empowerment in an organization.
On the mature side of it, you get too systematized. There is a script, and that’s it. Not one single person at any level that you can get to is empowered to deviate from the script. That is what frustrates me more than anything. You have these big companies that can clearly afford to make an exception, especially if it’s an appropriate one, but they are paralyzed to do anything about it because they don’t have the authority.
I’m going to flip that around here though, because I had a juvenile retail store at one point. What I can tell you is there are two sides to that. One side is that when you are a small mom-and-pop or a start-up, the problem is people think they can get so much out of you. They are always pushing you. They are like, “Well, I’m not going to talk about your company,” or, “I won’t refer you to anyone if you don’t make an exception for me.” They are very pushy from a customer’s perspective. As a customer, we all need to be better about remembering that these start-ups need our support. We can school them in how to make better, exceptional customer service without bankrupting them. We need to be cognizant about that and ask for things that are reasonable.
I have been surprised in the 3D print industry in particular with some start-up companies, some that clearly recognize they are a start-up and are almost willing to bend over backwards to make you happy as a customer because they think that happy customer is critical to their future. You have to reward that, and you have to tell everyone about that exceptional customer service.
On the flip side of that, you go into some place like Walmart, and we just accept that bad behavior. We accept that bad customer service or that lack of customer service. We accept it, and we still go back there. We have to stop rewarding that as consumers. That is the only way to get it to change. You cannot continue to allow this. They are systematized, so they say, “So what if we lose 1% of our customers? We have millions and millions of customers. Who cares? We can afford to be hard-lined about it.” Why are the rest of us rewarding that? That is not okay.
Our Experiences with Unexceptional and Exceptional Customer Service
On the flip side of that, I have seen a start-up 3D printer company who stated definitively that they cannot afford to make a sample on their printer to show a prospective customer what the quality of their part is going to be. Somehow they think that is acceptable. I have an issue with that personally because if you want someone to buy your 3D printer, it seems like a natural thing that they would want to see the quality the printer can produce before they buy it. So being completely unwilling to do that and not providing any means or possibility for how that can be done—I understand you don’t want to become a free service bureau, and I am not suggesting they should. But that one surprised me.
It is a problem in 3D printing that there is not a lot of places to get a sample of it when you want to buy a $3,000 printer. I think it is problematic. I am not suggesting it has to be free. But if I am going to spend $3,000, I am more than willing to spend $30 to make sure my designs print. By not having any mechanism by which you can provide some type of customer service, and exceptional would be better, but something is important.
There are a lot of lessons for start-ups and the way the 3D printing world is working in that you have to be thinking about how exceptional customer service creates raving fans. And incredibly loyal, potential customers. It creates loyal customers.
I want to touch on MakerBot because we get harassed all the time in email and on social media about how we are happy with our MakerBot printer. People can’t believe that. But you know what? There are two things that happen: One is that we were extremely assertive in trying to get help for the printer. We bought the extended service plan. We bought the customer service plan so we could call up whenever we needed to and get help. But on their side, they provided exceptional customer service. They replaced parts, they replaced a whole printer once. They provided exceptional customer service in return for that.
We have had a very good experience with their customer service for sure, and it has been exceptional. It wasn’t their standard. You can say I was assertive, but I would say I was proactive and persistent. That’s the thing, if you really are not complaining and mean about it, but you are there saying, “I want my printer to work better. I think it can. I think I’m having this problem. I really want some help.” When it doesn’t work, instead of saying, “Those losers, they don’t know what they are talking about. They don’t have good tech support,” and give up and gripe about it on social media, but we went back to them and said, “Hey, that didn’t work.” Now they, as a company, have learned something.
Understand Your Customer Service Rep is New to 3D Printing Too
You don’t want to be mean about it because if you are mean, you become the problem customer. There are notes in their system if you are a difficult customer. You never want to be that. I would put it back on them by asking them questions, “Is this the quality that you expect of your printer? Is this the quality you deem acceptable of your printer?” If you frame things in certain ways, you get them to realize on their own that this is not right and they have to help you.
That is the thing, you have to partner with them when they are new. When they are a start-up, you partner with them to help them to realize that they are starting up. They are learning. There are going to be failures along the way. If you can be part of turning that failure into a learning opportunity for them, it will benefit you.
I have another example of this, to me, this is a good example of a consumer that is willing to dig into the problem and help solve the problem for the 3D print manufacturer. I didn’t want to do that, but I wanted my printer to work well. It can be very frustrating, especially when dealing with a company that is in another country.
Here is the reality of a lot of these 3D print companies, especially the start-ups, any of the newer companies. They don’t know. They don’t know everything about their printer. It’s all new. They don’t know what you’re printing, so when you tie in what you’re printing, it’s a new variable that comes into it.
Here is where I think 3D print manufacturers have to have exceptional customer service. They can’t afford not to because guess what? They are not Proctor & Gamble or Coca-Cola or some company that has been around for 100 years, and they have a great history with their product. They know everything about it. Guess what? They don’t know everything about it.
I had a 3D printer from the Netherlands that I used for six or nine months. It seemed like forever to me, even if it wasn’t quite that long. They made an update to their firmware, and all of a sudden, after that firmware was updated—and they tell you to use the latest firmware because they don’t know if they can help you otherwise—the same G-code, the same print I had printed last week that worked fine didn’t work this week. It was inflating my part.
They couldn’t figure out why. It took me weeks and many Skype calls and videos and photos of my process. In their firmware, they changed their Z control motor, which controls the bed height, from being powered all the time—they said we are wasting electricity—to only turning it on when we are going to change the Z height. If you are doing a big print, that can take 10-15 minutes on each layer before it will change the Z height. I can understand why they wanted to save some electricity.
But what they didn’t count on is a lot of printers, including the one I had, have a frame of aluminum, which has some torsion in it. What would naturally happen when they would turn off the power to that Z motor was the Z screw would twist down a little bit. When they turned the electricity back on, that Z stepper motor was in a different position than it thought it was in. When it was powered back on and went to the next level, what it was doing was every layer was traveling two or three times the vertical height that it should have been. It took me a while. Finally, after taking some video and showing them, it would make this thump sound right when it turned back on. I could see the Z screw turning and realized it wasn’t right.
After going back and forth so much, they looked at it and realized what was happening. That shouldn’t happen, but it did. They had to write more firmware to undo what they did and leave that Z motor powered all the time so it would be in an absolute position and wouldn’t move. Then my G code finally worked again, and it printed correctly.
It’s the type of thing where that is advanced 3D printer ownership and advanced customer service that you have to pull from them if you need it. Be helpful, respectful, and productive. Say, “I understand what you are telling me, and I have tried everything you have suggested, but it is still not working.” Until I was the private investigator going in there and figuring out and filming this thing, they didn’t know.
That’s a lesson for the 3D print manufacturers. It is too easy to think about the novice user there. When you don’t, you better listen to them. You better listen to them because it’s a sign that you have a bigger problem.
Handling Customer Complaints
Tom and I take seriously customer service complaints about any of our products on the market. When we work with a company, we always tell the customer service department, “When you have a problem that recurs more than once or you are clearly not sure why it happened, if it falls outside of the calls you expect to get and you don’t have an answer for them, then you call us. You immediately call us and let us know.”
Some of them might be indicative of a quality problem in the manufacturing. Somebody is doing something out of spec. It might be a design flaw, and we have to know about it. As designers, we want to know about it because we specified everything about that product. We set up the criteria of what it should be and how it is expected to perform. If it isn’t performing to that expectation, we need to know about it because as the designers, we have the biggest and most holistic view of that entire product from beginning to end. We are best-suited to help solve the problem.
This wasn’t one of our clients. For example, a customer service group got tons and tons of phone calls about failing casters on an office chair. It seemed like a higher rate. When it got investigated, they found out that someone had found that they could get one-cent cheaper casters when you have five on a chair. That is five cents a chair of savings. They made this decision somewhere along the lines of the process at the manufacturer level to save five cents on a chair. In the end, they created so many customer service problems that they almost had a recall.
You never know where in the process things go wrong, sometimes you have to dig into it. Because we have a global view, we always man that for our clients on our products because if it’s a design flaw, we want to hit it off right away. We would be the only ones who might know that. Keep in mind that with most of our clients, and in this case with a furniture client, we actually have a stake in it. We get paid with every one that gets sold. If it gets returned, that impacts our earnings. If it’s something we can head off early and solve the problem so that it doesn’t become a bigger problem, that’s in our best interest financially as well as from an integrity perspective of putting out a good product.
From our perspective, there are a lot of players in these. This is another thing that happens. If somebody is creating the firmware, somebody else might be updating the software. There are a lot of players. There is a lot of finger pointing that can happen. For us, we eliminate that because we cover all of them. We handle the manufacturer, the client, the customer, so we go around the whole thing and have a bigger global, holistic view.
But that’s not how it is happening in this 3D print industry. There is a lot of finger pointing. It’s a firmware problem, it’s a software problem. You also get into that they are buying parts from someone, and that part may have a problem if they don’t have a quality control system to double check it. There are a lot of start-up issues that go on here that create this problem. It’s in your best interest to be assertive about your machine. When you really feel that something is not right, make sure you raise that. You’re probably right that something probably is not right.
Check the boards online. There are a lot of people that might be having the same problem, and when that happens, you have more ammunition to say, “Hey, you guys have a problem. We need some exceptional customer service.” The forums can be your friend. Some of the problems you encounter may have been solved by other people, or you may realize you are not using the latest firmware or your slicing software. Do your due diligence and make sure that you have eliminated all of the potential variables that you can because you will just waste your own time trying to get help on something that has already been solved otherwise.
This is an issue that everyone bears responsibility for, I think. As a user, I think you need to understand what being an owner of a 3D printer from certain companies is like. You have to be proactive and interactive to solve problems. As a 3D manufacturer, you need to be providing exceptional customer service. The good ones do. It’s a collaborative effort, and it comes from both sides. Keep that in mind as you are going forward. You can’t demand exceptional customer service, but you don’t have to reward bad customer service.
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