Being personal

Customer service is a person-to-person interaction.  Computers have a hard time resolving problems and that is why when we are faced by the dreaded robotic answer tree we get more upset.  People can respond immediately, not only because they are thinking about what we are saying but because they are able to pick up cues from our voice, our tone  and put it all together.

The more personalized your customer service is, the happier your customers will be. As Aileen Bennett discussed in her article “Customer service should be more personalized“on TheAdvertiser.com, a bit of personal attention can go a long way.  Bennett says the following:

It’s amazing how these days a little bit of customer service that seems personal rather than corporate can really stand out. I understand that policies need to be put in place, and as companies get larger, they are even more important. But there must be a way to still let people be themselves — to use their personality.

I don’t want to feel as though I’m a generic customer, a number or a statistic. I want more, and I notice when I get it.

On the subject of personalization and customer service, many companies think the answer is social media. While social media certainly allows for more immediate response, it may not be the cure-all many think it is. Bridget Carey writing in the Miami Herald says:

Our weekly column strives to help the business community practice good online etiquette and use social media effectively. But when you just hear about good business examples from Twitter, it can give a false impression that Twitter alone can save your sales numbers.

The truth is, balance between real world and online solutions is key.

In effect, what Carey is arguing is that although Twitter can help, having people to handle customers directly can be more helpful in the long run.

Customer service IS about people. No sense forgetting that.

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Response time

How quickly do you respond to your customers? Right away? As soon as possible?Not at all? Many businesses lose sight of the importance of responding, and responding in a timely manner.

The worst case in response time is no response. If a business does not reply or acknowledge customer contact, it most certainly will have a negative outcome.  Over on the Small Business CEO blog, the post “Ignoring Customer? Bad Idea” says it all:

I have had negative experiences like this before.  You contact someone via their own custom contact form and then you never hear back from them.  At that point, they’ve lost my business instantly.

Ignoring emails and correspondence gives the impression that if they can’t handle contact requests, then how do they handle customer orders?  It immediately puts a sour taste in people’s mouths.

Ignoring customers is never an option. It communicates extreme lack of interest or disorganization. Better to send a response that says we are looking into it than no response at all. The bottom line is that you must acknowledge customer response.

Speed of response is also indicative of your customer service commitment. Very few people would expect instant response, you should never allow more than 24 hours before responding. Recently, we contacted a vendor about an order and did not receive a response for more than a day. By the time the response came, we had already received the information we needed from other sources, and had also decided that the vendor was not responsive enough.

It would be wise to set a policy for response, and indicate so on your customer contact form. You can have a line that says something like this:  We respond to all customer care issues within (establish time frame). If you require an immediate response, please contact (insert a phone number).

How do you handle response time?

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Bad service equals lost revenue

We have discussed this before on Regard ARMA: giving bad customer service has a cost. We know it turns away customers, and makes them not buy from a company again. Further, it has the added “bonus” of spreading negative feedback about the company.  One customer has many associates (business partners, friends, family). So the damage from a bad customer service interaction is exponential.

As is reported by Jan Norman this article from the Orange County RegisterGenesys has quantified the monetary damage caused by bad customer service at $83 billion a year.  That is a staggering number!

Norman writes that:

In the United States, 71% of consumers have stopped doing business with a company because of a poor customer service experience. Each lost customer costs a business, on average, $289 a year.

This means that more than two-thirds of consumers make business decisions based on customer service.

Each business is losing on average of nearly $300 from each customer, and as we mentioned above, each customer should be multiplied by the number of associates he/she influences.  This number can add up quickly depending on how upset each customer is and how many people regard him/her as an information source.

It seems obvious then that businesses should keep revenue in mind when they make customer service decisions. If there is money to be lost for each poor customer service interaction, the obverse is true too–there is money to be made from positive customer service.

It always helps to look at the numbers.

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Is retail customer service getting worse?

There are different types of customer service.  ARMA, for instance, is involved in a business-to-business customer service, where we strive to make sure our clients are getting the support they need, so that they in turn can serve their customers. Most people are exposed to business-to-consumer customer service.  As we have discussed here before, this type of customer service can actually make or break a customer relationship.

A new study by Emphatica, Inc. shows that 55% of  Canadian and American customers feel that customer service at retail outlets has gotten worse. The study is revealed in this article on Chain Leader, a trade publication. What is interesting is that because of the recession, customers are spending less money but are expecting better service.

One interesting item in the study found that  in the restaurant trade:

The data also revealed that customer service is so important to U.S. consumers, that one in five respondents said they value good customer service over good food.

Furthermore, bad service DAMAGED the restaurant’s brand perception:

The survey found that those who receive poor service — even at a restaurant they’ve been to several times –can cause huge damage to a brand. One in four U.S. consumers stated they would tell others not to go there in addition to never going again.

It is hard to say whether customer service in retail has gotten worse if we also know expectations are higher. Perhaps customer service has remained constant, and people, who have been getting more careful with their spending, are being more judicious in where and how they spend it. What do you think?

Cost and customer service

How much does it cost to provide service to your customers?  Actually, the answer is it depends. It certainly costs time, and effort. But does it cost money?  Again, it varies.

Big organizations have customer service departments, with hundreds of employees set to assist customers. These departments cost lots of money to maintain, but as anyone who has had a bad customer service experience can attest, they also help you preserve money.

The return on investment (ROI) on customer service is quite large. Satisfied customers tend to be repeat customers. And if those customers never make a purchase from you again, there is still substantial ROI in positive experience, which helps company image. There could also be positive word of mouth.

Smaller organizations probably handle customer service directly. For instance, at a mom and pop shop, the customer that has an issue will most likely speak to the owner and the owner will take care of the situation. Here the cost is not dollars but rather time and effort. But again, the ROI is well worth it to make sure a customer is satisfied.

Columnist Jan Kantor addresses setting up a customer service strategy in his Naples News column on February 15.  As Kantor writes:

Giving great service to your customers is your key competitive advantage. Therefore, you need to find the best ways to meet customer needs and expectations. Think about it. What does great customer service cost in dollars? Very little. Creating a customer service-oriented company is a matter of focus and attitude.

Is there too much cost for customer service in your view? Or is it always worth the ROI?

Daily practice

Customer service is akin to exercise, the more you do it the better it is for you (and for your customer). And, as David Evans, chairman of the Grass Roots group, says, customer service should be practiced every day. Evans, who is interviewed in the article Customer Service to be Practiced Every Day, in the U.K.’s Economic Times,  concludes the following:

a consistently well-delivered product or service at good value goes much further than programs that focus on retaining customers with “bribery.”

To Evans, customer loyalty programs are the “bribery.”  The article says that Evans:

doesn’t care for loyalty cards and says price-driven loyalty is often the lowest form of loyalty. Instead, Evans tells his clients that the best way of retaining customer  is to enhance the overall value of their product or service.

In sum, maintaining a customer relationship is about offering a quality good or service, consistently. People will seek out the better product or service.

What do you think?

How do you treat your guests?

Social media expert Chris Brogan has written a very insightful post on his chrisbrogan.com blog, and it has to do with customer service. Brogan normally writes about marketing,  business and social media, but this time he writes about customer service and how it should be renamed guest experience:

Disney, where I am this week, has a concept called a Moment of Truth. A moment of truth is “any time a guest comes into contact with any aspect of a business, however remote, is an opportunity to form an impression.” Note that it’s “an impression.” It can be good; it can be bad.

Why “guest?” Because guest is much more hospitable than “customer.” What “experience?” Because experience covers so much more than “service.” Service is important, but there are many other parts of the experience than just that.

Beside, how do you treat a guest? You generally treat your guests with hospitality. You welcome them. You want to make sure they are enjoying themselves. If you think of your customers as guests, then you must treat them well. After all, they are with you because you have invited them.

When we criticize customer service it is generally because of the way we were treated: rudely, dismissively. We complain that we did not get the help we needed or had our problem resolved.  If we treated our guests rudely or with attitude, they would leave because they would feel unwelcome.

The lesson here is simple: treat every customer as a guest to your business, no matter what kind of business you are in. You have invited the customer to try your product or service and you want the customer to be comfortable. Right?