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Discourage dead air.

I was watching a friend of mine struggle with her cellphone the other day. She was on  hold with a company that had no hold music. Apparently, her cellphone will automatically disconnect you if it doesn’t hear any noise on either side. Needless to say, this was frustrating for her. But for me and subsequently for you, it was beneficial.

A less annoying version of this can be implemented to help discourage “dead air” in call centers. My idea was this: you can set your customer service represenatives’ headsets to beep (so the caller cannot hear it) after a set period of time with nothing being said. If the customer is on hold, it won’t beep, but if the customer is still active on the call, then it will beep.

This reminds the customer service represenative to either start talking or to put the customer on hold while you research. That six to ten seconds of “dead air” can make customers wonder if they have been disconnected, forced to ask if you are still there, etc.

This is a fairly simple solution that solves a very annoying problem. Simple solutions like these can be implemented all around your company. It is just a matter of observing what is a problem and thinking about possible solutions. If you think about it concisely and pro-actively look for improvements, they will turn up.

What simple solutions have you used for your business?

It’s charm school for Delta Airlines

A330-300 Delta Air LinesWhen Delta merged with Northwest Airlines, it seemed just to make a wider venue for the endless lack of customer service and concern. Delta received the highest rate of customer complaints filed with the Department of Transportation for the first nine months of last year, and they were only one step above dead last for on time arrivals and baggage handling through November. If that wasn’t enough to make Delta Executive Vice President, Glen Hauenstein sad, Delta also had the shameful distinction of rating the highest for canceled flights for 2010.

Delta blames the high rate of canceled flights on repairs, lack of parts, and understaffed airport workers. They are now reportedly hiring 1000 new workers and increasing their inventory of spare parts and spare planes.

The most impressive part of the new Delta image, centers around two-billion dollars worth of customer service instruction for the 11,000 ticket counter agents, gate attendants, baggage personnel, and supervisors. The one-day course will concentrate on finding ways to assist travelers rather than just blowing them off with a sigh of indifference. Training facilitators will help agents show their appreciation of customers and the money travelers spend. Dealing with the most common complaint from customers, “no one cared or apologized” customer service training will now emphasize the “high value customers,” all of whom these frequent fliers make up 26 percent of the total revenue for the airlines.

Customer service training will center around the universal principals, however it won’t be about offering waivers or bending the rules. Passengers may get bad news with a smile now, and agents will no longer feel they have to apologize for extra charge add-on baggage fees. Instead agents will explain that customers pay for what they use; “a la carte” fee. It’s not meant to make the passenger feel any better; just a polite way to say “it’s another way for the airlines to make more profit.”

What is bound to improve however is the emphasis on the customer service training. Here is a peek as to what will be emphasized in customer service charm school:

  • Make it personal. Agents will be concentrating on one passenger at a time instead of looking down the line at the ten people waiting for service.
  • Be empathetic. Agents should try to place themselves in the shoes of the traveler. Missing a flight and missing a job interview, or not making a connecting flight are routine complaints for agents, but not for travelers.
  • Listen, ask, listen. An example of dealing with a customer’s lost luggage which contains necessary medications may first have been viewed by an agent as a stupid mistake the passenger made for checking a bag with medicine. Through listening the customer service agent discovers it is the fault of the airlines because there was no more space in the overheads, and the carry-on baggage had to be checked.
  • Solve together. Offer solutions and choices.
  • Be there. Don’t just physically be there because it is your job, and you only have 26 months, two-days and four hours left until you are eligible for retirement benefits. Do more than just process orders. Care about your job.

We’ll check back this year, and figure out if classes will benefit this organization. For sure – it can’t hurt!

photo credit: grogri87

Mute Your Microphone

Here is a simple customer service tip that will make you look (and especially sound) more professional: mute your microphone when sounds are being made that the customer shouldn’t / likely doesn’t want to hear. Some examples of situations where you’d want to mute your microphone include:

  • Talking to a co-worker / asking a question
  • Loud noises in the office (alarms, notifications, etc.)
  • Dead air (be sure to come back every now and then so the customer knows you haven’t hung up on them)
  • Similar situations where a noise is being made that the customer shouldn’t hear

Most headsets and phones have an easy to access mute button, but so few representatives use it. The mute button is a great way to avoid placing the customer on hold just to ask someone a question or look something up. If you don’t use the mute feature on your headset or phone already, try it out and see how it works for you.

Engaging with customers.

An important aspect of customer is engaging customers on a human level. Engaging customers doesn’t necessarily have to be about killing dead air time (like the previous post I wrote on the subject discusses), but it does have to involve paying attention to and caring about customers.

When customer service representatives are on the phone with customers, it isn’t uncommon for them to hear customers complimenting them and making small talk. Customers will add asides (“I’ve called so many times!”, “I talked to John before I spoke to you.”, “I can’t believe I didn’t see that!”) – sometimes because they’re trying to be nice, other times just because that is just their personality.

Regardless of the reason, customer service representatives should work to respond to those comments. It not only shows that they’re listening, but just as importantly, that they care. For example, a representative could use his or her personality (and customer service common sense) to respond to these in these ways:

1) I’ve called so many times. “I apologize about the inconvenience. I will be glad to help you get this issue sorted out now so you won’t have to call back another time.”
2) I talked to John before I spoke to you. “Okay. John sits just a few cubicles over from me. Was he able to assist you with what you needed?”
3) I can’t believe I didn’t see that! “It’s okay! People miss it all the time.”
4) I’m sorry, I’m just not very technical. “That’s fine. It’s absolutely no problem.”

The point of responding to asides like that is essentially to have something better than the “yep” or the grunt that most representatives will utter in response to comments like that from customers. A lot of customer service representatives just aren’t sure how to respond to customers who talk about anything outside of the actual issue.

My advice is to always respond and to always use some personality while doing so. It’ll make the customer service experience smoother and more personal. It’ll show that the people providing the service are just that – people. People with personalities. People with senses of humor. And, most importantly, people that like other people.

Engage People on a Human Level

I was talking to a representative from a major company the other day and he told me about a strategy he uses to improve the level of customer service that he provides. He told me that he tries to engage customers on a human level. How he attempts to engage customers on a human level is really quite simple – he asks about the weather. When the same agent above hears a baby crying, he asks if it is a prince or princess crying in the background. It is just another way to make the customer feel special and less anonymous. These types of questions engage customers on a human level.

Engaging customers on a human level is important because it develops a more personal relationship with individual customers. When customers feel less anonymous and more engaged, they are more likely to continue using the company. Personal customer service often translates into quality customer service. It helps make the tone of the call less formal and more relaxed. Technical support and customer service can sometimes be stressful for both parties, so making it more relaxed is always a positive thing to do.

Asking about the weather is an interesting question because it is a simple topic that everyone can relate to. It is also a safe question (unlike how are you) because people don’t get too upset by the weather (and the weather is independent of the quality of service being provided). You don’t have to ask about the weather, though. Other good questions that agents can ask are about sports team (like T-Mobile) and similar questions that are pretty netural and easily relatable to. The point is to ask questions that won’t upset anyone. You don’t want to ask questions that people have a hard time relating to or it could make the conversation awkward.

This is a great way to kill the dead air time that often occurs during calls, especially technical support calls. It’s small talk, but it’s useful. It is a lot better than just silence. Anything that helps personalize the customer service experience is a step in the right direction.

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7 Steps to Great Customer Service

I read an article by Joe Takash over the weekend about some simple strategies to keep in mind when trying to deliver great customer service.

The bold titles are Joe’s suggestions. My comments and own suggestions are below the titles.

1. Make a great first impression.
You only have one chance at making a first impression. How you start off a customer or customer service experience will definitely set the tone for the rest of the experience.

2. Be a name-learning machine.
It takes more than just learning names. You also want to be able to use names. Be able to recognize faces, names when they are written out (such as in emails or tickets), etc. When you know and can use names, it will make a huge difference.

3. Be a fantastic listener.
This is extremely important. Great customer service representatives are even better listeners. They also practice “active listening” where they confirm what the customer is saying, ask appropriate questions, and subtly poke around for additional (and useful) information.

4. Create common ground.
The article suggest asking questions like “did you do anything fun over the weekend”, “where are you from?”, “are you looking forward to X,” etc. to help create some common ground. Creating some common ground not only helps the customer service experience by killing what would otherwise be dead air, but if it works out well, could make it a memorable experience.

5. Show constant appreciation.
Showing constant appreciation according to Joe is sending handwritten thank you cards (constantly). Send them to people who refer you customers, new customers, returning customers, etc. The point is to show you appreciate their business, their thinking of you, and them choosing you. You can also call or see customers to show your thanks.

6. Apologize and admit fault.
Not much else needs to be added to this point. It is important to admit it when you mess up. It is even more important to handle those mess ups properly. One of my favorite customer service quotes is “the road to success is paved with well handled mistakes.” It makes a lot of sense.

7. Be positively contagious.
Joe ends the article by suggesting that you should be positive. Use positive words, be friendly, show your passion. Yawning, negative terms, complaining, etc. won’t make for a great customer service experience. Be happy! Smile!

Support.com Experience

Support.com I recently gave Support.com’s $59 System TuneUp service a try. Basically, a support representative goes through your computer using remote connection software (very similar to how Webmail.us did it). They do some tuneups and fixes to make your computer faster and work more efficiently.

The service competes with extra services provided by computer manufactures (see this interview with Janice Liu from HP for details about their offerings) and of course the services that the Geek Squad provides (interviews here). Support.com is strictly phone / Internet based, so they can’t really fix hardware issues.

Support.com has technicians based in their Syracuse, NY call center. It is all US based and the company (SupportSoft) started offering consumer services in December of 2006 or so. Before that, they made remote help support. The company is relatively small and has about 15 technicians on the floor at any given time, depending on the time of the day, etc.

When you call Support.com’s 1-800 number, you are automatically connected to the person that will be helping you. There was no hold time and I was surprised at the lack of menus.

After the technician collects your billing information, etc., you download the software and get it setup. The download and installation process wasn’t quite as simple as the software that Webmail.us used (Fog Creek Copilot) and took a bit longer. It wasn’t complicated, but was slightly more involved. The software doesn’t work with Firefox, which is disappointing.

The agent who helped me (Ryan) was friendly and seemed to know what he was talking about. He took a conservative approach (as opposed to going in and deleting a whole bunch of stuff), which I personally prefer. Ryan did a good job at avoiding dead air during the conversation, which is one of the biggest challenges during technical support calls.

My computer is running faster and the only problem I had was with Mozilla Firefox. When we uninstalled an older version of Mozilla Firefox, it uninstalled both the old version and my current version. It was really easy to get Firefox working again – I just had to download it and reinstall it. I could have called Support.com to have done that, but didn’t need to.

Ryan told me that Support.com’s most popular services included Spyware Removal ($79), Comprehensive Problem Resolution Service (they fix a problem for $39 or $99, depending on the issue). All fees are flat rate and Support.com guarantees that the problem will be fixed.

I liked how Support.com has customer reviews and feedback posted at https://www.support.com/reviews. At https://www.support.com/incidents, they also show some of the most recent problems fixed. The transparency is a nice touch.
After the experience, I filled out a simple survey. For some reason, Support.com sent me 12 emails. No idea why I got an extra 11 emails, but that did happen.

I’m pretty good about keeping my computer clean and working well, so I’m not sure if I would use this service. Would I recommend it to someone who doesn’t know that much about computers? Definitely. Support.com is a wise choice for someone who wants to fix their computer up from the convenience of their home.

Disclosure: I received the System TuneUp service from Support.com for free. I have no experience with any of their other services.

Customer Service Bot

Edit: I had this post fully written up, but forgot to publish it! Sorry!

Certain people starting in customer service (usually technical people) sometimes have the tendency to turn into what I call “customer service bots.”

About customer service bots.
Customer service bots are men and women who love their operating procedures and follow them down to the letter. Their statements are very rarely more than a couple of words and lack emotion. Customer service bots never expression emotion, either.

Limited phrases.
Customer service bots have an extensive vocabulary that can ask questions like “What is your account number?” or “What is the error message?”. They can also respond to statements and sometimes say things like “Thank you” or “Hold on please”. There is no small talk – it’s all about business.

They get the issue resolved.
Customer service bots seem to get the issue resolved more often than not. Their etiquette may not compare to that of normal customer service representatives, but from my experiences, customer service bots are pretty good at actually resolving issues.

Lots of dead air.
Because of their short sentences/phrases, customer service bots seem to have an unnatural ability to create dead air [PDF download]. It makes the experience even more awkward.

I’m not 100% sure why people turn into customer service bots. Almost every customer service bot I’ve run into is a technical person. They have had technical training and a tech background. There are sales customer service bots, but they aren’t very effective.

So how do you prevent people from turning into customer service bots? It’s hard, because it seems to be more of a personality thing than something specific to the organization or how they do things. Work with representatives that seem like customer service bots. Try to improve their phone and people skills. Both are possible to teach.

If you find that you do have customer service bots, here is what you can do. Mention their bot like traits and see if they are aware of it. They may not be aware of it and can work to improve it. If you don’t see any improvement, consider putting the person in a job that requires less customer interaction and may better utilize the person’s technical skills.

Customer service bots aren’t bad people. They just aren’t overly friendly.

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