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Customer complaints to be addressed by airlines

New travel regulations formulated by the Department of Transportation become effective tomorrow on April 29th and will help US airlines better serve travelers. According to the Better Business Bureau, complaints have increased by 170% in the last five years concerning delayed and canceled flights, lost baggage and being stranded on the ground.

Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections” describes the new rules and is designed to bring some consumer satisfaction from an industry that has consistently ignored the very basics of customer service. Customers can look forward to such new services as:

  • Dealing with customer complaints. Airlines are required to acknowledge customer complaints within 30 days and address the complaint within 60 days. This is still a long time to wait for a response, but it sure beats the previous record of never hearing from anyone.
  • Late take-offs. The DOT will now be allowed to penalize airlines on domestic flights if they are more than 30 minutes late on at least 1/2 of their trips each month for four months in a row. It isn’t a “given” that your flights will leave on time, but at least it whips up an inkling of transparency for the airlines.
  • Tarmac delays. Airlines must provide adequate food and water to passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed. Bathrooms must be made available and operable. If the delay is more than three hours on the tarmac, the aircraft must return to the gate and allow the passengers to de-plane as long as it is safe and causes no airport disruption issues.
  • Website clarity. Each airline is required to display flight delay information for each domestic flight. This requirement might be extended for a period of time to allow airline companies to upgrade their computer capabilities, however it will be nice not to play the “delay” guessing game anymore.
  • Rights. The airline company must display a customer service plan as recommended by the DOT which clearly outlines the company’s policy for such services relating to over booking, baggage handling, customer compliance and other issues that might apply to passengers.

It’s hard to believe that the airline industry had to put up such a fuss just to give consumers back a bit of their dignity; let’s hope it works.

photo credit: AchimH

Customer service for those clients from hell

You know those callers – rude and insulting. Of course, they’re not mad at you individually; they are angry with the company, and you’re the recipient of their wrath. We’ve all been told never to take it personally, and once the call is over, we should just go on with our lives, but as much as we promise ourselves and our bosses not to get emotionally entangled in the drama, as exceptional customer service representatives we still want to make it right.

The first part of the angered phone call or meeting is definitely the worst, so we defuse the situation by letting the customer just vent and get it out. Once they’re done, we  acknowledge that we have heard them and recognize their problem by summarizing what they have just said. We refer to the customer by name from the moment we speak with them. We make it personal.  Chances are they’re going to feel better just knowing that we were listening.

We  might not be able to solve their problem, but our next step is to make sure the customer is talking to the right person. We all remember the fire in our own eyes after we have  told our story of dissatisfaction to someone only to find out later, we wasted our time  by speaking with the wrong person, and alas our odyssey had to start again. We make sure we are not showing any negativity toward the customer, and at the very least, “let me check,” will give hope to the most hopeless situation.

Now there is a difference between showing empathy for a situation and showing sympathy; and we know the difference. When we use empathy, we understand why the customer is angry, but with sympathy, we join into the customer’s mindset and agree with why they are angry. That is not going to go far to help the situation.

Sometimes working towards a resolution is going to be a rocky road, but we don’t need to take anyone’s foul language. There’s never an excuse for a caller to be rude and obnoxious, but never feed into the frenzy. If the problem is with the company and it is the company’s fault, we accept the responsibility and don’t use excuses. The customer will appreciate that. Act promptly, report back to the customer with solutions and demonstrate how the company will ensure the problem will not recur.

If we can not resolve the problem, don’t blame the customer. The company and  the representative must be able to make a compromise; being rigid really angers clients and we might as well kiss them goodbye. Set a positive tone; be flexible and keep our once hot-headed customer calm and happy.

photo credit: gideon_wright

Those emails count in customer service

Emails can be an important part of business. When customers are looking for information about a company, many will now utilize the convenience of emails since many cell  phones are even equipped with the applications. It can be a great opportunity for a business owner to cultivate new clients, keep current customers interested, and promote the personal touch if needed in particular situations.

I volunteer for a horse rescue whenever I have time, and even though the rescue is an all volunteer organization dedicated to saving and rescuing horses, it is a business; that is to say the horse rescue must run as a business regardless of it being a 501(c)3 non-profit while it is trying to help horses find safe homes. The owners of the rescue are very active, and this rescue is one of the largest operating in the eastern part of the US. Every week the owners of the rescue  travel to nearby auctions and broker barns, list horses,  display their photos and brief videos of the horses’ abilities on a website and use the internet to provide a wider venue other than local auctions for these horses to find homes. The web site attracts thousands of unique visitors every month, and with that the amount of emails are overwhelming. So how does a business effectively handle emails and provide efficient and polite customer service?

Here are a few suggestions I have learned:

  • Use the 24 to 48 hours rule. Answer emails in a timely manner because people no longer have the patience to wait. It isn’t like the “old days” of snail mail; now it is assumed that the email is received immediately, and an answer is expected immediately. In order not to be overwhelmed if there are numerous emails, divide the time on the computer into two or more sessions.
  • Use a filter on your computer. You can eliminate much of the spam. You can also separate sales pitches, entertainment (jokes from your friends) and business which will make you immediately more efficient.
  • Work on some standard replies. We know that many answers  to customer or client questions are readily available on your website, so having some stock answers can relieve you from answering the same inquiries over and over.
  • Act professional. Some people are just not nice, but it can not and should not break you down or make you answer an email in an unprofessional manner. If an email angers you, step away from the computer, relax or take a walk. Then come back, think about your reply and stay cool. Use the delete button if the email is inappropriate.
  • Inform people if you are unable to answer you emails on time. In the case of the horse rescue, if there is an emergency with a horse, ( as sometimes happens) it is difficult to reply to emails. In this particular case, the rescue runs a social and educational internet group. She is then able to notify readers and members that she is unable to answer within 24 to 48 hours.
  • Use other qualified people to help answer all emails. The horse rescue will use volunteers to help answer emails in order to keep everyone notified and answer questions. In other businesses, hire someone knowledgeable to help. It pays.

Answering emails and staying in touch with customers builds loyalty. Never let your customers hang; rest assured that someone else will be there to save them.

photo credit: megwillis

Customer service is for lawyers, too.

Customer service applies to lawyers too. Their expertise in legal documents is their product, but between loads of television advertising, highway billboards, and elaborate websites, clients are being oh so subtly pushed to the competition with promises of better client service. There are lots of great lawyers out there, but how does a client tell the difference?

Two schools of thought are popular among lawyers as to the loyalty of their clients. Senior lawyers believe clients remain loyal, no matter what happens, as long as the attorney is able to deliver a great result. The newer school stands by the premise that the quality of the client experience while working with the lawyer decides loyalty, and excellent client service still brings in the best revenue.

Attorneys need to treat clients like they are the most important people in the world. The company must learn to anticipate, learn, invest in the relationship, and be readily available and prove they care. Law offices need to take the time and become aware of the interpersonal relationships with clients so they can make exceptional experiences. In addition they must:

  • Know their business. A law firm should be knowledgeable about their clients’ businesses; it’s a great way to become  familiar with clients and understand their needs.
  • Be totally responsive. The biggest complaint with attorneys and clients are attorneys not returning phone calls. Some clients need a return call within a few hours; others will be satisfied with a few days. Know the difference.
  • Be proactive. Can lawyers anticipate clients’ needs before the circumstance even happens? As attorneys become more acquainted with their clients, anticipating the problem before it occurs will build trust and loyalty.
  • Manage the client relationship. Some clients need weekly updates; others don’t. Some clients want their attorney to negotiate with a hard hand, while other clients appreciate the soft approach. Understand each client’s needs and how they feel.
  • Stay in contact. As with any other business, stay in contact with the client. Send out thank-you notes. Be responsive and be “human.”

Understandably most attorneys don’t have time to do all of the suggestions by themselves so it is important to implement a client service process for exceptional service with the company’s support staff:

  • Have definite client service standards. This could include greeting new potential clients, making them comfortable, the office atmosphere, etc.
  • Training of the staff. Support staff can do many of the “extras” a client will appreciate…even returning phone calls when the attorney isn’t available, follow-up correspondence, building the relationship with the client.
  • Role models. Teach, practice, use role-playing and accept feedback to enrich the client experience. Teach the support staff  the proper follow-up procedures.

Besides what clients read, what their friends tell them about other attorneys, the exceptional service will develop fans for life. Lawyers are accused of too much lip service; why not implement the best in extraordinary service and retain the old clients and attract new ones too.

photo credit: somegeekintn

Internal customer service counts too

Everyone has a customer whether it be outside or inside of the company, and morale, productivity, and employee retention improves when we are able to properly facilitate internal customer service. Internal customer service provides our coworkers within our company information or services.

For instance, in the real estate business  someone from our marketing department asked me today to attend a woman’s business luncheon and represent our company for a charity fundraiser. Yesterday afternoon one of my colleagues needed information about a waterfront listing and the riparian grant which a prospective customer asked about, and another colleague needed someone to open a house nearby for someone else. In an environment like this, everybody supports everybody else.

When companies practice exceptional internal customer service, everyone benefits; the “what goes around comes around” philosophy one might say. It attracts and keeps good employees, and it is easier to keep and enhance their careers.

Here are some suggestions to help internal customer service:

  • Develop forums to share the goals of the company. Each department contributes so everyone in the company feels they are on the same team.
  • Have meetings, informal chats, luncheons, and/or emails to keep everyone in touch.
  • Don‘t withhold relevant information. That is how rumors start when only a few departments have information and other departments try to deduce what is happening. That is the recipe for disaster and breaks down the information and trust chain within the company.
  • Practice proactive information sharing. Send important information out before employees or representatives need it. For example, in Florida insurance companies were no longer writing flood insurance policies. Imagine that? Just yesterday flood insurance has been temporarily brought back until the end of May. All agents may not need the information, but knowledge is power.
  • Try not to let departments become “cliquey.” If employees get territorial, internal service breaks down and can become adversarial.
  • View every colleague and fellow employee as your customer and help share information to help everyone get their jobs done. They will want to help you when you need it.
  • Say thank you even if it is the person’s job, but isn’t it always a plus when someone thanks you?

photo credit: Stipo team

Employee hiring key to customer retention

Customer retention is the relationship you have and how you manage and maintain that relationship. That  first physical meeting or the initial seconds on the phone imprint a customer’s  impression. The best employees will be liked by the consumer in those first few moments because if they dislike you, chances are customers  will withdraw, feel antagonistic or feel challenged and move on to your competition. Employee hiring is an important key to customer retention.

Customer service techniques can be taught, but talent and attitude figure into the equation.  Managers can role play to show customer representatives how to establish rapport, establish rapport suitable phrases, coach  sympathetic styles and empathy, but important performance leadership qualities and loyalty features are essential traits when searching for the perfect candidate. So how do you know if  those employees working for you  have a passion for the customer and can add value to your company? Of course, there are no definitive questions and answers, but the following questions might instill some thoughtful conversation:

  • Do you like being a customer representative?
  • Does your position give you a sense of accomplishment?
  • Do you take pride when you tell someone you work for this company?
  • How do you feel about the future of this company?
  • How do you feel about the amount of work you do compared with your salary?
  • What do you think of the physical conditions of your work place?
  • Does your company try to accommodate individual employees needing special requests? ( For instance, day care, food service when working overtime)
  • How does the way you are treated influence your attitude about your job?
  • As the company changes, do you see it as good or bad?
  • Do you understand your company’s business strategy and how the objectives will work for you in your job?
  • How do you see yourself in the company when you are ready to retire? Do you think you will still be at this company?

Employees who are vested in companies, employees who feel as if they are appreciated and employees who take pride in their jobs instill that sense of trust.  Instead of trying to persuade, their allegiance is to a company where they are part of the business strategy, and see themselves progressing as the company progresses, adapt to a company’s goal of ” let’s look at this together,” and “let’s see what the options are.” Employees who are rewarded with  positive changes are the individuals who identify approaches and stay “with” the customer.

photo credit: USACE Europe District

How to show customers you appreciate their business

The company owner sets the rules, and employees need to live and know them. The old adage “the customer is always right” isn’t realistic, but empowering employees and rewarding employees for superb service helps each customer sense your appreciation.

Perhaps sharing the following with the front line people can add to the desired goals of dependability, promptness and competence.  Helping the customer service representative communicate in an upbeat, positive way,  may just help the customer feel appreciated. Here are some useful phrases to incorporate in customer communications:

– “Good morning. How can I help you?” This starts the conversation in a friendly, non adversarial tone plus invites discussion. A customer feels you want to help them and not sell them a product and also putting them at ease.
– “I can help you solve your problem.” Now the customer service professional places the customer as the most important participant and promises a positive outcome. The positive statement inspires customer confidence.
– “I am not sure of the answer but I will find out for you by ……”. A sophisticated buyer could be bating a customer service representative for an answer the customer already knows, so it is always best to be honest and not just try to wow a customer with some fancy rhetoric without a definitive and honest answer. Honest answers inspire integrity.
– “I am responsible for this and I will take care of it.” A customer knows what to expect and can depend on the customer service representative to stick by the agreed upon terms, price and if applicable… the promised delivery date.
– “I will call you on Friday ( or whenever) and update you on my progress.” If you promise to call on Friday with updates, make sure you follow-up and make sure you call.
– “Your delivery date is set for ….” If a delivery date is set for Thursday, it is the company’s job to make sure the delivery day is met. Sometimes it takes a better relationship with vendors to ensure delivery dates. When companies pay vendors on time, learn to deal with honorable vendors, insist on reliability and dependability of their vendors, delivery dates happen at specified and agreed upon dates and times. Efficient pre-planning and efficiency don’t just happen; they are cultivated and nurtured.
– “I have the particulars of your order. Let’s go over it.” Each order must be exactly what the customer ordered. Customers don’t want to hear of a similar product or a promise that what you are going to deliver is better. They want what they ordered.
– “Did you get everything you ordered and are you satisfied with your order?” The order should be complete and the customer should have everything they ordered, in the time they ordered, in the method agreed upon when ordered, and in great condition.

    Superior customer service includes, the infamous “I appreciate your business, and is there anything else I can do for you?” Follow-up with surveys, thank-you notes and, more service; customers are sure to keep coming back.

    photo credit: JSmith Photo

    Customer satisfaction surveys

    I used to dabble in some online survey groups to gain experience in identifying customer satisfaction criteria. The survey companies paid a ridiculously low compensation or offered lotteries, sweepstakes or points to keep us participating. Some of the surveys were particularly repetitious; some asked for information I would probably not reveal to my accountant, but a few were succinctly designed to garner results and asked questions relevant to specific goals for specific companies.

    The company has to think about the reason for the survey. Is the purpose to evaluate the future of a particular product or is it going to measure areas  in which a business can improve? When the company has identified its goals, the business can choose a cross-section of participants for the interviews and find out how they perceive a particular product or even the efficiency of their  customer service. At times targeting the entire client base might be a great idea, but it becomes a lot less expensive and more productive to survey particular aspects of a business and then use each section as a building block or part of the puzzle striving to fit all of the pieces together in one coherent, well-planned community.

    As companies survey customers however, it is important to note that customers expect the responses they give to produce observable results. If the surveys fail to listen to the customer responses and suggestions, and no changes are produced, those customers are not likely to continue to participate. Companies need to take action and budget enough resources to make the changes and meet customer expectations.  There was a local roofing company in my area who called all of the homeowners who had used them in the past and asked for suggestions how they could improve their business. Most of the neighbors responded that the employees were very sloppy; they would leave empty soda cans, food wrappers and debris lying around. Evidently the company didn’t take that suggestion very seriously, because a number of neighbors who participated in the survey were so disgruntled they told other neighbors who may have been considering using the company. I don’t see that company here anymore. Could it be?

    As the surveys concentrate on specific goals, the length, questions, customer data, collection reports and actions to be taken have to be considered. Most surveys are conducted online, and telephone surveys still do exist. Automated software make surveys relatively easy, and depending on the age, socio-economic and geographic areas the survey is designed to reach, the results can make a discernible improvement in customer satisfaction.

    photo credit: guspim

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