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B&H Customer Service

When I was in New York last week, I visited the famous B&H Photo Video electronics store on Manhattan’s West Side. This very successful store’s unique business practices and philosophies have been written about in countless books and magazines over the years and from visiting the store or dealing with them over the phone or online, you can tell why. I pulled up the company’s philosophy on their website and found that it focuses on these five things:

– Our Easy Access Displays
– Our Educated Staff
– Our Partnership with Manufacturers
– Our Cutting Edge Inventory Tracking
– Our Liberal Return Policy

Needless to say, these things are very different than what you see or hear about from a typical electronics store. And what’s more interesting is that when you visit the store or buy something from the company’s store or website, many of these things are apparent. For example:

  • Easy access displays. You can try out almost everything on the floor at B&H. Instead of just looking at the boxes of headphones or of portable hard drives, you can put the headphones on and see how big the portable hard drives are. I didn’t notice much that was just kept in boxes or otherwise inaccessible to customers.
  • Our educated staff. I didn’t ask anyone there any questions, but there is no shortage of stories about extremely knowledgeable B&H employees. A friend of mine (who is from NY) went with me to the store and also spoke about how knowledgeable the employees are. What was also nice was the large number of staff members available at any given time. They were all over the store and there were also well placed information booths where customers could ask questions.
  • Partnership with manufacturers. B&H says it uses this advantage to let manufacturers show their “newest and hottest products to customers and staff.” Doing this helps to ensure that staff members are knowledgeable about what products are available and how they can help customers. The store also hosts meetings in its conference center to encourage people interested in particular topics surrounding photography and video recording to come to their store and share what they know with others.
  • Inventory tracking. A system that makes special orders simple is a system that helps promote customer service. Beyond that, B&H has an elaborate and extremely unique system of conveyor belts and similar devices that move products around the store and to a pick up area. This helps cut down on shoplifting and employee theft and thus, helps keep prices low.
  • Liberal return policy. B&H isn’t the only retail store that has a very liberal return policy (see this post on Nordstrom). A liberal return policy represents a desire to keep customers loyal to the company in the long run instead of just making money off of them in the short run. It’s easy enough to not accept returns and keep the money from that particular sale, but it won’t do anything to win customer loyalty. B&H places a premium on customer loyalty, which is why they have a liberal return policy.

B&H is definitely worth checking out if you’re in New York and/or if you’re in the market for any sort of electronics gear. They’re a great example of a company that puts customers first and believes in being honest and straightforward with its customers.

If you’re interested in reading more about this company’s interesting business practices (including shutting down orders on their website on Fridays and Saturdays), check out this great article in Inc. Magazine by Joel Spolsky. It’s worth a read.

Photo credit of the B&H checkout process goes to me (I took the photo when I visited).

IRS and customer service

There’s less than one month until April 15th when taxes are due. This year more people will qualify for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, which provides a free service for taxpayers who meet specific income guidelines which includes some of the hardest hit individuals and families. Needing the most help will be:

  1. Those taxpayers who didn’t have taxes withheld from their unemployment checks (Yes, there is income tax on unemployment.)
  2. Those taxpayers who tapped into their IRAs and 401Ks before retirement age in order to feed their families and pay the rent.

There is an IRS toll-free assistance service for taxpayers, but only 2 out of 3 taxpayers will ever reach a human. IRS admits they are striving to answer 71.2% of the calls; therefore 28.8% are obviously just out of luck. That’s a bleak reflection on customer service especially since all Americans are required to participate.

TIGTA General J. Russel George states that IRS will increase the number of assistants during the fiscal year, have six applications in which to handle Recovery Act call volume, and develop a Web base for certain taxpayers.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service within the IRS helps taxpayers resolve complaints that are not resolved through normal channels. The service protects individual taxpayer rights and helps to reduce the taxpayer burden. Within the department, the Taxpayer Advocates represents your interest and concerns within the IRS.

IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman assures us that agents will have more flexibility this year to settle with newly unemployed individuals and those who have had their incomes drastically fall. This is somewhat of a dubious promise however since last year’s tax enforcement by IRS for liens and judgments increased by 26%. In 2008, IRS received 52,000 requests to settle and only 11,000 requests were approved; a paltry 20%.

In order to provide better customer service, the IRS needs more toll-free lines. Taxpayers who have financial difficulty need to be dealt with differently. Levies and seizures can be detrimental to employment as well as credit scores. While the government pushes a tax payer into abject poverty, the American dream of home ownership and enjoyment of life are lost forever.

In 2008, leadership training was the only type of training companies spent more money on than customer service, yet even the government displays highly ineffective methods addressing perhaps the one “Service” that affects every American. Isn’t it time the government addressed customer service?

photo credit: numberstumper

Tighten your belt on Continental

On Monday, Continental Airlines announced in-flight meals will now be for purchase in economy class. It’s not that folks book flights on airlines for meals; it’s more the lack of customer service and what was considered more of a tradition. While we may not have been crazy about the quality of the meal, there was always something to pick at and break up the otherwise monotony of the flight.

Jim Compton, executive vice president and chief marketing officer offered this explanation. “We are improving our economy meal service with a high quality, industry leading food-for-purchase program that is consistent with the strong brand image and high service standard for which our customers recognize us.” Continental will continue to provide free food service on all intercontinental and long-haul domestic routes over six hours.

How is customer service and the reputation that Continental Airlines vies to uphold with their Customer First Plan affected by this change of policy? Is Continental now admitting that meals previous to the new plan were inferior and unhealthy? Will the continued food service on the intercontinental and long-haul domestic routes over six hours still be reflective of the original menu? The media release has not been well-received by travelers; in fact wouldn’t it have been a more sensible plan to just announce the airline has had to make more cutbacks in order to continue doing business and affording their employees?

Tomorrow the option will be available to buy roomier seats with more leg room. The price will depend on the length of the flight and the popularity of the route. For instance, the charge to sit in the emergency row with an extra 7 inches of leg room could cost as much as $59 each way. Sitting in an emergency row, however requires more responsibility since it is a crucial exit in the remote chance the airplane incurs an emergency landing. Will there then be a discount for a seat that doesn’t recline?

Checking baggage now costs $25 within the US and prices fluctuate depending on the amount of luggage, the class one flies, and the destination.

By the end of the year, Continental plans to deploy DirecTV and internet service. Also, in Business First seats will fold back to offer flat beds. My observation is not to fly economy class; by the time you check your luggage, sit in your seat, stretch your legs, and select an a la carte meal, you might save more money flying business class.

photo credit: Hunter-Desportes

Jet Blue flies high with customer service perks

Just check Terminal 5 at New York JFK airport for the state-of-the-art facility geared for efficiency and customer comfort. In 2009, JD Power & Associates, a global marketing information service which measures customer satisfaction based on millions of consumers annually, rated Jet Blue ” Highest in Customer Satisfaction” among low-cost carriers in North America.

Jet Blue serves 60 cities with 600 flights daily. All passengers have assigned seats; all fares are based on one way and an overnight stay is not required. They provide the most non-stop departures from JFK to Florida and rank as the 7th largest carrier in the US.

Jet Blue delivers service differently than most low-cost carriers. Where other companies have decided to cut back and charge passengers to use blankets and pillows while flying, Jet Blue, in the quest to become America’s Favorite Airlines, boasts their Customer Bill of Rights aimed at ” bringing humanity back to air travel.” On Valentine’s Day, 2007 an ice storm in the northeast set the venue for a customer service disaster when hundreds of passengers were held captive on the tarmac and thousands of travelers were stranded in airports. In order to regain their credibility,  instituting a Customer Bill of Rights now offers full refunds, re-accommodations due to Jet Blue cancellations within 4 hours and even refunds due to “controllable irregularities.” There is now compensation for departure delays,  overbookings  and on board ground delays. If a customer is involuntarily denied boarding because of a Jet Blue overbooking, the company claims to reimburse a passenger $1,000. The airline brags about “lots of legroom” and for a small additional fee promises to provide ” even more legroom.”

Attention getting promotions last week celebrating Jet Blue’s  ten years of service included $10 thank-you fares on all remaining seats between NY JFK and the airline’ s first ten destinations. Complimentary in-flight email and instant messaging known as “Beta Blue”,  first checked bag free, 36 channels of Directv, 100 channels of XM Radio, and unlimited named snacks are advertised on their website. On overnight flights, the airlines supplies a “snooze kit”  that contains an eye shade and earplugs.  Before arriving at the morning destination, airline attendants hand out hot towels, coffee, tea, orange juice or water.

Jet Blue’s promise of  “Happy Jetting” may indeed be a reality.

photo credit: albertopveiga

Customer loyalty and Toyota

There have been 8 million Toyota vehicles recalled. There are car manufacturer meetings, government meetings, blog entries, and water-cooler discussions, yet brand loyalty has not dropped as much as expected.  The Consumer Reports 2010 Car Brand Survey shows Toyota only down by 10% with Honda now in the lead.

Depending on which survey you read, it is difficult to discern if Chevrolet and Ford have surpassed Toyota or still lag behind in sales. According to Edmunds.com, a popular automotive network newsletter where you can also buy and sell new and used cars, Ford increased 35% this past month. Snowstorms in the Northeast kept many buyers out of the showrooms in February, so the numbers may not be accurate.

So how are the Toyota representatives putting the giant back together again? After all, Toyota has had the most complaints about rogue gas pedal car acceleration over a 5 year period, and 52 people have died in sudden acceleration crashes in Toyota vehicles since the year 2000. Jim Lentz, President and Chief Operating Officer of Toyota Motor Sales stated, “We’re committed to doing everything we can – as fast as we can- to restore consumer trust in Toyota, and these recalls are part of this effort.” Toyota has promised more stringent quality control, more investigations into customer complaints, and a quicker response time when identifying safety issues, and has apologized to consumers and loyal customers repeatedly. Car dealerships have staff working 24/7 to repair and replace parts, and local and national television commercials have been launched reiterating customer loyalty.

Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales, USA stated, “We launched this program to expand the focus on our customers, and thank them for their loyalty by adding value to our products.” And with that promise, Toyota introduced new financing programs and incentives offering 0% financing on popular models, low lease rates, and complimentary 2 year premium maintenance programs.

It will be interesting to follow Toyota’s rise and fall; will they be able to regain their giant market share and their once stellar reputation as a car manufacturer that provided reliability, durability, and safety? It’s not over yet; the hypersensitive press and public are waiting.

photo credit: ThreadedThoughts

Web Host Customer Service

The two most important functions for a web host is to keep the servers running smoothly and provide quality customer service. Like all technolog,y there is always a chance the customer’s web site could go down; it’s how the complete process is handled that ultimately makes the difference. The customer can get over the site being down, but he will not get over being ignored, and response time needs to be immediate.

Being kind is the one of the most important aspects of customer service. If you are a techie and you only like dealing with technology, do your business a favor and hire a “people person.” Even though they might not have the technical skills, people do business with people they like and not always the most experienced. The more technical problems can be handled by a separate department. Try to keep the customer service representatives in the house; in other words do not outsource.  Of course, the company might save labor costs, but it could end up costing the company customers. Training employees with efficient programs, using mentors to help employees handle customer service requests, and learning the culture of the company can provide the tools to keep the customer as the top priority. HostGator, a leading web hosting company based in Houston, tried outsourcing for a year, but language and cultural differences created such a gap that the company felt they were losing their “personal touch.”

Listen to what your customers are telling you. What company doesn’t want free advice? After all you might spend hundreds or thousands of dollars attending seminars on customer service, but listening to what customers have to say might make a difference. Always let the customer finish speaking, and take their suggestions seriously. Never rush a client through a service call; that is the easiest way to send your client packing to one of your competitors. Put yourself in their shoes and give them what you would expect.

Show respect for your customers, and don’t give a customer a reason to leave unhappily. If a customer wants a refund despite everything that you have done to rectify and solve their problem, by all means return their money. It’s not worth the bad publicity. Also make sure that your staff is familiar with new promotions and sales. Increase the staff when needed and anticipate the high volume times so customers don’t have to wait on “hold” or have to wait for “live help.” If the host company deals with international clients, have service representatives who speak foreign languages.

And by all means, show respect by your actions. If a customer leaves a phone message or an email, get back to them quickly. If you can show you appreciate and value your customers, then you are delivering customer service.

photo credit: schoschie

Quirky customer service commercial

A successful commercial is no easy task, but what a value it is when it can deliver your message to an audience and entertain as well. Humor seems to always appeal to the masses, and the new Zappos commercial successfully calls attention to the company by creating the perfect juxtaposition of funny puppets speaking over the phone and cleverly incorporating a customer service message. The best commercial is one that can be viewed over and over and still elicit the same laugh.

The fine line between creativity and communication makes the message memorable. The offbeat humor fits the quirky culture of Zappos.  After all, CEO Tony Hsieh encourages his customer service representatives to make a Personal Emotional Connection. The culture of the company is what the company is all about, and as new employees train with two weeks of classroom training and two weeks of practical knowledge answering customer calls, they are offered money to the tune of $1000 to quit if they feel they do not fit with the culture. Employees who decide to stay within the company are much more invested in their loyalties, and with Hsieh’s mission which is to “provide the best online experience possible,” employees are better able to think independently in order to achieve the goal. Every year each employee is required to write a short essay about the culture of the company. All of the writings are entered into an unedited book and distributed to the staff.  It is a place where employees want to come to work.

This same commercial that has probably made all of you smile by now was able to communicate who Zappos is, what they want you to do and makes you want to do it.  If Hsieh can encourage managers to goof off with his staff for 10 to 20% random time, have interviews over “vodka shots,” and paint the bathrooms “urine colors” just to be weird and funny, two very unusual puppets extolling the virtues of an unusual customer service phone call can only add to the uniqueness of a tremendously successful company.

The puppets bring home the concept of being humble, having fun and being a bit weird. It’s Hsieh’s mantra, “Deliver WOW through service.” The video is after the jump.

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Many happy returns

How any business handles complaints and returns defines customer service. Since the benefit of any product or service is realized once the sale is made, it is imperative that an exchange or return be made easily so as not to make the buyer feel pressured. Customers will buy more with good policies and refer new buyers as well. A bad experience is likely to end the relationship and result in the loss of business; not a desired effect with today’s economy and competition.

So what is the best return policy? If you model your business plan after Nordstrom’s slogan, “Even if you’re making an exchange or return, we make it easy,” the policy should be whatever keeps the customer happy which is getting their money back with the least resistance and work. Of course the store owner gets stuck with extra credit card fees, repackaging, restocking, and reselling the returned item, but the loss of a customer is far more expensive.

All return policies need to be visible. Post them on cash registers, on receipts and if online, post prominent links. Staff should be trained when checking customers out so as to mention the policy and how many days a customer has to return merchandise. Nowadays it is obvious how many stores have extended the return time period, and some have no limits at all. Any exceptions to the return policy should be clear, and an upfront approach perhaps by the sales representative at checkout could reinforce the reminder with a statement such as, “Sales items cannot be returned.”

All employees should be trained to handle returns, exchanges and refunds. The staff should stay friendly and proceed as quickly as possible with the least amount of paperwork and questions. A return is not the time to ask customers for more data than necessary since the customer is likely not happy. Try to turn the transaction into a pleasant experience by staying friendly even if the customer gets rude. Online return policies often include prepaid return labels, which is a great way to gain the competitive edge by reversing and reducing the risk for consumers. Again, making sure that the policy is clear reduces confusion.

Lastly, don’t treat 99% of customers like the 1% who are dishonest and who try to take advantage of generous return policies. Most customers just want to be happy with their purchases and ensure they have spent their money wisely.

photo credit: Bitman

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