BMW modeling customer service innovations after Apple

4235391538_b80f750c2cBuying a new car is a baffling and expensive experience for everyone; options have become so technical making it extremely difficult for car buyers to figure out what they need or really want. BMW recognizes the dilemma and has launched a new program called Genius Everywhere remarkably similar to the Genius Bar at Apple stores. In a story posted by industry marketer Advertising Age, the “geniuses” will be salaried personnel who will walk around BMW showrooms with iPads and provide interested browsers with information about specifications and features.  Let’s face it – how many of us have any knowledge of new gizmos such as Night Vision or Active Steering?

If you have ever been to the Genius Bar at an Apple store, knowledgeable men and women in blue shirts walk around the store carrying their iPads  teaching, explaining, or helping set up appointments about an Apple product. The Genius Everywhere program plans to use trained college students wearing white shirts who generally want to work evenings and weekends to provide specific information helping potential buyers to understand the cars and the advanced technology. All Genius Personnel will be salaried, and if a customer is interested in purchasing a car they will be referred to a salesperson. The program is now being tested in Europe, and the company hopes to be ready to launch in the United States by next year when it introduces its 13 electric cars.

The luxury market for car sales has become extremely competitive. Gone are the days of tattooed, pushy salesmen. Customers don’t storm out as a salesman rips up a contract; tactics like that don’t work well in the luxury segment. Statistically Mercedes Benz buyers have a 62% loyalty repeat business, BMW has a 47% repeat and Audi follows with a 37% repeat loyalty base. Showrooms boast coffee bars and breakfast choices – my dealership in North Palm Beach has a concierge service to accommodate  a customer pulling up with or without an appointment.

Cadillac initiated a new program with their Cadillac User Experience (CUE) designed to pare down the confusion of all the technology into a touch screen and a few touch controls. The program was actually developed after Cadillac engineers teamed up with Cadillac drivers to determine their habits. Now a user can be connected to Bluetooth, USBs, MP3 players, navigation units and weather maps in a simple user friendly control panel called the Infotainment system. Lexus employs a delivery and technology experience using trainers to help consumers navigate the latest technological systems. And now Ford has joined the customer assist ranks with their latest multimedia system called My Ford Touch.

In the past the car buying experience has often been historically tainted by obnoxious salesmen, false advertising, and inferior customer service once a buyer signed on the dotted line and drove away. Technology now can help all consumers buy their next dream car, with the demands of “wow” customer service making it all a much better experience.

Photo credit: ronsombilongallery 

Can personal customer service survive in a digital world?

social-media-iconsThe fast paced world of Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp combined with the technological advances of smart phones, interactive websites, and emails enable millions of users to make better informed decisions than ever before possible. There’s hardly a moment when someone isn’t consulting Google to learn more about a product, a person, or a service. While the digital realm can indeed help all of us to buy smarter, perform better, and be better educated, can it ever replace a human at the hub of customer service?

If all goes well during a purchase or service, chances are the tweets, emails, and text message applications so readily available have helped to engage our customers with loyalty programs, discounts, rewards, and product information. We know that customers have the power to choose from a myriad of options, and most of us revel in the latest technological trends to communicate, but what happens when a service or a product goes awry? Does that email we send off to the organization just supply us with a standard response and advise us that a representative will contact us in 24 hours? After all, a 24 hour turn-around period to answer an email is considered standard. In the “old days” we could call customer service on the phone, and even though we waited quite awhile until someone finally answered,  (You are call number 19, but please don’t hang up. Your call is very important to us.) wasn’t it possible our problem was solved within a shorter period of time when an actual person answered the phone?

Where automated email queue is certainly more financially efficient than a room full of customer service agents, the loss of the “personal touch” can have devastating effects when our customers no longer feel connected or appreciated. From the moment a customer walks through the door, the way he is treated beyond what is expected still makes the difference. It goes beyond the sale of the product or after the service is performed; quality customer service is the time when that customer has a problem, and it’s the time when they are completely satisfied that you have resolved their situation by connecting them with someone who can:

  • Use good communication skills
  • Understand the product or service and has a thorough working knowledge of the components
  • Listen to the problem
  • Is empowered to solve the problem without having to call back at another time or seek a supervisor for a decision
  • Treat the customer with respect

Customer service is an ongoing project of education, training, and hiring the best people for the job. Whereas social media can have  profound advantages promoting our organizations, customers want to like you, to talk to you, and to know there is always a physical presence available when needed. Satisfied customers are by far the best salespeople for any organization, so prepare customer service agents with the tools they need to succeed. Their success is your success.

Why do customers want to keep coming back?

There’s only one chance to make a great first impression; that very moment you turn a customer off when something goes awry is the same moment the competition tries to reel him in with a more attractive offer and a lot of new promises. For many of us the ultimate in business growth and success is repeat business, because these are the very loyal customers who will not only return for another service or purchase, but these are the very same people who will tell others why they have chosen us and advise them to follow our successful paths.

Great companies who continue to lead today’s generation of “WOW” customer service all have the same basic principles for success. Each one offers a great product or a great service, well-trained and empowered personnel, a proven history of problem solving and customer satisfaction, and the alignment of every department working together in order to deliver a successful experience to a purchaser. The best of customer service begins with the perception of exactly what a customer expects. If you delivered a product in the past, but failed to make that lasting impression your customers won’t be calling you again. If your customers felt you were just there to make the sale, undoubtedly they will have moved on to your competition for their next purchase. Customers want to appreciated, and although they won’t come out and tell you that, their actions speak louder than words.

For instance, potential home buyers walk by a real estate company along Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. The couple decide to stop in for a chat. From Rhode Island, Mr. and Mrs. Jones have dreamed of having a place in the sun to relax along the sandy beaches of South Florida during the cold New England winters, and although they have looked online for Palm Beach listings, they have never had the opportunity to actually visit the areas affordable to them. Their ideal search therefore begins with an experienced agent who can explain the possibilities, introduce the couple to available financing opportunities, coordinate the specific and unusual insurance demands of Florida, and find them the perfect property to suit their needs. Summing it all up – success comes with knowing your business, your market, your customers, and having the ability to collaborate experts in all related fields to produce a strong relationship to accommodate customers until they reach a successful closing experience. Whether it takes one week of intensive potential home previews or six months of credit repair, the partnership of working together for the benefit of the customer or client becomes that positive memorable experience.

So how does an organization deliver customer service which strives to exceed great expectations?

  • Each and every action should be  a commitment to a customer which ultimately ends in loyalty. The customer has to know they are important, and each and every sale made concentrates on the needs and wants of the customer. A customer should never think that all an organization cares about is just the sale.
  • Only hire the best employees, and spend the money and time training them. Move past the employees who are just there waiting for payday. Although the initial hiring salaries and subsequent training can cost a company more than budgeted at the onset, poor employees mean unhappy customers, fewer referrals, and non existent loyalties.
  • Every business decision should be well planned and strategic. Dedicate customer service as a top priority. Each time a customer calls in with a suggestion, a question, or a complaint, make sure that any representative is able to deliver efficient service.
  • Consistently work to improve your organization.

Zappos customer service ‘core values’ sets record for longest call

Zappos’ Customer Loyalty Team repeatedly exceeds expectations of the family culture CEO Tony Hsieh envisioned as his passion for customizing customer service always remains a number one priority 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. On December 8, Customer Loyalty Team member Shaea Labus spent 10 hours and 29 minutes on a phone call. According to The Huffington Post, the call set a new record; beating out the previous record at the online shoe and apparel retailer of 8 hours and 29 minutes.

As an integral part of their unconventional and innovative customer service, Hsieh’s ideas are reflected in everything Zappos. If work shouldn’t be viewed as onerous, “being a little weird requires being a little innovative.” The call between Shaea and a customer named Lisa didn’t concern a customer service problem; it involved the caller transferring to Las Vegas and asking questions seeking information about neighborhoods, jobs, and what it’s like to live in that part of the country. Shaea stated she took one bathroom break during that time, and her teammates brought her food while she was on the call. And to Shaea’s credit, the caller did purchase a pair of Ugg boots.

There is nothing better than the human factor when calling customer service. Of course automated systems are cheaper and more efficient than hiring humans, but most customers calling in and having to deal with an Interactive Voice Response system (IVR) where one must “press 1 to continue in English” becomes exasperating and confusing as the next prompt warns the caller to listen carefully because “the options may have changed.” If customer service is all about sending away happy customers while forming lasting relationships so these customers return to make more purchasers or tell their family and friends what a great experience they had using a company, shouldn’t some retailers be taking lessons from a company like Zappos? Statistics reveal that automated answering systems have longer hold times; whereas automated answering systems average a wait time of two minutes per phone call, a human answering the phone averages only a minute wait time.

Customer service is all about making the customer feel important, and the largest part of Zappos investment into customer satisfaction is training their team to be good listeners, and staying on the phone as long as necessary to help. After all, aren’t future customers a large part of building a company, and isn’t a company built one customer at a time? There’s little doubt that customer Lisa will always be a loyal customer, and there’s no doubt that Lisa will be telling friends and family about her experience with Customer Loyalty Team member Shaea Labus. And it’s not that a customer service agent must stay on the phone forever, but having the option always available for the taking is a step in the right direction.

How to ‘WOW’ customers at a buffet

The luxurious and extravagant hotel on the island of Palm Beach, Florida touting two turrets with waving flags reminiscent of a Roman palace immediately creates the illusion of a magical kingdom fit for the most discriminating clientele. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Breakers Hotel sits on 140 acres of manicured lawns, hedges, pools, spas, hotel rooms, and exquisite restaurants. The staff ranges from 1600 to 1800 depending on the time of year and covers 50 languages. From the moment one arrives, the promise of a truly regal customer experience is realized.

So it came to be my family’s desired location for Christmas dinner; the dinner buffet in the Ponce de Leon Ballroom. And the “WOW” customer service experience began. From the smiles of the welcoming staff as we drove up to the grand entrance, to the lobby with the vaulted ceilings, tufted sofas, and the attentive service personnel ready to direct their guests to whatever direction they might be headed, ensured a lasting family memory.

At one time buffets were designed, at least from the customer point of view as an “all you can eat” experience where massive quantities of food were presented without much thought to presentation. Today’s guests expect elegance, upscale ambiance, an easy traffic-flow to navigate through different stations, and an upbeat and attentive staff.  So how did the Breakers exceed customer expectations?

Two hostesses greeted us as we approached the dining room and within moments led us to our table. A live band played soft music; the saxophonist was incredibly talented. The buffet was set up on both sides to accommodate either section of the dining room with an exquisite dessert table set off to the side. There was never more than a few moments wait to scoop up a delectable selection of food ranging from salads, cold displays of jumbo shrimp, oysters and little neck clams, to caviar, hot buffet items, and carving stations; each selection skillfully presented amid a backdrop of exquisite Christmas decorations, ribbons, and wreaths. After all isn’t presentation at least 50 percent of a buffet’s appeal? The wait staff was able to anticipate and react to their guests requests, and were knowledgeable about vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free diets including questions about ingredients for food sensitive diners.  Managers in well tailored suits, hostesses in professional holiday fashion, and waiters anxious to please and attentive to every detail knew when to approach and when to leave guests to the privacy of their special family moments.

A good buffet showcase such as the Christmas Day Dinner is more than just a fine dining experience.  It actually serves as a showcase for banquets and special services. The ability of this extraordinary customer experience draws people into the hotel who may not normally visit, but who have been so impressed by the services and venue may now one day plan a wedding, social occasion, or business conference. And from this experience comes our family telling our other relatives what a wonderful afternoon we spent at the Breakers, and the good reviews pass on and on. Of course, the story of this exceptional experience can’t be complete until I mention a few of the desserts which included gourmet hot chocolate shots, peppermint bark, walnut rum balls, and egg nog mousse martinis. There just wasn’t a frown in the place!

Counting down holiday shopping days: Great customer service needed

MallThe National Retail Federation estimates the average jolly holiday shopper will conservatively spend $750 for family and friends this season. Of course that includes gifts, decorations, and greeting cards which we all like to share as the joys of the season take over our common sense. What we don’t like however, are problems with the merchandise or services we purchase. Therefore customers are more likely to shop at the competition when customer service perfection fails. Sadly the loss of business can be from one bad experience and how it is handled, so the pressure’s on.

For many shoppers, the local mall is the venue of choice for holiday gifts. There’s convenience in parking, a wide selection of merchandise, and often last minute sales  even beat the price of online shopping. The most popular products for gifts include toys, electronics, and clothing, and here is where retailers definitely find it imperative to put their best foot forward to not only lure shoppers into their stores, but build up enough confidence and satisfactions that these shoppers will want to return – perhaps even in January when sales notoriously slump. And even though customers always want to cut corners when it comes to getting a bargain, never underestimate the power of excellent customer service.

When time is almost always at a premium, statistics have stayed constant showing shoppers still willing to pay extra for superior customer service. If two stores in the mall carry the same merchandise, but one store excels in pleasing customers and presents that ‘wow” experience we all dream of when shopping, customers still swing towards the near perfect experience. So what are some of the customer service “need to master” skills in order to create that exceptional experience ? Here are the top three:

  • Be enthusiastic when customers enter your store. Make customers feel comfortable – not necessarily by overwhelming them by trailing them around the store, but be helpful. Is there no better feeling when shopping then not having to search around an entire store for the product and having a sales representative available to answer questions or help a shopper find a specific size or color? Customer service representatives should like their jobs; it’s quite apparent when an employee is just counting down the hours until their shift is over. Have a great training program, and hire the best you can afford. It’s not about having warm bodies to ring up sales; it’s about having employees who add to the importance of your business by representing it with knowledge, honesty, and enthusiasm.
  • Customer service representatives should be thoroughly familiar with what their business offers. The sales process begins with listening to the customer to find out what they want and need. When a talented salesperson is able to advise, lead a customer and then help them make the best choice, customers appreciate the effort. Great customer service isn’t about over selling, it’s about filling the need with the most appropriate product or service and doing it with patience, efficiency, and grace.
  • Never forget to show your customer or client you appreciate their business and their loyalty. That ever important “thank you” reminds people they are individuals and each time they enter your store you are appreciative of their business and will always strive to do your best to meet their needs.

While the crush of Black Friday and Cyber Monday have passed, consumers always remember the best shopping experiences – including prices, quality, and customer service experiences. Be one of those exceptional providers and watch your business continue to grow.

Photo from Flickr

 

How to survive customer service blunders in the world of social media

I heard the term “social vampire” in 2005 when it referred to a person who more or less attached them self to someone and piled on attention until they felt that the person they were endowing with excessive flattery liked them in return. And when they were satisfied with that relationship, then the “social vampire” would cling on to the next person – drawing apart everyone’s patience and exhausting all those left behind in that person’s social wake.

Jeff Woodland, a blog writer for Genesys recently equated himself to having been a “social vampire” in his customer service dissatisfaction with his Internet provider and contends a business’ reputation can be greatly harmed via Facebook, Twitter, and company forums. It’s quite simple for anyone who can find  the “power on” button of a computer to learn how to make an impression on social networks, yet it becomes eminently more difficult for an organization to fight back and not lose customers and clients. Are the comments and criticisms being addressed by the right people, is the organization accessible and readily able to deal with complaints, and does customer service and their promises live up to the expectations a customer expects?

The basis for handling any customer complaint is believing that the customer truly thinks they have been wronged. Will customers lie? Are there really people out there who are so isolated, frustrated, or even perverse they would want to destroy a business? Of course the answer is yes, but for the most part the best way to handle a customer complaint online, by phone, by email, or in person, is to stop and listen. Too many agents begin speaking before the customer is even finished, but taking a deep breath, relaxing, and listening becomes an integral part of any problem solving, since we can’t figure out a solution until we know the problem. Next the seasoned customer service representative will want to repeat the problem back to the customer. In cases where the customer is rude, angry, or even vulgar, the better part of valor dictates one waits until the customer calms down.

Once the problem is established, and the customer representative has demonstrated they heard and understood the problem, the next step is to apologize. Customers don’t care if a shipment was delayed, a wrong price was quoted, or an employee tripped and hurt her head. Here’s the time to apologize even if you think everything was done correctly. Just remember, from your customer’s perspective something went wrong, and if it’s not a litigious issue, there is nothing wrong trying to make your customer feel better and that their business really matters to you. Then go about solving their problem, and when using social media, make sure you address solutions either in their entirety if the drama played out on social media, or if you were lucky enough to handle it one on one, at least address that a private message was sent so other readers know the problem has being handled and more than likely on the route to a mutual resolution.

Sometimes, however there are just those customers whose attitudes an organization might consider “firing.” Is the customer worth keeping? Sometimes “social vampires” climb aboard for no other reason than to be dangerous and confrontational. Every organization has to deal with difficult people, but the key is not to react or launch a counter-attack. Never let a “social vampire” bait you. Courteous and professional responses must curb any confrontation before it becomes contentious. Keep the comments respectful, don’t trespass onto personal feelings, but know when to fold your cards and walk away from the table.

Guest Post: Ritz-Carlton Customer Service Secrets

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is known worldwide for it’s “legendary service.” So much so, Apple uses the luxury hospitality brand as a model for its owner customer support traditions. Part of their success can be credited to one simple mantra – “Radar On – Antenna Up.” This means seeking out the customers unanticipated and unvoiced needs. This could be as simple as replacing an empty tube of toothpaste while a guest is out on business, or handing Roarie the stuffed Ritz-Carlton lion to an crying toddler.

These practices have not only increased word of mouth and brand loyalty. Ritz-Carlton also boasts among the best employee retention rates around. To create raving fans, they start with inciting brand enthusiasm from their team.

Recently, I sat down with Ritz-Carlton Vice President Diana Oreck to see if she could share any more secrets to the company’s customer service super sauce. She heads up the company’s executive training program, The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. Here is what she had to say:

The answers in this article have been modified from the original transcript of Diana Oreck’s interview with Software Advice.

Q: One of the Ritz-Carlton Gold Standards is “anticipate unexpressed needs.” Why is this important to customer service success and how do you train employees to recognize and act on unexpressed needs?

A: It’s very important because legendary service is about surprise and delight. It’s not robotic, it’s not scripted. And the way we teach it is through a class called “radar on, antenna up.” Golden nugget: You cannot give legendary service if you’re on autopilot. We have a daily lineup everyday in every [Ritz-Carlton] hotel around the world where we provide scenarios and discuss the best approach in the class. For example, we might go to a room and see you have one drop of toothpaste left in your toothpaste tube, so we are going to replace that tube of toothpaste without you asking and that’s a nice surprise when you return from business.

Q: What metrics or qualitative data does Ritz-Carlton use to measure customer service training success (How do you know it’s working)? How do you collect this data? 

A: Oh yes, we poll our guests once a month. The Gallup organization sends out a survey to 38 percent of guests that stayed the month before. It’s done randomly with the hope we will get 8-10 percent return. We live and die by that guest engagement number. This is the sum of responses to about 30 questions, including How likely is that guest to recommend Ritz Carlton? Were they delighted and satisfied with their stay? If there was a problem, did we take care of their problem? We know that if that guest engagement number goes up, we know that our training programs have been successful.

Q: Retention is a big issue for a lot of customer service teams. Is the same true for Ritz-Carlton? What does the company do to retain talent?

A: We’ve got a vast list. Rewards and recognition is huge. Ranging from our first class card, which is the most popular form of recognition at Ritz Carlton. It’s just a card that we give it to one another as a thanks. It can be peer to peer, peer to manager, employee to president, president to employee. And then we have things like birthdays, where we give gift certificates. Employees can become ‘five-star’ of the quarter. We don’t do employee of the month, because we find it’s much for meaningful if it’s the quarter. We are also one of the only hotel companies that still provide meals for their staff.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes companies make when training customer service staff?

A: They’re not being specific enough. They’ll say things like “Give great service.” Well that’s nice, but people need a road map. Never assume anything, make sure you have your service standards written down and allow people to observe you in action. Don’t assume that their mother or father, or previous employer taught them what really great service looks like. Have a written service strategy.

Q: What other successful customer service strategies have companies adopted by studying Ritz-Carlton?

A: It’s all about empowerment. The thing that our guests are most wowed about is that every single employee has $2,000 a day per guest to delight, or make it right. But we never use the money because that money is just symbolic. We are saying to our employees – we trust you. We select the best talent. Just help the guest. We do a lot of training around empowerment. So I would say this – you need to empower employees. You also need to make sure that you are inspiring employees to bring their passion to work everyday and to volunteer their best. And you do that by reinforcing their purpose, not their function.

About Diana Oreck: 

Diana leads The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center – a corporate university created to provide opportunities to leadership and learning professionals wanting to benchmark human resources, leadership, quality and training practices. The program has twice won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1992 and 1999. Diana has more than 30 years experience in hospitality and customer service expertise.

About Ashley Furness:

Ashley is a CRM Market Analyst for Software Advice, where she writes about customer service, marketing and sales strategy. She has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has appeared in myriad publications including Inc., Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal. Before joining Software Advice in 2012, she worked in sales management and advertising. She is a University of Texas graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

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