The human touch

Can you (should you) automate customer service?

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Many B2C companies seem to be energetically automating their customer service centers. When you call, you get an automated system that leads you through a series of prompts.  For instance, you have a balance inquiry and you call your bank. First you are asked for your account number, then for a password or your social security number. Then for the purpose of your call.

Some calls will never result in interaction with a live agent. For some calls (and callers) that may work just fine. If you are paying a bill or making a balance inquiry, chances are an automated response is fine. It is when you need more that you run into a problem.  Computerized agents are only equipped to deal with basic transactions and answers. A person will much more readily understand certain problems and be able to offer answers (and solutions).

Many companies are cutting back their customer service departments (US Airways recently announced that it will be cutting 1000 positions, including customer service). This will certainly result in increased automation.

Although automation may be less costly it may impact customer satisfaction. People like speaking to people, especially when there is a problem. Companies should be aware of this.

What are your thoughts? Do you prefer automation or speaking to a human being?


Customer Service is a Value

Whether you are a business-to-business  (B2B) company like ARMA, or a business -to-consumer  (B2C) company like any number of retailers out there, you choose the values that your company represents. At ARMA, we place high value on customer service.  Our philosophy is that our customer comes first, and we work as hard as needed to make that customer happy.

A B2C company that is making headline for its high standard of customer service is Zappos. This online retailer sells shoes. Its CEO is Tony Hsieh, who has been getting lots of attention from the press and the blogosphere for his different approach to business culture. This blog entry, on Entrepreneur Corner, transcribes a recent conference where Hsieh spoke. Here are a couple nuggets:

We’re totally focused on customer service. Thirty years from now, we wouldn’t necessarily rule out Zappos airlines. We admire Virgin Airlines.

We really think of our brand in terms of the three C’s. Clothing. Customer Service. Culture.

Hsieh goes on to talk about the culture at Zappos, and the values that make up the culture:

It doesn’t matter what your core values are — as long as you commit to them. Don’t worry about whether your core values are the right ones. They should just fit your company and you should commit to them.

We admire Hsieh.  He has made customer service both a value and a part of the culture at his company.  And it has impacted his bottom line. just bought Zappos in a deal worth between $850  million and $928 million (according to TechCrunch). Clearly, the company has value and a has a loyal customer base.

Making customer service a company value has a real pay-off.


Don’t cut here!

The U.K based The Retail Bulletin reports that one in three organizations will cut customer service training in order to save money. This is not good news for customers or for the organizations.

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The Institute for Customer Service, also based in the United Kingdom, conducted the study reported in The Retail Bulletin.  It found the following:

Companies with a reputation for service excellence and committed frontline staff have a 24% higher net profit margin than same-sector rivals who do not enjoy similar standing, and can achieve 71% more profit per employee.

The article goes on to say:

Jo Causon, the Institute’s chief executive, believes it is dangerous to see training as the place to cut costs because in the current climate there is more competition for customers than ever.

Customer service is a skill, and when it is practiced well, it results in customer satisfaction and retention. If your company is looking to retain customers, it is important to invest in teaching customer service skills.

Just yesterday, we tried resolving a problem with the phone company. The tech support person was clearly working on a skill, and when faced with a problem he couldn’t resolve from the script he turned to blame us. Not good training because it alienates the customer.

There is no doubt in our minds that proper training can improve customer service and in that way, the bottom line. Your thoughts?

It really is simple

Is  business success simple? Not completely. Anyone who runs a business can talk about the myriad issues that come up. But perhaps the strategies for business success are simple. According to a review by Guy Kawasaki published in Open Forum, that is the gist of John Spence’s new book: Awesomely Simple: Essential Business Strategies for Turning Ideas into Action.

The six essential business strategies can be summarized as follows:

  1. A strong vision
  2. Quality team made up of the best people
  3. Transparency and strong communications
  4. A culture where the most important things are done immediately
  5. Disciplined execution
  6. Extreme customer focus

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Please note the last one: extreme customer focus. As Kawasaki says,

At the end of the day, the only critic whose opinion counts is the customer’s, and the company that owns the “voice of the customer,” owns the marketplace.

Focusing on the customer is a simple business strategy that will pay off in market share. It really is that simple. Keep your customers in mind at all times.

To implement this strategy you should start with the question: What will keep my customers happy? Then ask yourself, Is my company structured in a way that will make it easy to keep customers happy?

Achieving business growth

To be in business means thinking about how to grow your company. Marketing certainly helps. Another factor is customer service. Companies that provide good customer service are companies that are growing. These companies recognize the centrality of the customer in growing a business.

Customer service can mean many things. It can mean taking new orders from potential clients. It can mean dealing with customers who are unsatisfied with the product or service. Or, as in the case of MacTech PC Pro, it can mean actually servicing the customer’s product (computers or other IT equipment needing repair). The Jacksonville, Fla. company has been in business for more than ten years, and is growing, in spite of the recession, as this article in the Daily Record reports.

“The businesses that are going to survive this economy are the ones that offer the best customer service,” said Darren Dillinger, 41, who co-owns the business with wife, Shay, 29. “That’s what sets us apart.”

In fields such as technology, expertise is key and non-technically oriented customers know they need help. Another issue is keeping abreast of changes in technology.

“We continuously adjust the business to meet our customers’ needs,” said Dillinger. “When we were Mac Tech Pro, we discovered that a lot of our customers also had PCs, so we added PCs to our company to better serve our customers.”

The bottom line is easy to see:  good customer service helps companies to achieve growth.

Automated customer service?

More and more we are met by machines when we try to contact customer service. We call the bank,(the credit card, the newspaper, the phone company) and we go through a long automated menu to get us help. When we go to the airport, we can check in on a kiosk.

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In fact, kiosks and other self-service machines are taking the place of people in more places.  While some people prefer automation, others want to deal with people. As this article from the Chicago Tribune points, kiosks are big  business:

Do-it-yourself customer service creeps further into everyday life via kiosks, smart-phone applications and the Internet. Consumers are using touch screens everywhere from supermarket delis to hospital check-in stations. There are even machines that give vision exams and scan feet to produce custom insoles.

Kiosk transactions are expected to surpass $775 billion this year, up from $607 billion in 2008, according to IHL Group, which tracks the self-service industry. It could hit $1.6 trillion by 2013.

Some people will continue to prefer dealing with live customer service representatives, but as times get tougher, you can expect companies to continue to use machines instead of people.

Does customer service differentiate you?

We came across a story in the Vancouver  Sun about a Canadian young entrepreneur award winner.  The winner, Shanda Jerrett, runs a retail store that sells rain gear.  She says:

“In the time of a recession, people always want to know they’re spending their money wisely. So, we’re always thinking about service. It’s critical and it’s lost in today’s retail world.”

Customer service  has set Jerrett’s business apart. It has made her store different from other stores. Although we believe every business should have excellent customer service, the truth is many businesses have cut back. So as Jerrett has discovered, having good customer service differentiates you from the competition.

In a recession, it is tempting to make cuts everywhere. However, customers are the lifeblood of any business, and you should think twice before cutting customer service budgets. Keeping your customer service at a high level will help differentiate your business while keeping your customers happy.