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Walk Talk

As a member of the Board of Directors for the North East Contact Center Forum, I have the opportunity to speak with a number of Customer Service Managers, Directors and VP’s across multiple industries and geographies. The most common theme among these leaders is the intricate balancing act of providing extraordinary experiences while reducing expenses (and sometimes juggling regulatory risk and/or time constraints).

I have battled with the same dilemmas myself. Over time, I have learned to ask myself and my colleagues a few questions:

  • What do you coach your service representatives on?
  • What are the common conversations in your team and all-hands meetings?
  • What is it that your CEO/COO/VP of Customer Service is evangelizing?

More often than not, the answers sound like: call quality, customer experience, superior service, etc. Some time later, I follow up with another set of questions:

  • What are the key metrics that you look at daily?
  • How do you incent your service representatives?
  • What are the metrics that your boss (whether he or she be the CEO or someone else) are hammering you about?

These answers usually sound like: service level, AHT (average handle time), 50-75% of incentives involve productivity numbers, expenses, cost per account/loan/customer, etc.

Things that make you hmmm.

The terms [triple/quad constraints – click each to a see a picture] and charts are typically used in project management, but apply to our quandary.  One constraint cannot be changed without altering another. Triple or Quad constraints are funny; everything cannot be the most important or the highest priority. Trying to make everything the highest priority will only drive you and your service representatives crazy. It leads to mediocre quality, often subpar cost metrics, low morale, and CEO’s/COO’s/VP’s of Customer Service breathing down your neck.

With all of that in mind, how do you move (walk) forward?

  1. The first step for any recovery program is to admit you have a problem.
    1. Be objective.
    2. Ask your floor representatives what they think you say and what you really focus on.
    3. Listen to calls, review chats, and emails (are your associates rushing, taking too long?).
  2. Force rank your current priorities (create the order that you believe you are presently working under)
    1. Everything cannot be equal
      1. Quality (call quality, defect management, complaints, customer incident surveys)
      2. Cost (AHT, service levels, cost per X, expenses, utilization, occupancy)
      3. Time (are new product releases critical? Service availability?)
      4. Risk (regulatory/legal, credit, reputational)
    2. Make sure you have accurate differentials – use an entire 1-5 scale
  3. Have an honest, direct conversation with senior management about what is the most important priority, what is the second most important priority, and so on.

Now that you have your direction, you need to determine what you are going to change. (Hint: don’t limit yourself to the base of the box, work the edges. Read Seth Godin’s Linchpin for more on that subject.)

  • People – Do you have the right people in the right places to succeed? Do you need to reorganize? How would you incent people to deliver your priority? What do you need to communicate to your associates?
  • Process – What processes would you change? What metrics would you highlight? What dashboard items need to change?
  • Systems – How can you leverage your technical solutions to maximize your priorities? Are you able to walk your talk? Or do you need to change your talk?

Guest Writer Bio: Michael Pace is the Director of Customer Support for Constant Contact’s award winning Customer Support Department and on the Board of Directors for the North East Contact Center Forum. You can connect with him via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

Image Credit: Joe

Exceptional Customer Service Starts at the Top – Are You Setting a Positive Standard?

We’ve all heard the saying “it starts at the top.” Typically, it’s in reference to how the attitudes of company leaders determine the attitudes of that company’s staff members. A month or so ago, I was fortunate enough to be in the audience of a presentation from a company leader who sets a fabulous example for the employees and franchise owners of his company, Biggby Coffee.

“Biggby Bob” Fish is the CEO and co-founder of the Michigan-based chain of what I’d call happy little coffee shops in 1995. Fast forward to 2010 and he’s now watching it grow past 100 stores – in spite of today’s challenging economy – as new franchise owners get on board with the company’s fabulous philosophy.

What has Biggby done right? So many things, though we’ll focus on the company’s positive ideology, which is clearly stated and reinforced to all franchise owners and employees using several methods. Here’s one quick example:

Franchise owners live by an “in-store operating philosophy” using the acronym PERC, which refers to the following four tenets:

Perception by customers that we respect their time and move them as quickly as possible
Every customer leaves the store in a better mood than when the customer arrived
Recognize each customer as an individual
Consistently produce a high quality beverage

Biggby has well-defined core values, corporate vision and mission statements, and a closely guarded corporate culture that come together to define who they are as a company and brand. They use coffee-related acronyms so the details of the philosophy are easy to remember and they reinforce it throughout the franchisee and employee experience.

My personal favorite lines of Biggby culture-defining statements are “B-Happy” and “Love People.” Biggby Bob embodies these statements in both his presentations and his social media persona. He’s an active participant on Facebook and Twitter and if you follow him, you’ll know that his positive energy is genuine.

Want to meet Biggby Bob? He’s likely found in one of his franchise stores, working on his laptop, watching the servers create happy caffeinated moments for customers. Besides creating a great corporate culture, he’s also an involved leader who sets – and lives by – high service standards.

What do you think? If you’re a manager, are you setting a positive example of service for your staff? Have you defined your corporate mission, values and culture?

Guest Writer Bio: Lori Jo Vest, co-author of the bestselling book “Who’s Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan,” has been involved in relationship-based sales and customer service for over 20 years. In addition to her work as managing director of the Emmy-winning television production studio Communicore Visual Communications in Birmingham, Michigan, she consults with small businesses on methods to enhance their sales and customer service efforts through personal connection and long-term relationship building. Find out more at www.whosyourgladys.com/blog.

They’re Just Not That Into You

Love Fireworks :)Have you ever noticed the similarities between attracting a prospective customer and wooing a mate?

There are lots of similarities when you think about it. For example, before the relationship develops, there may be frequent but informal contact. In business, that may look like a weekly e-newsletter that over time (as trust is established) results in a client project. In a personal relationship, it may take the form of frequent encounters at the corner Starbucks.

As it blossoms, there is usually lots of attention and care given to the relationship. In business, this is evidenced by asking questions of understanding, attentive listening, clarifying expectations, and responding to needs. In a personal relationship, these behaviors also apply.

Another similarity is that after the honeymoon phase, personal attention and care tend to diminish. Clients tend to hear from you less often and may need to leave a second message before you respond. And your mate may long for the time when you looked dreamily across the table, a slight smile on your face, while hanging on her every word.

But today you have competing priorities and don’t feel that you can be as responsive as some customers and mates require. And for this reason, among others, not every story has a happy ending…

That said, there are actions you can take immediately whether serving a customer or someone with whom you have a bit more of a, shall we say, intimate relationship, that will keep their eyes from wandering to the “competition.”

  • Express genuine interest. With customers, this is accomplished by making eye contact, smiling, and adding enthusiasm to your voice. Also, asking questions about preferences and being responsive to needs signal genuine interest. Chances are, your significant other appreciates the same type of attention.
  • Offer sincere and specific compliments. Genuine compliments make everyone feel better about themselves. A compliment is verbal sunshine. Shine on.
  • Share unique knowledge. In a customer service setting, this means sharing knowledge that goes beyond job knowledge that is expected (e.g., hours of operation, return policy, etc.). Unique knowledge has character and substance. It is interesting, unique, and unexpected (e.g., the history of the location, privileged “insider” information, etc.). Similarly, personal relationships benefit by sharing insights and feelings that transcend the expected (e.g., “How was work?”) and demonstrate personal interest (e.g., “Tell me about your day.”).
  • Convey authentic enthusiasm. We all do this differently. Some are bubbly. Others are less animated but equally enthusiastic. It’s easy to detect whether at work or home. They move with purpose. The lights are on. They are engaged.
  • Use appropriate humor. The key word is appropriate. With customers you need to use discretion and keep it professional so as not to offend. In personal relationships, you have a bit more leeway. Either way, laughter is the shortest distance between two people.
  • Provide pleasant surprises. Have you ever receive an unexpected upgrade on a flight, at a hotel, or when renting a car? How did it make you feel? It’s a positive feeling that can be replicated again and again with something as simple as a card, a bottle of water, or a single rose…
  • Deliver service heroics. This sort of action is rarely required of us. It’s the exception, not the rule. But when the situation requires it and we go “above and beyond” in order to wow our customer (e.g.. meet an overnight deadline) or impress that someone special (e.g., breakfast in bed), it makes a lasting positive impression that reaffirms her importance and reinforces the relationship.

My hope for everyone reading this post is that you would find some truth in it. Reflect on the quality of your own personal customer service to those people who matter the most to you at work and at home. Are you developing relationships by demonstrating the types of behaviors outlined above or are you communicating indifference by merely going through the motions?

Be intentional about applying these behaviors and I assure you that your most important customers—both at work and at home—will appreciate you for it and, most importantly, will only have eyes for you.

Guest Writer Bio: Steve Curtin is a customer service, training, and public speaking enthusiast based in Denver, CO. His website is www.stevecurtin.com.

photo credit: Beta-J

When Providing Customer Service, Give an Oscar-worthy Performance

Red CarpetSometimes it takes an award-winning performance to provide excellent customer care, especially when problems are weighing on your mind. Maybe you’re dealing with the turmoil of having your credit card stolen. Perhaps your daughter failed a class or your partner forgot your birthday. You can do your absolute best to put the concerns of your personal life aside at work, but it’s so challenging to stay in a positive mindset when you come face-to-face with a crabby, complaining customer.

How do you hold it together when you feel like falling apart?

Just ask the employees at Preston Wynne Spa, a successful company featured in chapter 7 of “Who’s Your Gladys?” This high end spa’s CEO Peggy Wynne Borgman and her staff have adapted the advice of my dear friend Holly Stiel, who recommends viewing the start of a workday like the start of a performance.

Customer service expert Holly Stiel recommends viewing the start of a workday like the start of a performance.

“Your uniform is your service costume, and your workplace is the stage. To give great service, it’s helpful to consider yourself an actor playing a role with as much sincerity as possible,” Holly advises. She encourages everyone to make a conscious choice about how to “act” within the service provider role.

This got me thinking about my expectations as a customer. When I go to the movies, I expect the actors to give a captivating performance. I enjoy watching the leading man woo his love interest. It could very well be that in “real life,” the actor is going through a bitter divorce. It simply wouldn’t work to bring his personal problems into his leading man role.

Mo’Nique won an Oscar last night playing the part of Mary Jones from the movie Precious. She embodied the challenging role of a criminally abusive mother and was fully present in her performance. As a performing artist, she brought a highly challenging role to life.

Imagine yourself bringing the role of a caring customer service provider to life.

Have you ever noticed that when you say you believe something to be true, you’re sometimes tested? I believe that customer service is more than a skill, it’s an art. I was tested a few weeks ago. I was booked to fly to Wisconsin. Even though my husband and son suffered with a stomach virus for four days the week before, I stayed healthy, until 4 a.m. the morning of my flight.

I honestly didn’t know how I was going to get on that plane, let alone lead a workshop for managers AND a customer service keynote the following day. At 6 a.m., I called my coauthor Lori Jo Vest and told her, “I’m sick!” Thank God for Lori! She helped me to step into the role of service provider and do what was best for our client, who was bringing together 150 employees to see me for their annual event. The company had bought a book for everyone too, so finding a replacement speaker was out of the question. I made a call to my doctor, convinced him to prescribe something that would help, and was on the plane by 10 a.m.

As strange as it might sound, I believe it wasn’t as much the medicine that got me through as it was the mindset. I chose to BE an enthusiastic, attentive presenter and somehow, despite a stomach virus, I was.

Guest Writer Bio: Marilyn Suttle is the co-author of the best-selling customer service book, “Who’s Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan.” She is president of Suttle Enterprises, a training firm through which she has taught thousands across the country how to have happier, more productive relationships with customers, coworkers, and even their children. For more information, visit: www.whosyourgladys.com.

photo credit: Eva Cristescu

Are you meeting your customers’ service expectations?

One of the challenges that customer service professionals face on a daily basis is meeting customers’ service expectations. If you are a company that claims to have superior customer service, people will come to you with the expectation of receiving top-notch service. Nowadays, customers’ expectations are rising because companies are trying to find new ways to surprise and delight their customers.

Service expectations are going to vary from company to company. For example, the service you expect from McDonald’s is going to be much different from the service you may expect from a five-star restaurant.

So, what can you do to determine if you are meeting your customers’ service expectations?

The first thing you’ll want to do is identify the service expectations of your customers. Take some time to review marketing and service/product information for service promises that could play a big part in expectations. It’s also good to review the mission or vision statement of your company.

No matter what industry or company you work for, however, people are going to expect friendly service at the very least. They’re also going to expect courteous treatment and a sincere effort to help them with their needs.

As you’re interacting with customers, take note when someone mentions an opportunity where the company could improve. “I wish…” or “If only the company could…” are statements to look out for. You can also solicit customers for their feedback by asking them, “Is there anything we can do to make our service or product better?” Also, keep track of customer issues or problems. Oftentimes, you’ll come up with reoccurring problems that need to be addressed.

There will be times when you run into a customer whose service expectations are unreasonable. You’ve probably already received training on how to deal with angry or difficult customers, but there are rare times when you have to tell a customer “No” because what they are asking is beyond the scope of what you’re capable of doing. It’s like asking a baby toddler to build a highrise building when he only knows how to stack three wood blocks. If this is the case, simply apologize to the customer, “I’m sorry we can’t do this because…” Maybe your company just doesn’t have the technology or information to fulfill the customer’s needs.

By listening carefully to customers, continuously gathering feedback from them, and taking note of reoccurring issues, your company will be fully prepared to meet customers’ needs and expectations.

Maria Palma is a professional writer and entrepreneur who spent 13+ years in the retail service industry as a salesperson and manager before venturing out on her own and starting her own businesses. Maria is an artsy kinda gal whose life motto is, “Creating a beautiful world, one person at a time.” Find out more about Maria by visiting her main website, Salon de Maria.

Are you really listening?

Yay BooHave you ever been in a conversation with someone, and while the other person is talking, you’re more focused on what you’re going to say next than on what they’re saying to you? If we are honest with ourselves, I think we’d confess that we do this more often than we’d like.

This phenomenon occurs not just in interpersonal relationships, but also at the corporate level. All too often, businesses carry on one-sided conversations with their customers, pushing information out instead of looking for ways to listen and create meaningful dialogues. For businesses, creating dialogue and listening well takes a little creativity, because in most instances, corporate conversations aren’t just happening in person, but rather through marketing, advertising, news media and, more recently, social media.

Harnessing the power of social media to listen more effectively to your customers might be one of the most important things your company can do to better engage with the community. The number of online conversations taking place in any given hour, on any given topic, is staggering and only continues to grow. At Microsoft, we’re making it a priority to be a part of these conversations and find out who’s driving them, what they’re about, and what they mean for our products and services.

For example, we use rich social media analytics to analyze 15,000 Microsoft product and technology related articles per day across numerous blogs and 600 forum locations on MSDN, TechNet, Microsoft Answers, and Expression web sites. We don’t leave out industry and third-party properties either, and pay close attention to Twitter, Facebook and other forums.

Another approach that has helped us gain better insight into what our customers are saying and thinking is engaging with influencers in the community. Your industry leaders can be powerful vessels of communication, since they’re passionate about what matters to your company, interact with your key audiences daily, and often are more than willing to give you feedback, both positive and critical, on your services or solutions.

Don’t shy away from influencers because they might tell you something you don’t want to hear. Make an effort to get to know them and use their knowledge and feedback for good. About 18 years ago, we started something called the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Award Program, through which we honor and thank exceptional technical community leaders, give them early access to our products and encourage their highly-focused feedback.

Our MVPs aren’t just industry thought leaders, though. They’re also individuals with a natural propensity to serve and help IT users maximize the value of their technology. They’re the friends and neighbors you call when you don’t know what that pop-up window on your computer means, how to upgrade your operating system, or need tips on creating a better PowerPoint deck. Since they’re already listening to the community, we want to be alongside them, learn about what they’re hearing from IT users and use that information to create a better customer experience.

Of course, how your company decides to listen all depends on factors like size, industry and customer base. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution or tactic, but the principle remains the same, whether your company makes cars, plans parties or sells paper towels. At the end of the day, people want to be heard, much more than they want to be talked to. You might just be surprised by what you hear if you really listen.

Writer Bio:
Toby Richards is general manager of Community & Online Support within Microsoft Customer Service and Support, which provides customer service and support solutions worldwide. To learn more about Microsoft’s MVP Award Program, please visit http://www.microsoft.com/mvp or read our blog at http://blogs.msdn.com/mvpawardprogram. Visit http://answers.microsoft.com to experience one of Microsoft’s most popular forums, Microsoft Answers.

photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

How Customer Service Can Create Brand Ambassadors

For any type of business looking to sustain itself past the honeymoon period (when venture capital or buzz ends), the ratio between new customers to retuning customers must favor the latter. Brands that are able to lead with quality customer service and innovating products are able to retain customers and turn them into brand ambassadors.

Talk to any Apple Mac user and ask whether or not they would recommend Apple and you’ll witness the power of having brand ambassadors on your side. So if having brand ambassadors is good business and all you have to do is offer quality customer service, why doesn’t every business do it? Well, first unfortunately few brands understand the awesome power of leading with customer service as a business objective and secondly in addition to leading with customer service a few conditions must be observed.

Under what circumstances can quality customer service lead to the creation of brand ambassadors:

  1. Having Desirable Offer: The first condition is offering a product or service others will likely need. Even the most loyal brand ambassador will find it hard convincing you to buy a fax machine in this digital age rather than using a piece of software. on the other hand, if the product is inferior to similar products in the market, but is more than made up by quality service the condition is still met.
  2. Engagement Level strategy: The idea is to openly accept and engage in communication with the customer base. Some brands only see generating revenue from customers as engagement others on the other hand also value communication. Open communication will contribute to brand loyalty an important step to create brand ambassadors.
  3. Encourage Social Sharing: Brands should not shy away from asking and encouraging customers to share legitimate brand messages. Those messages are not necessarily sales pitches, but could also be fun and creative (I’m a Mac I’m a PC) as long as they serve a business goal. The web now days offers a selection of social applications such as Twitter and Facebook where brand ambassadors could be heard.
  4. Customer-Centric Objectives: Many brands may say they are led by customer service, or that their customers are all treated equal etc but in most cases the execution is lacking. A successful customer-centric strategy should be build around a customer service culture where every discipline of the brand understands its importance and does its part.

If you are looking to create brand ambassadors, I hope this post will point you in the right direction.

Today’s post was written by Joesph Eitan, Founder and MD of Photo Paper Direct. Joesph has over 20 years experience managing brands and engaging with customers.

Keep Your Cool on the Phone – Part 2


This is part two (part one is here) of the guest post written by Jennifer Harris from Ruby Receptionists.

Some may think it is a good idea to agree with everything the angry caller has to say, “Yes, that is awful, I totally agree 100%.”  The problem is this can be patronizing and the caller will pick up on that.  We have found it is better the only empathize when we really do agree with the caller.  It is often easier just to get the caller on your side.  “Here is what we are going to do… Why don’t we try all of his lines, and if we are unable to reach him, we will leave him a voice mail and a written message that I will mark urgent.  That way we attack from two fronts.”  By doing this you bring them on your side, so the two of you are working together.  Then you give them a plan of action, so they know everything about the process, making them feel more in control.  Finally, by saying something like this, you are letting them know that you are doing everything in your power to get them what they want and hopefully they will stop being angry … at least with you.

One more trick I like to employ is just to smile.  The caller cannot see my smile, but it tends to show up in my voice.  No matter how horrible I find the caller, I just keep grinning and even if I do not succeed in cheering them up, at least I feel fine when the call is done.

Sometimes there is just no pleasing a caller.  They want to yell, and you are the lucky person who will receive the yelling.  Just remember to stay calm, use the tricks above, and if they don’t work, end the call politely, when you have done everything you can, and forget about them.  If you are able, walk around the block, eat something crunchy (I like carrots), and remember, they are not mad at you, they are mad at their situation and you got caught in the crossfire.

Jennifer Harris works as the sales coordinator for Ruby Receptionists, before which she worked as a receptionist for 5 years, learning all the ins and outs of phone etiquette.

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