To care for anyone else enough to make their problems one's own, is ever the beginning of one's real ethical development. Felix Adler.
One day last week I was sitting in a small conference room is Moscow waiting to give a speech. In walks this guy with an unnatural shade of blonde hair and big smile. I said to myself, "Self, this really looks like Richard Branson." My self said back, "It is Richard Branson." So we got to talking because you never know when you need help retrieving lost baggage or upgrading from coach! He asked me if I've ever flown on Virgin. Me being the Global Services United Airlines customer that I am, I told him that I never have, but "If the Richard Branson is asking me, I guess I will have to."
At that point, he got on his knee and starting polishing my shoes with his jacket. Ironically, on my United flight over to Russia, the lights didn't work properly so the whole cabin was either lit or unlit, but people couldn't make a seat-by-seat decision. For this inconvenience, if I filled out a form (which I think I lost), United was going to give me 10,000 Mileage Plus miles or a $150 credit on a future flight.
This got me thinking about customer service, so I'm providing you with a chapter of my book, Reality Check, that explains the Art of Customer Service.
1. Start at the top. The CEO's attitude toward customer service determines the quality of service that a company delivers. If the CEO thinks that customers are a pain in the ass, her company will provide lousy service. If the CEO thinks customers are treasured assets, it will provide great service. If you're not the CEO, either change her mind, quit, or learn to live with mediocrity in that order. I'm pretty sure you can check this box off at Virgin.
2. Put the customer in control. The best customer service happens when management enables employees to put the customer in control. Th is requires two leaps of faith: first, trusting customers to not take advantage of the situation; second, trusting employees to make sound decisions. If you can make these leaps, then the quality of your customer service will zoom; if not well, there is nothing more frustrating than working for a firm that cops the attitude that something is against company policy.
3. Take responsibility for your shortcomings. Companies that take responsibility for their shortcomings garner good customer-service reputations because they have acknowledged that the problem is their fault and their responsibility to fix. Most people understand that "shiitake happens," but it's aggravating when companies deny that the problem is their fault and responsibility. That's when you hear people say, "It's the principle."
4. Don't point the finger. This is the flip side of taking responsibility. For example, when a computer program doesn't work, vendors resort to finger pointing: "It's Apple's system software."It's Microsoft's application."It's Adobe's PDF format." A great customer-service company doesn't point the finger; it figures out what the solution is, regardless of whose fault the problem is, and makes the customer happy. As my mother used to say, quoting Eldrige Cleaver, "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem." (By the way, as a rule of thumb, the company with the largest market capitalization is the one at fault.)
5. Don't finger the pointer. Great customer service companies don't shoot the messenger. It could be a customer, an employee, a vendor, or a consultant who's doing the pointing. The goal is not to silence the messenger, but to fix the problem so that the messenger never has to bring that message again.
6. Don't be paranoid. One of the most common justifications for lousy service is "What if everyone did this?" For example, to cite the often-told, perhaps apocryphal, story of a customer returning a tire to Nordstrom even though Nordstrom doesn't sell tires: What if everyone started returning tires to Nordstrom? However, the worst case is seldom the common case. There will be abusers, but generally people are reasonable.
7. Hire the right kind of people. To put it mildly, customer service is not a job for everyone. The ideal customer-service person derives great satisfaction by helping people and solving problems. Th is cannot be said of every job candidate. It's the company's responsibility to hire the right kind of people for this job, because it is a bad experience for the employee and the customer when you hire folks without a service orientation.
8. Underpromise and overdeliver. The goal is to delight a customer. For example, the signs in the lines at Disneyland that tell you how long you'll have to wait from each point are purposely overstated. When you get to the ride in less time, you're delighted. Imagine if the signs were understated you'd be angry because Disneyland lied to you.
9. Integrate customer service into the mainstream. Let's see: Salespeople make the big bucks. Marketers do the fun stuff. Engineers: You leave them alone in their dark caves. Accounting cuts the paychecks. And customer service? They handle angry people when something isn't working, and something isn't working all the time. Customer service largely determines the company's reputation, so do not consider it a profit-sucking necessary evil.
10. Don't give them a sales pitch. Never give customers a sales pitch unless they're calling your sales department. When customers call for customer service or technical support, they are hardly in a mood for a sales pitch. If you sell anything, you're in danger of losing the customer, so you certainly should not ask customers to shell out more money to fix problems that they perceive as the company's fault. And don't even think about offering more free defective products as a token of your appreciation for their business.
11. Use operating procedures, not scripts. You've probably called at least a few companies and been sure the representative is reading a script it's annoying and certainly not personal. Have standard operating procedures for common things, like cancellations and product returns, to ensure the job is done properly, but never ask or train your representatives to read from a script.
12. Use operators. Use people, not PBX systems (the push 1 for sales, 2 for billing). Make it so the operator can answer basic questions (like How do I sign up?), collect information about problems, assign a ticket number or reference ID, and find an available representative to take the call. If you must use a PBX system, keep it to one level with three or four options, as well as an option to be connected immediately to an operator.
13. Use a callback system. A few companies have a callback system by which they offer the option of calling you back at a set time rather than making you wait on hold. The first time I encountered one of these systems, I hesitated, thinking I might lose my place in the queue, but it really worked, and I've been a believer ever since.
14. Keep customers in the loop. Customers should never have to ask what you are doing. Let them know what's happening as you're doing things like looking up their account or researching an issue. Extending this concept, you can post information about outages right on your Web site, so people don't have to call to figure out what's happening. Be honest: Tell them if there's a problem and what's causing it, when service will be restored, and what you're doing to prevent it from happening again.
15. Make customers feel important. Train your employees to make customers feel important. If a customer makes a suggestion, the representative should note it and let the customer know he's noted it. Don't hesitate to do things like give credits or say things like "because you're a valued customer, we can do this for you." Customers are usually frustrated when they call customer service or support, so try to make them feel good.
16. Follow up. The biggest difference between acceptable and great customer service is how often and how well the customer-service department follows up on requests. Give customers a call or send them an e-mail with the result of their complaint or request. If a customer calls with a problem and you believe it's resolved, call or send an e-mail to ask if the issue has been resolved to their satisfaction.
The irony of customer service is that at an intuitive level, most people know that it largely determines a company's reputation, but companies spend less money on it than sales and marketing. The double irony of customer service is that nothing I've listed is particularly expensive. Now you know what to do, how to do it, and how cheap it is to do, so you have absolutely no excuses for poor customer service.
And the next time I fly to London or Las Vegas, I'm going to give Sir Richard's airline a shot especially because there's WiFi in some of his planes.
Other than the stuff about Richard Branson, this is reprinted by permission from Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition. If you liked this chapter, there are ninety-three more where this came from. It may help to know that you and Richard Branson are reading the same book's although he got his copy for just a shoe shine.
The Richard Branson photo was massively fixed up by Fixmyphotos.com because auto focus was turned off when the photo was shot. I was amazed at what the company was able to do. Check these sites for more information about customer service, travel, and aviation.