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Refunds and Customer Service

er290 I got an email asking about returns and refunds. A search revealed a nice post about returns from late 2006 (published the day after Christmas – I actually had good timing with a post). However, I have never covered refunds in too much detail.

A refunds is different than a return (which often entail an exchange). A refund can also be given for a service or for a defective product. What makes a refund a refund is that there is money be returned – often issued back to a credit card (or a charge being voided) and sometimes the money being given back as cash.

Refunds are more billing related than anything. Depending on the software used by the particular company, giving refunds can often be tricky and rather time consuming. I’ve seen systems that can issue a refund in 15 seconds and ones where it takes 15 minutes (plus a manager approval) to do the same thing.

There is often a lot of paperwork (that the company insists upon) to do a refund. Customers are sometimes forced to fill out forms and all of these annoying things. Don’t make your customers do this – just refund it to their credit card and maybe have them sign one receipt with everything on it.

When someone asks for a refund, you don’t want to go into an annoying retentions situation, but it’s fair to ask why the customer is asking for a refund. You have to word it like “Okay. I can definitely do this refund. May I ask why you’re requesting a refund, though? Is everything okay?” You have to be sure not to sound as if you are trying to hassle the customer.

Another issue with refunds (especially via credit cards) is customers are often unsure of how they will look on their bill. I advise representatives to briefly explain how it will look so there are no surprises (and calls to customer service) in two or three weeks when the bill comes in.

To make the refunds process as simple as possible:

  • Have a computer system that makes it easy (this is probably the most important thing).
  • Ask customers why they are requesting a refund (but don’t make it a big deal).
  • Explain any unique policies or procedures to customers (such as how a charge or refund will appear on their card).

Like with most things related to customer service, if you think the refund process through and keep the customer in mind, it’ll make sense.

Vet’s Office Fun

Purdue News Service photo/David UmbergerLike many Americans, I own a pet. I’m a proud dog owner and do a lot for my dog. She was limping a bit over the past week so I made an appointment to take her to the vet. I called on Saturday and got an appointment for Monday at 11 AM. I was fairly impressed that I could get an appointment with relatively short notice. I got a confirmation call later that day and was all set to take her into the vet this morning.

I took her into the vet and waited in the waiting room. For some reason, whenever I go to this vet, the front is always hectic. Unlike in most doctor’s offices, the people at the front desk of the vet aren’t glued to their desk. Because they aren’t glued, they are often no where to be found. I had to wait for a few minutes before one of them was around to check me in. Right after I was checked in, my dog and I were shown to an examination room.

The examination room was interesting. Firstly, there were no chairs whatsoever. The only chair like piece of furniture was a small bench in the corner. This small bench was not intended for adults, because almost no adult could comfortably sit on it. I could barely sit on it without falling off and I am fairly skinny.

Once the vet came in, he was friendly and helpful. They took my dog out to walk her around. They didn’t really tell me what was going on until I asked, but they were friendly about it.

The vet came back with my dog and spoke to me for a while and then they left again to do blood work. I assumed it would only take a few minutes, but when he brought the dog back and left again, more than 10 minutes passed. He came in and said it would be another 7 minutes. It ended up taking about 20 minutes or so, which is longer than I expected.

The vet was an overall positive experience. They could have done these things, though:

  • Have a more consistent check in procedure.
  • Have a more comfortable place for humans to sit in the examination room.
  • Keep customers in the loop about what’s going on and how long things will take.

I’m still very happy with my vet and I am sure there are vets that are much worse. As long as my dog ends up feeling that, that’s what matters.

The Fundamentals of Company Intranets

I am working with a great company that has an interesting company intranet. Some things about it are really good – others are not so good. It is obvious the company has put a lot of time and effort into designing a useful and effective intranet, but of course, there is room for improvement.

Intranets are really tough to do well. There is a big business around intranets – the creation of them, the software behind them, the maintenance of them, etc. Lots of companies are involved in the business of intranets and making them work. Why? Because when intranets are used effectively, they are incredibly useful.

This company’s intranet has some good things:

Lots of tools.
The intranet had a lot of tools. The tools allowed employees to do things ranging from technical troubleshooting to accounting and everything in between. The tools seemed well designed, useful, and practical. These are great, especially if they are being used by employees.

Integrated with wiki.
Instead of typical, static pages, this company has a useful wiki. Mileage varies a lot when it comes to wikis and this company seemed to be in the middle. However, an effort to make use of a wiki and encourage its use is an excellent start.

Homepage features.
The homepage of the intranet is very simple. It features the navigation bar, the most recent posts from the company’s customer forums, and news (in that order). I really like how the company includes the most recent posts from the forums. This really encourages staff to participate and at the very least, stay informed about what’s going on.

However, they need to improve in some of these areas:

This is the problem with most intranets. They just aren’t organized as well as they could be. This company needs to work on improving the organization of their intranet. Some possible ways to do that include:

  • Changing navigation structure and methods.
  • Listing of all pages (so employees have an idea about what’s there).
  • “Introduction to Intranet” page explaining how to get the most out of the intranet and its features
  • Asking (and paying) a competent, longtime employee to work another 10 or 15 hours to re-organize the intranet.

Broken links.
Like any extensive web site that is likely updated by a lot of people, there are broken links and pages that don’t work. These should be removed or fixed regularly or navigating the intranet can be a pain.

This depends on the company, but this company’s intranet talks about work and the job only. Talking about some non-some work things in your intranet can be really helpful. Talk about places employees like to hang out, hobbies everyone has, etc. Not only will these lighten the mood up a bit, but it may encourage employees to check it out more frequently and get to know their co-workers.

What do you do with your intranet that’s unique?

Photo courtesy of antigone.

Make your company fun and see results.

I found that the people who work for customer service companies (especially in customer service) really like their jobs. It makes sense, right? Engineers that work for Google (which is an engineering-centric company) generally love their jobs as well. What’s not to like about being around a whole bunch of incredibly talented, like-minded people?

As you know, a customer service company is one that places a lot of focus and concentrates on customer service. Customer service is what makes customer service companies tick – it sets them apart from their competition and plays a big part in their success.

With that in mind, I’m going to say that it is better to work for a customer service company than one that doesn’t care about customer service. As such, I think it is more fun to work for in customer service at a customer service company. It isn’t any fun to work in a company that is trying to pinch pennies from your department, laying people off, etc. It is fun to work in a group that plays a huge in your company’s success.

I think that is a pretty obvious observation, though.

An important element of a company’s culture is fun. If you need qualified, talented workers, then they should have fun when they’re at work. If customer service representatives aren’t having fun, chances are they won’t be quite as cheery as you’d like them to do when providing customer service.

If you’re asking me how you can make your company more fun, then something isn’t right. You need to think about what your company’s employees enjoy and what they would react positively to. It can be as simple as a ping pong table in the basement or taking the company bowling once a month.

Google, Yahoo, etc. all work hard to make it so their employees have fun. Startups are usually pretty good at ensuring their employees like coming to work every day as well. Learn about what those companies are doing and what’s working for them.

The point, though, is to make your company fun to work at. If it’s fun, people will be happier. If they are happier, they will not provide better service, but look forward to going into the office every day. And who knows, they may even stay later and be more productive. That would be nice, right?

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Haha, (not) funny.

Readers who have been reading Service Untitled since at least June 13 know that I don’t appreciate humor. Actually, that’s hardly the case. I like humor, comedians, and all of that, but don’t appreciate sarcastic or “realistic” humor during customer service interactions.

Like from my experience at the Marriott:

The front desk clerk joked about something related to my reservation. He said something along the lines of “You have a parking lot view, correct?” when I specifically asked for a mountain view. He was kidding, but I don’t usually appreciate that kind of humor.

That isn’t humor that I appreciate. In fact, it’s quite annoying and extremely unprofessional.

I saw something similar when I was at an Apple store about two weeks ago (pre-iPhone). A teenager came into the store with his mom and said he wanted to buy a 30 GB iPod. The sales representative (er, Mac Genius) said that he had to order the iPod online. According to the sales rep, they were no longer available in the store and had to be ordered online. The teenager couldn’t believe it. The rep had me going for a minute or so too. After a minute or two, the rep said he was kidding and went to get the shopper his iPod.

A friend of mine who applied to work at the Apple Store saw a similar joke from a manager who pretended that he had forgotten my friend had an interview. My friend, who was nervous enough to begin with, didn’t really appreciate the humor, but told me it wasn’t that dragged out.

I’m not that old and understand that Apple is trying to be hip and all of that. I doubt the same manager would play a joke on the customer. If so, I doubt Apple’s head of retail or Steve Jobs would approve of it. If they do, it definitely isn’t good customer service.  The company has a sense of humor, which is great, but it should be limited to internal communications, not communications with customers as well.

My opinion is that these sort of jokes are unacceptable during customer service interactions. They are on the same level as calling someone dude or bro. Not the end of the world, but not professional.

What do you think? Am I just too uptight or do you agree that these sort of things are unprofessional?

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.

Making it easier for customers to be right

High Heels Cobble StonesCustomers aren’t always right, but outstanding customer service representatives who can say yes to correct service issues are more likely to garner support and help an organization recover from mistakes. No matter how hard we try, at some time or at some location, there is bound to be a service breakdown and that impact on how the experience is resolved can ultimately affect future business.

Some companies repeatedly fail at customer service, because of inconsistencies. Use the catchphrase “customer-focused culture” as often as looks good in training manuals or on websites, but unless the training and support is consistent, too often the product or service failures leave that negative customer perception and off that customer goes to the competition. Studies reflect that those customers who have had positive experiences with customer service resolutions are more apt to recommend a company to their friends, family, and coworkers than those consumers who have never had any issues. Maybe you’re shaking your head at that, but isn’t it always the “drama” we remember and therefore relate to others in conversations when we’re out to dinner or at a social event?

So how do those “WOW” companies create the best experiences when recovering from a product breakdown? In a recent experience, I purchased a pair of expensive evening shoes at the Nordstrom department store in Palm Beach Gardens. As the heels were much higher than I normally wear, it was a training experience one hour prior to the social event I was to attend, learning how to walk in them. Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable with them, the stiletto heel of one of the bejeweled shoes broke. As I fell, I sprained my ankle, and of course, I missed the opportunity to attend a prestigious, charitable evening event at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.

Two days later, with my ankle wrapped in a bandage, I went to Nordstrom to return the shoes. Not only did I get a refund, which was expected, but then the “WOW” part came. Besides the apologies, the company picked up my tab at the emergency medical facility for my injury, and gave me a full refund for the original price of the shoes although I purchased them on sale.

The recovery process is what separates the good service from the best service. It doesn’t end with a refund or an apology. The best resolutions are acted upon quickly, blame is graciously taken, customers are compensated fairly, and something extra is done for the customer’s inconvenience. Service representatives have the training and knowledge to use their discretion for each and every failure, and as the problem is resolved, just the “extra extra” attention is what sets it all apart.

Would I return and purchase new shoes at Nordstrom? Of course I will, and why not tell my friends about this experience?

And what did I take away from this experience? Even after a major blunder like this one, customer service “stepped in” with the apologies needed and showed an actual interest in my needs. The representative who helped me had already written to the Italian manufacturer informing them of the product failure; a problem very rarely encountered with the high end designer. A representative from the shoe company contacted me after the product had been returned, and have since sent a credit slip for another pair of shoes directly through their showroom.

It’s leaving you with the positive that keeps us coming back.

Bad customer experiences make customer service mistakes harder to forgive

Perhaps the most repeated complaint when having to deal with poor customer service is the need to keep calling back when something is wrong with a product. Most of us want to think problems should be resolved with the initial contact; at the very least let’s get our complaint directed to the department in charge. Too often however, it becomes a litany of bad experiences, repeated phone calls, and thus the eventual loss of brand loyalty and business.

Statistics tell us that bad customer experiences are shared twice as much as good experiences, and the vast majority of bad service is vocally transmitted to family members, friends, and then coworkers. Why is that?

When I remember my college days, and yes, I loved the experience, but what sticks out in my mind when friends and I are reminiscing is always the Economics II class that I barely eked through with a respectable grade. When I think about my family life as I was growing up, and yes, I had lots of fun with older brothers, but what sticks out in the past is one of my brothers pushing me out of a tree. In high school, I remember losing my wallet with $50 in it; rarely do I mention bringing home a paycheck from being a waitress at a small breakfast and lunch cafe and having the disposable income to buy new clothes.

Psychologists suggest that bad memories and their details stick further into our minds than positive ones. Haven’t we all formed some bad initial impressions quicker than good ones, or haven’t we stereotyped situations or people before ever realizing the good attributes? At the top of the list of things we tend to remember is losing money and losing friends. It just seems the bad wears off slower than the good.

Therefore with all of this in mind, is it any wonder that poor customer service triggers those negative feelings in us? It drives us to spread our poor experiences with others as well as to move on to the competition hoping for a better resolution should a similar experience happen again.

In a recent experience with my new car, the negative repeated service experience already has me convinced to abandon my brand loyalty with Mercedes Benz of North Palm Beach. Although it is not a critical mechanical defect needed for safe operation of the car, customer experiences are expected to impress us. As the same problem has continued for months and months, this disappointing experience has now resulted in negative feelings towards the product and the people employed to “make it right.”

As bad experiences most often trigger customers to move on to another organization, it’s important therefore to address the dissatisfied as a priority. When a customer is impressed with the product, and when a disgruntled customer shows their displeasure, it’s a stellar customer service department that goes beyond the basic acceptable customer experience to “wow” someone back from the edge of their past loyalty. Bad experiences need to be managed separately; the loyal and the satisfied are already there. The unhappy ones are ready to move away. We must be aware of the customer’s needs and improve performance to cancel out those disappointing moments in time.

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