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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.

How we worship our satisfied customers

With happy customers comes repeat business, referrals, and of course loyalty; all adding to a customer oriented culture that ultimately places an organization as being more popular and valuable. The customer-centric legend, Zappos, an e-retailer with a unique approach to selling shoes and a variety of other merchandise, focuses its culture on pleasing the customer at a personal service level. Their “Happiness Experience Form” evaluates the team member’s ability to personally connect with the customer, build a rapport, address the needs of the customer, and deliver the “WOW” experience.

Perhaps one of the best known Zappos’ customer experiences happened in December 2012 when a conversation between a team member and a customer lasted 10.5 hours. Ironically, when the duration of the phone call which concentrated more on what it was like living in Las Vegas than selling shoes aired throughout the media, Zappos did not perceive the news as bad. A Zappos Customer Loyalty Team supervisor, in fact stated:

“Zappos’s first core value is to deliver wow through service, and we feel that allowing our team members the ability to stay on the phone with a customer for as long as they need is a crucial means of fulfilling this value.”

The customer did reportedly purchase a pair of Ugg boots.

Everyone wants to work for the best company which ultimately then attracts the best potential employees; therefore costing less money to recruit the most talented. With successful companies come better revenues, stability in the economics of the company, and more opportunities for future employee growth and promotions.

Many companies question how an organization changes from being focused on products or transactions to placing the focus on customer experiences where people become engaged emotionally. Beginning at step one with employees, evaluate if they are willing to help each other, are compassionate and helpful, and treat each other with respect. Have new strategies been defined to help employees embrace the experience – both by in depth training and by the involvement of partners who are able to enrich these experiences?

Customer-centric organizations incorporate their company culture and teach by example the following basic elements:

  • Customer experiences are customized; everyone is an individual and not just included in the one size fits all or “Please do not hang up. Your call is important to us.”
  • Customer needs are anticipated.
  • Customers receive quick responses.
  • Customers are involved in the development of services needed by asking clients and consumers what they find to be important.
  • Customer data is recorded and used to deliver a better experience.
  • Customer trends are tracked.
  • Trends and problems are shared with the team; what better way to improve customer experiences?
  • Send out and collect reviews after transactions to improve the customer experience and the products being sold and delivered.

And at the end of the day, have a plan to recognize the achievements of employees. Celebrate that incredible “WOW” experience a team member managed to pull off by “stepping out of the box.” Encourage employees to focus on customer experiences and make each unique experience a part of the company culture.

Be an ‘Undercover Boss’ to help employees please customers

detectiveIf you have ever tuned into the CBS show “Undercover Boss” where owners and corporate executives work undercover to examine their own companies, it is indeed an interesting concept that has aroused some significant awareness and changes in organizations. Of course, there’s always some interesting drama associated with the television production, but it’s that individual attention and demand for fair treatment and loyalty that sustains success and growth for all of us.

While it may not be necessary to don a disguise with a fake beard, hair dye, and bushy eyebrows, why not use the idea and do some anonymous shopping of your own to determine what customers want, what customers get, and how skillfully and competently customers are getting what they want? For instance, if it’s a big company and you’re rarely in “the trenches,” maybe it’s  time to go shopping? For a brick and mortar establishment, buy something, ask for help, and ask some difficult questions. Are employees knowledgeable about their products? With an Internet based business, order off of the website and check how efficient the ordering process is and how efficiently orders are handled. Ask a friend to order something; get an objective opinion.

So let’s assume the staff is well trained, industrious, customer service oriented, and all around great employees in the sales or service department, but what happens when a customer isn’t satisfied? Most employees deem it much easier to make the sale, or contribute to the desired service, but when there’s a problem, the solutions too often go awry.

Most customers begin the complaint route with the telephone. The job of keeping people calm after they’ve been on hold for what may seem like an extended amount of time can set the pace for impatience and short tempers. If I’ve had a pleasant experience buying a product and I was treated fairly, chances are I will remain loyal and pay more because it has made my life easier, but that’s rarely the end of the transaction. The real test of time comes somewhere down the road if the product breaks, fails, or the customer needs to reach out for extra service or assistance. Customers aren’t going to call you if everything is fine, but be aware the protocol for pleasing customers far more than they expect will exponentially lead to more referrals, more business, and faster growth.

Customer service, therefore is a department not to be decreased because sales are down. Look to the problems being reported and document each and every issue. Here is the time to identify problems, fix them, follow up, review and apologize. Here is an event that can show a customer that you care, and through careful monitoring by rectifying problems in a timely manner, show customers they really matter.

It’s a win, win situation which most likely will leave a smile on someone’s face.

Ease up on customer service demands during inclement weather

Snow Storm, Dec. 2008Whether it be hurricanes, blizzards, fogs, or floods, inclement weather has its own way of leading an otherwise civilized society into moments of rage and unacceptable behavior. Spend a few hours in a busy airport and listen as a few narcissistic and petty customers scream profanities at service workers in fast food establishments, airline employees, or transport personnel as if the adverse weather and all of the complications that frequently occur during such times are the fault of the employees.

For airlines at least, and of course in my business of real estate sales, force majeure, or an act of God as contracts state, parties are free from liability when an extraordinary event or circumstance prevents them from fulfilling their obligations. Of course this rarely excuses them altogether, but at the same time airlines are not required to compensate passengers for hotels or other expenses during the delay, and hence something seems to click negatively in the human brain of a few, but no matter how upset we may all become, maybe a “teachable experience” can remind us of what we teach our children.

It is the responsibility of airlines and other services to safely operate during severe weather and emergency  conditions. Businesses that stay open during harsh conditions often have employees who have risked their own safety and comfort to provide necessary services. So instead of telling the person behind the desk she is a “blithering fool,” please learn how to treat people with decency and respect.

For employers who need their staff to brave serious weather conditions, be flexible and realize the difficulty of the situations. Employees are not automatically entitled to being paid if they can’t get to work, and those policies should be clearly explained in staffing contracts or the company handbook. Maintain fair and consistent employment relations with employees before emergencies and have an “adverse weather” policy in force for the continuation of services in case of such emergencies. If employees are able to work from home using remote devices, it maintains stability of the business as well as an important morale booster in times of stress for both employers and employees.

And for all of my fellow travelers in the airports of the world, although airline companies can be a challenge all of their own, use these simple suggestions to ensure a better experience during inclement weather:

  • Check online before your flight or call ahead when adverse weather conditions are expected.
  • Call reservations. While most delays do not require rebooking, some do.
  • If you are expecting to board a connecting flight, see the reservation personnel for additional help.
  • Maintain your patience.

Check the website of the airline carrier for their policies concerning inclement weather. For instance, United Airlines has some extremely useful and informative information.

Brick and mortar stores can still outdo Amazon with ‘Amazon Can’t Do That’

Hurried ShoppersIn a study titled “Amazon Can’t Do That” polling 1,500 consumers spanning the three generations of Millennial, Gen X, and Boomers research group, WD Partners concluded that shoppers still prefer feeling, walking around, and gathering with friends and families during the holiday shopping season. Whereas Amazon is no longer just a store for books, the grand giant now sells everything that can be sold or delivered, so how do local stores compete, and what needs to be done to gain customer loyalty even after the last ornaments have been neatly tucked away?

As convenient as it was to shop on Cyber Monday, the news media burst  with headlines displaying throngs of shoppers postponing their family turkey dinners to stand in line for incredible deals such as 50″ flat screen televisions for $199, kitchen appliances at hefty discounts, or the most popular toys being sold in record numbers at Toys R’Us on Black Friday. Mix that with movie stars such as Jessica Simpson, Justin Bieber, and others superimposed talking to Kris Kringle in the Macy’s Department Store advertisement, which for the first time ever, opened on Thanksgiving Day, there’s still some profound popularity for the brick and mortar experience to find good service, good sales, and the nostalgia of the Season.

Still stores can’t depend on that warm and toasty experience shoppers love as they purchase gifts for their families and friends. Stores need to give customers what they want and make the experience pleasant if they want to see these same people post holiday time. If the shoppers’ experiences wind up with poor customer service, it’s apt to show up quite quickly on social media, and that could end up in a long run to recovery. It’s about making the experience stand out; some bonuses the shopper may not experience if they chose the online shopping path can also help build loyalty. For instance:

  • Offer free attractive gift wrapping and have numerous employees there to keep line waiting time to a minimum.
  • Offer free shipping for more expensive and luxury items with insurance.
  • Make customer assistance convenient and quick for shoppers. Use email, telephone calls, and live chats to help with service.
  • Use loyalty cards and give one out to every customer during the holiday shopping season that can quickly add up and provide a benefit or discount after the season. Make it an attractive offer and build customer loyalty at the same time.
  • Make sure to thank every customer, apologize for any oversight, correct the problems, and ask how you can be of any further assistance.
  • Offer discounts for multiple purchases. Everyone likes “buy one get one free.

According to WD Partners, however the brick and mortar store should be ” a place of inspiration and ideas that leaves shoppers with a high or sense of euphoria. The in-store shopping experience must offer more than a warehouse does. Retailers who provide this type of shopping experience will be successful this holiday shopping season.

“The store should be a place of inspiration and ideas that leaves shoppers with a high or sense of euphoria,” Lee Paterson, executive vice president of creative services of WD Partners, said in the study. “The in-store shopping experience must offer more than a warehouse does. Retailers who provide this type of shopping experience will be successful this holiday shopping season.” – See more here.

How not to act when customer service fails miserably

This week was a drama-filled example of a customer “gone wild” when an incredibly frustrated customer service recording from Reddit was made public on YouTube. Picture a client, who for three hours tried in vain to get an issue resolved at an alleged home security organization, and went from agent to agent until finally customer service representative Michelle left a number for the client to call. The problem with that however, is that Michelle was nowhere to be found, and as the customer’s anger escalated, his behavior became inexcusable; pity the service representative named Mark who finally answered the call.

As we all believed once upon a time that the tooth fairy really existed, and the money left on our pillows in the morning came from an unbelievably beautiful princess with a magical wand, we all want to believe that organizations really want to keep our business and ultimately a customer service representative will come to our rescue. Of course, minus the magic wand, and too many times the long hold period with the repetitious sales pitch and elevator music, the transferring of one’s call to another representative, or the even more fearsome threat of being disconnected during call transfers, inept customer service can push the buttons of the most patient and optimistic soul.

It seems this in particular recording, allegedly from four years ago, pushed this customer’s sanity, because he curses, screams, and even threatens violence by coming to the customer center and using a machine gun. Customer service representative Mark who answered the phone at tech support was instructed by the customer not to put him on hold or even transfer him to another representative for fear of being disconnected again. Mark obliged the customer; we don’t really know why because without the necessary information from the customer as to the problem or even the customer’s identity, how could any questions be resolved? Was the customer service rule at the company never to hang up on anyone or be fired?

Regardless of the hysterics caused by this week’s ballistic outbreak from an out of control customer, it’s a good platform to help all of us not overreact to poor customer service. Not too long ago, most of us remember the airline attendant who went ballistic when a rude passenger angered him; he told the person off and then proceeded to slide down the emergency chute and exit the plane. We’ve seen customers break expensive china, throw diamonds into the rivers, and act so much out of control, we either cringe with fear or laugh hysterically, but a lesson for all of us lies somewhere beneath all that anger and the frustration.

Even if it means walking away from your computer or putting your IPhone away for a rest, stay calm. Most companies do allow their representatives to hang up when a customer calls and is profane or threatening. Have a clear, concise summary of your problem, and leave out the emotions. Be polite to the representative, and try to remember that person is there to help and has no preconceived notion to want to hurt you or not resolve your problem as quickly and effectively as possible. Of course, it’s no surprise when we reach low-level employees who have no discretion as to making exceptions or much talent in the problem solving issues, so be prepared to be transferred when dealing with certain companies. Too many companies don’t put the time or effort into proper training.  There’s nothing wrong with asking to speak with a supervisor, and sometimes it does take time for a return call, but try the obvious remedies first and make sure you hone in on the particular department applicable to your problem. Keep good records of everyone you speak with, and be persistent; again without being rude, and when all else fails, never be afraid to turn to government agencies, Better Business Bureau, or social media.

Everyone agrees poor customer service is frustrating, and as hard as we try sometimes, failures happen. Let’s just hope businesses have enough wisdom to want to keep you as a customer and resolves the issue before it is too late.

Here’s the video:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/RVdNobKNMig?w=560]

Recruiting talented employees to enhance customer service

smile!Happy employees make for motivated people who want to deliver the best customer service they can to assist consumers and clients. These are the people who become the eyes, ears, and voices for any organization, often beginning at the receptionist desk  and progressing all the way up the corporate ladder to the person in charge of operations. Recruiting and keeping talented employees therefore is very important when building relationships with people and developing a company’s brand, because it’s what people say about you and your business when you’re not in their presence that makes a profound difference in the world of customer experience.

If we consider that customer service is the most important part of our marketing plans, both immediate and future, then we must concentrate on hiring and keeping the best employees because these are the people who can drive a company forward. Too often we read stories of disgruntled employees who have complained about belittling actions from their superiors, the lack of benefits for health and retirement, the absence of training programs, or the lack of confidence and permission for employees to perform their duties without having to get special permission every step of the way during a customer crisis. Once a company creates doubt and demonstrates a lack of integrity, employees lose faith and thus there is no denying that the elephant is in the room. Will your employees be your dream weavers or will they make nightmares come true?

So how do we keep employees happy and engaged? Since it’s a reality that it costs money to hire and train the best of the best, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to recognize and celebrate accomplishments – much as we would want done to us as we reach new milestones? Start with the best training, the best coaching, and the best communicators who can teach all aspects of one’s business. Once employees have the same vision and want to help improve the experience by sharing, they become more confident and empowered to put their best foot forward when faced with unique situations. Employees are empowered when they are well-trained, well-advised, and encouraged to improve and help to advocate changes as needed.

Organizations need to be transparent, for the more that is shared with the staff, the more opportunities there will be to iron out the problems and move ahead with new ideas to make better choices. Encourage personal development, and celebrate career advancement when it is deserved. Employees are proud when their accomplishments are recognized at staff meetings and celebratory events. Make the working environment a place where employees want to show up every day; not a place where they stand outside dreading the tick of the clock.

Encourage employees to participate in community events; having rewarding and humanitarian experiences enrich a community and our country. Humanize your company, build relationships with people because everyone has family and friends who can spread the word and appreciate your efforts.

In the fiercely, competitive struggle of fashion and service, Burberry does it well

burberryy-logoWhat keeps a company in business in today’s competitive retail market? For the luxury brands, buyers insist on the quality of  merchandise accompanied by exceptional customer experiences.  Within minutes of entering a boutique, can a prospective buyer be confident of a friendly atmosphere, of comfortable surroundings, and that of a customer service consultant capable of expertly assisting without being annoying?

Welcome to the world of Burberry, a company which dates back to 1856 with 21-year-old Thomas Burberry opening his own outdoor apparel shop in Hampshire, England. Introducing gabardine, a water-repellent and comfortable fabric, Burberry’s trench coat eventually became a household word often included in the wardrobes of the rich and famous, and happily filtering down to the working class.

But it’s not just about the high end clothing even though the men’s single breasted trench coat sells for $1,295 or the cotton polo with the Burberry distinctive tartan trim sells for $150, it’s also interesting to observe some of the innovative methods used in a highly competitive market to set themselves apart. Chief creative officer Christopher Bailey made sure only one central location would be responsible for the Burberry theme; thus concentrating on design and the ‘brand’ which is inexorably fashion. The strong growth in China has boosted the organization’s growth more than 13 percent in the last three months, and according to Wikipedia, the organization has 500 stores in over 50 countries.

With the expert incorporation of social media, Burberry has more than 10 million Facebook followers, but even Twitter was not to be the final public method of expanding the younger consumer desire of fashion and function communication. Burberry began its own social platform capitalizing the roots of their 150 year-old British tradition with The Art of the Trench, described as a “living celebration of the Burberry trench coat and the people who wear it.” Where one might think that customers may have turned up their perfectly coiffed hair at such a public display, the site is full of young, good-looking customers; even featuring a few pint-sized kiddies modeling their trench coats.

And in my own experience, the Burberry store in Palm Beach Gardens offers the visually appealing, experienced sales consultants, and the ease of completing a purchase with the least amount of stress. Since 2012, sales personnel use iPads as part of the company’s technological makeover which contains customer history,  buying preferences, and all that is needed to tailor one’s shopping experience. Match that with their online collections, excellent return policies, concierge service, and alteration facilities, the customer experience keeps you smiling and relaxed. Shopping should be enjoyable, and should it matter if we pay $49 or $149 for a polo shirt? Can’t other stores take a lesson or two from a London tradition who just seems to do it better than most stores?

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