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You’re Closer to Reward Travel Than You Think?

Picture 2I have two frequent flier accounts with Continental Airlines. One is an account that my parents opened for me when I was maybe five or six years old and another is one that I opened myself a few years ago when I started traveling pretty regularly. About two years ago, I found the account my parents had opened for me and transferred all of my frequent flier miles to that account. However, the newer account (which now has no miles) is still open and active. As such, Continental emails me about it.

The screenshot to the left is from an email they sent me yesterday. I haven’t use this frequent flier account since I transferred the miles from it, so it obviously hasn’t accumulated many miles. However, the subject of the email suggests otherwise. The subject was You’re Closer to Reward Travel Than You Think.

To say the least, this was a poorly done email. Continental shouldn’t send emails that are essentially misleading to customers. They know how many miles their customers have and they should know not to send emails saying the customers are close to reward travel when they have no miles.

When you’re emailing (or even sending snail mail to) customers, use the data you have to make the emails more intelligent (this relates to a post I wrote about two years ago). The email Continental sent me should have focused on using my account and getting started to earn reward travel. An email like that would have been a lot more targeted and a lot more useful.

Customer Escalations and You

Many customer service managers (especially in small to mid-size businesses) spend quite a bit of time handling something I always refer to as “escalations”. Escalations are usually from angry/vocal/important customers who are having a problem and are going “up the chain”. The escalations might come down from the CEO or the President, across from PR or the Internet, or up from floor supervisors and regular agents. Where exactly escalations originate from depends a lot on the particular company and how its customer service organization is setup.

The question is: is it worth a customer service manager’s time to handle at least some of these escalations personally? There are a couple of different views on this.

Staying in touch with the customers. This is the perspective I’ve always held. Employees, and especially managers, who are too far removed from the actual issues and the actual customers are going to have a harder time coming up with effective policies and good ideas.

Focusing on management. Other people think that dealing with individual customer escalations is largely a waste of time and that managers should be focusing on management issues. Policy creation, personnel management, interviewing, etc. This is a valid point as well. Depending on the type of company, it can be pretty time consuming to deal with a large number of escalations and it can definitely distract from dealing with day-to-day issues that managers normally have to deal with.

Focusing on strategy. Other customer service managers (typically those in larger companies) spend most of their day working on big initiatives and customer service strategy. This works when there are other customer service-orientated managers to deal with management issues, but not so much in smaller companies where there is effectively only one person in charge of customer service.

What do you think is the right balance? Or the most important things to spend time on?

Exam Room Flags for Customer Service

1010421594_largeIf you’ve been to a doctor’s office in the past, you’ve probably noticed those colorful things outside of each exam room. I recently learned these are called exam room signal flags. I have no idea what each color means (and I imagine they vary from office to office), but the idea of them is interesting and appliciable to other industries as well.

The flags do just what their names imply – provide signals to doctors and other personnel about what needs to be done or what’s going on. If a patient is in the room waiting for a doctor, I imagine they have a flag color for that. If the patient is in the room waiting for an initial examination by a nurse, I imagine there is a flag color for that. If the doctor and patient temporarily left the room, but still need it, there is probably a flag color for that, too. There are countless things that the flags could represent (or signal) and if anyone knows what some of them mean, feel free to leave a note in the comments.

However, the more relevant point is how easily this can be applied to other industries. I’ve seen online helpdesks that allow employees to flag tickets with different colors that have different meanings. Restaurants, stores, and hotels could probably benefit from something similar. My guess is that most types of in-person service businesses with multi-step processes already have something similar.

The basic premise is that most businesses could benefit from having a subtle way to let employees know about their customers and what needs to be done at any given time. If employees can get a quick and easy understanding of what’s happening at any given time, they are a lot more likely to act in a way that’ll benefit the customer service experience.

Call Abandonment Basics

Western Electric 202Phone systems (also called IVRs or PBXes) usually measure something referred to as a call abandonment rate. How exactly the call abandonment rate is defined varies from company to company and from phone system to phone system, but in general, the inbound call abandonment rate tracks the number of people who hang up before they start talking to an employee. (There are call abandonment rates for outbound calls that telemarketing companies track, but that’s a different thing entirely.)

Some companies actually strive for high call abandonment rates (a higher proportion of people who hang up). These companies generally don’t place a huge emphasis on phone-based customer service and want to reduce the cost of the customer service they provide. Fewer callers getting through to employees means fewer are employees are needed and more money saved, so companies design extremely complicated phone systems that are designed to help customers automatically (self-service) and have messages pushing customers to other support mediums (e. g. email, web, etc.).

More customer-centric organizations tend to favor lower call abandonment rates (fewer people hang up, more people talk to employees). They work to have simple phone menus that don’t do anything more than they have to (route the call to the right person/place) and these companies go out of their way to ensure that customers are having an easy time getting to talk to their employees and getting the help they need. They have hold music that isn’t annoying and that says “We’ll be with you shortly. Thanks for your patience” instead of hold music that says “You can get your answers online at support.company.com.” It is a different way of thinking and a way I’d encourage companies in any sort of competitive industry to think.

Some call abandonment rates factor in things like a 10 or 20 second delay before counting it as an actual abandoned call or require that someone push a button and actually wait on hold and then hang up before counting it as actually abandoned. There are then a number of math/proportion nuances that a lot of companies use when calculating abandonment rate. I generally advise including a 10 or 15 second delay in the numbers and counting all hang ups that meet that criteria. As long as the methodology is consistent, how exactly you go about calculating your call abandonment rate doesn’t matter as much.

photo credit: clickclickclickclick

A Wake-up Call for Bored Customers

Quak Quak!A large brokerage company added a twist to their toll-free telephone cue – “…punch 6 if you’d like to hear a duck quack!” Word of the playful feature spread and soon millions of people were weekly calling just to hear the duck. The company had to remove the unique feature because it overloaded their phone system and ran up a huge tab! The story communicates just how bored customers have become.

Something else has happened to customers. They’ve been getting way over-stimulated. Television has become both high definition and multi-media. The nightly news now shows the weather report, ball scores, stock market numbers and a crawling headline simultaneously on the TV screen. That steady stream of sensory arousal risks making a trip to your unit or organization seem humdrum and plain vanilla.

What’s an organization to do? Imaginative service! Want a small taste? The service techs at Sewell Lexus in Dallas program in the radio stations for a new car buyer from their trade-in and let customers discover it. Miller Bros. Ltd in Atlanta, an upscale men’s clothing store, has a large colorful gumball machine in its entrance. Beside it is a large bowl of shiny pennies. Guess where junior gets to go while daddy is trying on trousers? An insurance agent abandoned the age-old practice of sending key customers a birthday card. He secured the enthusiastic service of his young daughter to call his very best customers and sing happy birthday to them. Pretty creative, huh?

Customers like extras. They enjoy service with a cherry on top. In fact, the features of a service have become more titillating than its function; extras more valued than the core offering.  But, two things have happened to extras that have robbed them of their power as a retention strategy.

First, they have gotten a lot more expensive. That free snack on a flight is now eight dollars and service charges are standard fare on most bills. Pursuing extras can also send a mixed message. What do employees think when told to “wow” customers in the morning and informed of staff cutbacks and expense reductions in the afternoon?

However, imaginative service is different. Ask customers what actions would be value added and they will focus on taking the expected experience to a higher-level … meaning “they gave me more than I anticipated.” But, imaginative service is not about addition, it’s about creation. When service people are asked to give more, they think to themselves, “I am already doing the best I can.” But, if asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies. If employees are requested to create a big customer smile instead of just working harder, they feel a part of an adventure. And, when employees get to create, not just perform, they feel prized. Just ask a Southwest, Disney, Zappos.com, or Lexus dealership employee.

At a time when value-added service has gotten way too pricey maybe it is time try value-unique – imaginative service. Customers recall, return, and refer others to those experiences that engage them emotionally and leave them with a positive memory. Creating a place of joy can help your unit or organization become the customer’s “oasis of choice.” And, imaginative service can take their breath away.

Writer Bio: Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away:  How Imaginative Service Creates Customer Devotion.  They can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

photo credit: Newsbie Pix

Are your employees familiar with your website?

It shocks most managers to see, hear, or experience this, but a lot of customer service representatives aren’t familiar with their company’s website. They aren’t sure what the customer’s screen looks like when an order is taking place, how to use the front-end knowledge base, or anything along those lines. Needless to say, this can present a number of problems.

To address these problems, you can try one or more of these things:

  • Include a review of the company’s website in the training process. During your initial employee training, have the company’s trainer(s) go over the website and explain the different processes and parts of it to the new employees. Include website reviews / training in follow-up training as well.
  • Include pictures. When an update to a system is made, be sure to include screenshots of customer-facing screens and interfaces in internal documentation. Focusing entirely on what the employees see on their end will result in employees who aren’t adequately prepared to guide customers through what needs to be done.
  • Inform employees of changes. When a new feature or part of the website is made public, it’s important to let employees know about it. That way, when customers ask questions, they will be ready to answer them.

The important thing is that your employees have a working knowledge of your website, including what’s on it and how it all works, and as a result of that, can confidently advise customers on how to get the most use out of your website.

6 Ways to Make Your Meetings More Productive

Conference RoomCustomer service departments, like most entities of most corporations, seem to have a thing for meetings.

I personally don’t like meetings and I think the usefulness of getting everyone in a conference room to discuss something that is most likely pretty trivial is limited at best. Bureaucracy in general is something that I try to avoid (and suggest that others do as well) and I feel as if most meetings just contribute to bureaucracy. Too many companies (and units within them) fall into this trap where they equate talking about getting stuff done with actually getting stuff done. Meetings do not necessarily equate to productivity.

With that in mind, some meetings are necessary. Even as someone who grew up in the email generation, I still believe some meetings are useful written about such meetings in the past. Here are some of my tips on how to conduct an effective meeting:

  1. Have a formal agenda and distribute it beforehand. I always like to email out the agenda of the meetings I’m leading to whoever will be in attendance beforehand. It gives them an idea of what the meeting will be like (length, format, etc.), what will be covered, and if they might need to do anything to prepare. Sending an agenda out in advance also gives people time to suggest topics to add to the agenda.
  2. Stick to the agenda. An agenda is useless if it isn’t being followed. As the person leading the meeting, make sure you stick to it. I like to include estimated time frames for different parts of the meeting, mention who will be talking during each part, and so on. A detailed agenda lets people know how the meeting should progress.
  3. Let people know what they need to do in advance. There are different groups of meetings attendees at pretty much every meeting. Some people have something to present, some people are just there to listen, others are there to approve or reject ideas. Make sure everyone knows what they’re responsible for doing well in advance of the meeting and that they have time to prepare accordingly.
  4. Focus on action items. On every agenda I hand out, the back side has a section for notes and action items. Every person needs to leave the meeting with an idea about what the next steps are and what they need to do. This is where most meetings fail.
  5. Take notes. Assign someone at or bring someone to the meeting in order to take notes. This person should pay special attention to action items and noting steps, obstacles, etc. involved with actually get work done.
  6. Turn off the BlackBerries, etc. I have a BlackBerry and I like it a lot. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t checked my BlackBerry during a meeting and I’d also be in denial if I said no one has ever checked their BlackBerry when I’ve been presenting at a meeting. Cell phones, PDAs, smartphones, etc. are a distraction during meetings and should be turned off during the meeting. The policy should also be enforced.

There comes a time when email or IM just doesn’t cut it and you need to sit down and meet face to face. When you do have that meeting, try to keep some of these ideas in mind. These are things I’ve used to help ensure the meetings I have end up being productive meetings and to date, they’ve worked well. Feel free to share your own tips in the comments.

photo credit: faungg

White Glove Service in 4 Steps

When service is “white glove,” it implies that the service being provided is being provided by professionals who look, act, and talk the part of a customer service professional. I also associate white glove service with class, grace, and politeness as well. To provide white glove service, you need to make sure that:

  1. Employees are well dressed. Looking the part is important if you’re concerned with white glove services. While actual white gloves are more metaphorical in today’s time than they were 70 or 80 years ago, looking clean and tidy is necessary.
  2. Employees speak properly. If employees are walking around screaming or cursing, that’s obviously going to distract customers and lead them to form negative impressions of your company. It’s also important that your employees can use proper grammar and know how to articulate whatever needs to be said.
  3. Employees are empowered to do what’s necessary. People who provide white glove service don’t often say “I’m sorry, but we can’t do that.” If you want the level of service you provide to be truly exceptional, it’s important that the employees you’re trusting to provide that type of service are both allowed and to encouraged make decisions about what’s best in a certain situation. If the employees are restricted by a huge number of rules, policies, or procedures (that they don’t have the power to excuse themselves from in certain situations), the customer service experience will suffer.
  4. The environment is respectable. If you have the best employees in the world, but a dirty store, office, hotel, restaurant, etc., it’s going to defeat purpose. Make sure the physical environment in which you’re providing service is clean, tasteful, and conducive to whatever you’re trying to do (e. g. couches taking up space in the middle of a store don’t make much sense).

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but I think it’s a good start. What are your suggestions for providing white glove service?

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