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Create a training plan that helps customer service representatives succeed

IMG_6914Front-line customer service representatives impact our everyday lives. Whether we are returning sour milk to the local supermarket or our new car with only 6,000 miles has been in the repair shop more than it has been on the road, representatives who deal with the public are significantly important to each organization. Why then, are service people often treated as among the lowest paid in many organizations? After all, business owners and senior management need customer representatives to make a positive impact on “social media-savvy customers.”

Customer service representatives often bear the brunt of a customer’s anger; therefore it’s mandatory to hire agents with excellent dispositions so they are able to maintain the helpful attitude needed to resolve problems. We want our agents to show genuine interest and concern when helping customers and clients, and take the initiative to solve problems; not just turn the problem over to another department. We want an experienced customer service agent to “own the problem,” and thus convey to the customer they have the capability and responsibility to see the task through for a satisfactory resolution.

Unfortunately there is no magical solution to prepare agents to be exemplary at their professions. Organizations that help their employees succeed don’t judge their agents by how quickly they get people off the phone or the number of calls they handle within an eight-hour shift. Here are some suggestions an organization might consider:

  • Have a training program that helps customer representatives deal with people. Help new agents incorporate people skills with their technical knowledge.
  • Be watchful of social media, however Twitter isn’t really the way to solve customer service issues. Of course, it can have an immediate detrimental effect on an organization, and customer service agents need to be familiar with customer engagement so as to neutralize negative publicity, and contact the customer to resolve the situation in an appropriate manner.
  • Give customer service personnel the authority and training to resolve conflicts. Praise jobs well-done and new initiatives that were successful. Use positive experiences to help other professionals learn.
  • Employ personnel who genuinely like their jobs and who want to progress in their careers.
  • Offer competitive pay packages and compensation plans to attract the best candidates. You do get what you pay for.

photo credit: CUS Visual Media Team

Give customers what they want

Turn Around TimeSouthwest Airlines topped all of their rivals again in the American Customer Satisfaction Index produced by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Whereas the average for competitive airline competition scored in the 65 percent ranging (dropping by 1.5 percent) on a 100 point scale, Southwest scored an 81, and it’s the 18th straight year they’ve been at the top.

Most complaints were about higher fares, higher prices, and how customers overwhelmingly feel they are getting less for their money. Now in organizations based on strict FAA regulations, safety standards, and planned flight routes, etc., travelers are generally disgruntled over the lack of integrity and the lack of customer service.

For example, Southwest has always been a no-frills airline, yet they still do not charge baggage fees, and the company openly promotes that particular perk. Fares offered from as low as $40 bring interest and increased ticket sales. In comparison, who isn’t complaining about increased bag fees, and in the case of Continental Airlines, the complimentary in-flight meals canceled with a rise in fares makes the travel experience worse and worse. Premium paying business travelers are the least satisfied, and business travelers are the majority of an airline’s business.

So even though the airlines in general seldom respond to complaints of unreliability, late flights, lack of amenities, or a profound lapse of customer service, what can we glean from their mistakes, and what can we learn from the continued success of Southwest?

  • When competition is keen, concentrate on doing something completely different from your competition to make an impact. On Southwest, a passenger can take two free bags on board; their policy has been consistent. In a local woman’s clothing store boutique, the owner is now offering free alterations for the next few months.
  • Customer service has to be consistent. Reservations have become an a la carte schedule of more and more ridiculous charges that passengers now find offensive – from extra charges to sitting in an aisle seat to a charge for pillows and blankets. Customers are offended when an organization raises prices and still takes away services once associated with the business. Diners stopped going to a local restaurant when they increased their prices,and cut the portions.
  • Customer experiences have to be positive. On-flight service, on time take-offs when there are no weather barriers, and customer recognition when there is a problem. In local businesses, customers want service to be effortless.
  • Customer appreciation – doesn’t that just say it all?

photo credit: StuSeeger

And it’s customer appreciation day!

Post-It IssuesFor many of us a customer appreciation day can be an effective marketing tool as well as a way to thank customers and clients for their loyalty and patronage. There are many different options; some events last just one day while others span several days. Some events use “give-aways”; others entertain with decorations, food, and games.

So how can a business make a customer appreciation day a success and show their customers that they really do care? In Arizona, at the Oro Valley Public Library, customer appreciation cards are given to everyone when they make a purchase at one of the bookstores for more than $5. Each time they get a stamp, and when they get ten stamps, the card can be redeemed at any of the affiliated book stores for $5 off any purchase.

Customer appreciation day at a Silver City t-shirt store in Las Vegas is giving 10 percent off  on all purchases and handing out bottled water and snacks to all customers. Celebrating their first anniversary of their store, they wanted a way to say thank you to all of their customers who have purchased their unique line of shirts.

These customer appreciation days have become social events in smaller communities, and small businesses can reap the benefits of getting to know more local residents. Here are some helpful hints how to organize a customer appreciation day in your neighborhood:

  • Plan a customer appreciation date after the busiest season and just before the slow season starts. Here in South Florida, the Internet and Palm Beach Post is ablaze with appreciation events right after Easter; the official end of tourist season in this area. It’s a great time to encourage more business and remind people how thankful you are for their support and business.
  • Choose promotional products that can give your business a boost. Using your logo on water bottles, coffee cups, fly swatters, etc. keeps your name out there, and at the same time shows your appreciation. Some businesses offer substantial discounts, contests, drawings, entertainment, and treats for children or even pets. Plan what you want to give away and see how it affects your budget. There is no need to go broke on a customer appreciation day; just don’t be Ebenezer Scrooge either.
  • This is the perfect time to introduce new products or services.
  • Send individual invitations in advance to your most loyal customers. Saks 5th Ave. sends out special promotional cards for advance sales and private previews to their most loyal customers. I always appreciate the opportunity to quietly shop for the best sales before everyone else comes into the store.
  • Advertise your event in local newspapers or on the Internet – however best the word will get out as to the planned event.
  • Involve other businesses in your special day. For instance, customer appreciation time at Keyes Company not only includes t-shirts, mugs, and pens, but also includes affiliates like mortgage brokers, builders, movers, etc. who can promote their businesses and make the event even more special.

No matter what you choose to promote your business, be sure to be there. Be sure to greet customers and learn their names, and be sure to thank everyone for attending your event. If we don’t appreciate our customers and tell them, there’s someone else who is waiting in the wings to take our place.

photo credit: AuthenticEccentric

Finding a real person when contacting customer service

Novatel  4080 MiFi hotspotConsumer Reports tell us that organizations rarely listen to the surveys they ask when we hear the infamous, “Your call is very important to us. Please don’t hang up.” So why do they insult us and make us want to throw our phones across the room as we try to make our way through the maze of the company phone tree?

Getting through to a real person is the number one complaint of customers who either need help with their service or product or have a complaint. We know that businesses save money by using these automated systems, but the hopelessly long menus can rile even the most patient consumer. Naturally getting through to a live person may not guarantee that they are going to solve our problem, but at least it’s one step closer to an imagined solution than just pressing buttons.

Mark Kotkin, director of Consumer Reports states people spend good money purchasing merchandise or signing up for services, and want someone to pay attention to them when they have a problem.

Two weeks ago, when I signed up for Comcast as my phone provider, high-speed Internet provider and cable television provider, the sales representative answered the phone within 30 seconds. I was guided through a huge choice of services – all by a human and with an explanation of each service. The sales representative tried to sign me up for services I didn’t need or understand, so after approximately 15 minutes, my new account was formed and due to be activated the day of my home move and promised by the representative to be ready and available the day scheduled.

Of course that didn’t happen, and so the maze of hitting buttons and frustration began; I just wanted someone to help me with my problem. Unfortunately the solution to getting my account activated wasn’t going to happen that day; somehow my order went to the bottom of the pile, and by the time I finally reached a supervisor’s supervisor, I was exhausted and not introduced to Comcast in a positive manner.

Now that I’ve had some time and advice on how to fight one’s way through the telephone robotic customer service conundrum, I can always refer to Get2Human.com, GetHuman.com, or Fonolo.com. Its database of phone numbers and codes for more than 1000 major companies can cut down the frustration factor, however there were no suggested shortcuts suggested for governmental agencies or mortgage companies!

So if you’re frustrated with trying to get through to a human, perhaps some of these hints will help:

  • Press 0 or 0# or #0 to get through to a live person.
  • Don’t press any numbers. The system may recognize you as a rotary phone user and connect you to a live person.
  • Show stress in your voice. Some systems are designed to pick up the stress tension of your voice.
  • As you wind your way through the options – for example Press 1 for billing, Press 2 for locating a store – listen to all of the options first before pressing. Sometimes at the end the option will say to stay on the line, and a real person will answer.
  • Choose “tech support” or another specialized option where you will most likely reach a live person and then can get transferred to an appropriate department.
  • Google your problem first. Many times the answer is on the Internet.
  • Don’t be rude once you get a live person.
  • Use Facebook and Twitter to fight back. Companies see their complaints brought to the public quickly and are much more motivated to get in touch with someone having a legitimate customer service problem.

And when all else fails – look at Consumerist and see if customer service executives of the company you’re trying to reach are listed. It’s just another way shoppers can fight back.

photo credit: CalEvans

Winning customer loyalty

Newtown Storefront_1Entrepreneur magazine writer Micah Solomon stated there are several important elements retailers need to concentrate on in order to gain customer loyalty. A successful organization must anticipate customer wishes, provide fast service, and dedicate themselves to acknowledging each returning customer. Solomon also contends businesses need to perfect the ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ for customers, develop the customer service vocabulary, and work very diligently to hire the best personnel who will enhance their organizations, and not merely just answer the phone with stock replies, or pass a complaint on to another representative.

So how does a business show customers they really care? Many retailers have recognition and reward programs. Of course the reward programs were started to collect customer data and track spending habits, but don’t we all get tired of our key fobs full of little plastic attachments we need to scan at every store? While unpacking after my recent move, my assistant counted nearly 200 discount cards that I have accumulated these last few years. I don’t use them; unless there is some significant value or some kind of emotional connection to a particular organization.

In my own experience, when I shop, I know what I want to buy, I know the quality I can expect from the money I plan to spend for the product or service, and I know how I want to be treated when I shop for that particular product. Those become the retailers who win my customer loyalty.

Specifically reward programs like PetSmart where I save a few dollars off a bag of dog food is not a bad thing, but wouldn’t it be more significant to some of us if we purchased 20 bags of Wellness Dog Food and then qualified for a free dog grooming? On a larger scale, hotels that have reward programs may discount a room, but discounts are all over the Internet these days and many times it becomes very confusing as to whom is offering what and where. I contend it’s the personal connection that wins my loyalty, and if a hotel dispatched a limo at the end of my stay to take me back to the airport, that would significantly make a bigger impact on me than the $50 off of my room tab.

Bottom line – it’s about feeling a connection. In a very popular Palm Beach boutique that admittedly we all spend too much money at – the owner frequently hosts delicious luncheons when she introduces a trunk show or a new line. There’s no doubt about it – a Mimosa and a credit card and a businesswoman dedicated to making her customers happy stands out among the crowd.

photo credit: variationblogr

The customer is enraged

Tour of Consumer Reports labsThe July issue of Consumer Reports stated there were 1.1 million complaints against North American businesses last year; up 10 percent from 2009. So why are so many people so dissatisfied with customer service ? Jack Abelson, a retail industry consultant called customer service “abominable.” He contends that American business has lost focus on the appreciation and the value of  the customer, and excellent customer service is “a profit producer.” Abelson says that organizations cutting their budgets are at fault.

According to the study, 64 percent of customers left a store because of poor customer service. Case in point – last week I went to Home Depot to buy a washer and dryer. There was only one sales person on the floor, and there were two other customers ahead of me. The representative said he would be right with us, but that certainly wasn’t happening. Two of us left the store and went elsewhere.

On the phone, customer service is even more frustrating. “Your call is very important to us,” leaves most customers mumbling a few choice four-letter words, probably accounting for 67 percent of us hanging up the phone because no one can help us. There are 71 percent of customers who were labeled by the poll as “tremendously annoyed” because we could not reach a live customer representative. There are 56 percent of us who have had to start over and over again through the maze of the automated customer service phone calls, repeat the same answers, ask for a customer service representative repeatedly and seldom get the right person.

Interestingly enough demographics show that women get more annoyed and frustrated trying to get a live person on the line than men, but men get “especially annoyed” when a representative tries to sell them unrelated goods and services before even handling the original complaint or resolving their problem. Older people (50+) were more confused with the automated message systems; finding their way through the maze of customer account numbers, the last four digits of one’s social security number, their first-grade teacher’s name, and the product serial number – found underneath the product in the darkest corner of the house.

Incidentally Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart scored the worst in customer service in eight of the industries which included appliances, electronics, cellphones, and supermarkets.

So doesn’t it just stand to reason that businesses have to change the way they treat their customers? In my own personal experience, Home Depot lost a good appliance sale or two, and AT&T  was canceled by me because their customer service was so poor restoring my service when they prematurely cut it off one day and couldn’t resolve the problem efficiently. Mr. Abelson is correct; until organizations appreciate the value of their customers, polls like this will continue to reflect the outrage felt by customers.

photo credit: edrugsearch.com

Time to outshine your competitors with your customer service

waxed floorCustomers are just tired of dealing with retailers who ignore customer service while pretending to have it. If I see an advertisement that says, “New and Improved Customer Service,” doesn’t that already imply there was something wrong with their original service? If an organization claims to make customer service a priority in their business, shouldn’t they uphold to their claims?

Statistics suggest in most surveys that nearly 45 percent of respondents will abandon a provider to which they at one time were loyal  when a negative experience with staff personnel takes place during a business or service transaction. Another 30 percent of respondents are likely to change providers when they feel they are not appreciated by a staff member. Sheer numbers like this can therefore provide some interesting food for thought.

In my own experience in moving from one home to another and being dependent on a variety of different services and providers, I was both amazed, flabbergasted, or genuinely annoyed at the diverse claims and follow through of customer service providers.

So it seems customers want to be made to feel special because if a business can do that, clients and customers will return, there will be more business, and the current customers will recommend you to their friends, families, and business acquaintances. The key, however is to figure out how to stand apart from one’s competitors and shine in the eyes of the customer.

What makes what one business offers special? The way to find out is to check out the competition. As an example, I decided to install hardwood floors into my new home. In South Florida, the tourist season is over which makes every home improvement and specialty flooring stores advertising special prices.Lower prices are not service; they are just lower prices. There is a wide variety of product as well as a wide variety of prices, but I made my choice based on past customers and their personal experiences with the company. Incidentally the company I hired have been in business in the area for more than 20 years, and when it came to a problem yesterday, I was able to call the manager, and without any hesitation the store was able to rectify the problem. That’s what makes an organization stand out from its competitors – that little aspect of doing business “better” than their competition and their reputation built through years of putting customers first.

In every organization, whether it be a service industry like real estate sales or a flooring business, each owner needs to study the feasibility of always sticking to what they promise. In the real estate profession, lockboxes are common and used often to make it convenient for cooperating realtors to enter homes listed on the Multiple Listing Services in a city. Yet, as a lockbox may be convenient for the Listing Broker of a particular property, except for brochures a prospective buyer may miss a lot of the finer points while touring a home. And so our solution is to accompany all brokers on showings when the homeowner isn’t around to answer questions. Of course, it is more time-consuming, but the results – a more comprehensive showing, a happier home owner, and a lot better chance to sell that listing.

Every business needs to practice and keep coming up with new ideas to improve their customer services. It’s a discriminating world of business out here, and it seems only the strongest survive.

photo credit: yoppy

Can you really rate customer value?

Microsoft StoreI know the phrase “customer value” is tossed around training sessions and customer service seminars, but I often wonder how objective organizations really are in their evaluations. How is customer value therefore determined?  In most instances, it is described as the amount of benefit a customer will get from a service or a product, and what it’s going to cost.

If we then base customer value on perceived benefits with perceived costs, then does the real customer value lie in customer perception? The problem is what one person values as important may not be important to someone else, and the perceived benefits of a particular purchase by Buyer A may not be relevant to the perceived benefit of Buyer B. The benefits of a product or service changes with individual personalities, experiences, environment, age, and economics.

Let’s use shopping for a television as an example of rating  customer value.  Obviously over simplifying the choices, but I am using the following examples to demonstrate customer perception of value. Here are the choices:

  • Sharp 32: $339.00
  • Samsung 40: $549.00
  • Toshiba 40: $599.00
  • Samsung 55 (3D): $3599.00

Let’s also use three different people shopping for a television, so to determine customer value we have to take into consideration gender, age, emotional aspects and economics. My 70+ year-old mother chose the Sharp 32″ because of the price. She doesn’t care about LCD, plasma, or resolution, and my mother doesn’t have a clue about SDTV and HDTV. My mom cares about price and the convenience of someone delivering it to her home, installing it, and patiently teaching her how to use it.

Then there is a customer like me who wants HDTV and has some knowledge about televisions. When I compared the clarity and resolution of the Samsung versus the Toshiba I made my choice. The 40″ televisions were competitively priced, and the choice was purely subjective. Televisions are easy to carry out and take home in an SUV and technical help is available via my cable provider and a 24 hour/7 day hotline.Therefore my perception of customer value differed from my mother’s perception.

And then there’s my son who wants the most innovative and technologically forward 1080p 3D LED Smart Samsung 55 priced at $3599.00. His perception of quality is based on research and carefully following the latest trends based on the Internet,  the media, and of course – his friends. The product is pricey, but in his perception the latest technology outshines the cost factor.

So what should a business do to make sure they are delivering the best product at the best price since it is obvious that one size does not fit all? Businesses need to carefully evaluate demographics and find out what customers rate as most important. If the amount of a benefit a customer will get from a product or service is relative to its cost, then the”realization” (what one gets) is worth the “sacrifice” (what one pays). It’s just up to us as business and service providers to be able to evaluate our customers needs often and critically – so as not to ever throw everyone into “a common pot of shoppers.”

photo credit: seantoyer

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