* You are viewing the archive for August, 2011. View the rest of the archives.

Customer service ratings for airlines during Hurricane Irene

N354AAIf you had to cancel your flight because of Hurricane Irene, you may have been waiting on a “a virtual holding pattern” for a customer service representative. Depending upon the airline a passenger chose, a lot of customer service left  much to be desired considering hundreds of thousands of airline, rail and bus passengers were slated to be grounded as Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast.

National airlines and their regional affiliates from Washington to Boston scrubbed almost all of their flights because of the ominous forecast. United Continental Holdings cancelled 2,300 flights on Saturday and Sunday, Delta cancelled 1,300 flights, US Airways cancelled 1,100, Jet Blue cancelled 880, Air Tran Airways cancelled 265, and American Airways cancelled 265 flights.

Stella Service, an independent company who rates customer service and mainly focuses on online retailers decided to see which airlines were most attentive to their customers. On Friday, August 26, an average of eight calls were made to each of the top airlines starting at 9:00 AM and ending at 6:30 PM. Twelve tweets were sent out to each airline between the hours of 12:00 AM and 12:00 PM on Friday, August 26. Curious as to how the airlines responded? If most airlines are created equal except for price differences, will customer service differences at times of emergencies influence you the next time you make reservations?

American Airlines kept their customers waiting the longest; scoring in at one-and-one-half-hours before a customer service representative answered the call. Delta did better with only a 30 minute wait time as did Spirit, Jet Blue, Air Tran, and Frontier. US Airways did the best with only two minutes of waiting time until an agent responded to a call.

And for all of you Twitter users – Air Tran, American Airlines, and United Airways never responded. Delta responded within 14 minutes, Jet Blue, and Frontier responded eventually, and Delta went one step further by responding to tweets and including the customer service representative’s initials on each response so follow-up could be more efficient.

If you’re a frequent flyer, will better response time and more efficient customer service influence your choice in the future? Continued questionnaires about the value of customer service and if consumers are willing to pay more for excellent customer service have overwhelmingly come back with high reviews. I can’t even imagine how customers who had to wait hours to speak with an airline representative to change a flight must have felt. It’s probably a good bet they have taken the “blood oath” never to use that airline again. In the end, it is all about customer service, isn’t it?

photo credit: ahisgett

Customer service at “stake” at Morton’s Steakhouse?

Jonathan Visits Steve (27)Peter Shankman is an author and frequent customer service blogger who has an impressive 100.000 Twitter followers, so the other day he used an experience to allegedly show how companies treat their good clients. As he was preparing to take off from the airport at Tampa, Florida, Shankman tweeted to Morton’s Steakhouse Restaurant that he wanted a porterhouse steak waiting for him when he arrived at Newark Airport in New Jersey. So guess what?

Morton’s Steakhouse transported a freshly cooked porterhouse steak to the baggage claim section of the airport when Shankman arrived; and notwithstanding all the bells and whistles of going over and above the call of “wow” customer service, had a waiter dressed in a tuxedo ready to serve Shankman his meal.

Shankman, who is well-known for his outrageous publicity stunts that create positive press for companies, contends Morton did this because he is a good customer and therefore “The Greatest Customer Service Story Ever Told, Starring Morton’s Steakhouse” was just that – an example where an organization goes beyond what is expected to deliver the best to the customer. Skeptics like me however have to wonder how much an expedition to the airport and everything associated with the experience actually cost the restaurant. Next I have to wonder if I was a regular customer with only 850 Twitter followers would Morton even bring me a baked potato when I arrived at the airport? (I don’t eat meat.)

I think, even though I do believe this was a premeditated Shankman ruse to bring media attention to the restaurant, and a good one in fact, but I don’t follow the tenet that this was any kind of display of customer service as Shankman contends. Over delivery of such a service isn’t even financially practical, and it is truly unbelievable and much too transparent a publicity stunt.

Still the benefits of this grandiose scene can at least be a lesson in the importance of listening to social media. We can actually gain insight into what our customers need and follow through with their complaints, suggestions, and praises through consistent communication. Just look at the power of 140 characters and the attention it captured in one expensive though most likely positive afternoon.

photo credit: missmeng

Chick-fil-A recipe for excellent customer service

Free FryDayToday in the Jonesboro, Arkansas Regional Chamber of Commerce presentation, franchised restaurant operator and owner of Chick-fil-A, Mike Fullington explained to his audience how customer service can have an impact on a person’s day and even his life. He explained those who really do it well have a certain “spirit,” and that is not something that is trained; rather it comes from the heart with the desire to serve and help others.

In the world of fast food, there has to be a special talent to prepare fast food and still be able to pass out a survey asking a customer to rate taste, speed, attentiveness, courteousness, and cleanliness. That sounds more like the upscale restaurant we visit once in a while, but the Atlanta-based franchise is well-known for its passion and service. Instead of a “thank you” at the end of a customer’s purchase, the more genteel “my pleasure” is used. Truett Cathy, founder, chairman and CEO stresses “servant leadership,” meaning managers treat employees how they want employees to treat customers.

It’s not the extra mile of service franchises bring to Chick-fil-A; it’s been described as the second extra mile. It’s where new franchise owners can take up to a year to come aboard. They have worked in the restaurant, gone through countless interviews, involved their families in the business, and identify with corporate values. All Chick-fil-A’s for instance, are closed on Sundays as a day of rest and prayer. While it’s not mandatory to be Christian, all owners must have demonstrated a special passion, humility, and genuineness Cathy finds mandatory. He places families first, and is a firm believer in strong family units.

Innovative ideas to promote the Chick-fil-A culture for outstanding customer service is rewarded. Contests for competitiveness are rewarded as teams show exemplary work ethics and ideas. Technology and training assist employees in attaining goals of efficiency and speed; 90 seconds for service at a drive through and 60 seconds for counter service.

As an incentive to heighten customer loyalty, coupons, restaurant openings, and special community occasions bring forth new opportunities for “ambassadors” to spread the word to someone not familiar with Chick-fil-A.

And to constantly keep a check on the best ingredients for Chick-fil-A, Cathy spends $1 million dollars on quarterly evaluations which questions customers about their experiences. Respondents receive a free sandwich for answering twenty questions about their experiences. Each location is then forwarded a two-page report.

Excellent customer service is adding that special recipe people just don’t expect to receive. With over 1200 restaurants and $1.5 billion in sales, there’s a lot to be said about integrity taking first place as has been shown via Truett Cathy’s philosophy.

photo credit: Carl Black

Customer service in the Social Security Administration

The Foreign OfficeEven the President of the United States gets involved with improving customer service. Barack Obama issued an executive order directing government agencies to improve their customer service, and Social Security Administration (SSA) Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll Jr. contends better customer service will be the result of going self-service online during the next ten years.

By next year the SSA hopes to handle 50 percent of new retirement applications and claims online and 38 percent of disability claims. A new portal called MySSA will be introduced for the fiscal year of 2012, and people will be able to access their personal social security statements, verify their benefits, change their address and access direct deposit services. In the future MySSA will stretch services to Spanish, disability applications and even Medicare.

Now here is where it gets complicated. According to the survey from Fierce Government which is a contractor who receives telephone numbers of callers to randomly selected field offices and conducts structured interviews, most people weren’t interested in using their computers or their mobile devices for the SSA. Of course, my research also revealed the Fierce Government survey results took forever to squeeze out of the government, and it finally came through via the Freedom of Information Act. Never more than a quarter of the population surveyed wanted the SSA to go Internet or stated as “very interested” while most answers were “somewhat” to “not interested” to switching to online service.

Most telephone complaints, as concluded by Fierce Government centered around callers being annoyed with busy signals, automated recordings, or leaving voice mails and never receiving return calls, however 80 percent of those who did get call backs, gave positive feedback.

Now I’m no online guru, nor do I ever imagine myself to have the answers to make the federal government run smoothly. I have not had to deal with the SSA yet except to change my name to my married name after a considerable amount of years married, but that was a pretty positive, and painless experience; just had to present the proper paperwork. And that is part of what confuses not only me, but people who are actually thinking of retiring. How much of customer service is needed to fill out forms? Are there going to be online forms to apply for more online forms?

I really think customer service for the SSA is going to need telephone access customer service to run concurrently with online service, otherwise we are going to need more customer service agents and probably more forms to fill out. Who knows however – if the government thinks Social Security benefits might run out in fifteen years, all of this pondering might just be moot.

photo credit: stevecadman

Consumers willing to pay more for good service

Helsinki's Vanha kauppahalliA recent survey conducted by American Express shows Americans demanding better customer service as compared to last year. Statistics showed 70 percent of consumers willing to spend 13 percent more for “WOW” service as compared to 2010 when only 55 percent of consumers were only willing to spend 9 percent more.

Jim Bush, executive vice-president for American Express World Service stated:

“Getting service right is more than just a nice to do; it’s a must-do. American consumers are willing to spend more with companies that provide outstanding service, and they will also tell, on average, twice as many people about bad service than they are about good service. Ultimately, great service can drive sales and customer loyalty.”

In a personal comparison between credit cards, the American Express Platinum Card customer service far exceeds any other upscale credit card I have in my possession. There are comparatively little computer generated obstacles to overcome before touching base with a live representative, and each customer experience is handled with professionalism and that personal touch is so important when large organizations have to try extra hard to stay connected to their clients and customers. Other premium credit cards from Bank America or Barclay do provide several perks, however their customer service departments are much more mechanical and in several instances have transferred me to other representatives. An admirable asset of American Express customer service; the agent a consumer speaks with “owns that problem” until it is resolved.

The general discontent among consumers show that many businesses just haven’t picked up the pace for customer service, and many have scaled down because of the state of the economy. Perhaps that is the worst choice any business can make at this time, because statistics also show that a great majority of consumers have backed out of purchases because of poor service.

In an even broader arena of consumer unhappiness are the problems with airlines slowly inching up their prices despite an obvious lag in travel. Airlines are trying to win customers back with all kinds of great deals, but the quality of customer service is so disappointing that travelers are asking for federal government intervention. Imagine that? Consumers want plain language for disclosing fees to make it possible to compare airfares and optional fees, a consumer complaint hotline, and require airlines to email or send text notifications of flight statuses.

Sure, customers are now regarded as high-maintenance, but isn’t it about time that we all get to feel we’re truly getting our money’s worth and being treated as valued consumers?

photo credit: La Citta Vita

Customer service continues to center on good client communication

Comfy?Once upon a time a client or customer would call a business on the telephone or write a letter; whether it was a complaint or compliment, the conversations remained private. As we fast forward to the 21st century however, organizations have been forced into finding new ways to deal with public feedback. Customers are empowered with online resources to share opinions. It can happen anytime of day, night or special holiday; the new reality is for businesses to reaffirm good client communication and show the public that we really do care.

The old-fashioned customer service agents spent most of their time on the phones trying to resolve problems, but now such quick social media outlets as Twitter can quickly lead to a firestorm of criticism if not handled immediately. It’s not an efficient business decision to ignore the negative, and people want to know how any responsible company deals with negative complaints. It’s best in the public arena of quick opinions, that complaints be handled in a positive manner to build confidence and trust; in other words customer feedback and service must remain a full-time endeavor.

So how should a business deal with customer service issues when the world is reading and opinions are being shared quickly by typing 140 characters? Client satisfaction hasn’t changed; it’s only the delivery method. As is with the old golden rules of exemplary customer service, everyone in the organization is responsible for customer satisfaction, and the accountability always leans on the upper echelon of a company.

What are the golden rules of knock-down, kick-butt, customer service? Start with the value of  employees who by far are any company’s best asset. Spend money and time in customer service training using both traditional training methods, intern learning opportunities and experiences, and lots of feedback and positive recognition of employees for jobs well-done. Concentrate on providing customers with quick responses to complaints and negative comments, and welcome feedback. Turning a bad situation into a good situation by providing the customer with the help that is needed turns enemies into advocates and provides a stage for potential new customers in the future.

Luis Franco, director of international business operations at Survey Monkey offers advice on how to approach clients for feedback. He says there are three rules that every organization must keep in mind:

“Don’t survey the hell out of people. Keep it simple and short – seven minutes is the maximum survey time – and make sure the question has terminology that is understood by everyone, no acronyms and no sector jargon.”

Don’t be frightened that customers have a lot more power; look at it as a new opportunity to provide better customer service and as a new opportunity to bring in more business.

photo credit: paulswansen

What it takes to succeed as a customer service representative

Bar scene, MontmartreThe best customer service representatives focus on people. They are good listeners, good communicators, and convey to us a positive and patient demeanor. These amazingly reliable people provide business owners with the competitive advantage over their competition, and it doesn’t matter if the economy is dragging – successful organizations continue to recognize the importance of their employees.

For anyone considering a career in customer service, one must initially be able to handle stress, handle pressure, maintain friendly interactions with customers, and follow through on tasks. It’s not always easy to maintain one’s focus on serving people, so an employer needs to identify and invest in the right people for the job. Most of us as consumers can probably remember some unfortunate experiences we have had with customer service agents who have lacked the ability to deal with stress and were easily excitable. How many of us can summarily figure out those agents who were just there for their pay checks and lacked the sensitivity needed when we needed a patient ear to listen and someone capable of resolving our frustrating company issue?

Organizations can depend upon recommendations from other employees, online research, or evaluations which may involve personality assessments to evaluate basic employability, honesty, reliability, and competency when the search is on for the best agents. The American Psychological Assessment has been recognized as an ethical and statistical guideline, however there are a variety of  other acceptable evaluation techniques used by employers and their respective evaluators.

No matter what criteria an employer uses to choose the best candidates however, the most successful customer service representatives always seem to display the following traits:

  • The best customer service representatives I have ever met live to serve and can spend time with others on the phone or in person as interesting and knowledgeable individuals.
  • The best customer service representatives I have ever met are versatile and can read others while adapting to their style and personality so as to find a common ground.
  • The best customer service representatives I have ever met are interested in learning about their product, service, or sales and are always interested in improving their abilities.
  • The best customer service representatives have set standards and are consistent.
  • The best customer service representatives make the most of their time and are willing to help out in other areas if the demand is there.
  • The best customer service representatives are team players.
  • The best customer service representatives have personal accountability and stellar interpersonal skills.

The best customer service representatives don’t just happen; employers are responsible for providing the best training, career development, and recognition for a job well done.

photo credit: La Citta Vita

Building loyalty through customized products and services

Eagle Watch Golf Course, Woodstock, GAAs kids we used to happily create personal gifts for our family and friends. It’s ironic, during my last move to my new home that keeping those special “Arts and Crafts” products made by my son are the very ones I still cherish the most. Of course, there’s the emotional ties included in those lopsided candy dishes and Christmas ornaments made out of popsicle sticks, but it reminds me of the latest trends labeled as “Go Green,” “Do-it-Yourself,” and “Buy Local Farmer Markets.” Buying custom merchandise, although a bit more sophisticated than the necklace made by my son with colored glass beads for my Mother’s Day present, still brings to mind being able to design a piece of custom jewelry in the colors I want to match an outfit, or even those custom sneakers specially made to lift my arches that truly commands a shopper’s appreciation of individualism – a concept we all cherish.

Macy’s, a Cincinnati based department store saw their sales increase in June by  7.5 percent rising from $2.2 billion to $2.4 billion. So how did they do it? Their innovative “My Macy’s” program divides the organization into small geographic segments, each of which is handled by “on-the-ground” buyers who select merchandise based on the specific demands of a store’s customers. Where fashion for the golf communities of Palm Beach Florida are infinitely more applicable to the Macy’s in South Florida, chances are there is far less demand in Wichita, Kansas. And if those same golfers in Palm Beach can avail themselves to custom golf shoes or other individualized golf course necessities, the more communication and individualization – the more likelihood of customers returning to the same stores.

This shopper customization service may cost companies millions of dollars collecting data to segment buyers, but the rewards no doubt are paying off. Finding out what customers in specific locations buy and how and why they buy, offers the company the opportunity to meet individual needs and ultimately build loyalty. As consumers find the easy way to buy custom products made exactly the way they want, it helps eCommerce establishments to interact with their customers. Of course that is exactly what any retail establishment wants since it makes consumers feel they are dealing with real people in real situations.

No longer will a  customer be lost in the generic “shopping cart” of Internet buying. Interesting concept, don’t you think?

photo credit: danperry.com