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Personalizing online customer service live chat

Egg EmoticonsAs the popularity of online shopping continues to grow by giant leaps, so does the need for online customer service. What used to be emails, telephones, and traditional online customer support, the current trend of online chats have  now become representative of that real salesperson we used to meet and speak with when we shopped at brick and mortar stores. Our new online chat representative allows us to chat live to a person who now provides us with support, advice, and encouragement.

Last week my online chat support experience brought me to another plateau. When the local computer technician in my area told me the hard drive in my six-month-old computer had crashed and much of my information was lost, I reached out to an online customer support agent. I explained the symptoms and what I had done to try to restore the system, and at the end of my first conversation I used a sad face emoticon. [ :>(    Moments later the customer service representative responded with some technical information and used an emoticon also. [ 🙂

When I go to the mall, service representatives  use hand gestures and facial expressions to convey a message to me. When I communicate by email, people use capital letters when they are angry, emoticons, and internet acronyms such as “lol”, “imho”, and “omg.” Therefore, should it be acceptable and useful for online chat personnel to use these subtle cues?

Most of us have stereotyped, preconceived, and exaggerated impressions of customer service agents we never meet – of course depending on the product or service we are dealing with and what our needs are at the time. Humans do have a desire to know with whom they are communicating, since customer satisfaction also takes into consideration subjective opinions of the personalities of others we are dealing with at the time. As humans and social beings, we become more connected to people who convey more social traits. Although sociability is not going to replace a service representative’s expertise in their particular area, online chats with some personalization can have a positive impact between the sender and the receiver; thus making another connection and loyalty from that customer.

Hotels, restaurants, and many other hospitality generated service industries can make a positive impression using personalization during customer service encounters. Each organization has to consider what is acceptable.   Of course, some professions do not lend at all to any kind of personalized online chat. Banking and insurance agencies rely on a high accountability of professionalism not suitable for emotional text. Anyway, however it is indeed interesting food for thought.

photo credit: katerha

Rate customer service from your iPhone

A new customer rating service is now available on your iPhone as Tello officially arrived at the App Store. It can be used to rate nearby businesses in your iPhone geolocation. Once you find or enter a business, you enter the name of the employee you want to rate. A thumbs up or thumbs down icon appears, and if you want to spend a bit more time about your good or bad experience, you can enter a brief comment. The entire experience takes less than 30 seconds. Tello comments can be shared on Facebook and Twitter.

CEO of Tello, Joe Beninato says the service exists primarily to thank employees for their excellent customer service. How many times have we all been to restaurants or bars and have had great service, but there is too much confusion or it’s too crowded to search out a manager to give the employee a great review? Maybe you even want to thank the employee at your local dry cleaners who was able to get out that impossible red wine stain out of your favorite sweater. Beninato says Tello also exists to provide constructive feedback.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had customer rating services accompany us in our pockets and purses. There’s Yelp which is a web service for rating local businesses also, but seems to focus mostly on eateries. Where Yelp concentrates on the customer experience and a review of the restaurant, Tello focuses on how the customer was treated. Was the wait staff attentive? Were you seated in a timely manner when you arrived for your 7:00 reservations? Gripe, another similar application uses social networking to pressure businesses to improve their customer service.

So what’s the future of all of these new services rating services? I tried the Tello app on my friend’s iPhone yesterday and only one business showed up. That was disappointing. Beninato says he doesn’t want it to conflict with any customer rating services. Rather Tello wants to be the “go to” for businesses as a way of checking on their own success with customer service. Eventually Beninato plans to offer businesses the means to communicate with customers directly. For instance, if you check into a hotel and you’re upset that the air-conditioning in the room is not working correctly, you can rate the service. Right now the customer can only contact the business and leave a comment. At some time in the future Beninato hopes the company will be able to get right back to the consumer – hopefully spurring quicker and more efficient customer service.

Pretty soon, we’re all going to need the iPhone app to find the correct app!

Customer service reality show?

London at Christmas Time 17-12-10In Great Britain, Mary Portas used to help failing businesses get back on the right path, but now she has changed sides and stars in a customer service reality show. I admit I sometimes get hooked on reality shows; American Idol, New Jersey Housewives, and a few others, but now we make way for hidden cameras and mystery shoppers as the lack of customer service is exposed for all the world to see.

Portas thinks that Britain has the worst customer service, and customers have never had it so bad. Her small army of secret shoppers go undercover to various retailers, and report back to managers and owners – using the actual video footage as proof of the poor service. From shoddy floors, minimal service, and apathetic staff, Portas reports using the customer’s point of view. She hopes to find out why customers are being sold short and plans to come up with solutions.

So what is she doing? Portas investigates many of the basic elements associated with responsible customer-centric organizations. In a furniture store, she evaluated sales personnel who sold people “stuff” they didn’t need. In a dress shop, she went undercover and noted very little customer service. In a local supermarket she commented that the cashier only asked if the customer had their club card, but never told the customer the price of the item. Her visit to a jewelry store revealed the sales person did not know the inventory. In other words, Portas says we have lost the ability to communicate, and consumers accept this practice. She rated 90 percent of businesses as not putting the customer first.

When asked what she thought about customer service in the United States, Portas rated us as superb, but qualified that positive answer with American sales people sell on commission so are therefore more motivated to give better customer service. Portas told about her positive buying experience at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

The new host said her teenagers do not expect good service, and never even expect to be greeted by anyone when they walk into a store. She says it’s the results of the last 15 years when money was easy, and everyone was spending. Now that the economy has drastically changed, people are much more concerned how they shop and what they buy. Organizations need to put the customer first, and spend more money, resources, and time on training than merely placing a sign on the back of a door reminding  sales associates to smile before walking out on the sales floor.

Portas did extend kudos to The Apple Store delivering one of the best retail experiences with their Genius Bar – a part of the store where well-trained computer “geeks” gave out free advice.

Arguments and resistance, with a few nasty remarks thrown in, make for great reality shows. After all shopping is a great American and British pastime. I wonder if it’s being pitched to American television too?

photo credit: Karen Roe

Work on improving customer experiences

Eyseo Standard-Kamera in einer BoutiqueThe Business Impact of Customer Experience Report 2010 examines how customer experiences affect the overall success of businesses:

– It affects a customer’s intent to purchase from a particular organization.
– It affects the likelihood of a customer switching to a competitor.
– It affects the likelihood of a customer to recommend the business or organization to a friend, coworker, or relative.

With the above in mind, we can conclude that a rise in the Customer Experience Index can dramatically increase business and consequently increase revenues. When customers have a great experience, they tend to purchase more from that particular store. They tell their friends who then come over to buy thus increasing clients and revenue.

One of the best ways to improve the Customer Experience Index is to read and listen to feedback. Organizations that show they have followed customer advice by demonstrating improvements help customers to believe their opinions really do count. So how does a company go about getting opinions?

When customers share feedback, whether it be through complaints to a customer service department, comments to an employee working  the front end, thank you notes, or solicited surveys, a company ideally will have a way to communicate with customers when changes have been made. An effective way is through newsletters – either sent separately as a way of staying in touch with clients and customers, emailed, or sent in with monthly billing statements. Here’s an example of a short newsletter I received today from a local boutique where I really love to shop.

“You spoke – we listened.

Thank you for your feedback about our store and our policies. We have read every comment, and our team of sales people and marketing professionals want to make sure all of our clients have the best experience when shopping at ______________. We have addressed your concerns, and this is our update on the progress we have made.

1.The parking situation will now be solved by our very own full-time parking attendant, Mark.

2.Alterations will now be done on premises, and unless the job is really detailed and extensive, Catalina (our loyal seamstress) will try her best to have your alterations done within one week.

3.Coffee, wine, and light snacks will be available for husbands, boyfriends, or significant others.

We hope these changes will add to your wonderful shopping experience at _________________, and we look forward to making our boutique a unique and fun place to shop.”

Maybe the above were only small improvements, but the significance of listening to customer suggestions increase customer loyalty. If a business needs to fix what customers don’t like or improve on positive experiences, it makes a lasting impression on both regular customers and new ones. What better way to woo a new customer to your organization than having other people rave about their wonderful experiences?

photo credit: ABUS Security Tech Germany

Create a vision for excellent customer service

Holiday Extras Customer's Awards picturesEvery call, email, chat, or visit to a company’s website is a unique experience for an organization to differentiate itself  from their competition. More than price, since companies vie for the best prices all the time, is to make truly lasting impressions in order to win customer loyalty. In an information driven society, where anyone can research brands as easily as connecting to the internet, customer service is apt to be the winning difference.

It’s going back to basics that drives the train of success. Using the analogy of a train, the depots may have improved in their appearances with more comfortable benches, but the destinations are still the same. Companies may have larger, more inviting stores, but providing superior service is still what sets apart Zappos from ABC Shoes. They both have the same merchandise, but one just does it better. Admittedly,companies like Zappos can afford to spend millions on developing their brand loyalty, but didn’t they all start out small and learn from their own mistakes?

So what comprises quality customer service and how can we do it better? It’s not so complicated if we break it down to what each of us as customers truly want from a company selling us shoes or service. Here are some of the basics I learned:

  • Listen to what customers want. Make me a priority when I am in your store. If I am browsing your website, have what I want in your inventory because you have researched what shoppers like me want.
  • Make my shopping experience easy. If I’m on your website, make it user-friendly for me. I’d appreciate if you didn’t charge for shipping, and if you have a really easy return policy too. If I visit your store, have sales staff available for questions when I need help. Please smile at me when I come in so I feel important and welcome.
  • Listen to my complaints. Don’t make excuses when your company messes up.
  • Don’t use canned speeches on me when I call. I trust that you are educated enough to speak for your company without having to read a script. I trust your company has the confidence in you to be able to make decisions affecting our customer relationship.
  • Don’t take it personally. That was an unfair charge you levied on my account, and I have grown tired and irritated that the charge has not been removed in spite of four previous conversations with the customer resolution staff. My time is valuable.
  • Respond to me within 24 hours. I know how to use Twitter and Facebook, and I will tell others.
  • Communicate with me. Tell me what you are going to do to help me. Don’t tell me to call back at the end of the week when it is your company’s error.
  • Make me feel like you understand how I feel. Don’t get defensive.
  • Take my feedback on your company as help to make your company better. I am probably not the only customer out here feeling this way.
  • Resolve my problem.

photo credit: Holidayextras

How to overcome negative brand perception

Tribute  FahrertrainingIt’s the elephant in the room when consumers become disenchanted with a company’s brand. Your products and services provide your customers with the choice to use your company, but your brand defines whether the customer will choose you over your competition. Companies that have consistent positive brand images have measured, tested, and evaluated their target audiences to help identify what areas need immediate attention, and hence have employed new methods to manage any negative perceptions.

Let’s begin with the classic example of Toyota. Here’s a company that used to have a strong brand perception; one publication described it as a “cult-like status.” That was until Toyota recalled more than eight million vehicles for sudden acceleration problems. What brought the elephant into the room were the many complaints that this problem had been going on for years, and Toyota had failed to seriously acknowledge the problem. Then came the recalls and the governmental investigations. Toyota profusely apologized to U.S. lawmakers and promised new procedures to fix  and address the problems. On the positive note, car makers have become more vigilant.  “I think Toyota did a good job, and its stock price shows the market shares the same view,” stated Kazutaka Oshima, president of Rakuten Investment in Tokyo in February of this year.

The widespread criticism brought  considerable damage to Toyota’s brand reputation. The company’s quality reputation dropped from 6th in 2009 to 21st in 2010. That has been the lowest rank for Japanese car makers in 24 years.

Another example goes back to the 1982 deaths of seven Chicago residents after ingesting Extra Strength Tylenol. McNeil Consumer Products manufactured the capsules, and its parent company Johnson and Johnson immediately informed the public that it would investigate to find out if the poisonous capsules were contaminated in their own manufacturing plants. Initial autopsy reports confirmed that the capsules had contained deadly cyanide. Although the case remains unsolved, Johnson and Johnson developed the triple-seal tamper resistant package to restore consumer confidence. According to Stephen Fink’s book entitled Crisis Management, the company regained 98 percent of its market share it had before the Tylenol deaths.

So what do these examples teach us? Companies need to fix the problem, fire suppliers, establish new procedures, hire new personnel, and communicate to the world that this will never happen again. There has to be a coherent approach that the company with the tarnished brand is going to think out of the box and go the extra mile to overcome the negative brand perception. In the case of Tylenol, Johnson and Johnson redesigned the packaging. In the case of Toyota, new designs for safety have resulted.

Of course these are extreme examples, but it does show that brand expectation connects with emotions, and emotions are not always rational. If a product fails, use feedback to improve it. Acknowledge it, confront it, and overcome the problem. When the negative feedback threatens your brand, give it immediate attention.

photo credit: v230gh

Customer loyalty needed to maintain competitive advantage

In a recent article Ford Motor Company commented on figuring out how it can improve customer loyalty and have a longer relationship than they do at the present. They stated that customers stay with manufacturers as long as the new warranty lasts, and then move on to independent service providers. Ford also claims the change of ownership within the warranty period makes it difficult to reach the next owner. Ford claims that going to a dealer for work outside of the new warranty period may initially present as being more expensive, however in the long run the dealers have better processes, training, and parts as to Ford products. When asked if Ford might consider lifetime warranties, the company commented that longer warranties allow customers greater potential for abuse.

Customer relationships are based on a company’s service especially in the auto industry. The automobile brand owner looks to the future hoping today’s buyer will purchase another Ford. He wants advocacy, a willingness to pay a premium for his brand, and the possibility of more than one Ford parked in the owner’s driveway. Then comes the perks of loyalty; there is a greater resale value down the road, and stronger negotiating powers with the manufacturer. With all of this in place, can a brand owner then count on more Ford owners coming back for service work after the warranty period is over?

Actually retention rates, metrics, and analytics are all necessary for success, and it is based on customer experience. Does lifetime warranties add up to consumer negligence or can it be the most positive part of  customer service? Ford can not afford customer service slip ups, and they need to communicate with the customers more often. Educate the customer on proper care; a typical owner’s manual consisting of hundreds of  pages isn’t likely to be read by most new car owners, so keep it simple. Companies can not take the customer for granted and need reliability and flexibility. Sometimes the warranty period needs to be extended; sometimes the warranty period needs to address particular needs of particular clients.  Another barometer of success is employee loyalty; the people working in the front lines of service need to be enthusiastic and well-trained for their positions.

Satisfaction alone does not build a loyal customer. Even though a customer may be satisfied today with the luxury hybrid competing with Lexus in the mid-size sedans, it doesn’t predict how customers will behave in the future as to what brand they will purchase. They may or may not return, however loyal customers consistently come back. Will Ford be able to lay claim to that in the future?

photo credit: aresauburn™

Personal shoppers now part of Lands’ End customer service

GeiloIn celebration of National Customer Service Week, Lands’ End Live will now enable users to communicate with personal shoppers via voice (headsets or built-in microphones) or text chat (type in questions using the computer keyboard) for a more personal shopping experience at the Dodgeville, Wisconsin based retailer best known for their cold weather gear.

The online video chat tool is on the customer service page, and by pressing the button Live Help, users first get a brief welcome video, and to continue on to how video chats work can then press the Find Out More option. The brief welcome video was narrated by Joan Conlin, vice-president of customer care. I then connected to my personal shopper Tina. There was no wait, and Tina told me that the calls had been steady all day. Personal shoppers are able to demonstrate product features, describe details, and help customers to navigate the web site. Keyboard shoppers can also supply their home phone numbers, and a personal shopper can call them direct. I don’t have a microphone to speak with anyone directly from my laptop, but I did note that I could only hear every other word Tina stated even though I had the volume turned up to the maximum level.

The video capability is described as a mini broadcasting studio called Vee desk which is built into a touchscreen PC. All the customer needs is a PC or laptop and broadband internet service. This new technology gives face to face online customer service. Tina is a real person; as an online shopper I immediately felt the personal touch much as if I had walked into a brick and mortar store. At the end of my Video Chat, a window appeared asking me to rate my customer service experience.

Land’s End boasts as being first in customer services dating back to the early 80’s and being the first retailer to offer toll-free phone ordering. It will be interesting to follow the success of real-time human assistance on the Web especially as the Christmas shopping season approaches. Will there be enough personal shoppers at Lands’ End  to accommodate the needs of online shoppers? Let’s see what happens.

photo credit: alh1

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