Customer Service at SmartPayroll – Kids Included

August 2, 2010

In an ongoing series of interviews with truly customer focused companies, I wanted to take a look at one particular initiative taken by New Zealand payroll software vendor SmartPayroll. SmartPayroll is all about customer service. While pretty much every company on earth says that, SmartPayroll has a philosophy that sees them absolutely put the customer first. Before looking at what that means in customer service terms, I wanted to recount some thoughts that CEO and founder Asantha Wijeyeratne gave me.

When I started the business all those years ago, two of the founding principles were:

  1. Have a business that people will want to work at – measured by the number of unsolicited applications to work
  2. Have a business that everyone who works in it are proud to be part of the organization – measured by the reaction when you see a customer – do you want to avoid them or do they want to engage with you/give you a hug.

So what does creating a business that people will want to work in actually look like? Take a look at this video, a documentary made about SmartPayroll’s family friendly policies. It’s not fiction, that’s the way that SmartPayoll works, day in and day out. Sure this particular example is going to sound a little touchy feely and I absolutely accept that the policies enacted by SmartPayroll wouldn’t work for a significant proportion of companies. However this blog is all about thought leadership, and sometimes being at the cutting edge involves doing things differently.

Given the example in the video, I was really interested to hear SmartPayroll’s thoughts around customer service. I mean if they treat their employees that well, how do they treat their customers? In traditional style, I put a series of questions to the SmartPayroll team:

Everyone says they’re a customer focused business, whether or not they mean it. How do you think an organization can ensure that it’s genuinely customer focused? What does this look like for SmartPayroll?

SmartPayroll genuinely goes above and beyond with each customer by understanding their individual needs to see if we can help them in other ways.  It could be something they haven’t thought of themselves.  We don’t just sell software, show them how to use it then forget them.  We consider they are part of the SmartPayroll family and will monitor that they are running their pays on time and correctly and call them if we think they need help before they ask.

We also ensure each of our customers has a personal trainer to help them with their first payroll. Most importantly we have empowered our staff to do what it takes to make the customer happy. We also continuously survey our customers to get a quantitative measure of how we are doing and we have never scored less than 8 out of 10 on average for overall customer satisfaction.

We have also got to a point where over 25% of our sales now come from word of mouth referrals from existing customers. We watch these numbers and the trend very closely to ensure we are not kidding ourselves.

Many people have talked about friendliness in relation to customer service – what do you think about the balance between friendliness and professionalism?

Both are equally important.  Professionalism is essential in that it gives customers confidence they are being looked after by a professional and they can rely on them. 

However a lot of our customers are small business owners that need to call us often with simple questions because they are new to employing staff so it’s important they get a friendly response each time. We are payroll professionals that can relate in a friendly and approachable manner that doesn’t intimidate a business owner. We see part of our mission to make web based solutions like SmartPayroll accessible to the average (non-pointy headed) business person.

How does one ensure that your customer support staff are genuine with their customers – what can you do to keep them fresh?

Our customer support employees are carefully hand chosen and enjoy helping our customers.  It’s a rewarding and interesting job because the customers are very grateful for the help they receive.  The response from the customers keeps the staff fresh and enjoying their job.

Our only direction to staff is to treat the person they are dealing with as the only person that they have to deal with at that time. We deliberately don’t measure call times per support call. We allow our staff to do whatever it takes to solve the problem. In the end we have a culture where we treat our customers with the care and respect that they deserve. We then make sure we treat our staff the same way.

A lot of the innovation in our business has come from our staff; we are open to and directly seek input from our staff in almost all aspects of the business. This results in a team that genuinely feels they are part of the business. We provide a work environment that allows our staff to be both real and fresh.

It always happens, the customer is always right but there’s times when they’re simply wrong. At which point does your duty to be reverent to your staff overcome the duty to be reverent to your customers? How do you deal with this seeming conflict?

If a customer has done something wrong our priority is to ensure the mistake is put right and the customer understands what went wrong.  If any conflict happens our main concern is that the customer feels they have been listened to and feels good about how the situation was handled.

What place do tools have in delivering great customer service? My contention is that good systems and tools take drag out of the system and make it easier to give customer exception experiences – do you agree and do you have any specific examples in your case?

Agree totally. Each department in Smartpayroll is systemised to ensure a new customer’s Smartpayroll site is set up seamlessly and quickly.  All our employees know and understand the system and their part in it.  The customer is kept informed along the way so they know what’s required of them and when their site is ready to use. 

For example, if the customer is running their first payrun in, say, 3 weeks the whole company is working to make that happen. We wouldn’t be able to love our customers forever without the extensive systems that we have in place. In the good old days when we had 50 customers it was easy to know where things are at. It’s a lot harder when you scale like we have and will soon have 5,000 active customers. Our systems prompt and ensure we do what we said we would do.