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Shared Information for Customer Service Success

I was listening to Steve Odland (the Chairman and CEO of Office Depot) present at an event today and one of the things he talked about was how sharing information across the organization could lead to decision making empowerment and aptitude. 

Odland said that if everyone at Office Depot knew as much as he did (in terms of cause and effects, how actions fit in with the rest of the company, etc.), the company would be much more cohesive and efficient. People could confidently make decisions based on the full picture and not worry about something they’re not aware of existing and influencing whatever they’re deciding.

This idea can apply to customer service as well. The more each of your customer service representatives knows about what is going on at your company and with your products, the better decisions they can make. If you trust they can make these types of good decisions, then you can empower them to actually make the decisions and take action. 

Think about some of the ways you can share more company information with your employees. Send a weekly or quarterly summary about what’s been happening at your company. Consider having meetings with a couple of employees at a time where you answer questions and address concerns. Share your short and long term strategies with your employees and let them know what the management team is working on.

Things like this not only keep employees informed, but also helps make them feel more important and engaged with what’s going on at your company and most importantly, where it’s going.

Rewarding Volunteers

More and more companies are encouraging conversations in company forums, on blogs, through Twitter, and on similar sites. The idea is that the companies can power some of their service with their  customer communities. Assuming you have such a community in place at your company, how do you reward the volunteers who donate their time and expertise to help your customers and provide feedback to your company?

Chances are, most of these volunteers aren’t interested in being paid for their work. (You should offer some of your best volunteers jobs, though. They might take you up on it.) Otherwise, they wouldn’t volunteer. As a result, you have to find other ways to thank them and show that you appreciate their hard work and dedication.

  • Schwag. If your company has schwag you can send to your volunteers (t-shirts, stickers, pens, notepads, flash drives, whatever), offer to send it their way. If you already have their address, it might be interesting to just send it along with a handwritten thank you note.
  • Gift cards. Your volunteers might appreciate gift cards either for your services or for other services/products (i. e. a nice gift card to a national restaurant chain). It shows that you care about what they’re doing and you’d like to show your gratitude. 
  • Offer tours. A lot of customers like seeing the people they work with and checking out the company’s offices or facilities. Offer your volunteers tours of your offices. Make it a day and take the volunteer(s) out for lunch, introduce them to some of the people they’ve worked with, and so on. If you wanted to get really involved, you could offer to fly the volunteers to wherever your office is and put them up in a local hotel for a night or two as well. If you think that sounds like a total waste of money, just think about how much it would cost to pay them for all the time they invest. (If a volunteer has invested 100 hours total (a low estimate I’m sure) and you pay your average customer service employee $10 an hour, you’re probably coming out ahead if you buy a plane ticket and a night or two in a hotel for that volunteer.)
  • Write them thank you letters. Even though it may not seem like a big deal, sending some of your volunteers handwritten thank you letters can make a difference. Alternatively, a quick (personal) phone call from someone high up at the company can make a lasting impression as well.

What do you do to reward your volunteers? What seems to go over really well? (And not so well?)

Color Coding in Customer Service

I don’t think enough companies color code any of their customer service processes.  Color coding any sort of customer service processes is helpful and easy. Think about some of the simple possibilities:

  • Emails from new customers or priority customers are marked green so the staff knows to pay extra attentino to them.
  • New employees are given a different color name tag so existing employees know to help them out more.
  • Regulars or other VIPs (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) at a restaurant are given a different color placeholder or menu so the waiter can instantly recognize what makes them unique or special.
  • Certain papers customers need for certain things are color coded so staff members can instantly tell what the customer is there to be helped with and can direct them to the appropriate person.

There are only a couple examples out of an unlimited number of possible ways you can use color coding in your business. All of these examples help the respective business recognize and appreciate a particular customer or group of customers and customize the experience around their needs.

Any business can use color coding in customer service in one way or another. Just think about something special that needs to be easily emphasized or made known. Also think about certain elements that can be used to identify that group or need and then come up with a simple system to make the color coding practical.

Color coding is usually simple and inexpensive to implement. It is typically a small process change and then a matter of letting employees know what a certain color indicates and them acting accordingly.

From my experience, color coding is almost always worth trying. There is a lot to gain and little to lose. Do you use it all in your business?

Imaginative Service: Going Beyond the Basics

“When Business Week picks Amazon.com as the #1 best service company– an on-line fulfillment company—it’s proof good old fashioned service is dead.” The comment sounded like a “kids are going to the dogs” statement someone’s grandfather might make. But, it was coming from a non-computer savvy physician in one of our client focus groups.

Suddenly others in the room jumped into the discussion with jubilant praise for Amazon.com. “Their website is so easy,” “I always get what I order,” “Their prices are the best,” and “Returns are a breeze.” Their comments reflected excellence at the basics—the core expectations of all the shoulda’s and oughta’s. Then, someone told the story of a customer ordering a used book through Amazon.com, not getting the book expected, with zero success contacting the used book company. Amazon not only refunded the customer’s money before the flawed book was returned but took on the rogue used book dealer on behalf of the customer. Even the naysaying doctor was impressed.

Imaginative service creates devoted customers. However, imaginative service only works if the basics are met. Great service providers like Amazon.com provide only as much service as is needed—until more is required. A routine order and you get exactly what you hope for, no more no less. But, if there is an exception or problem, you witness greatness and creativity. We all like service with a cherry on top. But if what’s under the cherry disappoints, the cherry won’t matter. Are you focusing on sparkly service and letting solid service slip?

Writer Bio: Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. They can be reached through www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

Minimum Service Charges

I was going to hire a company today to do something fairly simple that would have cost about $45 (that was the advertised price). It wouldn’t have taken them more than 15 or 20 minutes and I live within 10 minutes of the company’s office. Thinking I had found a reputable and affordable company, I called them to schedule an appointment and was told there was a $85.00 minimum service charge. The fact that I was a first time customer didn’t matter. Essentially, I would have to pay $85 for a $45 service.

I’ve never liked minimum service charges because I think they scare off potential (first time) customers. Because of the minimum service charge, I won’t be using the company and obviously won’t have any basis to choose them in the future or recommend them to others. The business the company is in is a type of business that is largely dependent on positive word of mouth, so they are losing out on a potentially lifelong, loyal customer over $40.

Most minimum service charges seem to function similar to this. The company doesn’t want to bother doing whatever for whatever the relatively low price point they set is, so they implement a minimum service charge. The company doesn’t find it profitable to help customers on an individual service basis, so they make you purchase more services to hike up the per visit/transaction charge. No matter if you get the most basic service or one that costs exactly the minimum service charge, you have to pay that minimum service charge if you want them to do any work for you. For the company, it’s upselling disguised as a policy.

What made my experience with this company even worse is that the minimum service charge wasn’t advertised especially prominently (it was buried on an obscure page on their website). They get their customers to call and talk to someone and then the minimum service charge is mentioned. If you’re going to have a minimum service fee, at least be forthcoming about it and tell your customers exactly how much it is and what they can get for that amount in the very beginning. Otherwise, customers will feel as if their time has been wasted and they’ve been led on.

The most important thing to do, though, is to think of the long-term value of your average customer.  If I use the above company 10 times over the next 10 years, that’s $450 they could make from me directly. They’re missing out on that direct revenue, as well as any revenue that might come from me telling others about the company, over a difference of $40. To me, that isn’t a good business practice.

Make a bad situation right.

I found myself citing one of my favorite customer service quotes at least once a week. The quote is “the road to success is paved with well handled mistakes” and I think it summarizes and important aspect of customer service.

I recently sent a complaint letter to a Fortune 500 company I had a problem with not that long ago. I just sent the letter yesterday so I’m not expecting to hear back anytime soon, but their response will show a lot about how they think of their customers and their customer service. If a company gets a complaint letter and dismisses it, that doesn’t reflect well upon the company. If they respond to it and make an effort to make a bad situation right, it tends to show they are committed to customer satisfaction.

When you get a complaint letter, how do you handle it? The companies that handle complaints really well seem to have some sort of formal process. They have someone empowered to handle and respond to complaints. The person has good customer service skills and gets in touch with customers and helps them with what they need. This helps add some accountability to the process and lets customers know that someone at the company cares about them.

There is data out there that says that a well handled mistake actually results in a happier customer than if nothing went wrong in the first place. Essentially, the act of the company making a bad situation right improves that customer’s overall satisfaction. That’s the power of making a bad situation right.

Charlotte Airport Experience

I spent Friday and Saturday in New Orleans for WordCamp NOLA and part of my traveling experience was going through the Charlotte International Airport to catch a connection flight (each way). I’ve been to a lot of airports and I have to say that Charlotte is one of the nicest ones I’ve been to for a few reasons.

Nice amenities. It is a little (but pleasantly) surprising to see a live pianist when you walk into the central terminal area in a big airport. There was a nice business center, lots of restaurants that served real food, lots of places to shop, plenty of nice seating, wi-fi, and all of that. It was definitely a step up from the plastic chairs in weird rows that you see at most airports.

Lots of bathrooms. My local airport has like two bathrooms per terminal. Charlotte had a set of bathrooms like every 200 feet. Even more importantly, the bathrooms were large and clean. They even had mouthwash and little cups that you could use to freshen yourself up after a long flight. I’ve never seen that in an airport before, but it makes for a nice touch.

Kept clean. The entire airport (not just the bathrooms) was kept quite clean. You walk through some airports that are grungy and nasty, but Charlotte’s airport was kept extremely and consistently clean.

Air travel is tough, so it’s especially nice to see and go through an airport that is nicer than most. You can apply the same idea to your businesses – check out your competition and see what you can do better. Try to understand your customers’ pains and troubles and work to address them. That’s what Charlotte International Airport did and it worked for them.

Admitting Mistakes – Part 2

I was going to write a post today about the importance of admitting your mistakes, but a quick search revealed I had already written about the topic back in August 2007 (this is what happens when you write a lot of blog posts). There is a different, though – the post I wrote in August focused on the procedural aspects of admitting a mistake. Today’s post is going to focus on the reasons why you’d want to admit a mistake.

Customers are sometimes surprised by your honesty. Customers are used to hearing crazy responses, justifications, and denials when something happens that appears to be a mistake. When a company comes out and says, “Yes, we made a mistake. I apologize about the error.” and then fixes it, it can be surprising.

Honesty is disarming. When customers get the ridiculous answers and justifications, they tend to get more riled up and go into their own defensive mode. A customer service interaction suddenly turns into a debate/war/other hostile conflict. When a company or a person within the company responds honestly, it is totally different and the customer isn’t quite sure what to say most of the time. 

Honesty implies accountability. People like accountability in customer service. And accountability tends to be reassuring, especially to customers who were just witness to a mistake / screw up by a particular company. When people admit they made a mistake, it shows they are willing to own up to an issue and say what went wrong.

Of course, once you’re convinced that admitting your mistakes it the right way to go, check out my previous post on how to go about doing it.

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