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‘WOW’ customer service has to be reliable and consistent

logoOnce again it’s Spring when our fancy changes to thoughts of love and the beautiful outdoors. We picture the lush green lawns, the colorful summer blooms, the pool, the grill, and the patio designed for that blissful oasis as casual parties for friends and family become welcome weekend events. And so the shopping begins. With the convenience of online browsing, the possibilities are endless, but how will our online retailers handle customer service?

Now all of those outdoor pillows, cushions, umbrellas, and rugs are looking a bit shabby from the hot Florida sunlight of the past years, and online shopping is just so convenient; it’s time to measure and order. And that’s how this story begins. The Home Decorators Collection catalog arrived, and I placed an order. The customer service representative was exceptional and spent the time trying to figure out what replacement cushions would have the best result. Unfortunately, after a consultation with our decorator, it was confirmed the cushions wouldn’t fit at all. The next morning the call to cancel the order didn’t turn out as it should have, and thus began a lesson in a customer service failure.

Perhaps every online store catalog or website we see promises to provide great customer service, but it can be a constant challenge to be reliable, consistent, helpful, and make a customer believe an organization lives and breathes customer service. Customer service has to become part of a company’s culture and with the ease and ability of finely tuned humans, these valuable employees must be able to make decisions on service at the very time it is needed. Let’s look into that a bit further through this experience.

As I call to cancel the order and ask to have a written confirmation on my credit card of the cancellation, I am told the company must first inform their vendor of my desire to cancel. It’s only been eight hours, and during that time the company was closed for the evening. When I express my dissatisfaction having to wait at least three business days to be informed my order has been cancelled and credited, I ask to speak with a supervisor who tells me she will immediately put the request through and that I will get email confirmation. And then the excuses began. Home Decorators, as I was told was sold to Home Depot, and according to the supervisor’s excuse, Home Depot’s return policy is antiquated.

I never heard another word from that supervisor, and by the next day, I went online to find more information about the customer service policies of Home Depot online. Their return policy provides for an immediate credit to the original form of payment. If an organization doesn’t have a clear vision of how to do business and how to do it better than their competitors, shoppers walk away. No where else can it be better determined how to treat a customer than to place oneself in that customer’s shoes and determine how you would want to be treated. Growing a successful business demands a strategic plan for spending the time and money to train customer service agents how to think “outside of the box.” Being a good listener and being able to convince a customer you have the empathy and compassion for their problem and you are willing to solve their problem within the realm of your responsibilities, builds consumer confidence and repeat customers. Companies just need to learn to do it better.

For this particular experience, I was able to find an online survey about my customer service experience with Home Decorators, and by the next day I was called and the problem was solved. As an apology I was sent a $50 gift certificate, but will it be enough of a compensation to motivate me to do business with Home Decorators again?

Customers should never be put on the defensive when presented with a negative customer service experience. It took three representatives to get a $600 credit. In the end I received a sincere apology of which I appreciated, but this is an excellent example to show that great customer service doesn’t just happen; it needs to be part of an organization’s ultimate vision and one that should be executed daily.

Walmart’s dismal customer service scores drive customers away

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Since 2007, Walmart department and discount stores repeatedly have been labeled with the dubious distinction of having the “worst customer service in America.” The Bentonville, Arkansas based retailer scored a 71 out of 100 rating; the lowest grade for customer service as rated by  The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent national benchmark of customer satisfaction in the United States. As a supermarket, the company didn’t do much better; scoring a 72 out of 100 rating  and similarly low scores since 2005.

The problem with Walmart is multifaceted. Having a person who greets customers at the door is hardly a solution for often poor quality merchandise, poorly trained staff, and dismissive sales associates who seem more interested in going on break than solving customer issues. While shoppers tend to overlook product quality and concentrate on lower prices during tough economic times, once people head back to work and their economics have begun to improve, buyers become less tolerant of rudeness from the customer service desk or inferior merchandise that may have split at the seams after only one laundering. Yet, shoppers can be a forgiving lot if customer service personnel are at the job and eager to please, but that doesn’t seem to happen much at Walmart.

Many Walmart customers opt for one-stop shopping, especially as the gas tank prices continue to rise, but is it really worth the long wait, the rude staff, and the mere frustration of seemingly no solutions to certain product deficiencies? Even Walmart’s e-commerce scored a low 78 out of 100 for performance during the 2012 holiday season. Amazon led all e-commerce retailers with a score of 88 according to For See’s E-Retail Satisfaction survey.

Perhaps Walmart needs to begin with the basics and start to treat employees with respect, offer better wages to attract talented employees, offer competitive health care, bonuses, work incentives, and consistent work schedules. As it is now, the constant turnover of employees make it impossible to properly train and promote talented individuals. The company needs employee pride, a well-tuned culture, and a mentoring program where associates can learn how to deal with customer complaints.

If you’re still a shopper at Walmart and have customer service issues, here are some alternate solutions however that may help:

  • Bypass the automated phone menus if you can. There are many free services to help customers find direct numbers. Check out dialahuman.com for one such service.
  • Have a precise history of everything you have done and everyone you have spoken to in order to rectify the issue. Write it down, have names available, times and dates you have spoken to customer service reps, and how long you have been kept on “hold.”
  • Elevate the importance of your issue by asking to speak with a supervisor.
  • Don’t be negative. Once you get to someone with authority, you want to be cooperative and at least let them think by treating you right, you will want to be a Walmart shopper again.
  • Don’t say “it’s the principle” of the issue. Have a reasonable solution to offer. Don’t be rude, don’t raise your voice, and don’t ever use profanity.

Brick and mortar shopping still remains the most popular, but as shopping behaviors change and traffic continues to shift to online stores because of low prices, greater selections and convenience, customer service needs to improve. It has been stated that consumers continue to lower the bar as to customer service, but it only stands to reason that e-commerce is going to take a huge chunk of business away from organizations that ignore their customers’ needs.

What happened to customer service at Sears?

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The entire history of Sears is way beyond the scope of today’s blog post, but a short summary of Sears has its roots dating back to 1886 when the founder, Robert Sears began selling watches in Chicago.  Thirty years later arose the brands of Kenmore and Craftsman, and during the organization’s  billion dollar growth came Allstate, Caldwell Banker, and Dean Witter. Such was the tradition of Sears as it was well known as the General Store and a provider of everything one needed. When Sears introduced their catalog business, retail sales was revolutionized. Color photos of merchandise delighted shoppers browsing the hundreds of pages of shoes, women’s lingerie, washing machines, tools, and even children’s matching outfits; Sears was the ultimate shopping experience for every member of the family while they sat comfortably at home.

So what has happened? According to online surveys, over 80 percent of customers now give Sears poor customer service grades citing reasons of inept management, unreliable products, poor customer service, and a profound lack of employee training. Of course, Home Depot, Best Buy, Walmart, and the Internet giant Amazon have all cut into the general store attitude of Sears,  however there will always be shoppers who prefer brick and mortar establishments and enjoy the experience of the places our grandparents and parents loved to shop. Sadly one of the problems is that Kenmore and Craftsman, although still strong in the Sears’ culture, are now outsourced and sadly that leads to repair problems; so much so that Sears is now a bankruptcy target with a loss of $3.1 billion in 2012.

Can Sears be saved? Probably the best suggestion to Sears would be to bring back the culture of the last century. Customer service begins with employees who want to be working and doing their best. My last experience in Sears in the upscale Palm Beach Gardens Mall was in search of a new washer and dryer when I moved into my new home. Sadly there was an insufficient staff to help anyone, and the salespeople had limited knowledge of the merchandise. According to Measuredup.com, complaints about repairs all through the country are consistently poor for Sears’ appliances, lawnmowers, and even tractors. The cost of repairs seem even more contentious. Consumers driven by finding the lowest prices will ultimately buy online; stores like Sears therefore have to concentrate on their showrooms and presenting superior products, “wow” customer service, and follow-up service and repairs to build customer loyalty and referrals.

Sears went online in 1997, but their entire culture is essentially broken. It’s been suggested that Sears reinvent themselves to focus on men. After all Craftsman tools have always been a male Christmas present staple; for all those weekend home chores. Experts say get rid of the women’s clothes and jewelry and stock up on Lands End merchandise which appeals to men. Invest in some expert staff training, raise salaries to attract the best sales personnel, concentrate on the company’s culture, and rebuild an organization that once dazzled shoppers across the United States.

Photo courtesy of justj0000lie

BMW modeling customer service innovations after Apple

4235391538_b80f750c2cBuying a new car is a baffling and expensive experience for everyone; options have become so technical making it extremely difficult for car buyers to figure out what they need or really want. BMW recognizes the dilemma and has launched a new program called Genius Everywhere remarkably similar to the Genius Bar at Apple stores. In a story posted by industry marketer Advertising Age, the “geniuses” will be salaried personnel who will walk around BMW showrooms with iPads and provide interested browsers with information about specifications and features.  Let’s face it – how many of us have any knowledge of new gizmos such as Night Vision or Active Steering?

If you have ever been to the Genius Bar at an Apple store, knowledgeable men and women in blue shirts walk around the store carrying their iPads  teaching, explaining, or helping set up appointments about an Apple product. The Genius Everywhere program plans to use trained college students wearing white shirts who generally want to work evenings and weekends to provide specific information helping potential buyers to understand the cars and the advanced technology. All Genius Personnel will be salaried, and if a customer is interested in purchasing a car they will be referred to a salesperson. The program is now being tested in Europe, and the company hopes to be ready to launch in the United States by next year when it introduces its 13 electric cars.

The luxury market for car sales has become extremely competitive. Gone are the days of tattooed, pushy salesmen. Customers don’t storm out as a salesman rips up a contract; tactics like that don’t work well in the luxury segment. Statistically Mercedes Benz buyers have a 62% loyalty repeat business, BMW has a 47% repeat and Audi follows with a 37% repeat loyalty base. Showrooms boast coffee bars and breakfast choices – my dealership in North Palm Beach has a concierge service to accommodate  a customer pulling up with or without an appointment.

Cadillac initiated a new program with their Cadillac User Experience (CUE) designed to pare down the confusion of all the technology into a touch screen and a few touch controls. The program was actually developed after Cadillac engineers teamed up with Cadillac drivers to determine their habits. Now a user can be connected to Bluetooth, USBs, MP3 players, navigation units and weather maps in a simple user friendly control panel called the Infotainment system. Lexus employs a delivery and technology experience using trainers to help consumers navigate the latest technological systems. And now Ford has joined the customer assist ranks with their latest multimedia system called My Ford Touch.

In the past the car buying experience has often been historically tainted by obnoxious salesmen, false advertising, and inferior customer service once a buyer signed on the dotted line and drove away. Technology now can help all consumers buy their next dream car, with the demands of “wow” customer service making it all a much better experience.

Photo credit: ronsombilongallery 

Zappos customer service ‘core values’ sets record for longest call

Zappos’ Customer Loyalty Team repeatedly exceeds expectations of the family culture CEO Tony Hsieh envisioned as his passion for customizing customer service always remains a number one priority 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. On December 8, Customer Loyalty Team member Shaea Labus spent 10 hours and 29 minutes on a phone call. According to The Huffington Post, the call set a new record; beating out the previous record at the online shoe and apparel retailer of 8 hours and 29 minutes.

As an integral part of their unconventional and innovative customer service, Hsieh’s ideas are reflected in everything Zappos. If work shouldn’t be viewed as onerous, “being a little weird requires being a little innovative.” The call between Shaea and a customer named Lisa didn’t concern a customer service problem; it involved the caller transferring to Las Vegas and asking questions seeking information about neighborhoods, jobs, and what it’s like to live in that part of the country. Shaea stated she took one bathroom break during that time, and her teammates brought her food while she was on the call. And to Shaea’s credit, the caller did purchase a pair of Ugg boots.

There is nothing better than the human factor when calling customer service. Of course automated systems are cheaper and more efficient than hiring humans, but most customers calling in and having to deal with an Interactive Voice Response system (IVR) where one must “press 1 to continue in English” becomes exasperating and confusing as the next prompt warns the caller to listen carefully because “the options may have changed.” If customer service is all about sending away happy customers while forming lasting relationships so these customers return to make more purchasers or tell their family and friends what a great experience they had using a company, shouldn’t some retailers be taking lessons from a company like Zappos? Statistics reveal that automated answering systems have longer hold times; whereas automated answering systems average a wait time of two minutes per phone call, a human answering the phone averages only a minute wait time.

Customer service is all about making the customer feel important, and the largest part of Zappos investment into customer satisfaction is training their team to be good listeners, and staying on the phone as long as necessary to help. After all, aren’t future customers a large part of building a company, and isn’t a company built one customer at a time? There’s little doubt that customer Lisa will always be a loyal customer, and there’s no doubt that Lisa will be telling friends and family about her experience with Customer Loyalty Team member Shaea Labus. And it’s not that a customer service agent must stay on the phone forever, but having the option always available for the taking is a step in the right direction.

How to ‘WOW’ customers at a buffet

The luxurious and extravagant hotel on the island of Palm Beach, Florida touting two turrets with waving flags reminiscent of a Roman palace immediately creates the illusion of a magical kingdom fit for the most discriminating clientele. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Breakers Hotel sits on 140 acres of manicured lawns, hedges, pools, spas, hotel rooms, and exquisite restaurants. The staff ranges from 1600 to 1800 depending on the time of year and covers 50 languages. From the moment one arrives, the promise of a truly regal customer experience is realized.

So it came to be my family’s desired location for Christmas dinner; the dinner buffet in the Ponce de Leon Ballroom. And the “WOW” customer service experience began. From the smiles of the welcoming staff as we drove up to the grand entrance, to the lobby with the vaulted ceilings, tufted sofas, and the attentive service personnel ready to direct their guests to whatever direction they might be headed, ensured a lasting family memory.

At one time buffets were designed, at least from the customer point of view as an “all you can eat” experience where massive quantities of food were presented without much thought to presentation. Today’s guests expect elegance, upscale ambiance, an easy traffic-flow to navigate through different stations, and an upbeat and attentive staff.  So how did the Breakers exceed customer expectations?

Two hostesses greeted us as we approached the dining room and within moments led us to our table. A live band played soft music; the saxophonist was incredibly talented. The buffet was set up on both sides to accommodate either section of the dining room with an exquisite dessert table set off to the side. There was never more than a few moments wait to scoop up a delectable selection of food ranging from salads, cold displays of jumbo shrimp, oysters and little neck clams, to caviar, hot buffet items, and carving stations; each selection skillfully presented amid a backdrop of exquisite Christmas decorations, ribbons, and wreaths. After all isn’t presentation at least 50 percent of a buffet’s appeal? The wait staff was able to anticipate and react to their guests requests, and were knowledgeable about vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free diets including questions about ingredients for food sensitive diners.  Managers in well tailored suits, hostesses in professional holiday fashion, and waiters anxious to please and attentive to every detail knew when to approach and when to leave guests to the privacy of their special family moments.

A good buffet showcase such as the Christmas Day Dinner is more than just a fine dining experience.  It actually serves as a showcase for banquets and special services. The ability of this extraordinary customer experience draws people into the hotel who may not normally visit, but who have been so impressed by the services and venue may now one day plan a wedding, social occasion, or business conference. And from this experience comes our family telling our other relatives what a wonderful afternoon we spent at the Breakers, and the good reviews pass on and on. Of course, the story of this exceptional experience can’t be complete until I mention a few of the desserts which included gourmet hot chocolate shots, peppermint bark, walnut rum balls, and egg nog mousse martinis. There just wasn’t a frown in the place!

Guest services and planning needed to create a ‘Wow’ experience in buffet style holiday feast

Buffets traditionally save on labor costs and provide an excellent venue to showcase a restaurant’s best food and service. In a resort area such as South Florida, the ‘”WOW” experience includes customer service, atmosphere, cuisine, and of course – location. So how does all of this compare with the Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa located in Jupiter, Florida on a beautiful Thanksgiving afternoon? The resort is located directly on the Atlantic Ocean beach and offers 12,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor dining facilities, yet no one even glimpsed a view of the sandy beaches nor could anyone boast a “WOW” experience for a poorly planned Thanksgiving feast.

Let’s travel back to the beginning of the experience when there were confirmed reservations made for a specific time. First impressions are important, and the initial customer service coordinator’s poor judgment and lack of planning immediately diminished any well-meaning intentions. When guests are forced to wait for over an hour before they are seated, and made to stand around with no apologies and no direction as to the reasons for the delay, it would seem a new marketing plan would be imminent. When guests with confirmed reservations are made to wait as “walk-in” customers are seated before them, when no servers ever appear in the make-shift lobby crowded with guests waiting to be seated even taking beverage orders, and when hostesses do not communicate with waiting guests, it’s dubious anyone will be wanting to come back for another holiday celebration.

The best advantage of a buffet is the flexible format and of course, it is easier to accommodate more people than offering sit-down menus with table service. Frequently the rule of thumb is one server for 18 guests during a sit-down function as compared to one server for 24 guests at a buffet, however when servers are cleaning up tables, delivering drink orders, and other buffet associated duties to 40 or more guests, service suffers. Diners miss out on the experience of the best a resort can offer, and dining in two conference rooms without even a window certainly suffers the anticipated ambiance of a family dinner overlooking the grand vistas of a beautiful seashore facility.

So what could have been done to ensure a positive experience for guests? The excuse that management could not plan for the length of time a guest stayed at the buffet and therefore backed up multitudes of awaiting guests was not sufficient. Since the 16th century when buffets originated in France, experienced catering and convention managers have been able to estimate the time guests spend eating. Buffet managers should have planned for more staff or at the very least – limited the amount of reservations and of course denied “walk-ins.” A more experienced hostess staff should have been keeping waiting guests constantly informed of the situation, and an apology with an incentive should have been offered to guests for a future visit. And of course, there should have been the same choices of food for the guests at the end of the day as were available for the guests at the beginning of the buffet.

And even though it is a beautiful spot for a peaceful afternoon, the chances of my family ever returning are slim. When we tell ten of our friends and they tell ten others, what might have been a great place to plan a wedding, a party, or a family reunion becomes a place just “off the list.”

Celebrating National Customer Service Week by honoring the best

It’s no coincidence that National Customer Service Week is celebrated this late on the calendar; it’s the unofficial launch of the biggest shopping experience of the year as the holiday season closes in and shoppers start counting down the days to family and friend celebrations. And in anticipation of the “happiest time of the year,” customer service demands rise to the top of the leader board.

Statistics reflect over two-million employees working in the customer service industry, and this week long celebration serves as a reminder to businesses the importance of recognizing those representatives in the front lines who tend to the business of the day by successfully interacting with customers and clients. Why not use this time of the year to develop new customer service ideas that can reward, recognize, and help to advance the talents of these critically important employees?

In the overwhelmingly successful business called Zappos, their philosophy, culture, and obsession with customer service has changed the 1999 Internet shoe business to shoes, clothing and more with annual revenues of over one billion dollars. It’s a company that listens to the voices of the customers and uses the feedback to help train team members become successful which in turn boosts morale, and at the same time motivates employees to want to do better – all in a positive atmosphere where employees enjoy coming to work. So what has made Tony Hseih’s Zappos’ experience so popular and successful?

Without a doubt, Zappos delivers “WOW” service. Although the commercials and advertisements may appear a bit quirky, they make you smile. From the moment you visit the website, you are guaranteed free shipping, immediate delivery, 365-day return policies, and a host of good-natured and efficient customer service personnel right at your fingertips or on the phone should any part of your shopping experience go awry. Of course, the cream of the crop associates don’t just pop out by filling out a job application, and after an extensive training program coupled with the obsession of the organization’s core values and culture, new associates become part of the “family” and even share in the future success by profit sharing.

One may find it interesting that Zappos is not known for their competitive salaries; in fact salaries are considerably lower, but factor in free food, a comprehensive medical plan, and a place where employees share the pride and professionalism of a business where even managers are encouraged to hang out with their employees in a happy place, the motivation for coming on board certainly becomes attractive. Where employees are encouraged to voice their complaints, where learning experiences are based on following other good examples, and where employees are encouraged to volunteer and have fun when not working adds up to a working environment that revolves around happiness. Perhaps the most fun a visitor might notice as you go on a tour of the Las Vegas Zappos facility are the delightfully creative decorations at each employee’s cubicle – ranging from someone’s fanciful interest to Tony Hseih’s jungle theme cubicle thickly decorated with plastic palm trees and hanging stuffed monkeys.

It’s a place to be adventuresome, learn, and grow. It’s a place where humility and passion have just the right mix, and it’s a place where National Customer Service Week and the appreciation of customer service representatives is surely celebrated.

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