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Excellent customer service promotes construction business

Gone are the days when construction companies had so much work lined up that any of us who needed a contractor would  say a little prayer at night hoping someone would show up the next day, but times have changed, and we are now in the age of “full service” providers; that is the construction companies have become more direct and aim toward personalized service to bring value to each job.

My friend Tom lives in the South Florida area and provides the personal touch; his company is small and local which gives him intimate knowledge of the immediate marketplace. He had been contracted to install an Old Chicago brick semi-circular driveway on the exclusive island of Palm Beach. For those of you reading this and not familiar with Old Chicago brick, think of part age and part style from the turn of the 20th Century of salvaged building bricks which mimicked the Old Chicago look. The home was located on the western side of the street and the job called for approximately 1500 square feet of brick.

Basically, a contractor starts at the corner and lays one run of brick along the two adjacent borders. Bricks are set on sand and fit snugly; levels and alignments are the key, and once all the bricks have been installed, the contractor uses a 14 inch diamond blade hand held quick cut saw to cut the final edge bricks.

It had been a  windy day, and the clay dust of the bricks created a “sand clay storm” which blew directly eastward across the street covering an all white house, white roofed, and white driveway property with the  reddish dust of the brick. Tom went across the street, apologized to the home owner and went to work correcting the damage done by power washing her house, the roof, and the driveway. He also arranged to have her windows cleaned, cars washed and any damaged plants and flowers replaced. The homeowner was thankful and appreciative.

Two years later, that same homeowner where Tom apologized and rectified his mistakes called for Tom’s company to do a job for her. She based her decision on his excellent customer service.

It’s easy to give mediocre service in construction; the bar has been set fairly low with the record number of complaints and over all shoddy craftsmanship many of us have experienced, but four basic principles of customer service has set Tom apart from his competition.

He has employed the use of good communication skills to his strategy, and not just the use of emails, but going out and meeting face to face with clients at regular intervals. He demonstrates by example and current references his technical expertise and how that experience makes him better than competing companies. He pays personal attention to details and never lets his  less experienced workers  make the decisions, and when, as in this case there was a problem, Tom went over to admit and apologize  explaining that projects can go wrong, but he would take full responsibility and rectify the problem.

Where much of Tom’s competition has been reading Craigslist looking for part-time construction jobs, Tom goes to work every day with more  projects lined up for the future.

photo credit: stefg74

Get to know your customers and how they behave

In retail, most of us want to spend our time primping up our stores hoping to bring in new customers to increase our business. We use attractive advertising displays, sales, coupons, television and direct  campaigns, however statistically our best revenue is realized from our current customers. It is our loyal customers who often bring in 80% of our sales even though they may only represent 20% of our customer base.

It is most important to treat our loyal customers with the best service possible, and that includes the personal touch. Starbucks does it with baristas who most often remember what their loyal customers drink, even though the customer might not have been in the store for months. Loyal customers can be rewarded with emails, special discounts not available to the general public, and special private sales inviting loyal customers in to participate a day earlier than the  general sales to the public.

The next segment of customers includes those who shop at your store only when there are sales offered. These customers do shop a lot and quite often, and help to keep inventory fresh because they keep it moving. Chances are that people who shop exclusively for sales may not become loyal customers, but if something catches their eye, they may be coming into your store regularly to check when that merchandise may go on sale and bring a friend; hence another possible customer.

People who are specifically out to purchase something in particular can become loyal customers. For instance, back to school means selecting fashionable and possibly budget minded apparel for children. Catch the attention of the child or teenager and gain a new loyal customer, but those  same people who are shopping for something specific will walk out if they don’t see what they want. It’s also a challenge appealing to the people who have a particular need because they are apt to shop on the internet. It becomes even more important to provide exceptional in store personal service to ensure their return the next time they are in need of school clothes. Using the same example, a large selection of sizes, colors, styles and a staff to provide personal shopping comforts can make the difference.

Shoppers who buy on impulse are among the favorite kind of customers because they usually don’t pay attention to budgets and buy what interests them. That could be influenced by   flashy displays and trendy stock. With impulse buyers it’s very much about the presentation.

And finally, there are the general mall customers who have no specific need in mind, but like to window shop and rarely buy anything, however they might bring a friend along the next time, and a friendly greeting and remembering a name just might bring in a new customer as well as recommendations.

photo credit: alancleaver_2000

Are you really listening?

Yay BooHave you ever been in a conversation with someone, and while the other person is talking, you’re more focused on what you’re going to say next than on what they’re saying to you? If we are honest with ourselves, I think we’d confess that we do this more often than we’d like.

This phenomenon occurs not just in interpersonal relationships, but also at the corporate level. All too often, businesses carry on one-sided conversations with their customers, pushing information out instead of looking for ways to listen and create meaningful dialogues. For businesses, creating dialogue and listening well takes a little creativity, because in most instances, corporate conversations aren’t just happening in person, but rather through marketing, advertising, news media and, more recently, social media.

Harnessing the power of social media to listen more effectively to your customers might be one of the most important things your company can do to better engage with the community. The number of online conversations taking place in any given hour, on any given topic, is staggering and only continues to grow. At Microsoft, we’re making it a priority to be a part of these conversations and find out who’s driving them, what they’re about, and what they mean for our products and services.

For example, we use rich social media analytics to analyze 15,000 Microsoft product and technology related articles per day across numerous blogs and 600 forum locations on MSDN, TechNet, Microsoft Answers, and Expression web sites. We don’t leave out industry and third-party properties either, and pay close attention to Twitter, Facebook and other forums.

Another approach that has helped us gain better insight into what our customers are saying and thinking is engaging with influencers in the community. Your industry leaders can be powerful vessels of communication, since they’re passionate about what matters to your company, interact with your key audiences daily, and often are more than willing to give you feedback, both positive and critical, on your services or solutions.

Don’t shy away from influencers because they might tell you something you don’t want to hear. Make an effort to get to know them and use their knowledge and feedback for good. About 18 years ago, we started something called the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Award Program, through which we honor and thank exceptional technical community leaders, give them early access to our products and encourage their highly-focused feedback.

Our MVPs aren’t just industry thought leaders, though. They’re also individuals with a natural propensity to serve and help IT users maximize the value of their technology. They’re the friends and neighbors you call when you don’t know what that pop-up window on your computer means, how to upgrade your operating system, or need tips on creating a better PowerPoint deck. Since they’re already listening to the community, we want to be alongside them, learn about what they’re hearing from IT users and use that information to create a better customer experience.

Of course, how your company decides to listen all depends on factors like size, industry and customer base. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution or tactic, but the principle remains the same, whether your company makes cars, plans parties or sells paper towels. At the end of the day, people want to be heard, much more than they want to be talked to. You might just be surprised by what you hear if you really listen.

Writer Bio:
Toby Richards is general manager of Community & Online Support within Microsoft Customer Service and Support, which provides customer service and support solutions worldwide. To learn more about Microsoft’s MVP Award Program, please visit http://www.microsoft.com/mvp or read our blog at http://blogs.msdn.com/mvpawardprogram. Visit http://answers.microsoft.com to experience one of Microsoft’s most popular forums, Microsoft Answers.

photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

How to get a customer service job

Last week my friend Sara went on an interview at a very trendy boutique on Worth Avenue on the élite island of Palm Beach. She responded to an online ad looking for a “talented and devoted customer service representative capable of going beyond great service.”

If you have never been to Worth Avenue, imagine the South Florida version of Hollywood’s Rodeo Drive. Every conceivable luxurious  amenity is offered, merchandise beyond your wildest dreams and Halston, Chanel, Vuitton and Gucci beckoning for your credit cards.

“What does excellent customer service mean to you?”  This was posed to Sara the moment she walked in the door and introduced herself. Immediately Sara smiled, thought for a moment and answered that excellent customer service is the extra effort that keeps customers happy and keeps them coming back. She explained how she thought  it included the first impression someone gets  just walking in a store checking out the layout, the cleanliness, as well as the staff.

Sara went on to explain how listening to customers’ needs and asking questions without seeming intrusive is an art all to itself. She doesn’t feel that following a customer around a store is always in the best interest of the client and the store, but remains in earshot and is always ready to point the customer in the right direction; in other words the customer service representative is always paying attention.

Sara exhibited excellent knowledge of the clothing line in the store demonstrating her product knowledge. I would speculate Sara knows as much about designer labels as any fashionista.

As the interview continued, Sara was asked how she would respond to any complaints, and besides the stock answers of being polite and respectful, and listening to the customer, Sara added that if something was amiss with her  service to the client, she would apologize immediately.

There were a few questions about listening to complaints, dealing with them and Sara explained how she tries to see all sides of the problem, considers different solutions within the scope of company’s policies and comes up with the best solution to meet the customer’s needs. And the question about the one customer in Sara’s career that really tested her patience, well, that was Sara’s mother, and Sara explained that her own positive attitude, deep breaths, communicative skills and the ability to listen has brought her through the most stressful situations.

Sara started her new job this morning.

photo credit: Semaj Bryant

How to write a complaint letter

A complaint letter, as unpleasant as it might be to write, is generally more effective than a phone call or an email. The point is that in order to achieve the desired result whether you want a refund, replacement or travel miles is to clearly define the purpose of your complaint and be polite, sincere and valid.

I’ve put together five important suggestions that will help:

  1. Always keep your letter short, and concise. Rarely should any complaint letter be more than one page in length. Use dates, locations (where you purchased the product), and include all relevant descriptions and information. It’s preferable to type your letter, and for heaven sakes, use spell check. Start your letter on a positive note so that your reader is still confident that you want to remain a customer.
  2. Always exhibit politeness. You should not be sarcastic, threatening or write as if you are angry. You could even begin with a friendly line such as, ” I’ve been a customer of ABC for the past ten years.”
  3. Make sure your facts are properly documented and true. State your complaint, and indicate what you would like done to rectify the problem whether it be a replacement item, a store credit, refund, etc. If you are complaining to an airline for a valid reason, discount coupons,  and additional mileage commonly accompany the company’s apology.
  4. Attach copies of all documentation. Do not send originals. Have exact dates and times, and in your letter make sure you indicate what actions you will pursue if the situation is not rectified.
  5. Make sure you remind the company of good relations and good customer service and how you want to help them maintain a good reputation.

Keep a copy of your letter, and if you aren’t satisfied with the reply or you haven’t received what you thought you deserved, write another letter, but make this one stronger. If that doesn’t work, go to the next higher-up; something to be said about friendly persistence.

photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller

Book Review: The Napkin,The Melon & The Monkey

I recently read a charming, modern day parable geared to help employees handle the stress of the chaotic customer service challenges. The book works on suggestions to eliminate stress and help the employee build a framework for an improved attitude with what the author refers to as Aha!s.

Author Barbara Burke told me she based her suggestions of short periods of meditation and conditioning the mind in a positive way from basic Buddhist philosophy although each person can discover the book’s universal wisdom message through their own particular lens.

The Napkin, The Melon & The Monkey: How to Be Happy and Successful at Work and in Life by Simply Challenging Your Mind follows the path of central character Olivia whose life as a customer service representative for a local power company is out of control with stress related over- eating binges, short tempered reactions to angry customers, and a strained relationship with her children and husband. She did not realize that, although our first reaction when being verbally assaulted by an angry customer would be to get defensive, or rather slip into the “fight or flight” mode, an emotional balance can be recaptured by emotionally detaching for a few moments enabling us to find inner peace.

It was another character, Isabel, who softly led Olivia toward that quiet path to eliminate knee jerk reactions to the everyday facets of stress and to be able to step back and observe what is and become more productive.

The acronym SODAStop, Observe, Decide, and Act is the author’s solution to help employees realize that the anger of a dissatisfied consumer isn’t personal; it’s the frustration of the situation. Olivia was eventually able to temper her anxieties when irate customers called and step back, listen, consider the situation objectively and calmly, and then respond in a positive manner.

Barbara Burke fashioned the whimsical idea of this book from Steve Denning’s popular story – telling approach and how it is easier to tell a story with a single protagonist whose accounts have universal appeal.

In the book, we are guided through the three main symbols along Olivia’s path to handling the daily stresses of life; both personally and professionally. At the end of the book, we are treated to a list of Olivia’s List of Aha!s reminding all of us of such basic guidelines easily incorporated into our own lives. Using such Aha!s as ” The less I talk, the more I learn,” or “There is no such thing as a difficult situation” employs easily applied tenets to help manage even the most challenging interactions professionally as well as personally.

The book has been translated into German; the title appearing when translated back into English – When Chocolate Does Not Work Anymore.

The author is offering a free downloadable  “Leader’s Guide” with the purchase of the book. The kit contains a PowerPoint presentation and instruction of facilitating a team meeting. The topic is “What’s Your Favorite Aha!”. The kit will be ready in early February. To be notified, send Barbara a request at: bb (at) barbaraburke (dot) com.

Bottomline: A quick and easy read which reminds all of us we have a lot more control of our reactions. The book reminds us to stop a moment and put our lives into a more peaceful place in order to be more productive and efficient both professionally and personally.

Pros: It is well-written and has an interesting story line applicable to anyone in the current, stressful marketplace. The book includes some basic reminders which are universally appealing and applicable.

Cons: SODA is a great concept, however the book falls short of customer service strategies.

Interested: You can purchase the book (published by Hay House) for about $15 from Amazon.com. The book comes out on February 1, 2010, but can be pre-ordered today.

Engaging customers with social media while building customer service

Customer loyalty generally follows outstanding customer service. At a local family  health care “walk-in” clinic, personalized service is making an impact on the community. Just imagine a health facility with doctors and nurses personally accessible, and the focus of the office is personalized patient services.

When a patient calls, a friendly receptionist answers the phone. Even though the office is advertised as a “walk-in” clinic, appointments are honored and except for rare emergencies, the waiting period is kept to a minimum. There is far less bureaucracy; service is faster, and much less costly.

One of the health care  services offered is a wellness section. Most of us know that we should visit a doctor yearly for age appropriate check-ups, but many of us tend to forget. It was most surprising the other day to receive a friendly, personal phone call from the office reminding me it was time for my yearly checkup. I actually  was able to have a  conversation with a nurse who answered my questions about flu shots and asked me if my son was still active in sports because they were offering special discounts for sports’ physical examinations. The office will even text message patients reminding them of their appointments.

It was also interesting to observe their use of social media. I receive emails and newsletters regularly for new trends in health care as well as community news. When the swine flu was making daily headlines and the world was in a panic fearing the scarcity of flu vaccines, this clinic had already been prepared and was offering the vaccine to their regular patients first; great way to create customer loyalty.

Most people have just started using social media and for personal use, Facebook is popular, while Twitter is more for business. What a successful campaign to enhance customer service by reminding patients of limited time offers, services available or appointment openings. Twitter can also announce new products and limited time offers.

This health care facility also has a blog section on their website which helps to connect with customers and engage new viewers. Each week new information about latest medical technology and information is explained in layman terms. Links to specific services and providers are also listed. An informative YouTube video explains all of their services, and at the end of the video, the staff asks for suggestions how the office can improve their customer service.

Pretty impressive for a doctor’s office, wouldn’t you agree?

photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

How not to give customer service and lose business

We’ve seen a lot of businesses failing. Of course, the economy puts a severe strain on economics, but how many businesses are really sabotaging themselves? So many companies seem to fall short of providing the basics and then complain when customers don’t flock towards them. Perhaps if we turn the tables around, although  bit tongue in cheek, there’s nothing like a bit of humor to help us realize potential foibles.

Here are the top ten reasons not to give excellent customer service:

  1. Treat your loyal and repeat customers badly. Use dishonest business practices.
  2. Do not have reasonable customer service policies. Don’t answer your phone. Have impatient and rude representatives. Allow employees to insult and yell at customers when customers get frustrated. Tell the consumer it is their fault. Never respond to inquiries.
  3. Never update your website. Make it hard to navigate, keep it boring, and confuse and lose your target audience.
  4. Just consider your clients as one-time sales. Always under estimate the value of your customer or client. Never worry about them referring your services or business to a friend. Who needs them?
  5. Overcharge for products and service.
  6. Offer inferior products and service.
  7. Do not update customers on delivery delays. On back orders or advance orders, you have probably been paid for the merchandise, so no big deal if their merchandise doesn’t get there on time. It will get there eventually. Don’t bother to update customers.
  8. Lie. Misrepresent if you have to by embellishment.
  9. Do not try to attract new business. Customers need you. Work on “bad” word of mouth.
  10. Don’t follow the law. You’ll be out of business if you get sued.

photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller

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