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Customer Service Profiles: Amazon.com, Printing for Less, and Starbucks

I’m finishing up the series on customer service profiles with customer service profiles of Amazon.com, Printing for Less, and Starbucks.

Amazon.com:
I buy almost all of my books and quite a few other things on Amazon.com. Their site is designed to sell and it does a very good job. Amazon used to be a legendary customer service organization (there was a time where you could email them saying “I can’t find this book: –” and the staff would go out of their way to find it from a bookstore somewhere around the country. Amazon.com isn’t like this anymore (probably because of size), but their customer service isn’t bad.

A downside to Amazon is that it is very difficult to find their phone number. Not too long ago they added a click-to-call button on their customer service page (which works). Their system almost always work (which is very important) and Amazon very rarely messed up.

From the few years I’ve been using Amazon, I’ve only had to return one batch of books. The books appeared as if they were used and I had ordered and paid for new books. I sent them back, the company apologized, sent me new books, and I was happy. I continue to use them. The call seemed very scripted, but it got the job done.

Amazon.com could use an easier to find phone number, an easy to find live chat button, easy to find customer service emails, and things along those lines. They have the major elements to customer services success down – they just have to work on the little things.

Printing For Less:
I have never used Printing for Less, but I have heard a lot of good things about them (described here). The company seems to be extremely focused on customer service and has been very successful.

Printing for Less has a few things that you notice instantly: their phone number is on the very front page at the top left, there is a very convenient way to track your order from the front page, they have lots of informational pages about design tips and tricks, their email is easily found and published clearly, and they have lots of extras (such as free file review).

They seem to have most of the things they need down: a dedication to customer service (at both a frontline and management level), the little things (easy to find phone number, etc.), and the big things (quality product, reasonable pricing, etc.).

Starbucks:
Quite honestly, I very rarely go to Starbucks. I don’t drink coffee or anything else that I’d go to Starbucks to get, so I don’t have much first hand experience with them. However, Maria at CustomersAreAlways seems to almost live in Starbucks. Maria talks about Starbucks’ (almost always) good customer service in quite a few posts on her blog. She talks about Starbucks employees are often pro-active in solving customers problems (music too loud, a customer is cold), which is quite rare in the industry.

Customer satisfaction for retailers at all time high

For the third year in a row, customer satisfaction in the retail trade for the United States is at an all time industry high, but of course there are always some caveats since many of the top retailers who scored relatively low for customer satisfaction are among the top retailers. Go figure!

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report examined the implications of both e-commerce and retail businesses concluding that better customer service, discounting of prices, and lower gasoline prices offset a drop in Internet sales. For instance, gas station business is based solely on price, and with GasBuddy.com, it’s easy to check, however stations have also improved by offering customers quick options for groceries instead of having to head off to the nearest supermarket and  make another stop.

Perhaps one of the more interesting conundrums of the report stated that eight of the ten retailers with the worst customer satisfaction scores were among the 20 top retailers in 2012. Macy’s, Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and Walmart with the supermarket scoring the lowest ACSI score for customer satisfaction  and poor customer relations, still received a high customer satisfaction score for mobile and Internet business. Part of the problem of low scores come from employee feedback where lack of benefits and competitive salaries evoke mediocre to low reviews from the staff.

Interesting enough however, even though brick and mortar stores suffered this past year from less foot traffic, customers were pleased with shorter waiting lines, more products in stock, and the personal service that brings consumers into a store. Add that kind of exemplary service to a romantic city street decorated with twinkling lights and attractive merchandise offered from decorated windows, the holiday season became a fun experience for shoppers.

For specialty stores, the availability of merchandise scored the highest benchmark for customer satisfaction, and in general consumers were pleased with relatively good service, clean and attractive spaces well laid out, and quicker checkout. The down part of specialty stores compared to department stores, however are less sales and promotions. (Even the wealthiest shoppers enjoy a good bargain.)

The Internet retail experience was affected this year by a huge mess of weather delays; scarcely was there a day in the news that supply and delivery didn’t make headlines. Amazon.com didn’t seem to suffer much by offering free delivery and other “wallet oriented” apologies. It doesn’t seem one can beat the convenience, the merchandise selection, ease of navigation, useful customer information on the sites, and customer support of e-commerce; especially coming from an age of young professionals who spend more time online shopping than at the mall. Brick and mortar organizations are constantly challenged to meet and surpass a shopping experience worthy of a personal adventure.

Maybe one of the worst customer satisfaction experiences lately, scoring at the very bottom of ACSI benchmark are Internet Service Providers. Comcast Corporation, as it wens it way to a $45 billion mega merger with Time Warner Cable may be destined to become the two worst companies combining for the worst service imaginable. Facebook pages like Comcast Sucks and I Hate Comcast have thousands of likes and complaints ranging from outrageous bills, endless waits on the phone for service, and inconsistency of service. It’s practically unimaginable that Internet providers will ever do better.

As a new year of customer satisfaction rolls on, let’s hope to continue to see improvements whether we step into a store or sign on to the Internet.

How to act like an adult when you need customer support

donkey

Maybe your medical insurance didn’t pay for a service you thought should have been covered or that manufacturer’s guarantee should have included repairing the rip in the leather carrying case you overpaid for last year, but acting like a petulant brat on a preschool playground isn’t the way to handle the complex world of customer service representatives and real people in support positions. Companies are not inherently evil, nor are they always wrong. Our mothers told us when we were very young that we wouldn’t always get everything we wanted, and we must learn to be fair with everyone we deal with in life.

So carrying all of this along to adulthood, let’s assume there is something that compels a person to complain about a product or a service. Let the primary focus begin with becoming educated and a thoroughly informed consumer. In any dispute, there is always another side, so the better one knows “their enemy” perhaps the better to ask questions and come out with a reasonable solution. In the old days, customers didn’t have the advantage of the Internet to research issues. Possibly the organization has had issues with the precise complaint currently in dispute. Research how the company handled it; they may have visited this particular problem in the past. How was it resolved?

The cardinal rule is to never back oneself into a corner or act like an ass. Play the devil’s advocate and be prepared, however never lose one’s temper and make your bad day a bad day for everyone.

As an example, on Sunday evening, I was at JFK International Airport in New York at the Sky Lounge when an older woman called Amazon to complain about a package that obviously had not arrived in time for Christmas. There was a crowd of people sitting around since we were all weather delayed from getting home, so a few light cocktails, soft music, and comfortable chairs created a welcome respite over the blaring announcements, plastic chairs, and unruly children screaming around the other parts of the airport. That is, maybe we all spoke too soon, as the woman shouted obscenities, and slammed her expresso cup down upon the table actually flinging liquid onto someone’s James Patterson latest novel.

So may I now offer some age-old suggestions on how to act when one needs customer support?

  • Do not assume everyone is having a bad day, and don’t take your bad day out on the customer representative. Maybe the representative’s child is gravely ill, or his dog just died.
  • Do not exaggerate to the point when it is reasonable to assume you are lying. The absence of that new Kindle Fire didn’t ruin your daughter’s Christmas completely.
  • Don’t lose your temper and raise your voice in public. Bad enough the customer support person has to listen to you being an ass; is it really necessary to bother 35 other people seeking a moment or two of peace in an airport lounge?
  • Take a deep breath. Calm down. Not every customer service representative is trained in conflict management and getting angry is surely not going to solve the problem.
  • Be reasonable, and ask the representative what they would suggest if placed in your position?

Be prepared to compromise; be prepared to act like an adult. And if you can’t …please carry on like an ass in the privacy of your own home.

To Sell is Human Summary and Review

This year, we decided to give copies of To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others by Daniel H. Pink (signed by the author himself) to all of our employees at A Small Orange as part of our holiday gift package. As a very service-centric company, we wanted to illustrate the fact that sales isn’t what it used to be and isn’t all about conning people into making a buying decision they otherwise would be against. We believe that sales should be consultative and should focus on helping customers choose the right combination of products and services and we wanted this book to help explain that.

Here’s a quick summary of some key points that I prepared to help capture my full understanding of the book. I hope it’s helpful, though keep in mind I was a casual reader and my understanding of some of the key points may vary:

Part one: Rebirth of a salesman

  • Sales used to be defined as a certain profession, like the Fuller Man who went door to door to sell cleaning supplies and such. Today, more than 15 million people work in sales (more than manufacturing and only less than office and administration works).
  • Through a survey, the author determined that people (who don’t work in sales in the traditional sense) still spend 40% of their time engaged in non-sales selling such as persuading, influencing, and convincing others that don’t involve a purchase. The question was “What percentage of your work involves convincing or persuading people to give up something they value for something you have?”
  • Small business owners (i. e. 0-3 employees) and entrepreneurs spend much of their time selling, whether that’s dealing with customers, enticing partners, negotiating with sellers, or motivating employees.
  • Some companies don’t have traditional sales people. Pink cited enterprise software company Atlassian and Palantir as examples. Atlassian has no formal sales people (therefore requiring everyone to pitch in) and Palantir puts engineers in sales roles (called “forward-deployed engineers”).
  • Educators and medical professionals also have to convince people to part with things (time, energy, habits, etc.).
  • People largely hate sales people in the traditional sense. Used car salesman comes to mind when most people are asked what they think about sales people.
  • Today’s world makes high pressure sales less effective because of reduced information asymmetry. In other words, the world of sales is switching from caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) to caveat venditor (let the seller beware).

Part two: How to be 

  • Instead of “Always be closing,” Pink suggests that the new ABCs of sales are “Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity”.
  • Attunement is about looking at things from the other person’s perspective. It starts with increasing power by reducing it – essentially a lesson in having the humility to put your assumptions aside and listen to others and their concerns. It also requires understanding what others are thinking (such as understanding any biases or preferences) in addition to just what that they are feeling. Strategic mimicry in a non-obvious manner can also be effective.
  • Ambiverts tend to be more successful at sales than extraverts or introverts.
  • The first step in buoyancy is interrogative self-talk, which is asking if you have the ability to do something. Research shows it’s more effective to question rather than just pump of confidence.
  • Sales people need a good ratio of positivity and negativity to flourish. The research ideal is between 3:1 and 11:1 (positive:negative). Appropriate negativity helps keep people motivated and egos in check. Too much negativity is wearing.
  • Sales people with “optimistic explanatory styles,” or their thought process of explaining negative events to themselves do better than sales people with negative explanatory styles. Those with optimistic explanatory styles tend to explain negative events as specific, temporary, or external.
  • Finding the right problems to solve is important. It’s about being a partner with the buyer and thinking of the right solution instead of just trying to close a deal. This is commonly called consultative selling.
  • Frames of reference are important. Think about the question, “compared to what?” Potential frames of reference are more/less, experiences, labels, blemishes, and potential.
  • Providing clarity on how to act (an off ramp) is important. A lot of sales focuses on trying to improve clarity of thinking while ignoring clarity of acting, which is just as or more important.

Part three: What to do

  • There are six main pitches types: the one word pitch, the question pitch, the rhyming pitch (helps increase retention), the subject line pitch, the Twitter pitch, and the Pixar pitch (story like).
  • Improv can teach a lot about sales. Hearing offers, saying “Yes and”, and making your partner look good are all improv lessons that apply to sales.
  • In service (and sales), personalizing things (demonstrating an account is a person) and adding purpose (illustrating doing something has a meaningful impact on someone besides the seller) are applicable to both sales and services. Emotionally intelligent signage and language helps too.

The Review: To Sell is Human is a great book to help you and your employees reframe your thinking of sales. It’s a simple enough read where it’d be appropriate for just about anyone, but still has enough examples and references to various social science studies to be useful for more experienced and senior professionals. The book is not a sales manual, but it will serve as a frame of reference as you think about how best to sell as an individual or an organization.

Pros: The book is a quick and easy read and is well written. There are a number of actionable exercises after each chapter and frequent references to academic studies that provide additional context for those who are interested in finding them.

Cons: Some may find the points mentioned somewhat obvious the arguments simplistic. However, the book is not supposed to be an in depth sales manual or a treatise on how sales has changed as a profession.

Interested: To Sell is Human is available on Amazon in a variety of formats (including the Kindle and in audio formats), starting at $9.99.

Mayday! Customer service guaranteed to rescue users in times of need

Amazon is stepping up the customer service game for users of the new Kindle Fire HDX. For those of us who might be a tad technologically challenged or for any problem that might occur, Mayday is a built in remote support and instant helpline available to the consumer 24/7/365 days a year. So if you’re confused by the predecessors and have used YouTube videos or Googled your questions for years, the new age of customer service may be setting Amazon apart from their competition.

With just one button found in the tablet’s Quick Settings menu, the Kindle Fire HDX will summon an Amazon employee who is able to help solve any problems – from the simplest to perhaps the most complicated. Within 15 seconds, the Kindle owner can see the representative in a small window of their screen and the representative can even see the apps, and if necessary can draw on the Kindle to help the customer. Amazon assures us that the representative can not see us, but with the customer’s permission, can control the tablet remotely much like LogMeIn or TeamViewer.

The new Kindle Fire HDX offers double the memory, is 34% lighter, and has 11 hours of battery life – especially helpful when reading one of those extraordinarily long suspense novels you just can’t put down, but putting all technological help aside, the customer service aspect is a win, win, win. Since Amazon doesn’t have the convenience of a brick and mortar store like Apple and their Apple Geniuses, this free service guarantees a place in customer service heaven for so many users over the age of 25 who weren’t weaned on iPads and tablets. Amazon states their profit margin for the sale of Kindle tablets is slim, however they admit to raking in the profits in the sale of their devices.

Criticism on the downside of this customer service technology focuses on the possibility of Amazon reps having access to passwords and sensitive information. You can ask them to disable their screen however, but there are still some who are wary of security issues. It’s been said that 95% of the issues happen when devices are working as they should, but Amazon reps will be logging in every question and problem which will help to determine improvements in the future.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos easily stands by the side of such geniuses as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Page. Bezos, as he rescues us from our customer frustrations, works on “customer delight.” Tech people who have tried out Mayday thus far have been pleased, but will Bezos’ promise that Christmas morning, my mother will be able to get live tech support within 15 seconds and a tech will be available to instruct my mom step by step? I guess it all remains to be seen.

Personalize your customer service

Everyone wants to be treated as an individual with their own specific needs catered to; in the perfect world that’s the epitome of “wow” customer service. Of course whether we use one company or service over another usually stems from past reputation, helpfulness, integrity, or a friendly referral. That personal touch is an ever developing finely tuned rapport emanating from new products, discounts, and the knowledge and behavior of those valuable customer representatives who are an integral part of a successful organization.

Where brick and mortar establishments may have an advantage in serving up some initial pleasing customer service as smiling, friendly, and knowledgeable representatives are there to personally greet and meet, Internet and online customers are saved from those sales people who “hover.” Who hasn’t had the experience of being annoyed by an over zealous employee following you around or seemingly lurking too closely into your personal space even after you informed them you were only browsing? Who hasn’t had the annoying experience of a too pushy salesperson? And equally as annoying, is being in a store where there is no visible salesperson to help with a purchase when needed.

Internet sales continue to pull forward. First of all, customers get it the way they like it. Online companies are even making it personal with Facebook and Twitter. Representatives post on Facebook; customers get to reply, ask questions, and learn more about the product without having to find a parking space at the mall. No pushy salespeople, bigger selections, value, and competitive prices. The most competitive organizations even offer free delivery and returns.

So it would seem a valuable key to outstanding customer service would be expected service, but with an unanticipated value that sets an organization apart from others. For instance, a spa service in West Palm Beach is offering tremendously discounted prices in July and August for facials, body wraps, and massages. As a customer walks into the spa, she is lavished with the same topnotch service as would happen at the height of the Florida tourist season. Therefore, besides the value of the expected service  provided, the additional giveaways, complimentary extras, and a thoroughly pampered experience brings that personal touch that incorporates unexpected additional value.

It’s still all about building loyalty, and all about taking care of customers.  In 1901, John Nordstrom started with one Seattle store, and his philosophy hasn’t changed in over 100 years.  Amazon, Apple, and Zappos continue to hold the top reasons their customer service is so exceptional. Each company continually assesses customer service and views it as a positive challenge, each company’s founder has been personally involved, and employees are treated as valuable assets to the company and given the training, knowledge, and trust in their capabilities to bring out the best in each organization.

Book Review: The Customer Service Survival Kit

9780814431832_p0_v1_s260x420The Customer Service Survival Kit was written by Richard S. Gallagher, a practicing psychotherapist and the author of many customer service books who has trained over 20,000 people on how to handle the most daunting situations with customers while improving their confidence and an organization’s customer relations.

The Customer Service Survival Kit helps us to diffuse even the worst emotional and intentional customer complaints, and step by step helps the customer service representative diffuse the anger and angst of those stressful situations in a calm, reflective manner.  Whereas customer service is and has always been all about communication, Mr. Gallagher’s book provides us with a few of the skills used in hostage negotiations, crisis counseling, and police work in order to handle the worst situations calmly and professionally. These skills of “leaning into criticism” can affect the rest of our lives and the way we communicate with our business, our children, and even our life partners.

Chapter One begins with the “uh-oh” moment; one most of us in any service oriented business has encountered. It’s that extreme situation when one can almost see the smoke emanating out of the customer’s ears because they are so angry, and until we are taught how to handle those serious conflicts, most customer service representatives will operate out of the defensive mode which most likely irritates customers even more. Even though the representative may be smart, nice, and respectful, we are lost when faced with a most egregious situation, and the standard reaction is to act in self defense. So what are the ways to defuse angry customers? Be trained, be prepared, and know how to handle a crisis if and when it presents itself by:

  • Asking open ended questions to assess a person’s needs
  • Listening to the person and then paraphrasing what the customer told you
  • Using appropriate questions to focus on the problem
  • Never saying “no” and responding in what can be done terms
  • Letting people know their feelings and the way they think counts

The books recreates some interesting examples of customer angst in different situations and then asks how any of us might handle the situation. Often we take the defensive position. Let’s try the “leaning into criticism” method by first listening to the customer’s complaint, paraphrasing in our own words his complaint, and instead of saying phrases like, “please calm down,”  or “it could have been worse,” which only tends to poke the bear more, why not use “WOW” language – that preemptive strike  and mirror the customer’s feelings as if how you would have felt if in the same situation? And then as the author points out, it is time to “steal a customer’s good lines.” At this point you have already agreed with them.  Taking a defensive position too soon is ineffective – remember angry customers don’t want to hear your side of the story; they want to be heard and they want you to listen. For instance, if their shipment is delayed and in turn their customers are complaining, what will be accomplished by a sales representative saying “it’s not my fault.” It would be better if that same representative began with, “that’s really terrible, I can see why you’re so angry.”

Chapters 3 through 6 give us practical ideas and examples to ponder and some of those trigger phrases which the author states gives a customer a “distorted sense of who is serving whom.”  Try to avoid the negative; rather turn your choice of phrases to the positive which encourages customers to nod their heads instead of the vigorous “no” shake. Strive for the phrase, “here is what we can do.”

Chapters 7 through 10 teach us how to understand the angry customer and how we can diffuse that person in the “red zone.” We get to put our learning into practice and the importance of good closings. As Mr. Gallagher states, in the perfect world we would all get handshakes and hugs from our now happy customers, but that always doesn’t happen, however future business is often predicated on the way the transaction ended. When we are able to normalize a situation, do a recap of what has happened, and express sincere thank yous, apologies, and solutions, it means everyone walks away from a bad situation calmly, and hopefully it has brought an amenable solution to the problem.

Part III of the book helps us to understand more about calmly handling extreme reactions using the new vocabulary and the new perspectives of the previous chapters about “leaning into criticism.” And in the world of social media which includes Facebook, Twitter, and blogs devoted to our organization, here is what we can do when a negative comment shows up on Facebook complaining about a product or delivery delay. A firestorm of negative comments can take a life of their own on social media, and phrases such as “we are investigating your complaint,” only make people shake their head while a comment such as ” that sounds really frustrating, and we want to make this right for you,” posted immediately already connects you personally – thus giving an organization that personal touch all of us want when spending our hard earned money. Of course, then it is necessary to reach out to that person. An organization that has continually demonstrated excellent customer service will often find past customers defending them. No organization will ever be exempt from all negative comments, but there is no need to take offense at everything. Companies that are proactive and show concern for their customers continue to be successful.

The book uses practical scenarios and dialogue throughout to help customer service representatives learn specific problem solving techniques during critical times. Mr. Gallagher continues to reinforce that sometimes irresistible urge not to defend ourselves initially when a severe situation presents itself. The phrase all of us practiced from the time we learned to speak, “it’s not my fault” doesn’t do much to solve customer conflicts.

Bottomline: The book is an excellent resource for diffusing the worst case customer service problems, and once we learn the art of peaceful and practical negotiation, all of our personal and professional dealings can benefit. I found Chapter 17 on Anger Management’s techniques of validation and identification as discussed in Chapter 3 and methods to respond to angry outbursts extremely helpful.

Pros: This is a well-written and logically planned book. It is quite different from other customer service books because it deals with some extreme cases. While it is true that most customer service complaints are practical and relatively easy to handle because of guarantees, company policies, and a knowledgeable staff, having the insight into the psychology of hostage negotiation and crisis counseling equips all of us with that extra knowledge to please our customers even more and in the most dire situations.

Buy: The Customer Service Survival Kit is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Walmart’s dismal customer service scores drive customers away

walmart-logo

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.

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