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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Saying it nicely

Given a choice in customer service help, would people choose someone that is pleasant or someone that is not pleasant, all other issues being equal? The answer is a no-brainer. Most people choose to do business with people who are pleasant. Of course, if someone is pleasant but inefficient or incompetent, we’d rather put up with an attitude as long as it resolves issues.

Having said this, it seems that many times people in customer service are trained in how to resolve issues but not trained in how to deal with people.  Recently, we tried to get some information about a meeting space. The woman who “helped” us  was clearly unhappy with our questions. She mentioned a policy, and told us that as organizers we would have to tell everyone about it or else. Truthfully, we understood the policy, but we did not appreciate her attitude, her dismissive way of speaking to us. We decided not to use her establishment for our meeting.

People who excel at customer service are attentive, efficient and have good communication skills. They enjoy helping people and treat people nicely.  Even if you are delivering bad news, or cannot help someone,  saying it nicely helps relieve anger and frustration. It is that simple.

What are your thoughts?

Three steps to correcting poor customer service

Every company, even those with a strong customer service avocation, has had a situation where a customer was unhappy or displeased with a situation. Can a company company correct this situation, after the fact? Emphatically, the answer is yes. Companies can always improve a bad customer service interaction.

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Here are three crucial  steps to resolving a customer service situation:

  1. Apologize to the customer and accept responsibility for the situation. Don’t try to shift blame or give excuses. That can serve to aggravate the situation.
  2. Work to resolve the situation, as soon as possible.
  3. Follow up with the customer to make sure the situation is resolved satisfactorily.

The sooner a company corrects a customer service complaint the sooner the negativity will be over. Some companies have mandates to resolve complaints within a set amount of time. This is good business. The longer a situation is unresolved, or unsatisfactorily resolved, the longer the customer has to become sour on the company and to spread the word about his/her unhappiness.

How do you correct customer service issues? How important is it for your company to resolve disputes quickly?

What to do and what not to do

Welcome to a new year and decade!

We start with a cautionary tale of what not to do in customer service.  We found this through the website Consumerist, which aims to present the customer’s side of the story, especially when there is a problem. The power of Consumerist is that many, many people visit this site, especially if they are doing research.

Although Consumerist relays many stories, here is one that shows that what customer service should not do.  A shopper writes in to Consumerist complaining about Best Buy and his broken netbook computer. Here’s a summary:

The anonymous Best Buy Netbook buyer who says was thrown out of the store twice when he tried to get the store to honor his protection plan checked in with an update: Best Buy won’t replace his netbook as a CSR originally promised, it will only service it.

The problem is that the customer service representative promised to do something that the store is not willing to honor, in this case replace rather than repair a computer. There are many ramifications from this. First, the customer is not happy because he is not getting what he is promised. He makes his unhappiness public, which further hurts the store. Second, when you don’t trust CSRs to fix a problem then you are reducing their ability to be effective. Third, the store policy overrides the CSR,  taking out the human element and resulting in dissatisfaction.

In customer service, do not take away power from your representative. Give the representative the ability to solve problems to the customer’s liking, and make sure that the representative’s  prescription will not cause problems later on.

On the other hand, we also found a wonderful story about excellent customer service. It comes from Terry Starbucker’s blog and relays an experience he had a story in Paris where a produce shop keeper went above and beyond, providing not only the nicest looking produce, but wonderful service. Some of the service essentials that Starbucker points out are:

  • Proper greeting
  • Respect
  • Positive attitude

Starbucker says  he was so happy he did not paying more money!  Here’s the link.

Going above and beyond

One of the biggest frustrations that customers face happens when a customer service person says that he or she can’t do anything about the situation. Many times, customers ask someone for help and they get this answer:  “That is not my job,” or “I don’t work in that department.”  This does not help customers, and it hurts the bottom line.

Certainly, many  employees are constrained by the parameters of their jobs. Some are not allowed to deviate from a script. Others simply don’t want to go above and beyond what is required. But good customer service sometimes means going the extra mile, doing something that may not be part of the job description.

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USA Today reports that some United States airports are training personnel to better assist travelers.  The training is aimed at making the customer service employees more resourceful. An airport manager at Miami International Airport (MIA) capsulizes why this is important:

“Regardless of where they work, (airport workers) shouldn’t say, ‘I don’t work in that area,’ ” says Dickie Davis of Miami International, which is rolling out a revised training program. “It may not be our fault, but it’s our problem. If customers didn’t like hot dogs at MIA, they don’t say, ‘I didn’t like hot dogs at MIA.’ They say, ‘I don’t like MIA.’ “

Travelers, according to the article,  may already be frustrated and irate. An unhelpful airport employee tends to make things worse. Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport aims to make sure their employees are helpful, that they go above and beyond:

Last year, Phoenix Sky Harbor produced a training video that is mandatory viewing for its own employees. Its main lessons: Smile; stop what you’re doing to pay attention to customers; maintain a positive attitude; be proactive; and escort customers, rather than simply giving directions, whenever possible.

The bottom line is that employees that are trained to be problem-solvers, that go above and beyond what is required of them help to reduce customer frustration.

What are you doing to train your customer service to go above and beyond? Are you taking any specific steps in that direction?

Customer service must be defined by service

Often, people think about customer service as what you get when you have an issue to be resolved. Say you bought a product that is defective and you need a replacement or you were overcharged and so forth.

But, the truth is, customer service is about attending to the customer. This means checking in with the customer: does he or she need something, have a questions, need special assistance? Or even, just greeting a customer.

An article entitled Customer Service Stinks, Survey Finds, in the Chicago Sun-Times, says that customer service was defined by lack thereof. The survey was conducted by the SALT and Pepper Group. Here’s what the analyst had to say:

“The biggest sins were sins of omission. Often, we would enter a store, or a specific department in a store, and the associate working there would not acknowledge us,” said Rick Miller, consulting analyst at the SALT & Pepper Group. The higher performers did a better job training and motivating their staffs, Miller said.

It seems fairly obvious that the first step in achieving excellent customer service is to acknowledge our customer. Greet him/her.  Simple, but effective.

Your thoughts?

Are you available 24-7?

Some customers are demanding. They want to be able to contact you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Is that possible? Is that feasible? It depends on your business but according to Kelley McGuire writing for the TMC website, it can increase customer satisfaction. (Here’s a link to the article.)

McGuire argues that customers should be able to reach someone through an answering service, 24 hours a day:

That’s why I believe that all companies that strive to have the best customer service and customer relationships should implement a 24 hour answering service, like the one offered by ReceptionHQ, an answering services provider, with a live agent to personalize every call, no matter what time or day it’s at.

According to McGuire, the ability to talk to someone gives customers some peace of mind.

Certainly, for some businesses this would be a helpful feature.  Unfortunately, we can see where this could also backfire. If the answering service can only take messages, it may add to a customer’s frustration. When people want answers they are not satisfied with “someone will call you back.”

What do you think?