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Get to know your customers and how they behave

In retail, most of us want to spend our time primping up our stores hoping to bring in new customers to increase our business. We use attractive advertising displays, sales, coupons, television and direct  campaigns, however statistically our best revenue is realized from our current customers. It is our loyal customers who often bring in 80% of our sales even though they may only represent 20% of our customer base.

It is most important to treat our loyal customers with the best service possible, and that includes the personal touch. Starbucks does it with baristas who most often remember what their loyal customers drink, even though the customer might not have been in the store for months. Loyal customers can be rewarded with emails, special discounts not available to the general public, and special private sales inviting loyal customers in to participate a day earlier than the  general sales to the public.

The next segment of customers includes those who shop at your store only when there are sales offered. These customers do shop a lot and quite often, and help to keep inventory fresh because they keep it moving. Chances are that people who shop exclusively for sales may not become loyal customers, but if something catches their eye, they may be coming into your store regularly to check when that merchandise may go on sale and bring a friend; hence another possible customer.

People who are specifically out to purchase something in particular can become loyal customers. For instance, back to school means selecting fashionable and possibly budget minded apparel for children. Catch the attention of the child or teenager and gain a new loyal customer, but those  same people who are shopping for something specific will walk out if they don’t see what they want. It’s also a challenge appealing to the people who have a particular need because they are apt to shop on the internet. It becomes even more important to provide exceptional in store personal service to ensure their return the next time they are in need of school clothes. Using the same example, a large selection of sizes, colors, styles and a staff to provide personal shopping comforts can make the difference.

Shoppers who buy on impulse are among the favorite kind of customers because they usually don’t pay attention to budgets and buy what interests them. That could be influenced by   flashy displays and trendy stock. With impulse buyers it’s very much about the presentation.

And finally, there are the general mall customers who have no specific need in mind, but like to window shop and rarely buy anything, however they might bring a friend along the next time, and a friendly greeting and remembering a name just might bring in a new customer as well as recommendations.

photo credit: alancleaver_2000

How to write a complaint letter

A complaint letter, as unpleasant as it might be to write, is generally more effective than a phone call or an email. The point is that in order to achieve the desired result whether you want a refund, replacement or travel miles is to clearly define the purpose of your complaint and be polite, sincere and valid.

I’ve put together five important suggestions that will help:

  1. Always keep your letter short, and concise. Rarely should any complaint letter be more than one page in length. Use dates, locations (where you purchased the product), and include all relevant descriptions and information. It’s preferable to type your letter, and for heaven sakes, use spell check. Start your letter on a positive note so that your reader is still confident that you want to remain a customer.
  2. Always exhibit politeness. You should not be sarcastic, threatening or write as if you are angry. You could even begin with a friendly line such as, ” I’ve been a customer of ABC for the past ten years.”
  3. Make sure your facts are properly documented and true. State your complaint, and indicate what you would like done to rectify the problem whether it be a replacement item, a store credit, refund, etc. If you are complaining to an airline for a valid reason, discount coupons,  and additional mileage commonly accompany the company’s apology.
  4. Attach copies of all documentation. Do not send originals. Have exact dates and times, and in your letter make sure you indicate what actions you will pursue if the situation is not rectified.
  5. Make sure you remind the company of good relations and good customer service and how you want to help them maintain a good reputation.

Keep a copy of your letter, and if you aren’t satisfied with the reply or you haven’t received what you thought you deserved, write another letter, but make this one stronger. If that doesn’t work, go to the next higher-up; something to be said about friendly persistence.

photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller

Is customer service commensurate with price in real estate sales?

If I shop at Walmart for a pair of denim jeans priced on sale at $19.95 and then go to a boutique and pay $150.00 for designer jeans, chances are that my customer service experience is bound to be more personalized at the boutique. No one is going to tell me how those jeans look on me at Walmart, and if they don’t fit me, I have to get dressed again and  go back to the rack and find another size or another style. At the boutique however, the sales person goes back and forth honoring my requests and  even throws in a critical opinion on the fit. Does that then serve as a correlation that most consumers think the more you spend, the more service you expect?

In real estate transactions, we receive commissions based on the price of the home at an average of 7% per selling price. If, for instance, I sell a home priced at $100,000 and the following month I sell a home priced at $500,000, will I be giving the customer purchasing the more expensive home better service because my commission is more?

In the real estate business, sales agents are independent contractors. Accountability is expected because an agent is licensed by a particular state. Local, regional, and national organizations require agents to follow a prescribed code of ethics. On the other hand, customer service includes more than just accountability. To be an excellent real estate agent as opposed to an “order taker,” one needs to hone in on those special skills that sets one agent apart from all others.

There should be no difference in the quality of customer service given to any buyer or any seller regardless of the final commissions paid to the agent. Whereas manufacturers can gauge the quality of a product by accountability and reliability, industries involved in service need to focus more on professional courtesies and what consumers expect from their agents. Awards are given to agents who produce top revenues for their companies each year, but more recognition needs to be given to those agents whose customer service skills far exceed the norm so that agents are motivated to go that extra mile for their customers regardless of the size of the sale.

Statistically only 60% of the listings sell with the original listing office. Sellers most often change offices because the quality of service has decreased, but there isn’t much customer feedback. The client has simply moved on to another listing office. Training agents to provide consistent and excellent customer service could change these statistics.

All agents want to improve their business. Professional courtesies extended to all buyers and sellers will ultimately make a huge difference in the long run.

photo credit: kimubert

How to diffuse an angry customer

A friend of mine purchased a pair of shoes from a popular discount shoe store in our local area. Whenever she buys a pair of shoes, she never takes the shoe box home with her because she makes a mad rush to her closet and hides the purchases from her husband (he always complains she buys too many pairs of shoes).

The shoes were so uncomfortable; she had numerous blisters on her toes, so she went back to the store to return the shoes. The customer service representative would not honor her return, even though she had the receipt; he told her it was store policy “no box – no return.” Of course, she tried to explain her situation and even showed the customer service agent her blistered feet, but the representative insisted the customer did not follow the rules pertaining to returns. The customer got loud because she was frustrated; the service representative ignored her outburst, and so the customer walked out obviously never to return.

The unfortunate part of the above scenario is it sent the customer packing, and we all know that in today’s market and economy, merchants have to be flexible and literally bend over backwards to satisfy customers; thus the importance of good customer service.

How could this entire situation been avoided and the customer’s anger diffused?

If the customer came into the store, she still thought something could be done which meant she still thought of herself as a customer, and the customer service representative’s job is to keep her as a customer. Here are some suggestions that might have changed the outcome of this situation:

  • It is important to hear the person out and thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention. Let her know you will be researching the problem and you will get back to her. Do not offer a solution immediately since you do not really have a solution yet. (It would be time to research if exceptions have ever been made to allow returns under special circumstances when customer did not have the original packaging.)
  • Call back the customer because it is important to preserve the relationship and keep her as a customer. Thank her for giving you the opportunity to help her and apologize for her dissatisfaction, even if she is wrong. (In this case she didn’t keep the box in case she needed to return the shoes.)
  • Look at each complaint as special since each customer can amount to more business and be prepared to modify standardized procedures when exceptions present themselves as practical and realistic. (In this case, the proof of the blisters on the customer’s feet provided the real reason she wanted to return the shoes.)
  • Explain to the customer what can be done to rectify the situation. In this particular case, at checkout the clerk did tell the customer no returns with out the original box, but the customer service representative needed to  resist telling the customer she was wrong. Consumers do not want to be scolded; they want their problems solved.

When there is such keen competition out there, exceptional customer service is going to make a huge difference, especially in the small, local market.

photo credit: michale

Gratitude – A True Measure of Your Service Warmth

“Thank you” are the two most important words in the English language. Yet, how often are you served and end up the only one in the equation doing the thanking? It is always important and never more so in today’s tough economy to make sure customers know unmistakably that you never take them for granted. If all your customers exited tomorrow (which they certainly could), how well would you fare the day after tomorrow?

The goal of an effective “Thank You” is not simply the expression of a statement but rather the conveyance of a feeling. We have all been on the receiving end of “thanks” knowing there was little sincerity. Thanks means communicating gratitude in a fashion that makes customers feel your authenticity. Most customer relationships don’t end in dispute; they wither away from disregard and neglect. Remember: customer relationships are fueled by affirmation, attention and care which are critical elements of service warmth. Also remember most customers do not feel obligated to let you know they are unhappy much less they are leaving! Research tells us that only 4% of disappointed customers will even bother to complain!

Great service leaders show the same gratitude to employees they expect them to show to customers. One call center rep put it this way: “The big deal service award ceremony with all the ‘hot dogs’ from mahogany row that we never see except on special occasions is nice, but not necessary. All we need is for senior leaders to occasionally walk through our areas, show interest in what we do, spend time understanding what we are learning from customers, and thank us for our contribution.”

Great customer service is not “rocket surgery!” It’s simply focusing on what’s important to customers, not boxing them into absurd boundaries, carefully managing the details to keep the experience simple, and letting them know they are valued. Service warmth comes from a strong demonstration of gratitude to customers. It is great to provide a sincere “thank you” but a true measure of the warmth of your service comes from a thank you laced with generosity.

Tacqueria del Sol, a four unit chain of affordable Southwestern fare in Atlanta surprises its regular customers with a “holiday meal” every year during the December holiday season as it’s thank you laced with generosity. Staff members together identify their restaurant’s regulars and treat the regulars to a free “holiday meal” with no limits. I have frequented one location at least weekly for years yet I am always pleasantly surprised to receive the honor of a free “holiday meal”. Their generosity has at times extended to my entire family of seven! I have observed many customers expounding the virtues of Tacqueria del Sol, its great food, great service and especially its generosity.

How are you warming up your customers experience with an appropriate thank you? Does your gratitude to customers include a strong dose of generosity? In today’s rough business climate we need to forge a “steel-like” bond with our customers. Gratitude and generosity warm up the experience to help you create devoted customers who are loyal advocates for your organization.

Writer Bio: John R. Patterson is a sought after speaker on customer experience and a customer loyalty consultant. He is the co-author with Dr. Chip R. Bell of the national best selling book Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers. He can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.

Difficult to Understand Customers

While the frequency of the situation depends on the type of company, a customer service representative will almost certainly talk to someone they have trouble understanding at one point in their customer service career. When it does occur, what’s the best thing to do? Here are some tips and suggestions I’ve found to be effective:

  • Speak slowly. People tend to respond to the way you speak and mimic it to some degree. With that in mind, speak slowly and clearly when you are working with a customer who is difficult to understand.
  • Ask close ended questions. Instead of asking questions that prompt long or complicated responses, stick to asking simple questions that can be answered with a yes or a no. This will make communication easier for everyone.
  • Ask customers to spell things. You obviously have to use discretion when choosing to do this, but asking customers to spell information can be helpful. If they say they live at 123 Random Street (but what they say doesn’t sound anything like that), asking the customer to spell that out will likely make it easier to get the correct information in a timely manner.
  • Ask customers to adjust their tone. If the issue is purely a thick accent, there isn’t much that can be done in this area. However, if a customer is just speaking too softly (or too loudly) or seems to have a bad connection, make them aware of this. It usually isn’t hard for a customer to raise or lower their voice or to call back to get a new connection. Be careful and be sure to use your best service etiquette when asking customers to adjust their tone. Something like, “I’m sorry, but I am having trouble understanding you. Would you mind speaking up a little bit?” tends to work well.
  • Identify who is good at working with difficult to understand customers. Some employees are just better at working with customers who are difficult to understand than others are. If your company is lucky enough to have such employees, identify who they are and kindly redirect the customers that are very difficult to understand to these employees. 

When a customer is truly difficult to understand, there is only so much that can be done. The methods above have always worked fairly well for me. What has worked well for you in the past?

The Angriest Customers

Working with angry customers is a part of customer service that can’t be avoided. I write about working with angry customers fairly regularly and have a category devoted to it, but it is still a challenge to work with angry customers. A reader named Nancy emailed me today expressing the frustration she feels when she works with extremely angry customers who just won’t let her talk. Her frustration is certainly called for and it is a common one at that.

Out of all the challenges in customer service, working with customers who scream, yell, and curse is probably the biggest challenge. Most companies don’t tolerate the worst of these customers (they hang up), but what about the customer who is just really angry and isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong? How do you work with that customer?

Back in December 2007, I featured a two part guest post from Jennifer Harris, an employee at Ruby Receptionists. Her (great) advice is as follows:

  • Lower your voice. This will force the customer to lower his or her voice to hear you.
  • Provide a plan of action. Let the customer know what you can do and make it clear if you are doing anything special or going out of your way for that customer.

These are two great tips. I also find it useful to apologize to customers about the inconvenience and tell them that you are going to work with them to get their issues resolved. Ask them what they would like to happen to get the issue resolved (this works really well when customers are going on and on; simply ask, “Okay, what would you like us to do to get this issue resolved for you?” and go from there).

It’s unfortunate, but sometimes you just have to talk while an angry customer is talking. If you lower your voice, you will usually be able to gain some control over the conversation. Once you have the customer listening, use your best active listening skills and positive language to come to a solution.

In almost all companies, angry customers are a fact of customer service life. It is important to not take the customer’s anger personally (it isn’t directed towards you specifically) and to do whatever you can to get the issue resolved. Even though some customers can’t be pleased, it is possible to work with a majority of customers who can start off angry and end up satisfied.

Estimated Burden?

I was filling out a government form last week and noticed on the upper right hand corner there was a line that said “Estimated Burden: 85 Minutes.” Needless to say, this isn’t the best verbiage for posting how long a form will take to process at some government office somewhere in Virginia or Maryland.

Think about the alternatives the government could have placed that would make the line a little bit less confrontational:

  • EB: 85
  • B85
  • 85
  • Estimated Processing Time: 85 minutes
  • Estimated Processing: 85 minutes
  • Estimated Completion Time: 85 Minutes

That is just six examples from what is certainly an unlimited number of possibilities. Burden is not a positive word and there are so many ways to hide the true meaning on the form. Anyone trained to fill out the forms could probably figure out what EB means, but for the 99% of people who aren’t familiar with the acronym, EB:85 will mean nothing.  The government can even put just 85 or B85, both of which would give the processor the information he or she needs without having a negative tone towards the customer (the person filling out the form).

Even though these types of things are super simple to fix, you can’t seem to get away from them. Some organizations simply don’t understand that a simple change in wording can make a difference and convey a totally different (and much more positive) tone. The ones that do, though, are the ones that will likely have happier customers. (Assume, of course, that similar verbiage mistakes are made across organizations that don’t think about it and not just in one place.)

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