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.

photo by: sun dazed

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.

Getting what you pay for: How Amazon’s membership fee retains customer loyalty

Amazon’s $20 increase for Prime members certainly drew a lot of derogatory hoopla this past week with social media and forums all buzzing with criticism about the 25% hike. In fact, according to Brand Key, a loyalty consulting agency, Amazon’s ratings dropped from 93% to 83% two days following the hike.

“Based on immediate Prime member reactions, they may have underestimated the negative effects of the increase,” stated Brand Key.

For anyone not familiar with the Amazon loyalty program, there are estimated to be about 20 million Prime members in the United States. These are the people who spend twice as much as non-Prime members annually, and it’s all about convenience, selection, and price comparisons. And why does this happen? Say it anyway you want, but the best part of any kind of loyalty program is the money a customer saves versus the cost of the rewards’ programs. Now Amazon has never raised the price of their premier rewards incentives since its conception in 2005, and the “thinkers” threatened members with a $40 increase, and then magnanimously acquiesced to only a $20 increase.

My formal declaration arrived yesterday:

Dear Cheryl:

We are writing to provide you advance notice that the price of your Prime membership will be increasing. The annual rate will be $99 when your membership renews on August 1, 2014.

Even as fuel and transportation costs have increased, the price of Prime has remained the same for nine years. Since 2005, the number of items eligible for unlimited free Two-Day Shipping has grown from one million to over 20 million. We also added unlimited access to over 40,000 movies and TV episodes with Prime Instant Video and a selection of over 500,000 books to borrow from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

For more information about your Prime membership, visit our Prime membership page.

Sincerely,

The Amazon Prime Team

So what am I getting for the extra money? Amazon has promised to maintain the free two-day shipping, although there have been lots of complaints about delivery in that time period. Amazon has promised access to their digital library also, but I haven’t read where my customer service is going to increase with the higher dues, but I’m still going to renew my subscription.

And so all of that brings some ideas to promote customer loyalty in smaller businesses. All loyalty programs seek to turn consumers into loyal customers. Thoughts are that even though some customers are going to leave Amazon because of the “principle,” but let’s face it – Prime customers spend an average of 150% more than non-Prime consumers because they want to get their money’s worth.

For many of us with a small business that might benefit from a reward’s program, can we be a bit more innovative than just showing a card after spending a ton of money? No doubt the free reward cards are an incentive to customers returning, but why not give the Amazon Prime idea a turn? For instance, a local restaurant might offer a membership fee which then entitles patrons to preferred seating, preferred reservations, a bottle of wine or special appetizers. Perhaps a retail establishment could offer prepaid bonus cards where an initial fee is paid, and then the customer enjoys a constant discount on merchandise and special incentives during holidays and peak shopping hours.

In the Jacksonville, Fla. area, a beachwear boutique offers their customers a subscription to newsletters and special promotions. Many ardent swimsuit devotees take advantage of the latest styles, health, beauty hints, and private promotions which always includes two-day free shipping.

Not everyone is going to be a disciple of reward programs, but the whole structure of the idea is just a motivating factor into customers buying more and staying loyal; we all want to get our money’s worth!

Increasing customer service popularity with Facebook

FB-f-Logo__blue_144Facebook gives organizations the opportunity to “WOW” customers with their human and approachable touch so important to building business, loyalty, and the development of a company’s brand. With over one billion active users, why not use Mark Zuckerberg’s brilliant social platform to help to build an audience, engage them in interesting conversation about one’s product or service, and then have the opportunity to convert visitors into more customers?

Facebook isn’t just about tracking down your old boyfriend, sending birthday wishes to your friends instead of the snail mail obligatory birthday cards, or posting photographs from your high school graduation cheerleader captain days; now it’s also about interest groups and ones that are organized by workplaces intended to target visitors to specific sites. In addition, business pages encourage friends and their friends to “like” us, and thus engages another opportunity to share feedback and to help people. After all, we do tend to share our best referrals with our friends and relatives.

The best business pages make answers easy to find. In the very complex world of algorithms, Facebook business pages crawl to the top of the popularity lists through comments, shares, and “likes.” Leading the parade are comments and shares, and of course it is better when customers praise a company with positive comments. Mind you now, this is a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the positive comments with “thank you” responses. On the other hand, it still provides an excellent venue to listen to complaints by responding quickly and being able to help with solutions.

Customer service always comes with the territory on Facebook, as it gives consumers an outlet for airing their issues and allowing  for the most frustrated to have their voices heard. Imagine Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “shot heard around the world” as the American Revolutionary War in 1775 began on the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts as the first shot rang out killing British soldiers? Although not nearly as dramatic as America’s fight for freedom way back when, disgruntled people are always searching for solutions, and the more people who they can engage, the more drama that emerges.

Although Facebook promises to provide opportunities to boost businesses, an important caveat needs to be considered; the staff monitoring the page must know their business and be diligent and prompt with responses. Unhappy customers become even more disgruntled if they are ignored; maybe it’s not intentional because staff members are attending to other business dealings, but it’s doubtful a customer whose product has failed will have much sympathy. There is even a good possibility the customer has already tried to communicate via telephone and was met with “please don’t hang up; your call is very important to us” while waiting 15 minutes on hold listening to the same advertisement about the company over and over again. Therefore if a business decides to use Facebook as another customer service portal, make sure to be diligent with sharing feedback, personally answering customers, and responding quickly with solutions.

Constant monitoring can help customers find answers before comments become negative. Even building a FAQ can drive customers to helpful answers. Setting up keyword alerts for words like “frustrated” or “disappointed” depending on the type of business or service, can notify staff members to address a potentially volatile situation before it gets out of hand. Being warned beforehand can still be one of the best opportunities to turn the negative into opportunities.

Take advantage of social media; it’s here to stay.

How we worship our satisfied customers

With happy customers comes repeat business, referrals, and of course loyalty; all adding to a customer oriented culture that ultimately places an organization as being more popular and valuable. The customer-centric legend, Zappos, an e-retailer with a unique approach to selling shoes and a variety of other merchandise, focuses its culture on pleasing the customer at a personal service level. Their “Happiness Experience Form” evaluates the team member’s ability to personally connect with the customer, build a rapport, address the needs of the customer, and deliver the “WOW” experience.

Perhaps one of the best known Zappos’ customer experiences happened in December 2012 when a conversation between a team member and a customer lasted 10.5 hours. Ironically, when the duration of the phone call which concentrated more on what it was like living in Las Vegas than selling shoes aired throughout the media, Zappos did not perceive the news as bad. A Zappos Customer Loyalty Team supervisor, in fact stated:

“Zappos’s first core value is to deliver wow through service, and we feel that allowing our team members the ability to stay on the phone with a customer for as long as they need is a crucial means of fulfilling this value.”

The customer did reportedly purchase a pair of Ugg boots.

Everyone wants to work for the best company which ultimately then attracts the best potential employees; therefore costing less money to recruit the most talented. With successful companies come better revenues, stability in the economics of the company, and more opportunities for future employee growth and promotions.

Many companies question how an organization changes from being focused on products or transactions to placing the focus on customer experiences where people become engaged emotionally. Beginning at step one with employees, evaluate if they are willing to help each other, are compassionate and helpful, and treat each other with respect. Have new strategies been defined to help employees embrace the experience – both by in depth training and by the involvement of partners who are able to enrich these experiences?

Customer-centric organizations incorporate their company culture and teach by example the following basic elements:

  • Customer experiences are customized; everyone is an individual and not just included in the one size fits all or “Please do not hang up. Your call is important to us.”
  • Customer needs are anticipated.
  • Customers receive quick responses.
  • Customers are involved in the development of services needed by asking clients and consumers what they find to be important.
  • Customer data is recorded and used to deliver a better experience.
  • Customer trends are tracked.
  • Trends and problems are shared with the team; what better way to improve customer experiences?
  • Send out and collect reviews after transactions to improve the customer experience and the products being sold and delivered.

And at the end of the day, have a plan to recognize the achievements of employees. Celebrate that incredible “WOW” experience a team member managed to pull off by “stepping out of the box.” Encourage employees to focus on customer experiences and make each unique experience a part of the company culture.

Customer satisfaction for retailers at all time high

For the third year in a row, customer satisfaction in the retail trade for the United States is at an all time industry high, but of course there are always some caveats since many of the top retailers who scored relatively low for customer satisfaction are among the top retailers. Go figure!

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report examined the implications of both e-commerce and retail businesses concluding that better customer service, discounting of prices, and lower gasoline prices offset a drop in Internet sales. For instance, gas station business is based solely on price, and with GasBuddy.com, it’s easy to check, however stations have also improved by offering customers quick options for groceries instead of having to head off to the nearest supermarket and  make another stop.

Perhaps one of the more interesting conundrums of the report stated that eight of the ten retailers with the worst customer satisfaction scores were among the 20 top retailers in 2012. Macy’s, Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and Walmart with the supermarket scoring the lowest ACSI score for customer satisfaction  and poor customer relations, still received a high customer satisfaction score for mobile and Internet business. Part of the problem of low scores come from employee feedback where lack of benefits and competitive salaries evoke mediocre to low reviews from the staff.

Interesting enough however, even though brick and mortar stores suffered this past year from less foot traffic, customers were pleased with shorter waiting lines, more products in stock, and the personal service that brings consumers into a store. Add that kind of exemplary service to a romantic city street decorated with twinkling lights and attractive merchandise offered from decorated windows, the holiday season became a fun experience for shoppers.

For specialty stores, the availability of merchandise scored the highest benchmark for customer satisfaction, and in general consumers were pleased with relatively good service, clean and attractive spaces well laid out, and quicker checkout. The down part of specialty stores compared to department stores, however are less sales and promotions. (Even the wealthiest shoppers enjoy a good bargain.)

The Internet retail experience was affected this year by a huge mess of weather delays; scarcely was there a day in the news that supply and delivery didn’t make headlines. Amazon.com didn’t seem to suffer much by offering free delivery and other “wallet oriented” apologies. It doesn’t seem one can beat the convenience, the merchandise selection, ease of navigation, useful customer information on the sites, and customer support of e-commerce; especially coming from an age of young professionals who spend more time online shopping than at the mall. Brick and mortar organizations are constantly challenged to meet and surpass a shopping experience worthy of a personal adventure.

Maybe one of the worst customer satisfaction experiences lately, scoring at the very bottom of ACSI benchmark are Internet Service Providers. Comcast Corporation, as it wens it way to a $45 billion mega merger with Time Warner Cable may be destined to become the two worst companies combining for the worst service imaginable. Facebook pages like Comcast Sucks and I Hate Comcast have thousands of likes and complaints ranging from outrageous bills, endless waits on the phone for service, and inconsistency of service. It’s practically unimaginable that Internet providers will ever do better.

As a new year of customer satisfaction rolls on, let’s hope to continue to see improvements whether we step into a store or sign on to the Internet.

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