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Improving customer service telephone manners

That “front line” telephone introduction can be a positive experience or a virtual punch in the mouth. If customer service telephone personnel have been taught just to deliver identical conversations and not have the ability to capitalize on their own personal styles, chances are the needs of the consumer are not being addressed. More than scripted monologues, there needs to be two-way conversations, but all customer service representatives should have the following basic elements deeply etched into their professional lives:

  • Every telephone conversation should begin with a warm, friendly greeting; it creates the foundation and the atmosphere of friendliness and cooperation.  Instead of just answering, ” Smith, Jones Computer Repair ”  wouldn’t it be more customer friendly to answer, ” Good morning, Smith, Jones Computer Repair; how may I help you?”
  • Smile when answering the phone. Even if there has to be a mirror on the desk next to the phone, a customer can sense when someone is smiling.
  • Every representative should show enthusiasm on the phone. It’s that positive attitude that shows customers the company cares about them. It is with my most sincere hope that every customer representative is aware that chewing gum or eating while speaking with a customer is an absolute “no-no.”
  • The tone of voice used can make a difference. Is the conversation strictly business, or is there room for personal thoughts? This would be a case-by-case scenario depending on the business involved.  Employees still should be able to adapt their own personal style and adapt it to the company’s advantage.
  • Never get angry with a customer. We all know that the customer is not likely to be angry with  the customer service representative, but if they are angry, it is best to let them vent; it’s not personal. Ask questions to show that the business cares about them, and always be a good listener.
  • Don’t get carried away with company terminology the consumer has no idea what it means. Each company has their own technical language which may sound completely alien to a customer, and a company does not want the customer to feel dumb.
  • Keep the transfer of calls to a minimum. If the representative needs to transfer a customer to a superior, make sure the superior is there to accept the call. How frustrating is it to be transferred and then have to leave a voice mail?  That doesn’t portray a caring company; it’s just another extension with a ” sorry I am away from my desk or helping another customer” recording.
  • Don’t put anyone on “hold” unless the customer is told how long they will be on hold, and make sure the customer service representative keeps their promise.

It’s very much the “how” we do it, that keeps customers happy, because if a company doesn’t do it to the satisfaction of customers, there’s  always another company waiting to take your place. Again, it’s the little things that really do make the difference.

photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

NJ toll road collectors lack customer service training

Under the US Freedom of Information Act, the popular internet site, The Smoking Gun.com released dramatic examples of complaint letters concerning toll collectors at the NJ Turnpike and Garden State Parkway for the years 2008 to 2009. Some hideous stories released told of a toll collector not wanting to make change for a $1.75 toll from a twenty-dollar bill and then throwing the change and telling the driver to get his change from the road and die, or another toll collector demanding a driver to submit to a strip search because she entered the wrong toll lane. Both toll collectors were docked pay or suspended, but no toll collector was ever fired.

On the flip side, I was able to find complaints from the toll collectors who seemed to be offended by the bad publicity they have been receiving since the FOIA was published. Charges of racial slurs, paying tolls with pennies, paying .75 tolls with one-hundred dollar bills, drivers spitting, and a general lack of respect seemed to rationalize the alleged behaviors of toll collectors reported as defensible because drivers are generally rude and disrespectful. One collector said he doesn’t have time to smile since his job is to give change, roll up coins and bills, and give directions.

Curious as I was since reading this, and since journalism and real estate both encompass miles of traveling, I intentionally stopped at various  different toll booths along the Florida Turnpike yesterday and today and conducted a quick survey among the toll collectors. This was far from a scientific study, but of the six toll collectors I surveyed (while in my car) the employees (and Florida collectors work for the Faneuil Group) stated that rarely had drivers been so rude that the collectors ever thought of retaliatory deeds to get even. In fact, one older gentleman told me he loved his job and smiled at every driver. “Do they all smile back at you?” I asked. With a huge Cheshire cat grin, he replied, “how can they help it?”

New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson has promised transparency and better customer service and promises to bring excellent service and public safety reforms to the Department of Transportation.

Toll collectors need to have customer service training also. They need to be hired because they can not only do the job, but be able to deal with the customers – just like any other consumer oriented position. What would be the results if a company used representatives who insulted, assaulted or told customers to “die” on the road? Would customer service representatives just be suspended for ten days with no pay?

Short of making it obligatory for everyone traveling the roads to use EZPass or Sun Pass, customer service rules should apply to everyone – even toll collectors.

photo credit: Dan4th

Many happy returns

How any business handles complaints and returns defines customer service. Since the benefit of any product or service is realized once the sale is made, it is imperative that an exchange or return be made easily so as not to make the buyer feel pressured. Customers will buy more with good policies and refer new buyers as well. A bad experience is likely to end the relationship and result in the loss of business; not a desired effect with today’s economy and competition.

So what is the best return policy? If you model your business plan after Nordstrom’s slogan, “Even if you’re making an exchange or return, we make it easy,” the policy should be whatever keeps the customer happy which is getting their money back with the least resistance and work. Of course the store owner gets stuck with extra credit card fees, repackaging, restocking, and reselling the returned item, but the loss of a customer is far more expensive.

All return policies need to be visible. Post them on cash registers, on receipts and if online, post prominent links. Staff should be trained when checking customers out so as to mention the policy and how many days a customer has to return merchandise. Nowadays it is obvious how many stores have extended the return time period, and some have no limits at all. Any exceptions to the return policy should be clear, and an upfront approach perhaps by the sales representative at checkout could reinforce the reminder with a statement such as, “Sales items cannot be returned.”

All employees should be trained to handle returns, exchanges and refunds. The staff should stay friendly and proceed as quickly as possible with the least amount of paperwork and questions. A return is not the time to ask customers for more data than necessary since the customer is likely not happy. Try to turn the transaction into a pleasant experience by staying friendly even if the customer gets rude. Online return policies often include prepaid return labels, which is a great way to gain the competitive edge by reversing and reducing the risk for consumers. Again, making sure that the policy is clear reduces confusion.

Lastly, don’t treat 99% of customers like the 1% who are dishonest and who try to take advantage of generous return policies. Most customers just want to be happy with their purchases and ensure they have spent their money wisely.

photo credit: Bitman

How to effectively complain over the phone

Last week, everything in my house broke. There was the house generator that needed a new starter; there was my internet connection that wouldn’t stay connected, and the spring on the garage door broke, and my car was held captive for a day. So there I was …on the phone lodging complaints.

So how does a person effectively complain over the phone? Here are my suggestions based on a week of personal experience, research and investigation.

  • It is very possible you will have to leave a voice mail. Leave your name, call back number, and allow someone approximately 24 hours to return your call. State your complaint and what you believe would be a fair and reasonable solution. Don’t tell a long story.
  • When someone does call you back, be reasonable. Customer service representatives may have some discretionary power to help, but don’t demand a trip to Italy. Sometimes you can get a gift card, discount for your next purchase, partial refund, or gift miles.
  • Initially assume good faith about the company and staff. You could use this in your conversation, “I know this isn’t your fault, and I don’t mean to take it out on you, but I hope you can feel my frustration.” The customer service representative won’t feel you are being adversarial and most likely will be more apt to please.
  • Make sure you get the agent’s name, identification number, date and time of call and follow-up in writing. You can’t always trust the agent made a notation on her computer about your problem.
  • If there is a language barrier, since many companies out source to countries like India, Latin America and Eastern Europe, advise the representative you can not understand him. Ask him to connect you to either a senior agent or ask to be connected to the supervisor.
  • Stay calm. Many customer service agents have a script. Don’t ever be rude; don’t curse,and don’t yell. Don’t threaten to sue unless you can follow through. Also, you know you’re not going to the President, and asking for the company owner is not likely to happen either.
  • Compare policies of other companies. If you are knowledgeable about other companies with similar services offering better warranties, refunds, etc. use that when speaking with the customer representative. The company may have to reach out and change its policy.

I also noticed that most companies have a message at the beginning of the customer service menu advising the caller that the calls may be monitored for quality assurance. Companies do take complaints seriously, and although no one wants to complain, it does mean there is a problem. Make sure you follow-up with a written correspondence, and if all else fails, a customer’s main revenge is to abandon the company and move on to their competition.

photo credit: loiclemeur

Putting on the Ritz

Today I was at the Ritz Carlton Destination Club in Jupiter, Florida featuring Mediterranean style estates, villas and residences along the golf course and a 68,000 square foot clubhouse with the most beautiful spa and fitness Center imaginable. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sine qua non of the “we live it, we breathe it” philosophy of such an impressive company.

When hired, an employee becomes part of the varsity team; perhaps one of the reasons the Ritz Carlton has the lowest turnover rate of any hotel in the industry. In the first year, employees receive more than 300 hours of training which includes a procedure manual containing  more than 1,000 examples of potential problems an employee might have to deal with while performing their job. Each team member who receives a complaint “owns” the complaint, and it doesn’t matter if you are the desk clerk, the bell boy or the housekeeper. Each team member has generous discretionary funds to handle complaints, and their ability to resolve these challenges without having to go through different channels eliminates 95% of potential problems with guests; after all guests don’t want to wait for a manager to come on duty to solve their problems.

The “Gold Standards” express the values and philosophy of the company. Briefly explained they are as follows:

  • The Credo. The finest personal service will be provided including even unexpressed wishes.
  • The Motto. “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”
  • 3 Steps of Service. We greet the guest. We anticipate what needs the guest will have and fulfill those needs. We bid farewell to the guest.
  • The Basics. We are proud to be at the Ritz Carlton and we always want to improve our services. We want to learn and grow and welcome your suggestions. We respect your privacy and are responsible for your safety, cleanliness and comfort of our guests.
  • Employee Promise. Guests are  most important at the Ritz Carlton.

As we were leaving early this evening, an older couple who apparently were not able to fly home because of the weather conditions northward returned to the Ritz Carlton looking very annoyed.  The desk clerk helped the couple get settled for another evening, and as the bell boy was piling their luggage on the cart, the woman remarked  to her husband she could use a hot cup of tea. Within minutes, the desk clerk returned with that cup of tea. What a difference it made to the guest; what a smile she had on her face.

photo credit: yungke22

It’s nothing personal

Monday morning and an angry customer is walking into the office, and for your own self-preservation, you never want to trade insults, yell back, engage in sarcasm, or be intimidated. You must first understand an angry customer at the simplest level.

They’re not angry at you; it’s only because you are an employee and representative of the company, but since you’re there in front of them, you naturally become the target. That angry woman who reminds you so much of your mother wants her problem solved, and your job is not to get her to that particularly hostile  point we’ve all heard, ” Well it’s the principle,” because at this point even if you could work something out, she would still be dissatisfied.

So what do you do? Let’s start at the beginning as the angry customer walks in:

– Observe body language. You never want to be blindsided by someone’s temper. Are their arms crossed, shoulders hunched, restless, staring or acting rude? You need to always remember the person isn’t mad at you, so try to be as unpolitical as you can be. Introduce yourself, and be polite. Ask the person her name and address her by name. Try not to make her wait; look up from your paper work immediately  and never say “NEXT”.

– Listen to the customer. You must always let the customer tell her story. Do not interrupt her, and listen intently until she is finished speaking.  Show her that you have been paying attention by paraphrasing her problem and assuring her you understand and intend to help.

– Phrases to avoid. An angry customer doesn’t do well with such stock phrases as: ” I only work  here,” “It’s against our store policy,” or probably the most annoying of them all, ” I’m only following the rules.” Never come back with one of those answers, but again assure the person you will do your best to solve their problem. If the problem can not be solved at the time, make sure you confirm with the customer when you will have an answer, and make sure you follow through with a response at the agreed upon time. Check out the Big List of Things Not to Say for more tips.

– If I cannot help. If for any reason you feel that you can not mitigate the complaint, it is acceptable to refer the customer to your supervisor, but make sure you give the customer their name and their contact information. What you never want to do is just push the complaint on to the next person, and not have the customer’s complaint resolved.

    Angry customers are always going to be around as are Monday mornings, but why not start the week off by helping your company keep its professional image and customers as well as you competently helping to resolve conflicts.

    photo credit: subew

    Customer service gone bad

    It’s hard to tell if you’re losing business because of the economy or doing something wrong. Competition is so keen now, what once may have just been mildly annoying is now the reason your competition has claimed some of your customers. Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the management support, training and motivation of your workforce. I’ve compiled a short list of the most annoying habits of customer service personnel which is  almost guaranteed to have your customers running to your competition. Any of these sound familiar?

    • Chewing gum. Can you think of anything more annoying than listening to someone chewing gum over the phone when they are talking to you? In person, I can’t seem to concentrate on what the representative is telling me because the movement of her jaw and the snapping sounds distract me too much.
    • Phone texting. Does a customer service representative think that I don’t notice how he is texting someone while dealing with my problem? As I am signing my name and filling out a store form for my refund, the person behind the desk is sending his girlfriend flowers from his Iphone.
    • Multiple phone transfers. I had a problem with a generator and called the toll-free number. Not only was I met by too many numbers to push for more extensions than I could count, but each time I had to repeat the story of my generator and why I wanted a refund due to a manufacturing error. Last I counted, I told the same story six times.
    • Lying customer service representatives. Do they lie because they just don’t care or don’t know the answer? The last representative told me the refund would be in the mail the same day. Six weeks later I still did not receive the refund or an explanation.
    • Key personnel missing. I look up the manager or key person who can help me with my customer problem, and leave numerous messages asking for a return call. He is always in meetings, traveling or having a family emergency.
    • New person on the job. New customer service representatives should have a trainer if the new person is a rank amateur, and that would save me tapping my foot on the floor waiting for the representative to go back and forth trying to solve my problem. Now if there was a trainer next to the newbie, I could have been on my way, happier and the problem likely would have been rectified before I tapped a hole into the floor.

    Basically, even if the customer doesn’t realize customer service means more than refunds, exchanges, or a polite greeting, doesn’t it come down to the little things that make the biggest differences?

    photo credit: Dan Zen

    Excellent customer service promotes construction business

    Gone are the days when construction companies had so much work lined up that any of us who needed a contractor would  say a little prayer at night hoping someone would show up the next day, but times have changed, and we are now in the age of “full service” providers; that is the construction companies have become more direct and aim toward personalized service to bring value to each job.

    My friend Tom lives in the South Florida area and provides the personal touch; his company is small and local which gives him intimate knowledge of the immediate marketplace. He had been contracted to install an Old Chicago brick semi-circular driveway on the exclusive island of Palm Beach. For those of you reading this and not familiar with Old Chicago brick, think of part age and part style from the turn of the 20th Century of salvaged building bricks which mimicked the Old Chicago look. The home was located on the western side of the street and the job called for approximately 1500 square feet of brick.

    Basically, a contractor starts at the corner and lays one run of brick along the two adjacent borders. Bricks are set on sand and fit snugly; levels and alignments are the key, and once all the bricks have been installed, the contractor uses a 14 inch diamond blade hand held quick cut saw to cut the final edge bricks.

    It had been a  windy day, and the clay dust of the bricks created a “sand clay storm” which blew directly eastward across the street covering an all white house, white roofed, and white driveway property with the  reddish dust of the brick. Tom went across the street, apologized to the home owner and went to work correcting the damage done by power washing her house, the roof, and the driveway. He also arranged to have her windows cleaned, cars washed and any damaged plants and flowers replaced. The homeowner was thankful and appreciative.

    Two years later, that same homeowner where Tom apologized and rectified his mistakes called for Tom’s company to do a job for her. She based her decision on his excellent customer service.

    It’s easy to give mediocre service in construction; the bar has been set fairly low with the record number of complaints and over all shoddy craftsmanship many of us have experienced, but four basic principles of customer service has set Tom apart from his competition.

    He has employed the use of good communication skills to his strategy, and not just the use of emails, but going out and meeting face to face with clients at regular intervals. He demonstrates by example and current references his technical expertise and how that experience makes him better than competing companies. He pays personal attention to details and never lets his  less experienced workers  make the decisions, and when, as in this case there was a problem, Tom went over to admit and apologize  explaining that projects can go wrong, but he would take full responsibility and rectify the problem.

    Where much of Tom’s competition has been reading Craigslist looking for part-time construction jobs, Tom goes to work every day with more  projects lined up for the future.

    photo credit: stefg74

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