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Form an orderly line.

Most people underestimate the importance of an orderly line. If an event is being run or conducted and there is no orderly line, the result is generally havoc and mass confusion.

A line helps to make things smoother and more organized. It keeps people “in order” per say and lets customers be far less aggressive. A massive group of people makes it so customers have to jostle each other and have uncomfortable conversations about who is next and who needs to go versus who needs to wait. Lines obviously aren’t complicated to form, but they can help a lot. Customers like it when things are organized and though it might not seem like it, most would rather be in a line than in a giant herd of people waiting to pay or get into an event.

With that in mind, though, the company shouldn’t make the line one that would be more appropriate in a totalitarian state. Chances are your line is being used in a business with customers who are generally pretty reasonable and cooperative, not in a police state with armed rebels. Lines should be nicely seperated with nice dividers. There shouldn’t be people yelling and jostling customers into line. It should be orderly and simple, but it shouldn’t scare customers. If the line is long (think Disney World), then there should be signs placed at regular intervals explaining the average wait time at that point. The line isn’t there to herd people – it’s there to make the process as fast and simple as possible.

And when an employee is ready to help a customer, avoid screaming “Next!” at all costs. Some alternative phrases are, “I’m ready to help the next customer now” or “Thank you for waiting. Next customer, please.” Employees can also make eye contact with the next customer and smile. It usually doesn’t take much. The rule, of course, is just to be polite and always apologize to customers that have been waiting in line for more than a few minutes. They want to hear that you understand they don’t like to wait.

Expect self-service to help, not cure.

Investing in self-service is a great way to improve your customer service experience. Customers like self-service because they get instant and often, very thorough answers to their questions and don’t have to wait for anyone to respond. I’ve written about the best practices for self-service before, but I didn’t cover an important aspect of self-service is enough detail. The important aspect that I missed was the fact that self-service will never eliminate the need for people to contact you.

Your company can have absolutely the best self-service system in the world, but people will still need to contact you. No matter how much you address, there will still be a problem or something someone does not understand. Someone’s problem will be slightly different and they will require some help. Some people just need more hand holding than others. There will always be different configurations. And perhaps most importantly, no self-service system is ever fully complete. There is always something that can be added or clarified.

With that in mind, though, a well-designed and extensive self-service offering can greatly reduce the number of inquires that come into your helpdesk or call center. If the self-service options are simple enough, and most importantly, useful enough, customers will use them. People don’t enjoy having to contact customer service, so if the option is there, they would rather find the answer to their question through self-service. Again, the self-service offering has to be well designed. It needs to be easy to navigate (searchable), well maintained, useful, and relevant. If it isn’t, customers will get discouraged and have to contact your company for help.

You can and should expect your self-service offerings to reduce the number of inquires and requests you receive, but you should never expect for it to eliminate them to the point where you can begin laying off a majority of your customer service department. Track your support volume for a couple of months before you implement a new self-service offering and then track it for a few months after and compare the data. Chances are, you’ll see that the time and money you invested in those self-service offerings was well worth it.

Poll Employees

I am a big fan of asking employees about their opinions. Employee satisfaction is just as important as customer satisfaction (see this post about the three legged stool) and when employees are happy, they are a lot more likely to be willing to provide better service. It seems trivial, but employee opinions (if they are even provided) are frequently ignored and rarely acted upon. Some companies and executives do a great job at making employee feedback a regular part of the improvement process (see this post about Legal Seafoods), but others have a lot of room for improvement.

A perfect way to start from scratch is to simply poll your employees. Send them an email survey asking them a few questions about what it is like to work at your company and they work they do. Ask if they have the tools they need to do their job, ask supervisors and management, and ask about the customers. You want a combination of open ended and multiple choice questions to get data that you can not only compare, but act upon. Chances are, you’ll start to see trends and correlations quite quickly.

You can also conduct a poll or a survey to ask about a particular issue. It doesn’t have to be some super-serious issue, it can be about anything. Your next poll can be something along the lines of “Where would you like to have the next company party?” Employees will like that the company is asking for their opinion.

The most important step after that, is of course, to act upon the suggestions. You want to take employee feedback seriously and actually keep their opinions in mind. If you keep asking and not acting, then employees will get discouraged and the act of asking might end up hurting you more than it helped. If you are willing and prepared to take employee feedback seriously and make changes based on that feedback, then start asking. You’ll learn a lot and help make it so your employees feel valued.

Use pre-defined responses with care.

Pre-defined responses are great. They make email support go faster, they allow customer service representatives to give consistent answers easily, and they are usually more detailed and better written than an average response created on the fly. However, they have to be used with care and consideration. When pre-defined responses are abused, they lose any and all value that they might have and the process of them losing their value happens very quickly. To work, the people using pre-defiend responses need to keep these things in mind:

Only use them when they answer the exact question. A pre-defined response can only be used if it answers the exact question the customer is asking. “Kind of similar” doesn’t cut – it has to be the exact question the pre-defined is intended to answer or the pre-defiend has to be modified to fit the question if appropriate. Companies that keep tabs on what customers ask have no trouble developing pre-defined responses for the most frequently asked questions and requests, but the employees using them need to pay attention.

They can and should be modified. Pre-defiend power users know that they can use pre-defined responses to serve as an addition to their existing emails. They combine the pre-defined with “custom” information written for that particular reply and the result is a more complete, better written answer. It still saves time and it still helps.

They can and should be updated. Just like any other help content, pre-defined responses should be updated and edited on a regular basis. Who can update them might vary from company to company, but the process should be simple and quick regardless. Keep them up to date with the most useful answers and advice and ensure that they are reviewed regularly for spelling, grammar, and “friendliness.”

Responding with just a pre-defined can often be rude (especially when it doesn’t answer the question). Just remember to take care and actually think about the answer that the customer is looking for. If a pre-defined can answer it, great. If it can’t, be prepared to actually put some work into it and find out what can.

Pay attention to the customer in front of you.

One of the worst things a customer service representative can do is to be distracted. It can kill an otherwise acceptable customer service experience in about a minute.

I was at my vet’s office today and as I went to pay and leave, the lady who was checking me out was distracted. She was helping another employee, answering the phone, and generally just not paying attention to me (the customer standing in front of her). The phone calls weren’t quick phone calls, either – one of them was a several minute discussion with another employee regarding her schedule. At one point, she was holding my credit card while talking on the phone. She didn’t apologize once.

Needless to say, this made the customer service experience significantly less enjoyable. It took more than 15 minutes for me to pay with a credit card and for the checkout process to end. And it took so long solely because the lady was distracted. If she was paying attention and helping me, it would have been a 5 minute process. It would have been a fairly smooth process and it would have been just fine (the lady was nice enough).

Focusing on the customer that happens to be standing right in front of you is critically important. It seems like common sense, but it isn’t always followed. The customer in front of you is the one waiting on you to do something and waiting on you to help them. It is different than waiting on hold or waiting for an email to be answered – they’re right there. And when someone is right in front of you, you shouldn’t ignore them or make them wait.

Have a manager make a call.

When a customer is really upset, it really helps when a manager or other supervisor takes a few minutes to reach out to that customer. The manager can give the upset customer a call or send them a personal email – just something to let them know what they heard about the issue and offer their assistance.

Just like the representative that only needs to take a few minutes a day to reach out, this is all about taking the extra time to work with customers who have expressed they are frustrated. They may not being posting about the issue publicly (yet), but they are upset and they are frustrated. If a manager who is empowered to make things happens can get in touch with them, it can make a big difference. Instead of a negative post the next day, they might post something overwhelmingly positive.

The upset customers tend to appreciate simple gestures like a manager reaching out because they are relatively uncommon. The only time customers usually talk to managers is when they are extremely persisent and refuse to get off the phone without talking to a manager. Imagine how impressed a customer would be if he or she received a call or an email from a manager or a supervisor that started off with a statement like “I heard that you were frustrated with your resolution from our customer service department the other day. How may I help you?” Chances are, they would be grateful for the manager reaching out and happy to hear from someone.
The best call centers make this a normal practice. In the best call centers, managers and supervisors are easily available and regularly talk to customers. And it helps. If customer service representatives are able to resolve most of the issues, they really don’t have to elevate calls very often. However, chances are that every representative will have to escalate a call sooner or later and having managers that care and that are available make the process a lot more effective.

Take 10 Minutes and Reach Out

The best companies have someone that takes 5 or 10 minutes a day and works on reaching out to customers.

Who the person is does not really matter; they can be a normal support person, someone who works in PR, or anyone else that writes well and is familiar with the company. In addition to their “day job,” this person should spend about 5 or 10 minutes a day reading what people say about the company in the blogosphere, on Twitter, on the various customer feedback sites, on forums for the particular industry, etc. They can easily come up with a list of 5 to 10 sites to check out on a daily basis and be able to go through almost all of them within 10 or so minutes.

Once the person finds a mention of the company, he or she should respond. If praise was given, thank the customer for the kind words and for their business. If the customer complained, they should try to help that customer out. The person assigned to reaching out should take the time to explain things and let the customer know what happens and why. Their job for that 5, 10, or 20 minutes a day is just to let customers know that the company cares and to be available when customers have trouble. They should put the customer in touch with the right people and work with the customer to get things figured out.

Companies that do this really seem to “get it.” It really is not difficult for the customers of 2008 to post their opinions somewhere on the web and instantly tell hundreds or thousands of people. If they have a Twitter account or a blog, they can easily tell 100 or 200 people of their woes with your company within a few minutes. And they can also tell 100 or 200 people about how impressed they were with your company’s pro-active response as well. Taking 10 minutes a day to reach out is a little thing that can and will make a huge difference each time you do it.

Psychology and Customer Service

I have been reading a book about various psychology studies and kept thinking about how a couple of the studies could be related to customer service. It didn’t take long for me to think of two studies that were relevant to customer service and they both were about the importance of giving people control of their lives and their surroundings. While the studies obviously had a different purpose and relating them to service might be a little bit of a stretch, I do feel strongly that these studies about control can apply to customer service.

The main finding of the experiment was that giving people the ability to make choices tend to make them happier. I figured this could be applied to customer service in quite a few ways.

Give customers choices when it comes to customer service.
The basic idea is not to force customers to do any one thing a specific way. Instead of making them fill out a form, let them call in to order or to upgrade their service. Instead of requiring an email address to look up their account, ask if they would prefer if you looked up their account using their phone number. The changes and choices only have to be minor (that is usually all it takes), but there do have to be choices. Within an average customer service organization, there are plenty of opportunities to offer choices to customers – it is just a matter of thinking about them.

Make the choices customer-centric.
All of the choices should be designed to make the customer service experience as smooth as possible. You don’t want to add choices just for the sake of choices, but you do want to add choices that let customers make their experience as smooth and convenient as possible for them. Keep in mind what is easier for one customer might not be easier for another, which is why giving customers choices is so important.

The important thing to remember is that customers like having options and that giving them options can make them happier (especially if they are good options).

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