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NJ toll road collectors lack customer service training

Under the US Freedom of Information Act, the popular internet site, The Smoking Gun.com released dramatic examples of complaint letters concerning toll collectors at the NJ Turnpike and Garden State Parkway for the years 2008 to 2009. Some hideous stories released told of a toll collector not wanting to make change for a $1.75 toll from a twenty-dollar bill and then throwing the change and telling the driver to get his change from the road and die, or another toll collector demanding a driver to submit to a strip search because she entered the wrong toll lane. Both toll collectors were docked pay or suspended, but no toll collector was ever fired.

On the flip side, I was able to find complaints from the toll collectors who seemed to be offended by the bad publicity they have been receiving since the FOIA was published. Charges of racial slurs, paying tolls with pennies, paying .75 tolls with one-hundred dollar bills, drivers spitting, and a general lack of respect seemed to rationalize the alleged behaviors of toll collectors reported as defensible because drivers are generally rude and disrespectful. One collector said he doesn’t have time to smile since his job is to give change, roll up coins and bills, and give directions.

Curious as I was since reading this, and since journalism and real estate both encompass miles of traveling, I intentionally stopped at various  different toll booths along the Florida Turnpike yesterday and today and conducted a quick survey among the toll collectors. This was far from a scientific study, but of the six toll collectors I surveyed (while in my car) the employees (and Florida collectors work for the Faneuil Group) stated that rarely had drivers been so rude that the collectors ever thought of retaliatory deeds to get even. In fact, one older gentleman told me he loved his job and smiled at every driver. “Do they all smile back at you?” I asked. With a huge Cheshire cat grin, he replied, “how can they help it?”

New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson has promised transparency and better customer service and promises to bring excellent service and public safety reforms to the Department of Transportation.

Toll collectors need to have customer service training also. They need to be hired because they can not only do the job, but be able to deal with the customers – just like any other consumer oriented position. What would be the results if a company used representatives who insulted, assaulted or told customers to “die” on the road? Would customer service representatives just be suspended for ten days with no pay?

Short of making it obligatory for everyone traveling the roads to use EZPass or Sun Pass, customer service rules should apply to everyone – even toll collectors.

photo credit: Dan4th

The Devil is Really in the Details

Customers use detail management as an indicator of a service provider’s commitment to delivering a positive service experience. But, there is a more profound element of detail management that service providers often miss or misunderstand. As customers, there are core requirements we assume. We presume the commercial airline flight will be safe. We believe the fastfood we buy will not make us sick and hospitals are clean. And, customers are keenly aware of signals that leave them comforted or concerned about core requirements.

We call the details service air. No one notices the air in the room until it is removed or threatened and, then you can think of nothing else. The wonderful flight with great food, super-friendly flight attendants and a comfortable seat will be completely erased from the customer’s memory if the flight lands in the wrong city or four hours late. It means taking care of the basics is required if a great service experience is going to be recalled by customers as great.

But, there is an even bigger issue with poor service detail management. When passengers lower a serving tray on an airline and notice coffee stains, their negative reaction might not be about a sloppy cabin maintenance crew. It could trigger an intuitive leap to the condition of the plane’s engine and a fearful concern that the plane might crash. The customer’s perceptions about a bus driver with obvious alcohol breath are not just about the driver’s personal habits. A nurse with dirty hands shows more to a patient than simply shoddy hygiene. And, a trashy parking lot might cause concerns about food preparation in the kitchen. Some details are much more significant than others. Some take customers straight to the core requirements they would prefer to take for granted.

Take a close look at the details of your customers’ experiences. Are there signals that leave customers worried about “big deal” core requirements? Are you a constant guardian of the details that feed customers’ perceptions?

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 Devoted Customers. They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

Working on customer retention

The biggest challenge in business is giving customers what they want; chances are if they’re still with us, we’re meeting their needs. Statistically, all customers eventually leave, but our businesses demand we keep them as long as possible. So how do we continue to do it better?

The only way to do business better is to talk to the customers. Less than 1% of customers won’t tell you unless asked, and most companies make it really hard to offer feedback.

As an example, when I dealt with a problem from our local cable company, the service representative was one inch short of rude, uninformed about the service to be provided, and unable to access my account. I asked to speak with a supervisor, but that didn’t happen; I was left on hold too long and no one ever called back. In other words, the lousy service stayed with the company. A few days ago, with another company, I wanted to compliment someone for a job really well-done; a service representative who went beyond the call of duty to help, but it was too hard to find the right extension, no live support was offered, and consequently  I never was able to offer any positive feedback.

Companies need to make it easy to provide feedback. I’ve seen it many times lately suggesting that companies go retro and bring the human back to answering dedicated customer service lines. Customers value a company doing it right; back to the adage, you only have one opportunity to make a first impression. Answer the phone and don’t keep them on hold too long. Survey customers, ask them for their opinions, be a human voice on the other end.

If a company doesn’t give a customer a good reason to stay, the competition will give your customers a good reason to leave, and we all know cultivating the loyalty of one customer is many times more profitable than finding a new one. If active customers are shown to be appreciated by promotions, discounts, sweepstakes, loyalty programs, birthday cards, and even thank-you notes, the company has done something for them. That creates customer retention.

Of course a company’s marketing resources are limited, and a company can’t spend the same amount of advertising money on all customers, but each company should develop a method to allocate funds to the most profitable promotions and to deliver to the right customers ; those customers who have been consistent patrons and the most valued.

photo credit: unruly chaffinch

Age of Conversation 3

This is my second year participating in the Age of Conversation project/book. Here’s how the website describes the project:

With over 300 of the world’s leading marketers, writers, thinkers and creative innovators contributing chapters, this collaborative work investigates the roles that community, conversation, experimentation, engagement, and collaboration play in shaping the 21st century’s economy of ideas. As businesses, public and private organizations, and individuals realize that there’s much more to social media and its impacts than first meets the eye, Age of Conversation III shows which platforms, tools, and approaches truly work.

The result is a cool book with a lot of different opinions and ideas from the great people listed below. What’s also nice is that all profits from the sale of the book are donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Check out the website to learn more and to order a copy.

Age of Conversation Authors:

Adam Joseph Priyanka Sachar Mark Earls
Cory Coley-Christakos Stefan Erschwendner Paul Hebert
Jeff De Cagna Thomas Clifford Phil Gerbyshak
Jon Burg Toby Bloomberg Shambhu Neil Vineberg
Joseph Jaffe Uwe Hook Steve Roesler
Michael E. Rubin anibal casso Steve Woodruff
Steve Sponder Becky Carroll Tim Tyler
Chris Wilson Beth Harte Tinu Abayomi-Paul
Dan Schawbel Carol Bodensteiner Trey Pennington
David Weinfeld Dan Sitter Vanessa DiMauro
Ed Brenegar David Zinger Brett T. T. Macfarlane
Efrain Mendicuti Deb Brown Brian Reich
Gaurav Mishra Dennis Deery C.B. Whittemore
Gordon Whitehead Heather Rast Cam Beck
Hajj E. Flemings Joan Endicott Cathryn Hrudicka
Jeroen Verkroost Karen D. Swim Christopher Morris
Joe Pulizzi Leah Otto Corentin Monot
Karalee Evans Leigh Durst David Berkowitz
Kevin Jessop Lesley Lambert Duane Brown
Peter Korchnak Mark Price Dustin Jacobsen
Piet Wulleman Mike Maddaloni Ernie Mosteller
Scott Townsend Nick Burcher Frank Stiefler
Steve Olenski Rich Nadworny John Rosen
Tim Jackson Suzanne Hull Len Kendall
Amber Naslund Wayne Buckhanan Mark McGuinness
Caroline Melberg Andy Drish Oleksandr Skorokhod
Claire Grinton Angela Maiers Paul Williams
Gary Cohen Armando Alves Sam Ismail
Gautam Ramdurai B.J. Smith Tamera Kremer
Eaon Pritchard Brendan Tripp Adelino de Almeida
Jacob Morgan Casey Hibbard Andy Hunter
Julian Cole Debra Helwig Anjali Ramachandran
Jye Smith Drew McLellan Craig Wilson
Karin Hermans Emily Reed David Petherick
Katie Harris Gavin Heaton Dennis Price
Mark Levy George Jenkins Doug Mitchell
Mark W. Schaefer Helge Tenno Douglas Hanna
Marshall Sponder James Stevens Ian Lurie
Ryan Hanser Jenny Meade Jeff Larche
Sacha Tueni and Katherine Maher David Svet Jessica Hagy
Simon Payn Joanne Austin-Olsen Mark Avnet
Stanley Johnson Marilyn Pratt Mark Hancock
Steve Kellogg Michelle Beckham-Corbin Michelle Chmielewski
Amy Mengel Veronique Rabuteau Peter Komendowski
Andrea Vascellari Timothy L Johnson Phil Osborne
Beth Wampler Amy Jussel Rick Liebling
Eric Brody Arun Rajagopal Dr Letitia Wright
Hugh de Winton David Koopmans Aki Spicer
Jeff Wallace Don Frederiksen Charles Sipe
Katie McIntyre James G Lindberg & Sandra Renshaw David Reich
Lynae Johnson Jasmin Tragas Deborah Chaddock Brown
Mike O’Toole Jeanne Dininni Iqbal Mohammed
Morriss M. Partee Katie Chatfield Jeff Cutler
Pete Jones Riku Vassinen Jeff Garrison
Kevin Dugan Tiphereth Gloria Mike Sansone
Lori Magno Valerie Simon Nettie Hartsock
Mark Goren Peter Salvitti

Customer focus development

Customer focus is more than just adding directions to your company’s mission statement or sending everyone to training. The training part is just one piece of the total package. Everyone has a customer they want to satisfy and therefore the focus has to address needs, expectations, and behaviors. Customer focus challenges a company to adjust certain aspects of an organization to align with customer values through new strategies, organizational design, business processes, performance measures, information and support.

Working as a group, customer service representatives can identify what they deem as important ways to satisfy customers. Here are some suggestions:

  • Meeting Customer Requirements: What new processes have been implemented to validate customer needs? With current customers, is the company producing the products they want? Good ways to address these questions are by surveys; perhaps one every six months to stay on top of an ever-changing market. Setup customer focus groups and ask for feedback. If the company has group meetings or sponsored events, that would be a good time to get input from participants.
  • Convenient Delivery of Product: A lot of people do their online ordering late at night. Is there an IT support group on call but not on site? That could be a money saver for the company, but not for the customer.
  • Principles for Resolving Problems: If a customer places an order and the company is out of the product, how do you resolve the problem? Customers want to be treated fairly, and they don’t much care about excuses. If you resolve their conflicts and you think it is fair, but your customer doesn’t, you will lose your customer.
  • Communication is the Key: This must happen actively and often.
  • Meeting Customer Commitments: If a company has to make excuses why a commitment has not been met on time, the company has missed customer focus.
  • Performance Measurements: Employees have to be held accountable for their actions. Many companies reward exemplary customer focused behaviors with bonuses; positive reinforcement trumps negative criticism.

Many times owners and managers take it for granted that their staff works towards the same objectives. Group sessions are positive methods to help staff understand the customer-focused vision which enables companies and employees to succeed in a very challenging market.

photo credit: Torley

It’s all in your attitude

At the local grocery store yesterday, a consumer was having a very difficult time with the customer service representative. The customer wanted to return four cans of olive oil, and the store employee was insistent that the store did not carry that particular brand and would not offer a refund. The customer started to get loud, and the customer service representative, in  frustration raised her voice and tried to unsuccessfully explain to the angry customer that it was not the store’s policy to take back a product the store didn’t sell despite the customer claiming she indeed purchased the product at the store, although at a different location. The exchange escalated to anger until the store manager rushed over to mitigate a potential customer service nightmare.

Statistics show that 7 out of 10 customers will do business again if the business resolves the complaint in the customer’s favor. If the problem is resolved on the spot, 95% will do business again. It was obvious the customer service representative lacked  listening skills. The first rule is to stay cool and let the customer vent. Once the customer feels that the store representative cares about their problem, emotions are likely to settle down. It is best to avoid emotional trigger words such as, ” that’s not our policy,” “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or the worst offending phrase, “I don’t know.”

Consumers don’t care if the customer service representative is having a bad day, and it is the attitude that can make or break a tense situation. Using calming phrases such as, “here’s what we can do, “thank you for telling me,” “I’ll find out,” or “I understand why,” can make a huge difference in the satisfying outcome of the most stressful situations.

Getting back to the basics of great customer service and never forgetting the cost of the loss of a customer and all of the people who the unhappy consumer will tell that could cost the loss of more customers, companies must help employees understand the importance of a positive attitude even when dealing with the most difficult consumers. Thanking the customer for communicating the problem, apologizing for the inconvenience and fixing the problem are what customers want and expect.

As to the solution for yesterday’s problem when the store manager intervened … a store refund was issued to the customer with the manager’s apology. The customer took her shopping cart and proceeded to shop; the crowd of people waiting in line went about their own business without criticism and the incident was forgotten as quickly as it had begun.

photo credit: pic-nick-photography

Independent customer service agency

STELLA Service claims to be the first completely independent customer service ratings agency for e-commerce. Released last week the two Bucknell graduates, John Ernsberger and Jordy Leiser wanted to help consumers make more informed online purchasing decisions and help companies learn more about their competition.

Customer Service Analysts have extensive usability testing standards including  helpfulness of web site, ordering, returning, interacting with customer service representatives by phone, email and live chat. The objective customer service ratings include 300 unique customer service features which are weighted according to the particular significance to certain metrics. For instance, the company will weigh more importance on gift wrapping for a florist or a specialty gift shop than a department store selling coats. The collection of thousands of data points make this possible.

According to STELLAService, great online service is worth 17.3 billion dollars and all outstanding customer service could be valued at 268 billion dollars a year.  Americans will spend 9.7% more this year for great customer service.

The survey polled 304 consumers from Greenfield Online, one of the oldest online survey panels, to examine spending and opinions. People were looking for value and the following three points were the most important:

  1. Speed of delivery
  2. Helpfulness of customer service personnel
  3. Ease of information on the company website

A rating system was set-up, much like a report card to reflect the quality of service and their ratings are the  sum of all interactions of both ‘service and system’ components for each business, with service components emphasizing the human elements of a company’s interaction with customers and system components stressing the technological elements….mimics real conditions, environments and encounters experienced by online consumers.”

Their rating system briefly explained is as follows:

  • 80 – 100| Elite  | “customer obsessed” company
  • 75-79 | Very Good | high quality with slight improvements needed
  • 70-74 | Good | great service but not a lot of offerings or features
  • 65-69 | Fair | adequate, but need for improvements
  • 60-64 | Mediocre | weak services in key areas
  • 0-60 | Poor | lack of dedication, willingness to provide service, warn consumers to stay away

STELLAService did identify the elite in customer service as those delivering “WOW” through service, friendliness, knowledge, fast, free shipping, return policies, and user-friendly sites who have made the customer their top priority. Standing out from the crowd were Zappos.com and Diapers.com. Other companies notably mentioned who treat customers like family and friends and provided exceptional service were Staples.com, LLBean.com and BlueNile.com.

photo credit: cote

No tips required at Elysian

Consider that the ultimate in luxury means never having to put your hand in your pocket to tip for service. Does tipping truly take away from the experience? According to owner/developer David Pisor of the Elysian in Chicago, a posh hotel with 188 rooms only a half-block from the Four Seasons, “guests want better service, not more.”

The Elysian over-sized guest rooms begin at $350 a night, and the hotel boasts 2 restaurants, health club, spa, 24 hour room service, and 24 hour doormen. The need to tip the valet for retrieving your car, tip the bellman for bringing your luggage to your room, and tipping the maid for making up your room everyday is off the table unless you decide to tip. In order to facilitate the mindset of employees, Pisor hires “ambassadors” from the retail or industrial industries where tipping was not expected, and one person is assigned multiple jobs; a desk clerk could check you in, act as concierge, and book you a restaurant and serve you a cocktail while you wait.

The policy of no-tipping is explained at the time of booking, as well as at the front desk. At the Four Seasons Hotel, there is a no-tipping policy, but there is a daily surcharge.

So how does a no-tipping policy affect customer service, and will the trend catch on? On the positive note, it would be nice to be able to walk into a hotel, check your car, have someone take your luggage to your room, book a restaurant for the evening, and find a chocolate on your pillow without all of the outstretched palms. On the negative side, from a strictly business point of view, will hotels pay their employees enough that the best service-minded employees will stay? The hotel business has traditionally been a service-tipping industry, and even though “ambassadors” are being hired from the retail sector, it doesn’t make a customer service representative immune from making a satisfying income. New York’s doormen have boasted revenues far above  what teachers earn. It seems unlikely the best doormen who have the contacts, the clout, and the abilities to make things happen immediately could be replaced so readily.

Although tipping is now a “charge” of the past at the Elysian, there’s always the option to reward someone for their extra-service if a guest deems appropriate. Will that same employee who used to be from the retail sector and not accustomed to being tipped, then expect tips? Representatives from the Four Seasons Hotel have promised to keep tabs on the Elysian’s new policy for future consideration.

photo credit: UggBoy ( photographer without borders )

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