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It’s Company Policy

Every time a customer service representative has to utter the words “it’s company policy” sirens and bells should go off in the CEO’s office. The reason – most company policies are dumb. They may not be dumb when it comes to saving money or treating customers like they are out to get you, but they are dumb when it comes to building a positive relationship with customers.

I am a big fan of general company policies. Policies that let people break rules instead of having to follow hundreds of little rules and enforce even more dumb policies. It is pretty much impossible to have a policy that will work in all situations. There will always be a gray area and chances are, there will always be a customer or employee that the policy inconveniences or annoys.

Nordstrom has “use your best judgment.” The Geek Squad has “protect our reputation.” Policies like that give representatives the ability to make a call based on the current situation. They can be added on top of regular company policies – as in you can have your normal rules, but you can also give people the freedom to break them if necessary.

I’m not sure about at Nordstrom, but at the Geek Squad, if you break a rule, that is fine, but you do have to tell the company. That way, they knew which rule you broke and why. If the company notices a lot of people are breaking the same rule, then chances are it is a problem with the rule and not the people.

That policy shows open mindedness and general trust. Both are important to keep in mind when you create policies and procedures. If you don’t think your employees are capable of making a good decision, then don’t hire them. If you have policies that outline every single thing your employees should do (including when they are allowed to breath), you’re undermining them. Employees don’t like ot feel like robots.

When you have a whole host of stupid policies, you are also undermining your customers. Customers get sick of being treated like criminals and/or idiots. You want to trust your customers as well. Chances are, they don’t want to rip you off and your policy could be stopping them from having a pleasant experience.

Seth Godin has a great post on giving (and receiving) the benefit of the doubt. Also, check out my post saying to work for the 99%, not the 1%.

The Key to Success in Retail

A friend of mine recently got a job working in retail. She is a member of the sales team for a mid-range department store and has very little retail experience. So who did she come to asking for help? Me – the person with no retail experience. Did I give some advice? You bet!

My advice to her was to focus on building relationships with customers. If you build a relationship with a customer and that customer becomes a regular, you’re going to do well. I think is the first step to success in retail.

Here is why I think it is worth focusing on building relationships with customers:

Repeat business.
Perhaps one of the best things about building a relationship with customers is that they will come back. If you work selling shoes and build a relationship with a particular customer, they will come to you first when they need shoes.

More referrals.
If you do a great job and the customer likes you, they will tell others about you. Soon, that one customer’s friends will be coming to you to buy shoes. And it goes from there.

More fun.
It probably varies from person to person, but I enjoy working with regulars a lot more than new customers. The work isn’t necessarily easier, but it is more enjoyable. You have a better relationship with the customer and it is easier to provide great service and ensure a great experience.

Helpful boost.
A lot of retail is very seasonal. It is the regular customers that help keep the ship afloat during the slow times.

So, try to build a relationship with your customers. Turn them into regulars by treating them well and it’ll pay off in a lot of ways. Just one of the four reasons should be plenty, but all four is that much better.

5 Ways to Reduce Average Call Time

Reducing average call time, call handle time, etc. is something that all customer service managers want to do. Even the ones who really want the best customer service experience don’t mind reducing average call handle time. Customers don’t mind being on the phone less time, either.

With that in mind, here are six ways to reduce average call time.

Encourage self-service.
Encourage the use of self-service tools. If the tools are useful and easy to use, more and more customers will use them. The reason for customers not using self-service tools is not because they are out to get you – it is because the tools are useless, hard to find, and/or hard to use. From my experience, customers like tools that are interactive, FAQs, tutorials with pictures, and searchable knowledge bases. Keep in mind that there is a fine line between encouraging and forcing self-service, though.

Build tools to answer common questions.
If possible, build tools that help answer common questions that you would normally have to ask to find out about an issue. For example, have me to go a page that diagnoses my computer automatically of asking me a whole bunch of questions that does the same thing. It makes the experience easier for everyone.

A lot of support calls require verification of a customer’s identity. Or at the very least, gathering of the customer’s personal information. There are always ways to include some sort of verification or reduce call time through your IVR. Invest in a system that can look up a customer’s phone number and ask for the last four digits of their credit card number. Most importantly, once the customer has verified their information using the IVR, don’t ask them to repeat it.

Get to the root of the issue.
Train your representatives to get to the root of the issue. Doing so usually involves learning how to ask the right questions and finding out what happened, what the customer expected to happen, and what the customer wants to happen (or a variation of that). If they know how to find out what the problem is, representatives will be able to resolve it much sooner.

Have fast systems.
I am sure the IT managers, software engineers, etc. looking at this are groaning right now. As an executive, it is worth investing in fast systems. If the systems ran faster, there wouldn’t be as much waiting. Use technologies that can make your systems fly and there will be less waiting.

What strategies do you use for reducing average call time?

The Great Call Center Myth

I’m late for mentioning it, but I came across a great post from Tom at QAQNA about the biggest call center myth. The myth is (paraphrased): in order to provide great customer service, customer service representatives have to be on the phone longer, resulting in increased call time.

I generally don’t even advocate paying that much attention to average call times (or call handle times in some call centers). To me, the most important numbers are customer satisfaction numbers (with the overall experience and the particular representative). If those numbers are good, don’t worry so much about call handle time. However, a lot of call centers do keep call handle time in mind and with good reason.

From what I understand about Tom’s post and my own experience is that the agent’s that are providing the best customer service through the use of soft skills (apologizing, being friendly, etc.) are usually the most talented. Since they are the most talented, they are also very good at doing the hard skills (fixing the problem, etc.). The two often go hand in hand (though not always). The best customer service representatives are usually the best in several areas.

Now for the part where I provide original thoughts.

I’m not sure about you, but in every case I can recall, the good experiences take a lot less time than the bad ones. If I call up a company, get connected quickly, the person helps me, answers my question, I can understand them, gets the problem fixed, etc., then the call gets done very quickly. 5 – 10 minutes, if that. Of course, some issues will take longer than others, but apologizing or being friendly won’t make a meaningful difference for that.

When I have a problem and the customer service provided is not so good, the experience seems to take a lot longer. You find yourself arguing with the representative, repeating information, etc. All of this makes for a much longer and much more frustrating call. It may take a half hour at best and multiple hours at worse.

And aren’t there better ways to cut call handle time? Eliminate stupid verification steps, train your representatives to get to the root of the problem, etc. More about that tomorrow.

I am glad to have assisted Tom in debunking the great call center myth. Now, when will it be on Mythbusters?

Palm Gets It!

My friends at Demand Satisfaction! pointed out a cool story that I read about earlier on Friday. Very, very quickly it goes like this:

  1. Super popular blog Engadget posts some useful suggestions for Palm in an open letter. Like most letters of the type, some of the suggestions are very extreme and nearly impossible for a publicly traded company like Palm to do quickly. Others, though, are rather practical and very good things to listen to.
  2. Palm’s CEO, Ed Colligan, responds with a nice note.
  3. Palm gets lots of positive publicity.

Whoever suggested that Ed write that post (or ask Ed if they could write it) should get a bonus. That person should become the company’s media or PR director and get a big medal saying “I Get It.”

Palm’s gesture was not large (only 147 words – about the length of this post to this point) and not specific (nothing promised). However, it seems honest, to the point, and friendly. He thanked Engadget, he said he agreed with every, but not all points, and said the company was on track to make a lot of positive changes.

Palm’s response shows they “get” blogging. It is amazing to see the number of companies that seem to completely ignore the blogosphere. Engadget has a lot of readers and is a serious player. They are a big influencer with a lot of people. Basically, they are worth paying attention to. A lot of blogs are and companies should make an effort to find and monitor those blogs in their space.

I’m not a PR person, but I can appreciate this type of response. It is very similar in customer service:

  1. Respond quickly. (It took Palm about two days to get the post up after Engadget posted it – not that bad.)
  2. Respond sincerely.
  3. Be friendly and courteous.

Those are all good rules of thumb to keep in mind when interacting with others and dealing with any sort of situation (an open letter, a complaint, praise, etc.). Respond quickly and sincerely, and be friendly/courteous with your response. If you do that, people will probably be happy to read what you have to say.

By the way, I’ve owned several Palm PDAs and smartphones over the years and like them a lot! Palm is a good company.

Interview with Bruce Eicher – Part Three

This is third and final part of the interview with Bruce Eicher, Vice President of Guide Care at ChaCha.

In this part of the interview, Bruce tells me about some software the company uses to monitor chats, details about their internal process group, how they deal with feedback, what tools they give guides, what changes to expect, and more.

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Interview with Bruce Eicher – Part Two

This is part two of the interview with Bruce Eicher, Vice President of Guide Care at ChaCha.

In this part of the interview, Bruce tells me about how ChaCha deals with its biggest challenges, what ChaCha guides do well at, what they have the most trouble with, the site’s registration process, and how they ensure quality.

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Interview with Bruce Eicher from ChaCha

Bruce Eicher is the Vice President of Guide Care at the “human-powered” search engine ChaCha.

ChaCha is an interesting company that I have written about before (here is my guide for their guides and my post summarizing a positive experience). Their customer service challenges are unique – they are dealing with thousands of part-time guides and trying to deliver a positive search experience to thousands of searchers. ChaCha has only been around about a year now (the site was launched in alpha in September), so they are still learning.

This will be a three (possibly four) part interview. Part one is below (“after the jump”). In part one, Bruce tells me about ChaCha, how many active guides they currently have, what their training process is like, what the average guide is like, and the biggest training challenge.

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