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AOL Customer Service – Better Than Expected

image1 My parents use AOL. It is a company and a product that I don’t really like. When my mom told me she was having problems with AOL and I figured out I couldn’t fix them right away, I was not looking forward to calling AOL.

I found AOL’s technical support phone number on GetHuman and dealt with an annoying phone menu (IVR for the more . It quickly verified my parent’s account with their phone number and screen name, but wouldn’t let me get to a human without arguing with it for a while. Needless to say, I wasn’t too impressed at this point.

However, when the IVR deemed me worthy and connected to me to a human (which was done without having to hold), I was fairly impressed. Judging by her accent, the representative I spoke to was not American. She sounded like she was India, but that wasn’t an issue. I was able to understand her without any problem. Her grammar wasn’t perfect, but what she said always made sense.

The representative’s biggest strength, though, was that she was friendly. She had a great attitude. She sounded like she wanted to help me and was very positive. The troubleshooting tips I was being told to do made sense.

The first round of troubleshooting steps didn’t work, but without putting me on hold, she had something else that she had my try. It did the trick and the problem was resolved.  I was impressed. The experience was way better than I had expected (long hold times, unfriendly representatives, no resolution).

As I was ending the call, I told her to tell her supervisor that she did a great job. The representative (whose name I didn’t catch, by the way) asked if I would like to talk to her supervisor. I said sure and within a couple of seconds was speaking to the supervisor. I told the supervisor what a great job my representative did. I explained (briefly) that my expectations weren’t high and that the lady helping me did a terrific job. The supervisor, who was very friendly as well, thanked me for my compliment and told me the representative who was helping me was one of the best agents on the floor.

I can see why the supervisor might say that. A friendly representative and a solved problem. Kudos to AOL for a job well done.

Also, a very Happy Halloween to everyone! Make it a safe and fun night!

Figure Out Why They’re Calling

1195585627_aa1f126c3d A post on Paul Sweeney’s You’ve Been Noticed pointed out the obvious thing I missed with how to reduce phone calls to customer service: figure out why your customers are calling. I missed the elephant in the room when I forgot to mention that. It may just seem like common sense, but it makes a ton of sense and is something that has to be considered.

A crucial element to self-service is being able to provide information that the customers care about (relevant). If the self-service tools, information, resources, etc. are relevant, then the customer is a lot more likely to use them.

However, in order to figure out which ones will be most relevant to customers you need to figure out why a majority of your customers are calling. Then, once you know the answer to that question (and questions like it), you can provide the appropriate information, tools, resources, etc. via your standard self-service outlets (such as automated phone prompts, your web site, etc.).

There are a lot of ways to figure out why your customers are calling:

  • Ask your representatives to describe the issue in the log (as they should already).
  • Have some sort of definitive drop down to describe the category of issues (i. e. a representative could pick order status, defective product, return, etc.).
  • Ask representatives what the most common issues seem to be.
  • Survey your customers about why they call.

All of these methods are good ways to find out about why your customers are calling. Once you know why they’re calling, you will have some very valuable information. You can then take that and start working on improving your self-service.

Photo courtesy of tambako.

7 Steps to Great Customer Service

I read an article by Joe Takash over the weekend about some simple strategies to keep in mind when trying to deliver great customer service.

The bold titles are Joe’s suggestions. My comments and own suggestions are below the titles.

1. Make a great first impression.
You only have one chance at making a first impression. How you start off a customer or customer service experience will definitely set the tone for the rest of the experience.

2. Be a name-learning machine.
It takes more than just learning names. You also want to be able to use names. Be able to recognize faces, names when they are written out (such as in emails or tickets), etc. When you know and can use names, it will make a huge difference.

3. Be a fantastic listener.
This is extremely important. Great customer service representatives are even better listeners. They also practice “active listening” where they confirm what the customer is saying, ask appropriate questions, and subtly poke around for additional (and useful) information.

4. Create common ground.
The article suggest asking questions like “did you do anything fun over the weekend”, “where are you from?”, “are you looking forward to X,” etc. to help create some common ground. Creating some common ground not only helps the customer service experience by killing what would otherwise be dead air, but if it works out well, could make it a memorable experience.

5. Show constant appreciation.
Showing constant appreciation according to Joe is sending handwritten thank you cards (constantly). Send them to people who refer you customers, new customers, returning customers, etc. The point is to show you appreciate their business, their thinking of you, and them choosing you. You can also call or see customers to show your thanks.

6. Apologize and admit fault.
Not much else needs to be added to this point. It is important to admit it when you mess up. It is even more important to handle those mess ups properly. One of my favorite customer service quotes is “the road to success is paved with well handled mistakes.” It makes a lot of sense.

7. Be positively contagious.
Joe ends the article by suggesting that you should be positive. Use positive words, be friendly, show your passion. Yawning, negative terms, complaining, etc. won’t make for a great customer service experience. Be happy! Smile!

Encouraging Independent Thought

employeemanual I read an interesting post at Call Center Script about essentially having little games and test trials in the call center. It is interesting concept that made be think about something that is extremely important to customer service: employee empowerment.

Employee empowerment, which I sometimes call independent thought among employees, is so crucial to customer service. It is absolutely necessary to empower your employees if you want to provide great customer service. Period. Absolutely necessary. There is no way around it.

Something I am a huge fan of and really, really encourage companies to adopt is a general empowerment mantra. Sometime like what these companies use:

  • Nordstrom: UUse your good judgment in all situations.
  • Geek Squad: Your actions should protect or improve our reputation.

They are really interesting. By Nordstrom telling it associates to use their best judgement, it is putting some pressure on them. Your judgement is important and the company has faith in it.

The Geek Squad’s mantra is really terrific as well. The company’s founder, Robert Stephens, figured that reputation was a pretty solid thing and very important to the company. He made that part of their empowerment mantra. He told me that employees can break any rule, as long as it works to protect or improve the reputation and as long as employees tell Geek Squad about it. That way, the company can work on improving any stupid policies.

If you want to be a company with great customer service, your company needs to adopt an empowerment mantra (if you don’t already have one). You have to mean it and you have to encourage employees to think for themselves and use it.

I promise you that if your company is not used to empowerment or the encouragement of independent thought that this may be a tough transition. You will have to actively encourage your employees to think for themselves and use the extra leeway you give them. You will have to reward them for what could be understood as breaking the rules.

But that is what makes great customer service great. A culture that encourages and rewards employees for breaking company policy in order to make the customer happy is a great customer service culture. I also wouldn’t doubt that the company with that sort of culture is a great company – not only for customers, but also for the company’s employees and investors.

Customer Service = Money

image A few studies have shown that companies with high ratings on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) have seen better performance on the stock market over a period of time than their competitors.

In the study / paper entitled Customer Satisfaction and Stock Prices: High Returns, Low Risk (here is the PDF), a number of companies were tracked. Those with high customer satisfaction ratings did better on the stock exchange between 1997 and 2003 than those with lower ratings.

These companies outperformed their competitors by margins that were occasionally quite large. The student is pretty technical, but from my understanding, and the understanding of some other people I know that are familiar with it, it shows that companies with higher customer satisfaction rates enjoy business success as well.

Think about it – great customer service usually leads to high customer satisfaction, which in turn produces many of the following:

  • Customer referrals
  • Customer evangelists (aka free marketing)
  • Increased repeat business
  • Increased profitability
  • Happier employees (which leads to increased productivity)

By the way, the ACSI is a super interesting group. Their satisfaction scores by company (and also by industry and sector) are really interesting. Only larger companies are included, but the numbers are really interesting. The biggest problem is that they don’t have measurements for all the companies on the list for every year.

Kudos to Zappos

42793083_5d6e45668a I read this story about Zappos last week and my literal reaction was saying “aww.” If you know me, you know I’m not usually the “aww” type. After reading this customer service story, I got the feeling that people get after seeing a picture of cute puppies. Maybe not quite, but perhaps at least a somewhat similar reaction.

Reading great customer service stories like this is terrific. Just like the Nordstrom example, it is very inspiring. This one is a lot more heartfelt. it is something that a lot more people will think is exceptional and that a lot more people will really give credit to Zappos for.

1339373885_205c405eabIn my opinion, this customer service experience was exceptional, excellent, and terrific in pretty much every way. It shows that the company empowers their employees to do things like this, encourages the said employees to pay attention to (and act on the) little things, and actually cares about their customers. It shows a lot about the company (which is known for their customer service) and how much they actually care.

Zappos didn’t know this customer was a blogger or that she would have blogged about it. They knew she was a customer who had been with them for a few years and had always been a good customer. Why not go the extra mile? It obviously worked out way in their favor – they have gotten a lot of very positive publicity, but I doubt that was their motive.

Think about phone companies. They make you send a death certificate to get out of a cellphone contract. I doubt they send you a sympathy card after that, much less a nice thing of flowers.

Zappos earned a lot of respect from me for doing this. I am positive they made a previously loyal customer a lifelong evangelist as well. Once again, great customer service helps a great company out.

Photos courtesy of itsgreg (golden) and tonee_ (husky).

Note: Sorry the photos aren’t terribly relevant. It is not often I get to post pictures of puppies and have it be at all relevant to the post.

Outside Opinions Matter

1657993319_6713d32f33A week or so ago there was a great post by Tom at QAQNA about the importance of outside opinions in customer service. It was a follow up to a post that Maria from CustomersAreAlways had made a few days earlier.

The article that both Tom and Maria talk about points out something that so few executives realize: your customer service isn’t as good as you think it is.

Another related aspect is: you don’t know what your customers want. Okay, that is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but often executives don’t have as solid an understanding as they think they do about customer wants and needs.

This is perfectly understandable. When you work within a company every day for a year, two years, or twenty years, you have a different perspective than an outsider. You may make excuses about why something can’t be done more than an outside, might not see the obvious, etc. It happens to everyone. It is impossible to be completely objective when you’ve worked inside a company for a while.

Companies should actively seek outside opinions. The opinions can be from professionals like consultants or auditors, or from customers, partners, etc. As long as the outside opinions are being provided. If companies can get that sort of outside perspective, then they will hopefully benefit.

Looking from the outside in can be very good for someone. I also encourage executives to try and do the frontline jobs for a few days. I’ve seen it done at some companies and it is really interesting (and often beneficial) for executives to do frontlines jobs. Work in your store folding clothes, answer the phones, that sort of thing. You’ll get a whole new appreciation of your employees as well as ideas about what can be done to improve.

The best companies (in all aspects – not just customer service) seek opinions from outsiders. I am pretty confident in saying that there is not one great company or customer service department for that matter that doesn’t ask for help from outsiders every now and then.

Dealing with and making use of those outside opinions? That is a whole different story.

Two Stories from the Big Computer Companies

Dell_Logo_68742782   hp-logo-black-solid

People who have been reading Service Untitled for a while know I have interviewed people heavily involved with customer service at both Dell and HP. At Dell, I interviewed the company’s VP of Customer Experience, Dick Hunter (link). At HP, I interviewed the company’s manager of consumer service, Janice Liu (link). Both interviews were really interesting and among my favorite interviews on the site.

Both of my posts show up fairly prominently on the search engines. While the Dell one is more specific to Dick Hunter, the HP one generates at least several customer comments and complaints a week. I forward these to HP and hopefully the customer gets a resolution.

Recently, I forwarded a complaint that was posted to HP. Within four hours (count them – four!), I received a reply from a colleague of my contact at HP who said that HP had called the customer and was issuing a replacement to the notebook. I was baffled (in a good way) by the turnaround time.

Firstly, it is very rare for a company respond to an issue that quickly. Much less a big company. I was impressed that they dealt with an average situation that quickly. Kudos to HP. I hope the customer gets a full resolution soon. 

In other news, I was made aware of a great article about how Dell is doing with the blogosphere and its relatively new initiatives in that area. The article by Jeff Jarvis in BusinessWeek is here.

A while back, Jeff had a lot of trouble with Dell (a series of interactions he labeled as Dell hell) and Dell stepped up to the plate and has made solid commitments (and progress!) to improvements (see my post on their progress here). From my interactions with the company as a journalist and as a consultant, I have been really impressed. They are working hard and I’m glad to see they are starting to get credit for their hard work.

HP and Dell have both made pretty big commitments to improvement. They have been investing a lot of time, money, and resources into their efforts. HP’s ratings keep going up and Dell is slowly improving as well. I like to see big companies improving. It is a win-win for everyone.

Note: I’m not being paid by either company to write this post. Neither company is a current client. Whenever I write a positive post about a big company (much less two), I’m asked that.

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