A New Chapter for Service Untitled

HelpComLogo_HorizontalWebStandard_ColorOnWhiteI started Service Untitled way back in April 2006 to document my experiences running customer service teams at a variety of quickly growing companies. I wanted to learn from others and share what I had learned myself.

As it turns out, running customer service at quickly growing companies took up a lot of time and as I continued to get busier in my “day jobs,” I had less time to blog. My mom (who readers know as Cheryl) took over most of the regular blogging in January 2010, with me continuing to contribute every now and then. Since then, she has gotten busier with her “day job” as a freelance journalist.

Sine starting Service Untitled, I’ve had the privilege to lead some amazing teams, including the customer service teams at HostGator and the entire team/company at A Small Orange. Each of these companies was and continues to be very customer-centric and were great experiences for me. My newest venture is as the founder and CEO at Help.com, a company setting out to make customer service software that enables companies to delight their customers at enterprise scale.

Help.com hasn’t launched yet, but we are blogging about customer service a few times a week on our new blog. Like Service Untitled, the Help.com blog is targeted towards customer service leaders and practitioners at all levels and all sizes of companies, with a particular focus on those leading customer service teams at high growth, technology companies. We’re sharing what we’ve learned, as well as what others have taught us and look forward to continuing to do that over time. Our goal is to develop the blog into a valuable resource for customer service professionals.

This is the 1,243rd and final post on Service Untitled. It’s been a great experience and I’m grateful to the readers, contributors, and friends of Service Untitled that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over the past eight years. I’m looking forward to continuing to discuss customer service over at Help.com and I hope you will join the conversation as well.

Check out the new Help.com blog at http://blog.help.com

Can Facebook emotionally manipulate customer service?

FB-f-Logo__blue_144The emotional manipulation factor has been all abuzz this past week after the published results of a January 2012 subliminal study by Facebook was revealed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In case you haven’t heard about it, or rather if the study was condoned by anyone in the field of ethical behaviors and studies, Cornell University and Facebook manipulated the thoughts of 700,000 Facebook users.

So what did they do? In a week long “social experiment,” the News Feed content was changed. Some Facebook users were presented with happy and positive content and words, while others were saturated with sadder content and words. Then researchers measured whether the status updates of the experimental users were affected by either the happy or sad news they received. Indeed it did, and showed more negative reactions to the negative news and of course, the opposite with happier news and more positive posts.

One of the researchers did step forward this week to offer the following explanation:

The research was conducted for a single week in 2012 and none of the data used was associated with a specific person’s Facebook account. We do research to improve our services and to make the content people see on Facebook relevant and engaging as possible. A big part of this is understanding how people respond to different types of content, whether it’s positive or negative in tone, news from friends, or information from pages they follow. We carefully consider what research we do and have a strong internal review process. There is no unnecessary collection of people’s data in connection with these research initiatives and all data is stored securely.”

In the relevant subject of customer service, and estimating that half of all consumers may have from time to time become engaged on Facebook, does it make us wonder if what we buy or how we feel about a company can be artificially manipulated? Facebook states they strive to answer the following:

  • How do we make the product better?
  • How do we better suit the needs of the people using this product?
  • How do we show them more of what they want to see?
  • How do we show them less of what they don’t want to see?

Although many people might be using Facebook to share status updates, messages, and photos, are we also being manipulated by businesses collecting our data and then using it to make us like something by skewing our reality? For instance, could Facebook, through an online “persuasion” campaign working with Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing line that caters to the “thin and beautiful people” manipulate news feeds to mainly include all of the activities and clothes associated with being one of the “cool kids” in school; you know the cheerleaders, football players and size 2s and 4s? Include in those news feeds  safe driving and convertibles, Ivy League college photos, and everything associated with being attractive, doesn’t it make sense for us to hightail it to the nearest store as good looking people tend to hang out with other good looking people?  Possibly a message to the CEO Mike Jeffries, however is that statistics show that in the United States, 67% of the female purchasing power wears sizes 14 and above.

Beware online shoppers when using Facebook. Hopefully, the merchant contacted is ethical and uses social media to enhance his business the right way. Customers want fast service; that is they want businesses to pay attention, address their concerns, and take the time to understand the issues. Customers want businesses to own their mistakes and apologize while working with the unhappy consumer and making it right; even going farther by offering something to make up for all of the trouble.

The concept of customer service hasn’t really changed; the customer wants what they paid for, they want it to be a great product or service, and they want it when they want it. Customers don’t want to be manipulated into thinking anything else except what is best for them by their own rules.

Do consumers who spend more get better service?

While we are all taught to make our customers our priority in business, do we as a rule offer the same service to the consumer who only frequents our store during the holiday buying season, or do we make exceptions and bend further to the left or to the right when it comes to mitigating bad customer experiences depending on the customer or how much they have spent? If we listen carefully, we learn what our customers need because they will tell us either directly or indirectly, and in order to engage new customers, we often depend on word of mouth and our reputations.

No matter how great our products or how efficient our service, fate somehow finds its fickle finger sooner or later and just goes awry; it’s how we handle all of this and how our customers are made a priority that maintains customer loyalty. If 60% of customers tell their friends of a bad experience, 31% share their experiences on Facebook and other social media, and 20% write reviews, we definitely need a positive service recovery when our most sophisticated technology fails to remedy a customer’s displeasure.

Take for instance the complicated world of credit cards. American Express offers the Classic Green card for an annual fee of $95, however the Gold and the Platinum versions come with $175 and $450 annual “dues” and of course are accompanied by more services and perks. Everyone participates in membership rewards programs, but that concierge service and other prestigious discounts come at a price. While there is prestige associated with the Platinum card, none so take as much notice as the Black Centurion card, which although not a common sight, still makes most of us wonder why anyone would spend so much money? Bank America, Discover, Wells Fargo and other institutions offer similar programs, but none so revered as the American Express brand.

As businesses pinpoint that lucrative 20% of the high volume buyers, studies also show these are the customers willing to spend more, and are extremely knowledgeable and more interested in sophisticated technology bringing them better solutions for superior service. Common sense drives companies therefore to focus on those passionate, engaged, and sometimes obsessive customers who contribute to a larger share of the profits. We listen to them, and we learn. We separate them from the 20% who spend their time complaining, and the rest of the buyers who occasionally stop by our stores or website during the high shopping seasons. Although we still offer reward programs, we tend to give them little personal attention nor do we tailor our better services to their individual needs.

While most organizations try to assure everyone that customers are their priority, it’s hard to persuade most of us that customer service was born equal.

Budget cuts for the IRS result in unreliable customer service

Tax season is finally over, and those economic gray hairs have been remanded back to the colorists at our hair salons, but budget cuts continue to show a significant decline in the Internal Revenue Service to the American public. When Ben Franklin said, “The only certain things in life are death and taxes,” perhaps we are all entitled to a better level of public service; at least while we’re alive.

The Government Accountability Office reports $900 million in costs have been cut from the IRS since 2010. Those budget adjustments have resulted in less personnel, less training, and as a consequence of course, less service. While many taxpayers are silently grinning about the decrease in audits, the overall lack of customer service ultimately results in longer lines at assisted help centers, longer wait lines on telephone inquiries regarding policies and the ever thickening IRS new rules and regulations, and a complete breakdown of interoffice departments in the IRS obviously unable to communicate with each other. Tragically the consequences result in taxpayers having to hire outside help to do their taxes, or often wind up with mistakes, penalties, fines, or liens.

According to the IRS Taxpayer Advocate, an organization taking the side of the taxpayer, the IRS continues to fail us because of tight budgets. Few pay raises have resulted in good employees finding higher paying positions in the private sector as well as more angry taxpayers who can’t get an answer because the employees haven’t been properly trained.

In the “intolerable level of public service,” there were 15.4 million calls unanswered by the IRS. The average wait time to speak with an agent is 14 minutes, and statistically only 67% of callers ever received telephone assistance. What happened to the other 33% of the population who couldn’t get their questions answered? Are they still on hold?

The problem of what can be done to improve customer service at the IRS doesn’t seem to ever be open for discussion. Even the Affordable Care Act, didn’t get any funding from Congress. Realistically, the IRS is a business dedicated to running the government and the government may need to invest more into it to ensure that the money keeps coming in.

Maintaining customer loyalty in an impersonal digital world

ee-imageI’ve often thought that customer loyalty was all about making the customer the king by maintaining transparent ethical practices, sound policies, and impressive customer service. Technology, however and the busy retail world of the Internet brings more competition, more inventory, convenience, and cheaper prices. Shopaholics notoriously are in the constant search for the best prices and the best choices, so what is any retailer to do? After all, a business can’t survive on one visit per customer; then comes that uphill battle to gain repeat business.

As we finally morph into the Spring, after a long winter and look forward to the outdoors, farmer markets bring local merchants an opportunity to woo their existing customers and new ones by offering local products and services. What could beat hands on shopping during a warm Saturday afternoon; the kids eating ice-cream, the neighbors coming together planning their own social events, and merchants creating their own social media as a community effort? For instance, hardly a mega supermarket could ever compete with the quality of a juicy homegrown Jersey tomato produced by a local farmer who doesn’t use unknown chemicals to keep away the bugs. And what about the romantic watercolor paintings or photographs of nearby landmarks that make our own communities something special to be treasured as part of our family traditions and memories?

But as it’s not all about just home grown goods, the push to make the customer feel like the ultimate winner when shopping continues to push forward. Although not an original idea by far when introducing something free for buying something else, it’s that inherent satisfaction we all get when we feel as if we have scored something more than what we expect. I remember the thrill of opening the Cocoa Puffs cereal box for the free plastic spinning toys. I remember my parents and grandparents gluing trading stamps into little books and letting us pick out something from the catalog when it was time to redeem them. Now it’s the digital age of trading stamps; it’s the instant gratification we all look for when we present that little plastic card at the cash register, and the clerk tells us we saved $3.20 on our Epson ink cartridge. It’s the loyalty programs we sign up for and receive free samples, offers to experience new services, or enjoy some high priced privileges for free after we have spent enough money.

Sadly however, technology does drive away some of our treasured private information. Now QR codes can track our demographics including how many visits we have had, what we purchased, and even our methods of shopping. They have our names, our addresses, our ages, what we do for a living, and how much we make every year. Some companies even send us wedding anniversary cards; that’s the price we pay for technology, but at the end of the day, isn’t retail sales loyalty still the same as when my parents and my grandparents shopped?

Successful businesses stay successful when their sustaining philosophies are about quality products, quality services, and attentive post purchase experiences.

How to help call center representatives improve customer service

cubicle row 2Centralized call centers receive and transmit an enormous volume of telephone requests daily, with the purpose of collecting and handling information, ranging from product inquiries, questions about transactions, and customer service. Although emails and social media networks provide more outlets for complaints regarding a particular organization or service, statistics show calling is still the most popular method of communication when a customer or client has a problem.

Handling complaint calls successfully from customers, require customer service representatives to recognize the problem and respond to it in a satisfying and efficient manner. Although the theory of complaining is universal and understood by all of us since our own “pre-toddler” days, the different presentations of “unhappiness” with a product or service often manifests itself in different ways.

For instance, some customers call up and preface their conversation with words like, “I don’t like to complain,” or “I really like  (company name inserted here) but this happened (identified the problem in a cursory manner), and I wanted to bring your attention to it”. Whereas a customer service representative may not have picked up that the consumer is having an issue, it is therefore imperative that front line personnel are trained and taught to be able to recognize a complaint, respond to the problem, and thank the customer for bringing the company’s attention to the particular issue.

A glimpse of more statistics reveal 95% of customers will give an organization a second chance if the problem is resolved, and 70% of customers will continue their business relationship with a particular organization if the resolution is in their favor.

So who are the most successful customer service representatives and how is that achieved? These are the men and women who can think on their feet after, and only after, having been provided with the best education and training in the company’s culture, as well as with their products and services. When someone calls, the best representatives can assess through customer interaction whether the person is meek, aggressive, or just an ornery character trying to get something they truly don’t deserve and a person no one will ever make happy. Of course, in those situations, customer representatives still must maintain the ultimate in professionalism while making every attempt to be patient and objective.

Customer service representatives – either at  the front of the call center or in a specialized section of the company, need to be able to provide solutions and have the authority to do so. They are friendly, non-confrontational, and patient. Although not every customer is always right, their information shouldn’t be discounted, since they might be giving a company some insight into future problems and what should be avoided. An important aspect to efficient service is therefore the ability to manage customers and avoid unpleasant experiences. We lose customers when expectations and solutions don’t jive.

Good business sense dictates we recognize the complex problems, and give the customer the  opportunity to suggest how he would handle the problem. You never know; our customers often help us find new solutions and help to pave the way to success.

Making it easier for customers to be right

High Heels Cobble StonesCustomers aren’t always right, but outstanding customer service representatives who can say yes to correct service issues are more likely to garner support and help an organization recover from mistakes. No matter how hard we try, at some time or at some location, there is bound to be a service breakdown and that impact on how the experience is resolved can ultimately affect future business.

Some companies repeatedly fail at customer service, because of inconsistencies. Use the catchphrase “customer-focused culture” as often as looks good in training manuals or on websites, but unless the training and support is consistent, too often the product or service failures leave that negative customer perception and off that customer goes to the competition. Studies reflect that those customers who have had positive experiences with customer service resolutions are more apt to recommend a company to their friends, family, and coworkers than those consumers who have never had any issues. Maybe you’re shaking your head at that, but isn’t it always the “drama” we remember and therefore relate to others in conversations when we’re out to dinner or at a social event?

So how do those “WOW” companies create the best experiences when recovering from a product breakdown? In a recent experience, I purchased a pair of expensive evening shoes at the Nordstrom department store in Palm Beach Gardens. As the heels were much higher than I normally wear, it was a training experience one hour prior to the social event I was to attend, learning how to walk in them. Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable with them, the stiletto heel of one of the bejeweled shoes broke. As I fell, I sprained my ankle, and of course, I missed the opportunity to attend a prestigious, charitable evening event at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.

Two days later, with my ankle wrapped in a bandage, I went to Nordstrom to return the shoes. Not only did I get a refund, which was expected, but then the “WOW” part came. Besides the apologies, the company picked up my tab at the emergency medical facility for my injury, and gave me a full refund for the original price of the shoes although I purchased them on sale.

The recovery process is what separates the good service from the best service. It doesn’t end with a refund or an apology. The best resolutions are acted upon quickly, blame is graciously taken, customers are compensated fairly, and something extra is done for the customer’s inconvenience. Service representatives have the training and knowledge to use their discretion for each and every failure, and as the problem is resolved, just the “extra extra” attention is what sets it all apart.

Would I return and purchase new shoes at Nordstrom? Of course I will, and why not tell my friends about this experience?

And what did I take away from this experience? Even after a major blunder like this one, customer service “stepped in” with the apologies needed and showed an actual interest in my needs. The representative who helped me had already written to the Italian manufacturer informing them of the product failure; a problem very rarely encountered with the high end designer. A representative from the shoe company contacted me after the product had been returned, and have since sent a credit slip for another pair of shoes directly through their showroom.

It’s leaving you with the positive that keeps us coming back.

Bad customer experiences make customer service mistakes harder to forgive

Perhaps the most repeated complaint when having to deal with poor customer service is the need to keep calling back when something is wrong with a product. Most of us want to think problems should be resolved with the initial contact; at the very least let’s get our complaint directed to the department in charge. Too often however, it becomes a litany of bad experiences, repeated phone calls, and thus the eventual loss of brand loyalty and business.

Statistics tell us that bad customer experiences are shared twice as much as good experiences, and the vast majority of bad service is vocally transmitted to family members, friends, and then coworkers. Why is that?

When I remember my college days, and yes, I loved the experience, but what sticks out in my mind when friends and I are reminiscing is always the Economics II class that I barely eked through with a respectable grade. When I think about my family life as I was growing up, and yes, I had lots of fun with older brothers, but what sticks out in the past is one of my brothers pushing me out of a tree. In high school, I remember losing my wallet with $50 in it; rarely do I mention bringing home a paycheck from being a waitress at a small breakfast and lunch cafe and having the disposable income to buy new clothes.

Psychologists suggest that bad memories and their details stick further into our minds than positive ones. Haven’t we all formed some bad initial impressions quicker than good ones, or haven’t we stereotyped situations or people before ever realizing the good attributes? At the top of the list of things we tend to remember is losing money and losing friends. It just seems the bad wears off slower than the good.

Therefore with all of this in mind, is it any wonder that poor customer service triggers those negative feelings in us? It drives us to spread our poor experiences with others as well as to move on to the competition hoping for a better resolution should a similar experience happen again.

In a recent experience with my new car, the negative repeated service experience already has me convinced to abandon my brand loyalty with Mercedes Benz of North Palm Beach. Although it is not a critical mechanical defect needed for safe operation of the car, customer experiences are expected to impress us. As the same problem has continued for months and months, this disappointing experience has now resulted in negative feelings towards the product and the people employed to “make it right.”

As bad experiences most often trigger customers to move on to another organization, it’s important therefore to address the dissatisfied as a priority. When a customer is impressed with the product, and when a disgruntled customer shows their displeasure, it’s a stellar customer service department that goes beyond the basic acceptable customer experience to “wow” someone back from the edge of their past loyalty. Bad experiences need to be managed separately; the loyal and the satisfied are already there. The unhappy ones are ready to move away. We must be aware of the customer’s needs and improve performance to cancel out those disappointing moments in time.

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