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Empower employees to deliver better customer service

Virgin Mobile: Please help meThe front line employees are often the representatives who will have to make decisions when it comes to customer complaints, customer questions, and overall customer satisfaction. The art of customer service stretches well beyond the product, the prices, and the reliability of an organization. It encompasses everything about a business – right down to the allowed 140 Twitter characters. Even after the purchase, and as the economy stresses even more budgets, that “after” part of purchases become even more critical. Customer service, therefore has to extend beyond what was expected just a few years ago when homes were worth twice as much, when jobs were plentiful, and when buying was a fun thing to do at a whim.

Employees need to be trained and given the proper skills so that each and every customer they deal with will only want to use your particular organization over and over. So how is that done?

Businesses need to empower employees with the right training and encouragement. Starting with special training, customer service agents need to be able to understand beyond the manual set in front of them while they trouble shoot a particular product. For instance, I was having trouble with a coffee maker, and the first representative I spoke with had me do a simple test to determine if the water line was clogged. Because this is the second coffee maker I have had with the same problem, I already engaged myself to do the test, but the service representative was too rigid to by pass this particular time-consuming step – even though I had been through the same problem with the previous machine.

As a customer, I was not pleased until I asked for a supervisor who actually looked back into my record from the previous coffee maker and apologized. What did I learn from this experience? Employees need to have training that enables them to troubleshoot, and be able to use their own discretion. There needs to be a complete section of troubleshooting tips on any organization’s website, and companies need to be more proactive when it comes to product failures and needed modifications.

Besides formal training and training assessments, new information has to be shared with employees and refresher courses given in a timely manner to remind service representatives what has been going on and what they can do to build customer satisfaction and loyalty. Some companies are now offering continuing education, whether it is a corporate training, in-house program or tuition reimbursement at local colleges for staff members who want to progress in the company.

And a great way to encourage employees to reach for the stars? Use positive reinforcement when employees step out of the box in positive ways. Encourage new ideas, and show enthusiasm for a job well done.

photo credit: AngelaArcher.com

Don’t cut the customer service budget

Roll Royces Phantom & GhostThe economy leaves customer service budgets strained, and more than one company has trimmed their services back, but according to the Institute of Customer Service, chief executive Jo Causon, quality service is even more important in times like this. When money is tight, people are much more concerned where and how they spend.

As an example, let us consider an airport parking  garage. In 2007, Sky Harbor Airport Parking’s general manager, Jason Pasley lost money operating his garage because he decided to make the decision to continue all customer service amenities, but ultimately wound up as the only parking site to remain open of any off-airport parking facility. Prior to the economic crunch of 2006, Pasley’s lot was 90 percent full, but with less people traveling, there was a significant decrease in business.

While other off-airport parking facilities used less shuttle services, Pasley kept his going. It didn’t matter if there was one person or ten people being shuttled back and forth to the airport, his shuttles still were in operation every five to seven minutes, and left the parking lot every three to five minutes. Where other lots were using less shuttles and saving money in the short term, Pasley had reinvented his parking lot for pilots and other airline employees who were glad to get to their jobs on time.

Adding to Pasley’s appeal, he was glad to honor competitor coupons, helped passengers with their baggage and even waited for customers to start their cars at night when dropping them off. Shuttle drivers were able to inflate tires, were efficient and courteous. If there was a problem, clients went to Pasley.

So how has Pasley done since the economic crunch? At the beginning, he lost money, but now he is the only off-airport parking facility left.

Any organization can take cues from Jason Pasley’s for their customer service business plans. The real estate industry has taken a huge hit, but agents and brokers who have not compromised their services are the ones who are still out there doing business. Sellers and buyers are much more aware and better educated than ever before. Mix that with the demand for better service and all the innovations modern technology can provide, only the representatives who provide superior service, superior skills, and the latest in technological advances are the ones who are successful. True, we are spending more money for more conveniences and individual needs for our clients and customers, but we are rewarded with continuing business and customer loyalty.

Plan carefully before making any budget cuts in your customer service department. Coined by Robert Burton, “penny wise and pound foolish” were never so true.

photo credit: MikeTroy Photography

Dealing with difficult customers

Kelli's editThe only thing worse than an angry and aggressive client or customer is a customer service representative responding with anger, aggression and frustration of his own. As a matter of fact, that is the worst someone can do for a situation since it only results in more anger. As the responses escalate by all parties, the situation can quickly get out of control. So what’s the solution?

The best solution is to remain calm; never get sucked into the huge vacuum of arguing back and forth because all you are doing is feeding into anger. When that happens, nothing gets accomplished because everyone makes poor decisions and can not implement productive suggestions on either side.

So what do we do when a Monday morning begins with an irate phone call or customer?

  • There is only one successful way to start when dealing with a difficult customer, and that is to calm the person down. We need to find a common understanding of the problem and show sincere empathy for the customer’s problem. Reassuring statements as “I am here to help,” and “I understand why you are frustrated; I would be too,” starts off in a positive manner and already sets the stage for problem management.
  • The next imperative step is to understand the problem. It is important to listen carefully and use the customer’s own words so there is no misunderstanding. You do not want to hear, “You weren’t listening!” How can anyone solve a problem if they do not understand the exact nature of the complaint? As you repeat the problem word for word, your customer is now agreeing with you, which is a huge step to calming a person down.
  • Suggest several choices of action and ask the customer their opinion of possible solutions. Customers like to be included in the decisions. Find out if the solutions suggested by the customer are unrealistic.
  • By  this time, the customer is usually calmed down, and at this point a solution is more realistic. If you don’t know how to immediately solve the problem, don’t act as if you do. Admit that you must do more research, but it is imperative you do not ever forget about calling or contacting the customer in a timely period.
  • Always do a follow-up and find out if the solution was indeed acceptable. If you don’t check, how will you ever know if the solution worked? It’s a perfect opportunity to obtain feedback from a customer, and an even better opportunity to develop customer loyalty. Your customers want to know they are important to you.

It’s the old cliché of making lemonade out of lemons, but the techniques we use towards our customers can make the difference if they are on the fence the next time our services are needed.

photo credit: Debs (ò‿ó)♪

Even accountants need to work on customer service skills

TaxesApril 15th is just over the horizon, and for many of us “tis the season” to get in touch with our accountants. I doubt you will find many accountants in small windowless offices content with just the solitude of their numbers anymore. They have even transgressed beyond the generally unnoticed professionals at quiet business lunches or rotary dinners. It seems that the quiet demeanor of accountants have also been thrown into the social media forces where they are required to be both “social” and available to share information.

Customer service skills were rarely associated with a CPA credentials, but in a complicated world of income tax, audits, and advisory capacities, accountants need to reach their audiences and their future business clients in a technologically social world. When more than 80 percent of Fortune 100 companies have a presence on Twitter, Facebook and even YouTube, where posts don’t go unnoticed, companies scour the Internet watching out for potential forest fires. Good news may go unnoticed, but bad news can turn a sunny day into a hurricane.

So here is the updated image of an accounting firm that projects itself with a positive public perception; an opportunity to improve customer relationships which is a key function to excellent customer service. Experts are available to assist with online opportunities to respond to questions on social media sites with updated information. Information is available via external newsletters about new legislation, trends, and the changing economy. People want to be updated, and an innovative accounting firm has the opportunity to educate. A Twitter page can engage customers to ask generic questions and receive that one-on-one response where a customer feels the personal touch; the opportunity for a new client.

And then there’s more. Why not improve customer service with a general question and answer section? Why not develop a blog? Blogs offer advice, build good will, and encourage visitors and current clients alike to stay ahead of the constantly changing information. It’s an opportunity to get and be noticed, and in a good way, so why not get out there and socialize?

photo credit: John-Morgan

How social awareness can improve customer relationship management

2009_06_wk3_DSC03679Businesses grow as more customers come aboard, and that constant search for new clients is the life jacket for success. Of course building relationships with new customers are paramount; the hard part is taking the leads and transforming them into customers. One of the best ways to do that is through customer engagement; in other words having a customer relationship management strategy.

The key is to keep current customers engaged so they will want to use your services or buy your products. Ideally these customers will then refer your services or products to their friends and relatives because you have not only provided them with excellent customer service, but because you have consistently followed-up after the sale, engaged customers into interesting conversations and useful information on social media sites, updated your current clients and potential new ones with relevant emails, offered loyalty programs, and then tapped into social awareness.

Besides excellent products and outstanding customer service, customers want to make the world a better place to live. Customer engagement increases as a customer feels good that an organization gives to the less fortunate, to physical or mental health, or to social causes. Large companies normally expend more effort than midsize  companies, but smaller companies generally do more “face” and “personal one-on-one” contact – even if exclusively done in their small neighborhoods.

For big businesses we label it Corporate Social Responsibility. One can never forget the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the ravaged beaches and heart wrenching photographs of wild life covered in black, gooey oil. Communities and individuals expect organizations that make massive profits to give back to their community, employees, and to the environment. BP spent billions on damage control while cleaning up the environment to regain customer loyalty.

Large corporations like Microsoft use social awareness campaigns. The philanthropic action Bill Gates has taken through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is world renown. PeopleSoft and Workday founder, Dave Duffield and his wife Cheryl created Maddie’s Fund which aims to create a no-kill nation where all healthy and treatable shelter dogs and cats are guaranteed loving homes. Starbucks ensures fair pay and health care for bean growers.

Even mom and pop stores like our local deli have pitched in to paint a needy family’s home, raise money for an injured fireman, or spent the mornings cleaning up debris left on our usually pristine beaches. Just get involved and make our world a better place for humans and animals to live. You’ll meet more people, find more customers, and serve them better.

photo credit: gwydionwilliams

How do awards help an organization’s branding?

Lois Lawson (c) is congratulated by Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius (l) and Deputy Director Charlie Wooley (r).  Service photo.An appealing and highly recognizable brand helps an organization deliver their message as to service and the products they sell. We’re all salespeople – the difference is what and how we deliver. Our success didn’t just come about overnight; we’ve been working at it for a considerable amount of time. We have made connections, used innovative marketing techniques, and best of all, we have delivered what we promised.

Customers want to see what we offer and also how they can identify with us to make the connection to want to use us. That decision can be made in just a few moments. Let us assume we all convey professionalism on our websites, we supply engaging information to attract customers, and our brand is both unique and appealing. There’s  still a lot of stiff competition out there, so what can we do to make us stand out?

Last evening, I was watching a television movie about a young child who, although not overtly disliked by her peers, but more-so  was just invisible to the more popular students  during the ever important “lunch and playground” part of the school day and for weekend social events. For months the young girl felt isolated; that is until the school announced a statewide science fair. The winning school would be awarded a complete chemistry laboratory; quite a coveted prize for any school. Guess who won? Yes, our  young girl with the amazing intelligence was able to create a highly intricate wind generator. After that achievement this brilliant student became  popular. From that day on, she sat at the highly coveted  lunch table and enjoyed weekend activities – even though her parents’ income could never compare to that of her friends, it no longer mattered ( at least in a made for television movie).

In sales and customer service, not every business is going to win a JD Powers Customer Service Award, which is based on responses from consumers and business customers who have used products and services, but relevant awards can add to a brand’s trust factor. In the real estate industry there are coveted awards for volume of sales, but there are also awards and designations for continuing education, environmental issues, as well as company awards for most listings, most sales, and charitable work.

Everyday people can be considered role models, so why not include our accomplishments on websites, business cards, and even email signatures? Everyone wants recognition, and if an “add-on” like an employee award or national award brings repeat business, then isn’t it something anyone of us want to share with our customers, our company, and our peers? It’s truly a great way to elevate you and your company.

photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region

Consumers rule!

SaldechinCustomer service is all about what the customer thinks when a business encounter is done. Customers are the ones who decide how much they want to spend, where they want to spend, and how they want to spend. Our job as customer service professionals is to provide the consumer with the best product and the best service so they will want to spend their money, time, and loyalty with us. So what’s the secret?

Some time ago, Douglas Hanna did an interview with American Express’ Doria Camaraza, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Fort Lauderdale Service Center. Ms. Camaraza explained the company’s service ethos as related to their Customer Care Professionals. One of their keys to successful customer service for American Express is to build relationships with customers in personal ways. For instance, a trained Customer Care Professional will pick up on a cue from a card holder; perhaps a baby is crying in the background, someone is in a profound rush, or a frequent traveler is calling from a busy airport. Then it becomes the art of listening, having the information of each card holder available so individual attention can be specifically addressed, and having the ability through a comprehensive training program and mentoring process enabling them to be prepared in making important decisions to accommodate customer requests. Service and advice can then be personally based on the customer’s mood or even if they are  in a rush.

So what does an organization get out of raising the bar on employee training? The Customer Care Professionals at American Express aren’t limited to a certain amount of time when speaking with a customer nor are they required to memorize a script. Yesterday when I called American Express customer service because of a problem I am having with a company that has not sent me my order, my representative within in a few moments knew what I was talking about, and she was able to do the research to figure out what the problem was and why I didn’t receive the product I ordered. So what will I probably do the next time I need to order something online? I’ll use my American Express Platinum Card because their service was efficient, polite, and extraordinary.

So as customers rule, and that is obviously reality, we must learn never to assume we can guess what a customer always wants. Contact with any customer gives us the opportunity to extend our relationships and increase the lifetime value of each one of our customers. As we engage a customer in conversation, we can discover how they feel about our brand and if our brand delivers on its promises. We can gather customer input and initiate new procedures that are more effectively based on our relationship with the customer. We find out the good and the bad, and it’s an excellent opportunity to show customers they matter.

photo credit: mikecogh

How customer engagement transcends the sale

haunted oldhouseThe relationship an organization has with a customer ideally transcends the sales transaction. After all, we know when we have satisfied a customer with our product or service because they have what they want. Now does that necessarily mean they will use your services or buy your product again? There is no guarantee that any customer will stay with you or your company forever, but with that very subtle blend of excellence, dedication, perseverance, and hard work, you will have created an emotional bond we call customer engagement.

Why should an organization strive for an emotional bond or a relationship that transcends the one way road when someone enters your company to purchase a product or a service? In the real estate industry, those are the customers who will recommend me to their friends and relatives, purchase from me in the future, and provide me with beneficial feedback to help me enrich and serve future customers better. It helps me to build short and long-term customer engagement which in turn helps me to turn my customers into actual ambassadors for my services. Selling someone a home isn’t just about bringing up a three bedroom, two bath house with a garage and pool in Jupiter, Florida on my local multiple listing service. It’s the entire process of buying a home; qualifying for financing, finding the right neighborhood, finding the right school system, proximity to required services, and the list goes on. One can’t help but develop an emotional bond with clients when purchasing a home is most often the largest financial and emotional investment a family makes in their lifetime.

So here are my suggestions to help build long-term engagement:

  • Be eager to serve: Be prompt and begin any customer relationship with eye-contact and a smile. From the very beginning, listen to what your customer is saying. If you listen closely, they will tell you what they want. I just worked with a couple who insisted they wanted to purchase an old farm; it didn’t matter about the condition of the home. A customer wants you to bring a solution to the table, so be eager to serve them by knowing your product, being realistic, and working with customers to fulfill their total experience the best way possible.
  • Work on excellence: There is a profound difference between doing a job and doing the job excellently; it just takes more time and more work. Sometimes being excellent might even cost more money, but think of the benefits when that particular customer recommends two, three, or fourteen new clients your way because of your integrity and that extra mile you ran to ensure your client you are here to serve them.
  • Don’t be rigid: Never say, “I can’t do that.” Find a solution, make a compromise, and plan for the future so you become an advocate for your client or customer. It’s not always easy to see a situation through the “lens of a customer,” but chances are that customer will remember your kindness, your proficiency, and how you helped to solve their problem.
  • Create the total experience: Do something special for your customer. For instance, in my business, I often leave a fruit basket on the counter for my new buyers the day of their closing. Sometimes I send a gift certificate to the mall or their nearby favorite casual restaurant; it’s thoughtful and people don’t forget the kindness. And after the sale, I always check in with them every so often; no one tells me that I have to do that, but I’m the first person they think of when it’s time to sell, buy, or recommend me to someone else.

photo credit: dmott9

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