Teacher in Chief

Why would a CEO of a fast-growing company take time out every month to teach his new hires? Because he wants them to take customer service as seriously as he does.

It's early on a Tuesday morning in Austin, Texas, and Craig Tysdal, president and CEO of NetSolve Inc., is so excited that he accidentally writes on the wall with a permanent marker. "What is customer service?" he asks the people seated before him. He doesn't wait to hear an answer. "Customer service is perception minus expectations!" he booms. "It's expecting one thing and getting a lot more!"

Which is just what you'd expect him to say. Customer service has become the Holy Grail for every company, and CEOs who don't talk about it don't stick around for long. Since NetSolve's main function is to manage the computer networks of other companies, bad service can have a direct effect on the P&L.

But Tysdal isn't addressing a bunch of outside investors. He's talking to a mishmash of new employees, ranging from receptionists to senior managers. They're starting day one of a three-part mandatory course on customer service, even though they may never speak a word to a customer. And Tysdal is not just there for a meet and greet. He is there to teach. For more than four years, Tysdal, 55, has done this almost every month, for every new employee -- 275 and counting. But why would the head of a $46 million technology company riding a perilous economy take time out to teach when he could be out doing all of those big-shot things that CEOs normally do?

Because Craig Tysdal is not just a leader. He is a leader who loves to teach. To Tysdal, who has worked at several startups and lived through three IPOs (including NetSolve's) , there is nothing more important in a business that runs networks for people -- no, strike that, in any business -- than excellent customer service. And if you don't make that clear internally, you're toast.

"You have lots of people joining the company who are accustomed to interacting with customers in different ways," Tysdal says. "You have to get the whole team on the same page quickly. I tell people, 'We expect you to share our vision, our values, our plans, and our results.' " And who better to convey that vision than the guy in charge?

The sessions are homespun affairs, filled with truisms and real-life examples that anyone can relate to. To show how a bad reputation can wreck your business, Tysdal talks about a dry cleaner he used when he first moved to Austin but stopped going to after a friend warned they were unreliable. To show how good service can change your life, he shows a slide of his own palatial home and talks about the tiny house that he grew up in.

A quirky combination of Professor Kingsfield and Bob Barker, Tysdal quizzes his students and rewards each correct answer with one of the crisp $2 bills that he special-orders from the bank and stuffs into his pockets before a class. "They're unique, and if somebody puts one in their wallet, it will remind them of the event," he says of the gimmick.

Next come the dictums and the how-tos: Always take a problem away from a customer. Don't ever hesitate to fix the problem, even if it's not NetSolve's fault (the company offers a money-back satisfaction guarantee) . Mimic the customer's own style, except if someone is angry -- then let him vent. "I've been married 25 years, and when my wife wants a piece of my butt, she can have it," says Tysdal.

NetSolve employees relish the contact with Tysdal and appreciate his values. "Golly, the main guy is up there talking to me, and I'm a nobody," says Jon Orta, a technical consultant who specializes in "sensitive" (read: pissed) customers. "And the way he wants us to deal with customers -- to please them -- just feels good."

Tysdal says that he has no intention of farming out the class work to anyone else. "The attitude of our employees and how we treat our customers is pretty fundamental to what we do."

Visit NetSolve on the Web (www.netsolve.com).

Sidebar: One Smart Customer

The CEO of NetSolve admits it: He's a bit of a maniac about customer service. At a restaurant one evening, a diner was told that there weren't any olives for her martini, so Craig Tysdal ran out to the store and bought her a whole jar -- and he didn't even know her! Here's how to do customer service the Tysdal way.

Own the problem. "Never give one of your problems to a customer," Tysdal says. "Accept responsibility. If you don't, you can't solve the problem." Yes, it may take more time than you have. And yes, the customer may be blaming you for something that you can't control. But the "problem" is also a chance to win a customer for life -- by surpassing her expectations.

Listen to yourself. People can spot a surly attitude a mile away, and that makes a difference in how a customer reacts to you. "Listen to your voice mail," says Tysdal. "Can you hear attitude?" Rerecord the messages with a smile on your face, and note the change.

Empathize -- to a point. "That doesn't mean saying, 'I feel your pain,' " says Tysdal. It means listen -- and don't fake it. Respond with helpful phrases such as, "I know these aren't the results you were hoping for," while working to fix things. "If you're not prepared to have people be angry at you, you're in the wrong business," he says. Not that you should take unlimited abuse: "Everyone here has a different level of tolerance." When someone crosses your personal line, "escalate" the problem -- by taking it to your manager.

Contact Craig Tysdal by email (tysdal@netsolve.com).

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