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Is British Airways providing better customer service or are they stalking you?

British Airways has initiated a new customer service program called “Know Me.” The company claims the iPad based system is intended to proactively recreate “the feeling of recognition” a customer often delights in when they walk into their favorite restaurant and the maitre d’ or the owner of the establishment knows their name and greets them personally. Most of us remember the popular television program “Cheers” – the Boston bar where “everyone knows your name.”

The airlines will be searching Google for photographs of their customers in order to recognize them as they enter the airport or aircraft and claim it will be a proactive approach in case a customer’s flight is delayed or to just thank a repeat customer for their “continued patronage.” The search system to be employed will also be able to pull up information about a customer’s previous travel arrangements, prior complaints, meal requests, and Executive Club status.

According to the British tabloid Evening Standard, privacy issues are becoming a hot topic. Passengers purchasing tickets argue that buying an airline ticket doesn’t give the company permission to hunt for one’s personal information. Other passengers seem to care less. Let’s face it; how many organizations that we deal with in our day to day business lives already have our personal information? My favorite Italian restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens knows where I live, my son’s birthday, and even my favorite Bordeaux. My personal shopper at Nordstrom knows my favorite color, my favorite perfume, my eye color, and a cellphone number I only use for my personal use.The difference is however, that I have voluntarily offered the information to the restaurant and to the department store.

Still British Airways state they hope to recognize 4500 customers per day by the end of the year, but it seems rather illogical that customer service agents are going to be able to recognize and recreate that “welcome” feeling most of us associate with the personal touch. After all British Airways have quite the extensive global route. Will the representatives just be specifically using Google to identify First Class passengers? What happens to all of the John Smith passengers of the world? Will they be overlooked, or will customer service representatives use birth date information to get even more personal? What if Susan Smith is no longer a blonde when she next travels to London? Will a customer service representative ask her if the photograph on Google is really her?

The “Know Me” service should be a voluntary program for those passengers who want that extra level of service. With so many people having been victims of identity theft, consumers need to think twice before subjecting themselves to arbitrary Internet stalking just because they need to fly from Miami to London. What do you think?

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.

Building a business culture to deliver the best customer service

A strong business culture that is aligned with superior business goals outperforms their competitors by light years. These are the organizations who have figured out how to delight their customers and even make them smile. After all isn’t the Zappos’ motto “powered by service” incredibly motivational which delivers a message of trust and reliability? Zappos has worked hard to develop their culture resulting in a high percentage of return customers; a much more lucrative business model than having to find new clients.

Deciding on what a business wants to accomplish is part of its core values and related to its overall culture. Customer service should be one of the top priorities, and the commitment to pleasing customers and delivering “out of the box” services should never be discouraged. When building a culture all employees need to participate, all levels of management needs to encourage and inspire, and business owners need to place themselves as role models to encourage the process.

As businesses grow they may evolve and change since each employee brings their own values and practices to an organization, but the key is to search for employees who have the same passion for excellence and empower those employees to act on their own and go out of their way for the sake of their company. Think of the Ritz Carlton employees who are empowered and constantly encouraged to treat each customer as an individual and react accordingly with each situation – whether it be sending out for a bouquet of flowers for a couple’s private anniversary celebration to a new bed pillow if a guest complains about it being uncomfortable.

How employees act and what they do should all be written out and shared by all employees, but assuming a company strives to build a positive business culture the following culture elements should be considered:

  • A commitment to employees which provides superior training to empower company personnel to do the right thing for customers on their own without having to refer to a manual and providing the employee with all of the tools needed to make their own decisions for the welfare of the organization.
  • Building the company’s integrity by always following the Golden Rule and honoring return policies, special promotions, and treating both customers and other employees as if each person is truly treasured and respected.
  • Effective leadership guides the basis for a strong culture and the motivational tools needed to help employees understand the company’s role as a positive business model.
  • Having the company focused on customers and fulfilling their needs and wants without just focusing on the profit of each business exchange.
  • Retaining valuable employees by rewarding them with higher salaries, bonuses, rewards and recognition for jobs well-done.
  • Communicating with customers and displaying customer service phone numbers and email addresses on every page of their websites so customers know an organization is always willing to listen to a customer if there is a problem. Remember most customers won’t tell a company what went wrong; they just leave and go on to your competition. Make it convenient for an unhappy customer to find you, and act accordingly to resolve the problem.
  • Don’t make customers go through a maze of automatic questions when they are calling for customer service or make customers wait for any extended period of time. Where IRS can take their time and really aren’t too worried about how taxpayers feel concerning the waiting time, their business is quite unique, but otherwise unpopular.
  • Hire the best employees and don’t limit the time they should be on the phone or spend in person with a customer who needs help. Instead ask for public feedback and written communications from customers about their experiences. Grade employees on their service and what customers say about them – use rewards for the very best. Recognize employees to their peers which will then encourage other employees to excel.

Have pride in your organization and develop its culture to be synonymous with honesty, teamwork, communication, innovation and a leader in customer service. The examples set forth by the foremost leaders promise a successful and profitable business when we strive to be the best of the best.

How to keep your customers from leaving you

A surprisingly high statistic from the Research Institute of America (RIA) states an average business will never hear a word from 96 percent of their unhappy customers whose complaints  range from poor service, rudeness, to discourteous treatment. These are the customers that silently move away from you and are welcomed with open-arms by the competition. These are the customers who tell their friends, co-workers, and family members about their bad experiences. Multiply the unhappy customers  who these people have told about their unsatisfactory experiences, and soon we realize that it’s not just one customer leaving us – it’s an army of lost consumers and a pocketful of lost revenue.

Statistics are not just for textbooks and graphs. For instance, in the animal rescue world for the control of the cat population, studies now confirm that 87 percent of cat owners have their pets spayed or neutered. It’s just staggering how one unspayed female cat and all of her offspring (assuming she has two litters per year and three kittens survive each litter) can produce 450,000 cats by the end of the seventh year.

Now let’s just imagine one customer being extremely unhappy and telling the average of ten other people. Most of us listen more to our friends’ recommendations and experiences than we do from television or print advertisements, and much like the game of “telephone” we played in third grade, by the time the story of an unpleasant experience gets to many of us, the story has escalated to be the worst experience to have ever hit the playground or of course, the business. And the tragedy of it all – lots of lost customers, clients, and business.

So what do we need to do as business owners to keep our customers? After all it’s much more expensive to find new customers, therefore doesn’t it seem logical that we step out of the box for everyone who graces the doors or  who clicks on a shopping cart for our organizations? Shouldn’t we deliver the best customer service  by providing the best training we can find? Shouldn’t we make our customers feel appreciated and special?

When something goes wrong, customers want an immediate response. They want the people in the company to fix the problem now – and want to be thought of as a person and an important one too, and it doesn’t matter if the customer spent $20 or $2000. That positive customer service experience can differentiate a company’s brand; the way a problem is resolved can make a huge impact on the customer and all of the people he tells about his experience. The customer service representatives, sales personnel, front desk receptionist and up to the CEO, who have developed and practiced their skills repeatedly are the reasons companies like the Ritz Carlton, American Express, and Zappos continue to grow and demonstrate outstanding customer relationships.

What has your business done recently to engage your personnel to help them deliver the best customer service ever?

Americans changing banks because of fees and poor customer service

Onlookers at a protest against US Bank at OccupyMN - Day 20Market Watch issued a press release earlier today about studies done by Intellishop and Rate Watch citing credit unions and small community banks missing their market share of banking business due to sales efforts. The mystery audit services sent 120 anonymous auditors out who posed as new checking account prospects, and even though small banks were seen as pleasant, the criticism of having a too “laid back” approach regarding selling the benefits of their bank were losing these organizations business. It seems larger banks are more proactive.

Mystery shopper results documented large banks to be four times more apt to find out about other types of banking relationships, two times more likely to ask a new customer to sign up today, two times more likely to collect a prospect’s contact information, and two times more likely than the smaller competition to strike up small talk conversations as someone enters the bank to engage a new customer at a personal level.

Now this is where surveys commonly get confusing. J.D. Power and Associates just released their survey which may or may not parallel big banks versus smaller institutions signing up new business practices, but a 5,000 customer survey results found a deflection rate of one in ten customers leaving large institutions last year because of high fees and lousy customer service. Surprisingly small banks and credit unions only lost 0.9 percent of customers compared to 8.8 percent of customers lost in 2010.

So if we are to assume more customers are attracted to bigger banks because personnel is better trained to concentrate on the positive attributes of larger banks and use more initiatives to attract customers, then we might also assume those very customers are leaving big banks at an even higher rate? Of course, there is  always more to consider.

I doubt many customers have forgotten the Bank of America announcement of charging a monthly fee for debit card users last year. The firestorm took off in the media full force ahead, and the “Bank Transfer Day” when customers emailed, tweeted, and blogged everyone to leave big banks and switch to smaller banks and credit unions left quite an impression. Already adding to the malcontent of big bank customers, newer and higher banking fees from checking account charges to higher credit card interest rates  compared to piddly rates on Certificates of Deposit and savings accounts, customers didn’t look back when the hightailed it for the smaller institutions. Of the 50 percent of customers surveyed who changed banks, they also claimed poor customer service then became the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Not surprisingly Bank America scored the lowest followed closely by Wells Fargo, Citibank, Sovereign Bank and Chase.

People haven’t forgotten the debacle of the large banking institutions and their significant roles in the state of the economy. Big banks still make loans and mortgages more difficult than many of the small banks. When I walked into Chase Bank the other day to deliver a document for a real estate closing I was attending, the pleasant woman at the door greeting customers told me she loved my shoes! No one has ever said that at the smaller institution I use, but I doubt that will be the reason I will choose to change banks.

photo credit: Fibonacci Blue

What Two and a Half Men Can Teach Us About Customer Service

01 (285)Customer service isn’t an easy task, and for the representatives who successfully calm angry customers, soothe irate tempers, and are able to solve consumer problems in a polite and reasonable manner are those employees any great company should consider giving a raise in salary. Staying calm isn’t always the easiest task to do, especially when the attacks are often met with rudeness and unprofessional behavior on the part of the customer.

Angry clients, customers that feel a product is defective, poor service, an insecure co-worker  may be all in a day’s work for an experienced customer service representative. Now what makes one representative so much better, and what are some of the traits successful agents all possess?

One of Charlie Sheen’s most memorable Two-And-A Half Men stories centered around Allan’s former wife Judith being frustrated and angry with life’s turmoils. On one particular afternoon, Judith was ready to lay into Charlie’s lack of respect and whatever else was bothering her, when Charlie immediately diffused Judith’s anger. And how did he do that? Charlie assumed a natural, relaxed posture, softened the expression in his eyes, and as Judith shot off her frustrations and anger, Charlie shook his head in agreement and repeated “I understand.” As much as the sitcom is designed for pure enjoyment, isn’t how Charlie acted and responded those very traits a seasoned customer service agent utilizes when dealing with angry clients?

Breaking it down, the primary initial response is to stay calm, be reasonable, and let the client vent. Of course, there is no need to ever be subjected to rudeness, unacceptable behavior or profanity, and in that case inform the customer that their behavior will not be tolerated. If it is a phone call, then warn the customer you will hang up, or perhaps they would like to call at another time when they have calmed down. If you are in a face-to-face confrontation, excuse yourself and ask that person to get herself under control.

Never resort to anger yourself, because the situation more than likely will become explosive, and then nobody wins, and nothing gets solved. By now the anger should be waning, and the real problem is most likely somewhere near the surface. Listen carefully to the customer; don’t interrupt but assure the customer you are on their side and will do everything you can to rectify the situation to the best of your ability. At all times, remember you are speaking just like Charlie – both calm and engaged. From there you and the client can work on an amicable solution.

Remember however – if the problem was your fault, the first necessary protocol is to apologize. Customers will forgive you if you make a mistake, you apologize, and then rectify the situation. Don’t embellish your excuses with blaming other people; you represent your organization, and you need to fix the mistakes.

Whereas every company has their own standards and procedures for customer service, the ABC’s of staying calm, knowing your product, and having the ability to right those wrongs in a professional and satisfying method which suits your customers’ needs, is the key to a successful organization. And at the end of the day, that same professional wipes her hands, grabs her purse, and leaves the day’s complaints behind her as she goes home to her family.

photo credit: Victor1558

Auto insurance companies working on their customer service experiences

Unfast Cars Moving Fastly, Subaru On SpeedAutomobile insurance companies are going all out to please their customers. Once upon a time we just called the insurance agent our parents dealt with for twenty years and gave them the information about our car and the amount of liability, collision and uninsured motorist protection we needed and sent in the premium. We didn’t shop around, and who would have thought that an automobile insurance company would actually cater to a customer?

Now less than ten years later all of this has changed. Insurance companies flood television commercials with proposals for the best services one can imagine. Amid the promises of the lowest cost policies, companies now have new ways to win you over. Progressive Insurance Companies promise you customized quotes and immediate personal service. Who doesn’t identify with Flo, the loveable and helpful cashier with the tricked-out name tag? Who doesn’t recognize the reptilian mascot with the Cockney accent for GEICO?

Still when it comes to customer service and brand recognition, Allstate might be onto a better way. No fancy gimmicks in their advertisements, but instead the company has been swaying customers with such programs as accident forgiveness, reward programs, and safe driving bonuses. Last week Allstate announced their new Claim Satisfaction Guarantee which promises its customers to be satisfied with their auto claim service or they will get a credit to their auto policy. This new feature which makes eligible customers who are not happy for any reason with the service they receive a finite opportunity to receive an actual credit on their auto policy.

Allstate’s new program actually lays a pretty big responsibility on the company because the satisfaction promises stretch from the agent, to the adjusters, to the claims representatives and to the very people who are entrusted to repair a client’s car Allstate, however states the repairs must be done through an Allstate Good Hands Repair Network or Sterling Auto Body Center. Still the network shows the company’s trust in the people they deal with thus helping to build trust with their customers.

And when once upon a time we could only call our insurance agent during business hours, Allstate as well as other insurance companies now have 24/7 service in case of a problem. Ten years ago, clients had to wait until Monday morning to report a collision that happened on Friday night – now there’s immediate help and advice.

Allstate tested their new program last year in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Georgia and hopes to extend opportunities to even more areas in the near future.

photo credit: David E. Starr

Bringing more customer service strategies to traditional shopping stores

PICT0103My son was raised using the Internet and whenever we talk about buying a new product, he’s already on the corresponding website and has a wealth of information before I even find my car keys. In 2010, Forrester Research stated that retail online sales had grown 11 percent and expected increases of 10 percent a year through 2014. By 2014, consumer purchases using e-retail is expected to exceed $249 billion.

Blame it all on a stressed economy and an increase in Internet shopping, many commercial strip malls are begging for retail clients and are taking a financial beating. What we need, therefore is to return to basics and plan innovative methods to win back some of the sales from the Internet. Primarily the best defenses against customers sitting in front of their computers and buying products is to compete in price, selection, and customer service. While I agree a brick and mortar store can not always compete in the wide selection of products available on the Internet, shoppers still trust local brands and knowing the people who own the businesses.

Even though shoppers like to take advantage of the latest technology, nothing replaces human contact and those sensory experiences of actually going shopping. Customers like to touch, feel, and taste; it’s all part of the retail experience. Brick and mortar stores need to only take advantage of the human need and integrate expert, seamless customer service experiences to build loyalty. Offer those tactile experiences that can’t be matched on the Internet, and develop relationships with customers by follow-up and offering good prices, good value and outstanding service.

Educate your sales force and enable all employees to be so efficient and comfortable with their knowledge of the product or service they are selling to help educate buyers. After all 70 percent of United States consumers research online before they ever go to a store. Consumers know prices, know products, and know good service. Deliver good service in person, and show that customer how much better it is to deal with you in person, and build your client and customer list with referrals and beaming testimonials.

Never forget that the Internet is also your friend. Develop a website; that’s where the shopping begins. Use media to your advantage such as online discounts, photos of the latest merchandise, newsletters offering knowledge and interesting community events, or even send text messages announcing new merchandise. Just this morning I received a picture and text message from my favorite shoe store with the latest designer shoes the store knows I love. That’s the reason I stay loyal to a particular shop; they provide the most outstanding customer service anyone could imagine  while keeping it all low-key, professional, and not excessive.

In today’s market, a brick and mortar establishment needs to do it all!

photo credit: sancho_panza

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