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Communicate Your Goals

Every customer service department should have a goal of some sort.

The goal doesn’t have to be big or complicated, but it should be a statement that you can rally your support organization around and that can help  answer the “should we do X?” question. With a great goal, you can respond “well, doing X isn’t really consistent with our goal of -whatever-.” With a great goal, you can have relatively liberal policies and ask people to follow them with the goal in mind.

Some example goals are:

  • Ensuring that the customer leaves happier than when he or she walked in, dialed, etc.
  • Protecting and enhancing our company’s reputation.
  • Conducting service in a way that would cause the customer to refer us to their friends.
  • Ensuring that customers feel “Wow-ed” by the service experience.

These are all simple. If your goal is to ensure that customers leave happier than when they walk in the door, then you can tailor your service experience accordingly. Is a customer complaining? Keeping with your goal would obviously require that you make them happy again and delight them with your recovery (it is possible). 

A goal is a nice thing to rally around. Some organizations get into their goals, missions, etc. a lot more than others. If it is just something that hangs on the wall somewhere and has no real significance beyond just being there, then it is not going to do nearly as much good as making an effort to genuinely follow and achieve the goal on a consistent basis. 

Does your customer service organization (or company as a whole) have an overreaching, customer-centric goal?

Communicate information with charts.

A lot of companies underestimate the usefulness of visual displays in communication. Charts, graphs, and the like can all work wonders when it comes to explaining the intricacies of different processes or programs.

Beyond the literal chart, visual communication as a broader way to put a message across is almost always helpful. Charts and tables that are well designed and well thought out can really clear up a lot of confusion. The companies I have seen use charts the best are the ones that compare different options (i. e. plans and packages) and communicate dates and actions that need to be taken.

Customers tend to like charts and other visual displays because they are (hopefully) easier to understand than the same information presented in a large paragraph or in a letter or on a web page. Communication is a large part of the customer service experience. If your customers don’t understand what you are trying to tell them, they won’t find the service you do provide to be much help.

It is worth spending some time and effort and thinking about how to communicate information in the simplest way possible. In the long run, it will save your customer service department and your customers a lot of time and effort that could have been easily avoided.

Communicate expected hold time.

Communicating expected hold time is something that almost all great customer service representatives do and also something that almost no mediocre or below customer service representatives do. Communicating expected hold time is really polarized in that regard, but it is not something that should be ignored.

The rule of thumb is dead simple: let people know how long you expect them to be on hold. If you only need to look into the customer’s account information, ask if they’d mind holding one or two minutes. If you have to get up and find your supervisor and ask a question, ask if the customers minds holding five to six minutes. Be realistic and be consistent. Always let the customer know how long they’ll be holding.

Some (generally lazy) representatives complain about this and say they can’t be sure how long the customer will hold. This is a good point, but I think most customers would rather have a ballpark idea about how long something will take than no idea at all. They don’t expect you as a representative to give them a scientifically accurate timeline, but they do expect for your estimate to be in the ballpark. As always, if something changes, you should let the customer know and if necessary, change your estimate and communicate that to the customer.

The customer service experience is about the customer. They should know how long it is going to take and what is going on. Never hesitate to tell the customer either of those things. They’ll certainly appreciate it and in the long run, it’ll make the customer service experience much less frustrating for both the customer and the representative.

Budget cuts for the IRS result in unreliable customer service

Tax season is finally over, and those economic gray hairs have been remanded back to the colorists at our hair salons, but budget cuts continue to show a significant decline in the Internal Revenue Service to the American public. When Ben Franklin said, “The only certain things in life are death and taxes,” perhaps we are all entitled to a better level of public service; at least while we’re alive.

The Government Accountability Office reports $900 million in costs have been cut from the IRS since 2010. Those budget adjustments have resulted in less personnel, less training, and as a consequence of course, less service. While many taxpayers are silently grinning about the decrease in audits, the overall lack of customer service ultimately results in longer lines at assisted help centers, longer wait lines on telephone inquiries regarding policies and the ever thickening IRS new rules and regulations, and a complete breakdown of interoffice departments in the IRS obviously unable to communicate with each other. Tragically the consequences result in taxpayers having to hire outside help to do their taxes, or often wind up with mistakes, penalties, fines, or liens.

According to the IRS Taxpayer Advocate, an organization taking the side of the taxpayer, the IRS continues to fail us because of tight budgets. Few pay raises have resulted in good employees finding higher paying positions in the private sector as well as more angry taxpayers who can’t get an answer because the employees haven’t been properly trained.

In the “intolerable level of public service,” there were 15.4 million calls unanswered by the IRS. The average wait time to speak with an agent is 14 minutes, and statistically only 67% of callers ever received telephone assistance. What happened to the other 33% of the population who couldn’t get their questions answered? Are they still on hold?

The problem of what can be done to improve customer service at the IRS doesn’t seem to ever be open for discussion. Even the Affordable Care Act, didn’t get any funding from Congress. Realistically, the IRS is a business dedicated to running the government and the government may need to invest more into it to ensure that the money keeps coming in.

Increasing customer service popularity with Facebook

FB-f-Logo__blue_144Facebook gives organizations the opportunity to “WOW” customers with their human and approachable touch so important to building business, loyalty, and the development of a company’s brand. With over one billion active users, why not use Mark Zuckerberg’s brilliant social platform to help to build an audience, engage them in interesting conversation about one’s product or service, and then have the opportunity to convert visitors into more customers?

Facebook isn’t just about tracking down your old boyfriend, sending birthday wishes to your friends instead of the snail mail obligatory birthday cards, or posting photographs from your high school graduation cheerleader captain days; now it’s also about interest groups and ones that are organized by workplaces intended to target visitors to specific sites. In addition, business pages encourage friends and their friends to “like” us, and thus engages another opportunity to share feedback and to help people. After all, we do tend to share our best referrals with our friends and relatives.

The best business pages make answers easy to find. In the very complex world of algorithms, Facebook business pages crawl to the top of the popularity lists through comments, shares, and “likes.” Leading the parade are comments and shares, and of course it is better when customers praise a company with positive comments. Mind you now, this is a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the positive comments with “thank you” responses. On the other hand, it still provides an excellent venue to listen to complaints by responding quickly and being able to help with solutions.

Customer service always comes with the territory on Facebook, as it gives consumers an outlet for airing their issues and allowing  for the most frustrated to have their voices heard. Imagine Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “shot heard around the world” as the American Revolutionary War in 1775 began on the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts as the first shot rang out killing British soldiers? Although not nearly as dramatic as America’s fight for freedom way back when, disgruntled people are always searching for solutions, and the more people who they can engage, the more drama that emerges.

Although Facebook promises to provide opportunities to boost businesses, an important caveat needs to be considered; the staff monitoring the page must know their business and be diligent and prompt with responses. Unhappy customers become even more disgruntled if they are ignored; maybe it’s not intentional because staff members are attending to other business dealings, but it’s doubtful a customer whose product has failed will have much sympathy. There is even a good possibility the customer has already tried to communicate via telephone and was met with “please don’t hang up; your call is very important to us” while waiting 15 minutes on hold listening to the same advertisement about the company over and over again. Therefore if a business decides to use Facebook as another customer service portal, make sure to be diligent with sharing feedback, personally answering customers, and responding quickly with solutions.

Constant monitoring can help customers find answers before comments become negative. Even building a FAQ can drive customers to helpful answers. Setting up keyword alerts for words like “frustrated” or “disappointed” depending on the type of business or service, can notify staff members to address a potentially volatile situation before it gets out of hand. Being warned beforehand can still be one of the best opportunities to turn the negative into opportunities.

Take advantage of social media; it’s here to stay.

Book Review: The Customer Service Survival Kit

9780814431832_p0_v1_s260x420The Customer Service Survival Kit was written by Richard S. Gallagher, a practicing psychotherapist and the author of many customer service books who has trained over 20,000 people on how to handle the most daunting situations with customers while improving their confidence and an organization’s customer relations.

The Customer Service Survival Kit helps us to diffuse even the worst emotional and intentional customer complaints, and step by step helps the customer service representative diffuse the anger and angst of those stressful situations in a calm, reflective manner.  Whereas customer service is and has always been all about communication, Mr. Gallagher’s book provides us with a few of the skills used in hostage negotiations, crisis counseling, and police work in order to handle the worst situations calmly and professionally. These skills of “leaning into criticism” can affect the rest of our lives and the way we communicate with our business, our children, and even our life partners.

Chapter One begins with the “uh-oh” moment; one most of us in any service oriented business has encountered. It’s that extreme situation when one can almost see the smoke emanating out of the customer’s ears because they are so angry, and until we are taught how to handle those serious conflicts, most customer service representatives will operate out of the defensive mode which most likely irritates customers even more. Even though the representative may be smart, nice, and respectful, we are lost when faced with a most egregious situation, and the standard reaction is to act in self defense. So what are the ways to defuse angry customers? Be trained, be prepared, and know how to handle a crisis if and when it presents itself by:

  • Asking open ended questions to assess a person’s needs
  • Listening to the person and then paraphrasing what the customer told you
  • Using appropriate questions to focus on the problem
  • Never saying “no” and responding in what can be done terms
  • Letting people know their feelings and the way they think counts

The books recreates some interesting examples of customer angst in different situations and then asks how any of us might handle the situation. Often we take the defensive position. Let’s try the “leaning into criticism” method by first listening to the customer’s complaint, paraphrasing in our own words his complaint, and instead of saying phrases like, “please calm down,”  or “it could have been worse,” which only tends to poke the bear more, why not use “WOW” language – that preemptive strike  and mirror the customer’s feelings as if how you would have felt if in the same situation? And then as the author points out, it is time to “steal a customer’s good lines.” At this point you have already agreed with them.  Taking a defensive position too soon is ineffective – remember angry customers don’t want to hear your side of the story; they want to be heard and they want you to listen. For instance, if their shipment is delayed and in turn their customers are complaining, what will be accomplished by a sales representative saying “it’s not my fault.” It would be better if that same representative began with, “that’s really terrible, I can see why you’re so angry.”

Chapters 3 through 6 give us practical ideas and examples to ponder and some of those trigger phrases which the author states gives a customer a “distorted sense of who is serving whom.”  Try to avoid the negative; rather turn your choice of phrases to the positive which encourages customers to nod their heads instead of the vigorous “no” shake. Strive for the phrase, “here is what we can do.”

Chapters 7 through 10 teach us how to understand the angry customer and how we can diffuse that person in the “red zone.” We get to put our learning into practice and the importance of good closings. As Mr. Gallagher states, in the perfect world we would all get handshakes and hugs from our now happy customers, but that always doesn’t happen, however future business is often predicated on the way the transaction ended. When we are able to normalize a situation, do a recap of what has happened, and express sincere thank yous, apologies, and solutions, it means everyone walks away from a bad situation calmly, and hopefully it has brought an amenable solution to the problem.

Part III of the book helps us to understand more about calmly handling extreme reactions using the new vocabulary and the new perspectives of the previous chapters about “leaning into criticism.” And in the world of social media which includes Facebook, Twitter, and blogs devoted to our organization, here is what we can do when a negative comment shows up on Facebook complaining about a product or delivery delay. A firestorm of negative comments can take a life of their own on social media, and phrases such as “we are investigating your complaint,” only make people shake their head while a comment such as ” that sounds really frustrating, and we want to make this right for you,” posted immediately already connects you personally – thus giving an organization that personal touch all of us want when spending our hard earned money. Of course, then it is necessary to reach out to that person. An organization that has continually demonstrated excellent customer service will often find past customers defending them. No organization will ever be exempt from all negative comments, but there is no need to take offense at everything. Companies that are proactive and show concern for their customers continue to be successful.

The book uses practical scenarios and dialogue throughout to help customer service representatives learn specific problem solving techniques during critical times. Mr. Gallagher continues to reinforce that sometimes irresistible urge not to defend ourselves initially when a severe situation presents itself. The phrase all of us practiced from the time we learned to speak, “it’s not my fault” doesn’t do much to solve customer conflicts.

Bottomline: The book is an excellent resource for diffusing the worst case customer service problems, and once we learn the art of peaceful and practical negotiation, all of our personal and professional dealings can benefit. I found Chapter 17 on Anger Management’s techniques of validation and identification as discussed in Chapter 3 and methods to respond to angry outbursts extremely helpful.

Pros: This is a well-written and logically planned book. It is quite different from other customer service books because it deals with some extreme cases. While it is true that most customer service complaints are practical and relatively easy to handle because of guarantees, company policies, and a knowledgeable staff, having the insight into the psychology of hostage negotiation and crisis counseling equips all of us with that extra knowledge to please our customers even more and in the most dire situations.

Buy: The Customer Service Survival Kit is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Can personal customer service survive in a digital world?

social-media-iconsThe fast paced world of Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp combined with the technological advances of smart phones, interactive websites, and emails enable millions of users to make better informed decisions than ever before possible. There’s hardly a moment when someone isn’t consulting Google to learn more about a product, a person, or a service. While the digital realm can indeed help all of us to buy smarter, perform better, and be better educated, can it ever replace a human at the hub of customer service?

If all goes well during a purchase or service, chances are the tweets, emails, and text message applications so readily available have helped to engage our customers with loyalty programs, discounts, rewards, and product information. We know that customers have the power to choose from a myriad of options, and most of us revel in the latest technological trends to communicate, but what happens when a service or a product goes awry? Does that email we send off to the organization just supply us with a standard response and advise us that a representative will contact us in 24 hours? After all, a 24 hour turn-around period to answer an email is considered standard. In the “old days” we could call customer service on the phone, and even though we waited quite awhile until someone finally answered,  (You are call number 19, but please don’t hang up. Your call is very important to us.) wasn’t it possible our problem was solved within a shorter period of time when an actual person answered the phone?

Where automated email queue is certainly more financially efficient than a room full of customer service agents, the loss of the “personal touch” can have devastating effects when our customers no longer feel connected or appreciated. From the moment a customer walks through the door, the way he is treated beyond what is expected still makes the difference. It goes beyond the sale of the product or after the service is performed; quality customer service is the time when that customer has a problem, and it’s the time when they are completely satisfied that you have resolved their situation by connecting them with someone who can:

  • Use good communication skills
  • Understand the product or service and has a thorough working knowledge of the components
  • Listen to the problem
  • Is empowered to solve the problem without having to call back at another time or seek a supervisor for a decision
  • Treat the customer with respect

Customer service is an ongoing project of education, training, and hiring the best people for the job. Whereas social media can have  profound advantages promoting our organizations, customers want to like you, to talk to you, and to know there is always a physical presence available when needed. Satisfied customers are by far the best salespeople for any organization, so prepare customer service agents with the tools they need to succeed. Their success is your success.

Guest services and planning needed to create a ‘Wow’ experience in buffet style holiday feast

Buffets traditionally save on labor costs and provide an excellent venue to showcase a restaurant’s best food and service. In a resort area such as South Florida, the ‘”WOW” experience includes customer service, atmosphere, cuisine, and of course – location. So how does all of this compare with the Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa located in Jupiter, Florida on a beautiful Thanksgiving afternoon? The resort is located directly on the Atlantic Ocean beach and offers 12,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor dining facilities, yet no one even glimpsed a view of the sandy beaches nor could anyone boast a “WOW” experience for a poorly planned Thanksgiving feast.

Let’s travel back to the beginning of the experience when there were confirmed reservations made for a specific time. First impressions are important, and the initial customer service coordinator’s poor judgment and lack of planning immediately diminished any well-meaning intentions. When guests are forced to wait for over an hour before they are seated, and made to stand around with no apologies and no direction as to the reasons for the delay, it would seem a new marketing plan would be imminent. When guests with confirmed reservations are made to wait as “walk-in” customers are seated before them, when no servers ever appear in the make-shift lobby crowded with guests waiting to be seated even taking beverage orders, and when hostesses do not communicate with waiting guests, it’s dubious anyone will be wanting to come back for another holiday celebration.

The best advantage of a buffet is the flexible format and of course, it is easier to accommodate more people than offering sit-down menus with table service. Frequently the rule of thumb is one server for 18 guests during a sit-down function as compared to one server for 24 guests at a buffet, however when servers are cleaning up tables, delivering drink orders, and other buffet associated duties to 40 or more guests, service suffers. Diners miss out on the experience of the best a resort can offer, and dining in two conference rooms without even a window certainly suffers the anticipated ambiance of a family dinner overlooking the grand vistas of a beautiful seashore facility.

So what could have been done to ensure a positive experience for guests? The excuse that management could not plan for the length of time a guest stayed at the buffet and therefore backed up multitudes of awaiting guests was not sufficient. Since the 16th century when buffets originated in France, experienced catering and convention managers have been able to estimate the time guests spend eating. Buffet managers should have planned for more staff or at the very least – limited the amount of reservations and of course denied “walk-ins.” A more experienced hostess staff should have been keeping waiting guests constantly informed of the situation, and an apology with an incentive should have been offered to guests for a future visit. And of course, there should have been the same choices of food for the guests at the end of the day as were available for the guests at the beginning of the buffet.

And even though it is a beautiful spot for a peaceful afternoon, the chances of my family ever returning are slim. When we tell ten of our friends and they tell ten others, what might have been a great place to plan a wedding, a party, or a family reunion becomes a place just “off the list.”

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