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Automated answering system to promote customer service

Do you want to act like a “big” business? I can’t remember any large companies who haven’t been using automated answering systems, and it can keep expenses low while providing customer service if a business can still hold on to the personal touch. Probably the most annoying and infuriating automated answering  systems are the ones where the caller gets stuck with menu after menu. We’ve all been there.

A small business can customize and greet customers directing them to their intended connections with a greeting such as this:

“Good day and thank you for calling. If you know your party’s extension, please enter it now followed by the pound sign. For a company directory by name, please press 1. If you would prefer to speak with an operator, please press ‘0’ at any time.” Here you have a simplified method using technology, but still maintaining the personal touch so many customers still appreciate.

You might want to grow into a virtual PBX, which can be directed to enter an extension, and if the contact doesn’t answer, the call can ring for another extension or go to voice mail. During the “hold” period, you might opt to use music on hold, deliver a daily marketing message; for instance what’s on sale for the day or  the latest market quotes, etc. The trick is not to keep your caller on hold too long. When all lines are busy or no one is available however, there’s much to be said when a live attendant comes on the line and spends a few moments with you. You can even direct calls to your cell phone; again, another opportunity to supply the personal touch. The best advice would be to have a live attendant available after a message such as this:

To speak with an operator, please press “0”.

Very popular now are Interactive Voice Responses ( IVR). Many callers find IVR with its variety of options totally frustrating. The customers/callers make selections from a menu by speaking into the phone or using their keypad. Callers can have more options. The more sophisticated companies who don’t want to lose customers and clients through the maze of IVR, have had the programs now able to recognize certain key word phrases. Sometimes a list of common swear words have been programmed in, and when the caller is on their last frazzled nerve and starts to swear, a polite IVR message comes on to ask:

“Did you want to speak with a customer service agent?”

It’s a smart company to realize once a customer is so frustrated, she could very well take her business elsewhere, it is time for the personal touch again.

Use technology to increase efficiency, but let’s not forget that customers still want to know that you care.

photo credit: mangpage

Use concierge mindset for customer service

The best concierge takes pride in orchestrating memorable experiences for their guests, so why shouldn’t every employee have a concierge mindset; after all as long as you have customers, you are in a service business. Of course, the initial recruitment and interview of potential candidates is of prime importance, so know what specific personnel requirements are needed, and structure hiring decisions based on attitude, proficiency, and enthusiasm.

The delivery of services should not be restricted by job title. Take the example of an employee stocking the shelves at a local hardware store. A customer comes in and asks the employee where she can find door handles. The employee walks the customer over to the aisle and asks if there is more he can do to help. The customer needs help sorting out the rows and rows of door handles to find one that fits her needs, and the employee assists her until her needs are met. Then the employee returns to stocking the shelves. Did the employee go beyond his job of stocking shelves? Absolutely, but the customer was so satisfied she made a point to congratulate the store manager about the excellent and helpful store employee.

In a local hair salon, a regular client was in the middle of a hair highlighting. The client had very long hair; the  foils were almost all applied, and her cell phone rang. The client’s 5th grade child called to tell her mother she had forgotten an important piece of her class project that was involved in the school fair and needed it immediately. The mom couldn’t leave the salon with bleach and tin foils. The receptionist volunteered to drive to the client’s home, pick up the piece the student needed and take it to her child’s school. Going out of her way? Absolutely, but the receptionist was able to break free and see her job as more than just a job title.

Going above and beyond sets any business apart. Instead of ever saying no, a business should always be able to present options or alternatives, but in order to encourage employees to perform in such positive ways as the above examples, the company has to empower employees and coach them in positive ways. Probably the most important aspect in being able to realize such outstanding service, is the company’s ability to present a positive approach to employees and help employees  work effectively with other departments. It is really hard to go above and beyond by yourself.

All good customer service is a result of an organized system and constantly improving what you want to achieve; the results can make a big difference. If a business just changes a little at a time and meets the customer’s needs beyond the product, the customer feels important, and that is what keeps customers coming back.

photo credit: Mypouss

Putting on the Ritz

Today I was at the Ritz Carlton Destination Club in Jupiter, Florida featuring Mediterranean style estates, villas and residences along the golf course and a 68,000 square foot clubhouse with the most beautiful spa and fitness Center imaginable. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sine qua non of the “we live it, we breathe it” philosophy of such an impressive company.

When hired, an employee becomes part of the varsity team; perhaps one of the reasons the Ritz Carlton has the lowest turnover rate of any hotel in the industry. In the first year, employees receive more than 300 hours of training which includes a procedure manual containing  more than 1,000 examples of potential problems an employee might have to deal with while performing their job. Each team member who receives a complaint “owns” the complaint, and it doesn’t matter if you are the desk clerk, the bell boy or the housekeeper. Each team member has generous discretionary funds to handle complaints, and their ability to resolve these challenges without having to go through different channels eliminates 95% of potential problems with guests; after all guests don’t want to wait for a manager to come on duty to solve their problems.

The “Gold Standards” express the values and philosophy of the company. Briefly explained they are as follows:

  • The Credo. The finest personal service will be provided including even unexpressed wishes.
  • The Motto. “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”
  • 3 Steps of Service. We greet the guest. We anticipate what needs the guest will have and fulfill those needs. We bid farewell to the guest.
  • The Basics. We are proud to be at the Ritz Carlton and we always want to improve our services. We want to learn and grow and welcome your suggestions. We respect your privacy and are responsible for your safety, cleanliness and comfort of our guests.
  • Employee Promise. Guests are  most important at the Ritz Carlton.

As we were leaving early this evening, an older couple who apparently were not able to fly home because of the weather conditions northward returned to the Ritz Carlton looking very annoyed.  The desk clerk helped the couple get settled for another evening, and as the bell boy was piling their luggage on the cart, the woman remarked  to her husband she could use a hot cup of tea. Within minutes, the desk clerk returned with that cup of tea. What a difference it made to the guest; what a smile she had on her face.

photo credit: yungke22

To deliver great customer service – listen and remember

I think too many waiters have listening problems. For the last few days, I have been traveling and have spent two meals a day dining in different restaurants. Last night at dinner, I asked for a Caesar salad with the dressing and anchovies on the side. The salad came with the dressing and anchovies already tossed. Today at lunch, I asked for a diet coke with a slice of lemon and I just got the soda. When I asked the waitress to bring me a slice of lemon, she brought me a slice of lime.

We hear sounds around us such as cars going by, people talking at the next table, and babies crying, but we don’t make much sense of these noises until we interpret what we are hearing. Our memory then comes into play when we recall exactly what we just heard which becomes  the basis of listening. There is no limit on what we can remember since memory isn’t passive, and it might serve a positive purpose if employers were able to help employees with their memory skills. Just think of the immediate improvements if both listening and memory skills were addressed in practical methods easily applicable.

To remember effectively, we must actively associate what we hear with something else. We forget because we are unable to retrieve a memory or one memory, as in the waiter’s case, interferes with another memory. An easy way to remember is to visualize concepts using mnemonic devices such as memory tricks, acronyms, nonsense words, nonsense sentences and even rhymes. If we can show someone how to perhaps associate a ridiculous image with an order as in the Caesar salad order, the waiter could get the order right, save time and deliver better customer service.

Imagine visualizing the salad as a huge green tree and the anchovies as fallen twigs blowing away from the tree by a strong wind. A snow storm is not expected until later in the day. There you have it! The salad is by itself; the anchovies are separate and the dressing is not to be on the salad until later. And as to the diet soda, could you imagine the image of a fizzy brown bottle with a huge yellow sun bonnet? I bet you would remember the lemon then.

Each waiter would be able to come up with their own memory helpers and before long some of the listening problems would be eliminated and customer service improved.

photo credit: karinmanske

Nexus One Phone Support

I love Google. I use it as my search engine of choice and for my email, calendar, feed reader, and a variety of other things. I don’t talk about Google much on Service Untitled because one thing Google is not known for is its customer service. With the recent release of the Nexus One, this issue was brought to the forefront.

The background of the issue is straightforward: Google launched a major product that usually comes with an expectation of easily accessible phone support without phone support. Traditionally, Google has relied on self-service options like community forums, knowledge bases, and occasional support via email. For users of the Nexus One, that wasn’t enough. The result was a busy support forum at Google and a lot of confused and annoyed customers.

The phone manufacturer/carrier support model is a lot like the software/OEM manufacturer support model. Traditionally, carriers provide the support for the phones they provide in much the same way that PC manufacturers such as HP and Dell provide support for Windows. Apple changed this model quite a bit when they started supporting the iPhone directly, but most phone/carrier relationships are still like this (for example, I call Verizon, not Research in Motion, to get support for my BlackBerry). Because Google was selling the phones directly, the relationship changed and people started to expect their service from Google.

Luckily, Google caught onto this pretty quickly and announced today that they were launching a phone support line that would be open from 4 AM to 7 PM PT. Like with other phone manufacturers and other phone companies, people will be able to call and talk to a human.

There are some good lessons to consider as a result of this story:

  • Consider expectations. I wrote about some reasons to provide phone support a while back and one of the reasons I mentioned is if your business model and industry call for it. In the mobile phone business, phone support is expected.
  • Get it up fast. Google was good at getting its phone support up and running quickly. Even though a month doesn’t seem that fast by Internet time, it is a short turnaround time for setting up what will likely be a busy call center at a company that doesn’t really run call centers.
  • Be prepared to break from your traditional culture. Google is not a customer service company. I don’t think anyone at the company would make that claim. Google did, however, break from that traditional culture in order to remain competitive and ensure customer satisfaction.

Think about this story and these lessons before you launch your next product. Doing so might save you some negative (or at the very least, critical) press in the future.

It’s nothing personal

Monday morning and an angry customer is walking into the office, and for your own self-preservation, you never want to trade insults, yell back, engage in sarcasm, or be intimidated. You must first understand an angry customer at the simplest level.

They’re not angry at you; it’s only because you are an employee and representative of the company, but since you’re there in front of them, you naturally become the target. That angry woman who reminds you so much of your mother wants her problem solved, and your job is not to get her to that particularly hostile  point we’ve all heard, ” Well it’s the principle,” because at this point even if you could work something out, she would still be dissatisfied.

So what do you do? Let’s start at the beginning as the angry customer walks in:

– Observe body language. You never want to be blindsided by someone’s temper. Are their arms crossed, shoulders hunched, restless, staring or acting rude? You need to always remember the person isn’t mad at you, so try to be as unpolitical as you can be. Introduce yourself, and be polite. Ask the person her name and address her by name. Try not to make her wait; look up from your paper work immediately  and never say “NEXT”.

– Listen to the customer. You must always let the customer tell her story. Do not interrupt her, and listen intently until she is finished speaking.  Show her that you have been paying attention by paraphrasing her problem and assuring her you understand and intend to help.

– Phrases to avoid. An angry customer doesn’t do well with such stock phrases as: ” I only work  here,” “It’s against our store policy,” or probably the most annoying of them all, ” I’m only following the rules.” Never come back with one of those answers, but again assure the person you will do your best to solve their problem. If the problem can not be solved at the time, make sure you confirm with the customer when you will have an answer, and make sure you follow through with a response at the agreed upon time. Check out the Big List of Things Not to Say for more tips.

– If I cannot help. If for any reason you feel that you can not mitigate the complaint, it is acceptable to refer the customer to your supervisor, but make sure you give the customer their name and their contact information. What you never want to do is just push the complaint on to the next person, and not have the customer’s complaint resolved.

    Angry customers are always going to be around as are Monday mornings, but why not start the week off by helping your company keep its professional image and customers as well as you competently helping to resolve conflicts.

    photo credit: subew

    Introducing the Service Untitled Team

    When I started Service Untitled back in April 2006, I was the only writer. I’d have occasional guest writers contribute to the blog, but for the most part, Service Untitled was me and me only. Nearly four years later (!), I’m happy to formally announce and introduce Service Untitled’s team of regular writers. The writers page features a listing of the regular contributors to Service Untitled, along with the photos and biographies of the people who bring you customer service advice and insight five days a week.

    These people have been writing for Service Untitled for some time, but before today, there was not much information available about who they are or what they specialize in. The writers section is designed to provide that information. The writers section is released along with an entirely re-written and re-designed about section and revised contact and consulting pages.

    In the new about section, you’ll also notice a new Service Untitled logo as well. This will be implemented into the main site’s design in the near future, but in the mean time, I want to show it off on the about page. A big thank you is owed to Bruce and his team at Logo Design Consultant for their hard work (and great customer service) in getting the logo designed.

    How to build great customer relationships

    If you pick the top three companies known for their extraordinary customer relationships; Nordstrom, Amazon and Starbucks, it’s pretty easy to dissect their redeeming qualities. Nordstrom is known for their incomparable attention, Starbucks is renowned for its generosity to its employees and the personal touch, and Amazon uses small teams who are empowered to solve problems without having to ask permission of a superior.

    Consumers still want to buy from real people and want to buy and associate with people and businesses who carry similar values and good will. Nordstrom, Amazon, and Starbucks didn’t develop their customer relationships over night and have successfully been able to target their main consumers.

    If someone asks you who your main customers are, the most logical place to start would be with existing customers. Consider who has bought from you in the past, and look for trends whether it be socio-economic, common interest groups, age, or gender. If you are just starting out and have no customers, check the competition, or launch an online or newspaper advertisement. Consider other tactics and perhaps speak to a sample target audience or do a survey, either online or regular mail.

    Building relationships over long periods of time require consistency. Compare it to resolutions people make each January to exercise regularly. It all goes great for the first few weeks in January; the treadmills and step machines are “waiting line only” but as February rolls around, the silence in the gym is deafening again. The same goes for the mailers, e-newletters, blog updates, direct mailers, and personal follow-up phone calls. As the year progresses, and you don’t get any responses, you stop, but the most popular reason to buy a product is need at a particular time. If you are there, the need is there, you will get the customer, but you have to be consistent.

    Customers really don’t want to work for what they want. We are a highly mobile society now with a lot of options available to us; not like the old days when businesses shut down at a certain hour. The Internet 24/7 has a compound influence on your target audience, so meeting all the criteria is imperative. Make it easy for the consumer, provide exactly what they need when they need it, go beyond what is expected, make it convenient and at a reasonable price, and your customers will follow.

    photo credit: USACE Europe District

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