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Getting back to the basics of effective customer service

In one of the most successful self-help books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey identifies the elements truly effective people use regularly as tools towards their success. No matter how quickly technology continues to dazzle us with innovative ways to contact our customers, understand new products, or strive to make purchasing convenient and quick, satisfied customers and our future relationships with them are what keeps our businesses growing. Might we just build trust and more satisfied customers by getting back to basics, and using  proven methods of success? Here are Covey’s habits as explained in his book. Read how easily they can be related to the core values of effective customer service:

  1. Habit number one calls for us to be proactive or to take the initiative to realize the decisions we make will ultimately determine the course of our businesses. No matter how far technology takes us, people still want to speak to real people when they are having a problem or expecting excellent service. Customer service has always been a top priority for American Express as compared to the endless prompts and procedures of other credit card companies. It’s interesting to note that more credit card companies have recently been reaching out to the public stating that real people are now readily available when a customer calls.
  2. The second habit is to begin with the end in mind or picture where you would like your business to be in the future. Amazon, Zappos, and the Ritz Carlton hotels pictured clients and guests having access to every amenity, guaranteeing satisfaction with unquestioned return policies, and hiring the most effective agents who could bring a dream to reality.
  3. Put first things first and prioritize your tasks as to your customers. Keep promises, work on your company values, and above all concentrate on the most ethical and respectful ways to promote better relationships with all of your customers. Sometimes it isn’t just about the sale, and people remember when you go out of your way to help.
  4. Can you think win-win? Outstanding customer service calls for everyone to win. Can you solve problems and still be fair? While you may not make a customer happy all the time, the win-win situation still counts if there is value and respect for both sides. If one can concentrate on long term solutions and still come up with a reasonable compromise, all parties can maintain their dignity.
  5. Habit five says to seek first to understand, then to be understood. Communication is a two-way street. The most important part of excellent customer service is the ability to listen. We can’t solve problems if we don’t understand.
  6. Next we synergize which is to join forces with our teams and work together to encourage the best possible customer services. We just cannot depend on the front desk agent who answers the phone or who replies on Facebook. Customer service includes every department from CEO to delivery. The best customer service oriented companies encourage employees to learn, join together to teach each other, and work where the “whole” complements the “parts.”
  7. And finally the seventh most successful habit is described as sharpening the saw. The analogy pertains to the man who kept sawing through a piece of wood, but his saw was too dull to finish the job on time. When asked why he didn’t just stop and sharpen his saw, the man replied he couldn’t because he wouldn’t be able to finish his job by stopping. All of us need to take  time to energize ourselves whether we choose to spend time with our children, run ten-miles on the beach, or relax in the mountains of New York State. Take some time, and learn from our mistakes.

The valuable time we spend honing our best talents and helping our colleagues to be the best they can be will help to establish the  most successful companies.

Transportation Security Administration criticized for poor customer service

It seems that even the TSA is under scrutiny as to their lack of customer service, and passengers who have encountered problems trying to navigate through the woes of 21st century airport security have a valid argument. TSA Administrator John Pistole stated in a recent interview on CNN that less intrusive rules have been implemented lately. For instance, passengers over the age of 75 are no longer required to shed their coats or take off their shoes while going through security. Also 1.5 million passengers have gone through TSA’s PreCheck which is a pre-screening investigation which expedites security clearance.

In a recent Congressional hearing, Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala) of the House Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee stated the TSA is a huge bureaucracy that pays little attention to citizens. Customer service, even at its most basic qualifier demands an individual be treated respectfully. Is there something awry with TSA customer service when recognizable individuals such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are patted down at the entrance to airport security?

The subcommittee’s new efforts will now concentrate on their “poor customer service image and become a leaner, smarter agency,” according to Rogers. It’s profoundly understood that the job of the TSA is to provide airline passengers with safe transit, but the long lines, the less than pleasant attitudes of some agents, removing belts, coats, and shoes, and having to acquiesce to “striptease” in certain arbitrary situations aren’t the ways to satisfy passengers. Where most people will agree that many of the procedures are necessary to insure the safety of Americans and all travelers, others cite the hypocrisies of some regulations that no longer apply. Not too long ago, passengers had to turn on their laptops nor were cigarette lighters permitted. Now smaller laptops don’t have to removed from a passenger’s backpack or carry-on.

If people are outraged and disgusted by TSA agents for their inefficiency or their callousness to addressing tenuous situations with expertise and professionalism, the media can easily multiply the assumed bullying and defiance of the TSA officers. The story went viral when a four-year-old child was searched on the suspicion of having a firearm possibly given to him when hugged by his grandmother. Fortunately none of it was true, but the less than professional behavior sent unflattering criticism from one end of the planet to the other end.

On the plus side, Pistole states that TSA personnel are now being trained and retrained as to respect for passengers as well as treating people professionally. There are just too many different rules, and Americans have legitimate concerns over radiation incurred during body screening or of nasty agents bragging about having made passengers cry.

Meanwhile the prices of flights continue to rise, but still the planes are 82 percent filled to capacity. Many passengers do opt to no longer fly. Let’s just hope the retraining of the TSA agents help them to add customer service strategies to their job descriptions.

Take lessons from the leaders in customer service

If I have a problem with Comcast, I am obligated to call their toll-free number and begin the maze of selecting the right option. When I finally arrive at choice #3 I am then instructed to hold on for the next available agent who will assist me with my problem. There is no relaxing elevator music where I can work until an agent answers; instead I’m forced to listen to a litany of advertisements offering me more services that might very well call me back to this same maze of customer service mediocrity.

Customer service needs to be more than just a smile and a representative having memorized the instruction manual. Agents are there to provide answers to questions, provide easy links and processes to purchase products and services, and respond to customer requests, but there’s a world of difference between organizations that step out of the “box” and those that plod along just humming from day to day. On the positive side, Comcast continues to improve their customer service home visits by guaranteeing their technician to be on time for home visits or providing a credit of $20 to one’s account. Still the first line of customer service which is that first impression hardly provides even a sparkle of “dazzle.”

Let’s visit with Zappos.com for a moment and discover how their customer service recipe extends far beyond what most other establishments offer. The organization started in 1998, and by 2009 Amazon paid one-billion dollars for an online shoe store which amazingly continues to entertain and delight while increasing its visibility, excelling  in connecting with customers, and selling more online merchandise than most other  stores. And it’s not a comparison between a service as in Comcast and a retail experience as in Zappos.com; it’s a response to understanding and perpetuating the best “foot” forward of service.

So what makes Zappos.com a leader in customer service? To begin the company works hard on their brand, has a definitive plan for success where everyone joins in, delivers the “wow” experience, and encourages employees to join in the quirkiness of the organization thus enabling employees to think on their own, enjoy the time they spend at Zappos, and feel they are all integral parts to the success of the company. It’s a fun place to work, folks smile and laugh, and the enthusiasm is contagious ranging from the new employees in training to the jungle-themed  corner desk of CEO Tony Hsieh who encourages employees to use social media and create their own videos telling their own stories. With a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee and a one-year return policy, consumers find the entire buying and service experience fun and efficient. Personnel at Zappos.com react to people by understanding what customers want and need without having to ask.

Great customer service representatives do seem to carry some common traits:

  • Great company representatives have excellent writing and speaking skills.
  •  Representatives are able to respond to a high volume of business without stressing out.
  • Great agents are self-confident without being boastful, are convincing and have a contagious personality.
  • Successful agents are able to take on different jobs and are willing to participate and help their fellow employees.

Should a superstar with these qualities walk through the door of your organization, be sure to offer her a job and watch your business grow.

What Mickey Mouse can teach us about customer service

It’s the Disney Institute’s 16th birthday, and as with all Sweet Sixteen parties, it’s a chance to celebrate successes and see how the pixie dust of enchantment mixes so effectively with the success of one man’s dream. Walt Disney stated,  “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”

The Disney Institute originally began in 1986 in Orlando offering “leisure learning” which entailed courses on fun topics like cooking and landscaping classes. By 1996 the organization offered business programs and currently sends representatives all over the world teaching Disney’s best practices of leadership, management, customer service, and loyalty. What the visiting families and tourist perceive as effortless daily operations is actually a well-trained, enthusiastic. motivated work force. Of course they are not without their trials and tribulations of union disputes, strict rules, and continuous growing pains, but to employ 64,000 people just in Orlando is a testament to the success of the operation.

What makes Disney so successful? After all, statistics state that 70 percent of Disney visitors make repeat visits. According to the Disney Institute, the top three expectations of cleanliness, friendliness and fun permeate the entire culture of the work force. No one walks by a piece of trash on the park’s grounds and doesn’t stoop to pick it up. Employees or “cast members” as they are called make the difference. Their opinions are heard, they contribute suggestions on how to improve service, and are motivated to do the best job they can.

From the moment a candidate applies for a job or as it is called a “casting audition,” the Disney University with its world class training helps employees to feel empowered by their own positions and work on exceeding guest expectations by paying attention to detail. Besides the training leadership and helping each person feel as if they are making a difference, Disney does employ the means to gather an amazing amount of information about their guests wants and expectations. For instance the organization collects data from constant surveys, focus groups, and opinion polls. The follow-up is phenomenal and compilations actually disseminate how often people travel to Disney, how long it takes for an average family to save the funds to make the trip, how much a family generally spends, and who drives or flies to the land of happiness and magic.

Of course I have never had the privilege of auditing the Disney Institute, and I do hope one day to experience the magical mystery behind the infamous brand, but there is definitely a finite connection between business success and the culture of respect employees seem to have for each other. In the Disney book called In Search of Excellence, it lends some interesting advice to applying some of the lessons to our own businesses – even if we don’t offer Magic Toad Rides or Mickey Mouse parades.

Book Review: The Welcomer Edge: Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business

I recently finished reading The Welcomer Edge: Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business by Richard R. Shapiro who is the founder and President of The Center For Client Retention (TCFCR). Mr. Shapiro’s organization provides research, training, and consulting services to Fortune 500 corporations on how to improve customer service.

The book begins with a lighthearted description of four distinct categories of customer service personnel any organization is likely to have on their payroll:

  • We begin with the Welcomer or “Doctor of First Impressions.” These are the customer service representatives we all want; these are the people who enjoy their jobs, enjoy working with customers, and these are the employees who should be appreciated and valued. Most likely these are the people who volunteer in our own communities and love working towards the welfare of others. These are the people who make a difference.
  • Robots are the next classification and encompass the largest proportion of sales associates and representatives. Although they value and appreciate their positions in one’s company, they most likely view their jobs as exactly what is written in the employee manual and rarely step out of the box to do anything else than the obligatory customer interaction needed to get through the work day.
  • Moving on to the indifferent sales and customer service representative, these are the employees likely to be chatting on their cell phones or those who scarcely acknowledge a customer as she walks through the door and begins to shop.
  • And the final category are those we rarely encounter, however somewhere in our lifetime, we meet the hostile employee we hope never to meet again. That hostile employee can be rude and nasty and make you wonder why he even has a job.

The Welcomer Edge is divided into personal experiences and real business examples describing many of the author’s real world experiences applicable to either small or large organizations. The author presents examples in each chapter in order to highlight the advantages of nurturing customer relationships. Customers are not just seen as customers; skilled salesmen see customers as people first and remind all of us that good will, meaningful conversation, honesty and smiles go a long way when developing customer loyalty.

Good customer service is good for today. Having a welcomer provide good customer service wil make you return tomorrow. That’s a big difference.

So what makes a great welcomer? According to Mr. Shapiro, these are the people who are of course helpful, but in addition these are the people who show customers they care. A question is never just answered with a “yes” or “no” answer even though that one word would be correct for the circumstance, but these are the very people who understand that it’s not just “selling” a service or a commodity – it’s helping someone to find what they need or want. It’s what makes the difference in businesses like Zappos or the Ritz Carlton – it’s the attitude that some people have developed to make that initial contact with a customer the reason for that customer to want to come back.

Each of the eleven chapters of the book provides practical suggestions, specific examples, and addresses how business owners can connect the dots to better customer service. At the end of each chapter, “power points worth repeating” sum up the power of welcomers and how each missed chance can ultimately mean a missed opportunity in business.

Bottomline: Having a welcomer, or “Doctor of First Impressions,” are those employees who make customers feel important. From the moment a customer walks into a store the customer feels appreciated. By the time they get to the check-out experience, a connection should already have been made, and that lasting impression is what will keep that customer coming back again. The little things an organization does are the very elements that make the big difference in the ultimate customer service experience.

Pros: Mr. Shapiro’s book was well-written. He presents his experiences in a variety of different venues. The reader can’t help but smile at some of his personal experiences; many of them most of us can probably relate to at one time or another.

Cons: A few of the author’s examples might be a bit drawn out and not realistic for many people reading this book. For instance, I’m not sure how much time a business person would want to listen to his server’s vacation experiences or personal stories when often time is of the essence. That just might be all about one’s perspective though.

Interested in purchasing a copy? You can get it from Amazon.com ($11.90 in paperback) by clicking here.

Medicare forcing hospitals to improve their customer service

In the midst of arguments on the Affordable Health Care programs, it is interesting to delve into this year’s Medicare push for improved customer service in the hospital venue. Beginning in October, Medicare will hold one percent of their regular reimbursements based on performance. With payments that will total more than $50 million, United States health-care is being forced to improve the quality of their care.

The survey is called Hospital Consumer Assessment of Health-care Providers and Services (HCAHPS) and contains 27 pertinent questions about a patient’s hospital experience. Here is just a sampling of what patients are asked:

  • Did the nurses and doctors communicate well during your hospital stay?
  • Was your pain well-controlled?
  • Was your room clean?
  • Was the hospital quiet at night?
  • Was the food prepared well, and how was the menu?
  • When discharged from the hospital, did you receive clear follow-up instructions?

Some hospitals are really taking the new Medicare initiative seriously. They are demanding the entire hospital staff attend customer satisfaction seminars. Where many patients remember a physician entering a patient’s room and treating that patient as if he were merely a medical object and showed little compassion – much less any bedside manner, that entire mindset has been changing. Although it is a subjective opinion of what a patient perceives is compassionate, no one can deny the hospital that implements programs such as massage therapy, reflexology, and music therapy.

Hospitals have even improved their menus and the way food is presented to patients. In Detroit based hospital Henry Ford, don’t be surprised to see such menu choices as tilapia and chicken piccata. Room service and VIP lounges have been introduced with the hopes that patients will give the hospital higher marks. Hospitals will be reimbursed based on 70 percent of actual patient quality care and 30 percent based on patient satisfaction.

So besides adding luxurious extras to enhance the rather scary and unsettling hospital experience for patients, besides employing extra customer service training, hospitals are now hiring patient experience consultants to help deal with complaints and add the more compassionate touch to serious medical care. Watch some of the commercials on television where the words compassion, treating the “whole” patient, and a completely new genre of gentle and personalized medical services are offered – often taking the place of the impersonal green and white walls of hospitals in the past.

What happens however, in the poorer hospital areas where massages and high paid chefs are not an option in the medical hospital budget? There comes the practical argument that the quality of care is the most important aspect of healing a patient. These facilities will lose money on Medicare reimbursement because even poor patients want to be treated as a “whole” person.

So far only 67 percent of the patients polled gave top grades to hospitals. Now that is food for thought.

Interview with Rob Siefker of Zappos – Part 4 of 4

This is the fourth and final part of my interview with Rob Siefker, the Director of the Customer Loyatly Team at Zappos. In this part of the interview, Rob talks about performance reviews, how Zappos encourages employees to further their knowledge (and pays them for doing so), what he thinks about seniority and tenure amongst call center agents, how Zappos handles scheduling, how the company encourages “personal emotional connections,” and finally, what Rob thinks companies can do to deliver Zappos-like service.

You can read part one of the interview here, part two here, and part three here. To read this part, click “read more.”

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U.S. airlines improving customer service?

N753EVThe trade industry organization Airlines for America has reported customer service for airlines  improving in three different areas. Travelers are always interested in improved customer service, so therefore any news in the airline industry is always considered good news, but alas have there really been improvements or is it just better defined as happenstance?

CNN states mishandled baggage was at an all time low for 2011 – 3.39 bags misplaced per 1,000 which registered a 3.51 drop from 2010. Airlines chalk it up to improved baggage handling, however let’s face the reality of travelers checking less luggage because of the outrageous baggage fees. We now pack much more efficiently, and just travel with less “stuff.”

The Department of Transportation reports the number of passengers bumped from flights decreased to 0.81 per 10,000 passengers – a decline of 1.09. The airlines contend better planning, but the Wall Street Journal attributed the decrease to DOT doubling airline penalties to passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding.

And finally the report states that U.S. airlines have had the best on time arrival rates – up by 85.07 percent. One has to question whether the airlines have changed and improved employee policies, improved maintenance on planes thus avoiding long delays, or has the lack of inclement weather this winter just been a greater part of that improvement? Never mind that there is less sky traffic, oil prices are way up and less people are traveling by air because of the weak economy.

We do know that traveler complaints continue to apply pressure to the airline industry forcing them to make improvements, however consumer complaints on both domestic and foreign airlines have risen in the past year. The Department of Transportation received 11,545 complaints – up 5 percent from 10,988 in 2010. Many of the complaints arose from foreign carriers, and an especially high amount of complaints concerned the apparent lack of  customer service for passengers with physical disabilities.

We of little faith periodically wonder if airlines will ever succeed in doing it better. With so many variables to consider for every flight, mistakes are bound to be a reoccurring pattern, however more personal considerations need to be addressed at the ticket counter, check-in, on the aircraft and at the terminals. It is how the human factor handles many of these problems that make the frustration and ultimate anger resulting in the constant multitude of complaints.

Do you want to know the best airline considered the number one on-time carrier for the eighth straight year? According to the Department of Transportation, Hawaiian Airlines scored 92.8 percent on-time performance. When asked how the airlines achieved such a remarkable achievement, the company heartily thanked the dedicated Hawaiian employee performance. Let’s hope the other airlines follow suit.

photo credit: redlegsfan21

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