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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

Who are you? The importance of cross-searching. Part 2 of 2

The point of the story, though, is that for some reason, the system at the company I called was not good enough to find out that I had called 10 minutes before, had explained my problem, and had been given a case number.

This is an example of the software not working for the company. The point of the software is that it should work for your benefit to make things easier for how you want to do them (not the software). You should purchase software that works for you and your customers. IT is a big part of customer service – the technical systems that allow representatives to deliver service are extremely important and can make a difference between effective and ineffective customer service. Use your IT resources to develop or purchase systems that will work for you.

Another thing you can do to make “cross-searching” more feasible is to make it a regular part of your system and operations. Instead of using ticket numbers, case IDs, etc., base your data on your customer. Ask them for their name, then their email address or telephone number. Then, when the customer calls, the representative can look at the account and say “I see you called us recently. Is this related to the issue you were having with your monitor?” instead of saying “Is this related to Ticket #92391-FJ-1382-UI7?” Using the customer’s name and email address, telephone number, etc. makes the experience far more personal (and easier for the customer) than ticket or case numbers. Customers have an easier time remembering their name and email address than a ticket I.

Train your employees to cross-search and base searches around the customer, instead of just ticket numbers or case IDs. They will get used it and may even prefer it over the previous system.

Plus, basing searches on the customer allows the representative to quickly look at the customer’s profile as a whole. The representative can easily see how many times the customer has contacted the company before, how big of a customer they are, any notes on the customer (upcoming events/occasions, etc.), etc. This allow the representative to better personalize the customer service experience for the customer, know how big of credits to give if necessary, whether the issue should be escalated right away, etc.

Now, should I start giving out reader IDs to everyone who reads Service Untitled?

By the way, I am looking to do a survey of my readers. If anyone works for or knows of a good (and free) service or company that makes a script that I could use to do the survey, please let me know by posting in the comments or emailing me (email address is on the about page). If you work for a company that does surveys, feel free to contact me and perhaps we could work something out. If the service or script is good, I am sure I will be using it in the future on Service Untitled as well as other projects.

Tour of Zappos HQ

Zappos is a company we’ve talked about a lot on Service Untitled (including an interview with the founder and CEO Tony Hsieh), so earlier this week when I was in Las Vegas for the first time, I made sure I got a tour of the Zappos.com Headquarters in nearby Henderson, Nevada.

The tour was really interesting. Unsurprisingly, the Zappos offices don’t resemble a typical office or call center. And the employees working in the Zappos office also don’t resemble the people you see in an average call center. The main difference? They seem very happy to be working at Zappos. I think you’d have a difficult time finding a call center with as many happy people as I saw walking around the Zappos headquarters. The place looks like a fun place to work and as followers of Zappos (and readers of Service Untitled) know, they clearly do things very differently than a lot of companies.

Some interesting tidbits from the tour:

  • All employees go through Customer Loyalty Training and are taught how to use the company’s various systems. That way, when the holidays come around, every employee can pitch in during their down time or if they want, work some overtime, and help out. Cross training helps make it so Zappos doesn’t have to hire as many temporary service employees.
  • Employees move cubicle locations every six months.
  • Customer service employees are divided into teams by mediums (phone, live chat, and email) and then each team is further divided into groups of about 15 or so with a team lead. Team leads sit at the end of each row on a larger desk. Live chat has been the company’s fastest growing medium.
  • There are no offices at the company and everyone, including the CEO, sit at a cubicle. I also didn’t see any executive conference rooms.
  • Zappos gives tours to approximately 100 people per day, sometimes way more.
  • Most employees are paid hourly, but all have access to the cafeteria that has free light meals and snacks and hot meals available for $3.00. The vending machine is $0.25 and proceeds are donated to charity. There are also unlimited free drinks available.

I’ve included a bunch of pictures after the jump. I’ve also included comments and further information with each picture. Click “read more” to see the gallery with photos and comments. To see a larger version of a photo with comments, just click on the photo. To see the full size version, click on it again.

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What to do on a slow day.

Every now and then your company will experience something that every rapidly growing company hopes and prays for: a slow day. A day when the phones aren’t ringing off the hook, the servers aren’t crashing, and things are relatively calm and relaxing.

Even though these days are rare, when they do occur, should be cherished. And with that in mind, there are certainly productive things that can be done during a slow day.

Coach employees.
As long as things aren’t completely dead, coaching employees before, during, and after their phone calls or emails is a perfect way to pass the time. Supervisors can listen in on calls and provide constructive feedback to the employee immediately afterwards. Even if isn’t time for the employee’s formal quarterly review, informal coaching can be helpful and valuable.

Improve documentation. You know all those FAQs, tutorials, explanations, and things of that nature? Chances are, at least a few of them need updating. Use your down time to go through the documentation you provide (both internal and external) and make sure it is up to date.

Get ahead. This varies by company, but most companies have some sort of tasks that can be done to help get the support department ahead in some way. Slow days are a great time to get started on audits, monthly invoices, etc.

Try other tasks. Some companies will use their slow days to have phone people do email support or have programmers work with customer service representatives on day-to-day support (or vice versa). Slow days are a great time to expose people to things they may not have an opportunity to do everyday. (See some of my other posts on cross training.)

What do you do on slow days?

Generalists or Specialists?

Tom at QAQNA had a good post about whether it is better for customer service representatives to be generalists or specialists. Tom also linked to an interesting post by Ginger Conlon.

I am a specialist. I believe in cross training (a lot), but I am not against having agents who specialize in one thing or another. A company with two employees working can be at a place where they can efficiently use a specialist system. And it can be a pleasant experience for the customer.

The problem that Tom points out is that as companies become more specialized, more transfers are needed. I agree with him – as both a consumer and as a customer service consultant. Most companies are terrible when it comes to efficiently and effectively transferring a customer to another department (they obviously haven’t read about the T-R-A-N-S-F-E-R method). They don’t know who to transfer the call to and when they figure out who, it is the wrong person anyways and/or they don’t transfer the call properly. However, some companies are quite competent when it comes to transferring, so this problem doesn’t apply as much.

Tom is right when he says that good sales people are good at their jobs for a reason. Good customer service people are good at their jobs for a reason. It is like comparing engineers to marketing people. They have different training, do different things, and even think differently. You can’t have a marketer fix the code and you can’t really have an engineer do a marketing campaign or write ads.

My solution is a mix of generalists and specialists. Overall, each representative should be a specialist. The techy people should do the technical support. The sales people should do the sales calls. However, everyone should be able to answer basic questions about the others’ specialities.

For example, if I asked a sales representative how to login to my account, he or she shouldn’t say “Let me transfer you to technical support.” That doesn’t accomplish much. For a question like that, the sales representative should be able to answer it.

The same thing goes when it is the other way around. Technical support people should know roughly how much the Super Duper Deluxe Package or what it offers in comparison to the Super Deluxe Package.

The best solution that I have found (and one that I preach to everyone who will listen) is using receptionists. Not receptionists in a “how may I direct your call?” sense, but receptionists are actually useful. They can do things like:

  • Answer level 1 questions (how do I login, could you reset my password, could you tell me how much I owe for this month, what does X mean, etc.?)
  • Direct calls to the correct person or department
  • Create new tickets and gather personal information (that way, the customer only has to describe the problem once (to the receptionist who writes it down) and then is given a ticket ID by the receptionist)
  • Direct customers to an FAQ or other self-help resource when appropriate
  • etc.

These receptionists can help a lot and when trained right, work wonders. They seem to add the “missing link” between specialists and generalists.

What happened to customer service at Sears?

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The entire history of Sears is way beyond the scope of today’s blog post, but a short summary of Sears has its roots dating back to 1886 when the founder, Robert Sears began selling watches in Chicago.  Thirty years later arose the brands of Kenmore and Craftsman, and during the organization’s  billion dollar growth came Allstate, Caldwell Banker, and Dean Witter. Such was the tradition of Sears as it was well known as the General Store and a provider of everything one needed. When Sears introduced their catalog business, retail sales was revolutionized. Color photos of merchandise delighted shoppers browsing the hundreds of pages of shoes, women’s lingerie, washing machines, tools, and even children’s matching outfits; Sears was the ultimate shopping experience for every member of the family while they sat comfortably at home.

So what has happened? According to online surveys, over 80 percent of customers now give Sears poor customer service grades citing reasons of inept management, unreliable products, poor customer service, and a profound lack of employee training. Of course, Home Depot, Best Buy, Walmart, and the Internet giant Amazon have all cut into the general store attitude of Sears,  however there will always be shoppers who prefer brick and mortar establishments and enjoy the experience of the places our grandparents and parents loved to shop. Sadly one of the problems is that Kenmore and Craftsman, although still strong in the Sears’ culture, are now outsourced and sadly that leads to repair problems; so much so that Sears is now a bankruptcy target with a loss of $3.1 billion in 2012.

Can Sears be saved? Probably the best suggestion to Sears would be to bring back the culture of the last century. Customer service begins with employees who want to be working and doing their best. My last experience in Sears in the upscale Palm Beach Gardens Mall was in search of a new washer and dryer when I moved into my new home. Sadly there was an insufficient staff to help anyone, and the salespeople had limited knowledge of the merchandise. According to Measuredup.com, complaints about repairs all through the country are consistently poor for Sears’ appliances, lawnmowers, and even tractors. The cost of repairs seem even more contentious. Consumers driven by finding the lowest prices will ultimately buy online; stores like Sears therefore have to concentrate on their showrooms and presenting superior products, “wow” customer service, and follow-up service and repairs to build customer loyalty and referrals.

Sears went online in 1997, but their entire culture is essentially broken. It’s been suggested that Sears reinvent themselves to focus on men. After all Craftsman tools have always been a male Christmas present staple; for all those weekend home chores. Experts say get rid of the women’s clothes and jewelry and stock up on Lands End merchandise which appeals to men. Invest in some expert staff training, raise salaries to attract the best sales personnel, concentrate on the company’s culture, and rebuild an organization that once dazzled shoppers across the United States.

Photo courtesy of justj0000lie

The need to improve customer service in our schools

A Florida teenager was absent from school for an extended period of time because of a life-threatening illness. Her mother continuously asked the school for the student’s make-up work, however the replies were sporadic, and by the end of the school year the student was informed she had to make up her junior year credits during her senior year. The Orange County, Fla. student dropped out of the public high school and finished her senior year in another county at a vocational school.

School districts are obligated to deliver good customer service.  Every employee should be trained in customer service;  monitored and evaluated with the ultimate purpose of improving student achievement, school culture, and in the positive development of teaching and learning relationships. So what do we mean by this? Beginning with the Superintendent and the Board, customer relationships with parents and students should be approachable and reliable. Classroom teachers should have comprehensive management plans to increase communications with parents and students. Secretaries, bus drivers, custodians, coaches, and other staff will have been trained in the development of interpersonal relationships and monitored accordingly.

Specifically schools regarded as providing excellent customer service have researched their competition and studied trends in education across the nation. For instance, staff handbooks should now include time limits for all school personnel to respond to voice mails and parent schoolwork requests. As in any organization whose customer service procedures are honed to being efficient, all emails should be responded to within 24 hours during the workweek. Letters should be answered within a five-day period. The school should provide a welcoming environment with signs directing new students, guests, and vendors to the appropriate offices. All visitors should be greeted within minutes of their arrival and directed to the appropriate person for the assistance needed.

Public perception garners an even higher opinion for schools. What do we do well and how can we improve the caliber of our schools need to be highlighted? How does one school compare to the nearest competition and how can we show improvement with the information collected? School districts can survey parents and students for suggestions. The best schools consistently work on their “first impressions.”

From being more flexible in arranging parent-teacher conferences from immediately before or after school in order that more parents can actively participate in their children’s educational and social needs, to arriving at a school and standing at the counter and immediately being recognized and helped are customer service standards that each school district should embrace. It’s the caring leaders of today who are making the difference in the leaders of tomorrow, and why shouldn’t students model themselves after the outstanding examples of respect and leadership?

Social marketing 101; respond to your customers about social issues too

Does your organization have a Facebook page where a customer can either “Like” or become “Friends”? Nowadays businesses are either riding the social media train or stranded at the depot. Clients and customers love the personal touch and having the ability to comment on an issue; the problem arises however, when no one from the company responds back or follows up on a complaint, lack of service, or even a social issue.

Statistically the majority of Facebook posts and Tweets remain unanswered. Of course, if the news media grabs onto something particularly egregious, the firestorm rages on, but in general customers just fade away because no one ever responds. As we live in a technologically advancing world where even seven-year-old children carry  smart phones, social consciousness becomes a major factor when building brand loyalty and increasing the number of new customers referred by existing customers.

Recently the Northface clothing company, a high end organization of outerwear was singled out by one of the humane organizations for purchasing and using duck down for their coats and vests that had been purchased from a company who participated in the especially cruel practice of raising ducks for foie gras. If you’re not familiar with the ongoing contentious issue, geese or ducks are fattened artificially by inserting metal tubes down their throats and fed enormous helpings of maize to fatten up their livers. Foie gras is considered a delicacy and commonly sells in excess of $30.00 an ounce. At first Northface ignored the comments on their Facebook page, but as irrefutable evidence of Allied Feather and Down being one of their suppliers who support the foie gras industry, Northface needed to address the issue. Finally on February 20, the organization posted an update stating they did not condone the practice of force-feeding geese, apologized and regretted not having “greater insight into the origins of down” and were working to find long-term solutions to avoid sourcing down. The company now claims to have organized a Down Task Force establishing a traceability system of new procedures.

In another example of a growing social consciousness, Lancome (L’Oreal) still tests finished products on animals; another especially cruel practice when photos of suffering dogs, cats, rabbits and even mice are posted all over Facebook and other related media outlets. It is interesting to note that by 2013 all animal testing for cosmetics will be banned across the European Union. A few weeks ago I posted on the Lancome Facebook page and asked why they were still using live animals. My first post was deleted, but the second time I received a reply denying that animals were still being used, but also directing me to a press release link explaining that the company was working on alternative skin testing methods.

There’s no doubt that companies need to continue working on their social media listening skills because the Internet is not going away. Customer service representatives need to establish reasonable policies aligned with their brand in a social conscious world where information is no farther away than typing in the word “Google”. We live in an ever emerging mindset of sustainable products and new moralities. While we all strive to make a living and produce the best products at the best prices, the world has changed and more customers demand more answers.

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