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Transportation Security Administration criticized for poor customer service

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google enters into customer service industry with Trusted Stores Program

Critics are saying that Google has entered into the customer service arena which in the past  directly contradicts their automated tech abilities and less than stellar customer-centric talents. The introduction of the Google Trusted Stores Program may be the foundation for competing with Amazon someday, but it’s interesting to see Google becoming a customer service representative for customers right down to even offering a purchase protection plan when a sale goes awry.

So how does the new program work? Actually Google has been testing their “Trusted Stores” badges since October 2011, and it is offered to all United States businesses with a self-service sign up interface. The service is free of charge to customers and merchants, and according to Google the intended purpose is to increase trust for online shopping, so if a customer doesn’t know the company they can check its reliability before turning over their cash. According to an article by NBC:

The new program is Google’s attempt to make nervous buyers calmer about parting with their credit card numbers on an anonymous site.

The Google Trusted Stores Program will rate online stores on their delivery of an overall customer experience. A potential customer will be able to see who ships quickly and their reliability. For instance, shipping will be rated on the percentages of on-time shipping based on the time frame specified by the company and the average days for a product to ship. The service section of the evaluation will be based on the percentages of issues resolved within a short amount of time and the low percentages of customers needing assistance from a particular organization.

What makes the program most interesting is the promise of a Google customer service representative who will mediate between a participating merchant and customer when a problem occurs and of course the Google new purchase protection plan of $1,000 at no charge for qualifying purchases.

Google  group product manager Tom Fallows states they are not getting into a ranking system, but trying to help shoppers feel more comfortable with buying online. It would seem that the less known merchants would benefit the most from this program; so far Wayfair, Timbuk2 and Beau-coup have all signed up and subsequently announced that business has increased. To date Google states 50 merchants have signed up for  the program.

Whether Google expects more merchants to spend their increased revenue on AdWords or if it’s just a push to compete in  customer service excellence that garners the attention of all customers, the Trusted Stores Program will be even more interesting when Google rivals sign up for the service.

How to treat bad comments on social media sites

Social media customer service is the quickest way for organizations to handle customer complaints, but it’s for all the world to see and can definitely have some negative effects on a company’s reputation. Facebook, Twitter, and company blogs are the most popular social media sites, and a proactive campaign to handle negative press can save an organization’s brand.

Last year the Greek firm Systemgraph, a support partner of Apple in Greece sued a customer who complained online about a bad customer service experience. Dimitris Papadimitriadis’ computer was giving him trouble, and the company never did fix it to his satisfaction nor did they ever gave him a replacement as Papadimitriadis contended his warranty stated. It was then the disgruntled customer wrote an online complaint about his unpleasant experience. Surprisingly, Systemgraph turned around and sued their customer for defamation seeking $267,000 in damages.

Bringing in lawyers, insulting the customer, or removing an unflattering post can all bring negative publicity and likely not be the drama any company would like to have circulating in the wide venues of the Internet. The days of “any publicity is good publicity” is far past acceptable fare. In fact negative online publicity from credible sources can result in a profound decrease in business.

Need some suggestions on how to address that bad press that can suddenly appear? Try some of these tips:

  • Respond to negative criticism immediately whether it is on Facebook, Twitter, or the company blog. Let your customer know that you are aware of a problem – either stand up for a decision or admit that something went awry.
  • If the organization has a blog, respond to it there where a detailed explanation can be supplied.
  • Ensure that an organization is transparent and gives honest feedback.
  • Insist on people identifying themselves so there is a line of credibility. Most organizations now realize the anonymity of the Internet can bring out unsolicited and unwanted comments posted deliberately by people who want to be amused or just cause havoc to an organization.
  • Stay calm. If the client is angry, do not engage the person in an argument. All you will be doing is escalating the problem. The goal is to calm the unhappy person and bring the situation to an amicable agreement.
  • Use specially trained customer service representatives for social media responses. This is not the job for IT personnel.
  • Go offline with the unhappy customer if the problem escalates too quickly or becomes unmanageable. Wait until the customer calms down and address the issues again using the appropriate procedures.

Take lessons from the leaders in customer service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Mickey Mouse can teach us about customer service

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

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

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

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

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

Sending flowers and customer service

Mother’s Day is coming, and with that comes the busiest day of the year for florists. Many of us order our flowers over the phone or the Internet, and since holidays are a one shot deal when it comes to flowers being at their required destination on time, we as consumers hold florists to a high level of “flower” responsibility.

This past Valentine’s Day, Washington Post’s Melissa Bell stated, “Love hath no fury like a flower customer scoffed.” It seems a popular wire service 1-800-Flowers failed to deliver bouquets for many customers creating a plethora of Twitter and Facebook complaints with the fervor of an inevitable doom. Boyfriends, husbands, and significant others complained about flowers not arriving, damaged products, hundreds of botched deliveries, and an acute shortage of customer service personnel. Only a few dissatisfied customers ever received an answer on that ominous February 14th.

The Bradenton Patch’s 2012 Reader’s Choice Award for Best Customer Service awarded Ms. Scarlett’s Flowers and Gifts thumbs up for customer service in a very consumer oriented industry. In an interview, the owner Ryan Bringman reminds us of many of the basic essentials of fine customer service – primarily to always match or exceed customers’ expectations.

So what are the most important issues when dealing with flowers and customers? Consumers want their arrangement to look like the picture, they want a competitive price, they want a quality product, and they want their orders to be delivered on time. During Valentine’s Day, 1-800 -Flowers, headquartered in Westbury, New York with franchises, owners, as well as  “order takers” were unprepared for the volume of orders and left sweethearts demanding apology notes and refunds.

Bringman says that customer service is what really sets his store apart from everyone else. He is careful about quality control, meaning he uses the best flowers to make his floral arrangements and has adopted the philosophy that the less time spent on talking to the customer about issues, the better the service will be. He claims to be committed to his clients which might mean some bizarre orders like dead flowers, black roses, or baskets for cats or dogs, but if his clients are happy, then Bringman is happy.

Middlemen like 1-800-Flowers may seem convenient, but Bringman says in terms of customer satisfaction it is better to order direct because not only will you get a better product, but the prices are often less costly. He suggests looking up a florist in the city or town you want the flowers sent, and either email or call the shop directly.

The last flower delivery I received from 1-800-Flowers spelled my first name incorrectly and wished me a Happy Birthday when the occasion was to congratulate me on a very difficult real estate transaction which finally changed title. While the flowers weren’t meant to be a “love connection,” I just can’t help imagining the damage a wrong name or occasion on the card could have caused.

Social marketing 101; respond to your customers about social issues too

Does your organization have a Facebook page where a customer can either “Like” or become “Friends”? Nowadays businesses are either riding the social media train or stranded at the depot. Clients and customers love the personal touch and having the ability to comment on an issue; the problem arises however, when no one from the company responds back or follows up on a complaint, lack of service, or even a social issue.

Statistically the majority of Facebook posts and Tweets remain unanswered. Of course, if the news media grabs onto something particularly egregious, the firestorm rages on, but in general customers just fade away because no one ever responds. As we live in a technologically advancing world where even seven-year-old children carry  smart phones, social consciousness becomes a major factor when building brand loyalty and increasing the number of new customers referred by existing customers.

Recently the Northface clothing company, a high end organization of outerwear was singled out by one of the humane organizations for purchasing and using duck down for their coats and vests that had been purchased from a company who participated in the especially cruel practice of raising ducks for foie gras. If you’re not familiar with the ongoing contentious issue, geese or ducks are fattened artificially by inserting metal tubes down their throats and fed enormous helpings of maize to fatten up their livers. Foie gras is considered a delicacy and commonly sells in excess of $30.00 an ounce. At first Northface ignored the comments on their Facebook page, but as irrefutable evidence of Allied Feather and Down being one of their suppliers who support the foie gras industry, Northface needed to address the issue. Finally on February 20, the organization posted an update stating they did not condone the practice of force-feeding geese, apologized and regretted not having “greater insight into the origins of down” and were working to find long-term solutions to avoid sourcing down. The company now claims to have organized a Down Task Force establishing a traceability system of new procedures.

In another example of a growing social consciousness, Lancome (L’Oreal) still tests finished products on animals; another especially cruel practice when photos of suffering dogs, cats, rabbits and even mice are posted all over Facebook and other related media outlets. It is interesting to note that by 2013 all animal testing for cosmetics will be banned across the European Union. A few weeks ago I posted on the Lancome Facebook page and asked why they were still using live animals. My first post was deleted, but the second time I received a reply denying that animals were still being used, but also directing me to a press release link explaining that the company was working on alternative skin testing methods.

There’s no doubt that companies need to continue working on their social media listening skills because the Internet is not going away. Customer service representatives need to establish reasonable policies aligned with their brand in a social conscious world where information is no farther away than typing in the word “Google”. We live in an ever emerging mindset of sustainable products and new moralities. While we all strive to make a living and produce the best products at the best prices, the world has changed and more customers demand more answers.

Medicare forcing hospitals to improve their customer service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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