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Customer loyalty built on company focus

I grew up in a very small town where we were mostly limited to one grocery store, one department store, one morning restaurant, and even one book store. There was no problem with customer loyalty because the stores had no competition, that is – until the appearance of the mall. Then came Publix, Starbucks, Barnes and Nobles, and a plethora of department stores. Add to that the introduction of on-line commerce, and then the  new competition freed us from the once limited choices of our “home-grown” stores.  Some of the original stores remained; the village atmosphere and the small town appeal most likely spared them from going the route of the dinosaur, but so did the individual customer-centric attitudes of the small shops. How do we duplicate this in the new economy?

I’m not sure if the limited choices of my home town counted as customer loyalty; but nevertheless brand promises are what shapes customer expectations, and trust is what brings in the maximum customer profits. When the little town had little stores, each store owner knew their customer.  Store owners were obligated to listen to their customers. Shouldn’t business still be able to adhere to being customer-centric except employ some modern technology to help?

In order to become customer-centric, it is necessary to know the customer and to appreciate what the customer wants and make it easier and better for the customer. The most knowledgeable part of any company’s staff are those who work directly with the customers. These are the employees who can and will provide the most relevant insight and can share stories and experiences with the rest of the staff to help everyone live up to the brand promises.

The marketing staff for sales and service can relate knowledge through the internet, newsletters, and staff meetings. Wouldn’t it be helpful if weekly newsletters went out to everyone in a company from those staff members who have direct links and exposure to customers and be able to link problems, accomplishments, and experiences to the human resources, operations, technology, engineering, finance and even accounting offices? The entire company can then realize the customer’s priorities and needs. Customer loyalty is still alive; we just need companies to revisit some of the principles of the past.

photo credit: JSmith Photo

Credit cards offer extra customer service perks

My new Nordstrom credit card came in the mail, and I was pleasantly surprised. Their rewards program provides 2 points for every dollar spent at Nordstrom’s and provides for 1 point when I use the card elsewhere. For every 2,000 points I accumulate, I receive a $20. Nordstrom “note” which can be used for any Nordstrom store including online purchases as well as  the use at all Nordstrom outlets. This works out to a 2% rebate, and if I use the card to purchase all my merchandise at Nordstrom, it comes out to a 4% rebate.

The only downside is the rebate is only redeemable at Nordstrom’s and points expire in six months, but it is possible to convert the notes to cash. For instance, if I use my points to purchase a pair of shoes for $200 and then return the shoes, the company will give me a credit for $200 and apply it to my balance.

The other credit card I really like for their customer service is my American Express Platinum Card. The downside of the card is the $395  annual fee, but traveling and using the American, Delta, and Continental airport lounges as part of the services provided far out weighs the expense of the annual fee. I can also convert points to miles on many different airlines, and use the points and redeem them at various hotels and Hertz car rentals. The Platinum card offers many room upgrades and commonly a free night at some of the best hotels here and abroad.

The downside of the Platinum card centers around the travel and concierge services. This past Christmas, I was not able to book tickets for a major event I wanted to see, and often times the prices on hotel and travel are far more expensive than if I booked them myself. I was also disappointed last year when I had a problem (not my fault) with American Express; they lumped all of my accounts together, and it wasn’t until I spent hours chasing after an elusive manager that I was finally able to get all of my accounts reinstated.

Why pay for the use of credit cards if they aren’t able to offer some remunerative customer service rewards? Just make sure you always read the fine print.

photo credit: romulusnr

How customers are treated when something goes wrong

Customer service is about doing things right, but what happens when something goes wrong? Does the company just sweep it under the proverbial rug or can we realize what a great opportunity it can be to build customer loyalty and goodwill?

Just before Easter, I went shopping with my friend Erika to a trendy boutique on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. I purchased a designer skirt for a phenomenally discounted price; the rack stated no returns. I must add that the price of the skirt although discounted was still expensive. Yesterday I had planned  to wear it for the first time, except as I was zipping it up, the material caught in the zipper and there was no way, no matter how hard I tried, that the zipper was going to be freed without damaging the garment.

This morning I went  back to the Palm Beach store; I was anxious because I didn’t have the receipt, and the rack stated it was a final sale, but what a pleasant surprise that happened.  The sales clerk greeted me with a smile and when I showed her what had happened to the skirt, she graciously apologized and asked me if I wanted a refund on my credit card or would I like to find another skirt similar to the one I had purchased, and she would discount another one in the store to exactly the same price as the first skirt cost.

What a great opportunity the store had to go that extra mile and make a lasting impression on me. Of course, I am going to share my story with my colleagues and friends. Of course, I am going to be a return customer, and of course, I will be recommending the store.

And there was the solution to make lemonade out of lemons. Instead of worrying about the cost of returning the skirt to the manufacturer or the price to have it fixed, the emphasis was on the customer – me! The sales representative apologized, empathized, offered a refund, improved my bad experience to the point of neutralizing the inconvenience of me having to drive back to Palm Beach, and relieved the stress induced anticipation of this being a costly bad experience when buying off a “final” sale rack. And now, best of all, I have a new favorite place to shop!

photo credit: Luna The Moon Girl

Customer loyalty and the practical consumer

Today’s economy shows that money defines customer loyalty. In the 2010 Retail Loyalty Index, low prices and discounts for groceries, personal care, department stores, and specialty stores ranked highest when polled for consumer loyalty, however the quality of customer service still ranked as important. Discount store Wal-Mart consistently  scored high marks and took high honors in  most parts of the US for groceries, personal care, and department store loyalties.

Customer service, store environment, and having a wide selection of merchandise have significant impact, but low prices still attract the most customers. So how do companies maintain customer loyalty? It all starts at the beginning with better service and a wider product selection. Customer loyalty programs offering coupons and sales make consumers feel special, and loyalty programs using customer data to personalize savings keeps consumers coming back. For instance, CVS uses loyalty cards that track specific purchases and offers cash off or reduced prices on future customer purchases. The more a customer spends, the more cash back incentives and rewards are printed on their sales receipts.

The incentive programs to lure in more customers and retain loyalty does have some obvious pitfalls that can make them backfire. Customers complain about loyalty programs too, so one might want to consider some of the biggest complaints. About 30% of customers see no value in becoming loyalty members because they say the program lacks substance, and they get no promised personal attention. There are complaints about too much spam and junk e-mails jamming up mailboxes.  Some rewards offered through loyalty programs lack any real value, while others the real value of the reward is jacked up and not worth the wait or the money. Still more consumers complain about how hard it is to redeem points and rewards.

Most stores offer nothing to engage loyal customers, and in today’s market if there isn’t some kind of loyalty or reward program that offers discounts, free products, and relevant values, the customer is going to be lured away with a company that has taken the time to be innovative. In order to be successful retaining customer loyalty through some of the reward programs must effectively measure market value and collect customer data to target their market. Giving the customer better and customized service to accompany the rewards programs and making it all so much user-friendly can keep those customers content and feeling appreciated.

photo credit: USACE Europe District

When Providing Customer Service, Give an Oscar-worthy Performance

Red CarpetSometimes it takes an award-winning performance to provide excellent customer care, especially when problems are weighing on your mind. Maybe you’re dealing with the turmoil of having your credit card stolen. Perhaps your daughter failed a class or your partner forgot your birthday. You can do your absolute best to put the concerns of your personal life aside at work, but it’s so challenging to stay in a positive mindset when you come face-to-face with a crabby, complaining customer.

How do you hold it together when you feel like falling apart?

Just ask the employees at Preston Wynne Spa, a successful company featured in chapter 7 of “Who’s Your Gladys?” This high end spa’s CEO Peggy Wynne Borgman and her staff have adapted the advice of my dear friend Holly Stiel, who recommends viewing the start of a workday like the start of a performance.

Customer service expert Holly Stiel recommends viewing the start of a workday like the start of a performance.

“Your uniform is your service costume, and your workplace is the stage. To give great service, it’s helpful to consider yourself an actor playing a role with as much sincerity as possible,” Holly advises. She encourages everyone to make a conscious choice about how to “act” within the service provider role.

This got me thinking about my expectations as a customer. When I go to the movies, I expect the actors to give a captivating performance. I enjoy watching the leading man woo his love interest. It could very well be that in “real life,” the actor is going through a bitter divorce. It simply wouldn’t work to bring his personal problems into his leading man role.

Mo’Nique won an Oscar last night playing the part of Mary Jones from the movie Precious. She embodied the challenging role of a criminally abusive mother and was fully present in her performance. As a performing artist, she brought a highly challenging role to life.

Imagine yourself bringing the role of a caring customer service provider to life.

Have you ever noticed that when you say you believe something to be true, you’re sometimes tested? I believe that customer service is more than a skill, it’s an art. I was tested a few weeks ago. I was booked to fly to Wisconsin. Even though my husband and son suffered with a stomach virus for four days the week before, I stayed healthy, until 4 a.m. the morning of my flight.

I honestly didn’t know how I was going to get on that plane, let alone lead a workshop for managers AND a customer service keynote the following day. At 6 a.m., I called my coauthor Lori Jo Vest and told her, “I’m sick!” Thank God for Lori! She helped me to step into the role of service provider and do what was best for our client, who was bringing together 150 employees to see me for their annual event. The company had bought a book for everyone too, so finding a replacement speaker was out of the question. I made a call to my doctor, convinced him to prescribe something that would help, and was on the plane by 10 a.m.

As strange as it might sound, I believe it wasn’t as much the medicine that got me through as it was the mindset. I chose to BE an enthusiastic, attentive presenter and somehow, despite a stomach virus, I was.

Guest Writer Bio: Marilyn Suttle is the co-author of the best-selling customer service book, “Who’s Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan.” She is president of Suttle Enterprises, a training firm through which she has taught thousands across the country how to have happier, more productive relationships with customers, coworkers, and even their children. For more information, visit: www.whosyourgladys.com.

photo credit: Eva Cristescu

Help customer focus with the right attitude

There are a number of factors that significantly affect how well a customer service representative is able to identify and help customers. Training, knowledge, and skills are the objective standards and basics of customer service agents, but equally as important for the complete package is the attitude which can ultimately make or break the front lines of one’s business.

Everyone puts their best attitude forward when interviewing for a position, but during the training period and internship, we can use the opportunities to observe and evaluate each new customer service agent. Most of us have had some time in our “complaint” careers, met with that customer service representative who had the bad attitude and seemed to be annoyed, or acted as if he hated his job – not to mention treating the customer as stupid.

Here are some criteria to consider:

  • Stay away from those customer service representatives who respond negatively to customer demands. Negativity is contagious.
  • Stay away from those agents who are too willing to change established procedures while responding to unreasonable customer service complaints. Not only does that have the potential for costing a business huge losses, but it is indicative of an agent who just wants to get off the phone or out of a situation without mediating or solving the problem logically and fairly.
  • Stay away from the customer service representative who makes too many exceptions, is inconsistent with company policy, practices, and procedures. This can become disruptive for other agents and confusing for newer representatives who are just learning and trying to follow.
  • Stay away from the agent who doesn’t seek workable options to solve problems and blames others in the company. Companies need a united front and have to work front and back offices to become efficient.
  • Stay away from the agent who has a hard time dealing with complaints and sides with the customer too much. Ineffective interactions will result in inconsistent policies among other customer service agents, and it is sure to create chaos.

Now if we want to identify the perfect candidate, and concentrate on the mutual respect, positive attitude and quiet confidence needed to be effective as a great agent, here are some qualities to consider:

  • Companies like agents who want to serve customers.
  • Companies  like agents who believe in the company and their services.
  • Companies like agents who treat every customer as important.
  • Companies like agents who are able to express sensitivity and empathy towards others.
  • Companies like agents who learn from experience.
  • Companies like agents who are interested in their jobs and are willing to share their experiences with other employees.
  • Companies like agents who react positively to feedback.
  • Companies like agents who build their careers bases on self-improvement.
  • Companies like agents who take pleasure in their success.

There is no doubt that everyone is going to have a bad day, but those customer service agents who excel in their careers possess the self-control to compartmentalize personal and business – thus bringing to the table a confident customer service agent ready to perform a very important task.

photo credit: alancleaver_2000

Spirit Airlines’ customer satisfaction a myth

Spirit Airlines predominantly serves the East Coast, Caribbean, Bahamas, Latin America, and a few mid-western routes from Chicago and Detroit. Their low prices lead the industry, but their policies toward the public most likely defies any basic rules of customer service no less customer satisfaction. This morning Spirit Airlines announced an up to $45 charge for each piece of carry-on luggage placed in the overhead bins. The charges will begin August 1st.

Spirit Airlines has been compared to the Irish airline equivalent of Ryanair that also offers no frills, little customer service, and coin-operated onboard toilets. I kid you not! Stephen McNamara, spokesman for Ryanair states, “By charging for the toilets, we are hoping to change passenger behaviour(sic) so that they use the bathroom before or after the flight. This will enable us to remove two out of  three of the toilets and make way for at least six extra seats.” That works out to one bathroom for 189 passengers.

The increased fees are the result of losses and problems associated with attracting fliers. The rising cost of fuel, a reduced customer demand and the effect of the swine flu on travel patterns have forced airlines to find new ways to increase bottom lines just to survive, however to what cost?  Many of these new add-ons will alienate fliers and many of the new charges have not gone over too well.  Competitor airlines mostly sit back and watch the torrents of criticism before changing their own policies so as to hopefully retain their loyal customers. Southwest Airlines doesn’t charge for checked bags, but Alaska Airlines who charges $15 for the first bag has realized an extra $70 million revenue in one year.

Discount services (or lack of services) now include charges for soda, snacks, extra-leg room, seats on the aisle, checked bags, use of pillows and blankets and headsets. US Air returned to giving out free coffee and water when criticism peaked from loyal customers.

This holiday season infrequent fliers will be the most affected by all of the changes. Sophisticated travelers will compare added fees; not just the base price and factor all fees into the best ticket choice, but the family with small children won’t realize the impact of these new fees since most are assessed prior to or during the flight. When an airline charges four times the supermarket rate for an onboard muffin and a glass of juice for a traveling child, vacation travel plans may soon preclude flying. And isn’t this all a part of customer service?

If you love the low basic rates of Spirit Airlines, and you don’t expect a return call from customer service on the weekends, you carry no luggage, you never get thirsty while flying, you can curl your legs into an 8″ space, and have no wants, needs or desires while flying – Spirit Airlines has a deal for you.

photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker

Improving customer service telephone manners

That “front line” telephone introduction can be a positive experience or a virtual punch in the mouth. If customer service telephone personnel have been taught just to deliver identical conversations and not have the ability to capitalize on their own personal styles, chances are the needs of the consumer are not being addressed. More than scripted monologues, there needs to be two-way conversations, but all customer service representatives should have the following basic elements deeply etched into their professional lives:

  • Every telephone conversation should begin with a warm, friendly greeting; it creates the foundation and the atmosphere of friendliness and cooperation.  Instead of just answering, ” Smith, Jones Computer Repair ”  wouldn’t it be more customer friendly to answer, ” Good morning, Smith, Jones Computer Repair; how may I help you?”
  • Smile when answering the phone. Even if there has to be a mirror on the desk next to the phone, a customer can sense when someone is smiling.
  • Every representative should show enthusiasm on the phone. It’s that positive attitude that shows customers the company cares about them. It is with my most sincere hope that every customer representative is aware that chewing gum or eating while speaking with a customer is an absolute “no-no.”
  • The tone of voice used can make a difference. Is the conversation strictly business, or is there room for personal thoughts? This would be a case-by-case scenario depending on the business involved.  Employees still should be able to adapt their own personal style and adapt it to the company’s advantage.
  • Never get angry with a customer. We all know that the customer is not likely to be angry with  the customer service representative, but if they are angry, it is best to let them vent; it’s not personal. Ask questions to show that the business cares about them, and always be a good listener.
  • Don’t get carried away with company terminology the consumer has no idea what it means. Each company has their own technical language which may sound completely alien to a customer, and a company does not want the customer to feel dumb.
  • Keep the transfer of calls to a minimum. If the representative needs to transfer a customer to a superior, make sure the superior is there to accept the call. How frustrating is it to be transferred and then have to leave a voice mail?  That doesn’t portray a caring company; it’s just another extension with a ” sorry I am away from my desk or helping another customer” recording.
  • Don’t put anyone on “hold” unless the customer is told how long they will be on hold, and make sure the customer service representative keeps their promise.

It’s very much the “how” we do it, that keeps customers happy, because if a company doesn’t do it to the satisfaction of customers, there’s  always another company waiting to take your place. Again, it’s the little things that really do make the difference.

photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

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