Customer Service

'Your Business Is Important to Us' (NOT)

MLBshop CaptureTom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

A month or so ago I ordered a clearance item from I have ordered things from the site in the past, though it had been a while. While checking out I entered my credit card number and billing address. I did not realize, however, that the shipping address on file was an old address. I honestly forgot about the order until a few weeks later when my package hadn't arrived. Tracking the item from the website I discovered that it had been rejected by the local post office for being a bad address and returned to the shipper.

Trying to find a phone number to call Customer Service was a veritable clicking adventure. I eventually tried chat, but after waiting far too long for a human being to answer the chat, I gave up and continued my clicking adventure until I found the customer service number. After some time in queue, I spoke to a pleasant young lady.

I've spent a quarter century in Customer Service, and I know that my problem was fairly simple. I hadn't updated the shipping address on my account. I simply asked for my address to be updated and the order resent. I was assured that it had been done and that I would receive an order confirmation in 1-2 days for the replacement order. I was also given $10 provisional credit for my trouble. Awesome. Just send me my order, please.

After 3-4 days I hadn't received anything. Customer Service was closed when I wanted to deal with it, so I decided to email through's customer service portal. My inquiry was very simple, but the portal wanted to continually send me back to Frequently Asked Questions to try to self-serve rather than actually send an email. I spent some time running the gantlet they required and fired off the email.

I received a response a few days later confirming the correct shipping address and saying that the order would be placed and I'd get a confirmation. Again. This time I did get the order confirmation and an expected delivery date.

The delivery date came and went, so I checked the tracking number. Once again, it had been rejected by the post office as an invalid address and sent back to 

When I finally called and got a hold of a CSR, I explained that I was really frustrated and told my entire sordid story. The young man on the phone patiently investigated the situation, placing me on multiple holds. He finally confirmed with me that the replacement order had been sent to my old address despite being told (twice) it was being sent to my correct address. He asked if I wanted a refund.

"No!" I said. Why would I descend through the seven rings of customer service hell you've put me through just to get a refund? I just wanted the item, I explained to him.

The young man said, "Oh you're in luck! There's ONE left. Let me add this to your cart (insert 15 second pause). Oh shoot. We missed it. The item is no longer available." At that point I questioned whether he was telling the truth, or was lying the whole time knowing that the item was no longer available. Don't know which is more painful.

"What about the one that was sent to me, rejected by the Post Office, and is being sent back to you?" I asked. 

"Well," he said. "I don't know. It may go back into stock, but maybe not. You'll just have to keep checking the website to see if it shows up there again."

Really? You can't flag that return with the carrier or the returns department to be re-shipped to me? Guess not.

To recap ...

I made one simple mistake in ordering: I forgot to change my ship-to address.

I put forth every (frustrating) effort to try and rectify the situation:

I tracked and self-served.
I tried to find the phone number.
I tried to chat.
I called once.
I emailed once.
I emailed a second time.
I tracked and self-served.
I called a second time. dropped the ball several times:

They said they had updated my ship-to address (they hadn't).
They said they would re-ship the order (they didn't).
They confirmed that they had my ship-to address correct (they didn't).
They said they finally re-shipped it to my new address (they didn't). did give me a total of $20 in provisional credit, which I didn't consider worth my effort, frustration and ultimate disappointment.

In all of the communication with me they repeated a standard phrase: "Your business is very important to us." I've learned in my years measuring customer satisfaction and service quality that mission statements, value statements and catchphrases are easy to copy and paste. What's difficult is delivering on the promise. Our customer satisfaction research regularly reveals some common key drivers of customer satisfaction: 

  • One contact resolution ( failed).
  • Ease in finding the phone number ( failed).
  • Correctness of answer ( failed).
  • Timeliness of follow-up ( succeeded with auto-replies, but failed in addressing the real issue).
  • Courtesy and friendliness ( had courteous CSRs who repeatedly failed me as a customer).

     (Note: Key drivers of customer satisfaction are variable depending on customer population.)

My experience as a customer of is that if things go right (which I'm sure they do most of the time), then you'll have a decent, if unremarkable experience. If things go wrong, then there are systemic problems with's service delivery system that may make communication and resolution frustrating. They may say my business is important to them, but not important enough to invest in the things that would truly satisfy me as a customer.

Customer service karma

- Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

Kauai Day 4 - 14Every once in a while I come across a businessperson who understands that there's a certain karma to customer service. I constantly hear customer service managers and representatives citing the Golden Rule as a foundational principle of customer service: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Treat customers the way you want to be treated as a customer. It's a great standard for all of us. It works.

There is however, a further principle that I occasionally hear customer service artisans cite. It's the "extra mile" principle:"If someone asks you to go one mile, go with them two." I don't hear this as often. It is a trickier principle. It requires discernment to hold the tension between "going the extra mile" and not "giving away the store." Those who do it well, however, know and experience the karma of customer service. Sometimes you have to give to receive. I recently met a businesswoman who knows this well.

I'm writing this post from Kauai, where I'm spending a little time on vacation with my wife. While preparing for our trip I had one thing I really wanted to do while in Kauai. I wanted to take my wife sailing on the ocean. I didn't want the commercial touristy sail excursion where they herd 50-100 people onto a giant vessel and pour pre-made Mai Tais from plastic pitchers as the "sailboat" is actually motoring along the coastline. I wanted to really go sailing on a small sailboat with a person who knows and loves sailing. So I started with a Google search.

As I scanned all of the common tourist sites I kept paging through, looking for someone who might help me find what I was looking for and wouldn't try to herd me into a prepackaged tour. Well down on the list of websites I found Kauai by Stephanie. Stephanie said right on her page that she wanted to help arrange what I wanted to do. So I emailed her with my challenge.

I had a reply within hours, and Stephanie made it very clear that my request was outside of what she could do business-wise. She is confined to working with all of the certified local tourist vendors, and there was no vendor who provided what I wanted. Having said that, she told me that she really wanted my wife and me to have the experience we desired. Despite saying that she would make no money on this deal, she said, "I'm working on it," adding "It will be my pleasure to help you have the experience you want." I asked Stephanie to go a mile for me. She offered to go two.

A few hours later Stephanie emailed me back with the name of a local who might be able help me. At that point, it was on me to make contact and negotiate a deal. Nevertheless, Stephanie even followed up with me after we'd arrived on the island to see how things were going. Long story short, my wife and I spent four hours on a 36-foot catamaran sailing through the ocean swells and watching the sun go down over the Na Pali coast. It was wonderful.

Stephanie went the extra mile for me. It wasn't business, it was her pleasure. And yet it was business. It was good business. Stephanie understands customer service karma. A few emails. A phone call. She simply took a few minutes of her time to connect me with the right person and to follow up. She went the extra mile, asking nothing in return. I have to believe that she trusts it will come back to her someday, in some way. And it will. That's the way the extra-mile principle works. I blogged about it on my personal blog. I've told others the story. I'm sharing it with you. That's word-of-mouth marketing.

If you're going to Kauai, give Stephanie a call. She'll do right by you.

Should public schools care about customer service?


Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

It's back-to-school season, and just the other day I met with administrators of my local school district. We've been having discussions over the summer with regard to the administrative assistants who answer phones in the schools' offices and greet visitors.

The superintendent told me that, for some time, he has wanted to find a way to equip these admins with customer service skills and to find a way to deliver a consistent, positive experience for their constituents across the district.

"These individuals are often the first impression of our school district for a parent or community member," he told me. "We want that impression to be a positive one."

As the conversation continued the other administrator added some color commentary.

"When you visit schools in other districts they will often tell you what schools they don't want you to visit," he explained. "It's often about the secretary or administrative assistant who runs the school office. They know that your experience with that person is going to make your visit a less than positive experience."

I'm excited to get to work on a small project with the district's key impression makers.

I walked away from this fascinating conversation with a few key take-aways about customer service:

  • Customer service is not just an issue for retail business. I'm so impressed with school administrators who are thinking strategically about the service experience of their constituents. So often we confine our thinking about customer service to classic retail and service industries. My experience over the years is that investment in service experience has the greatest impact in markets and sectors not traditionally known for caring about good customer service.
  • First impressions matter. I believe it was Dale Carnegie who made popular the phrase, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." For a new parent moving into a school district, that administrative assistant can make or break the parent's impression of the school district. Training and coaching on a few key service skills can make a huge difference in overall satisfaction with the school and the district.
  • Mission and value statements are useless without expectations and accountability. In my conversation with the district administrators I was informed that two of the three "pillars" that the district had defined were "pursuing excellence" and "building caring relationships." The administrator recognized that our project to define and implement a consistent service experience across the schools was simply acting on the values the district had already set as goals for themselves.

Are you in an industry or profession that isn't known for making customer service a high priority? Is so, you might find that it is the very thing that could set you apart from your competitors and build stronger levels of loyalty and retention from your customers or clients.

Customer satisfaction in a collections call

Money-1012598_960_720This morning my wife and I received a phone call from what I assume to be an early-stage collections representative of Wells Fargo bank.

My wife and I have been customers of Wells Fargo for many years. We've had different types of loans, mortgages, brokerage accounts, checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards and lines of credit with the institution. I've never had issues making payments in all my years. I have money in multiple cash accounts, and I have very good credit with them (and good credit in general).

As sometimes happens with human beings, I got busy while paying bills this month and simply overlooked a $26 payment that was due on one of our accounts. It was 10 days past due today, and thus we received the phone call.

The young man on the phone sounded tired and jaded as he went through his spiel. His tone made it sound as if my wife and I were on the brink of serious trouble and this was a matter of utmost urgency. He was short, subtly antagonistic, and pressed us to immediately deal with what he intimated to be our egregious financial error.

When told that we would certainly go online and make the payment immediately, he questioned our commitment and asked for assurances. It left my wife and me feeling harassed, belittled and unappreciated as good, long-term customers.

For many years my company has provided third party Quality Assessment (QA) for number of different financial institutions. I've monitored calls between past-due customers and many different collections teams from early stage to advanced late stage and even into litigation. Most of us take for granted the importance of monitoring and coaching customer service interactions, but the impact of interactions with customers in a collections situation can be even more crucial in their impact of customer satisfaction, loyalty and retention.

Three mistakes our friend from Wells Fargo made when he called us this morning:

  1. He didn't take (or his system didn't grant him) the time to consider the context of the situation. We were 10 days past due on a $26 payment, but a cursory review of our accounts would have told him that we had plenty of money to make the payment, have no history of being late, and have been long-term loyal customers. Rather than assuming we were deadbeats, he should have started out by thanking us for our business and offering that he was simply making a "courtesy" call.
  2. He made the situation out to be far more dire than it really was. Because the collections agent ignored #1, his tone and tactics were more sensational and threatening than they needed to be. He made a much bigger deal of the situation than necessary. He should have simply made a courteous request that we make the payment as soon as possible.
  3. He questioned our integrity. When given a promise to pay, the collections agent questioned the commitment and asked for reassurances. Once again, a loyal customer with no history of payment issues was made to feel accused of deceit. Instead of feeling good about our long-term relationship with Wells Fargo, we were left feeling like helpless victims of an uncaring corporate giant who cares little about us or our business.

Having worked in the world of customer satisfaction and QA for many years, I am well aware that what my wife and I experienced this morning was the (un)luck of the draw. Our number came up on the dialer for this one anonymous cog in a small army of collections agents. He may have been the negative exception to the generally positive rule. He may be one bad egg on a good early-collections team at Wells Fargo. Nevertheless, one interaction can cause irreparable damage to a loyal customer relationship.

Customer service that impacts customer satisfaction, customer loyalty and customer retention isn't just about the customer service team who address problems with a company's service delivery system. Customer service is also about those agents tasked with the critical, necessary interactions with customers who may have dropped the ball in the relationship.

How you handle those interactions can solidify or ruin a lifetime customer relationship.



Service: The differentiator

- Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

When it comes to differentiating your business in the minds of customers, there are three core opportunities. Branding and marketing may get customers to give you a try, but the best branding in the world does not ensure long-term success unless you consistently deliver something tangible to those customers that differentiates you from your competitors.

In general, you can compete on price, you can compete on product quality, or you can compete on service. In my career I've learned that the greatest opportunity to leverage service as a key differentiator lies in markets and industries that no one considers "service" industries.

Almost a quarter century ago my colleagues and I began working with a little known manufacturing company here in the Midwest. The company manufactures small components, often costing a fraction of a penny, that most people don't know exist. These little components are, however, used in everything electronic. When we began working with them there was growing global competition for the small-price/high-volume materials.

The founder of the company was a shrewd businessman. He knew that trying to be the lowest price provider in his market was a path to limited profitability. He realized that product quality would only get him so far in a market that often demanded material that was "good enough" for their applications.

And so, in a market rampant with poor customer service and crusty, hard-nosed B2B communication, the businessman decided he had an opportunity. He invested in providing service that no one in the industry could match. He constantly measured what his customers expected, then defined and delivered a service experience that exceeded customer expectations. At the same time, he consistently maintained slightly higher prices.

The cultural change required to provide great customer service was fraught with obstacles both internal and external. It took time, but the company slowly changed the way it communicated with customers, distributors and outside sales.

Our customer surveys over the years consistently revealed two things. First, customers were never happy with the company's higher prices. It was always their biggest complaint. Second, customer satisfaction with service was extremely high and measurably higher than any competitor.

During economic downturns customers took their business to Asia because the prices were lower, but time and time again the customers returned within months because they learned that it was worth paying a little more for a better service experience. This company picked up the phone, responded to email, communicated with courtesy, and provided a service experience that the competition couldn't match. They continue to successfully do it to this day.

Customer service is often compartmentalized in our minds to those businesses tapped as "service" or "hospitality" industries. The truth, however, is that customer service has the greatest potential to make a profitable difference in industries where it is least expected.

You get what you measure

- Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

Earlier this week I met with a newer client to deliver the results of a Service Quality Assessment we had conducted for their team of 11 Customer Service Representatives (CSRs). It was a unique situation. We had conducted an initial pilot assessment several months ago to establish benchmarks of how each agent was serving customers on phone calls. We prioritized service skills that needed improvement across the team and then trained the staff on these particular service skills.

The plan had been to immediately start an ongoing assessment so we could measure and track each agent's performance and improvement across 2016. Then came the telephone system conversion which delayed our ability to access recorded calls for about three months. We eventually were able to access recordings and went back to analyze calls over a two-month period after our initial training. It was the results of this catch up assessment that I presented to the client this week.

What was fascinating was to see that only two of the eleven agents had made significant improvements. Four agents had actually declined, two of them significantly. The other five had risen insignificantly. Despite the fact that the agents had been trained on the key service skills and provided with reminders and materials to support their learning, only two of eleven agents actually showed measurable improvement a few months later.

The results did not surprise me. Over the years I've learned that training alone will typically only make a difference for those few individuals who are personally motivated to improve themselves. When it comes to delivering customer service, most employees will simply communicate with customers however they naturally communicate unless they are held accountable for changing their behavior. When customer service skills are defined, coached, measured, reported, and rewarded, then employees respond and deliver.

Now that the ongoing assessment is rolling with our client, individual data will be reported monthly to each CSR and their manager(s). CSRs will receive regular coaching, data, and feedback. They will be able to see their progress and the company can build incentives and goals for reaching them.

With all of the fads and fancies which trend and fade in business these days, I've found that there are some things that will always be true because human nature doesn't change. I was reminded of one of those truths with my client presentation this week: You get what you measure.

A tale of two clients

Brainstorming- Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

Our group recently did a small, focused survey of customers for one business unit of a larger local company. The results revealed impressive levels of satisfaction with our client's service.

There were, nevertheless, a few key areas of opportunity unearthed by the data. I was sure that the client would be eager to tout the good results within their organization, but I was impressed to see that the client's first action was to organize a brainstorming session to figure out how they could improve. In the session they included team members, key players from the larger corporation, and a few customers themselves. It was truly the spirit of continuous improvement. They were happy to tout the good results, but they were more concerned with leveraging the data to push customer satisfaction even higher.

Contrast this story with another client company we worked with some time ago. A survey of their customers revealed good (but not great) levels of satisfaction with some glaring areas of dissatisfaction. Our subsequent assessment of calls between sales agents and customers revealed clear examples of exactly why customers were dissatisfied. The data provided our client with a very clear and detailed blueprint for turning things around. Some targeted training and coaching in specific sales and service skills would address areas of customer dissatisfaction and lead to improved performance, sales, and CSAT. The client, however, received the data with immediate denial ("this can't be right"), then embarrassment ("this is going to make me look bad"), and finally rejection as they buried the report which was never presented to anyone else in the organization.

One of the things I love most about my job is the opportunity to work with many different companies in different markets and industries. I have learned so many great lessons about life and business simply from observing clients on a daily basis. I have come to learn that the most successful companies not only pay lip service to continuous improvement but also exemplify it in the way they operate each and every day. By contrast, I've learned that many companies operate far below their ultimate potential because of an internal culture of fear. I've also observed that both of these contrasting corporate cultures seem representative of the attitudes that flow directly from the executive suite (but, that's another blog post for another day).

Why not make 2016 the year you do something with that data, customer feedback, survey results, and/or QA report? Numbers in a binder on the shelf, on your hard drive archive, or in the trash will profit you little. Leverage them, use them, and do something positive to move the needle on sales, service, and satisfaction!

When the survey is worthless (Part 2)

Checkmark- Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

How hard can it be to survey customers? It seems like such an easy thing. There are so many DIY websites out there. Ask a few questions, design the questionnaire and send it to the email list. The website will even calculate the responses for you.

DIY websites are great, and for many projects they are just perfect for the job. However, a company that needs information on which to make strategic or tactical business decisions, needs to be  careful. Many do-it-yourself surveys are enamored by the sheer numbers. Send out a survey to all your customers, offer a chance to win a gift card, and you're ecstatic to get 1,000 responses.  It seems like everything worked perfectly.

But it really didn't, and you had better be careful.

Let's say the 1,000 replies is 1 percent of the 100,000 customers to whom you e-mailed the survey. While it seems like 1,000 responses is a lot, the truth is that it's almost certain that those 1,000 customers are not representative of your entire customer population. You'll end up with good data about customers who are really happy, really angry, like to respond to e-mail surveys or who would really like to win a gift card, but it's almost a sure bet that they don't represent the other 99,000 customers as a whole.

Here in Iowa we are inundated with political polls leading up to next year's Iowa caucus and presidential election. On the news you'll see pollsters provide results for how America thinks by surveying a thousand or so people. It seems ludicrous to think that 1,000 people can provide an accurate picture of how a country of 300 million Americans are likely to vote if the election were held today. The truth is, they can. That's not to say that all polls are accurate, but if the survey is conducted properly you can actually get an accurate picture of how things are likely to shake out. But it has to be done properly by expert pollsters asking the right questions of a representative sample of likely voters. And that's where it gets complicated.

I am a firm believer in making strategic business decisions based on data. The data has to be accurate, however, or the decisions I make are worthless. Surveys are a great way to gather data, but be careful how you go about doing it. You may end up with a lot of impressive charts and graphs that have nothing to do with what your most important customers think.

When the survey is worthless (Part 1)

Car salesman- Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

It's happened every time I've purchased or leased a vehicle for the past 20 years. The auto industry are the worst culprits. It's happened to me with Ford, Saturn, Cadillac, Nissan, and Lincoln. The auto industry is not alone. It's happened in retail stores and restaurants. I'm sure it's happened to you.

The salesperson helping you out says something similar to this:

"In the next few days you're going to get a survey asking you about my service. It's really important to me to get all high marks. If I don't get all "5s" I can get in trouble and might even be fired. So, if you could help me out, I'd really appreciate it."

The last time this happened to me the salesman added: "The truth is my company doesn't really care what you think. They're just doing this to decide whether I get a bonus or not."

There are so many things wrong with these scenarios that it's difficult to know where to begin. The intention of the process is worthy. The company wants to base rewards and compensation based on actual customer experiences and satisfaction. The process, however, is deeply flawed and any data gathered by the surveys can't be trusted.

Once the salesperson or agent appeals to the customer's sympathies, the customer is strapped with an emotional burden that makes it nearly impossible to provide an objective answer.

Tempted to be honest, the customer starts to fill in something less than a "5" and then feels the weight of denying the poor saleswoman a bonus or getting her fired. Some will simply go through and give all "5s" just to "help the guy out" without giving any consideration to the questions. Now that the responses are not objective but emotionally biased towards the salesperson you've ensured that the results are neither honest nor representative. Even if a few honest people fill the surveys out objectively, there's no way you can trust any of the results to be an accurate, representative picture of what customers really think.

So why does it happen? It's a self-deceptive, feel-good win-win-win for three of the four players in the scene:

  • The company feels good about surveying customers and they can pretend that they really care about what the customer thinks. They feel good about all the high marks coming in for all their sales people. They delude themselves into thinking that customers are truly "very satisfied" and all the corporate training efforts are paying off. 
  • The salesperson feels good about getting a bonus, feels good about keeping the sales manager off his or her back, and deludes him/herself into believing that the results really show that he/she is doing a good job.
  • The survey vendor feels good about making a lot of money cranking out the surveys, feels good that the client feels good, feels good that the salespeople feel good, and generally everyone seems to feel good.

Who loses? The customer, who has been coerced into being a part of the self-deception and who wastes time participating in a survey that will truly not result in accurate data or a better sales/service experience.

There are much better ways to accurately gather customer data, objectively measure what customers think, and trust data that can help move the needle on the customer experience. Unfortunately, I don't believe we'll see the automotive industry (and others) abandoning their "feel good" survey models any time soon. 

When approached by a salesperson to "help them out" with a survey I immediately choose out of participating in a process that provides worthless data and ultimately does nothing to truly enhance the customer experience.

Customer service chat done right

 chat icon

- Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

I've been blogging for almost a decade both personally and professionally, and have published on at least three different blog platforms over the past 10 years. I'm savvy enough to be dangerous and can troubleshoot most basic problems, but there are times when I simply don't have the expertise to figure things out.

I've recently been doing some major rework to my personal blog which is on Wordpress. They utilize a chat service for premium users and over the past couple of months I have utilized chat to get pesky problems remedied and some sage advice on things I was trying to do.

Chat as a customer service tool has been around a long time, but the use of chat compared to voice and e-mail has been relatively small. That seems to be changing with the times as more and more users get used to it. My personal take is that chat customer service has become increasingly popular as mobile texting has grown to become the communication medium of choice for the coming generations.

I realized last week that I was extremely satisfied with the customer service chats I've had with Wordpress, and am increasingly willing to use the service for the most basic of questions that might strike me as I'm blogging.

Here are a couple of things they do well:

  • Real conversation. Many of the chats I've had with businesses in the past seem to be with agents for whom English is a second language as they clumsily switch between cut and paste answers and poor communication that are rife with spelling and grammatical errors. My experience with Wordpress has been that I've had actual, articulate, interpersonal chat conversations with knowledgable agents who express themselves clearly and well.
  • Focused Attention. Another age-old frustration with chat is that agents are sometimes carrying on multiple chats at the same time, so there's this lag time between responses in which you wonder if they've abandoned you. I always get the sense with Wordpress chat agents that they are totally focused on helping me. If they are going to take a few minutes to investigate and respond, they generally tell me ahead of time so that I'm prepared for the delay.
  • Expedience. The agents at Wordpress always have quick access to my site, can see what I'm doing or trying to do, and I never have to waste a lot of time providing them with account, site, or profile information before we get to the actual issue at hand.
  • Positive Attitude. One of the difficult things to do in chat is to convey a sense of courtesy and positive attitude. Voice allows for intonation and inflection, but text is a more difficult medium to quickly establish a feeling of rapport. Wordpress chat agents always greet me personally, phrase themselves courteously, and convey a willingness to serve in the way they welcome me to come back to them with any other questions or needs I might have. On occasion the agents have complimented my blog or acknowledged my years of regular posting, which they didn't have to do.

Many companies have tried and have given up on chat as a medium of Customer Service communication, and my previous experiences have led me to be thankful that companies have done so. Wordpress has changed my attitude. If more companies can do customer service chat with that level of quality and professionalism, then I believe that we will see some companies using chat as a key differentiator and a contributor to customer satisfaction and loyalty. 

Local group for customer service professionals

Ncsa logo- Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

As a customer service professional in the Des Moines area, I have found few ongoing opportunities for networking and professional development over the years. The past few years a local group has been developing and I've enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of it. Originally part of the International Customer Service Association, the quarterly group met mostly at Homesteaders Life in West Des Moines for lunch, networking and professional presentations on various relevant topics.

Last year the group voted to switch their affiliation to become the Central Iowa chapter of the National Customer Service Association (NCSA) and have been mixing it up location-wise. Farmer's Mutual Rain and Hail have hosted the past few quarters. Topics have ranged from local interest to professional development. I had the privilege of addressing the group this past week at the quarterly meeting hosted by Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. We discussed emerging trends in Customer Experience research and Quality Assessment.

The mix of members has been growing. While many of the golden circle's larger employers are represented, I've been pleased to meet customer service professionals from some very interesting small to mid-sized companies around central Iowa. The NCSA Board has made a real effort to allow for members to mix, network, share best practices, as well as to learn about local resources.

The Central Iowa Chapter of the NCSA has a website and a Facebook page with information about upcoming meetings. There is an annual membership fee which covers lunch at the quarterly meetings. Both individual and corporate memberships are available. If you're involved in customer service, this quarterly gathering could be a beneficial opportunity to be sharpened by fellow professionals and meet others in the field who can help you improve your serve.

Placing customers on hold without diminishing satisfaction

115111335_81f2613f6b_zCustomers don't like to be placed on hold. This is true.

With twenty years experience measuring customer satisfaction and expectations, I have the data to prove it to you. In general, a customers' ideal would be for a human being to answer the phone on the first ring and resolve all their questions or issues in one quick phone call without having to be placed on hold or transferred.

But, the ideal rarely happens in customer service operations. That's why it is an ideal.

I have had some clients who have reacted to the fact "customers don't like to be placed on hold" by forbidding use of the hold button. For some reason, I find agents who seem to equate use of the hold button with contracting the ebola virus. So let's be clear: Not using the hold button can be just as detrimental, if not more so, than actually placing a customer on hold.

Customers may not like to be placed on hold, but they also don't want to listen to dead air, background noise of your office (including office chit-chat that may not be appropriate), or your employees fumbling around looking for answers.

When done well, using good Hold Etiquette, placing customers on hold will have negligible detriment to customer satisfaction:

  1. Ask permission to place the customer on hold and wait for a response. Some customers may not want to be placed on hold. Giving them the option is always a win. If they choose not to be placed on hold, offer a call back or prepare them that there may be a few minutes of silence. Beware of the "ask/tell" method in which you ask if the caller can hold, but then hit the hold button before they have a chance to answer.
  2. Be aware of the time. One of the reasons customers don't like holds is when they feel as if they've been abandoned to customer service purgatory. There is a magic rule of three minutes. Any longer and you should be checking back to see if they want to keep holding or receive a call back (see below). Let customers decide what works best for them.
  3. Return with gratitude and empathy. Courteously expressing your gratitude for the time the customer was waiting and apologizing for the wait acknowledges customers' inconvenience and communicates a sense of care and concern for their time.
  4. Avoid multiple holds. The other pet peeve of customers is when they are placed on hold over and over and over again. Offering to call the customer back, providing a time frame when they can expect to hear from you, and then making good on your promise (even if it's to provide a status update) is preferable to continuously placing the caller on hold.

If you consistently follow these general guidelines your team can use the hold button without raising customer dissatisfaction.

(photo source: 60576602@N00 via Flickr)

Best practices vs. customer expectations

Wherever I go in the corporate world these days, everyone loves talking about "best practices." I will admit that they are great buzzwords, and there is certainly nothing wrong with trying to learn lessons from what others in your industry are doing.

Experience has taught me, however, that smart companies learn to discern the key differences between industry standards and their own customers' satisfaction.

Take one of our clients for example, a financial institution, who sent their customer service management team to a industry conference for customer service contact centers. The goal was to learn "best practices" and assess how they were doing against industry standards.

At the conference they learned that the industry "best practice" was to keep abandon rates (the percentage of customers who abandon the phone call while waiting in queue to speak with a live agent) in the 5-8% range.

The management team was mortified because their abandon rates were significantly higher. They returned from the conference embarrassed and determined to lower their abandon rates to acceptable levels of the industry best practice peer pressure.

Returning from the conference, the management team worked with the executive team to outline a major corporate strategy to lower their abandon rates. The strategy included systems upgrades, new software, increased staffing levels, and longer hours of operation. The price tag for all of it was easily into six-figures and would quickly add up into seven-figures over time.

Before the strategy was implemented, however, the company wisely surveyed their customers to find out if long queue times were as big a concern to them as they were to the industry.

Data revealed that this particular company's customers were an anomaly (or perhaps no one else in the industry bothered to ask their customers).

This company's customers tended to call on their cell phones periodically during the day and if they were put on hold for more than a minute they would hang up, shrug it off, and call back.

The abandon rate had an insignificant effect on overall customer satisfaction. The customers were far more concerned with what happened on the call when they actually got through to a live person.

In the end, this company abandoned their big ticket plans to meet industry best practices and funneled the earmarked resources into quality assessments, coaching, and training that would improve the customer experience within the actual phone calls.

The result? Their abandon rate metrics continue to make them look like industry lackeys, but their customers were increasingly satisfied and loyal.

Wise business leaders beware! Make sure that chasing after industry best practices doesn't leave you abandoning the things your customers truly care about.

It's not the response, It's the follow-through

San-antonio-robberySometimes the quality of customer service is revealed by the little things we repeatedly do. Back in January I wrote a blog post here at IowaBiz. I bemoaned the fact that years of being a regular guest at two specific hotel locations had not resulted in being greeted as a regular guest. Instead, I was always asked the "Have you ever stayed with us before?" question which seemed insulting after about the 50th stay.

Shortly after writing that blog post I visited one of the two locations I cited, the @Courtyardhotels by @Marriott on Broadway in San Antonio, TX. To my surprise, the young man who checked me in (as he had multiple times before) welcomed me with a "welcome back!" As a customer service consultant and specialist who had just written a post about this small customer service detail, I was surprised, impressed and optimistic about this positive turn of events.

Sometimes, however, the quality of customer service is revealed by those exceptional situations when things go horribly wrong. That very night, my hotel room was robbed.

I was staying in an interior courtyard room on the first floor. While I was away at dinner a thief or thieves broke the plate glass patio door, absconded with electronics gear and training materials worth in the neighborhood of $5,000 and escaped without ever being seen on the hotel's security cameras. Both my personal and work computers were taken along with iPad, training gear, and an external hard drive with my entire personal photo library. In over 20 years of business travel and consulting, I have never experienced anything like this. It was a customer service nightmare.

So, how did the staff of the Courtyard Inn do?

Initially, this horrific violation was handled as well as I could have ever expected. When realizing that the break-in had occurred, the staff called the police and notified the assistant General Manager on duty who handled things with empathy and professionalism. I was moved to the nicest room they had available and told that they would take care of anything I needed. They even offered to get me anything I wanted to drink or something to eat. My tweet about the experience received immediate response from the corporate social media team. I was treated with deference and the staff went out of their way to take good care of me that night.

Because of the loss, I had to scuttle my customer service training with the client that week I returned home to file my claims and reschedule things with my client. At that point, I felt pretty good about Marriott's handling of the catastrophe.

When I rescheduled my training visit just two weeks later, I considered staying at a different hotel. Most of my friends and colleagues encouraged me to do so. I decided, however, to reward the folks at the Courtyard Inn with some loyalty. I was also curious to see how they would follow through. I phoned the assistant general manager days before my trip to let him know I was coming and that I would like to meet with him to be updated on the investigation of the break in. I received no response.

When checking in mid-day, I was not remembered or recognized. I asked for the assistant general manager by name and was told "he's no longer here," giving me the impression that he'd left or been let go. I explained what had happened two weeks earlier and said I'd like to talk to someone to check in on the investigation and to see if they'd learned anything about what happened. I was told that the general manager was on-site and would contact me. I heard nothing all afternoon.

I checked at the desk late that afternoon with one of the clerks who had been so kind and empathetic to me just a few weeks earlier. She obviously didn't remember me. I reminded her of the experience and she seemed to remember me...maybe. I asked why I'd not been contacted by the general manager as promised. I was told that he/she had left for the day but the clerk said she would send an e-mail right away. I was assured that the general manager would get the e-mail and I could expect to receive a prompt response. I heard nothing.

I checked out two days later without ever receiving so much as a message from the general manager. Later the day after checking out I finally received a quick voice-mail from the assistant general manager (I guess he was still employed there) who said he was returning my contact. I was already hundreds of miles away and checked into another hotel. I was not impressed.

I returned from my trip to find that my Marriott credit card had been charged for my room the night of the break in and for the coffee I'd gotten at the hotel Bistro the following morning. It seems the hotel's promise to take care of "anything I needed" was only limited to a snack or beverages the hour or two immediately after the robbery was discovered. I must assume that they felt adequately generous putting me in the empty one-room suite they had available at the price of my robbed king-suite. 

One of the things I have always taught my clients is that customers tend to remember the last impression you give them. The Courtyard Inn in San Antonio, and the folks on the corporate social media team initially impressed me with their empathy and responsiveness. In fact, it earned my loyalty and a return stay. It is the lack of follow-through and the last impression that sticks with me, however. Broken promises, lack of communication, and getting stiffed for a room that was robbed.

 What kind of last impression is your team making?

How many people does it take to put in a floor outlet?

Floor OutletMy wife and I are just over one week away from moving into our newly constructed house. The final week is a flurry of activity, and this morning I spent in inordinate amount of time dealing with the small detail of floor outlets that were to be installed in two different rooms. Because we both work from home, my wife and I wanted the ability to wire both electricity and the internet to our desks in the middle of the home offices. It seemed a simple enough request.

How many people does it take to install a floor outlet? Here's what I've learned:

  • General contractor #1 who oversaw the planning, design and rough work
  • The electrician responsible for wiring the electricity
  • The salesman from the A/V and security store who sold us the wiring install
  • AV installer #1 who roughed in the computer wiring to the floor outlets
  • AV installer #2 who was to do the finish work of installing the outlets
  • General contactor #2 who was to oversee the final install

This morning I was discussing the floor outlet with AV installer #2 told me that there were to be two different outlets, one for the electric and one for the Cat5 internet cables, which baffled me because my wife and I had remembered always talking in terms of one outlet for all the inputs. AV installer #2 insisted that this was not the case and even went to the truck to get the actual floor outlet to show me. He pulled, however, a single outlet box from its wrapping that had both electric and Cat5 inputs.

"Huh," he said, "I've never seen one of these before." Great.

Then I discovered that the electric box, installed by the electrician, and the CAT5 wires run by A/V Installer #1 had been run to two different locations, inches apart, in the other office. I called in general contractor #2 to show him the single outlet we wanted and to discuss that fact the wires weren't going to the same place in the finished hardwood floor, which meant he would likely have to tear into the floor to move the wires. There ensued a conversation which, I've learned, comes up a lot in the home construction process: "How did we get here?"

Let me recap the dots I connected:

  • General contractor #1 thought we the homeowners covered all these details with...
  • the A/V salesman who didn't seem to communicate all the details with...
  • A/V installer #1 who ran the wires to a different place in the floor since...
  • The electrician had already put an electric box in the floor because...
  • General contractor #1 hadn't said anything to him about anything different, and...
  • General contractor #1 thought that the A/V salesman had that covered, but...
  • The homeowner realized that something was awry, asking...
  • A/V installer #2 who thought we were installing two different boxes, only to find...
  • A/V salesman had given him a single outlet he'd never seen, not knowing that...
  • A/V installer #1 had roughed in wires for two boxes in that one office since...
  • The electrician already had a box in the floor there, meaning...
  • General contractor #2 had to figure out how to fix it, then asking...
  • the homeowner if he knew how much that single box cost, which...
  • I didn't because no one talked to me about it or gave me any options.

I have learned over the years through service quality assessments with many different companies in many different industries that virtually every customer service problem is rooted in a communication issue. It might be no communication or miscommunication, or a combination of both. It might be a communication lapse between customer and salesperson, salesperson and operations, operations and delivery, delivery and customer, customer and customer service, or a combination of all.

If you can identify and address where your communication breakdowns routinely occur, you can eliminate a lot of customer service problems and the resulting customer frustration.

By the way, despite all of the momentary frustration and within a short period of time we had two very beautiful (and very expensive) floor outlets installed and they look great.

Thank you to all parties involved.

Five ways to communicate your way to success in 2015

Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

Along my customer service journey I have had the opportunity to work with numerous businesses, small and large, from a diverse array of market spaces. One of the most fascinating discoveries for me was finding tremendous commonality in my clients’ customer service struggles. I’ve come to understand that most customer service problems are rooted in communication problems. Lack of communication, miscommunication, and poor communication within an organization are the foundation for poor customer experiences.

As we look ahead to a new year, here are five great suggestions for communication resolutions just might revolutionize your coming year:

Listen to your customer. The forgotten part of successful communication is choosing to listen to and hear the other party. Over the years I’ve been amazed at the number of executives, small business owners, and entrepreneurs who have never actually listened to their customers. What do they like about what you’re providing or doing for them? What irritates them? What is it that they really care about? Stop trusting your gut and take steps to investigate your customers’ hearts and minds.

Talk to other departments. One of the most common sources of a customer service crisis is lack of internal communication. The Customer Service queue blows up with irate online customers and the contact center isn’t staffed to handle it because no one in Operations thought to tell their colleagues that the company’s servers would be down for a system upgrade that day. As you ramp up your projects for 2015, make sure you add an action item to consider all the other departments your project will affect and bring them into the loop sooner rather than later.

Have a conversation with your team members. Whenever our group has done employee satisfaction surveys for clients, the results almost always show that employees want more time and communication with managers. Confession: Just the other day one of my own team members made an honest, direct plea to me for more consistent communication. Ouch. This one is back on top of my own list of goals for 2015.

Listen to the truth. A few years ago our sales quality assessment revealed that my client’s sales team was not making their required sales calls. Preferring to sit and wait for their phones to ring, a number of individuals on the sales team appeared to be padding their call reports with non-existent sales calls. Business had been brisk enough that sales were up and no one really took notice until we shed light on the situation. In a classic CYA protocol, the sales manager told me to deep-six the report and not reveal the results to anyone. I tried to convince him that his best move was to accept the findings for the revelation that they truly were, take full responsibility for the situation revealed in the report, and provide the detailed action plan we’d provided for remedying the situation. He chose to bury the report, and his career.

Say “Thank you.” Our culture is speeding up, technology is speeding up, and our communication methods are becoming faster and more truncated. One of my own personal observations is that we are losing the common courtesy of saying thank you. The “thank you” note seems to have become extinct with snail mail. A common social etiquette hasn’t consistently caught up in electronic form. Yet our research shows that customers still value simple courtesies. Don’t forget to honestly thank your customers. Don’t forget to express gratitude to your employer, your employees, or your team members (Oh, and don’t forget your family). A little goes a long way.

Here’s to a great, more communicative 2015!

"Have you ever stayed with us before?"

Magritte_TheSonOfManTom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

Every other month I trek up to the Twin Cities to work with one of our clients. Every time I make the trip I stay at the AmericInn in Chanhassen where my client has a corporate rate set up. I have been staying at this hotel four to eight times a year, two to three nights at a time, for well over a decade. To this day, each time I call to make my reservation and each time I check in I am asked the question, "Have you ever stayed with us before?"

At least once a quarter for almost 10 years I fly to San Antonio and stay at the Courtyard Inn by Marriott on Broadway. I stay two to three nights each trip like clockwork, and yet each time I check in I am asked the question, "Have you ever stayed with us before?"

For over 20 years I've been measuring, coaching, and training on the art of customer service and I'm ceaselessly amazed at how the most essential customer service truths are actually quite simple.

One of them I call the "'Cheers' Principle." This comes from the lyric of the theme song of the popular '80s sitcom which states, "You want to go where everybody knows your name."

Every time I go back to the familiar hotels it feels a bit like a "home away from home" for me. I've even told the clerks this when I check in. I know this hotel. I've stayed here countless times. How nice it would be to feel welcomed in such a way: "Welcome back, Mr. Vander Well. We haven't seen you in a few months!"

Instead, with the repeated phrase "Have you ever stayed with us before?" they say to me "We don't remember you." And with that, I am reminded that I am just another business traveler. I am Magritte's "Son of Man," the faceless businessman in my bowler checking in. My repeated business over the years means nothing to them. Their smiles and stock phrases suddenly mean very little. If you really cared then you'd remember I was just here a few weeks ago.

I'm amazed that the hospitality industry hasn't figure this out by now. Why doesn't my rewards number and customer profile tell the desk clerk the last time I was at the property and how many times I've stayed there over the years? How simple would that be to prompt a "Welcome back!" rather than a "Have you stayed here before?"

Another essential customer service principle that is actually quite simple is this: the difference between "good" and "great" is in the details. So far, I have yet to stay at a hotel that has consistently gotten this little detail right.

Techno-data-lust: A fresh perspective

Tom Vander Well, executive vice president of c wenger group, is a recognized customer service authority in the contact center industry.

For the past year or two I have been on a self-imposed hiatus from the business blogging world. I took the hiatus for a number of reasons, but chief among them was a desire to step back, look around, and get some perspective on a rapidly changing marketplace.

One of the largest trends I've seen in recent years is what I like to call techno-data-lust.

For over twenty years I've been involved in the contact center industry, and I have attended my share of mega-global-exposition-conferences. I've even been asked to speak at a few of them. Even in conferences and workshops that are about serving customers, I began to notice a trend. Big technology firms drive the conference. They pay for the conference with their sponsorship and effectively purchase the keynote sessions to hawk their latest suite of bolted-together software telephony package which they promise will increase productivity, improve customer satisfaction, tell you anything you ever wanted to know about your customers, and provide enough big data to make Edward Snowden blush in his Russian dacha.

Then, each week I step into a client's office and watch the trickle down effect of techno-data-lust:

  • IT departments become the tail that wags the corporate dog as they have the power to procure, install, configure, and roll-out the technology.
  • Operations find that the really cool technology creates as many obstacles as it does solutions in serving customers in moments of truth when the customer reaches out for help.
  • Customers wait 14 minutes while it takes two agents to locate a tracking number in the cool, new, state-of-the-art system (I actually analyzed that call).
  • The voice-analysis software that was going to replace the QA department and provide much better results than actually listening to calls becomes a quagmire. Instead of listening to calls and coaching agents the FTEs spend their days programming searches, key words, and inquiries and then weed through a plethora of false positives. When I talked to my client a year after implementation they were still trying to make it work. "It cost so much money," the mantra went, "we have to use it."
  • Managers often get a ton of data out of the system. They just don't have time to sort through the gigabytes of it and find anything useful. I love it when I ask for a simple list of customers who called the previous day with their contact information, and receive blank looks and the scratching of heads.
  • You know that really cool feature the salesman told you about in the presentation? That's actually not part of the basic suite you purchased, but for an additional $10,000 they can turn that feature on.
  • Oh, and by the way, the state-of-the-art software you just implemented is already obsolete. You should see the new technology they introduced at last week's expo in Las Vegas!

Please don't read what I'm not typing. My hiatus has given me fresh perspective, but I'm no David Thoreau (though I find sitting, unplugged, by the lake a good thing). I'm not advocating abandoning the world and all that technology can do for us.

I am, however, advocating that we admit that technology can't do everything for us. Technology is a tool, not an answer. Sometimes we spend so much time chasing after the latest technology that we miss the bus.

At the end of the day, I find that our greatest need is a human one. We need people to communicate, work together, and utilize our human gifts, intelligence, and creativity to connect vision with implementation, problems with solutions, and customers with exceptional products/services. I'm finding that clients who learn to moderate their techno-data-lust are healthier that the ones who try to satiate it.

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 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.


- 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

Jumping Brain by Emilio GarciaImage by "lapolab" via Flickr

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
  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?

Nike shoes.Image via Wikipedia

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?

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