Customer Service

Williams-Sonoma as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Breville Coffee MakerWe've all made it through the holiday shopping gauntlet. It's time to sit back and reflect on what we experienced and what we've learned. This year's holiday Customer Service lesson comes from the folks at Williams-Sonoma.

Being a bit of a coffee snob, I like having a coffee maker that grinds and brews. I've had one from Capresso that has been such a lemon I vowed never to buy one from them again, but it was expensive and I've tried to grumble my way through until a better option came along. My wife and I found what we think is a winner at Williams-Sonoma, when we saw the new Breville model.

Living outside of Des Moines, our shopping trips are generally planned ahead of time and are spaced out on the calendar. So, my wife called the folks at Willams-Sonoma at Jordan Creek and explained that she needed the coffee maker but was afraid they would be sold out. She explained that she would be willing to provide a credit card number over the phone to make the purchase so they could hold one for her until the next time she would be in Des Moines. The person at Williams-Sonoma assured her that they had a ton of them and not to worry.

You're already ahead of me, aren't you?

Sure enough, my wife went to the store to find that they had been completely sold out. There would be no coffee maker under the tree for Christmas. This set off a domino effect of customer service issues:

  • The clerk at the store said they'd be happy to order one on-line at that moment, adding that they would "throw in free shipping" as if to make up for the mistake. My wife explained that she'd been online looking at it and knew that she'd have gotten free shipping anyway if she'd ordered it online herself.
  • On Christmas Day, my wife was disappointed and frustrated when all she had to give me was a picture of the coffee maker and a promise that it would ship in a few days.
  • The ship date for the coffee maker was scheduled for December 28th, but as of January 2nd it still hadn't shipped.
  • There's been no proactive communication from Williams-Sonoma about the delay or why on January 2nd the estimated ship date still said December 28th, forcing us to have to continually initiate communication with the company to find out what was going on.

So, what's the Customer Service lesson in all of this? When a customer contacts you, money in hand, and wants to buy a product or service, you should strike while the iron is hot and complete the transaction. Sometimes providing good service means making the sale. 

- Tom Vander Well

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Are you on your customer's list?

It's the time of year for lists. First there's the wish lists and Santa's list of who's been naughty and who's been nice. Then there's the year-end lists to which we will all be subjected. The top 10 of this, last year's top 100 of that. We love lists.

Companies, in particular, love to make it onto lists. I always get a kick out of the marketing campaigns who tell their customers that they've made it on to some list for their great customer service. The reality is that customers don't care about lists. Customer's only care about the experience they receive when they interact with your company.

The list that great companies truly care about is their customers' satisfaction and loyalty list. When it comes to corporate resolutions for 2012 , making your customers' top 10 list would be a worthy one to make.

- Tom Vander Well

Customer service rule number one

I've always taught Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) that the number one rule of Customer Service is "Do the best you can with what you have." Let me give you an example.

For several years, I've served on the Board of Directors for Pella's community theatre, Union Street Players. Many years ago, our group decided that we wanted to do something with our growing collection of costumes. So, the Union Street Players Costume Shop was started. It has been a labor of love for our members for many years. As a non-profit organization, we do not make a profit and our staff is made up entirely of volunteers. The shop is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon (if we the volunteers show up).

It is quite common for our customers to get frustrated and disgruntled. We often get phone calls from frantic individuals who are trying to throw together a last minute costume for a child's school project or an impromptu skit at the corporate business meeting. It's painful for me to apologize and explain that we simply do not have the staff or resources to accommodate every emergency costume need. I'm personally crushed when I see a long line of frustrated customers waiting in line while one of our volunteers fights with the ancient computer and quirky database at the desk. We continually try to make improvements. However, the fact that the shop is even open a few hours a week is due to the kindness of our members' hearts and their voluntary efforts.

Even a for profit business must sometimes make choices regarding what they can do, and are willing to do, with the limited resources available to them. Hopefully, we are equipped with a knowledge of what drives our customer's satisfaction and a sincere service attitude. We can't satisfy every customer. In some tragic situations we may not be able to satisfy most of our customers. But, at the end of the day every CSR can pat themselves on the back and sleep well if they can honestly say, "I did the best I could with the resources I had."

- Tom Vander Well

Providing great service can be its own reward

I chatted with my daughter on Skype this past Sunday. She is in a college program in Colorado Springs and recently got a job working at the local White House Black Market. Madison just got out of training and was excited to tell me that she'd booked her first client. She told me how her client was nice, earned her a nice little commission, and complimented her in front of the store manager. And, she clearly felt esteemed when the woman said she would only ask for Madison when she came into the store.

I am proud of my daughter. Having been raised in a home with a father who is a consultant in the art of good Customer Service, I know that she picked up a thing or two along the way. But a big part of it has nothing to do with lessons I might have taught her. Listening to my daughter's excitement and enthusiasm made me realize that she's learning one of the most important lessons through her own experience: Providing good service is its own reward.

Some people are motivated by making a lot of money and winning contests, and I have no problem with positive reinforcement. When I meet exceptional Customer Service Representatives (CSRs), however, almost all of them do it because of the intangible sense of worth and satisfaction they get by doing right by someone else. It feels good to hear a customer sincerely tell you that you made their day. You feel a sense of healthy pride when you walk away from a job knowing that you've helped someone out of a jam, eased a fear, solved a problem, and put a smile on someone's face.

A while back I heard an executive of John Deere say that he loved his job because he knew he was helping to feed the world. What a great way to be motivated to go to work each day. The exceptional CSRs I've had the privilege to know over the years have a similar take on their own jobs. It's more than dutiful labor for a paycheck. They find personal fulfillment in serving others well. My daughter is learning that delivering great service is a win-win-win for her client, her employer and herself.

- Tom Vander Well

Service is increasingly a matter of "Time"

I spent this past weekend with an old high school friend who is now a professor at a university in Michigan. Throughout the weekend we enjoyed spirited conversation about a myriad of subjects. Quite often our conversation would lead to a trivial question for which neither of us had an answer.

"I'll check it," my friend would say pulling out his smartphone and doing a quick search. "I love this thing!" he would then say as his impromptu curiosity was satiated by the immediate gratification of information.

For twenty years my firm has measured the key drivers of customer satisfaction for many different companies in many different industries. Back in the day, customer satisfaction was largely driven by two simplefactors: resolution of the issue and courtesy of the Customer Service Representative (CSR) who was assisting the customer. While the courtesy and friendliness of the CSR continues to be a crucial piece of the customer satisfaction equation, the issue of resolution has become more complex.

Customers are no longer satisfied by having their issue resolved. Increasingly, they are sensitive to issues of timeliness in the resolution of their issues:

  • How easy is it to reach a person who can help me?
  • How quickly can I reach the right person? (without having to be transferred around or two speak to multiple people)
  • Can the CSR resolve my issue without delay? (having to put me on hold)
  • If follow-up is necessary, how timely will that follow-up be?

For better or worse, we live in a world in which seemingly everything is immediately available at our fingertips 24/7/365. A curious question that rises out of casual conversation can be immediately answered. In this age of immediate gratification, customers are less and less satisfied when their customer service issues cannot be handled and resolved in a "timely" [read: immediate] manner.

Businesses, especially small businesses, may not always have the resources to provide instant gratification that customers want. Everyone, however, can be mindful of a customer's sensitivity to time. Acknowledging and apologizing for delays, providing time frame for follow-up, and proactive communication are within the ability of every one of us.

- Tom Vander Well

Serving customers means anticipating what they need

call centerImage by vlima.com via Flickr

Every time you call a company's Customer Service line you hear the recording: "Your call may be recorded or monitored to ensure service quality." You may wonder, "Does anyone actually listen to these calls?"

Yes. Welcome to my world.

Not every call is monitored, but companies who care about their service typically have some kind of program for routinely listening and analyzing their customer service calls. In fact, that's a big part of what my company does. And so, this past week I listened to the customer who called my client who happens to be a financial institution.

Customer: "I'm really upset with my bank and the money they charge me just to have an account there. Does your bank charge fees just to have an account?"

Customer Service Representative: "No. Our bank doesn't do that."

Customer: "Oh, okay. Thanks."

Customer Service Representative: "You're welcome. Good-bye."

The Customer Service Representative (CSR) would likely say that he did his job. The customer asked a question and he answered it. He answered it correctly. But, did the CSR actually address the customer's need? The customer was not just looking for an answer to her question, she was looking for an answer to her banking needs. The CSR technically answered her question, but failed to perceive the customer's true desire: "I'm looking for a new bank who won't charge me just to have an account."

"We don't charge fees and we'd love to have you as a customer."

"Our checking is free. I'd be happy to help you open an account."

"Wow! I'm sorry you've had a bad experience. No only do we NOT charge our customers for having an account, but we have a gift of appreciation for every customer who opens an account with us. I'd love to help get you started."

This call happened to be a bank, but the principle translates to any industry. Good customer service is not just answering the question the customer asked, but perceiving and meeting what the customer genuinely needs.

- Tom Vander Well

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Good service sometimes begins in bad times

TTCL Customer Care, Call Center in Extelecoms ...Image via Wikipedia

We're living in some tough economic times and many customers are likely to find themselves in financial difficulties. It's interesting how different companies handle customers in tough times. We are all acquainted with the image of hard-nosed collection agencies calling during dinner time to demand money for unpaid bills. Some companies, however, take delinquincy as an opportunity to build customer satisfaction and loyalty.

I recently heard a true story of one such company who made a courtesy call to one of their large customers. This customer happened to be late making a payment and so a front-line collector called the customer to politely check on the situation. The customer explained the reason for his delinquincy and made arrangements to catch up. He then shared with the front-line collector that decades before he'd been in such difficult financial circumstances that he was faced with repossession of his assets and bankruptcy.

The customer explained that during his financial crisis the front-line collector's company had sent a field agent to try to work out equitable arrangements. The field collector had treated the customer with such courtesy, dignity and respect that he vowed to be exclusively loyal to that company should he ever get back on his feet financially. The customer did get back on his feet and became very successful in his business. Because of the service attitude of that one field collector, the customer explained, he had been a loyal customer ever since.

After listening to the story, the front-line collector asked the customer if he remembered the name of the field agent who had made such a difference those many years before. The customer did remember the field agent's name. Incredulous, the collector on the phone explained to the customer that the field agent was not only still with the company but happened to be his manager. "Would you like to speak with him?" the collector asked. Twenty years later the customer and the field agent who had served him well in such dark times were reunited on the phone.

Sometimes customer satisfaction and loyalty begins with companies proving themselves loyal to their customers.

- Tom Vander Well

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Do you shoot the messenger?

RDNS Customer Service RepresentativeImage via Wikipedia

My wife and I recently refinanced our home with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. David, the representative we worked with through the entire process, provided us with great service along the way. As is often the case with refinancing, we had some frustrations along the way, but David did a great job of communicating and being proactive in addressing questions and issues.

The morning of our closing, I was going through our paperwork and was shocked to find that the closing costs on the paperwork I received in the mail did not match the costs discussed in previous conversations I had with David. Confused, I called and left a message requesting some clarification. I did get a call back and David explained that there had been a mistake. The loan had not been processed correctly and they had to scramble to make corrections. The result was that my wife and I sat in the office of the closing agent for 45 minutes while she waited for the corrected documents to be sent.

These types of situations create a dilemma for customers who deal with the representatives of large corporations. Overall, we were really pleased with David's service and I believe that it was not his fault that the loan was processed incorrectly, which was the responsibility of a completely different department. I was dissatisfied with the experience, but I felt it was inappropriate to "shoot the messenger." I chose to communicate my dissatisfaction in the follow up survey where I could differentiate my ratings for the overall experience from the representative who assisted us.

I regularly coach Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) to recognize and understand that they are "representatives" of the company for whom they work. When customers take out their frustration on the CSR who answers the phone, it is important for CSRs to recognize that it is not personal with the CSR. Let's say I call Wells Fargo customer service and a CSR named Brenda answers the phone. If my wife walks into the room and asks who I am speaking with, I tell her I'm talking to "Wells Fargo," not "Brenda." It's an important distinction that CSRs must learn and accept in their role as a corporate representative.

At the same time, as an advocate for CSRs everywhere, I try to remind consumers that it is important for us to recognize the same differentiation when working with CSRs on the phone. Acknowledge to the CSR that your frustrations are not personally directed at the CSR, but with the company they represent. Ask the CSR how else you can communicate your issue or complaint to the CSRs superiors so that it will be heard. Make use of customer feedback and surveys, especially using opportunities to answer open ended questions to provide specifics about your experience and frustration.

In a time when public discourse appears to be descending into angry epithets tossed about in tweets and texts, every consumer has the opportunity to buck the trend and raise the standard by communicating our frustrations appropriately. And of course, we all have the opportunity to ultimately communicate our displeasure by letting our feet do the communicating for us as we walk away to do business with a competitor.

- Tom Vander Well

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More Service for Your Money

For use in the Culver's article.Image via Wikipedia

I recently saw a Harris Poll that continued to reiterate what our group's research has confirmed for many years: customers are generally willing to pay a little more for a better service experience. The Harris Poll showed that 85 percent of consumers were at least somewhat willing to pay extra for products and services if they knew that they would receive a better customer experience.

The poll came to mind last night when my wife and I stopped for a quick bite. We make several trips each year to Lake of the Ozarks and we generally stop somewhere along the five hour journey. While our quick stop for food is generally at one of the large national fast-food chains, last night we pulled into Culver's in Columbia, Mo. One of the first things I noticed was how clean and bright the ordering area was. I was also struck by how bright and friendly the staff at the registers was. Not bad.

My wife has some food sensitivities, and wondered what the ingredients were in the sweet potato fries. She asked the young lady at the register expecting the "I'm not sure" answer that went no where. Instead, she said "Let me check" and asked one of the managers behind her. He immediately said, "I'll be happy to check" and scampered into the back. A moment later he came back with the complete ingredient list. Not only was my wife impressed that they were quickly able to find it, but the list revealed that the fries were something she could eat.

While we were waiting for our order, the manager wandered by and struck up a random conversation. It was just small talk, but we had a friendly chat and enjoyed a laugh together. The food came and we hit the road. As we dug into the fast food meal, I was struck by the larger portion and better taste than I'd expected from fast food.

The bill for our carry out order was a few bucks more than we would have paid at one of the better known fast food places, but my wife and I both agreed that both the quality of the food and the pleasant service experience was worth the few extra bucks we paid.

It is common for businesses to think that lower prices will attract more customers, but competing on price is a difficult and risky venture. Businesses who find a way to differentiate themselves from the competition by providing a superior customer experience find that they can charge more without losing customers.

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Earning the Right to Turn Service into Sales

A torpedo in the courtyard of the Museu do Exp...Image via Wikipedia

I've had an unusually high volume of hapless sales pitches recently. Somehow, my cell number has found its way onto a list and I'm getting the same annoying recorded sales pitches coming at me from different phone numbers around the country.

Yesterday, I received in the mail one of those deceiving magazine pitches made to look like an actual bill.

I realize that sales is a numbers game, and there are all sorts of businesses making money with sleazy, hard-core sales tactics. Increasingly, businesses are looking to their customer service operations to increase sales in an effort to turn customer service from a "cost center" into a "profit center."

Translating good service into sales is a no-brainer. Research usually shows that customers are willing to hear about additional products or services at least some of the time (a focused survey of your customers is always a good idea before starting). However, companies who differentiate their brand with quality products and services should pay strict attention to how they go about pitching their customers in service situations. A good rule of thumb is the old Smith-Barney advertising tag: "Make money the old-fashioned way. Earn it."

Earning the right to sell a customer in a service situation means never trying to sell the customer something until their issue has been completely resolved. Not only will the sales pitch fail - why would I buy this product when you haven't fixed my problem with the other one? - it will often raise the ire of customers who feel you are leveraging their problem to hold them captive and make them listen to a sales pitch.

Earning the trust and willingness of your customer service staff means understanding that people who make stellar customer service representatives do not usually make great sales reps; they tend to be motivated by solving problems and helping people. Adding a sales component to the service process should be carefully developed. Products and services offered should relate to the product the customer called about or something you know about that customer. Reps should be trained to understand how the product or service they are selling is actually an additional benefit to the customer (e.g. you are serving the customer by selling them something they want or need).

Providing great service earns you the trust of your customers. That well-earned trust should be leveraged to build an even greater relationship with the customer through increased interactions and sales. The key is to make sure that your sales approach does not torpedo the good will your service relationship has built.

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With All of These Communication Tools, Make Sure You Communicate

An Audio-Technica AT815a shotgun microphoneImage via Wikipedia

Technology is a wonderful thing, and we are blessed to live in a time when communicating electronically across the globe is quick, simple and seamless. Not only has social media revolutionized how we interpersonally communicate, but it has also never been so easy to reach out to a company when you have a customer service issue.

For customer service teams, the key is to make sure that you are not forgetting to actually communicate when you interact electronically with customers. Let me give you two recent examples.

During the past month, I have had product issues with two different products I purchased. The first was a snowball microphone I purchased from Blue Microphones through the Guitar Center. The other was a Zebco rod and reel I purchased at Cabela's. In each case, the product was defective and I contacted the company through the email address I found on their respective websites.

To their credit, both Blue and Zebco were quick to respond to my email. Well done. I appreciate the quick turnaround. There's nothing worse then sending an email into the proverbial black hole.

After exchanging a few quick emails regarding what I was experiencing with my microphone and asking for my contact information, Blue sent me a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) and asked me to send the microphone back. I packed it up and shipped it as requested.

As for my broken fishing reel, I utilized technology to take a picture of the broken part with my smartphone and emailed it to the customer service department. Zebco responded quickly and asked for the model number of the reel, then my contact information.

What I find interesting in both of these situations is that I'm still waiting for any communication regarding what Blue or Zebco are actually going to do for me. Blue received my returned Microphone more than 10 days ago, but I have yet to receive any indication that they received it or whether they plan to replace it, fix it or refund my money.

My last interaction with Zebco was just a day ago, but once again they have not explained what they plan to do to address my problem. Will they send me a new part? Will they send me a new reel? Am I going to have to return it?

Technology is a great tool for quickly communicating with customers, but companies must remember to actually communicate with the customer in their electronic interaction. This includes acknowledgement of the customer, empathy for the problem or issue, appreciation for his or her business, and a clear communication of what you are going to do in response to the problem.

When a customer communicates with you about a problem they've experienced, you've got to respond with more than a simple, "What's your address?"

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Service Starts at the Top

Bottom BracketImage by joeldinda via Flickr

I've been reading the book "A Leader's Legacy" by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. While leadership is a separate topic here at the IowaBiz blog, the subject of customer service can't be adequately addressed without touching on the importance of leadership and its impact on the service delivery system of any company or organization.

In the book, Kouzes and Posner quote Nordstrom General Manager Betsy Sanders:

"I serve my associates so they can serve our customers well. Actually, I'm at the bottom ofthe organizational pyramid supporting them and not at the top with them supporting me."

In my years of working with companies at all levels from front line customer service representatives (CSRs) to the CEO's office, I've learned a lot about service. My experience and observation is that a company's service culture is rooted in the executive suite and not by the front-line reps.

Supervisors, managers, and executives who are struggling with the customer service equation in their own organizations should begin with a look in the mirror. Are you at the top of your service organizations pyramid as Sanders describes it or at the bottom?

Three good questions to ask key people "above" you in the organizational pyramid:

  1. How am I doing as a leader?
  2. What do you need from me so you can better serve our customers?
  3. How can I help you succeed?
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'Your Call May Be Monitored'

Your conversation is being monitored by the U....Image via Wikipedia

We hear it almost any time we pick up the phone to call for customer service. "Your call may be monitored for training purposes." When I explain to people that call monitoring and assessment make up a large portion of what our group does for clients, I get one of two questions:

Q: "So, do companies actually listen to all the calls?"

A: No, companies do not listen to every recorded call. Some companies are required by law to record every call and keep them for a period of time, but listening to all of the calls would be inefficient and unproductive.

Like a research company who can determine the opinions of 200 million Americans by asking a random sample of 1,000, a sound analytical Quality Assessment (QA) method can objectively determine how a company, or an individual, is performing by analyzing a relatively small, random sample of calls. Companies generally listen to a few calls to learn a lot about what's happening in conversations with customers. Select calls can be pulled and used for training and coaching. Some companies with very strict legal compliance issues use the calls to manage compliance. In some other cases, an angry customer may call to complain "you never told me..." and the company can pull the call in question to prove that they did.

Q: Doesn't that make Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) feel weird that their calls are being recorded?

A: It's so common place today that most CSRs expect it as part of the job. Think about it: the idea of recording and replaying performance for training and coaching goes far beyond the work place. Professional athletes regularly spend a large amount of time watching "tape" of their performance - or of their competition - to figure out where they made mistakes and how they can improve their performance.

Musicians pour over recordings to get the sound just right. Call recording is a variation on the same theme. When it's done well, call recordings coupled with effective coaching can help hone CSRs into customer service champions. And remember, call monitoring doesn't have to be about catching people doing things wrong, but motivating agents by rewarding them for doing things right.

With today's telephone technology, the opportunity to record calls is readily available to small businesses, as well as major corporations. I've worked with some companies who had only one person on the phone talking to customers. The bottom line is that companies who effectively leverage call recording technology may be those who beat the competition in the race to provide customers with service that wins satisfaction and loyalty.

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Where Everybody Knows Your Name

A photo of a cup of coffee.Image via Wikipedia

A few years ago, I wrote a post about a local coffee shop. I frequented the shop almost daily and worked there most weekday mornings for an hour or two. Two years later, after going there religiously, I had never once been greeted with a "good morning, Tom." Even though I ordered the same thing every day, I was never once asked if I wanted "the usual" nor did I ever find a cup of black coffee sitting on the counter waiting for me before I arrived.

I don't go there anymore.

A month or so ago, my wife and I stopped in at Grounds for Celebration on Mills Parkway Parkway. I lived near there more than seven years ago. It was my morning coffee stop for a couple of years and I had a thirst for some of their amazing Luna Tango roast. As my wife and I walked into the shop, we ran into the owner, George. His eyes grew wide with surprise. "Hey stranger! Welcome back! It's good to see you!"

I immediately felt like I was home.

I often remind customer service professionals of the theme song to that classic television show Cheers. Why do you go to Cheers? Because "you want to go where everybody knows your name."

Do you know your customers by name?

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Like a Good Neighbor

Wrecked car MoroccoImage via Wikipedia

There is a popular perception that bloggers are all angry, ranting miscreants. I must admit that I do my share of complaining when I have a bad experience. Yet, I appreciate bloggers who consistently share positive examples of service. And so, let me give a shout out to a great experience I had with my insurance agent yesterday.

I have most all of my personal insurance policies with my local State Farm agent, Kevin Van Wyk. Between home, cars, recreational vehicles, life insurance and personal property, we have about eight policies that Kevin manages for us in representing State Farm. I received a letter from the folks at State Farm corporate stating that because of our college-aged daughter's gruesome list of recent driving mishaps, State Farm would not renew our policy for a car on which she's listed as a driver. Upon a little investigation, I then discovered that the underwriters at State Farm were going to cancel ALL of our auto insurance policies (including the policies for me and my wife) because of a list of issues related to our daughter. As you can imagine, this made no sense to me and I immediately began preparing my threats. I would take my business elsewhere if State Farm was intent on making such a shortsighted decision for a loyal customer.

  • I called my agent, Kevin Van Wyk to protest. As it happened, at the moment I called, he was already on the phone talking to the underwriter about their decision to drop us (Lesson: Anticipate your customer's question/issue before they ask/call).
  • Kevin explained that the underwriter he spoke with quickly understood that the issues on the report were all related to our daughter and that they had worked together to find a logical solution for us. "State Farm will be more than happy to continue to insure you and your wife and your cars, but we'll need to exclude your daughter and her car moving forward," he explained (Lesson: Focus on the solution, and represent your company and the situation in a positive light).
  • Kevin then added, "I would be happy to get on line and look at your daughter's options and try to find the best solution for her." (Lesson: Go the extra mile.) His time and effort to help our daughter find insurance would not make him any money, but the gesture and keeping us as loyal customers will profit him in the long run).

Our agent did an exemplary job of navigating what could have been an ugly, customer service nightmare and turning it into a tangible reason for my wife and I to remain his loyal customers. I know that I could likely find slightly cheaper rates elsewhere. I might be able to "save 15 percent or more on car insurance" if I wanted to pick up the phone and look for a deal, but I have no interest in making that call. Kevin takes good care of us, and he doesn't work for those other companies.

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Great Customer Service Links

LinkedImage by Ian Sane via Flickr

People often ask me for some of my favorite links with regard to customer service. Focusing on some lesser known blogs with which most readers are unfamiliar, here are a few reliable sources for great discussions on service related topics:

  • People2People provides great content out of a passion for serving customers well.
  • Return Customer is the work of Joe Rawlinson, who always provides good content.
  • Terry Starbucker is a champion leader from the customer service trenches. From front line supervisors to the executive suite, Terry has great advice for leading the charge.
  • Service Untitled has been providing great conversations on customer service for years. Always a good read.
  • Service Quality Central (SQC) provides great content on customer service focusing on service quality efforts on the phone.

Enjoy!

- Tom Vander Well

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Does Better Service Cost More?

Customer Service CentreImage by xcode via Flickr

There was a recent article in SmartMoney magazine that chronicled the growing trend of businesses that charge customers for higher levels of customer service. While the trend is growing, it is certainly not new. But it raises some great questions, and so let me start the conversation.

Historically, the cost of providing higher levels of service was passed on to consumers in the price of the good or service purchased. Shop at Wal-Mart and expect a Wal-Mart level of service. Shop at Nordstrom's and you expect a better service experience. In other words, you get what you pay for.

Today, businesses are beginning to acknowledge that there is a cost associated with providing good service. Instead of passing the cost along in the prices of the goods or services, they are asking customers to pay for it separately. The airlines are a great example. The ticket price gets you on the back of the plane from the back of the line. Want to check luggage? Pay for it. Want a snack? Pay for it. Want a little leg room? Pay for it. Want us to care at all? Pay for it.

The technology sector is another industry who are big into the practice. We all fear picking up the phone to call tech support. Are we going to get lost in the fifth level of IVR hell? Will we be banished to speak to an unintelligible lemming on the other side of the world? Now companies are beginning to offer higher levels of service and support... for a price.

Of course, some businesses pride themselves on finding one of business' Holy Grails: keeping prices low and providing superior levels of service. Southwest Airlines and Zappos are two of the faddish examples. While there is certainly a cost associated with training their employees and taking care of customers, these two companies have found a way of creating a culture of service while holding their price points reasonable.

There is a common myth in the call center industry that providing better service takes more time. From both experience and data, I know that to be false. So is it equally mythological that providing a superior service experience costs more money? Should the customer have to pay?

What do you think?

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Acknowledging Customers is First Step of Great Service

Wait and see.Image via Wikipedia

I stood at the customer service counter at Target the other day. It was mid-afternoon and there were few customers in the store. I had a small item to return. The lone representative behind the counter was working with a customer who had some kind of complicated issue. It was taking a while. I get it. Some issues take longer to resolve than others.

What I found interesting, as I stood and observed the transaction taking place five feet in front of me, was that the rep behind the counter did not look my way once. Had the rep and customer been in a constant conversation about the issue at hand, it would have made sense. In this case, however, the rep had a lot of time of standing there waiting for the customer at the counter to write out information on a slip of paper. It was only after the transaction was complete, minutes later, that the rep looked over at me and said, "May I help you?" - as if I had magically appeared in line.

We're a time sensitive culture. Technology has driven us to expect things faster, easier and quicker. Customers get impatient. Even though, as a customer service professional, I was well aware that I would have to wait in queue, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated. It struck me that I simply wanted to be acknowledged.

"Good afternoon, sir," I wanted to hear from the rep with a smile. "Sorry for the wait. I'll be right with you."

By the time that the rep finally acknowledged my presence, I was already experiencing increased frustration with the situation. I'm constantly telling customer service representatives that with each customer transaction, the customer walks away with a judgment about the experience and the company they represent. In this case, my experience did not start when I walked up to the counter, but while I stood waiting in line. By the time it was "my turn," my satisfaction was already diminished.

In most business-to-consumer retail experiences, you will have times when customers wait in queue. The simple act of making eye contact, providing a smile and offering a kind word of greeting can set you up for a positive customer experience. At the very least, it can help minimize or diminish the prospect of the waiting customer penalizing you with decreased levels of satisfaction.

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Voice of the Customer is Often Mute in Tech Investments

Technology - "Future Vision"Image by $ydney via Flickr

This week, I spoke to a room full of information technology folks at an event sponsored by Avtex Inc. and Microsoft Corp. Microsoft is launching its new CRM software and I was asked to bring a different perspective to the IT department. So, I talked about customer expectations as it relates to a company's technology needs.

Let me summarize my message to this great group of technology pros. Whether you are a small retail business or work in a major global corporation, there's an important lesson to learn for the sake of your customers.

The profusion of technology in the past 20 years in unprecedented. Technology is changing so rapidly that it's quickly becoming stressful, if not impossible, to keep up. The result for all businesses is a dizzying plethora of technology tools. Everyone is selling their tech widgets as the answers to all your business needs. But, there is one voice that is silent in the business tech conversation: the customer.

You can spend a lot of time, money and resources implementing the latest, greatest technology gadget to save you time while increasing productivity. But does this technology help you meet what your customer's expect? Will it allow you to better satisfy the specific needs of your customer? Do you even know what those expectations are?

What's really sad is investing a lot of time and money on a technology solution only to find out that your customer neither notices nor cares. Don't assume that you know what's important to your customers. Ask them. Then you can make strategic IT and technology investments that you know will impact both your operation and your customers.

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An easy way to start listening to customers

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Improving your customer service can be as easy as listening to what others are saying about you and your business. For many small business people, the whole concept of social media feels overwhelming. You are curious about what customers might be saying about you online, but the idea of trying to track it seems like a technological mystery.

A simple first step for many business owners is Google Alerts. It's free, it's easy and, true to its' name, it will quickly alert you when someone says something about you on the Internet.

Follow these easy steps:

  1. Open your Web browers and go to www.google.com/alerts
  2. In the "search terms" field, put the name of your business in quotation marks (e.g. "William's Widgets"). The quotation marks tell Google that you're only interested in the complete name of your business. If I didn't use the quotation marks in the example I just gave, I would end up getting alerted any time the name "William's" is used online, which could be a lot.
  3. You can choose what type of Web information you want Google to monitor for you. You might start with leaving it as "everything" and then refine it if you find that you're getting alerted to things that you don't care about.
  4. Choose how often you want to be alerted and if you want "all" or only what Google deems to be the "best results" for your search terms. Again, it might be best to choose "all" to begin with and then back it off if you find that you get a lot of junk references in your alerts.
  5. Put your e-mail address in the appropriate field and click "Create Alert."

By following these simple steps, you'll be alerted via email any time your business is mentioned on line in a news article, on a blog, or in an on-line discussion.

Why is that important?

Let's say a customer complains on their blog about the poor service they received from your business. You get the alert, read about their experience and then immediately contact them to respond to their complaint. The positive word of mouth (w.o.m.) you can generate with that blogger's family, friends and readers can pay huge dividends. Instead of being an uncaring and deaf business owner, you are suddenly a plugged in, responsive business owner. You're the kind of business person with whom people want to do business.

Setting up a Google Alert is free takes only about two minutes of your time. For business owners who care about what customers might be thinking and saying, it's a no brainer.

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Is Zappos a BAD example of customer service?

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I read an interesting post recently by Robert Bacal in which he argued that Zappos Retail Inc. (and Nordstrom Inc.) is a bad example to idolize in the area of customer service:

"These companies are singular companies. That is, they exemplify what works with ONE company, with a very specific culture, in a specific industry and often the success of these companies is because of the people who drove the companies to be extremely customer service oriented. You don’t have those people. You don’t have the culture or any of the variables that you will need to effectively model your business on theirs."

It's an interesting argument. And as a graduate of Disney University's School of Customer Service, I get Robert's point. My small consulting firm in Des Moines looks nothing like Walt Disney World in any way, shape or form. I was enthralled to learn about all that Disney does to serve customers exceptionally well, but the differences between Disneyworld and c wenger group are so great that the application of service strategies and principles can be an impossible stretch.

I've always argued that the key to successful customer service is knowing:

You don't have to be Zappos or Nordstrom to figure that out.

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An Attitude Check to Start the Year

A few months ago, my wife and I watched the movie "Gosford Park." It's an interesting 87643671 take on the classic English whodunnit genre with an all star cast. What's interesting about the film is the way it reveals the lives and experience of the serving staff in an English household. Though the owners of the house go about their lives oblivious to the small army of people who take care of their daily lives, the staff take great pride in doing their jobs exceptionally well.

In one memorable moment, Helen Mirren's character states "I know what they need before they're aware they even need it." That stuck with me.

As I've trained various customer service teams through the years, I've often reminded people that working in customer service means, by definition, that you are a customer servant. I've had more than one team or individual threaten to go ballistic on me when I make this point. "I am NOT a SERVANT!" The label of "servant" is an anathema to many people, as if the thought of putting someone else's needs ahead of your own is something to be avoided.

I've come to believe that exceptional customer service is rooted in having the right attitude. If you want to be great in customer service, it's best to have a servant's heart. Anticipating customers' needs, resolving customers' problems and answering customers' questions are honorable and worthwhile pursuits. It is not always easy to do. The human element makes it frequently messy. Like baseball, you may strike out as often as you get a hit a far more times than you hit a home run. Nevertheless, it is an incredible feeling when you knock one out of the park, exceed expectations and make a customer's day.

As we begin 2011 and think about our goals for the coming year, I urge all of my colleagues in the customer service field to start the year with an attitude check.

  • Do I have a "serve" or "be served" attitude?
  • How can I serve customers by better serving my coworkers and fellow CSRs?
  • What attitude adjustment do I need? How will I accomplish it, and when?

Great Service Surprises

The Sorcerer's Hat, the icon of Disney's Holly...Image via Wikipedia

The difference between "good" and "great" is in the details.

Good service consistently delivers what customers expect. Great service surprises customers with an experience that exceeds their expectations.

I grew up going to local amusement parks each summer. Des Moines natives might remember Riverview Park with its rickety roller coaster and Wild Mouse. I learned as a kid to expect standing in lines for my favorite rides. When I went to Disney World for the first time, I expected and dreaded spending much of my day standing in long lines. About half way through my first day, I was surprised at how quickly the lines were moving. It was then that I realized that what was really happening was that Disney was entertaining me while I waited. The lines wound through a themed set with plenty of things to look at, television monitors to watch. Everything was wrapped around the theme of the ride.

It doesn't take a sorcerer's apprentice to step back and look at your typical customer's experience from his or her point of view. Mentally walk through and experience with your business from beginning to end:

  • Where might your customers be typically annoyed (i.e. getting a front end IVR message when they call rather than a human voice)? How can you surprise them by doing something different (e.g. changing the message so that it's creative, branded and makes them laugh).
  • Where are the points of their experience with your business where they might be standing around waiting? How can your business better engage and entertain them? It's a small thing, but I've always appreciated Caribou Coffee's trivia question of the day on their chalk board. It gives me something to think about or talk about with someone else in line while I wait. Plus, I might win a dime off the price of my coffee!
  • What do your customers expect from their experience at your store because it's no different than what they would experience at any of your competitors? (an offer to order something that you don't have in stock) How can you shake things up a bit? (Offering a free mystery gift on all orders, free home delivery on local orders, et cetera.)

In a drab business world in which everyone seems to want to be just like everyone else (e.g. industry standards and "best practices"), customers tend to appreciate businesses who are willing to stand out and surprise customers by doing something different.

Put Customer Feedback in Context

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At almost any restaurant, hotel or retail establishment, you'll find examples of customer initiated feedback. Comment cards are the cheapest and most common type, though larger chains and companies have added the post-call survey (e.g. "After this call, you'll have the opportunity to rate your experience") or the 800-number on your sales receipt, which is usually accompanied by a sweepstakes offer to entice you to call).

I often wonder about how companies tally and handle the data that is collected from these surveys. I'm also curious to know if they actually put them in context.

When it comes to customer initiated feedback -- the customer must initiate the contact by filling out the form, calling the 800-number, or visiting the website -- the response bias can be considerable. Customers who initiate feedback tend to be those who are on one of either side of the bell curve. They had a really horrible experience and want to tell you about it. Or they had a really great experience or want to tell you about it.

The problem with these types of feedback is that they can prompt you to spend a lot of time and energy chasing after a small percentage of exceptionally negative experiences or feeling good about an equally small percentage of exceptionally positive experiences

These responses do have value, but the value must be placed in context. The feedback is not necessarily representative of your entire customer population and may not yield the best data on what's important to your customers or provide tactical information that will help you manage for profitable improvement.

The sample in customer-initiated feedback commonly excludes the largest segment of customers: the silent majority who had such a relatively common service experience that they weren't motivated to tell you about it.

Yet this could arguably be the most profitable customer segment to survey. Learning how to move a "neutral" or "satisfied" customer into the "very satisfied" column can provide the most profitable rewards in customer loyalty and retention.

The best way to get feedback from these customers is to stop waiting for them to contact you and initiate the contact yourself.

Sending the Customer Away is the Right Thing to Do

Books in the Douglasville, Georgia Borders store.Image via Wikipedia

In ages past, my work experience started in a retail book store. It was a small store, so the selection was fairly narrow in comparison to the giant warehouse book stores we think of in today's terms.

The owner and manager trained me to try to find what the customer needed in our inventory. If what the customer wanted was clearly not something we carried, I was instructed to point them in the right direction towards a store or shop that might have what they were looking for.

The philosophy was that serving the customer well was crucial whether or not that service led to an immediate sale. If the only service we could provide was to point them towards another store, we believed that the goodwill earned would bring the customer back when they did need something we carried.

Customer-centric service goes beyond simply being pleasant and courteous. A customer-centric business believes that looking out for the customer's interests is ultimately going to profit the business.

Can you still find that philosophy at work in today's retail experience? Where have you noticed it lately? Who does it well?

Job Knowledge is Job One

RestaurantImage via Wikipedia

One of the most frightening times for any one serving customers is that initial period when you are thrown into the fray with relatively little job knowledge or experience.

Take the server I encountered at one of my favorite restaurants this past weekend.

My wife and I were out with friends to enjoy some local fine dining. Our server was a very nice, polite person. Engaging, personable, and professional, he had all the makings for a great waiter. Then he came with the "bear with me, I'm new" comment.

From there, the service experience started began a gentle downward spiral.

Telling a customer that you're new seems like a natural way to receive empathy and understanding, but it immediately destroys confidence and often makes the customer more sensitive to little mistakes they might otherwise not notice. Be confident, even if you're asked something you don't know. "Great question," you might answer, "Let me check on that for you."

In any customer service function, the customer expects you to Know the basics. For example, when our new server pulled out a list of dessert options, he stated that he must go over them with us because the dessert list was not on the menu. We all exchanged glances. We all knew it was on the menu. Not only was it on the menu, but also on the insert of daily specials. We'd all seen it. You expect the server to know what's on the menu.

If you're an employer, one of the best things you can do for your new employees is to prepare them with the basics. What are the most critical things for your newbie to know? you might prepare a list of commonly asked customer questions and the appropriate answers. If you don't have this list, talk to your best front line employees and have them help you create it.

If you're a new employee, make sure you ask a lot of questions. The first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself thoroughly on the basics of the product or service you are providing. Talk to veteran co-workers, trainers and your employer and ask:

  • What are the most frequently asked questions customers ask?
  • What are the most difficult questions I can expect to get? Why? How should I respond?
  • What are the questions customers don't know enough to ask? What should I anticipate that will save the customer, and the company, future headaches?

Every company wants to exceed customer expectations, but if you can't meet the customer's basic expectations, you'll rarely get the opportunity to exceed them.

 

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Starbucks' Customer Service vs. Product Quality Gamble

 

Starbucks on BriggateImage via Wikipedia

You may have read this past week about Starbucks corporate initiative to slow down their baristas and increase the time and attention given to making quality coffee concoctions.

Over time, Starbucks baristas have found ways to be more productive and efficient at making the world's frothy, morning wake-up call and moving customers quickly through the long queue.

One would think that efficiency and productivity would be rewarded by the folks at corporate, but the suits at Starbucks have decided that product quality trumps quick service.

Slow down. Focus on product quality. Let the customer wait.

The reaction of some Starbucks baristas was understandable incredulity. Making snobby coffee is all well and good. Everyone wants a great eye opener before they hit their desk in the morning. But, just how long are we willing to wait? Baristas seem to think that it's easy for the moguls in Seattle to dictate the new regs from their ivory tower because they aren't the ones standing across the counter from a long line of bleary eyed, surly customers in desperate need of their caffeine fix.

The real question mark in this equation is, of course, the customer. What does the customer want? Are we willing to stand in a longer line at Starbucks for a better latte? Will the improved quality really be worth the wait, or will it be noticeable at all? It's a gamble. Frustrated baristas, longer lines and impatient customers could send customers scrambling for the speedy competitor you can surely find just a half block away from most Starbucks.

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Walking the Leadership Talk

listen to ME!Image by Orange_Beard via Flickr

I've known Terry Starbucker since the beginning days of our blogging journies. Terry blogs his "Ramblings from a Glass Half-Full" about leadership, and he is one of those rare bloggers who is a continuous stream of great content that is forged in experience. From Bringing Joy to the Workplace to the Seven Deadly Sins of Leadership, Terry has great advice for anyone in a position of leadership.

I want to tell you about a lesson in leadership Terry taught me that you won't find on his blog.

Terry and I connected in the blogosphere, then we had the opportunity to meet in person. It was a great example of the fortuitous connections you make through social media. Terry happened to oversee two contact centers who handled sales and customer service functions for his employer. My group helps companies measure and improve customer satisfaction and customer service, especially service delivered in contact centers. The result was that I had the priviledge of working with Terry and his team.

It's one thing to read and listen to a leadership guru, but it's another thing to have the experience of working with the team that guru leads. It was an opportunity to see if Terry walked the talk, and I was not disappointed. The team under his leadership were among the best contact center professionals I've ever had the pleasure to work with. I observed in them:

  • a constant challenge to grow and develop professionally, both as individuals and as a team
  • a exceptional standard of conduct and professionalism rooted in high expectations
  • an attitude of service in which the leaders served their team well, all the way down the chain of command.

I'm constantly reminded that front-line service delivery is a reflection of the leadership and culture created in the executive suite. As I stand on my soap-box about service quality, I know that it's critical for me to walk the talk with my clients and colleagues. I'm constantly reminding myself to lead by example.

I'm grateful to have good examples, like Terry Starbucker, to follow.

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The Discount Airlines Get It

JetBlue aircraft parked at their gates.Image via Wikipedia

I've consistently said, "Lower prices aren't always what customers want."

Many companies blindly take the lower prices path, believing that customers will flock to them and remain loyal as long as they have the lowest price point in the market. They mistakenly believe that they can get away with providing poor service, or no service, because customers understand that they get what they pay for. What customers tend to want, however, is lower prices and service that is more than they expected.

An article this week in USA Today provides a great case study. The three airlines that rank highest in service were discount airlines: Jetblue, Southwest and Frontier. Customers have found that the lower priced airlines are also providing better service than their big competitors. In this case, travelers might expect less frills and a worse service experience on the cut-rate airlines, but the discount airlines are providing a cheaper ticket and service above what customers expect. For the larger airlines, the challenge is now even greater. How are they going to provide service for which customers are willing to pay a little extra when the low-cost competitor is already providing a higher level of service for less money?

Customers are often willing to pay a little more for a better service experience, but not if the competitor is already providing a better service experience for less!

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Plug-In Customer Service

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Several years ago I was a regular customer at Barnes & Noble's store on University. I would frequent the coffee shop, browse books and meet colleagues there. I spent a lot of time and money there while I was a loyal and frequent customer. One afternoon I was at a table with my laptop plugged in. One of the store's employees came by and made a show of unplugging my computer from the wall.

"We have to pay for the electricity! It's not yours!" she said in a chastising tone.

I packed up my laptop and didn't go back. I began frequenting places where I could get electricity with my coffee.

I was never sure if mine was an isolated incident by a disgruntled employee or a really poor corporate policy. After reading a recent article by Katherine Rosman's in the Wall Street Journal, I tend to think it's the latter. Rosman's article talked about the increasing need for people to plug-in their many gadgets. Some companies look at it as stealing or a safety issue while others look at it as a service opportunity. She relates the story of one business traveler who went to a department store and made a deal with the sales clerk. He bought an entire outfit if the clerk would let him plug in his phone.

Sometimes, good service is simply meeting a need other than what you're selling.

On Sept. 3, I attended the Central Iowa Bloggers get together at Panera on University in West Des Moines. There are always bloggers hanging out there (and buying coffee, pastries, breakfast, lunch, et cetera.

There are plenty of outlets.

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Service that Surprises

Be politeImage via Wikipedia

I've had two experiences in the past couple of weeks, which, together, have reminded me of a great customer service lesson.

First, I received a general e-mail that had been sent through our group's website. A gentlemen who our group worked with for a client project more than 15 years ago wanted to send greetings to our group's founder, Chuck Wenger. The client mentioned what an impression Chuck had made on him and mentioned a particular instance when a woman entered the meeting room and Chuck courteously stood to acknowledge her presence and welcome her to the meeting. "What a cool and respectful gentleman," the former client wrote.

Then, I zipped into Culver's the other night for a quick bite. I got up and headed to the soda fountain to refill my drink. There was a gaggle of teenagers around the machine who dispersed as I approached. One young man turned and almost ran into me. He stopped, smiled and said, "Excuse me, sir," before stepping aside to let me pass. It was such an unexpected, courteous gesture that it became a memorable experience for me. I told my wife and have thought of it a couple of times since.

Courtesy is a behavioral art form that has waned in recent generations. Many young people entering the workforce have not been taught to say "please" and "thank you." The act of showing deference to another person, politely excusing yourself, or expressing appreciation can become memorable service moments (that you remember 15 years later) because they are becoming more and more rare in the marketplace and in our culture as a whole.

We could all use a little courtesy and manners coaching. Surprising customers with the simple act of standing when they enter or saying "excuse me, sir" could be all it takes to make your company's service stand out in the crowd.

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What Do Customers Want: Resolution or Courtesy?

ChoresImage by David Reber's Hammer Photography via Flickr

I had a great e-mail from a reader last week. He asked a question I know many Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) struggle with. Working in a customer service contact center, he is held accountable to provide a fair measure of courtesies, or "soft skills," on every call. Yet, he's frustrated when he hears customers say, "You've been very nice, but you didn't really solve my problem."

Don't customers just want their problem resolved? "They don't care if we're nice. Customers just want resolution," I've heard many CSRs say.

Yes and no. Yes, customers want resolution. With years of experience measuring customer satisfaction across many different companies, I can tell you that resolution is usually the number one driver of customer satisfaction when they call a company's contact center. Resolution, however, is most often a "penalty variable" in the customers mind. In other words, the customer won't reward you for resolving his or her issue. It's simply what they expect. If you don't resolve it, however, they will penalize you.

I think of it in terms of my children doing their chores. I don't gush all over them because they did what they were expected to do: "Oh my dear child. You are wonderful! You are awesome! I can't praise you enough for taking out the trash!!" That's not how it works. Kids don't get rewarded for simply doing the menial chores expected of them. They will, however, be penalized (e.g. grounding, loss of privleges, etc.) if they fail to do them.

Courtesy and friendliness are usually other key drivers of customer satisfaction. Though generally not as important in the customer's mind, soft skills are typically a "reward variable." The nicer, more personable and friendly we are (not robotic, canned friendly, but conversationally friendly) the more the customer rewards us with increased satisfaction.

Leading companies usually understand that customer satisfaction and loyalty require a combination of resolving the customer's issue while serving up exemplary soft skills. Either one without the other is an opportunity missed.

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Selling Through Service; Serving Through Sales

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Our group will often perform third-party quality assessment projects (e.g. "Your call may be monitored for training purposes") for sales teams as well as service teams. There are a couple of lessons I've learned  about sales in the contact center over the past 16 years.

First of all, sales people and service people are generally different people. Great customer service representatives are usually those who like to fix things. They love solving peoples problems and are motivated by the emotional lift they get helping others out. Great sales people are motivated by competition, the hunt, the reward and the adrenaline rush of closing the sale. When you have a sales person in a primary service role or a service person in a primary sales role, you're going to have problems.

However, the other thing I've learned is that service people can learn to sell, and sales people can learn to serve. It's really a matter of motivation. Service people tend to sell when they are convinced that the product or service they are offering the customer could be a real benefit. Offering the add-on product or service is actually an additional way of serving the customer. With that motivation, a service person merely needs to learn the techniques of how to conversationally broach the subject with the customer at the appropriate time.

I've heard a lot of great sales people over the years. The best seem to understand that courteously and personably serving the customer is actually a viable means to increasing their sales. Customers tend to return to sales people and businesses with whom they feel they have a positive service relationship. When a sale person provides great service, the customer will generally respond over time with loyal, return business.

The sales person's motivation for serving may be different than the service person, but when they learn techniques of good service and understand how it will help their bottom line, they can usually be trained to do it well.

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Managing to the Rule and Not the Exceptions

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Any business that wants to deliver a consistent customer service experience must, at some point, define how they want to approach customers and then train their associates to deliver to that expectation. Satisfying the greatest number of customers means managing to the general rule of what your customers desire and expect when they walk into or call your establishment.

One of the most frustrating realities of customer service is that there are exceptions for every rule. For every eight people who appreciate you making sure you've answered all their questions before hanging up, there are always two who irritably growl (or think) "NO! If I needed anything else I'd TELL YOU!"

If you manage your service delivery to please the two, you're not going to satisfy the eight. While it's a lovely thought that we can please all the people all the time, it's simply not possible. Winning the customer satisfaction race is largely about having good intelligence about your customers (I mean all of your customers, not just the ones who like to play the follow-up survey sweepstakes). Not only do you need to understand the dimensions of service for which the the majority of customers will reward you, but you also need to understand the dimensions of service for which customers will penalize you.

Armed with this information, you go about building your service delivery system to satisfy the greatest number of customers knowing that there will always be exceptional customers to the rules you've set up.

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The Best and Worst in Customer Service

Each year, MSN Money releases its top 10 list of the best and worst in customer service. Here are this year's winners and losers.

The Hall of Shame

  1. AOL
  2. Bank of America
  3. Comcast
  4. Sprint/Nextel
  5. Capital One
  6. Dish Network

    An example of a Trader Joe's storefrontImage via Wikipedia

  7. Time Warner Cable
  8. Wells Fargo
  9. Citibank
  10. HSBC

The Hall of Fame

  1. Amazon
  2. Trader Joe's
  3. Netflix
  4. Apple
  5. FedEx
  6. Publix
  7. Southwest
  8. UPS
  9. Nordstrom
  10. Marriott

A couple of observations.

  • The "Hall of Shame" list is obviously dominated by large financial and home entertainment (cable/dish) companies. Do we have higher expectations of the companies with whom we depend on our daily financial and entertainment services?
  • I personally have been a customer of seven of the companies on the "worst" list. I am currently a customer of only one of the seven and have been considering dumping them because of my experiences. I find it interesting that I am a personal example of a customer who has chosen not to do business with six of these companies.
  • The "Hall of Fame" list is dominated by retail, shipping and travel companies. There is not a single financial institution or home entertainment company on the list. Once again, it begs the question if our expectations are different for those companies with whom we engage on occasion versus those with whom we depend for daily services.

 How do you react or respond to the list? What are your own experiences?

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All the (Business) World's a Stage

William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare via last.fm

One of the most difficult concepts to teach front line customer service representatives is that the job sometimes requires you to act. I may be having a string of bad luck, a difficult life, or a bad hair day, but my job is to serve the customer with a smile on my face and to give that customer my best (even if I don't feel like it).

Disney has made their concept of every employee being a "cast member" a legendary concept. Business, however, has had a difficult time translating the concept into the call center, the cubicle, or the local strip mall.

One of my associates is a great coach, and she regularly tells her charges that their shift in the customer service role is "the 9-to-5 show starring you!"

The reality is that all Customer Service Reps have much to learn from good actors:

  1. Voice-tone. Your voice is a tool and you can control the inflection, power and pace. A great CSR, like a great actor, knows how to control their voice to communicate effectively in a wide variety of circumstances.
  2. Focus. One of the disciplines of stage actors is the ability to maintain focus on their role despite a myriad of things that may happen beyond "the fourth wall." Audience laughter, heckling, crying babies and cell phones threaten to distract them at all times, but they focus on the task at hand. CSRs can equally be distracted by any number of things, but great CSRs focus on their customers and resolving the issue at hand.
  3. Discipline. Great acting takes discipline to memorize lines and blocking. Even the art of improvisation (though it seems like a contradiction) is a well-honed discipline which requires effort and practice. The same can be said of great customer service. Learning procedures, processes and how to improvise in difficult conversations requires time, attention, training and practice.

A few businesses have discovered that CSRs have much they can learn from actors. After all, "All the world's a stage (even the business world), and we are all merely actors in it."

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You Get What You Expect

{{mld |nl=Een icoontje van het icoon thema Cry...Image via Wikipedia

I have worked with a wide range of companies through the years. Large and small, good and not so good, I've tried to capture some simple principles that seem to hold true across all of them. One of those principles is that you get what you expect out of your front-line service providers.

I've witnessed companies who appear to expect that their people are unprofessional slackers who must be constantly monitored so that they can be caught when they make some gross mistake with a customer. Their expectations are low. Their hiring practices, pay scale and organizational structure all reflect the low expectations. The result is, as you might expect, service that is average at best.

Then I've watched companies who expect the best of their people. A high standard is set in professional behavior and service delivery. They set higher standards in their hiring practice, they pay well, they set goals, they educate and equip and they reward excellence while refusing to tolerate behaviors which fall short of the standard. The result is, as you might expect, service that exceeds.

What does you company expect? What do you expect? Are you serving to win, or serving not to lose?

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Obfuscating Customer Service Claims

87453332 Spin.

It's what we expect in the political world. Statistics are thrown around with little or no heed to the context or the source. As a friend of mine once told me, "83 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot." [cue rim shot]

But, of late I've been noticing how companies spin their claims of superior customer service. I've long held that many companies measure quality by making up a number on a report. I've had the opportunity to analyze really poor customer experience in the contact centers of companies who hype their customer satisfaction awards in the media. Statistical claims of superior service can be equally deceiving.

Take Sears product pick-up, for example. I've recently found myself going back to Sears to make some major purchases. They are doing a lot of things right, and I've been impressed with their employees both in the store and on the phone. I can tell that Sears is making an effort at delivering a great customer experience. Perhaps that's what my experience this week stand out.

I found myself at the Sears store on Merle Hay Road this past Tuesday. I'd picked up a partial order of patio furniture because it all wouldn't fit in my vehicle the previous day. "No problem," I'd been told, "we'll put your name on it and you can pick up the rest tomorrow. Just show us the receipt." So, I arrived and scanned my receipt in the kiosk. Nothing. The order had clearly been coded as having been picked-up in full the previous day. So, I entered my name into the kiosk to speak to an associate. In the twinkling of an eye my case showed "completed" on the kiosk status screen. Maybe a glitch. I entered it again. Immediately two other customers came in and scanned their receipts. Their cases appeared below mine on the screen. There were now three open cases for pick-up.

A couple of minutes later, an associate came out and called my name. I gave him my receipt and explained the situation with the partial pick up from the previous day. While he was out in the lobby, he also took the receipts of the two other waiting customers and disappeared into the back.

Suddenly, I looked at the kiosk status screen and noticed that all three of our open cases showed "completed," yet we all stood there waiting for our merchandise. The associate came out with the second customer's order and loaded it. He went back without a word as to why the customer who came in after me just received his merchandise before me. A few minutes later the associate came out with the third customer's order and loaded it. I'd now been standing there for somewhere around 10-15 minutes watching two customers who arrived after me get their merchandise while I was completely ignored. On his way back in, the associate finally stopped me and asked, "So, what was it you were picking up?"

It took another five minutes or so of waiting. All in all, I got my merchandise pick-up completed in somewhere around 20 to 25 minutes. While I was waiting by myself in those final minutes, I noticed the sign on the wall showing that 100 percent of customers had their merchandise pick-up "completed" in less than 5 minutes the previous week. Uh, right. I looked at the kiosk screen that showed my case had been "completed" in just over 3 minutes, but that was over 15 minutes before and I was still standing there. Obviously, Sears defines "completed" as an associate taking your receipt from you and walking into the back room.

I would argue that there is a gap between Sears' service claim and the reality of the customer's experience. But, hey, the statistic sure looks good on the wall (and on the report to corporate).

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Don't Make the Customer Work

A Vintage Sears Catalog Jewelry Page! - Free t...Image by HA! Designs - Artbyheather via Flickr

Last week, I was analyzing phone calls and I heard a very interesting exchange. A veteran Customer Service Representative (CSR) received a call from an existing customer looking for some technical information on a part they ordered from my client. Here is a paraphrased excerpt:

CSR: The information is in our catalog. Download it from our Web site.

Customer: I tried getting it off your Web site.

CSR: It's not on the website. Sorry. You have to download the catalog. It's in there.

Customer: Can you just get it for me and send me the information?

CSR: I'm not in a position to do it right now. Sorry.

Customer: Could you put me in your voicemail? I'll leave you my contact information and you can send it later.

CSR: (sighs impatiently) What's your number? I'll have someone call you.

Ouch.

Customers, in general, want two things: (1) They want their issue resolved and (2) they want us to care. If we don't resolve their issue or answer their question, the customer will penalize us in their dissatisfaction. In the conversation above, the customer sensed that the CSR didn't want to help her. She had already tried self-serving and it wasn't working for her. She was frustrated. That's why she called. The CSR insisting that the customer get the information only escalated the customer's frustration and rendered the CSR's insincere apologies profane.

It is common to find companies who ask their customers to do the work and serve themselves. It presents and opportunity for those willing to differentiate themselves by serving customers well.

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When Exceptions are the Rule

That's one special customerImage by mag3737 via Flickr

When it comes to customer service, you have to decide where customer service delivery lies in your overall branding and business strategy. Here are three examples:

  • Exceptional Service is an accident. This applies to the company who has no idea what their customers expect (they haven't asked), no idea what level of service they are providing (they haven't listened), and no real strategy for what customer service means to their brand, their customer or their loyalty. Our group recently finished a pilot project for a company who has branded themselves as the provider of quality products, but had not given much thought to their customers' experience calling the company. Results of a small customer satisfaction survey and corresponding Service Quality Assessment revealed that their customers were not happy with the level of service they received, and were more than willing to express that the service experience did not reflect the company's brand. When customers were getting good service it was because they were fortunate enough to get a good Customer Service Representative (CSR) on the phone.
  • Exceptional Service is an exception. This reflects a company who is committed to providing a minimal level of customer service. The masses can expect mediocrity that will typically not detract from, but certainly won't enhance, the average customer experience. If a customer has a problem and screams loud enough, the company will make an exception. Take a moment to read about and consider the experience of local blogger and PR Princess Claire Celsi with Dell Computers. After a long journey up the customer service escalation escalator, she sums up her observations to Dell's final response:

...there is no apology for the time I've wasted trying to get this situation fixed. And for good measure, they've let me know that making something right and trying to make a customer happy is not something they normally offer. [emphasis added]

  • Exceptional Service is the rule. There are certain companies who have opted to take the customer service high road, believing that consistently providing an exceptional customer service experience will differentiate them from their competitors. This makes me think of another client who, over the years, has invested in making sure their inside sales team and regional account managers are providing a consistent, exceptional service experience unmatched by any other company in their marketplace. They didn't start as a great service provider. They took the time to learn what their customers expected, measure what they were actually delivering, and set high expectations for their team. Their steady improvement and high standards have paid off. As a result they have been able outpace the competition, outperform sales projections, and maintain enviable margins throughout the recession while their competitors are going out of business.

My experience is that most company executives will speak about customer service being important to the company and to the brand because it is politically expedient to do so. Let's face it, few executives would have the guts to broadcast that customer service is really not high on their priority list. The proof of a company's commitment to customer service is in the hundreds, thousands, and millions of individual customer experiences that take place each day.

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