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Pass on praise.

Chances are, your customer service department receives positive remarks and feedback from customers on at least a semi-regular basis (I hope you do, at least). But what do you do with these messages? You have a few options:

1) Delete them. This is the worst thing you can do. You should read through positive feedback and take the time to process it. Understanding what you do well is as important as understanding where you need to improve.

2) Reply to the customer. If a customer takes the time to send in positive feedback, reply to their message, letter, etc. and thank them for the kind words and for their business. If you do something special with the feedback, let them know what it is.

3) Tell the employees involved. If a customer mentions an employee specifically, let that employee know. Praise them, add the positive feedback to their file for the next review period, etc. Employees like to hear about customers writing in to say what a good job they do.

4) Tell the company. At a lot of restaurants, the beginning of staff meetings is often used to read good and bad letters the restaurant has received and to praise employees who do a particularly good job. Forwarding positive feedback around the company is great for morale. It recognizes specific employees who are doing well and lets other employees know that customers do care and are appreciative.

The ways the emails/letters can be distributed varies. I’ve seen everything from just forwarding them to the company mailing list to posting them all on a wall somewhere in the call center. I personally think printing them out and posting them somewhere is more personal and interesting. Look around your office and examine your company and see what you can do with the positive feedback you receive. Make it unique and of course, make it visually appealing. This is a great example from the Headsets.com office.

5) Do 2, 3, and 4. The best companies seem to do 2, 3, and 4. Positive feedback from customers is a big deal and should be treated as such. The companies that just dismiss it or smile and move on are missing out.

Topgrading for Customer Service

Topgrading
I recently finished reading Topgrading for Sales, an extremely short (50 pages of text, 50 page appendix) book that talks about how to apply the principles outlined in the book’s much bigger (592 page) brother, Topgrading, specifically to sales positions.

Topgrading is a well-respected hiring technique that has is used at companies like GE and Microsoft. Companies that use Topgrading use it to determine who is an “A player” versus who is a B or a C player. The idea is that a team of 90% A players will be infinitely more productive and successful than a team comprised of mostly B and C players. The practice, which calls for multiple extremely in-depth interviews, is a sound one that has been successful for a lot of companies.

Topgrading for Sales is a good book that’s literally filled with action items and useful advice, but as I was reading it, I was trying to think of ways I could apply the practices outlined for hiring sales representatives to the hiring of customer service representatives. As I was drinking the metaphorical Topgrading Kool-Aid, I thought about some of the ways various companies go about hiring customer service representatives.

Through my conversations with various customer service executives, I’ve heard about both extremes and everything in between when it comes to hiring. Some companies do one half hour interview and call it a day, while others have multiple days of in-depth three and four interviews. As one would hope, the latter, while thoroughly exhausting, tends to be more effective.

After a bit of research, I found an article by Mike Faith, the CEO of Headsets.com (which I’ve written about multiple times), explaining how his company uses the Topgrading approach when interviewing, hiring, and evaluating customer service representatives. The article was interesting (and complemented the book nicely), but I still found myself looking for a details about how to apply Topgrading to customer service.

I’ve since ordered the full size edition of Topgrading (wish me luck as I read through it!) and will post an in-depth review when I finish it. I’m hoping a more in-depth knowledge of Topgrading will give me more insight about how to apply it specifically to customer service hires.

In the mean time, if you have or do use it, what has your experience been like with Topgrading? What about the broader task of hiring customer service representatives? I’m sending a couple of emails to a few HR and customer service executives I know and will report back with their thoughts as well.

Internal Customer Service

Christoph Guttentag’s positive experience with Duke’s HR department got me thinking about internal customer service. Isn’t the customer service you provide to your employees just as important as the customer service you provide to your customers? They should be happy, too. They should like working for and with your company in the same way that your customers like working with your company. But companies tend to place internal customer service even lower on the priority list than regular, external customer service.

Headsets.com (discussed here) has an internal customer service policy where their marketing team promises to make web site updates within 24 hours of the initial request. While they obviously can’t do that for every request, they make an effort and a commitment to each other to get things done and to respect everyone’s requests and wishes. This isn’t always easy, but it makes working with the marketing team, and as a result, contributing to Headsets.com’s web site, a lot easier. They’ve made it easy and it’s paying off.

At other companies, internal customer service is almost ingrained into the culture. The whole idea of treating your co-workers with respect and doing what you can to make their life easier is a big part of many companies’ cultures. Solidifying the process and the cultural idea is always helpful, though.

I’ve also read about companies (I believe it was a hotel) that do things to make the behind the scenes experience enjoyable for employees. They’ll do employees’ laundry, have employee concierge services that run errands, daycare, etc. These are all becoming more and more common, especially at companies in industries and cities where there is competition for employees. All of these things make the company a better place to work. The best places to work tend to attract the best talent, which more often than not, leads to a return on the bottom-line.

In addition to the hiring and retention benefits of internal customer service, great internal customer service tends to make jobs less stressful and more enjoyable. When Mr. Guttentag can pick up the phone and easily get answers to questions about his retirement packages and what not, it makes his life easier. He doesn’t have to scramble for answers and think about what a pain it is to get an answer each time he has a question. The experience is hassle free and maybe even enjoyable.

Service like that, whether it be internal or external, sets the average companies apart from the great companies (or organizations).

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Customer Love Rewards

Headsets.com is an incredibly interesting customer service-centric company (see my interview with CEO Mike Faith here). They do a lot of things that make them a very down to Earth, customer friendly organization: they have flexible return policies, great employees, a big selection, competitive pricing, etc. I have a huge amount of respect for the company. I was exploring their web site a few nights ago and came across this page: Customer Love Rewards at Headsets.

The concept is pretty simple and not totally original, but it works. The company has a points/reward systems for purchases. You get 10 points for every dollar you spent (a $100 headsets gets you 1000 points) and 10,000 points for your first order.

The idea is a nice one. It provides customers with a simple way to get rewarded for purchases. It’s a great customer loyalty program. Great customer service (Headsets.com calls it “customer love”) makes customers loyal anyway, but an actual customer loyalty program with some nice prizes never hurts.

Their program is nice because it’s incredibly straight forward. It isn’t loaded with legal terms and conditions and people are able to keep their points once they claim one prize. The prizes aren’t bad, either. If you spend $20,000 with Headsets.com (about 80 fairly high end headsets), you can get a nice Aeron Chair or a high end digital camera (might make a nice prize for a high performing customer service representative).

They also had some humor built into the program. If you spend $10 million with them (which I think is more than 10% of their annual sales), they will literally buy you a house. Who knows if any customer will actually get to that point (something they point out), but it’s amusing to see if anyone does.

I like how a straight forward company took a straight forward approach to something that is usually loaded with terms and conditions.

By the way, Customer Service is the New Marketing is on Monday, February 4. If you are interested in attending this great conference on customer service, it isn’t too late to register. Use the code SUBL and you’ll get 15% off the registration price.

Featured speakers at the event include Tony Hsieh (CEO, Zappos), Alex Frankel (Author of “Punching In”), Michael Murphy (Head of Customer Service at Virgin), and Robert Stephens (founder of the Geek Squad). There are also two panels (one on scaling customer service, another on community and customer service) and a lot of great lunchtime workshops (including one that I am running).

Quiet Your Call Center

509187642_d7a2adce85 Even though I had a pretty positive experience when I called AOL the other day, one thing I did notice was how loud their call center seemed. Call centers by nature are loud – it happens and is expected. However, it is a call center designer’s jobs to make it so that noise is not an issue.

In your call center, noise should not be an issue. If it is an issue, you need to re-look how your call center is designed.  Here are some suggestions for reducing noise (from a customer service person – not an architect or interior designer):

Get cubicles or more soundproof partitions. If your call center doesn’t have something that is there for privacy and soundproofing, it should. Putting a whole bunch of people at desks in a room does not work. There has to be some sort of partition designed for sound reduction.

Noise reduction in the room. It is amazing to see how poorly many call centers are designed. If you have a cool glass and steel building, that is terrific, but glass and steel don’t absorb any sound. The ceilings can’t be that high, either. Carpet is a necessity. When designing or choosing the room that your call center is going to be in, keep things like that in mind. If noise is still a problem after some basic changes, there is also other call center equipment you can consider investing in to keep things quiet.

Consider noise canceling headsets. There are plenty of great noise canceling headsets that you can buy from places like Headsets.com (interview here) or your preferred vendor. Noise canceling headsets will greatly reduce the amount of background noise that the customer hears on the other end of the line.

Get good headsets. As an addition to the above point, buy good headsets. Your customer service representatives will be using them all day. For what you pay them in two days ($12 * 8 hours * 2 days = $192), you can buy a really great headset. Top of the line. If they have good headsets, the sound quality and the customer service experience will be better for everyone.

Adjust the volume. Make it so the volume is adjusted properly for the customer service representative. If it is too loud or too soft, the representative might have to yell. This obviously is not ideal.

Give everyone some space. It is crucial to give everyone some space in a cell center. People like their personal space and it will help cut down on noise. I’m not suggesting to put 5 people in a 20,000 square foot call center – just give people enough room so they aren’t on top of each other.

How is your call center designed? How could it be better?

Photo courtesy of kecko.

Three Areas Where Companies Fail

Maria of CustomersAreAlways has posted an interesting summary of a study of 100 online retailers. The results are baffling. Here are some interesting facts and figures:

  • 34% of emails to the online retailers were ignored.
  • 97% of the retailers did not have a knowledge base or similar online self help tool available to interested customers.
  • A remarkable 49% of emails and 28% of phone calls provided inaccurate information to the customers.
  • 89% of online retailers don’t provide their employees with a history of the customer’s interactions with and across the company.

I feel that the results of this study are really sad. It shows how much room for improvement there is when it comes to online retailers’ customer service departments. On the other hand, there are retailers like PrintingForLess.com (not so much a retailer, but similar) and Headsets.com that provide terrific customer service day in and day out. One would think there would be more companies with customer service that is at least in the middle.

The issues mentioned in this study aren’t little things. They are huge things. Not responding to emails, not having any self-help tools, providing inaccurate information. These are huge issues.

I usually tell potential clients that I help bring their customer service to the next level. Pretty much every company I work with has these huge things out of the way – they respond to their customers in a relatively timely manner, they provide accurate information, and know what they need to improve upon.

However, companies need to get the big things out of the way before they can think about bringing things to the next level. These companies are likely providing horrible customer service and have a lot to improve upon. Hopefully your company is better. And if it isn’t, hopefully you are in the process of making some big changes very soon.

Customer Service Company?

Short post today. I have a good upcoming series planned, so it will be worth it.

I define a customer service company as a company that uses customer service to help set themselves apart from the competition. It is a big corporate focus and something they do well. They use it as their competitive advantage and hopefully, it has worked.

What customer service companies can you think of?

Big Companies:

  • Four Seasons
  • Ritz Carlton
  • Nordstrom
  • Commerce Bank
  • Southwest Airlines
  • JetBlue Airways
  • Lexus
  • Land’s End
  • Rackspace

Smaller Companies:

  • Headsets.com
  • PrintingForLess.com
  • FeedBurner
  • Plenty of small businesses

Maybe:

  • Disney
  • CarMax
  • Starbucks

There are other companies that I know are spending a lot of time, money, and effort into improving their customer service, but I don’t feel as if they are at that “customer service company” level yet. Examples of these companies would be companies like Best Buy, Dell, HP, etc.

Please provide your suggestions and opinions. I am positive I have forgotten some companies and am always open to suggestions.

With customer service, price is (almost) a non-issue.

I consistently hear that people will buy a more expensive product if the customer experience is better.

Nordstrom isn’t the cheapest department store, but people shop there because the customer service is usually great. People don’t really care that the hardware store I talked about is 20% more expensive than Home Depot. A big part of the reason that people stay in the Ritz Carlton instead of the Marriott is because of the customer service.

I’ve worked with a lot of companies who charge a premium and depend on high end customer service to set themselves apart from their competitors. It’s amazing to see companies charge a 10, 20, 30, or even 50%+ more than their competitors and continue to grow. I think customer service, which leads to customer loyalty, which leads to customers referring your company to others plays a big part in that.

I’ve read and heard that companies shouldn’t discount, but instead add value. When you discount, it can make your company and your brand look bad, but when you add value, you are doing some that is good for everyone. It doesn’t make your brand look bad, but it also gives your product or service more value. It’s a win-win-win for everyone involved: the company, the customer, and the brand. 1 and 3 are kind of related (or at least have similar goals), but they are dependent on each other.

Pretty much every industry has room for the “better customer service” company. The most saturated industries have that sort of company, the least profitable industries have that sort of company, etc. One thing about the best customer service type company is that they often aren’t billion dollar type companies. They are smaller, but they are still successful.

There is a difference between customer service justifying a price increase and using customer service as a key competitive advantage. Many companies use both (i. e. all the companies I mentioned above), but others (I’m thinking about Headsets.com) are still competitive when it comes to price, but use customer service as a big competitive advantage. Those are really interesting companies.

What are examples of companies that charge more, but provide better customer service? Is it worth it to you?

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