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Meaningful Service Metrics

In the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck describes a fishing expedition: “The Mexican sierra has 17 plus 15 plus nine spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating in the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman.

The nature of customer service is a fundamentally an experience — feelings characterize it more than facts; emotion more than logic. Steinbeck’s reminds us that no matter how accurate our customer assessments, they will never completely assess its magic. With our objective data, tidy calculations, and sterilized reports, we must never forget to rely on the unscientific report of those directly involved in creating the experience.

There are important service metrics to watch — customers’ evaluation of their experience, customer effort gauges, customer complaints reports, first contact resolution, etc. But, these are all reflections of the customer experience, not its true measure. To quote Marilyn Ferguson in the Aquarian Conspiracy, “In our lives and in our cultural institutions we have been poking at qualities with tools designed to detect quantities. How big is an intention? How heavy is grief, how deep is love? What data guides your decisions about your customers? How do you ascertain the customer’s real evaluation of your service?

Dr. Johnny D. Magwood is the Chief Customer Officer of Northeast Utilities.  A well-known industry spokesperson, he can be reached at magwojd@nu.com.

A difference of perception when dealing with customers

img_6216.jpgMaybe it’s just a coincidence associated with moving that brings me to wonder how customer service representatives relay their particular war stories of having to deal with difficult customers? Perhaps it is that I have had to make more than an average  number of phone calls to various organizations directing new phone, electric, cable, and gas services than most of us regularly have to deal with, or maybe poor customer service is just average, and just more concentrated because I’m dealing with everyone in a compressed time period.

Nonetheless, a writer from the New York Times once called customer service representatives out on their self-reported experiences dealing with angry customers stating that the objective, actual experience differed greatly from the representative’s version.  These perception “deficits” made for good lunch room or cocktail hour stories, but didn’t seem to serve any constructive purpose. The report also brought out that customer service representatives commonly overstate the frequency of angry customers and the number of conflicts they handle in a typical work day.

Of course, negative experiences tend to be more memorable than the routine calls, but when fellow employees dominate conversations with the war stories of the clients from Hell, isn’t that a preamble to growing negative perceptions for other employees? And how does that make other employees deal with angry or dissatisfied customers?

As an example, I called DirecTV and instructed them to turn off my television service as of the end of the month. Yesterday, after a long day, I turned the television on to find out that DirecTV had turned my service off prematurely. What was obviously their mistake and what should have only taken moments to correct turned out to be a drawn out debacle until I finally was fortunate enough to make contact with a customer service agent who immediately figured out the problem and reinstated my service. So was I a client from Hell? I don’t think so, but I am sure the perception “deficit” of the two previous agents who were unable to solve my problem because they had no idea what to do in this particular circumstance, will embellish the story to make it more significant as their own cathartic experience.

So how do we help our customer service representatives be more productive and constructive? From my own experience, representatives need more front line classroom training. Supervisors need to raise the bar on performance, but that’s impossible without giving employees the tools, education, and experience to be able to deal with the unusual. Once an employee is empowered to identify problems, trained and educated to delve a little bit further into possible problems and solutions, customer perception “deficits” are eliminated.

Customer service personnel learn from being monitored, measured, managed, and rewarded. Those who will rise to the occasion have the confidence and desire to help clients and customers solve their problems with a minimum of drama. Perhaps the worst statement I heard yesterday was, “I’m sorry I understand why you are angry, but I can’t help you.” Fortunately I mustered up the stamina to call back and luckily connected with a customer service representative from West Virginia. That wonderful lady saved my evening so I could watch the finale of  Dancing with the Stars.

photo credit: pcutler

The attitude of customer service

Time to change our attitudesAccording to Winston Churchill, “attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Projecting the right attitude when delivering exceptional customer service makes a big difference. When I do business with someone, I am going to remember that company by how well I was treated, how the people who served the company treated me, and how well the company fulfilled my needs or my wishes.

My initial impression most likely will be affected by the friendliness and kindness of the customer service agent; whether it is my first experience on the phone, by email, or in person. When I call another realtor to set up an appointment to see one of their listings, I always begin with ” How are you today?” Immediately I can sense a relaxed attitude. It just makes people nicer when we are nice.  Follow up the friendly greeting with an enthusiastic attitude about your position, your job, or the service you are offering. For instance, I’m excited when I shop to buy new shoes. I like it when the salesperson shows that same attitude of enthusiasm as she helps me to choose the perfect pair.

Then there is the attitude of respect that shows customers how we appreciate their business and how we are willing to do everything we can to make their experience the best we can offer. That attitude of respect is what wins us a customer’s loyalty. For those customers who need to be thrifty and for those clients who have the economics to be frivolous, our attitude of respect for all customers can make a difference. When we use the attitude that we genuinely care about others, even if they can not afford the most expensive product our company offers, we build up trust and appreciation. Today when I scheduled new Internet, phone, and television service, the customer service agent started with the most expensive package Comcast offered. I wanted something more economical, so we amicably worked our way to my more specific needs.

And finally we need to include the attitude of being thankful, and to never underestimate the power of saying thank you to our customers. Let’s face it – you would never visit someone at their home and eat dinner there without saying thank you to the hostess. Then why wouldn’t you want to thank a customer for spending their time and their money at your company? Never forget to show how grateful you are because there’s always some other business out there who would love to step in and say it for you.

photo credit: Identity Photogr@phy

The great debate on handling customer complaints

42-15232843As customers we want to choose the companies we do business with based on personal recommendations, reviews, and past performances. Unfortunately, when it comes to telecommunications, most of us are still somewhat limited as to our choices, but still that is absolutely no excuse for poor customer service.

Two days ago I called AT&T to order two new land line phones for my new home. The customer service agent was polite and helped me to plan what I would need and arranged the install date for a few weeks from now when I moved. Unfortunately, he mistakenly canceled my main land line at my current home, which in my line of business has a very negative impact on my business day. With the obvious fault being that of  AT&T, my perception of reality was to be for the company to immediately turn my service back on; eight-hours later, three-and-a-half hours on my cell phone speaking with customer service and an endless parade of rudeness, ineptness, and excuses – finally service was restored.

So let’s make this a serious attempt to explain why customers complain and how any company can and should improve their customer service with a better proactive approach. Perhaps the most frustrating part of a company mess up is the slow response time. Again, a customer’s reality is judged how well a company resolves the problem. The apology is of course necessary, but if the problem isn’t rectified, what has been resolved? A company like AT&T  can not have a customer service agent get on the line and  simply say the service a customer expected is temporarily unavailable.

The unprofessional behavior by employees can quickly become viral when a customer relates their experience to others on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. No matter how angry the customer is, the agent’s job is to listen. Of course, no agent is expected to put up with any kind of verbal abuse, but a customer’s anger for an organization’s error that is costing a customer loss of business or loss of money is justified. (barring abuse of course) It’s when there is a lack of available management, and everyone assures a customer of a realistic resolution and it doesn’t happen, then the failure of the company’s customer service becomes a tragedy.

So what is the great debate how to handle customer complaints? Start with making promised services available, and when a company makes an error, reward customer loyalty with an expedited resolution to the problem. In my case, a supervisor should have been called immediately to resolve the problem before it became an eight-hour ordeal. After all, customer loyalty should never be ignored. There is nothing more disappointing than to feel that lack of appreciation. Rectify the slow response time, and realize a company is judged by properly trained and informed employees. Eliminate unprofessional behavior of employees; more training, more role-playing, and more supervisors available at peak hours of business. And finally – every company worth their weight needs to show their long-time customers the profound advantages of having been with a company for an extended amount of time and give them priority treatment.

And to think I don’t move for another few weeks!

photo credit: gcoldironjr2003

To deliver world-class customer service

Moving boxesA customer-centric strategy is the best way to deliver world-class service, and it all starts with the initial point of delivery. In order to make customers happy, we need to be sure our employees are happy, and there is no better way to uphold and maintain a sustainable strategy than by being an excellent role model.

Maybe I am a bit more critical of world-class customer service than most people because I write about it almost daily, but I am sure the expectations I have about good systems and processes are consistent with what all people want when dealing with any business. Let’s face it – without customers there is no business.

So here I am in the process of moving from one home to another; an experience that stresses even the most stoic. It’s also  an opportunity that one gets to encounter the customer service departments of the most complained about, the most efficient, and even a few companies who I am still shaking my head in utter disbelief. The experiences however, remind me of what world-class service can offer.

World-class service is made up of the best systems and processes. They keep their promises, they do what they say, and when someone has a question or a problem, someone is there to help. Here are my observations:

  • The best companies know their product and services. In the process of learning about hardwood floors and all of the options available, the best company I had the pleasure to deal with didn’t try to sell me the most expensive products, but educated me on options, quality, costs, and extras I might need.
  • World-class customer service listened to what I had to say. In a most undesirable situation, the owner of a local auction facility called to complain to me about how hard his business is and to complain to me that customers bother him when they call. Needless to say, his company will never be recommended again.
  • Respect is always given to each and every customer. Admittedly some customers are more difficult to deal with, however the customer is always right and he has the right to feel the way he does. It’s when a business doesn’t listen and adopts a negative attitude that a customer will tell the world. Disgruntled customers can cause significant business loss.
  • Communicate when things go wrong. We all want to believe our organizations can deliver flawless service, but when things go wrong, our chances to make it better can get a business noticed. Consumers do forgive when organizations take extra efforts to correct problems. Internet service and cable companies notoriously are on the top of worst customer service, yet  some really try to make amends to rectify problems.
  • Ownership belongs to the customer service person in an organization who takes the call. Employees need to be empowered to act on the company’s behalf and not have to make a customer wait until someone else gets back to them. When I called a local moving company and requested the movers be at my home earlier in the morning than is the usual procedure, a customer service representative was able to make an exception without having to “check with her boss.”

And to add the best advice to delivering world-class service, is to remember to treat any customer as you would like to be treated yourself. Along with quality, value, and having solutions for the unexpected, take the extra step and be known as the company that listens and lives up to their promises.

photo credit: Meathead Movers

Working towards a positive customer experience strategy

Positive customer experience doesn’t just happen after one transaction, sale, or service, but an initial bad customer experience will send a customer straight to your competition; never to look back at the wake. Therefore I contend that the total positive customer experience I want to appreciate is an organization’s total structure of all departments working together like a finely tuned machine.

When we think of a positive customer experience, we see it as a reflection of the very core values a company has and how that very same organization communicates those values – either through its quality of products or services. The experience begins with the senior executive and works its way through every department.

As an example of a positive customer experience versus a customer who left after only one business dealing, is the difference in core values of two similar organizations, yet one commitment to their business solidly soared over the other. When Cynthia sold her farm in Ohio, she called in an auction company to sell the excess furniture from her house, horse tack, and various equipment and tools she and her husband would no longer need when they moved to South Florida. Cynthia was very nervous about using an auction house, but took her friend’s advice that it was the least complicated way to get rid of everything she no longer needed. Cynthia did relate to the auctioneer how nervous she was as to the prices she would get, and even though he could not assure her of any minimum bid, he promised he would call her after the auction to tell her how she made out. And call he did; not everything sold, but the auctioneer knew that Cynthia needed the extra time and the extra service.

In contrast was the experience of another person from the South Florida area using a local auction house. The marketing, sales, accounting, and support departments were incongruous, and incapable of making a positive customer experience. Where any business needs to coordinate the “first call resolution,” which will clearly reflect the commitment to the shared accountability of individuals to satisfy the customer’s overall experience, the positive customer experience is based on the needs of their customers rather than the needs of the owner or of the convenience of other internal departments.

The South Florida auction house failed to listen to the customer; instead behaved badly – unable and not willing to listen to the customer, nor did he even bother to think about what he would have gained had he listened to his customer’s needs. Albeit one customer may cause your customer service department more time than one might think it’s worth for the moment, the end result is if customer experience suffers, you are most likely losing more than just one customer. The only one thanking you at the end of the day will be your competition, and there’s plenty of it out there.

photo credit: sweetshotphoto

Customer service actions to guarantee repeat business

gift-wrapped cardGreat products and great service add up to a successful business, and keeping your customers coming back and spending their money in your organization continues to be more competitive. Innovative ways to keep your business in the forefront and fresh ideas to remind customers how much they are appreciated can turn ordinary into extraordinary or the mundane into marvelous.

Most of us know how important it is to write thank-you notes to our customers for doing business with us, but why not give our clients and customers a bit more? Stay in touch with clients and thank them for paying their bill on time, or text them to thank them for referring a client to you. Occasionally send your customers a small trinket honoring your appreciation of your clients; it doesn’t have to be expensive. How thrilled was I the first time a maid left me a chocolate on my pillow at a classy hotel? That piece of candy didn’t cost much, but I’ll never forget how I smiled and to this day have never forgotten that particular hotel.

Almost everyone will tell you the month they were born, although some people might be reluctant to give you the year; identity threat is just too prevalent. Still a birthday card, a letter or a small gift honoring the occasion, gives you another opportunity to connect personally with someone. Even if you decide to send a holiday greeting, why not tie a small candy cane, a bell with a ribbon, or even a sealed piece of festive candy?

Customers and clients always like to be recognized. Some stores and businesses have a “brag” wall where photographs and testimonials are displayed in a prominent area. When my son, as a teenager, had his braces removed at the local orthodontist, the doctor paid for a professional photographic portrait of the students and displayed everyone’s perfect smiles for the world to see. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

I like to educate customers using newsletters and reports. The real estate market is constantly changing; there is always so much to know. When a few years ago, if you were essentially a breathing adult with a job, you could qualify for a mortgage. Today, there are few if any “no doc” loans, and in order to qualify for a mortgage, the rules are forever changing. Why not keep your customers and clients informed of all changes – depending on your type of business, and rarely do things ever stay the same.

Never forget to ask your customers about your customer service. What do they think about your business? While you may think that everything is perfect and going along smoothly, if your customers disagree, then it is time you improved. Customers don’t have to be very forgiving; another opportunity from your competition promising your old customer the moon is right around the corner.

photo credit: lindsay.dee.bunny

Customer surveys can make a difference in business

SurvsIf you never measure how well your business products or your services affect your customers, chances are you may have lost customers, your reputation may have suffered, or negative word of mouth might have dried up your referral lists. No matter how sophisticated a business owner thinks he might be, there is always the need to focus on “key issues” related to overall customer satisfaction and thus – customer loyalty.

Whether you choose complicated and intricate customer survey software, or if you are just starting out and have even created your own short survey online with the compliments of free web-site surveys, always remember to keep the survey brief, informal, and easy to understand. Most customers don’t have much of an affinity for industry jargon, but are willing to give their opinion as long as it is quick, easy, and at some later time their answers and suggestions show up as what someone  actually read, worked on, and later applied to their day-to-day business.

For instance, one of our favorite lunch spots served superb food, and gave great service for those of us with time constraints – that is until the bill was due, and then we would continuously have to wait for the server to finally bring the check. A few months later when a casual survey of only five questions was placed in the billfold with our tab, we were able to make the suggestion that servers stay on top of hurried lunch patrons and have checks ready as soon as possible. Not even a month later, servers were getting  the lunch tabs to us in a much more expeditious manner.

There are a few classic questions that most businesses almost always find useful, and I’ve seen these questions used quite often:

  • How likely would you be to recommend ABC Luncheon Restaurant  to a friend or colleague?
  • How likely would you be to continue dining with us at ABC Luncheon Restaurant two years from now?

Make your rating scales easy to understand. The most popular range is from 0 to 10, ranging from extremely poor to extremely likely to recommend. Feel free to use a few open-ended questions and ask customers what your company could do to earn the highest rating. If 100 surveys are filled out, and 70 come back with excellent ratings, then you know you are doing a great job, but if the ratings are low, open-ended questions can provide that needed feedback to help your organization to improve.

And one more requirement of a successful customer survey is to have your customers divided into subgroups since there are sometimes obvious differences in service requirements. In the example above, many retired people love to take their time when eating lunch and might think if a server dropped off the check prematurely, the customer was being rushed; in this circumstance knowing the age groups of survey recipients could draw completely different results. Other subgroups can be based on geographic locations, or economics; depending on what is applicable to a particular organization.

Keep surveys meaningful and use them often enough to have a consistent key to helping your business grow.

photo credit: Gustavo Pimenta

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