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With customer service, you can forget about price.

I talk a lot about how to provide great service, but not as much about why to provide great service. Both are extremely important and both should be talked about.

My favorite answer to the “why should we provide great customer service?” question is: you can forget about price almost entirely.

Unless you’re Wal-Mart, it’s pretty hard to compete on price. If you’re Wal-Mart, it is still pretty hard to compete on price. Competing on customer service, though, is something that is not only easier to do, but far more sustainable. Customers that stick with you because of your company’s superior customer service are actually loyal to your company. Customers that stick with your company because you have the lowest prices are loyal to the low prices, not to your company.

If another company came out and had prices that were 40% lower than Wal-Mart, how many customers do you think would still be at Wal-Mart? My guess would be not many. Wal-Mart’s customer service doesn’t produce loyal customers (it isn’t designed to). Instead, their low prices make customers loyal. But what if a company came along and sold Nordstrom clothes with Wal-Mart services at a 20% discount? I bet the old, full priced, well serviced, Nordstrom stores would have a lot more customers in them than the overpriced Wal-Marts.

That difference is because of customer service. Nordstrom builds relationships with customers because of their quality customer service. They have to compete on price to be competitive of course (a company charging $500 for a $100 shirt is out of the market), but to some degree, they can forget about price. It is much better to have customers be loyal to a company, to an experience, and to a group of employees instead of to a price tag.

Do what you can behind the scenes.

This might seem obvious, but whenever possible, try to do little things behind the scenes for customers. The little things that you do behind the scenes for customers are the things that end up making the biggest difference in the customer service experience. Customers tend to take note of them and they tend to remember them. For example:

Offer to send an email for the customer. Instead of asking the customer to email “support@company.com” or email the marketing team or whatever the case is, send an email for that customer. Just send the email for the customer (be sure to carbon copy them). Employees shouldn’t make it a big deal – they should just do it.

Offer to call the customer when it comes back in stock. Instead of telling a customer “we’re sold out” and watching them leave, offer to take down their name and phone number and call the customer when the product comes in.

Send them the documentation. A lot of technology companies run into problems where customers want them to support things outside of their scope of support. When this happens, a great way to make a customer feel better and still help them to some degree is to send them an email with the link to the documentation.

Send them something without the customer having to ask. Instead of the customer asking you to reset their password, send them the bill in the mail, etc., do it pro-actively. If it is something like sending an email (which is completely free), then there is usually very little reason to hesitate. When the customer asks, you can say “I already went ahead and sent that for you, Mr. Smith.” If they don’t ask, simply work it into the call.

The most important part is to examine your business processes and constantly ask yourself “how can I make this easier for customers?” If you’re looking hard enough, you’ll find plenty of things you can do. If you can’t find anything, then you probably aren’t looking hard enough. What are some little things that you do for your customers that tend to make a difference?

The Onboarding Process

Hiring people typically represents that a company is growing and doing well. However, with each person hired at the average company, there is a set of operations and processes that need to be completed called onboarding. Though HR experts may disagree with me, I’ve always defined onboarding as the process of getting a new employee setup and ready shortly after hiring them.

Onboarding can be a tricky process, especially for a company that only hires one or two people a month and hasn’t been around that long. It takes a defined process to be successful and generally it takes a fairly sizable HR and/or training department to make the onboarding process smooth and consistent. However, companies of all shapes and sizes can make use of and implement an efficient onboarding process.

1. Understand what each new hire needs. Every new hire at your company probably needs certain things to be able to do his or her job correctly. Email, computer logins, employment contracts, etc. are all pretty standard and are all things that should be part of the onboarding process. The company’s IT person or department should be notified as soon as a new employee is hired and a company’s HR or accounting person can usually take care of the paperwork and have it all ready before the employee comes into work.

2. Send stuff in advance. There is no reason that an employee needs to spend his or her first day on the job filling out paperwork and reading manuals. Employees should be sent all of that a few days before they come in for training. That way, by the time they walk in the door on day one, they are ready to get going.

3. Have mentors and training assigned. Almost all companies have some sort of training process. At some companies, it is more defined than others, but essentially every company has some sort of process. If HR or the employee’s new manager can have a mentor assigned and/or the employee enrolled in whatever training programs on day one, that new employee can get started right away.

4. Take the time to revise the process. Chances are, as your business changes, your onboarding process will have to change as well. Be sure to have the process written out and be sure to take the time to revise it on a regular basis. If you notice new employees are sitting around waiting for something after they have started working, then the onboarding process likely needs to be revised to alleviate that problem.

Don’t laugh at your customers.

Not too long ago, I saw this post on the 37signals blog. The basic idea? Don’t laugh at or make fun of your customers.

Laughing at or making fun of customers in general is rude and unprofessional. Making fun of customers in front of other customers is even worse. I’ve always told companies to do their best to prevent employees from saying negative things about customers. It doesn’t give off the right vibe to other employees and it degrades a group of people that should be treated with the utmost respect (the customers).

Besides the risk of the negative comment being overheard (and/or getting back to the customer), talking negatively about customers gives off the wrong impression to employees. If you were a new employee at a company, how would you feel if your co-workers were complaining about how stupid customers were right in front of you (and perhaps them)? It could easily give that employee the wrong impression of the company and what it stands for. Employees that are unhappy and insult customers make everyone look bad. If it goes on enough, it can have a negative impact on the company’s culture.

There is more to this than just avoiding insults. Being condescending, sarcastic, etc. are all things that can upset customers and present the wrong image. Tone is a big part of customer service and any tone that comes off as contrived will hurt the customer service experience.

The rule of thumb is simple: if you wouldn’t say it to the customer’s face while standing next to your boss, then don’t say it. As a manager, if you hear an employee saying something bad about a customer, explain why it isn’t a good thing to do.

Have employees that understand the customer.

The best customer service companies hire employees that understand their customers. And by understand the customer, I mean, the employees they hire are able to relate to the customers. Employees that are passionate about what the company does and whatever the customers do are extremely valuable.

For example, bookstores hiring people that are passionate about books. Music stores hiring people that are passionate about music. The Apple Store hires people that are passionate about Apple products. The result? Employees that are knowledgeable from day one and that love what they do (the Apple Store is not the best paying retail job out there, yet there are plenty of people who want to work there and get turned away). Companies that work with the customers over the Internet can do this, too. If you cater to web designers, try to find former web designers to work in your support department. If you cater to florists, have people that are familiar with flowers and how florists work in your customer service department.

The concept is extremely simple and logical when you think it through, but it’s still incredibly useful. Companies should ask their most passionate and dedicated customers if they want jobs. If they are in your store all the time and seem to be answering other people’s questions or if they are always posting on your forums with useful solutions, thank them first and if it’s appropriate, offer them a job.

The people that “get” your company and what you do are the people you should have working for you. If someone is willing to do some work for free and do a pretty good job, imagine how well they would do if you gave them formal training and formalized their commitment.

A friendly auto-response from Skype.

Skype Logo-1I sent an email to Skype’s support team and got a very friendly auto-response back from them (I haven’t seen the human response yet). I included it after the jump (click on “more”), but here is my basic analysis (quick points, with more descriptions if needed):

  1. The email thanks the customer for contacting Skype (twice!).
  2. The email confirms that the customer’s support inquiry was received and that the customer will be hearing from the company shortly.
  3. The email explains how long it will usually take to get a response and explains why it takes that long. (This is especially useful. If something is going to take long, customers like to know why).
  4. The email does a great job at nicely pointing people to its self-service options (see my post on self-service from last week). It isn’t pushy, but it does let customers know that great self-service is available.
  5. Skype provides a basic idea of what their self-service options offers (step by step guides, answers to questions) and how they can help customers (more immediate answers).
  6. The line about not replying to the automated email is friendly and polite (as opposed to some emails that companies send).

Overall, this is a great auto-reply. It’s personal, but it is still professional.

My only suggestion to Skype would be to include the reference number/ticket ID in the body of the email so I had it if necessary. They might also want to say “We’ll be getting back to you very quickly” at the bottom instead of saying “We’ll be getting back to you as soon as possible!” Very quickly implies more urgency and is less vague. Besides those minor things, there are essentially no problems with this auto-reply.

The next test, of course, will be to see how Skype handles the actual customer service interaction. See the actual email after the jump.

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