Chillibreeze is a company built on values. This sounds like a catchphrase, but it’s not.
Being one of Chillibreeze’s first employees, Joanna Budelman, Director of Operations, asked me to talk about the core values that helped create the successful customer service we see in Chillibreeze today.
I am going to rewind back to the early days and tell you about how our guiding principles of authentic honesty and customer empathy were developed. How it was the little things that we did for our customers that made it easy for them to work with a company located halfway around the world. The six values that started with me got transferred to others, and continue to build our strong and solid customer service for every customer who walks through our virtual doors.
One of the things that my father always wanted was to see all his five children have jobs before he retired. I was the youngest of the five and he was due to retire in 2007. I landed up in Chillibreeze in late 2005 and was determined to give it my best to see my father’s wish come true. That was one of my main driving forces for a career in Chillibreeze.
I was lucky to have come to a place where I picked some core values that helped me create successful customer service. The values are:
- Placing myself in the customer’s shoes and following the golden rule. Customer empathy, in other words.
- Looking for and finding solutions (problem-solving skills)
- Looking for better ways to work and feeding the resultant intellectual curiosity
- Making it easy for customers to get their work done
1. Authentic honesty
I believe this is one value that I’ve always been very strong in. I always say it like it is – I never mince my words and our customers are always clear about what they will receive and by when. Our practice of under promise and over deliver has only strengthened this.
When I first started communicating with customers and was asked about our capabilities, I’ve always been straightforward about what we can and cannot do. When we were about to sign our very first contract with TPI, I remember we had a set of questions that we had to answer. There were questions about our capabilities on PowerPoint, Word, InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. That was about 8 months after I was regularly working on PowerPoint decks each day – for 2 customers only: TAG and Semeron (now known as S2 Advisors). I was pretty confident with my PPT skills at that point of time and we had Sainbor and others for InDesign and Photoshop. When it came to Word and Illustrator, we knew very little and I said as much. But I was also confident that this was something we would be able to learn.
Reflecting on authenticity in the early days got me digging through some of my very old emails from late 2005-early 2006. Some of the things I wrote to Jim and Carl (customers) were pretty naïve when I look back now. I didn’t even know what “share” meant – as in file sharing. As I look back, I now think that I might have formed the habit of writing short, to-the-point emails from Carl, since his emails were typically just five lines max!
Placing myself in the customer’s shoes. I believe this has been one of the key factors in establishing today's successful customer experience at Chillibreeze. Even in the early days, I could somehow relate to what our customers wanted. I could sense from their emails if something was not right and I would respond accordingly. When responding to an email with a PowerPoint work request, I would always imagine that if I were the customer and see this kind of response, what would my most likely reaction be? Would I be glad that the right question was asked, would I be annoyed that I’m asked too many questions or frustrated if asked to do something that I’m paying someone else to do? I believe that my reaction can guide me towards what our customers would feel. Then I would then follow my golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, I would frame an appropriate message to explain the issue at hand.
I’ve always believed that communication is key and it’s not how I communicate that matters but what I communicate. Here’s an example. A customer might make an inadvertent typo when writing instructions for us. If I’m sure that what the customer is saying is not correct then I would do what is correct. If I’m not 100% sure, I would give the custom design options to choose from. Either way, I would always proactively communicate the situation to the customer.
3. Problem Solving Skills or Finding Solutions
When it comes to our customers, I will probably do whatever it takes to find a solution. Of course, I would let our customer know if something was not possible or way beyond our capabilities. On the other hand, if deep down I have an inkling that something is possible, then I’m very determined and will find a solution for that.
PowerPoint aside, this was a value that helped us get started with both Word and OneNote. Initially, I knew just the basics of Word. Some of the early requirements were simple enough but soon came more complex tasks: creating forms, Word templates, multi-column layout, documents with section breaks, etc. Those were truly learning-on-the-job experiences. I not only had to learn and figure something out, but I also had to deliver something to the customer the same day.
Finding solutions and learning in the early days was mainly through trial and error and learning on the job, on live projects. Online learning was a luxury in 2006-07. The very first YouTube video, titled ‘Me at the zoo’, was uploaded on April 23rd, 2005, by the site’s co-founder. So, there was no help there. Useful video tutorials were yet to make an appearance.
Oh! and let’s not forget about our very limited and expensive internet bandwidth. So, most of my reading was from Microsoft product pages and going through the software’s help pages. The Office homepage was a site that I probably had open every single day. Apart from the help articles, it was the only site I knew of where I could get free photos, icons, and clipart.
Today, finding solutions for our customers is a lot easier. What remains the same is that looking for solutions has always been a core value with us. We learn what is required for the project – well enough to deliver what the customer wants. This iterative problem solving helps us handle projects with more complex requirements. We continue to learn every single day.
4. Continuous desire to improve
The desire to improve came very naturally to me. That, coupled with my intellectual curiosity, was a good combination that helped me look at things differently and made me try to find new ways to approach things.
One common occurrence during the early days were the instances when there would be a requirement that would be completely new to us. Most often than not, I would be able to deliver something similar to what the customer wanted but my process of achieving it was not always the proper way. For example, once I was required to plot a chart with primary and secondary axes. I did not know how to do it so I “cheated” by having 2 charts or manually adding a second axis over the chart. I later learned how to do it right!
In most cases, I would not be able to do research and still meet deadlines the same day so I would deliver what I had completed while always being frank about my capabilities. But I also gave my word that I would learn and improve the next time a similar requirement comes along. And I would do it too.
This was my way of learning and improving skills and services relevant to our customers’ needs.
5. Making it easy for our customers
This is another value that has always driven me. One of the earliest lessons Joanna taught me was not to simply inform a customer if I did not understand something. Instead, I should tell him something like “this was what I understood, am I correct in my understanding”. If yes, the customer would simply have to respond with a yes. If not, then he’ll know I’m not on track with my understanding and would explain.
That has prompted me to do other little things to make it easy for our customers to work with us.
- Confirming receipt of a file
- When the ask is not straightforward then also writing a brief description of what we will do so that surprises are avoided at the end of the day
- Clearly communicating what was done on a deck so as to avoid surprises. If I recall correctly, I used to explain this on every deck initially. Later, I did this only when it was needed.
- Learning about our customers’ preferences so that they don’t have to repeat instructions on all assignments.
Going through my very early emails, I saw that Carl and Jim used to send me a heads-up email every time they planned to send a deck. Eventually, they stopped doing that. I believe that this was because they came to rely on us. On our availability. This is a small example of making it easy for our customers – one less thing for them to do.
This is another value that has really helped me serve our customers. This is a value that has always been with me. Our CEO, Ralph Budelman, says I set the benchmark for this value! What drives this value even further was probably knowing right from a very early stage that the buck stops with me. If I’m not there to do the work someone else (someone with limited PowerPoint formatting experience) will have to pick up my slack and we might not be able to deliver what the customer expected.
I remember an incident from back then when PPT work was only a minor contributor to the company’s bottom-line. The bulk of our revenue was coming from the layout in Adobe InDesign. It made sense not to have too many people learning PPT. I guess that was a blessing in disguise for me as that really pushed me to be reliable and do almost whatever it took to serve The Arnold Group and Jill Sheley – the two main customers I was servicing.
Between Dec. 2005 and Sept 2006, we had just these two regular customers needing graphic design support for their presentations. Knowing their expectations likes and dislikes really helped me serve them well and understand the deeper importance of knowing our customers’ preferences.
There was a point of time that 3D charts in PowerPoint were very popular and we also were using them. I remember that Carl hated those charts and didn’t want them anywhere near his decks!
Here’s a classic story from the early days of building a reliable culture. The story took place in the midst of a very bad internet breakdown that had lasted over several days. I thought I had delivered a deck safely but it never reached the customer. I remember that it was late into the night – I got a call from Joanna (she was in the US at the time) telling me about the situation. That was years ago when I did not own a car (and neither did my family) and RP Singh was not our taxi vendor as yet. I had to wake up my father, ask him to make some calls to help get me a car to go to the company guesthouse as that was the only place I was sure had an internet connection. Keeping the network situation in mind during those days, I always carried backup files of all deliverables for the day on a pen drive in case of such a situation (otherwise I would have had to go the office first to get the files). Anyway, I eventually got to the guest house and was able to deliver the files on an extremely slow but usable internet connection. It is stories like these that built reliability into our culture.
Making a difference to someone else’s life is probably something that most people would wish for.
Ralph and Joanna have certainly made a difference to so many people’s lives by setting up Chillibreeze (and Zizira) here in Shillong and I truly consider it a privilege that I was able to be a part of that, to play a role in making that difference to others.
Back then, especially during those hard and turbulent times, being thankful was probably the last thing on my mind. But when I look back now, I realize that I should be thankful for that phase.
It was the hard times that strengthened us, made us find quick solutions, brought in the culture of not accepting failure or mediocrity, made us ready and willing to do whatever was needed, not being dependent (if you want tea or coffee after 6 pm, you make it yourself; and no, we did not have a fancy coffee maker, we made it on a stove top.
If you stayed late and needed to eat, you go and buy dinner for yourself or run out to eat and then come back to work). We have come a long way since, and I am truly grateful for what we have today.
All these experiences came in the context of serving customers. These daily events, small and large, helped shape me as a person. After all, a third of my life so far has been closely involved with Chillibreeze.