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Improve small business customer service with a personal touch

OM Adapter CanonElizabeth’s online business is selling merchandise on eBay. She started her company a few years ago when she decided she no longer wanted to be a banker, and in the back room of her home and a two-car garage to warehouse merchandise, her business has grown by leaps and bounds. Elizabeth used to spend countless hours replying to customers and answering questions by email; so much time that she didn’t have time for her own family, so what did she do?

Elizabeth has become streamlined and innovative, but still strives to reply to customers, improve customer support, and reduce time. Her first strategy was to refer customers and contacts to a website, and there she  introduced  her knowledge base. Up went an obvious link stating, Frequently Asked Questions. She started with the very basic questions and answers customers would repeatedly ask her and has been adding more ever since.

Next came the forum that Elizabeth set up. With nearly a one-click installation, different categories were organized giving people the opportunity to discuss pre-sale questions, member questions, customer support, while creating a personal touch. Since Elizabeth has chosen at this time not to participate on social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook, her forum still gives her the opportunity to participate and answer questions or give suggestions. When Elizabeth is not able to participate on her forum, frequently there are other members who are more than happy to supply information to new members. She does use a moderator, but has rarely had to intervene. It’s interesting to add that her forum has a search function for customers and members to find related posts, which in turn brings more knowledge to readers, participants and interested prospects.

When the FAQ and forums are not enough to help her customers, Elizabeth also has a Help Desk. A customer logs in and sets up a user account. The software program has pre-written responses for repetitive questions. If a customer still needs further assistance, she can set up an online ticket, attach files, and credit card information, and feel confident all information has been sent confidentially and securely.

Consequently there are fewer emails now to answer and a lot more time to devote to her family. Customer service has improved, and Elizabeth’s thriving enterprise continues to expand.

photo credit: muddanudo

The benefits of a process-focused organization

High Street in Columbus, OhioBusiness processes help companies to realize their own organizational objectives so that management can review and realign as the market changes, customer needs change, products change, and strategies change. The general unfixed nature of business demands new growth because of changing legislation, global competition, and market saturation. Without a process-focused organization, employees are stomping out fires, missing out on opportunities, and generally wasting time and money because of poor planning and lack of vision.

The successful company focuses on its customers, and in order to do that, leadership has to be involved and focused on improving employees and all business processes. Senior managers have to be involved, instead of just delegating training to lower-level managers. It is the senior representatives who need to have the vision for the company, and they are the ones who need to focus on the critical processes, and in turn teach and mentor each lower level of management.

So how does a company become process-focused? First, each company has to prepare. Leaders need to get organized and have vision. Companies need a mission statement so they can identify their key processes. Think of the most successful companies operating, and review their values and key processes. It changes as the company evolves, and each step of the way, there is a plan. With the plan comes development; a crucial step towards the deployment of the plan and how it is carried out. Here are where the senior leaders are overtly involved to monitor improvements, identify problems, implement new processes, and create new opportunities to enhance the plan.

Take for instance, the customer service process for a company. A customer calls in with an order. How is it handled now, and how can another process improve the service? The process-focused organization will research delivery lead times, on time delivery from their suppliers, and their relationships with other companies. If  an improved quality and time of delivery can be implemented with suppliers, ultimately the customer will have less wait time between the time of the order and the delivery. It sure would save a lot of time for the company, the customer service agents, and especially the customer.

When a company focuses on their processes, they improve quality, lower the costs, and provide more value and convenience for customers. This is what sets one company apart from their competitors.

photo credit: lizzardo

Interview with Doria Camaraza from American Express – Part 1 of 4

About two weeks ago, I interviewed Doria Camaraza, who is is the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Fort Lauderdale Service Center for American Express. This was an interview I was excited a lot about because I’ve written about American Express a number of times and in pretty much any customer satisfaction or customer service ranking, American Express makes the list. As an American Express cardmember myself, the workings behind the 160 year old company were also personally interesting to me.

This is a pretty lengthy interview, so I’ve divided it into four parts. Part one includes an introduction to Doria and her background with American Express, a quick overview of the different service centers that American Express has around the country, and some information on how American Express hires and trains its customer service representatives (called Customer Care Professionals).

You can see part one of the interview by clicking “read more.” A preview of part two is also included at the end of this part.

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How to achieve customer-centricity

_MG_6339Customer focus should be at the heart of everything a company does to achieve customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. Essentially there are five steps to recognizing and implementing a successful program:

1. First, we must identify who are our customers.
2. We must find out exactly what they want and what kind of services and products they want and be able to hone in on that service to meet their needs.
3. We must design our sales and service processes around the needs of the customers we have identified.
4. We must thoroughly train our employees and use whatever successful training and mentoring programs available to us.
5. We must consistently measure our service and delivery procedures and use our customers to provide the necessary feedback and improve and upgrade our processes.

    From a practical point of view, the Envision 2010 Awards for Customer Excellence were awarded by Envision, a provider of workforce optimization solutions and creator of Click2Coach, a coaching team which works on performance improvement. The recipients of their 2010 Envision Excellence Awards brought some interesting information how companies can improve their customer-centricity to improve their quality and business performance or as Envision states “to think outside the box.” Winners were listed as Alaska Airlines, Delta Hotels, WestJet, and Partners Healthcare.

    Delta Hotels customer service representatives trained via coach remote agents using technology to focus in on peer-to-peer coaching techniques. They have successfully worked on faster techniques to serve customers better. Delta Hotel now uses social networking on a daily basis to monitor questions and service issues.

    WestJet, a Canadian airline organization has continued to work on their efficiency and effectiveness, and have relied on coaching with agent participation to improve customer service. Social media has helped the company accommodate more customer inquiries, and Twitter and Facebook helped customers during the rollover in the company’s reservation systems.

    Alaska Airlines has implemented an at-home agent program where 50% of the agents are able to work from their own homes. This new innovative program has reduced the company’s real estate footprint by 32%. The work-at-home program has improved productivity, morale, and decreased absenteeism.

    And finally Partners Healthcare has, according to Envision, used the coaching and developing of employee knowledge to improve the quality of interactions between employees and customers.

    Can some of these suggestions work for your company?

    photo credit: j.sauerzapfe

    Customer perks for poor customer service

    Bokeh as friends.There are a lot of factors that get rolled into one final exclamation of really poor customer service, and haven’t we all felt at one time or another the ardent desire to just scream in pure frustration? Of course the main factors of incompetence, rudeness, minimal training, and economic cutbacks have made their profound impact on negative customer service experiences, so why not help ourselves feel better, help to improve the company’s customer service, and earn some perks at the same time?

    We can define perks as anything extra we receive that were not in the original agreement. Examples of perks awarded for poor customer service can include coupons, discounts, free upgrades, travel miles, free hotel accommodations, movie tickets, and the list goes on. As customers, we just all need to know how to ask for them. Ranting only raises your blood pressure, but biting your proverbial tongue, and adjusting your attitude, gratitude, and patience can make the difference in an otherwise very unsatisfactory customer experience.

    The most important aspect of effective complaints is to be specific when speaking to a customer service representative. Actually I prefer to write letters and fax a copy of the letter with the initial problem, names, dates, circumstances, and solution. Whether you are speaking to a customer representative in person or corresponding by mail, it is imperative to stay calm and polite. When writing, always remain courteous, and it’s important  not to blame, insult, or whine.

    Make Google your friend, and research the person or the department that will get you results. If you just send a letter to the company, chances are you will not hear much or just get a generic apology. Find the department where you will get results, and include in that ever important correspondence  the suggestions how you would correct the problem. As an example, my son (who you know as Douglas, the founder of this blog) was recently traveling and stayed at a well-known hotel chain, but was disappointed that the accommodations were less than stellar. The carpeting was stained, the room was poorly presented, and the maid service left no clean towels daily.

    My son researched the hotel chain, wrote a letter explaining his experience, and offered suggestions for improvement. It is of note to mention that my son also complimented the past excellent experiences he has had with the company, and therefore wanted to make sure the company knew why this experience was so disappointing. The hotel chain was very apologetic, and has offered him points in their frequent traveler program which can be applied to future hotel stay discounts.

    You don’t have to just rollover and accept the bad service; just have the patience and extend the grace to the company allowing them to make it up to you. When you have to wait too long for your car servicing because the service manager ordered the wrong part, ask for a free oil-change the next time. When your waiter spills wine on your cashmere jacket and offers to pay for the dry cleaning, ask for a complimentary dinner next time for all of the inconvenience. Companies do want to please you; just know how to do it right.

    photo credit: all of olive.

    Walk Talk

    As a member of the Board of Directors for the North East Contact Center Forum, I have the opportunity to speak with a number of Customer Service Managers, Directors and VP’s across multiple industries and geographies. The most common theme among these leaders is the intricate balancing act of providing extraordinary experiences while reducing expenses (and sometimes juggling regulatory risk and/or time constraints).

    I have battled with the same dilemmas myself. Over time, I have learned to ask myself and my colleagues a few questions:

    • What do you coach your service representatives on?
    • What are the common conversations in your team and all-hands meetings?
    • What is it that your CEO/COO/VP of Customer Service is evangelizing?

    More often than not, the answers sound like: call quality, customer experience, superior service, etc. Some time later, I follow up with another set of questions:

    • What are the key metrics that you look at daily?
    • How do you incent your service representatives?
    • What are the metrics that your boss (whether he or she be the CEO or someone else) are hammering you about?

    These answers usually sound like: service level, AHT (average handle time), 50-75% of incentives involve productivity numbers, expenses, cost per account/loan/customer, etc.

    Things that make you hmmm.

    The terms [triple/quad constraints – click each to a see a picture] and charts are typically used in project management, but apply to our quandary.  One constraint cannot be changed without altering another. Triple or Quad constraints are funny; everything cannot be the most important or the highest priority. Trying to make everything the highest priority will only drive you and your service representatives crazy. It leads to mediocre quality, often subpar cost metrics, low morale, and CEO’s/COO’s/VP’s of Customer Service breathing down your neck.

    With all of that in mind, how do you move (walk) forward?

    1. The first step for any recovery program is to admit you have a problem.
      1. Be objective.
      2. Ask your floor representatives what they think you say and what you really focus on.
      3. Listen to calls, review chats, and emails (are your associates rushing, taking too long?).
    2. Force rank your current priorities (create the order that you believe you are presently working under)
      1. Everything cannot be equal
        1. Quality (call quality, defect management, complaints, customer incident surveys)
        2. Cost (AHT, service levels, cost per X, expenses, utilization, occupancy)
        3. Time (are new product releases critical? Service availability?)
        4. Risk (regulatory/legal, credit, reputational)
      2. Make sure you have accurate differentials – use an entire 1-5 scale
    3. Have an honest, direct conversation with senior management about what is the most important priority, what is the second most important priority, and so on.

    Now that you have your direction, you need to determine what you are going to change. (Hint: don’t limit yourself to the base of the box, work the edges. Read Seth Godin’s Linchpin for more on that subject.)

    • People – Do you have the right people in the right places to succeed? Do you need to reorganize? How would you incent people to deliver your priority? What do you need to communicate to your associates?
    • Process – What processes would you change? What metrics would you highlight? What dashboard items need to change?
    • Systems – How can you leverage your technical solutions to maximize your priorities? Are you able to walk your talk? Or do you need to change your talk?

    Guest Writer Bio: Michael Pace is the Director of Customer Support for Constant Contact’s award winning Customer Support Department and on the Board of Directors for the North East Contact Center Forum. You can connect with him via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

    Image Credit: Joe

    How online media affects a company’s customer service reputation

    New Digg Registration Form FailPractically everyone is online, and what they are saying about your business or services affect the perceptions of your brand. What used to be Mr. Jones telling Mr. Smith in the small town of Freehold, New Jersey about the baseball memorabilia in your store that no one else can find and folks coming to your small brick and mortar establishment from as far away as Brooklyn, New York has now changed into comments, posts, feedback, and everything about your brand and your customer service across the nation and overseas.

    The internet invites ordinary users to express their opinions about your brand, your product, and the services you provide. Check out Twitter, Facebook, Digg, and LinkedIn, just to name a few. Read what people say, and know that you no longer have a choice not to participate since the ‘computer word of mouth’ has become a powerful friend or enemy – depending on how you are building online relationships.

    Online Reputation Management (ORM) claims to help you with your “digital footprint.” It is designed to improve your online reputation, improve your brand image, increase customers, and combat negative feedback. Using Google, Yahoo, and Bing which are the most popular consumer websites, ORM claims to find the problem, evaluate the problem, and then strive to repair your online image. As an example, a local hairdresser has a stellar reputation in the area for her expertise in color, that is until one of her clients left her shop and felt her new red hair shade wasn’t nearly as red as it should have been. Unfortunately for the hairdresser, the unhappy client was a high-profile blogger, and before long the adverse effects on the hairdresser’s brand image began to cost her customers.

    The ORM quickly began to monitor what was being said on Twitter and responded quickly with an apology and an invitation for the client to return to the salon for the color correction. Even though the client never said a word to the hairdresser that she was dissatisfied with the hair shade, the polite customer service response was to apologize and invite the customer back. Never make the customer look bad in front of anyone.

    Treating customers right, selling quality services or merchandise, and great customer service preserves and strengthens a company’s online reputation, and isn’t that what works best?

    photo credit: dnfisher

    9 Practical Customer Service Tips

    Survey SaysThere’s no one immune from receiving lousy customer service. I cringe at rudeness, robotic phone systems, and general incompetence, but I have learned the business world still marches on, and great customer service does exist. Companies that have figured out exemplary customer service aren’t just about direct business to customer interactions, but instead have made CEOs approachable while creating innovative procedures and actions to benefit customers, and have pulled away from the mediocrity most of us try to avoid. Here are some of the lessons I have learned:

    1. A certain amount of automation is enough. There always has to be a way to opt out of the robotic phone answering systems. Aren’t there days when we just need to speak with a human?
    2. Be prompt answering me when I have a problem with your company. Email is very convenient, but if I am annoyed by a product or service, I really want an answer before 24 hours. That’s why I have to use the phone, but if I get caught up in a robotic system with no way out, I get even more frustrated.
    3. I am the customer, and you keep the records because I pay you. When I call with a question about a product that you know I already own or a service you provide, I don’t want to have to remember passwords. I forget them as quickly as I create them. I expect you to know the identification number on the equipment I lease from you. Why do I have to climb around dark cabinets to repeat it? You should have my customer account number already.
    4. Work with me, and develop my trust. If you want me to spend a lot of money, I need to have fostered a relationship with you first. For instance, buying a home is the most expensive purchase I will ever make, and it’s not just about writing a contract to buy a home. I want all the information you can show me to make me feel this is the right decision to make. For instance, tell me about the schools in the area, tell me about taxes and industry in the area; tell me everything about this new community I need to know.
    5. Be enthusiastic about your product. I want you to make me feel you believe in the product or your company, and you’re just not answering the phone or talking to me because you are just treading water waiting for payday.
    6. Provide guidance and assistance for me when I ask you, but don’t hover over me. I find salespeople following me around in a store to be really annoying, especially if I tell them up front that I am just browsing. If I need help, then I want to know someone is nearby. It’s a fine line, but I think sales people should know the difference.
    7. Sometimes I need online support. I really appreciate when I can find a telephone number predominantly displayed on a website. When I purchase a product or service online, and the phone number is convenient, it makes me think the company is completely transparent, and they want me to call if I have a question or problem.
    8. Train your employees to be part of the company culture. I know it costs more money to train employees, but when I see employees living the philosophy of great customer service as if they were born with the talent, I am inspired and grateful to be doing business with such a stellar company.
    9. Be aware of your competition, and ask my opinion. If your competition does it better, maybe it’s time for a change. Ask your customers how you can deliver a better product, be more innovative, or provide better service. We know because your competition is knocking at our doors every day.

      I want to be loyal to you if you deliver innovative products at competitive prices and deliver services to me with respect and proficiency.

      photo credit: Orin Zebest

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