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Combat offensive customer service

Holiday Extras Customer's Awards picturesLondon’s Cooperative Bank states each of us “suffer 246 incidences of bad customer service” during our lifetime. This includes lousy service and less than helpful customer service agents. Cooperative Bank’s poll has named the five worst types of companies for customer service. Can we as consumers always fight back?

Topping the list of worst customer service experiences are those at restaurants and bars. Probably everyone reading this will have had at least one or more bad experience with staff, food, or both. Competition for restaurants is still steep, so bad reviews can be devastating. Listen to friends, family members, and read online or newspaper reviews before deciding where to dine. Discount coupons are available for a majority of restaurants during the week. Don’t just make Saturday night the only evening to go out and eat.

With bars, however lousy customer service presents a more complicated problem. It might be hard to walk away from the most popular spots, and they tend to be very busy and congested. Drinks are commonly overpriced, service is practically non-existent because you can not find anyone in the crowd, and the establishment doesn’t care. Why? The place is the current trend, and the establishment need not worry at this time whether you like to be treated like cattle or if the bartender gave you the house wine instead of another brand you ordered. About the only solution to poor customer service in a popular night spot is just to grow older when going to places like this are no longer your first priority.

Poor bank service came in a close second with unreasonable bank fees and long waiting lines. Smaller banks can be more service oriented and more competitive and flexible with bank fees. Banks appreciate customers who actually have money saved, so in this respect, anyone with a nest-egg  is considered highly desirable. Compare rates, compare services, and don’t hesitate to speak up to a supervisor. Bank managers are far more accessible nowadays than in the past.

Mobile phone networks and broadband services didn’t fare well in the poll for customer service. If you are heading to the end of your contract, chances are good that a rival company will offer to buy your previous provider out and welcome you as a new customer. Where to switch will require some research on your part, and sometimes smaller companies shine because they are competing with the larger companies. As with broadband providers, smaller companies don’t necessarily mean inferior service. These are the very companies who want to build their reputations; chances are it will be easier to get in touch with someone when something goes awry with your service.

The last provider that scored poorly in customer service is the energy company. Long waiting lines on the phone when something goes wrong, prerecorded messages when there is a local outage, curt service representatives, and the list goes on. If you are in an area where multiple service providers are in competition with each other, it is likely the customer service will be better. One of the local utility companies advised me to hold my complaints until after the emergency has been corrected. Then call and write  the  appropriate customer service department calmly expressing your dissatisfaction with your personal experience. Chances are much better that you will receive a response and even possibly an apology or solution.

Although most of us have probably not encountered our full 246 bad expected customer service experiences, we can hope that changes will continue to improve our world.

photo credit: Holidayextras

Mixing rewards and incentives eat away at brand loyalty

Deitch PharmacyThis morning I walked into my usual pharmacy to refill an allergy prescription, and there was a sign inviting new customers who transfer their prescriptions over to this store the offer of half-price on any new prescription and a $100 gift certificate for store use. What about me? I have been having my prescriptions filled here for years, and spend $25 each month on my deductible. I also purchase everything from tissues to sunscreen lotions. Granted, there is a rewards program, but my usual discount is $1.50, and I have to use it within a few weeks otherwise the offer expires.

Incentives for new customers are commonly very aggressively marketed; more than “rewards” or “discounts” for current customers. If we use the accepted premise that it is much easier and much more lucrative to keep established customers coming back, why is there so much attention paid to new customers?

This isn’t just an isolated case either. I have noticed similar introductory campaigns for cellphone companies, cable companies, credit card balance transfers, and even local department stores. I was purchasing shirts for my son at Gap last week, and the cashier asked me if I wanted to open a Gap credit card. If I did, I would be entitled to an immediate 20% discount off of my first purchase. Now as an established customer of Gap who commonly spends hundreds of dollars on casual wear for my family, but instead uses American Express as my chosen credit card, why isn’t the store rewarding my consistent spending? It was the same at Anne Taylor’s, Victoria’s Secret, and The Limited. If I opened up credit cards at all of these stores, I could have benefited from a 20% discount on my initial purchase, but by the end of the year and at this pace, I would need a shopping cart to carry around all of these credit cards; not to mention the length of my credit report and the adverse affect of so many new accounts on my credit report.

Does all of this aggressive marketing alienate customers like me, when in fact I am not being rewarded for my spending? I want to be recognized as special too. I think companies need to see the difference based on a consumer’s purchasing power. By rewarding good customers, it will keep us coming back. I want cash rebates, lower interest rates, and discounts commensurate with new customer incentives.

All of this even gives cause to think about home mortgages. Here are banks giving huge financial breaks and discounts to help people, including many homeowners who overspent in the height of the economy and used the equity in their homes as ATM machines, now being offered tremendous incentives to prevent foreclosures, so why hasn’t there been any rewards for good customers who have never missed a payment and still pay 6.5%?

Companies need to rethink their reward and incentive programs, and rebuild brand loyalty. They need to motivate good customers to stay with them; instead of running off to the next pharmacy next month in order to benefit from that attractive offer of a $100 gift certificate.

photo credit: David Hilowitz

It’s all about great customer service

Holiday Extras Customer's Awards picturesIt’s still the great tsunami of business success; great customer service improves brand loyalty and increases profit. Customers would rather pay more for services and products than put up with a rude staff, unknowledgeable employees, and a company failing to resolve problems in a timely manner.

According to a Harris Interactive poll of 2,200 adults surveyed by RightNow Technologies, 82% of  US consumers have stopped using particular companies or services because of poor customer service. Shoppers aren’t just leaving quietly; they are warning their friends, families, and co-workers about their bad experiences. In fact 85% of dissatisfied customers warn others, 66% try to dissuade others from using the particular company, and the overwhelming majority chose to share their bad experiences by word of mouth.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube made its impact in customer service opinion too. Of the consumers who posted negative experiences publicly, 58% expected a response, 42% expected a response within one day, but only 22% actually ever received a response as a result of their posts.

Statistically, it looks like negative customer experiences can make profound impacts on companies. According to Greg Gianforte, CEO of RightNow, which works on customer experience solutions, states, “By focusing on delivering exceptional experiences, businesses have the opportunity to grow their customer base, improve brand loyalty and increase overall revenue.”

So what are some suggestions a company should do if their reputation has suffered the slings and arrows of poor customer experiences? According to the survey all is not lost. After all, 92% of the respondents said they would be willing to give a company another chance after having had a bad experience. Of those responding, 66% wanted an apology or solution from a supervisor or from the main office, 52% wanted a discount off the product or service that was unsatisfactory, and 49% wanted proof  of the customer service improvement since their bad experience.

Companies need to invest, and not just spend money in training of customer service representatives. There are no excuses for lack of knowledge and rudeness. Practical seminars, role-playing, mentoring, and education can make the difference. Supervisors and heads of companies need to join the front ranks and listen to the complaints. There are reasons for negative feedback, and companies will have to generate positive statements. Start by reaching out to friends and colleagues for endorsements once new company procedures have been instituted. Get social; let everyone know that issues have been resolved. Great customer service has always been spread via word or mouth; it’s just that the word of mouth has so many new venues that make it even more wide-spread.

photo credit: Holidayextras

Good service valued over good food?

Specials - Tan Lac VienEmpathica, a customer service management firm, surveyed 3,000 U.S. and Canadian consumers about the value of good service over the quality of food they are given at restaurants.  Only one in five people valued good service over the quality of food. A 55% majority of Americans  think restaurant service is getting worse, while 32% think service is improving. Another 25% would tell their friends and co-workers not to go to a particular restaurant if they received poor service.

Part of the value of a service particularly in a restaurant is the customer relation experience. Most of us go to a restaurant to relax, and we do expect value for our money. With that comes quality food and consistent service. Some established restaurants still ride on their reputations, but the economic boom of the 1990s is over, and almost every business has felt the uncomfortable drop in revenue. “It’s not that we have less customers,” states Dave Billingsby, manager of a local restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens, “they just spend less; an average of 7%. I think the economic downturn has caused us a 10% drop in our total revenue, because people just spend less.”

The Empatica survey found that one in five women “never” eat at restaurants while one in ten men “never” eat at restaurants. Discount voucher offers made a big difference in people going to restaurants. Sales are traditionally slower during the week, so promotions and discounts drive more diners to restaurants regardless of the service. Billingsby agreed, and said there is a 50% increase in business on the weekends.

In an informal survey among my friends, and we do like to try different restaurants, the quality of food overwhelmingly outweighed the service quotient, although a particularly bad customer service experience, no matter how good the food, meant the eatery was crossed off the list for future consideration. “I go to relax, eat some good food, and have a good time,” explained Lorri Kennedy, a local Palm Beach attorney. “I’m very fussy about what I eat, but I also expect good service. If I don’t get the proper combination, I really don’t feel any customer loyalty. It all figures into the equation, and customer service is right up there with quality.”

People relate to affordable prices, cost efficiency, and good management. That’s what keeps all of us coming back. The poll summed up the report by stating; “Be familiar and reliable. In a stressful time, consumers will spend discretionary money on experiences they know they will enjoy.”

photo credit: avlxyz

The value of roleplaying in customer service training

Infosec 2007. Olympia.The typical customer training course teaches agents what a customer wants or doesn’t want and highlights the common mistakes committed by new and experienced agents. The course traditionally goes on to warn agents about the possible negative impact on the company and business. It highlights the need to smile, help fellow workers, delegate projects as a team player, and have a positive outlook. Many agents politely listen, but consider the training course just a supplement to common sense. How do we then make it more interesting and applicable?

Training needs to start with a clear objective, and role-playing places the service representative into the shoes of the customer, and helps to bring clarity to particular situations. Begin with the customer scenario and use detail to create a  specific situation. Perhaps the customer is calling to ask for more information and is clearly in a hurry. What would a successful outcome then be for the company and for the customer? Start from the beginning, and take it through the question period, the emotional aspect of the hurried customer, and what to say and how to say it.

Keep the role-playing scenarios simple at the beginning. Customer service representatives who are not used to role-playing will need to get used to the heightened awareness of core issues and will actually be able to focus on skills they may have never thought of before the training session began. The role-playing should be fun; employees identify with positive attitudes. We often learn mistakes we are making by laughing at ourselves. None of us like to be lectured, but when we have the opportunity to reverse roles, we can get a clearer vision of our purpose.

Our role-playing then continues with more difficult tasks. Meet the needs and calm the angry customer. Focus and build skills that can handle the issues. What a perfect time to drive home behaviors that are not acceptable or non negotiable. Record and play back the practice scenarios and figure out collectively what could have been said or done to make the experience better. We’re all adults, and when everyone has the opportunity to participate, we all tend to be more interested and more engaged. As roleplaying continues, training becomes more effective as each person has the opportunity to keep trying to perfect an appropriate and satisfying result.

At the end of the training session, customer service representatives come away with existing approaches that work well and have had the opportunity to learn new points and share tips. The opportunity for more experienced employees to share techniques with new employees leads to more teamwork. All of it helps to build more confident, knowledgeable, and happier employees.

photo credit: jlcwalker

Book Review: Four Seasons – The Story of a Business Philosophy

I just read Four Seasons  The Story of a Business Philosophy by Isadore Sharp, founder, chairman, and CEO of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. The recurring theme in  the book centers around the Golden Rule; if you treat people well and the way you would like to be treated, they will do the same.

Sharp begins the book with his personal story. He came from a modest, unpretentious family with a background in construction. His first motor hotel (motel) opened in Toronto in 1961, and what made it different was his service oriented philosophy. By 1963, his second hotel opened called Toronto’s Inn on the Park, and its resort style setting with its gym claimed instant success. By 1976, the opening of the Four Seasons in San Francisco which entered into a management contract for The Clift already defined true luxury.

When the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue opened, the phenomenal service transformed the hotel owner-operator to a hugely successful management company synonymous with quality and the worldwide reputation of luxury travel. “One way to characterize Four Seasons – exchange of mutual respect performed with an attitude of kindness,” states Sharp, and that same promise remains  today as the Four Seasons continue to have the highest rated 140 luxury hotels in more than 40 countries.

The Four Season’s business plan focused on quality 24 hour service. In the 1970’s, the concentration on exceptional quality set apart business travel. The introduction of hair dryers, concierge service, televisions with concealed doors, non-smoking rooms, and fitness centers provided service and luxury to the sophisticated traveler. Even today, the morning meetings remain an integral part of the four primary elements of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts property.

Every morning service, quality, and culture brand are set forward by the guest relations manager. This includes a recap of the guests staying at the hotel and discussions ranging from a guest needing a hypoallergenic pillow, gluten-free food, or even a special skin cream. The Glitch Report, which is a review of the previous day’s mistakes is a way to make it right with a sincere apology and then doing something special for a guest later on. Every department is represented in the morning meetings from housekeeping to upper management. The team effort is what makes up the cornerstone of the Four Seasons culture, and trusted employees are granted the discretion to do the right thing to make their guests happy.

Sharp’s personal tragedy and his philanthropy reveal the very human side of a vulnerable person. In November 1976, his son Chris, a strapping, six-foot-two athlete was diagnosed with deadly melanoma. On May 10, 1978 Chris lost his battle, but his spirit inspired The Marathon of Hope two years later when a local newspaper carried a story  of a young man Terry Fox who had lost a leg to cancer and was running across Canada on an artificial limb to raise money for cancer research.

Dear Terry:

The Marathon of Hope has just begun. You started it. We will not rest until your dream to find a cure for cancer is realized. I am asking every Four Seasons hotel to organize, along with the local branch of the Canadian Cancer Society, a Terry Fox Marathon of Hope Run to be held on the first Sunday in October. Beginning this year, it will become an annual fund-raising event for the Terry Fox Cancer Research Fund and we will not stop until cancer has been beaten.

Isadore Sharpe

Terry died the following year, but not before he learned his dream had come true. He raised one dollar for every person then living in Canada:$24 million.

In the last few pages of his book, Sharpe tells us who they are, and that is a company that manages the finest hotels, resorts, and residence clubs supported with a “deeply instilled ethic of personal service.” And in response to how they succeed, Sharpe concludes with;

We succeed when every decision is based on a clear understanding of and belief in what we do and when we couple this conviction with sound financial planning. Our greatest asset, and the key to our success, is our people. In all our interactions with guests, customers, business associates, and colleagues, we seek to deal with others as we would have them deal with us.

Bottomline: The book is unpretentious, inspirational, and offers excellent advice about the importance of customer service. It provides some good lessons about the value of long-term service employees and how they are role models for new hires and front end advisers for improvement. The book offers excellent advice on training to help employees realize the importance of consistently amazing customer service.

Pros: The book provides a great personal story of a man who started out with little money and no training. Rising through the years of a sharp recession makes his story more pertinent today. The personal photographs brings in the humanity and compassion of Sharp.

Cons: There were few secondary sources. I found some of the foreign stories one-sided.

Interested: You can purchase this book from Amazon.com for $19.77 in hardcover format or $19.99 in Kindle format. You can buy it here.

Customer loyalty needed to maintain competitive advantage

In a recent article Ford Motor Company commented on figuring out how it can improve customer loyalty and have a longer relationship than they do at the present. They stated that customers stay with manufacturers as long as the new warranty lasts, and then move on to independent service providers. Ford also claims the change of ownership within the warranty period makes it difficult to reach the next owner. Ford claims that going to a dealer for work outside of the new warranty period may initially present as being more expensive, however in the long run the dealers have better processes, training, and parts as to Ford products. When asked if Ford might consider lifetime warranties, the company commented that longer warranties allow customers greater potential for abuse.

Customer relationships are based on a company’s service especially in the auto industry. The automobile brand owner looks to the future hoping today’s buyer will purchase another Ford. He wants advocacy, a willingness to pay a premium for his brand, and the possibility of more than one Ford parked in the owner’s driveway. Then comes the perks of loyalty; there is a greater resale value down the road, and stronger negotiating powers with the manufacturer. With all of this in place, can a brand owner then count on more Ford owners coming back for service work after the warranty period is over?

Actually retention rates, metrics, and analytics are all necessary for success, and it is based on customer experience. Does lifetime warranties add up to consumer negligence or can it be the most positive part of  customer service? Ford can not afford customer service slip ups, and they need to communicate with the customers more often. Educate the customer on proper care; a typical owner’s manual consisting of hundreds of  pages isn’t likely to be read by most new car owners, so keep it simple. Companies can not take the customer for granted and need reliability and flexibility. Sometimes the warranty period needs to be extended; sometimes the warranty period needs to address particular needs of particular clients.  Another barometer of success is employee loyalty; the people working in the front lines of service need to be enthusiastic and well-trained for their positions.

Satisfaction alone does not build a loyal customer. Even though a customer may be satisfied today with the luxury hybrid competing with Lexus in the mid-size sedans, it doesn’t predict how customers will behave in the future as to what brand they will purchase. They may or may not return, however loyal customers consistently come back. Will Ford be able to lay claim to that in the future?

photo credit: aresauburn™

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

This is the fourth and final part of my interview with Doria Camaraza, the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Fort Lauderdale Service Center for American Express. In this part, Doria talks more about the American Express culture, share some things are unique to American Express call centers, talks about how American Express engages with social media and gathers customer feedback, and finally, how she interacts with customers personally.

Click “read more” to read the interview. You can also read part one, part two, and part three.

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