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Panera Bread 2010 “25 Customer Service Champs”

Panera Bread is a casual restaurant that owns and franchises 1380 bakery-cafes. The Panera Bread establishment in Palm Beach Gardens is attractive and offers free wifi, which is where I am writing this blog post.

There is no alcohol or grease here, and I have often printed off coupons to use, but I must warn you they are very strict about expiration dates. They offer freshly baked breads, pastries, sandwiches, salads, and soups during breakfast and lunch. Chairman and CEO Ronald Schaich has stated that the drop in wheat prices last year has been helpful in avoiding any price increases, but claims that the quality of products at Panera are of the highest priority.

So we have a few of Panera’s policies that set them apart from other restaurants, and that includes antibiotic free chicken, no trans fat, many natural ingredients and an impressive list of whole grain breads, but does that have a significant impact on customer service and the Business Week’s award?

Actually the company’s customer service award can be attributed to the attentiveness and concern for the well-being of their associates. Panera kept employee hours steady when other restaurants were cutting hours. Panera also provided cash bonuses for hourly workers as well as management incentives. When I checked the employment page, I noted that employee benefits are comprehensive ranging from complete medical, dental coverage to pension, and disability benefits.

Their philosophy of “happy employees” has brought in more customers. When the general restaurant traffic has decreased nationally by 4%; Panera boasts that their business has increased by 2%. Panera’s attitude towards their employees can only stress the importance of employee satisfaction delivering and contributing to customer satisfaction. In my own experience, I have been to this establishment several times, and I have never seen anyone behind the counter or even wiping the tables seemingly having a “bad day.” It certainly seems the Panera “way” is a success.

photo credit: stevendamron

Do toll-free numbers help customer service?

I have often considered toll-free numbers to be part of a good customer service offering. More customers take advantage of these numbers to asks questions about products, make purchases and voice concerns, and dis-satisfactions you probably wouldn’t hear if the phone call was not free. In this tight economy, long distance is still costly. Cell phone users, however may still be charged; the call is free, but the call may create extra cell phone minute charges. The toll-free number makes a company seem “not so far away,” even if it is across the United States or abroad.

Customers also presume a toll-free number means a business is large and stable because in the eyes of people who don’t have it, the service is expensive. It makes the company more accessible to clients, potential clients, employees and business associates. Most individuals are unaware that the discounts and package rates make this a very attractive addition to a business’s marketing and service plan. There are no charges if no one calls; business grows with the service. Charges are based on per minute, but can vary by origin of the call and length of the conversation.

Many toll free service providers outsource their operators, which makes the cost more efficient. Companies can use the service to enhance their professional image, answer business and phone calls and even forward the calls to another number. It can make websites more attractive to increase sales numbers as well as customer satisfaction and credibility.

The most important part of the toll-free service is to have a professional voice answering the line. Live operators can increase customer service without extra hiring costs. An efficient and knowledgeable operator can walk a customer through their order taking process and answer common questions about products and services. The operators can provide business locations, hours, appointment times and transfer calls to representatives for more comprehensive information. Calls that come in with angry and disgruntled customers can immediately be flagged for appropriate call backs from the related department.

In a time where cost-effective must be customer centric with support and good will, a toll-free service is easy to obtain and can provide that 24/7 link to leave the competition behind.

photo credit: Stephen Cummings

L.L.Bean ranks #1 in customer service

L.L. Bean, almost a century old business began as a store, then progressed to catalogs and has kept up with the times by combining catalogs and eCommerce. Surely Leon Leonwood Bean, who was an avid hunter, trapper, and lover of nature had no idea what technology was in 1912 when he designed a pair of lightweight boots to protect his feet from the elements. The boots became known as the Maine Hunting Shoe, and for the time period where there was a definite need for outdoors men, the product was a revolutionary development.

Bean’s original strategy for direct-mail marketing consisted of five simple lessons he learned while revolutionizing his business plan.

  • Plan for the long run if you want to run long. The Maine Hunting Shoe was well made, traditional, durable, and classic in appearance.
  • Care for your customers to keep them coming back. He employed quality merchandise,  reasonable mark-ups for profit, 100% money back guarantee, hours 24/7, and a postage paid return policy.
  • Get hands dirty once in a while. Bean was always talking to customers and doing trial runs of his new products.
  • Network to reach out.
  • Be conservative with marketing

Today Bloomberg Business Week ranked L.L. Bean number one “customer service champs.” So how did this Freeport, Maine company boost their ranking?

The company has been congratulated for the design of their website, their return policies, and for staying in Maine. With a very popular and effective print catalog, the company publishes product reviews from their website into their catalogs, and according to public affairs representative Carolyn Beam, catalogs are still very popular.

“People love to shop by mail. The catalogs  come a few times a year, but throughout the pages customers are asked to sign up for email newsletters. They may be lighter and less pages, but they are still popular,” explained Carolyn. The company follows up with modern technology and sends email notifications out all year-long notifying consumers about sales.

Customers are encouraged to order online, mail in orders, or even phone in orders. The toll-free numbers offer convenient options, however their promise to answer the phones on the first two rings didn’t happen (no big deal however this is the winter sale time and the phones are humming). I was able, however to click on their “Live Help” button and contacted customer service representative Michelle who was very responsive, helpful and polite.

Most impressive is their 100% guarantee. Customers can return anything they purchase; “rock solid guarantee of satisfaction.” In the early years, Bean had a lot of people returning merchandise, but despite his narrow margins at the beginning of his developing business, Bean never compromised his work ethics. The company is still privately held and family owned.

photo credit: mspragu

Customer service experience with Comcast

I live in a community with a Homeowner’s Association, and Comcast high speed internet is part of our package, so basically there are no other  options. The past few weeks have been wrought with intermittent service, and as is true to form for those of us dependent on the internet, the problem gets very frustrating.

I repeatedly called the first level of support, but as it is with most companies, the representatives are not very skilled. Dare not deviate from the procedure the representative orders you to follow; otherwise their standard response is they cannot be of help. Each time I was assured the problem had been fixed, and for a day or two that may have been true, but the problem kept happening. When finally a technician appointment was scheduled for a few days later, the internet was working and nothing was done to resolve the problem. It reminded me of taking my car into the dealer when I hear a noise; that noise is never apparent when the mechanic is listening, but it’s still there. More calls to the customer representatives; more technicians coming to my house, and eventually a new modem (a different brand) has seemed to solve the problem.

Comcast claims to proactively monitor equipment and empowers their customer service representatives to perform home checks to determine some of the causes of trouble and to focus on network reliability known as “node health.” Their Customer Guarantee briefly includes:

  • A 30 day money back guarantee on all equipment and services.
  • A promise to treat you and your home with courtesy and respect.
  • Answer your questions at your convenience 24/7.
  • Easy to understand statements and bills.
  • Best and most video choices.
  • Address any problems customers experience.
  • Schedule appointments at customers convenience and be mindful of customer’s time.

While I commend Comcast’s pledge of service, my own experience would suggest that customer service representatives need more training and be able to either send a customer to the next level or be better trained to evaluate initial problems and how to more efficiently deal with customers. These people are first impressions, and as the old adage rings out, there is only one chance to make a first impression.

On the Comcast blog, Rick Germano, SVP Customer Operations writes about how Comcast employees took it upon themselves to help others in the recent heavy snowstorms in the Northeast. Some employees drove their coworkers into the office; others helped to plow out driveways, some slept in the offices to be ready to help or even prepared food. That truly shows the ability of employees to think out of the box and go beyond the basic manual, so why not follow that lead in the customer service department?

photo credit: dmuth

Perception is key to customer service excellence

It’s easy to fool our senses and perceptions. David Copperfield has done it for years; he made the Statue of Liberty disappear. Was that real? Actually, he had a setup of two towers on the stage which supported an arch to hold the huge curtain that would hide the statue. The cameras were only set up in one spot and focused on the monument through the arch. Once the curtains were closed, the stage slowly and almost imperceptibly turned just enough so when the curtains opened again, it looked like the Statue of Liberty was gone.

Is perception much different when marketers and advertisers want us to believe in their products? I can’t help but notice the Maybelline mascara commercials promising lashes so lush and long that I can hardly wait to drive over to CVS and pick up the latest product. Is it realistic? There’s no possible way mascara can make eyelashes that long and perfect; my objectivity and verifiable actual experience will prove that at a later time, but the perception and a significant perceived improvement to me is what makes the experience real.

Delivering superior customer service is also a perception. A customer’s perception of an issue is often different than the actual circumstance. Let’s take the example of waiting in a Verizon store for the next available agent. I walk in and there are three people before me, three representatives attending to customers and two other employees not engaged with customers. I am impatient because I have to leave in 30 minutes to pick my kids up from school and my impatience grows especially when I perceive the two other employees should be aware that I need some customer service yet they have made no overtures to help anyone.

Excellent customer service, regardless of what the facts may be have to be especially sensitive to the customer’s viewpoint and perception of the issue. That’s where careful listening comes into play and suggesting solutions based on those very perceptions can make a profound impact. Insensitivity and indifference is a prelude to customer anger and the loss of the customer because they don’t really care who takes care of them since each representative is synonymous with the company. This is where standards of KPI or Key Performance Indicators come into play. Through training, monitoring, coaching, practice and new policies, employees understand that customers are driven by what they think about a business or service, and we want them to see positive perceptions.

As for my experience at the Verizon store, I did approach one of the two representatives and asked them if someone could help me and explained my circumstances. The manager came over to me, listened to my problem with my cell phone and my time restraints; asked me if I wanted to leave the phone and come back after I picked up my children, and during that time my phone would be either repaired or replaced. I must admit he had the right attitude, and I was satisfied that someone had worked to help me.

photo credit: Phil Guest

Publix on top of American Customer Satisfaction Index

In the lead since 1994, Publix scores the highest marks for customer satisfaction with products and services. Awarded one of the top companies in Fortune’s list of  “100 Best Companies to Work For,” Publix ranked higher than any other supermarket.

Corporate culture has played a huge part in the success of the company. Founded by George Jenkins in 1930, a man who led by example instilled a sense of pride among the associates. Employee ownership has been a key factor and the upbeat, supportive, and honorable reputation of the company has helped them to become one of the ten largest supermarket chains in the country.

Publix guarantees, “We will never knowingly disappoint you. If for any reason your purchase does not give you complete satisfaction, the full purchase price will be cheerfully refunded immediately upon request.”

The stores are uncluttered, well-stocked and clean. Better trained employees take a personal interest in the business and the customers.  There are more full-time employees who make a strong commitment and are more knowledgeable. Service includes taking your groceries to your vehicle. Plastic or paper and reusable “green” bags are readily available as well as recycling bins for paper and plastic. Every 4th quarter, households are polled to evaluate customer service, pricing, inventory position, and variety.

Tom Burello, a manager in Anderson, South Carolina, who has been with Publix for ten years praises the company as being an excellent and upbeat place to work. “We make people feel welcome because the more times we please you, the more times you will come back and shop here,” he says. “The stock sharing  and the retirement plan is great.”

Even the vendors rate Publix as firm, fair, and, consistent and have rated the company as one of the  “Best Retailers With Which to Do Business” (Cannondale’s Power Rankings). With a decided increase in frozen and refrigerated foods, a sign of the times, good vendor relations are imperative to ensure on time deliveries and stock. It has forced vendors to improve their own operations so there are less out-of-stocks for one of the busiest supermarket departments.

With over 1,000 stores, the Fortune 500, employee owned company operates 70% of its stores in Florida, but has been innovative enough to branch out to Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly over the top that Publix does, but what they do, they do well.

photo credit: dno1967

Are you meeting your customers’ service expectations?

One of the challenges that customer service professionals face on a daily basis is meeting customers’ service expectations. If you are a company that claims to have superior customer service, people will come to you with the expectation of receiving top-notch service. Nowadays, customers’ expectations are rising because companies are trying to find new ways to surprise and delight their customers.

Service expectations are going to vary from company to company. For example, the service you expect from McDonald’s is going to be much different from the service you may expect from a five-star restaurant.

So, what can you do to determine if you are meeting your customers’ service expectations?

The first thing you’ll want to do is identify the service expectations of your customers. Take some time to review marketing and service/product information for service promises that could play a big part in expectations. It’s also good to review the mission or vision statement of your company.

No matter what industry or company you work for, however, people are going to expect friendly service at the very least. They’re also going to expect courteous treatment and a sincere effort to help them with their needs.

As you’re interacting with customers, take note when someone mentions an opportunity where the company could improve. “I wish…” or “If only the company could…” are statements to look out for. You can also solicit customers for their feedback by asking them, “Is there anything we can do to make our service or product better?” Also, keep track of customer issues or problems. Oftentimes, you’ll come up with reoccurring problems that need to be addressed.

There will be times when you run into a customer whose service expectations are unreasonable. You’ve probably already received training on how to deal with angry or difficult customers, but there are rare times when you have to tell a customer “No” because what they are asking is beyond the scope of what you’re capable of doing. It’s like asking a baby toddler to build a highrise building when he only knows how to stack three wood blocks. If this is the case, simply apologize to the customer, “I’m sorry we can’t do this because…” Maybe your company just doesn’t have the technology or information to fulfill the customer’s needs.

By listening carefully to customers, continuously gathering feedback from them, and taking note of reoccurring issues, your company will be fully prepared to meet customers’ needs and expectations.

Maria Palma is a professional writer and entrepreneur who spent 13+ years in the retail service industry as a salesperson and manager before venturing out on her own and starting her own businesses. Maria is an artsy kinda gal whose life motto is, “Creating a beautiful world, one person at a time.” Find out more about Maria by visiting her main website, Salon de Maria.

The cost of poor customer service

Genesys Lab in conjunction with Datamonitor/Ovum calculated a 338.5 billion dollar lost resulting from poor customer service. The survey done by Greenfield Online questioned 8800 people from every age and income group with a 28 online questionnaire based on the services provided by  internet and call centers. Sixteen different countries including the United States, United Kingdom, China, Brazil, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada were polled and results were reported in “The Cost of Poor Customer Service: The Economic Impact of the Customer Experience and Engagement.”

This was the first large-scale attempt to place an economic value on poor service since few companies ever measure their losses which includes time spent on each phone call as well as  the speed of answering. Revenue losses were evaluated by the amount of customers who “defected and abandoned their purchases” and those services taken to a competitor. The poll showed 63% went to a competitor and 37% did not buy the product or service.

The hardest hit companies affected by revenue loss were cable and satellite providers, telecommunications, and government offices. The most positive companies were involved with consumer products, travel, hospitality, and financial services.

The most common complaint focused on automated self-service not being integrated with human assistance. Also waiting too long on-line or on the telephone for service, untrained representatives, and repetitive conversations ranked high on the annoyance scale. The best customer service experiences reported were based on employee competence, consumer convenience, human services integrated with self-service, being proactive, and personalization.

It’s not surprising how customer frustrations actually figure into such profound losses. No matter how much automated self-service is instituted and the human factor eliminated, the savings realized by cutting back on employees may be costing the company far more with the loss of customers. Just borderline or mediocre customer service can no longer retain customers; exceptional service is what consumers demand.

photo credit: guspim

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