The holidays are supposed to be a time of goodwill and great cheer, but may be more associated with the annoyances that come with fighting crowds (or e-commerce sites). That means customer service needs, and customer complaints, can be at all-time highs this time of the year.
“When a customer complains, what they are actually saying is, ‘Help me, something is wrong. Please fix it so we can go back to our regular relationship,’” says Randi Busse, president of Workforce Development Group, a customer service training and development organization. “Customers don't want to shop for a new vendor. They want the one they chose to take care of them and their problems.”
These small-business owners and customer service insiders reveal how you can help ensure your customer service doesn’t leave customers wanting this holiday season.
Prepare Your Staff
Your employees can be your first line of defense against negative customer service reviews.
“Prepare all staff for six-day workweeks and potential overtime,” advises Jurgen Gauger, chief operating officer of Spreadshirt, a platform for custom clothing. “In some cases, a three-shift system to run the facilities 24/7 is warranted. Communicate the expectation that all hands on deck is required from every staff member to deliver great team results.”
By setting expectations and providing best practices, you can prepare employees to give the best customer service possible. Ali Ryan, owner of The Dry House hair salon in Nashville, agrees. “To make sure our customer service stays excellent, we start extra training in September," she says. "My employees practice dealing with extra people in the salon waiting to check out while the phone is ringing, so I can coach them through who to help first and how to speed it up. We run through different scenarios of what could go wrong so we are prepared."
While Ryan has a bit of a head start, it’s not too late to implement this type of scenario-based training. You can set aside a few hours before your store opens to do a run through, or create a rubric outlining how employees should respond to different scenarios.
You should also remind your team of the No. 1 rule in customer service: Be friendly.
“This might sound like a no brainer, but the holidays can stress the nerves of your staff as easily as they do the nerves of your customers,” says Tom Byun, general manager and SVP of Global Small Business at online customer service provider LivePerson. “Consumers might be willing to accept impersonal or even cold customer service at bigger competitors, especially during the busy holidays, but when they come to a small business, they’re coming for more than just a purchase. They’re looking for a connection. Be sure to notice, slow down and welcome them home.”
Get Your Website and Inventory Ready
According to a National Retail Federation survey, this year, more people—46 percent, to be exact—are looking for and buying gifts online than ever before. That means your website should be mobile friendly and easy to use (e.g., fast loading times, optimized landing pages and checkout) to keep customers happy.
Also, make sure you have enough items in stock to satisfy your customers, especially hot-ticket pieces.
“Products can't be delivered without adequate resource planning, [so] pay attention to inventory alignment,” Gauger says. “Look at the lead times of your suppliers, order early and prepare warehouse space in advance of the busy season.”
Keep Your Store Clean
Shoppers can be turned off by a messy store—in fact, 99 percent of adults surveyed in a 2011 Cintas survey said that “poor cleanliness issues” in a store would negatively affect the way they saw the brand.
"Perception is everything,” says Kate Edwards, owner of Kate Edwards Consulting, a customer service consulting business. “When something is dirty, the first thing people think is ‘Can’t they see that?’ If you and your business cast a blind eye to the state of your operation, then how can your customer trust that you won’t do the same to them?”
Make time throughout the day to tidy up the store to help ensure your customers have a positive shopping experience.
Respond to Customers Quickly and Efficiently
“Oftentimes, a consumer ‘complaint’ only becomes one after consumers fail to get help from customer service,” says Byun of LivePerson. “By responding quickly to a consumer’s inquiry—whether that is in person, via messaging, live chat or even on the telephone—chances are good that a complaint will never occur even if the consumer doesn’t end up exactly where they hoped to be. Remind your staff: Customers may forget the specifics of the problem, but they will remember that you tried to help them and did so quickly.”
“Everyone likes a little courtesy and proper expectation setting,” agrees Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder of Voices.com, an online marketplace connecting businesses with professional voice talent. “Something we do at our company is create and schedule special social media updates that let our customers know when the office will be closed and when they can expect to receive live customer service again. Some of these posts detail how to access support using our Frequently Asked Questions knowledge base online.”
At WaterField Designs, a line of bags and cases for digital devices, customers don’t have to wait more than one business day to get their questions answered via email, according to marketing director Heidi Marzke.
“Our goal is to have an empty customer email inbox at the end of each day,” Marzke says. “Every employee has a turn answering customer emails, even those not specifically in customer service. That way, everyone understands how his or her role impacts customers.”
Seeing customers’ emails can also create teachable moments for the team. Positive and negative emails are shared to learn how customers view the company, and particularly good customer service responses are shared so people can incorporate them into future responses. “If we see a pattern of customer queries happening repeatedly,” Marzke says, “we add information to our website to address the question.”
Follow Up After the Transaction
Customer service doesn’t just end after the card has been swiped. Checking in with your customers after they’ve come in or used your services can be a great way to stop complaints from escalating.
Mark Schneider, owner of heating and cooling company Pacific Aire Inc. in Ventura, California, claims he has instituted a policy focused on “going the extra mile to make customers happy.”
“When we complete a service call, one of our office staff will follow up with what we call a ‘Happy Call,’” Schneider explains. “Our call center [will] follow up behind any service call to find out if the client had any questions after the technician had left the home. We ask how they would rate the service they received on a scale of 1 to 5. Before we started this program, we would see more online complaints than compliments; [now we’re] highlighting more of the happy clients we knew we had.”
The policy also has a rewards component that encourages the team to do their best. “The technicians get points toward prizes for each positive experience they provide our clients,” Schneider continues. “We do this year-round, but the points double during the holidays to encourage a more cheerful experience. Our technicians are happier because they feel appreciated by management and the client. It has created a fun and competitive work environment. Overall, the program has been great for boosting morale.”
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