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Consumer Reports says Apple does customer service better

2973554634_da5fc5c9b3The ultimate success of a company is predicated on exceptional customer service experiences. For post-sales service, Consumer Reports ranked Apple Customer Service ahead of other companies for best PC tech support with the company scoring an 86 out of a possible 100 points. The survey included 6,313 owners of PCs and laptops and explored their experiences with technical service over the past year via telephone, online communication, and in-store help.

According to Consumer Reports, Apple’s in-house technical support service, the Genius Bar, rated as high as telephone and online services stating as many as 88% of problems are addressed in person. So peeking in at the Genius Training Student Workbook chock full of Apple “Dos and Don’ts,” we can understand the psychological mastery of an organization that clearly understands when you make people happy, they tend to buy more. The training manual concentrates on the psychological aspect of customer service and builds the learning experience with role playing. Within the compressed 14 days of boot camp however, and while learning the emotions and skills of happy customers, the bottom line is always to be in the “business of selling.”

So before the new Genius dons his blue official Apple blue shirt, sales and customer service training teaches:

  • A  APPROACH
  • P  PROBE
  • P  PRESENT
  • L  LISTEN
  • E  END

Apple students learn the lessons taught in most service industry jobs, and that is one of being helpful and knowledgeable. With that comes the soft approach; don’t be pushy. Build a confident relationship with a customer, and find out what they need and then present choices as what to buy. Hear the customer out, and as the deal is finished, let it be done in such a way that the customer feels he is the one who made the choice. In practice sessions, the new Genius puts himself in a customer’s shoes in order to understand every interaction and how to successfully mingle skills and sentiment into one satisfying and successful endeavor.

The learning techniques have become so refined as Geniuses learn to take ownership, have respect,  and show empathy to achieve those good vibes which affect all of us while we consider buying a product. The best sales people are those who customers genuinely like; those of us who know how to make customers happy before, during, and after the sale.

And even if a customer doesn’t rally over to the Genius Bar for personal human contact, Apple Support provides video tutorials, community support forums, online product manuals, and easy, user friendly links. It’s a positive experience wherever one might decide to find help because it’s never a “crash” – rather one’s Apple may have “stopped responding.” It’s never a “disaster” – rather an “error” occurred, and instead of “eliminating” the problem – the problem is “reduced.”

The Apple Genius Bar is a cheery place to visit; perhaps not the “happiest place on Earth,” but darn close in the technical world.

Photo courtesy of kaichanvong via Flickr 

‘WOW’ customer service has to be reliable and consistent

logoOnce again it’s Spring when our fancy changes to thoughts of love and the beautiful outdoors. We picture the lush green lawns, the colorful summer blooms, the pool, the grill, and the patio designed for that blissful oasis as casual parties for friends and family become welcome weekend events. And so the shopping begins. With the convenience of online browsing, the possibilities are endless, but how will our online retailers handle customer service?

Now all of those outdoor pillows, cushions, umbrellas, and rugs are looking a bit shabby from the hot Florida sunlight of the past years, and online shopping is just so convenient; it’s time to measure and order. And that’s how this story begins. The Home Decorators Collection catalog arrived, and I placed an order. The customer service representative was exceptional and spent the time trying to figure out what replacement cushions would have the best result. Unfortunately, after a consultation with our decorator, it was confirmed the cushions wouldn’t fit at all. The next morning the call to cancel the order didn’t turn out as it should have, and thus began a lesson in a customer service failure.

Perhaps every online store catalog or website we see promises to provide great customer service, but it can be a constant challenge to be reliable, consistent, helpful, and make a customer believe an organization lives and breathes customer service. Customer service has to become part of a company’s culture and with the ease and ability of finely tuned humans, these valuable employees must be able to make decisions on service at the very time it is needed. Let’s look into that a bit further through this experience.

As I call to cancel the order and ask to have a written confirmation on my credit card of the cancellation, I am told the company must first inform their vendor of my desire to cancel. It’s only been eight hours, and during that time the company was closed for the evening. When I express my dissatisfaction having to wait at least three business days to be informed my order has been cancelled and credited, I ask to speak with a supervisor who tells me she will immediately put the request through and that I will get email confirmation. And then the excuses began. Home Decorators, as I was told was sold to Home Depot, and according to the supervisor’s excuse, Home Depot’s return policy is antiquated.

I never heard another word from that supervisor, and by the next day, I went online to find more information about the customer service policies of Home Depot online. Their return policy provides for an immediate credit to the original form of payment. If an organization doesn’t have a clear vision of how to do business and how to do it better than their competitors, shoppers walk away. No where else can it be better determined how to treat a customer than to place oneself in that customer’s shoes and determine how you would want to be treated. Growing a successful business demands a strategic plan for spending the time and money to train customer service agents how to think “outside of the box.” Being a good listener and being able to convince a customer you have the empathy and compassion for their problem and you are willing to solve their problem within the realm of your responsibilities, builds consumer confidence and repeat customers. Companies just need to learn to do it better.

For this particular experience, I was able to find an online survey about my customer service experience with Home Decorators, and by the next day I was called and the problem was solved. As an apology I was sent a $50 gift certificate, but will it be enough of a compensation to motivate me to do business with Home Decorators again?

Customers should never be put on the defensive when presented with a negative customer service experience. It took three representatives to get a $600 credit. In the end I received a sincere apology of which I appreciated, but this is an excellent example to show that great customer service doesn’t just happen; it needs to be part of an organization’s ultimate vision and one that should be executed daily.

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.

Avoid costly mistakes by creating a better call center for customers

Call centers can range from one or two people in a small office to thousands of customer service representatives in huge office complexes, but a customer’s view is set by their first impression or that first phone call needed for help. Whereas customers don’t ever want to feel that once their purchase was made, the organization no longer cares about them and is just out there fishing for new clients, one of the prime frustrations often deals with call centers and their notorious poor service ranging from finding the right representative, hanging on hold for an extended amount of time, repeating the problem to representative after representative, or to never being able to reach an authorized person capable of making a decision to rectify a problem.

The most lucrative businesses cultivate a base of loyal customers who typically campaign on an organization’s behalf as to the reliability and excellence of the brand. With people spending an average of five hours a week on social media with the average of 150 friends on Facebook and 300 Twitter followers, negative feedback on a business can affect an average sized company’s profit margin. With consumers very willing to switch brands nowadays for better service, and even if it means spending more money, statistics show that 73 percent of consumers will eagerly make the change.

So what can a company do to improve the quality of their call centers? Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t outsource your company service outside of the United States. One major turnoff and a significant reason why customers will not recommend an organization to their friends, relatives, or co-workers is the inability with poor language communication skills.
  • Customers want their problems solved in a single call if possible by one customer service representative who speaks clearly, is knowledgeable, polite, and helpful.
  • It is important to have the technology to access a customer’s records quickly and not have a customer “on hold” for more than a few minutes.
  • When a customer calls in for help to a call center, navigating the menu and a path to a human representative should be simple.
  • Customer service training should provide representatives with the knowledge to solve most problems.  And just as important, a customer should also be offered an alternative to be given a credit if they are not happy with the outcome.
  • A supervisor should always be available at a call center if a problem has not been resolved.

An antiquated way of thinking once perceived service and call centers as costs, but the loss of a customer is much more expensive. With repeat customers come recommendations and more customers. It’s not much different than cultivating a garden. As the plants grow and spread, the garden gets bigger and bigger yielding more vegetables. Never cut back on training, and continue to be an inspiration for those employees who make a difference in an organization’s campaign on behalf of their brand. Why not call in one day and pretend to be a customer? In fact, call in with a problem that is not in the usual text training manual and see how the unusual issue is handled; it promises to provide an excellent insight into your customer’s world.

Walmart’s dismal customer service scores drive customers away

walmart-logo

Since 2007, Walmart department and discount stores repeatedly have been labeled with the dubious distinction of having the “worst customer service in America.” The Bentonville, Arkansas based retailer scored a 71 out of 100 rating; the lowest grade for customer service as rated by  The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent national benchmark of customer satisfaction in the United States. As a supermarket, the company didn’t do much better; scoring a 72 out of 100 rating  and similarly low scores since 2005.

The problem with Walmart is multifaceted. Having a person who greets customers at the door is hardly a solution for often poor quality merchandise, poorly trained staff, and dismissive sales associates who seem more interested in going on break than solving customer issues. While shoppers tend to overlook product quality and concentrate on lower prices during tough economic times, once people head back to work and their economics have begun to improve, buyers become less tolerant of rudeness from the customer service desk or inferior merchandise that may have split at the seams after only one laundering. Yet, shoppers can be a forgiving lot if customer service personnel are at the job and eager to please, but that doesn’t seem to happen much at Walmart.

Many Walmart customers opt for one-stop shopping, especially as the gas tank prices continue to rise, but is it really worth the long wait, the rude staff, and the mere frustration of seemingly no solutions to certain product deficiencies? Even Walmart’s e-commerce scored a low 78 out of 100 for performance during the 2012 holiday season. Amazon led all e-commerce retailers with a score of 88 according to For See’s E-Retail Satisfaction survey.

Perhaps Walmart needs to begin with the basics and start to treat employees with respect, offer better wages to attract talented employees, offer competitive health care, bonuses, work incentives, and consistent work schedules. As it is now, the constant turnover of employees make it impossible to properly train and promote talented individuals. The company needs employee pride, a well-tuned culture, and a mentoring program where associates can learn how to deal with customer complaints.

If you’re still a shopper at Walmart and have customer service issues, here are some alternate solutions however that may help:

  • Bypass the automated phone menus if you can. There are many free services to help customers find direct numbers. Check out dialahuman.com for one such service.
  • Have a precise history of everything you have done and everyone you have spoken to in order to rectify the issue. Write it down, have names available, times and dates you have spoken to customer service reps, and how long you have been kept on “hold.”
  • Elevate the importance of your issue by asking to speak with a supervisor.
  • Don’t be negative. Once you get to someone with authority, you want to be cooperative and at least let them think by treating you right, you will want to be a Walmart shopper again.
  • Don’t say “it’s the principle” of the issue. Have a reasonable solution to offer. Don’t be rude, don’t raise your voice, and don’t ever use profanity.

Brick and mortar shopping still remains the most popular, but as shopping behaviors change and traffic continues to shift to online stores because of low prices, greater selections and convenience, customer service needs to improve. It has been stated that consumers continue to lower the bar as to customer service, but it only stands to reason that e-commerce is going to take a huge chunk of business away from organizations that ignore their customers’ needs.

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

BMW modeling customer service innovations after Apple

4235391538_b80f750c2cBuying a new car is a baffling and expensive experience for everyone; options have become so technical making it extremely difficult for car buyers to figure out what they need or really want. BMW recognizes the dilemma and has launched a new program called Genius Everywhere remarkably similar to the Genius Bar at Apple stores. In a story posted by industry marketer Advertising Age, the “geniuses” will be salaried personnel who will walk around BMW showrooms with iPads and provide interested browsers with information about specifications and features.  Let’s face it – how many of us have any knowledge of new gizmos such as Night Vision or Active Steering?

If you have ever been to the Genius Bar at an Apple store, knowledgeable men and women in blue shirts walk around the store carrying their iPads  teaching, explaining, or helping set up appointments about an Apple product. The Genius Everywhere program plans to use trained college students wearing white shirts who generally want to work evenings and weekends to provide specific information helping potential buyers to understand the cars and the advanced technology. All Genius Personnel will be salaried, and if a customer is interested in purchasing a car they will be referred to a salesperson. The program is now being tested in Europe, and the company hopes to be ready to launch in the United States by next year when it introduces its 13 electric cars.

The luxury market for car sales has become extremely competitive. Gone are the days of tattooed, pushy salesmen. Customers don’t storm out as a salesman rips up a contract; tactics like that don’t work well in the luxury segment. Statistically Mercedes Benz buyers have a 62% loyalty repeat business, BMW has a 47% repeat and Audi follows with a 37% repeat loyalty base. Showrooms boast coffee bars and breakfast choices – my dealership in North Palm Beach has a concierge service to accommodate  a customer pulling up with or without an appointment.

Cadillac initiated a new program with their Cadillac User Experience (CUE) designed to pare down the confusion of all the technology into a touch screen and a few touch controls. The program was actually developed after Cadillac engineers teamed up with Cadillac drivers to determine their habits. Now a user can be connected to Bluetooth, USBs, MP3 players, navigation units and weather maps in a simple user friendly control panel called the Infotainment system. Lexus employs a delivery and technology experience using trainers to help consumers navigate the latest technological systems. And now Ford has joined the customer assist ranks with their latest multimedia system called My Ford Touch.

In the past the car buying experience has often been historically tainted by obnoxious salesmen, false advertising, and inferior customer service once a buyer signed on the dotted line and drove away. Technology now can help all consumers buy their next dream car, with the demands of “wow” customer service making it all a much better experience.

Photo credit: ronsombilongallery 

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.

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