Customer service is simply the process of acknowledging customer concerns. We put fancy processes in place to measure and gauge the results for big companies, but small ones usually just practice listening to the people paying the bills because we need them more than big companies do.
In a tight economy, word of mouth and retention are two of our most potent revenue generators. There are three areas of Customer Service every business can measure and improve. Here are my suggestions and experiences.
Listening has never been more important or easier. The easy case is simply making sure that employees know the importance of listening to a customer’s concerns. Most complaints can be addressed with acknowledging customer concerns. People like to be heard. Taking the time to listen, whether on the phone or in person, yields a lot of benefit.
To improve, make sure you’re asking customers if they are satisfied. It seems simple, but fast food companies and call centers are learning to ask the question, “Did I fully satisfy your needs today?” It works, even when as a customer you know what the company is doing. Don’t you find yourself answering, “I was fully satisfied today,” and the feeling good when you call your credit card company?
I’m an online guy, so I set up monitoring for all of my clients. This includes Google Alerts, RSS feeds of local news stories, and RSS of Twitter search strings to make sure that problems, and new business oppportunities are fully met.
Listening is important for personal contact. But using free, automated tools, we can now expand our reach to 24/7 monitoring of our brand, company, and even individual employee names. The process is easy and pretty painless, and online listening has to be integrated into your customer service, as many of your best customers won’t take the time to address someone personally, and prefer to do so in the relative anonymity of online venues like Twitter or Facebook.
Listening matters because it tells the customer we value them. Listening is powerful on its own, but responding is the second piece of validating customer complaints. An employee who listens and doesn’t respond can be a bigger liability than one who ignores the customer. Are your employees empowered to make decisions? Do they know which decisions they can make and which ones need approval? And are you dumping the hard work of confronting company weaknesses on employees with no power?
Clear instructions on how to handle complaints (and compliments) should be a part of all employee training. Recognize that employees have different backgrounds, and you don’t want someone utilizing training from another company that doesn’t fit your process. This actually happened to me years ago. I worked for a Mexican restaurant as a waiter that empowered employees to comp meals that had mistakes. I held a second job at a national eatery, and when a series of mistakes involving a basket of chicken wings couldn’t be solved, I comped the chicken wings without approval.
This actually led to disciplinary measures (just verbal), but I quit shortly after. I was on the front lines, and my incentive was maximizing tips. When a customer was angry at me for something that wasn’t my fault, I sought to correct it. When that didn’t work, I acted outside of my authority, based on the training I received from another company.
You may think I’m talking about waiting tables, but even people who deal with prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars have this problem. Mortgage dealers, auto dealers, and equipment salespeople find themselves in positions without the ability to respond. Why do we hate buying a car? It’s because car salespeople don’t have any authority, and we spend a lot of time talking to the wrong person. Are your employees capable of responding, and are they trained to do so according to your company’s values?
A client of mine was shocked to find their email address - the one on their main website, hadn’t been answered in over a year. As typically happens, a mailbox was set up for an employee to monitor, but when that employee left, no one knew to forward the firstname.lastname@example.org address elsewhere. This was no microbusiness. This was a major brand, and it happens a lot.
Information is about directing customers with new business proposals, complaints, compliments, and suggestions to the appropriate people. We set up sections of the website for customers to use, but customers don’t want to use our website. We’ve been trained for over 15 years to be dissatisfied with what companies offer online. Why do you think blogs are top search results? People click on blogs because they know a person is behind it. We’re so frustrated with automated processes and processes in general, that we want a live person to be looking at our problems.
Information isn’t just shuttling people to the appropriate departments. It’s about explaining to customers why they’re being shuttled there, and assuring them they will be taken care of if they just follow the rules. Informing can include adding an email address or Click-to-Call or an instant chat to the website, but text around those contact points should explain what to expect.
FAQ sections are there for users, but what if you pulled out the FAQ and used it as prime real estate? Starbucks has a big sign at the cash register to explain returns now - not because they are required to, but they want to let people know upfront that purchases need receipts. Make sure your POS materials and your website actually solve a problem. And don’t be afraid to ask, “Did we answer your question fully?” when you’re done (also fix that email address problem).
Here’s something to take with you. We look at our own company to determine where we need changes, but we’d be well suited to go out to the marketplace and look at the best examples of customer service. Retail store locations, restaurants, and even government offices provide a wealth of information on good and bad customer service options. To improve your customer service, analyze “why” these companies implement their policies, and see if you can apply them to your company, both in person and on your website.