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The Five W’s of Hiring a Customer Service Consultant

At Service Untitled, we offer customer service consulting services for organizations that are interested in improving their customer service. We help companies implement the things I talk about on Service Untitled and tailor solutions and ideas for their company.

To help inform people about hiring a customer service consultant, I decided to write the Five W’s of hiring a customer service consultant. They are below:

Some consultants work by themselves and others have a team. I personally work by myself and have a small team of people that I work with for specialty tasks. Some consultants have these people on staff – others (like me) hire them as needed.

Do your research on your consultant. Do they have a blog? Is it well established? Where have they worked? Ask your consultant for references, case studies, and examples. Be sure you know who you will be dealing with.

What do you want your consultant to do? Most consultants (myself included) will have a phone call or a meeting with you for free to get an idea of what challenges you are facing and how to alleviate them. They should give you specific suggestions, not just sweeping statements about customer service.

Ask your consultant about what they specialize in. For example, people shouldn’t hire me if they specially want to maximize the productivity of each one of their agents. They hire me if they want to improve their entire customer service experience and make a difference with little things.

Why should you hire this consultant? Ask them that. There are quite a few customer service consultants out there and the consultant should be able to give you a few reasons why they are better than the others.

Why will they use method X over method Y?

The where part is mainly logistics. Where will the consulting work to be done? Will the consultant work in your office for a period of time or work remotely? How long will they work with you? Will there be a follow up period in a few months? Who will they work with (very important)?

How is the consultant going to make changes? They should be willing to prepare a proposal for you explaining what they will do and how they will do it. They should be able to answer your questions.

Remember, if you don’t feel good about hiring the consultant – don’t. There are plenty of other ones to choose from. You will work a lot with the consultant and you want to work with someone who you get along and feel comfortable with.

The ChaCha Guide’s (Quick) Guide to Customer Service

I’ve already written an Executive’s (Quick) Guide to Customer Service and my post about the experience I had using ChaCha generated a fair amount of interest (they had a topic about it on their forums), so I thought a quick guide to customer service for ChaCha guides might be useful. Here it goes.

Think about what you do.
Your job is to help people find the most relevant search results to their question. Your personal goal is to get high ratings. Even if you can’t find the best search results – searchers will likely give you a good rating if you are friendly and they think you tried. 

Some of the questions are harder than others, but don’t get discouraged. Try to think about each search as something that you are looking for yourself. Try different ways, approaches, and use all the tools available to you to find the perfect site for the customer. 

Be friendly.
While you don’t actually do too much chit-chat type talking during the chat, try to be friendly. Remember – it is usually not what you say, but how you say it. Here are some tips:

  • Say hello and thank the user for using ChaCha at the beginning of the chat.
  • Compliment users. (That’s an interesting question! Let me do some research and find an answer for you.)
  • Use terms like “Absolutely”, “My pleasure”, “Sure – just a moment”, and “I’d be more than happy to do that for you. Just a moment.”
  • Use please and thank you. (Thank you for clarifying that for me.)
  • Provide updates every minute or so. (I’m not finding exactly what you are looking for, but I’m going to try a few other search terms. Just a moment, please.”
  • Related to the above: Don’t let anyone fall in the “black hole.”
  • Thank searchers for their patience. (Sorry this is taking so long! Thank you for your patience!)

Little things like this can end up making a big difference in the overall search experience. It’ll definitely make the difference between an “okay” and “great” rating.

Brush up on spelling and grammar.
My spelling and grammar is not the best. It isn’t bad, but it’s not the best. Be sure to look over things before you click “send” or push enter. Read some of the stuff at the Online Writing Lab and this page, which lists some of the most common errors in English usage and how to avoid them.

When clarifying the question, don’t just ask the user to elaborate. If I put in blogging as the search term, don’t ask me “Could you please tell me more about the search term?” Instead, ask me something like “What would you like to know about blogging?” A little thing, but it makes a difference.

Describe search results.
Just don’t send search results and offer the generic response of “Are these results sufficient?” Instead, describe each result. Say, “This site outlines what you wanted, but may be slightly outdated.” Unless the search result is perfect, include an action. For example: “This site outlines what you wanted, but may be slightly outdated. I’m going to look for a more recent example.”

When offering further assistance, probe.
The canned response of “Are these results sufficient?” is terrible. Instead, say something like “Have I helped you find what you were looking for?” Optionally, include “exactly.” If a searcher says “I guess.” – probe. Ask them what else they are looking for. Include phrases like “That doesn’t sound too confident. How else can I help you?” Frankly, you need to be somewhat pushy. See this post about being insistent.

Offer to follow-up.
During one of my ChaCha searches, a guide offered to take my email address and email me if she found anything. This is cool and a great idea. I’m not sure if it is allowed by ChaCha, but if it is, it’s a great thing to do.

Thank them for using ChaCha.
Closings count. After you are sure the searcher is happy, be sure to thank them for using ChaCha. Say something like “Thanks so much for using ChaCha!” or something equally happy and friendly.

I think everything I suggested is allowed/accepted according to ChaCha policy, but if I am wrong, please let me know. I like ChaCha and hope this guide can be useful for ChaCha’s great guides. There are definitely ones who really care and really want to help, and as a result, do a great job.

If someone from ChaCha is interested in publishing this article in the guide FAQs, etc. just contact me (email address is in bold on this page).

Flash Tutorials – Solving Customer Service

This post is by Vito Ceniti, who is the President Netasis Internet Inc. Netasis owns and operates DemoDemo, a company that provides Flash tutorials (designed for customer service) for a variety of companies.

Any company that plans on running a successful online business understands that customer service is an integral part of the success formula. With growing competition in all business sectors, it is critical that online business owners allocate sufficient resources to their customer support departments so that they are not left behind by their competitors.

Knowledge Base documents are commonly used as a self-serve component to technical support. The problem is that even when companies take the time and effort to create comprehensive KB resources, many end users don’t bother to refer to them. Many find them verbose, dry and boring. Text based documentation serves its purpose, but the challenge is to get customers to actually read them. Many don’t, and end up taking the easier route by placing a telephone call to Customer Support, or at the very least, sending in a support ticket.

More and more, one of the more innovative tools used that has proven to be extremely effective in providing support and reducing support costs is Flash tutorials. People are visual by nature. They prefer to actually see how something is done rather than having to read how it’s done. Most Flash tutorials will have a playbar that allows the user to stop, pause, fast forward or rewind. This level of interactivity is very helpful since it allows the end user to effectively follow along step by step – with the Flash tutorial in one browser and their own control panel in another.

At DemoDemo.com, we have been producing Flash tutorials since 2002. At first, our target market was strictly web hosting companies. While they still remain a large portion of our customer base, we are continually and increasingly receiving orders for custom Flash tutorials from other business sectors – including medical, stock market, software, auction, car rental, and on and on. Basically, any business that requires that their customers perform task(s) online could benefit from introducing Flash tutorials to their customer support arsenal. One important key is to make the tutorials as task specific as possible. This allows the user to find the help they are looking for quickly and effortlessly. Another key is to create a proper “flow” to the overall movie. Too fast – it will confuse and frustrate the user. Too slow – it will bore the user who will end up quitting the session before learning to perform the task.

It’s always tempting for business owners to try to save money by creating their own tutorials inhouse. Some are successful at it, but all too often, the end result does not provide for an effective solution. A poorly produced tutorial will (ironically) drive up the frequency of support tickets. And of course, one should not overlook the initial cost of tutorial creation software as well as the significant learning curve required to use the tool. We always recommend that this work be outsourced to an experienced tutorial provider.

Flash tutorials, when presented properly, significantly reduce the total number of support tickets that an online business receives related to routine tasks performed by their end users. Given that on average, a company’s expenses allocated to customer support can exceed 50% or more, there is a real and valid concern of rising support costs. Outsourcing customer support, while effective, is an ongoing expense. By contrast, Flash tutorials are a one time purchase and need only be updated when the interface in the tutorial has been changed or updated.

From a psychological standpoint, it’s also important to note that “empowering” end users to solve their own problems is very powerful. When users successfully complete a task with the help of a Flash tutorial, they feel a sense of accomplishment that would otherwise not be present when merely submitting a support ticket. Once they feel that immediate reinforcement, they are far more likely to seek out the Tutorial Section on a site before even considering contacting a Support representative. If the tutorials are properly produced, they will provide an immediate solution 24/7. No need to wait for a response from Support the next business day.

At this point, there is no question that Flash tutorials are an extremely effective tool in the Customer Support arena. They increase customer satisfaction, reduce overall support costs and provide the business an added layer of professionalism. In the end, it is a win-win situation. The end users are allowed to solve their support issues on an immediate self-serve basis, and the companies reap the benefits of lowered supports costs, reflecting in a healthier bottom line.

Robert Stephens interview round-up

Over the last few weeks, we’ve posted parts of Service Untitled’s interview with Robert Stephens, a VP at Best Buy and the founder of The Geek Squad. Geek Squad was acquired by Best Buy in 2002 when it had just 50 “agents” and today has more than 11,000. The interview is four parts, all of which are listed below, along with a short description of what’s covered in each part:

Part One
Link – Robert’s customer service and business philosophy, background and education.

Part Two
Link – The Geek Squad’s recruiting, hiring and training processes, about their uniforms, about the mix between technical aptitude, personality, and customer service skills.

Part Three
Link – schedule management, the common customer service challenges, what The Geek Squad is doing to improve, and more.

Part Four
Link – how The Geek Squad find employees who are passionate about both technology and customer service, how they gather feedback, how The Geek Squad monitors the blogosphere, customer service tips for companies, more about Robert’s belief that employees should “protect or improve” the company’s reputation.

Click-to-call Webinar – March 7th

eStara, who recently wrote a great guest writer post on click-to-call, is holding a webinar on March 7, 2007 at 1:00 PM ET to discuss about click-to-call, its possibilities, and how one can go about implementing the technology. Part of the description from the page is below:

“Join Brad Strothkamp, Senior Analyst at Forrester Research, and John Federman, CEO of eStara, for a webinar on March 7, 2007 at 1:00pm EST to discuss best practices for deploying proactive Click to Call and Click to Chat solutions.”

All the information about the webinar can be found here.

It should be an interesting for those of you curious about click-to-call and the solutions available.

Disclosure: eStara has written two guest writer posts for Service Untitled.

Seth Godin on Customer Service

Seth Godin is usually regarded as a marketing guy, but he really knows his stuff when it comes to customer service. He talks about customer service a lot, too.

Seth linked to a post a week or two ago about apologies. It’s a great post and really gives readers an idea of the different levels of apologies. You have the generic ones, the sincere ones, the ones that blame others, etc. It breaks it down really well and is worth a read.

About two days ago, he linked to “Seven steps to remarkable customer service“, a great post by Joel Spolsky. While the post doesn’t give any advice that is too revolutionary, it makes a great point and is very effective. To give you a brief outline:

  1. Fix everything two ways
  2. Suggest blowing out the dust
  3. Make customers into fans
  4. Take the blame
  5. Memorize awkward phrases
  6. Practice puppetry
  7. Greed will get you nowhere

Seth’s most recent post on customer service was entitled “Starting over with customer service.” The post definitely provides an interesting perspective on how to handle customer service.

He suggests using the receptionist system that I described in one of my posts. They are responsible for gathering all the relevant information and expressing that the problem will be solved as soon as possible. The issues are then elevated up the line and everyone that touches the ticket is responsible for solving it. If it takes more than 20 hours, an executive has to deal with it or suffer the consequences.

A commenter (actually, trackback-er) called it Customer Service 2.0. I’d call it Customer Service 1.1. The system isn’t totally new or revolutionary, but it is a different way of doing things. It is definitely different and I can see how it could be effective.

I’m not sure if his system would work for every type of company, but ones dealing with more complex issues or higher end clients, I can see it working.

What do you think of Customer Service 1.1/2.0?

Cut back on phone service? No way! Enhance it instead.

This is a guest writer post by John Federman, the CEO of eStara, a leading provider of online conversion solutions for enhancing multichannel sales and support initiatives.

As mentioned here about two weeks ago, a number of companies are implementing alternative contact solutions, like click to call, to control the volume and quality of calls sent to their contact centers.

Analysts agree that click to call is an effective means of reaching out to Web site visitors to engage them in conversation. For this reason, thousands of companies around the globe are deploying these solutions to enhance multi-channel sales and support efforts.

Basic click to call functionality is very easy to set up. It requires no additional software or hardware, and calls are routed directly to your existing CRM and telephony infrastructure. By pasting a JavaScript code into a Web site script, a standard click to call button is embedded on a Web site, and customers can start talking with your agents immediately either via their computer, or by entering in their phone number for an immediate call back.

If volume is not a concern, then this is the way to go.

However, if your business is growing and you’re attracting a lot of customers, you face the very real possibility of being overwhelmed with customer sales and support requests.

This is why most companies would prefer not to have every customer inquiry result in a phone call or chat, and invest heavily in providing self-service tools like FAQs and knowledgebase systems. However, in those instances where customer contact is desired or required, click to call not only helps offer quality service, but enhances the customer experience and increase sales conversion as well.

But not all click to call deployments are equal. Before deciding which solution is right for your business, it’s important to understand the deployment options for click to call functionality. These include:

Dynamic/Rules-Based Deployments – Unlike the static click to call buttons described above, dynamic/rules-based deployments are visible only when specific conditions exit. Dynamic buttons are triggered by a series of rules that are predetermined by the business during implementation. Business rules can range from:

  • Number of items in a customer’s shopping cart
  • Total shopping cart value
  • Amount of time a customer has spent idle on a page
  • Incomplete transactions
  • Preferred customer status
  • Hours of operation or call center availability

Because there may be uniform reasons of when customers abandon your Web site or require customer service, rules-based deployments provide a way to automate a call offering to prevent these things from happening and offer customers a chance to speak with a live agent based on their perceived needs.

Proactive Deployments — Like dynamic deployments, proactive deployments offer more flexibility than static click to call buttons, and give contact center agents more control over when to engage online prospects. Using real-time Web analytics, and rules-based triggers, contact center agents can determine if, and when to engage customers to call or chat based on their online behavior. With proactive deployments, the agent can control when and where they decide to offer the click to call invitation to offer a customized online shopping, or service, experience for each consumer.

Integrated Deployments — Integrated click to call deployments can either be static, dynamic or proactive, but leverage unique data integration and collaboration technology to create a truly seamless experience for customers as they transition from an online session to a phone call.

This is done through a process called “cross-channel data passing.” Cross-channel data passing ensures a continuity of customer experience by transferring information about the customer and the context of their online session directly to the call center at the time of call initiation. The call center software can be configured to display this information directly on the agent’s desktop screen, or it can use the incoming data values to trigger lookups into the company’s own databases to retrieve related details (customer records, purchase history, billing information, etc.)

Rather than having the customer start all over again, the contact center agent can use this information to verify account status, identify problems with the online transaction, and more efficiently troubleshoot whichever issue prompted the customer to call.

Additionally, integrated deployments also open up a new level of collaboration between online customers and contact center agents. Using data passed when calls are initiated, agents can push relevant pages to customers, or initiate co-browsing sessions to guide customers through the sales or support process.

Conclusion — Nothing is more frustrating to a consumer than having to “start all over again” when they transition from the Web to a phone conversation. Click to call offers one solution to this problem by integrating the power of Web analytics with the convenience and comfort of the telephone. Given the range of options available, it’s critical to have a full understanding of your business goals and how customers behave on your Website. Doing so allows you to offer the right form of contact at the right time to maximize the benefit of click to call offerings, and not only reduce call center costs, but turn your call center into a revenue generator.

John Federman is CEO of eStara, a leading provider of online conversion solutions for enhancing multichannel sales and support initiatives. Mr. Federman is responsible for eStara’s strategic direction, growth and corporate vision. He brings more than 20 years of experience with innovative information technology and media companies to eStara, and has worked with some of the world’s most recognized brands, including Continental Airlines, DaimlerChrysler and Dell Financial Services, to enhance their multichannel sales and support operations.

JetBlue’s recent problems

If you travel, know anyone who travels, or follow the news, you have certainly heard a lot about JetBlue recently (see this link to Google News). There is a lot to discuss on this topic, so I may come back to it in a few separate posts over the next week or two. It is a big mess up – one that business folk are saying will cost JetBlue an immediate $30 million and who knows how much in reputation damage and a loss of repeat business. Glenn talked about the issue a few days ago and mentioned how it is very much an “us versus them” thing.

JetBlue is similar to Southwest in terms of customer service. The company seems to be well liked by passengers and is also a low fare/high customer service type airline. Customer service seems to be a major focus of theirs and the company seems quite upset about all that has been happening lately. I haven’t talked about JetBlue at all before (though Paul English said they were pretty good in terms of customer service in his interview).

Signals vs. Noise had an excellent post about JetBlue and how they have been handling the whole fiasco the other day. Their suggestions are as follows – my comments are in ():

  • Bring all available employees to the front lines. (Excellent suggestion and JetBlue did well at this and though Matt says they weren’t a ton of help, they were there and better than nothing.)
  • Be the megaphone man. (This was very resourceful and an excellent idea. People want updates – see this post about keeping customers in the loop.)
  • Have an operator reserve force. (I’m not sure how feasible it is for the company to get additional operators at short notice, but I agree with the point about it is stupid to tell customers who are there to call.)
  • Take it personally. (JetBlue did this and is still doing it).
  • Use your site as a PR weapon. (They may not have been doing this at the time, but they are now. There are links all over to the Passenger Bill of Rights, and an apology from the CEO).

The suggestions on SVN were direct from the writer and passenger. Compared to a lot of customer service “disasters”, I think JetBlue did very well. They are handling the issue and not trying to brush it off to any extent.

To add my few cents (and I’m not sure if JetBlue was doing this or what – these suggestions are just from what I have read so far):

  • Get alternatives. I think JetBlue did some of this. They should have been buying tickets for passengers on other airlines, buying bus tickets, train tickets, whatever it took.
  • Get them off the planes. A big complaint seems to be that passengers were waiting on parked planes for hours. JetBlue should have sent buses and got them off the plane sooner than that. After an hour or two – max.

To help offer customers some confidence, JetBlue unveiled a “passenger bill of rights.” I’ve only read this article on it and the brief page on their site, and while it doesn’t seem bullet proof, it is definitely a step in the right direction. What JetBlue is doing right, though, is admitting it messed up and trying to fix things. They are handling their apologies correctly – by working on ensuring it won’t happen again and dealing with the immediate issues on hand.

Oh, and I am exceedingly happy that I am not the CEO or a customer service executive at JetBlue right now. I can only imagine how busy (and stressed) they must be.

Edit: Glenn is mostly convinced that JetBlue is trying.

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