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Exam Room Flags for Customer Service

1010421594_largeIf you’ve been to a doctor’s office in the past, you’ve probably noticed those colorful things outside of each exam room. I recently learned these are called exam room signal flags. I have no idea what each color means (and I imagine they vary from office to office), but the idea of them is interesting and appliciable to other industries as well.

The flags do just what their names imply – provide signals to doctors and other personnel about what needs to be done or what’s going on. If a patient is in the room waiting for a doctor, I imagine they have a flag color for that. If the patient is in the room waiting for an initial examination by a nurse, I imagine there is a flag color for that. If the doctor and patient temporarily left the room, but still need it, there is probably a flag color for that, too. There are countless things that the flags could represent (or signal) and if anyone knows what some of them mean, feel free to leave a note in the comments.

However, the more relevant point is how easily this can be applied to other industries. I’ve seen online helpdesks that allow employees to flag tickets with different colors that have different meanings. Restaurants, stores, and hotels could probably benefit from something similar. My guess is that most types of in-person service businesses with multi-step processes already have something similar.

The basic premise is that most businesses could benefit from having a subtle way to let employees know about their customers and what needs to be done at any given time. If employees can get a quick and easy understanding of what’s happening at any given time, they are a lot more likely to act in a way that’ll benefit the customer service experience.

Call Abandonment Basics

Western Electric 202Phone systems (also called IVRs or PBXes) usually measure something referred to as a call abandonment rate. How exactly the call abandonment rate is defined varies from company to company and from phone system to phone system, but in general, the inbound call abandonment rate tracks the number of people who hang up before they start talking to an employee. (There are call abandonment rates for outbound calls that telemarketing companies track, but that’s a different thing entirely.)

Some companies actually strive for high call abandonment rates (a higher proportion of people who hang up). These companies generally don’t place a huge emphasis on phone-based customer service and want to reduce the cost of the customer service they provide. Fewer callers getting through to employees means fewer are employees are needed and more money saved, so companies design extremely complicated phone systems that are designed to help customers automatically (self-service) and have messages pushing customers to other support mediums (e. g. email, web, etc.).

More customer-centric organizations tend to favor lower call abandonment rates (fewer people hang up, more people talk to employees). They work to have simple phone menus that don’t do anything more than they have to (route the call to the right person/place) and these companies go out of their way to ensure that customers are having an easy time getting to talk to their employees and getting the help they need. They have hold music that isn’t annoying and that says “We’ll be with you shortly. Thanks for your patience” instead of hold music that says “You can get your answers online at support.company.com.” It is a different way of thinking and a way I’d encourage companies in any sort of competitive industry to think.

Some call abandonment rates factor in things like a 10 or 20 second delay before counting it as an actual abandoned call or require that someone push a button and actually wait on hold and then hang up before counting it as actually abandoned. There are then a number of math/proportion nuances that a lot of companies use when calculating abandonment rate. I generally advise including a 10 or 15 second delay in the numbers and counting all hang ups that meet that criteria. As long as the methodology is consistent, how exactly you go about calculating your call abandonment rate doesn’t matter as much.

photo credit: clickclickclickclick

Customer Service: Better or Worse?

Gap en Cimes 2009 photos Josette (2)The ‘50’s version of Dilbert was a very popular comic strip called Mutt and Jeff. The clever “tongue in cheek” style made many a reader chuckle over their eggs and bacon before rushing off to the office. One strip had Mutt and Jeff enjoying a bit of verbal sparring.

“If everyone saw like I did,” boasted Jeff, “Everyone would want my wife.”

“If everyone saw like I did,” quipped Mutt, “No one would want your wife.”

It provided a humorous lesson on the “eye of the beholder” side of understanding relationships and experiences. When someone asks us, “Why has service gotten so bad,” we think of that comic strip.

Remember the scene in the movie Back to the Future when a customer pulled into a gas station and two squeaky clean attendants cheerfully washed the windshield and carefully checked the engine fluids? Audiences laughed at the obvious spoof.

Was that great service? We do not remember thinking it was back then. It was typical neighborly care by local employees with plenty of time to leisurely serve one customer at a time. They worked for an enterprise with reasonably healthy margins, friendly competition; and without the scrutiny of regulators, the screams of litigious consumers, or the impatience of shareholders. They served customers with limited choices, relatively low expectations, and plenty of time to wait.

Perhaps the gap between good and bad service is less about how far the bottom has dropped and more about how high the ceiling has been raised. As customers, we are a lot smarted than we have ever been. Recall buying your last car? You probably had more information than the sales person had tactics. Additionally, we customers have witnessed great service in pockets of our lives. When the FedEx or UPS delivery person walks fast, we assume the postal service person should do likewise. When we get a company to answer our phone call quickly with smart people we can understand, we get irritated with all those who provide us with less.

It is true that as the landscape of business has changed from the sixties. And, some companies have given us a glimpse of the global economy up close and person by outsourcing call centers to foreign soil with operators who struggle with English or requests that deviate from the script. There are companies that have cut the budget for the frontline, leaving customers to spar with an overworked, indifferent idiot. But a growing number of companies have learned that happy employees make happy customers and are zeroing in on cultural enrichment to increase employee morale.

More and more companies are getting better at communicating with customers so their expectations are more realistic. They are finding better tools to gather customer intelligence so they can be more precise in their offerings. They are helping customers become more knowledgeable customers. And, they are using service hiccups as tools for learning and improvement, not just as alarms for cosmetic damage control.

The payoff is as unmistakable as the message is clear. Look at the bottom lines of Nordstrom, Target, Publix, Amazon.com, Zappo’s.com and Costco. As customers rave about the great service they receive, investors rave about increasing business growth and profits. Companies in the top 20% of the American Customer Satisfaction Index conducted by the University of Michigan outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 93%, Standard & Poor’s by 201%, and the NASDAQ by 355%. These companies yielded an average return of 40%.

So, has customer service deteriorated or gotten better? It depends on whether you are asking Mutt or Jeff!

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

photo credit: akunamatata

A Wake-up Call for Bored Customers

Quak Quak!A large brokerage company added a twist to their toll-free telephone cue – “…punch 6 if you’d like to hear a duck quack!” Word of the playful feature spread and soon millions of people were weekly calling just to hear the duck. The company had to remove the unique feature because it overloaded their phone system and ran up a huge tab! The story communicates just how bored customers have become.

Something else has happened to customers. They’ve been getting way over-stimulated. Television has become both high definition and multi-media. The nightly news now shows the weather report, ball scores, stock market numbers and a crawling headline simultaneously on the TV screen. That steady stream of sensory arousal risks making a trip to your unit or organization seem humdrum and plain vanilla.

What’s an organization to do? Imaginative service! Want a small taste? The service techs at Sewell Lexus in Dallas program in the radio stations for a new car buyer from their trade-in and let customers discover it. Miller Bros. Ltd in Atlanta, an upscale men’s clothing store, has a large colorful gumball machine in its entrance. Beside it is a large bowl of shiny pennies. Guess where junior gets to go while daddy is trying on trousers? An insurance agent abandoned the age-old practice of sending key customers a birthday card. He secured the enthusiastic service of his young daughter to call his very best customers and sing happy birthday to them. Pretty creative, huh?

Customers like extras. They enjoy service with a cherry on top. In fact, the features of a service have become more titillating than its function; extras more valued than the core offering.  But, two things have happened to extras that have robbed them of their power as a retention strategy.

First, they have gotten a lot more expensive. That free snack on a flight is now eight dollars and service charges are standard fare on most bills. Pursuing extras can also send a mixed message. What do employees think when told to “wow” customers in the morning and informed of staff cutbacks and expense reductions in the afternoon?

However, imaginative service is different. Ask customers what actions would be value added and they will focus on taking the expected experience to a higher-level … meaning “they gave me more than I anticipated.” But, imaginative service is not about addition, it’s about creation. When service people are asked to give more, they think to themselves, “I am already doing the best I can.” But, if asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies. If employees are requested to create a big customer smile instead of just working harder, they feel a part of an adventure. And, when employees get to create, not just perform, they feel prized. Just ask a Southwest, Disney, Zappos.com, or Lexus dealership employee.

At a time when value-added service has gotten way too pricey maybe it is time try value-unique – imaginative service. Customers recall, return, and refer others to those experiences that engage them emotionally and leave them with a positive memory. Creating a place of joy can help your unit or organization become the customer’s “oasis of choice.” And, imaginative service can take their breath away.

Writer Bio: Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away:  How Imaginative Service Creates Customer Devotion.  They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: Newsbie Pix

Are your employees familiar with your website?

It shocks most managers to see, hear, or experience this, but a lot of customer service representatives aren’t familiar with their company’s website. They aren’t sure what the customer’s screen looks like when an order is taking place, how to use the front-end knowledge base, or anything along those lines. Needless to say, this can present a number of problems.

To address these problems, you can try one or more of these things:

  • Include a review of the company’s website in the training process. During your initial employee training, have the company’s trainer(s) go over the website and explain the different processes and parts of it to the new employees. Include website reviews / training in follow-up training as well.
  • Include pictures. When an update to a system is made, be sure to include screenshots of customer-facing screens and interfaces in internal documentation. Focusing entirely on what the employees see on their end will result in employees who aren’t adequately prepared to guide customers through what needs to be done.
  • Inform employees of changes. When a new feature or part of the website is made public, it’s important to let employees know about it. That way, when customers ask questions, they will be ready to answer them.

The important thing is that your employees have a working knowledge of your website, including what’s on it and how it all works, and as a result of that, can confidently advise customers on how to get the most use out of your website.