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Prepare a strategy for social media customer service

Facebook's new messages on iPhoneBusinesses work social media to help make them successful, but it is wise not to just rush in and set up Facebook and Twitter accounts without having a viable plan. While good reviews about a company’s product or services may build brand loyalty, a problem with a product or service can quickly escalate and get out of control. Social media is vulnerable to circumstances, content, and interpretation. An angry person can cause havoc. So how should a business prepare for Facebook or Twitter?

A business never wants to get into any kind of social media over a crisis. Those need to be monitored all the time because they get emotional very quickly. That’s where policy procedures come into play. If you’re going to join in, the conversations have to be constantly monitored. In the event of a complex crisis, a customer service representative has to intervene and address the problem privately and quickly. Before Twitter, when a consumer purchased a new product and it failed miserably, the customer would call customer service or return the product, but now Twitter and Facebook afford the opportunities for an angry customer using 140 characters to cause bad feelings and bad business reviews. People want informative and consistent responses; be prepared to have knowledgeable personnel monitoring the situation.

A good way to break into a more controlled social media environment is using moderated chat groups. Customers can comment on products and services, but a moderator approves or disapproves messages. This provides another chance for a company that is properly prepared to intervene early as soon as a problem is recognized.

Some businesses are reluctant to even step foot into the social part of the internet citing confidentiality and lack of productivity from employees as excuses. Chalk that up as reverting back to the cave days of technology when employees were denied access to computers at their desks or even the use of cell phones at work. Even if a company doesn’t have any social media accounts, what is to stop an irate customer in Waterville, Maine posting on Facebook about terrible service in a bed and breakfast establishment they had just stayed at while on their trip to Florida? The bottom line is that while Facebook has created many opportunities, it has also created obligations.

The desire to stay connected continues to expand. Smartphones connect us to everyone; not just the people in our workforce, and the promise of new technology is ever-expanding.

photo credit: Robert Scoble

“To Serve Man” – a critical look at customer service

Property marketIn September, The New Yorker writer James Surowiecki posted “Are You Being Served?” and brought up some interesting points about customer service and the lack thereof. He reiterated the Steven Slater 15 minutes of fame as the airline attendant slid away down the emergency chute after telling off a rude passenger. Slater became a sort of folk hero of customer service contempt by more than 200,000 people on his Facebook’s fan page.

People are fed up with poor customer service and customer service departments. Case in point is my own story of NationStar Mortgage Company based in Texas. When Riverside Bank went belly up, their mortgages were randomly dispersed; NationStar was assigned our mortgage. The first month we sent our payment, NationStar, through their own disorganization misplaced our check, and by the middle of the month when I noted the check had not been cashed, I called the mortgage company to find out what happened. The customer service department suggested I pay the mortgage again; I let them do an automatic withdrawal from my checking account and told them I would be putting a ‘stop payment’ on the original alleged lost check. Instead they found the check a few days later, deposited it, and of course the check had already been canceled. They then charged me for the ‘stopped check.’ Repeatedly, I called to straighten it out; repeatedly I was assured it was done, but each month the extra charge was on my statement. It wasn’t until yesterday that I finally touched upon Brittney Vaughn, a customer service agent who stepped out of the box, found a supervisor, corrected the error, and sent me a written authorization of the reversed charge.

So what’s the problem? All of these companies talk the talk, and tell us how important customer service is to them, so “please stay on the line until the next customer service representative is available.” No matter what they might say, customer service departments are expensive, and when the economy is stressed as it is now, departments that don’t bring in revenue are most likely the first departments trimmed. Much like when a family is in a financial crunch, the immediate rent, utility, and food bills come first; the life insurance and other intangible services are forgotten. According to Surowiecki, there’s a huge difference between what a company says about customer service than what the consumer says. Surveys answer how many rings it takes until an agent answers the phone or how many customers can be helped in an hour, but that doesn’t address the agent who is responsible for solving the problem. In my own example, I spoke to five different agents; not one of them solved my problem until Brittney appeared.

Now if you’re thinking that reduced prices have affected customer service, there might be a small argument, but it is quickly dismissed by discount companies such as Zappos and Amazon. Of course, these companies have made customer service part of their culture; that means spent great effort, time, and revenue to train their agents. More of the problem just centers around business priorities. If you’re a new customer, “there ain’t no ocean deep enough” to gain your business, but if you’re an existing customer there’s reason to be wary.

To Serve Man,” written by Damon Knight and featured on a video from “Twilight Zone,” Kanamits, an alien race landed on Earth and promised to be helpful toward the cause of humanity. They presented the Earthlings with a book with the seemingly innocuous title of “To Serve Man” which gave sage advice on nutrition and health. At the end of the story, “To Serve Man” was merely a play on words of dual meanings; “assist” and “provide as a meal.” Yes, the book turned out to be a cookbook.

photo credit: alancleaver_2000

Simple ways to survey customers

Survs - Asking for YouRarely will our customers confide in us. Instead they just move on to our competition. Of course, that will never do, so periodically we need to assess ourselves, our service, our staff, and our product. So what’s the best way to find out how our customers really feel about us?

Let’s start out by being specific and using a survey. We want to stay away from general questions. Publix supermarkets sell hundreds of thousands of items, yet this time a survey might concentrate on seafood; freshness, quality, selection, and customer service associated with the seafood department. If we are gathering personal information to go with our survey, whether we are doing the survey in person,on the telephone, or online, we  need to assure our customers they won’t be bothered in the future with spam, junk mail, or unwanted annoying solicitations. Let’s use the least amount of personal information possible so people aren’t put off by having to supply us with information they might feel is none of our business or could be compromising to their privacy. Also, let’s offer our customers a discount or a coupon for their next purchase, so they know we appreciate them taking the time to speak with us.

If we’re doing a survey for a specialized brick and mortar establishment, here are a few sample survey question ideas that can render interesting and informative feedback:

  • How were you greeted when you entered our store?
  • How was your experience?
  • Did you find what you were looking for?
  • Did our sales representatives make you feel important and welcome?
  • Were you happy with our product?
  • What do you think about the quality of our product?

If you’re an online store, survey questions need to address your website and the ease of navigation. Here are some example survey questions:

  • Did you have a good experience when you clicked onto our website?
  • Is our website user-friendly and easy to navigate?
  • Was our checkout easy to use and efficient?
  • Did we describe our products well?
  • Were our products delivered to you on time and in good condition?
  • Are you happy with our products?

There is a large assortment of software available for customer service surveys, and it does depend how much time a company wants to spend, but good customer metrics can positively affect a business. Some businesses prefer to use measurements ranging from “highly unlikely” to “extremely likely.” Other surveys allow customers to write in their opinions. I always like to include the following three questions to my surveys:

  • How likely would you be to recommend my services to a friend, relative, or colleague?
  • How likely would you be to use my services again when you decide to buy or sell real estate?
  • What do you recommend I do to be considered a “10” in customer service?

These are just some really good tools to help us grow, and which directly affects our bottom line – great service to help us succeed.

photo credit: Gustavo Pimenta

The “WOW” of customer service

Football & PuppiesThere’s nothing more stimulating to get me to pull out my credit card and make a purchase than a particular customer service person who just has that “WOW’ affect. It’s written about in customer service handbooks; we recognize organizations who deliver these types of experiences, and we list the essentials of a great customer service person. Of course, none of us are born with these qualities, yet I do see a certain flair that only a very few seem to possess.

So what is it about a person that brings a particular “WOW” sensation when you’re shopping or being served? Of course it starts with their knowledge of their product and the initial impression they impart upon us at that very first encounter. Yes, the initial impression is that of a person who is positive and believes in himself. He is engaging, motivated, pleasant, and practiced in his profession.

His image speaks of success. He is dressed well, his posture is erect, and his body language projects that quiet confidence we immediately notice because he’s genuinely interested in us as consumers. When he speaks to us he doesn’t use, “er, um, or “uh” and he neither shouts nor mumbles. He makes direct eye contact with us, and doesn’t run his fingers through his hair, bite his nails, or fidget with his watch.

That “WOW” agent is prepared. He knows about the product he is explaining, and he is acutely aware of the competition and why I might find this particular organization more desirable. His thoughts are organized; he has been well-trained, but more than that he has practiced with his teachers and rehearsed with his peers.

So what was I shopping for, and where was I shopping for such a “WOW” experience? I was in Sears, and I was looking for a flat-screen television. I went in with just a brief background from my Google search, and I wanted to see the actual product and compare the sound and picture before continuing my search. The service I received could not have been better anywhere. And so it speaks volumes for Sears since that is where I will be purchasing my new television.

photo credit: Atom Ess

Applebee’s on customer service for Veteran’s Day

Old GloryApplebee’s Restaurants plan to serve more than one million free meals to active, reserve, and veteran military service personnel across the country today in honor of Veteran’s Day.

The date was originally chosen after World War I ended at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. The holiday was originally named Armistice Day, but in 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed it Veteran’s Day to honor all American veterans of all wars. It has become the celebration of our country’s military men and women who put themselves out there to protect all of us in the free world  where we have the privilege to live.

“It is a real privilege for us to serve our veterans and active-duty military on this national day of respect and remembrance. Veteran’s Day at Applebee’s is a time for our military to connect with fellow service mean and women, swap stories and enjoy a great meal,” stated Mike Archer, president of Applebee’s Services, Inc.

What a stellar example of customer service!

photo credit: Dryad & Sprite Photography

Outsourcing customer support services

Headphones / 24Few companies have not been affected by the economy, and in turn are looking for the most cost efficient ways to manage different sectors of their businesses including customer support services. In turn, many organizations are outsourcing to the growing South Asia, Pakistan, Philippines and India markets for several reasons:

– Adaptability – Christmas season is now upon us, and outsourcing can offer flexibility. A company can downgrade or upgrade services as needed without the expense of hiring more seasonal staff.
– Employee reduction – Outsourcing sets a company free of paying for employee incentives, training, hiring, and providing expensive employee benefits such as health insurance, pension planning, and vacation pay.
– Technology – Outsourced customer centers have the latest and best equipment which would be a tremendous expense to a company.
– Concentration – An organization can concentrate on doing business and their business plan as opposed to retaining customers, marketing, and handling complaints.
– Cost effective – Inexpensive manpower is available as well as technology minded employees.
– Global advantages – Different time zones can save money if only needing one shift.
– Language advantages – Many employees are proficient in English as well as many other languages.

There are also distinct disadvantages, and in general the quick turnover of personnel can lead to breakdowns in performance targets. Working in call centers are extremely stressful jobs with sophisticated technology and supervisor pressure forcing employees to move from one angry customer to the next without any time to take a breather. The pressure leads to absenteeism and illness in personnel thus leading to more chances of untrained customer agents in a particular field. Some outsourcing companies have made strides to help their employees cope with the full stress of the workload and have organized motivational camps, yoga, gyms, and recreational facilities.

Another problem with outsourcing is managing the quality of services. Instead of complaining to call centers, customers will just tell their friends of their bad experiences. For example, Joe Smith purchases a computer and two weeks later has a problem. He contacts the call center, only to be met with long delays and a new agent, so what does unhappy Joe Smith do? Joe goes on forums and social media and puts out negative reviews. Customized systems need to be in place to review these sites, get in touch with the customer and notify the organization to come up with an acceptable resolution between company and customer.

Depending on the products or services, call centers have to be able to adapt to their customers’ needs and forge ahead with solutions. Surveys aren’t always the best way to determine if a call center is doing a good job. Quality isn’t necessarily assessed by how many customers and how quickly complaints and problems can be addressed. Depending on the products and services, technical support can take more time. Quality of a call center can not always be based on resolving a customer’s complaint with one call. Some custom-made products may require the first interaction to gather information and then require a specialized follow-up at another session.

Successful companies work with outsourced call centers that can address their specific problems by a trusted business relationship, open communication, and credibility.

photo credit: Taylor Burnes

Raising the bar for lawyers and customer service

1-888-I-Can-SueDo you think lawyers conduct surveys about customer satisfaction? Actually, most attorneys I have spoken with in the last few days maintain that client relationships don’t fall under the topic of customer service. They told me if their client has a problem with them, the client will tell them. Now we all know that’s not true; customers and clients are more likely to move on to another attorney because there’s always someone else trying to pull their client into another office.

Yesterday I accompanied a buyer of a relatively inexpensive home here in Palm Beach Gardens to an attorney’s office about her new contract of sale. In Florida real estate closings are commonly done by title companies, but in this particular case, the buyer chose to use an attorney for her closing because of some potentially conflicting issues she wanted to avoid in the future. The moment we walked into the office, the receptionist stood up, greeted us with a friendly smile, and referred to the buyer by name. (The buyer had never been there before.) We were ushered into a conference room and offered water and soft drinks. The room was impeccably decorated with family photographs and community awards reflecting the generosity and good-will of the law firm. The attorney entered the room on time, introduced himself, went over the contract, explained the contingencies, and answered the client’s questions clearly and concisely.

It was a great experience, and this attorney’s office met the client’s expectations. That kind of service didn’t arbitrarily just happen. Some lawyers think that their long-term clients will have an undying loyalty, but loyalty isn’t what it used to be. This client had a previous attorney for 20 years, but left that firm because he never returned phone calls and made her wait in the reception area well over an hour; bottom line clients need to be the most important priority.

Let’s put it another way; if 80 to 90% of revenue comes from existing clients in a law firm, how does a law office differentiate exceptional service to keep their clients? Since most of us realize bad service is everywhere, exceptional service is the golden ring of opportunity to bring in new business. No matter where we go, we go for the experience. Why else would anyone travel to Las Vegas? Most people lose, but if you ask someone why they go, they will tell you they went for the experience. The same concept holds at Disney here in Orlando. Customers are called “guests,” employees are “cast members,” and each work day is a “show.” We’re there for the experience. Is it any different what was presented to the buyer and me yesterday? Not at all since our experience was worth an “A” rating.

Lawyers need to anticipate, learn and invest in their client relationships. Lawyers need to be available and prove they care. Deliver great value and show clients they are more than just billable hours.

photo credit: emilydickinsonridesabmx

Is self-service better than live customer service?

Confusing ATM with featuritisAssuming there are no waiting lines, would you opt to use a self-service kiosk at the airport to check-in or would you prefer to interact with an airline agent? It could be our own obsession with electronics and “click click” we are so used to doing, or it could be our conscious or even unconscious desire to avoid business relationships. Many of us prefer to use the ATM machine instead of a bank teller because some simple banking tasks are quicker and less hassle than dealing with humans. We don’t even have to be pleasant to a machine.

Amazon and Netflix are just more examples of consumers using self-service. Instead of going to the video store, we make our selections online; no one to ask us for our driver’s license because we forgot our membership card, and no hassle even trying to find a parking space. The same holds true for a trip to Wal-Mart, K-mart, or many other retail stores where self-service is offered. Do consumers get tired of hearing, “Would you like to open up a Wal-Mart charge and get 10% off your total bill today?” or “Would you like to donate a dollar to a certain charitable fund?”

According to a recent article from the Harvard Business Review, customers ultimately don’t want a relationship and prefer the use of machines, but doesn’t the relationship depend on whether a customer has a good or bad result with a machine? If an ATM accidentally eats up one’s $20 bill, and the customer is forced to speak with a bank representative, has that machine been an effective tool? What about the unfair check charge on a customer’s account? Will an automated service be able to cancel the charge because the customer has never stopped payment on a check  and they are a solid depositor?

When I go to a store, whether it be Wal-Mart, Publix, or even the bank, I look for the fastest and most efficient way to be done with my purchase. If I am having a problem with merchandise I want to find someone who can help me. I think we have all been the victims of poor customer service; those agents who hate their jobs, have no solutions, and should never have picked up the phone that day. So do those bad experiences rationalize the interpretation that consumers don’t want to talk to businesses? Personally, I think it validates even more the need for exceptional training of only the best customer service representatives a company can afford. It’s definitely a smart  investment!

photo credit: @davestone

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