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Increase customer loyalty by improving your brand

Hyundai VelosterThere are a lot of successful businesses that are not the largest or the least expensive in what they sell. I think of Zappos and their success, and I think of Dunkin’ Donuts whose popularity has surpassed Starbucks in many markets. So what makes customer loyalty? Most likely its performance, reliability, offering something different which is worthwhile to the customer, and providing service far above what is commonly expected.

Last Friday I had dinner with some friends from Boston. The son and his father are very successful businessmen; so successful they arrived at La Trattori Restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens in a bright red new Ferrari. I can’t deny I wasn’t impressed with the beautiful car, and as dinner progressed the conversation about brand loyalty moved ahead. And how did that just happen to come along?

Naturally the conversation drifted towards cars. We reminisced about our first cars when we were teenagers; seems that most of us had American budget cars with an occasional Toyota; possibly of today’s equivalent to the Toyota Yaris, but nevertheless none of us ever felt much loyalty to any of these manufacturers as we grew older and had more substantial incomes. As we grew up however, certain cars became more attractive. It wasn’t just the Toyota; it became the Lexus I wanted to drive. It wasn’t the Honda; it turned into the Acura, and the Nissan became the Infiniti. Obviously the improvement of the car manufacturers brand made a big difference in our automobile purchasing preferences.

Yet to me, a moment of  automotive epiphany happened when my salad fork fell to my lap the moment Mitch told me the Ferrari was his son’s car, and he drove a Hyundai. I remember Hyundai cars as those ugly Korean made cheap cars sent over 25 years ago that I wouldn’t even pay attention to the dealership where they were sold. I would have worked a second job to make the payments on a “nice” car before ever driving a Hyundai, and now – a new brand and “New Thinking. New Possibilities” almost takes center stage.

Hyundai pushed onward and outward where other car manufacturers wouldn’t or couldn’t dare to go as the economy sank to the basement. With their introduction of better looking cars such as the Santa Fe, Tuscon and Genesis, people started paying attention to the styles now comparable to their competitors, but still offering better prices. Then came the customer service;  a ten-year warranty or 100,000 miles. There was more. Hyundai developed a national campaign for buyers who lost their jobs; the customer could return their car with no penalties. In 2009, Hyundai surprised the industry with their Assurance Gas Lock program promising to subsidize rising gas prices for their customers.

Hyundai basically reinvented themselves and made their product better. According to the July issue of Motor Trend Magazine, an extraordinary “six percent of American Express ‘Black Card ‘ Centurion Card holders have a Hyundai in their garage.” ($1.3 million average annual income) If you’re wondering what’s popular in the Hyundai choice, it’s the Equus, the luxury sedan with prices starting at $58,900. The company prides itself on its outstanding service and its customer attentiveness.

Let’s face it – they’ve come a long way since that ugly little box I remember in 1986.

photo credit: Autoviva.com

Personalize customer service and make it happen

BaggedPersonalizing customer service consists of targeting an audience and acting on specific objectives to increase business, build brand loyalty, and attract new clients or customers. For instance, a phone conversation between an unhappy customer and a customer service agent is best handled  when a customer feels confident that the first person they speak with will be the last person they will have to speak with until there is a resolution. An online customer will have their information previously stored by the company so service can be provided quicker and more efficiently, and a face-to-face encounter with a customer service agent will present with a patient, well-educated representative who is capable of making an amicable decision at the time of the meeting.

Personalized customer service provides their clients with specific products that appeal to them, offers discounts to good customers, or offers to deliver when others will not; thus standing apart from their competition. Everyone’s favorite local deli emails my office their daily lunch specials, and delivers within an amazingly short period of time. Other area delis are no longer in business.

Well chosen and thoughtful promotional items can also have an impact on personalizing customer service. All of us like to get something for nothing, and if the gift has value, not only does it provide another way to advertise, it also helps to build customer loyalty. If two stores have equal merchandise and similar prices, the store giving away a gift with a purchase is more likely to attract our attention. Most of us however have all the drink coolers, mouse pads, and coffee cups we can handle, so a little ingenuity and creativity can turn those mundane products into more customized ideas and attract new interest. Yesterday I was purchasing some beachwear, and in Palm Beach County that’s a most popular commodity. I happened to notice a store giving away canvas beach bags – the kind many of us now use in supermarkets to eliminate landfill plastic grocery bags. The store has their logo on the front of the canvas bag, so every time I go to the supermarket, not only is the bag useful to me for carting away my groceries and environmentally friendly, it is also one fantastic way for the beachwear store to advertise for free.

And along with everything else, don’t forget to personalize service with thank you notes to your customers, reward programs, and exceptional service. I promise – we all remember and appreciate that personalized customer service.

photo credit: Ktoine

When a customer service representative is limited to talk time

Bank of AmericaMy client Jennifer called Bank of America to discuss a mortgage modification on her existing loan. Many of her friends and customers who I work with have had positive results modifying their loans; the process although at times frustrating and record intensive has helped many families remain in their homes with a more affordable monthly payment. The banks aren’t really losing anything because they do make it up at the end, they don’t have to spend the time and money on a foreclosure and sheriff’s sale, and they don’t have to clean or care for another distressed piece of real estate.

Jennifer had not spent more than ten minutes on the phone with the bank customer service representative when the agent told Jennifer she would have to ask the remainder of her questions at another time. So is each customer service agent in this very confusing section of mortgage modifications only allotted ten minutes to answer customer questions? Are bank agents pressured to end calls as quickly as possible to handle the astronomical amount of phone calls and inquiries that come in daily about mortgage problems?

I did call Bank America, but could not get through to the particular agent who told Jennifer to call back at another time with the rest of her questions. An analysis of the situation, however makes me think the agent, by rushing a customer off the phone would be missing  information and therefore inhibiting the business process to proceed with any kind of efficiency. Then there’s the angry factor associated with a customer being dismissed. If the customer has to now call back to find the rest of her answers, isn’t the bank just wasting more time? After all Jennifer will have to spend the time going over her background again when she calls back tomorrow.

Limiting talk time is not going to improve customer engagement. More than likely the customer service agent who listened to Jennifer only had limited knowledge of the entire process, and was not prepared to answer the more complex details of the transaction, but customer service representatives can’t appear to be treating customers as if they were burdensome liabilities. In what is the most expensive and important purchase of most people’s lives, banks still need to create a rapport and help to solve problems with positive outcomes by following some basic protocol, and not be forced to be bound by time limits. Not only does customer service suffer, but the stress and pressure on an agent has an effect on job performance.

So what should an organization do? Companies need to begin with identifying the problem and what causes the increase in talk time. Is it because the agent isn’t knowledgeable about her program? Do customers have to be on hold while a supervisor is found? As with so many other customer service problems, education and training of employees is paramount to running any successful operation. Once employees are confident with their job knowledge, handling times decrease which in turn reduces call backs – thus making for a more efficient and less stressful work arena.

Companies hire customer service representatives to connect with customers and solve their problems. In the complex and frustrating world of home mortgages, there are admittedly no simple solutions, but the protocol for helping people wind their way through the maze of government and banking regulations are all standard. The trouble is the complexity of the paperwork, and there is where banking customer service agents need to focus.

Banking is a business, and just like any other business, employees need to be comfortable in their knowledge and their training. Implement better training programs, have supervisors listen in on calls and direct agents, have agents critique their own work, and reward employees for exceptional service.

When customer service agents listen and focus on their customers again, handling times will decrease and more people can still realize the American dream and stay in their homes.

photo credit: Tumbleweed:-)

Bringing more customer service strategies to traditional shopping stores

PICT0103My son was raised using the Internet and whenever we talk about buying a new product, he’s already on the corresponding website and has a wealth of information before I even find my car keys. In 2010, Forrester Research stated that retail online sales had grown 11 percent and expected increases of 10 percent a year through 2014. By 2014, consumer purchases using e-retail is expected to exceed $249 billion.

Blame it all on a stressed economy and an increase in Internet shopping, many commercial strip malls are begging for retail clients and are taking a financial beating. What we need, therefore is to return to basics and plan innovative methods to win back some of the sales from the Internet. Primarily the best defenses against customers sitting in front of their computers and buying products is to compete in price, selection, and customer service. While I agree a brick and mortar store can not always compete in the wide selection of products available on the Internet, shoppers still trust local brands and knowing the people who own the businesses.

Even though shoppers like to take advantage of the latest technology, nothing replaces human contact and those sensory experiences of actually going shopping. Customers like to touch, feel, and taste; it’s all part of the retail experience. Brick and mortar stores need to only take advantage of the human need and integrate expert, seamless customer service experiences to build loyalty. Offer those tactile experiences that can’t be matched on the Internet, and develop relationships with customers by follow-up and offering good prices, good value and outstanding service.

Educate your sales force and enable all employees to be so efficient and comfortable with their knowledge of the product or service they are selling to help educate buyers. After all 70 percent of United States consumers research online before they ever go to a store. Consumers know prices, know products, and know good service. Deliver good service in person, and show that customer how much better it is to deal with you in person, and build your client and customer list with referrals and beaming testimonials.

Never forget that the Internet is also your friend. Develop a website; that’s where the shopping begins. Use media to your advantage such as online discounts, photos of the latest merchandise, newsletters offering knowledge and interesting community events, or even send text messages announcing new merchandise. Just this morning I received a picture and text message from my favorite shoe store with the latest designer shoes the store knows I love. That’s the reason I stay loyal to a particular shop; they provide the most outstanding customer service anyone could imagine  while keeping it all low-key, professional, and not excessive.

In today’s market, a brick and mortar establishment needs to do it all!

photo credit: sancho_panza

More practical customer service training needed for Comcast

IMG_3082There is no doubt once a customer has surmounted the difficult climb to the higher levels of Comcast customer service that supervisors beat the bushes down to make sure customer expectations are satisfied and even exceeded. The problem is one has to cross the Rubicon before extraordinary service becomes a reality.

There is no doubt that Comcast is improving. Everyday more than 50,000 employees are out there trying to please 24 million customers. Are customers too fussy or too “high maintenance?” In reality, that is extremely hard to evaluate since state-of-the art video, high-speed Internet and phone service are touted everywhere as being just about perfect when one uses Comcast. Therefore as consumers we demand perfection, or at least a reasonable facsimile of exceptional customer service.

My experience as a first time Comcast customer didn’t fare well – that is until I worked my way up to the corporate offices. Admittedly, once I reached representatives with titles, my problems were immediately solved. It’s not a matter of customer service people not wanting to help, and it’s not that representatives are rude; everyone I spoke to tried to please. The problem therein lies in customer service employees knowledge and training.

What I noticed was the lack of competency for unique issues. None of the first line customer service agents were able to resolve the problem. When they tried to contact a supervisor or manager when I asked, it meant placing me on hold, the agent using another line to call to support, no one answering or responding in the support department, and then having to wait on hold for an extended period of time and nothing was ever resolved.

Comcast does try to validate their policies and procedures with the “Comcast Guarantee,” which includes a 30-day guarantee for a refund if not happy with the company, a $20 credit for a service person not being on time, routine issues resolved in one issue or a $20 credit, treat your home with respect, be available 24/7, and the promise that Comcast is easy to use and readily accessible.

In addition, why not enhance the Comcast experience by better serving the needs of Comcast employees who need better training when on the floor so they will be more confident when handling customers? Why not hire more supervisors and make it a priority that unique problems get priority handling and not be switched over to another department? Owning a customer’s problem and taking that problem to a resolution is what differentiates the acceptable service from the extraordinary.  That is exactly what happened when my problem finally landed at the corporate level. It’s what customers brag about, and it’s the reason they carry their loyalty across the Rubicon.

photo credit: jsmjr

Using Twitter to get a company’s attention

ディスプレイ前にジンベイ親分が睨みきかせてる。ハンコック様がよかったなBillie Joe Armstrong used Twitter to make a lot of noise over the Internet about his latest experience on Southwest Airlines when he was recently kicked off because his pants were too low.

@BJA official (Twitter)

Billie Joe Armstrong

Just got kicked off a southwest flight because my pants sagged too low! What the (expletive)! No joke!

Supposedly the story centered around a flight attendant who told Billie Jo to lift up his pants. The flight was preparing to leave when the popular entertainer asked the flight attendant if she had better things to do than to worry about his low slung trousers. The attendant asked him again, and then kicked Billie Joe and his traveling companion off of that flight.

After Armstrong tweeted about his experience, a Southwest Airlines customer service representative contacted him and arranged to get the couple on the next flight out, and in their public statement said:

“We reached out to apologize for this Customer’s experience.”

Armstrong is famous, and the combination of  high-profile plus Twitter and arbitrary reasons to kick people off of planes, surely becomes a public relations nightmare. Many might remember another Southwest Airlines debacle when”portly” celebrity screenwriter and actor Kevin Smith was kicked off a Southwest flight from Oakland to Burbank because he was too fat.

@That Kevin Smith’s (Twitter)

Dear @Southwest Air-I know I’m fat, but was Captain Leysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?”

And of course Southwest had to think fast and reply since Smith has 1.6 million Twitter followers, and Southwest didn’t want this embarrassing  failure pointed out so publicly on social forums.  But even if you’re not famous, you can still share your problems and more than likely get better results than trying to call on the phone or any other methods of communication.

Here are some suggestions:

Share your problem and tag the company’s Twitter account publicly which means you should include the Twitter handle within your message so all of your followers can see it. We’re finding out that most companies are very serious about Twitter now and have special services employed to track and respond to customers tweeting about their particular organization. Someone tweeting about an embarrassing policy or situation can quickly become an Internet firestorm – not a positive public message any company wants out there.

Google the company’s Twitter account. You can search “company name + Twitter.” And remember, you may have to be consistent. Whereas celebrities with huge followings like Billie Joe and Kevin Smith command a quicker response just because tweets get ugly when there are millions commenting out of anger, rage, and sarcasm – results do happen quickly using the fastest forms of communication known.

Tweets don’t necessarily always have to be nasty or negative. If a customer experience was especially pleasing, or an organization stepped out of the box to be of extraordinary help, why not Twitter and give a company credit when credit is due?

photo credit: gabuken

Tipping: Reward or Punishment?

Do you really need to be doing this?I was recently attracted to an article about Australia and how it is the normal bill of fare to pay for your meal before it is served. Since I have never been there, does that mean a diner leaves a tip after all is said and done, or do restaurants in Australia just pay the service staff higher wages thus eliminating the need for tipping?

Australians argue that we are the “tipping society.” Supposedly Australian service and hospitality industries pay sufficient wages so that tipping has not become part of their culture.

Using the Australia no tipping example as food for thought, the other night when I was out to dinner, the service wasn’t considered terrible by any means, but the server consistently forgot everything, or so it seemed. For instance, she forgot the bread, refilled the water-glass which was really iced-tea, and served the wrong vegetables to my dinner companion. She seemed preoccupied, but still managed to be attentive enough; more so as the end of the meal approached. That’s most likely because she was anticipating a tip; something no matter how poor service is – with the exception of very few times in my life – would I ever not leave a tip.

Some people consider tipping a reward for good service and not tipping a server is therefore a punishment for bad service. I think tipping is just a part of the American culture, and we are taught from our childhood to tip and tip and tip. We tip at restaurants, we tip parking attendants, we tip hairdressers, we tip bellhops, and the list goes on and on, but are we really tipping for good service? I know I still tip the car attendant the same amount if it takes three minutes or ten minutes to retrieve my car. I still tip my hairdresser the same whether I like the way she blew out my hair or if I’m dashing home after the appointment to redo it myself.

So what are the norms in other countries? In Japan the general rule is no tipping, however there are exceptions. When a business is owned and operated by a western business person, the staff is generally perceived as being underpaid and tipping is their source of income. Standard tipping practices on the average of 10 percent hold out for Argentina, Brazil and Canada.

In the United States, most restaurants will argue that the low wages paid to the serve staff is what keeps the prices of dining at their establishments reasonable. Restaurants will also argue that good servers are worthy of good tips, but this doesn’t preclude the often mandatory service charge included in some bills. At the golf club, a new tariff has been added which designates an extra quarterly charge allegedly to be given to the employees instead of voluntarily tipping at the restaurant or bar.

Somewhere tipping seems to have become mandatory, but are servers still motivated to give that “wow” service when the tip is already included in their Friday paycheck? It’s a mystery!

photo credit: quinn.anya