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Ranking customer service for airlines

US Airways Express CRJ-900 - N933LAUS Airways ranked first on reliability after three consecutive months during April, May, and June; showing statistics of 83 percent of flights arriving within 14 minutes of their scheduled time in June. They also ranked first in customer service for May and June with complaints listed at 1.87 per 100,000 passengers. All 31,000 employees will be rewarded with a $100 bonus each, which represents a $3.1 million payout.

Most airlines operate on the same air routes, and every day packed planes travel the same routes, so is rating arrival times and customer service just splitting hairs? Statistically the airlines with the best on time records operate out of less congested airports and have less planes. For those of us who have to travel to the busiest destinations, on-time records seem nothing more than myths. After all the country’s arrival times are only as good as current air-traffic technology.

On-time percentages may say something, but not everything. For instance, for some carriers to improve their on-time percentages, why not board passengers earlier? How many times have we all been seated on airlines close to the moment of scheduled take-off when passengers are still finding their seats, still finding space for their baggage, and still having to check baggage because there is no more room on the over-heads or under the seats? Wouldn’t airlines benefit a percentage point or two if passengers boarded five minutes earlier, or if there were no extra fees to check bags? Delta, which Douglas flies on a regular basis, starts boarding 40 minutes prior to departure instead of the standard 30.

Airlines could also save a percentage point or two if employees were scheduled to arrive earlier.  How many passengers have waited around airport lounges extra time only to see pilots and support staff arriving late? Airlines could employ more fleet service workers to load baggage at peak travel times to help maintain schedules.

And finally, one of the basic customer service policies is to accept blame, apologize to the consumer, and correct the mistake immediately. When a flight leaves late, the airline personnel should discuss the problem, figure out a solution, and avoid the problem from happening again. After all it is the expectation of the customer to arrive at their intended destination safely, in comfort, on-time, and with minimal inconvenience.

I do congratulate US Airways for their achievement this quarter, and assume they have succeeded because of their customer service policies, but how many passengers take on-time percentages into account when buying airline tickets?

photo credit: asrusch

Looking Forward from the Service Museum

A quick trip to any museum not only provides an interesting picture of yesteryear, it reveals an instructive barometer on the ways we have changed. What would be the artifacts and displays in a Service Museum? And what would it tell us about the ways customers have changed?

In the not too distant past, retail stores had sales clerks on the floor (not just at the register), grocery stores had bakers, elevators had operators, gas stations had a mechanic, and mail-order catalogues were all-purpose and not specialty. Stores had layaway plans and returns clerks; banks had signature loans. Doctors made house calls and treated whatever malady they encountered.

What has changed? Obviously, there has been a dramatic push toward self-service. But, there has also been a swing toward reliance on specialists. We often hear “we don’t carry that item, check with…” or, “I need to refer you to…” or, “you might look it up online.” We now talk with an IVR or a robot instead of person, forcing us to use a language driven by the service provider. Our nods and “uh uh’s” no long mean “yes” since the machine cannot “talk with us” with the intuition of a person. We get self-service channeled and offshore directed.

The day of the all-purpose, full service experience has been altered to be the purview of specialists. Where did you buy your last stereo, telephone, or book? At a Wal-Mart or Sears or at a specialty store? As customers are unable to “take care of it myself” and are forced to deal with an expert, their standards of service excellence go up and out. That means customers assume competence of every expert and assume expert in every service provider. What steps are you taking to make all front line employees the smartest, best resourced, most empowered service providers on the planet?

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.

Customer Service and Mission Statements

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about mission statements, principles, and other sorts of defined, high-level goals in customer service and business in general. To build a culture of customer service, you need to have the inspiration and the guidance come from the top. Additionally, people within the organization need to be constantly reminded of the company’s focus on customer service.

The way that most organizations approach this is to have a mission statement, set of principles, or something similar. Some companies call it a credo, others have fancier names. For example, Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group refers to his company’s set of operating principles as Enlightened Hospitality (see this post for more information). The Ritz-Carlton has its Gold Standards.

I recently conducted an interview with a senior customer service leader at American Express (look for the interview to be posted over the next two weeks) and during the interview, she mentioned American Express’s Customer Care Principles. American Express was nice enough to share a copy of their principles, which I liked a lot.

I like the American Express Customer Care Principles because they’re separated into three simple categories (Easy, Recognize, and Solve) and within each category, there are three to four very actionable items that make it easy for a representative to provide great service. For example:

  • I communicate knowledgeably, clearly and correctly. (Easy)
  • I care about my customers and connect with them. (Recognize)
  • I own my customers’ problems and see them through to resolution. (Solve)

The document (and the principles in general) is easy to follow and most importantly, easy to practice. Tangible goals and mission statements that can be translated into real action are essential to seeing high level service and business goals gaining any traction.

If you want to see the American Express Customer Service Principles, click here. If you’d like to share the customer service principles or mission statement that your company or another company you know of follows, contact us. If I see a couple submissions, I’ll feature them in a follow-up post.

Customer retention strategies to boost your business

Hair Stylists and Makeup ArtistsMaking that first impression in business with the appearance of your web site, the decor, the marketing, or just the friendliness of the first company representative a customer encounters, helps to brand your business. You don’t always have to be faster or cheaper to keep your customers from straying off to the competition, but you need to maintain a consistent brand of professionalism, speed, and convenience.

Customers may leave because they don’t like your product, their friends have influenced them to move to another company, or the competition simply has you beat, but according to statistics, most customers leave because of a change in attitude or indifference by the business. Customers always have to think you care, and customers want you to make them feel good.

Using the time-honored tenet of it being easier to keep an old customer than to find a new one, companies need to concentrate on customer user groups, periodic surveys, social networking, blogging, and above all – customer service. When you have hired the right people, and your employees know how to make customers feel important, customers keep coming back.

For instance, the hairdresser at the salon I have used for years recently relocated to another state. As most of you know, a woman’s hairdresser is really important, and never to be taken lightly. And, so after my hairdresser left, the owner of the salon called me, and asked me what she could do for me to help meet my needs. I was a bit elusive at the beginning since I didn’t feel as if the owner had been paying attention, but within a few days the owner called me, continued to stay in contact, offered suggestions, and made me feel as if I was a very important client. I was able to openly discuss some reservations I had about changing products and stylist, but she was informative, honest, and won my confidence back.

Customer retention strategies are an ongoing process. Concentrate on the most important elements:

  • Hire the right people who have the right attitude. Are they friendly? Do they thank you?
  • Do what you promise. Customers remember, and customers leave if you disappoint them by not delivering what you promise.
  • Pay attention to your customers, and what is going on around you in your business.
  • Help the customer even though it might not mean a sale at that particular time. Go beyond your own needs.
  • Handle complaints in a mature manner. Admit when something has gone wrong, and correct your mistake. Always apologize to the customer.
  • Stay in contact with the customer, and know their needs.

If you keep a database of addresses and email lists, send your customers birthday cards, promotions, and current interesting information. You want to stay in their minds, but never make it seem as if you are being a pest.

photo credit: Art Pets Photography

Publix announcing online-curbside customer service

Water Aisle PublixI’m originally from the coastal mid-section of New Jersey, and when we had to brave those daunting Nor’easter storms and trudge through the parking lots of grocery stores with our shopping carts, moving to Florida and the customer service experience of Publix made quite an impression on me. I never could imagine someone actually taking my shopping cart out in the parking lot to my car – rain or shine, and tipping was never required.

Now the Lakeland-based company is experimenting with a new service where customers place their food orders online, and the customer can select their desired pick-up location with a guaranteed 30 minute window. The customer actually gets a personal shopper, and they can call in an order using a computer, fax or telephone. An estimated total is given after the order is taken, but the exact totals may vary depending upon the weight of produce, meat, and deli items. Sales prices for that day are in effect for the customer. A $7.99 service fee is charged, no matter if a customer is picking up a gallon of Haagen-Dazs or a week full of ingredients and grocery supplies.

The service officially began on Monday at the Atlanta site, and a dedicated drive-through has been provided. No longer do we have to imagine food shopping and not having to get out of our cars! Another site in Tampa is expected to open by the end of the year, and at that time, Publix will be able to review the success of the program.

“Publix Curbside is a natural extension of our service commitment, especially for time-starved families,” states Marla Brous, Publix director of media and community relations.

Searching back, I did notice that Publix Direct, a similar service began in 2001 but closed in 2003, and listed insignificant volume as the reason it failed. This time, however Publix is including the instant gratification of curbside pickup, and allows for orders to be selected by in-store personal shoppers. Publix Greenwise, which is an organic version of Publix has a to-go service for prepared foods and meals right here in Palm Beach Gardens where I live, but we have to get out of our cars for pick-up.

Publix has been recognized as tops in the grocery business, and has received continued awards for excellent customer service. Let’s see how this next step in decadent service does to the world of grocery shoppers.

photo credit: cdsessums

A customer service lesson from a JetBlue flight attendant

DSC_0820A JetBlue flight attendant made all the headlines yesterday when he freaked out on a passenger. It seems the passenger refused to remain seated while the plane was taxiing to the terminal. Sources revealed that the passenger stood to remove his baggage from the overhead compartment while the plane was still moving, and the flight attendant asked the passenger to return to his seat. The passenger refused and continued removing his baggage, when the luggage presumably hit the airline attendant. The attendant demanded an apology, but the passenger would not oblige; instead the passenger called the attendant a derogatory four letter word. The flight attendant retaliated by calling the passenger a four-letter word, and announced via the intercom that he was quitting. The attendant grabbed a beer, deployed the emergency chute, and slid away until the Port Authority police arrested him later that day. The attendant has been charged with criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, and criminal trespassing.

So what is the customer service lesson to be learned here? Let’s start with no matter how angry a customer gets, every customer service agent must remain calm and never yell. Training is based on practice, practice, practice. The unique and effective skills needed for managing heated confrontations need to be reinforced with role-playing and again – practice, practice, practice. Training should concentrate on ways to stay calm when an angry customer lashes out, how to choose the response action that will best suit the situation, and innovative ways to bring those volatile interactions to a polite and positive close.

According to the recent news reports, the flight attendant had years of experience, and had been dealing with a personal stressful situation, but he let the customer make the problem personal, took the bait and from that point on, there was no winning. The focus should have been kept on the problem; not the person or the conversation. Immediately upon asking the passenger to be seated until the plane came to a complete stop, the passenger should have been warned it is a FAA regulation subject to criminal prosecution.

The “customer is always right” may have created some high maintenance people, but airline passengers know there are consequences for FAA violations. Customer service agents, and in this case the flight attendant escalated the problem, took it as a personal attack. His last resort and best choice in this situation should have been to let another attendant handle the situation.

Let’s hope that JetBlue treats this sad situation as a learning experience, and hopefully another flight attendant on the verge of a similar outburst can be shown how to best resolve issues in a polite and positive manner.

For more on this situation, see this article from ABC News.

photo credit: gordontarpley

Building customer service for your eBay business

StirrupMy friend Linda is a power-seller of long-standing on eBay. For years she has been getting up on Saturday mornings at 5:00 AM to scour local garage sales for equine clothing, bridles, halters, and saddles. She purchases the gear, cleans it up, repairs it, and sells it on eBay. She has reached gold-level power-seller status and prides herself on great customer service. She has hundreds and hundreds of positive feed backs. I thought I would offer some of her advice, observations and suggestions for the entrepreneurial online eBay sellers, and at the same time show how excellent customer service continues to have a positive impact on our lives.

If you have decided to sell something on eBay, research your item thoroughly. Let “Google” become your friend, and use the search engines to capture more information about the items you are selling. The more specific the headlines and description of your items, the more attention you will get. It’s also a good idea to look at what your competition is selling and how your similar items are priced, and marketed.

Take pictures with a digital camera, and take the photos from all angles. This will give bidders a good idea of the condition of your merchandise. Many sellers use a third-party hosting site to display additional pictures to save money. You can place the link on your description.

Make sure you monitor your emails. Potential buyers often have a lot of questions. Seasoned sellers commonly create a FAQ which gives buyers information about policies. For instance, be clear about delivery charges, possible problems, refunds, and procedures. Confirm by email when a buyer has won the bid, and at the same time add the payment terms, and the postage charge information so there can be no confusion. Some sellers send out all items first class so it can be easily tracked, but make sure to specify if the buyer has the choice.  Thank every customer for their payment, and confirm when an item is shipped and instructions on how to contact you with any problems.

Take customer service even further by professionally wrapping any items you are sending out. It gives a buyer a good impression when you use the right sized boxes and the safest packing material to ensure the merchandise arrives in pristine condition. Don’t forget to include an invoice which should include the picture of the sold item.

Follow up on your sale in a few days. Excellent customer service reduces complaints. Let your customers make suggestions for the future which will reduce bad feedback that definitely can affect your eBay reputation.

photo credit: BinaryApe

Working on customer service skills

wachoviaWhen a customer service representative delivers great customer service, there is less stress and less hassle. It saves the company a huge amount of time, and keeps people happy. Some companies think that customer service representatives do not learn skills from abstract situations taught in seminars and training classes, but I witnessed an interesting experience yesterday that had been learned and mastered well.

I walked into my local branch of Wachovia Bank to speak with a mortgage representative about one of my real estate customers, and since I was early, I had to wait until the mortgage representative was out of her meeting. It actually was a good opportunity for me to gather information for today’s blog. The incident happened during lunch time when many bank employees were out of the building. The customer service representative standing at the kiosk in the lobby of the bank had been speaking to a customer about a “Power of Attorney” and its relevance to her aged parent. The customer had been speaking with the representative about five minutes when a second customer rushes into the bank and interrupts the conversation between the customer service representative and the first customer.

The second customer is a young, good-looking man dressed in an expensive business suit and says, “Excuse me, but I need to get into my safe deposit box immediately.”

The customer service representative turned to the business man and made eye-contact with him, held up her hand in a gesture suggesting  ‘wait a moment’  and responded with, ” I can help you in a few moments, or you can meet with one of our banking specialists as soon as someone is available.” The customer service representative then broke eye-contact with the second customer and returned her concentration to the first customer.

The first priority of an excellent customer service representative is to that of the first customer. The key was to limit her interaction with the second customer, but at the same time not to ignore his presence. She was able to use a short efficient method to address the second customer, and momentarily address him using eye-contact to assure him she was indeed paying attention. At the same time she offered him an option. It was important that she did not address the needs of the second customer while still attending to the first customer. It would have given that first customer the impression that she was less important. If however, the representative felt she could address the second customer’s needs quickly, she might have asked the first customer for permission to do so. A statement such as, “Would you mind if I help this gentleman while you read these documents over. It will only take me a few minutes to help him.”

Empowering customer service representatives with practical knowledge, service skills, and handling situations by role-playing definitely diffused a potentially difficult situation.

photo credit: TheTruthAbout..

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