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Little Things Part 5: Keep customers in the loop.

As a customer of other companies, chances are you have doubted at least once that you were still connected and have had to ask the representative “Hello? What are you doing?” Addressing that problem is part 1 of this post, part 2 is communicating with customers outside of a one-on-one support experience.

Part 1: One-on-One Situations

The general rule of thumb with communicating clients is to let them know what’s wrong and what you’re doing to fix it. Support and service representatives should keep the customer in the loop every step of the way including:

  • Looking up client records
  • Recording the problem and assigning a ticket/reference ID
  • Troubleshooting
  • Etc.

If a representative keeps customers in the loop, they won’t have to ask “Are you there?” or “What are you doing?” Saying things like “OK. Just a second – I’ll look up your account now.” help customers know what you are doing and that you are working actively on their problem. If a customer is upset or frustrated, it can make a big difference. Representatives should also try and explain the problem to the customer and what some possible solutions are.

Part 2: Outside of a One-on-One Situation

If your service is down, the first thing a customer should see when visiting your web site is “Service Down? Click here for more information.” with the following information:

  • What happened.
  • What caused it.
  • What’s being done about it.
  • When it will be back up and running.
  • What’s being done to prevent the problem from happening in the future.
  • What, if any, compensation the client will get.
  • Who to ask if you have any more questions.

If you can cover these points, clients should be pretty happy. The key is to have the link be very prominent on the home page or support section and to apologize profusely. Don’t hesitate to offer compensation – customers will definitely appreciate it. Potential customers will respect the fact that you are straight forward about a bad situation, but don’t expect having service outages to increase sales.

Customers like to know what’s going on so let them know and you’ll see your customers will be much happier.

Little Things Part 4: Use operators.

It’s sad when customer service is in a state when customers need sites like GetHuman.com to talk to the company they pay. It doesn’t get much worse than that – a customer buys his or her $2,500 computer from Dell or HP and has to use a site like GetHuman to talk to a person.

Endless phone systems (PBXes, which stands for private brand exchange) are a common cause for frustration among customers and they are a common example of companies making the service experience and process better and more efficient for the company than for the customer. Many customers find voice controlled (say 1 for sales as opposed to push 1) even more frustrating and when a PBX asks you to spell out your account username and can’t seem to get it, customers become even more frustrated. The result? They are upset, grouchy, and frustrated by the time they get to a person and they let the person know about it. Customer service representatives get discouraged and the end result is an overall decreased level of customer service and lower employee morale.

For not that much money companies can hire an operator. A few operators can handle a fairly busy support or sales department for not much extra money. Operators should be able to:

  • Answer basic questions like how do I signup, what’s your fax number or address, etc.
  • Have the ability to search company knowledge bases and FAQs.
  • Guide non-technical customers through common processes like ordering, submitting a ticket online, checking shipping status, etc.
  • Gather information about a client such as name, telephone number, problem, etc. and assign a ticket or reference ID. The operator should then be able to locate an available support representative to take the call and provide the support representative with the reference or ticket ID beforehand.
  • And of course, transfer customers to the appropriate person or department.

Having an operator can make a world of difference. Even if customers have to wait a few minutes to speak with an operator, they won’t be nearly as frustrated since they know they’ll end up in the right department. Have a message saying something like “Thank you for calling Company XYZ. You will be connected to an operator momentarily. Thank you for your patience.” If the hold time is under 5 or 6 minutes, the customer will likely still be in a good mood by the time he or she speaks with an operator.

If increased customer satisfaction isn’t worth it by itself, operators can save you time and money by answering basic questions as well. There’s no need for a customer to be connected to the sales department to ask a question like “What is your fax number?” – it just wastes time and energy for both the customer and the employee. Let employees with specific skills do their jobs and have capable operators who can perform basic tasks.

Hire people who are friendly, courteous, and intelligent to be operators. Hire people who are genuinely nice and have great people skills. You can train them how to create a ticket and search the knowledge base later. As they are nice, can type, and can read – they’ll probably do just fine. Operators should be paid the same as an average customer service
representative.

If you cannot afford an operator or simply don’t want one, try keeping your PBX system as simple as possible. Limit it to one level and have no more than three or four options. Extensions like sales, billing, and technical support will work fine. You should also have a way to get to a human on the first level of your menu (Push 0 to speak with an operator) just in case the customer isn’t sure which department to go to. There’ll be more about PBX systems and how to keep them simple after the Little Things, Big Differences series.

Companies dedicated to customer service use operators – yours should too.

First week at Service Untitled.

It’s been Service Untitled’s first week and so far, we’ve done quite well.

Our Technorati rank is an unimpressive 715,050 (3 links from 3 sites), but we’re trying to fidget with our blog system (WordPress) so it works better with Technorati. We’ve also added a few more feed features (the link is on the right navigation bar).

That I’m aware of, Service Untilted has been featured on two blogs: The Art of Customer Service, Part II on Guy Kawasaki’s blog and Do You Rate The Customer Service You Recieve on Customers are Always. We’ve been mentioned on a few other blogs, but as far as I know, not featured.

So far, several hundred people have read at least one post on Service Untitled at our site and probably 10-15,000 on the two sites our posts have been featured on. Feedback on the blog so far and people I’ve written have said they like Service Untitled quite a lot. We certainly have room for improvement, but we’re off to a good start.
We’re going to try and stick with our Monday – Friday posting schedule and have any Service Untitled updates on the weekends. Thanks for reading so far and be sure to tell your friends and co-workers about Service Untitled!

Little Things Part 3: Use operating procedures, not scripts.

A lot of customer service and support situations, particularly outsourced technical support is scripted. It’s scripted so that the representative has come up with minimal original things to say, normally due to language barriers. Most customers can notice when a script or series of pre-defined responses is used and it can be very frustrating. However, (unfortunately) scripts are becoming more and more favored by companies as the quality of the average customer service representative declines.

Companies should try to use operating procedures over scripts. Imagine if you visited Nordstrom and the representative had a script for everything. They do have operating procedures, but not scripts. If done properly, the use of operating procedures over scripts increases quality levels and customers do not become as frustrated. It makes the customer service experience more personal and overall more tolerable.

Look at this situation with a script:

Rep: Hi, thank you for calling company XYZ. My name is Bob. How may I help you?
Customer: I’m having a problem with my computer.
Rep: Okay, I will help you with your problem with your computer. May I have your first and last name please?
Customer: Mary Smith
Rep: Thank you. May I please have your email address now?
Customer: msmith@smithinc.com
Rep: Thank you. What is the problem with your computer?

With an operating procedure, it’s much easier and more personal for both the representative and the customer:

Thank customer for calling company XYZ. Introduce yourself and ask how you can help the customer. Gather client’s personal and contact information (name, email address, etc.) and when ready, ask customer to describe problem. Try troubleshooting as necessary.

This allows the customer service representative to improvise a bit more and customize what is done depending on the customer. Here are some tips on how to improve your customer service with operating procedures as opposed to scripts:

  • Have operating procedures. Though it may seem obvious, have operating procedures for your most common questions, obscure situations (such as a customer who does not speak English well or is rude), how to troubleshoot properly, common things (how to answer and end the call, handle transfers, give credits, etc.)

  • Train with operating procedures. Before you put a customer service representative on the job, train him or her to effectively use your company’s operating procedures. The training will definitely pay off.

  • Locate them centrally. Operating procedures are great for letting other employees do basic tasks for other departments (i. e. a support representative checking on if there’s any money due on a bill). If they are located centrally, everyone can access them and learn about other departments’ tasks. Operating procedures should be quickly and easily accessible by all employees of the company.

When used properly, operating procedures are far superior to scripts and your customers will appreciate the difference.

Little Things Part 2: Don’t Give Them A Sales Pitch

OK, put yourself in the place of the customer. Your customer just died and you go to call Dell, navigate through their expansive menu system, and finally end up in the PC Support hold queue. While you’re waiting, every 30 seconds there is some sort of sales pitch saying “Buy a Dell computer and we’ll double your RAM for free” or “Dell computers bought today include a free flatpanel monitor upgrade” or something like that.

While I don’t believe Dell actually does give their customers a sales pitch while on hold, some companies do. Most customers that call technical support or customer service are frustrated and have a problem of some sort. They are not in the mood for a sales pitch, annoying hold music, or anything else that can further annoy them.

Here’s some tips on how to ensure you don’t frustrate customers further while they’re waiting:

  1. Only pitch them when they want it. The only place you can remotely get away with giving your customer a sales pitch while they are on hold is in a sales queue. If they aren’t calling sales, assume they aren’t interested. Don’t gives customers a sales pitch for customer service, billing, technical support, or any other department besides sales.

  2. Give options. A lot of customers do not like hold music. Even when a customer calls sales, there should still be an options to: hold without music and to hold with just music. Most PBX systems can be configured so customers can be given an option to hold without music completely or with just music (and no sales pitches).

  3. Don’t pitch anywhere else. Just because you exclude a sales pitch from your hold music does not mean you’re home free. There are no technicalities – just no pitches. Do not make it so your customer service, technical support, billing, etc. representatives pitch callers before they hang up, either. There should be absolutely no pitches anywhere but sales.

  4. Let them know how much longer. Let customers know what position in the queue they are or, better yet, how much longer they’ll be waiting. If a customer hears they are number 50 in the queue, it may seem like a lot, but for a company with 45 representatives, it’s no big deal.

  5. After awhile, do something. Set an “unacceptable” time, and have customers automatically transferred to someone after that time. It doesn’t matter if the person can necessarily help them with their problem, just have the customer transferred to someone who’s able to find out how much longer it’ll be and apologize for the long wait.

  6. If a customer has to be transferred, don’t make them wait. If a customer ends up in the wrong department (i. e. wireless support instead of PC support), don’t make them wait again. Have the representative in wireless support find an available PC support representative to take the call. The wireless support representative should give the PC support representative all the information (ticket/reference IDs) before transferring the customer (this way the customer doesn’t have to repeat anything).

If you implement these methods, you’ll find that your customers will be much happier and in much less frustrated by the time they get to your customer service representative and start describing their problem.

Little Things Part 1: Use Their Name

Every good customer service department will preach this: use a customer’s name whenever possible. Many companies require it be used a certain amount of times during a conversation, others say use it when you can without being annoying, and the worse don’t even bother doing using customers’ name.

Here’s some tips on when and how to use a customer’s name appropriately:

  • Emails. Go out of your way to find a customer’s name when responding to emails. If they say their name somewhere in the email, you have no excuse for not using it. If a customer’s name is mentioned in the “From” field, you should definitely being using it. If you notice a customer’s name is part of their email (such as bob@bobinc.com), use it (you’ll be right far more times than not).Another good way to make the customer service experience more personal over email is to use examples related to the customer. If the customer’s name is John Smith and his company is Smith Co. (according to what he said and/or your company’s record), use john@smithco.com instead of the generic bob@bobinc.com or example@examplesite.com. Do the same for anything where you’d normally put an example or something generic.
  • Phone. When a customer calls, you should ask for their name so you can lookup their account. If it’s a sales call, ask for their name and email address (so you can follow-up). Once you lookup a customer’s account, say something like “OK. How may I help you, Mr. Smith?”. Don’t use their name at the end of every sentence, but it’s generally a good rule of thumb to use a customer’s name wherever you’d use sir or madam.
  • Live Chat. Live chats are increasingly appearing on company web sites. Most chats will prompt a customer for his or her name, and most customers will put in all or part of their name. Use logic when deciding what to call them. For example, if a customer inputs John S., call him John. If a customer inputs “No Name” or something else that may not be a name, do not address them by name. If a customer inputs John Smith, call him Mr. Smith or John (depending on what your company does). Like with the telephone, address customers by name when appropriate and use the sir/madam rule.

Calling a customer by first or last name depends largely on the company. A majority of companies that target average consumers call their customers by their first name. If you work in a business that’s considered “up-tight,” call customers by their last name.

Occasionally a customer will have a name that is difficult to pronounce. Ask them once or twice to repeat their name, and if you still can’t get it (correctly), ask the customer if it’s okay to call them by another name such as their first name, nickname, etc. Chances are that if someone has a difficult name, they have an easier to pronounce alternative.

Another thing a customer service representative may occasionally run into is when what the customer said over email, phone, live chat, etc. is different than what the company’s database says. Unless it’s an obvious typo, use what the customer says at that moment instead of what’s in the database. If it seems really weird and you are dealing with any sensitive (or even semi-sensitive) information, ask for verification.

Keep these in mind and the act of calling the customer by name will get much more personal and much more effective.

Introduction to Little Things

Guy Kawasaki’s last post about customer service addressed some important aspects of how to ensure your company’s customer service is great. Hiring the right kind of people and making great customer service part of your company’s culture are big things that do make a big difference. However, the difference between great customer service and customer service that’s just acceptable lies in the little things.

Keep these tips in mind to go from acceptable to great (or hopefully, good to great):

  1. Use their name. Though it may seem obvious, you’d be surprised how much of a difference addressing a customer by name can make. If a customer has their name somewhere in their email (as well as in the actual email address such as bob@bobinc.com), start the email with “Hi Bob.” If someone is calling you, ask for their name, and then actually address them by name when appropriate (basically anywhere you’d use sir or madam). Another good way to make the customer service experience more personal is to ask for the customer’s name instead of just a reference or a ticket ID. If there’s a lot of people with their name, then ask for another personal piece of information like an email address or phone number. If all else fails, use the reference or ticket ID.

  2. Don’t give them a sales pitch. Never give customers a sales pitch unless they’re calling your sales department. Most customers that call for customer service, technical support, or whatever are not in the mood for a sales pitch and they can be downright annoying. Avoid putting a sales pitch in your hold recordings or actually having the representative say “Would you like to hear about our special offers?” at the end of the call.

  3. Have operating procedures, not scripts. You’ve probably called at least a few companies and you’re sure the representative is reading a script – it’s annoying and certainly not personal. Have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for common things like cancellations, frustrated customers, etc. to ensure the job is done properly, but never ask or train your representatives to read from an actual script or anything like it.

  4. Use operators. Endless PBX systems (the push 1 for sales, 2 for billing, etc.) are extremely frustrating for customers. If possible, hire an operator. Make it so the operator can answer basic questions (like how do I signup?), collect information about problems, assign a ticket number or reference ID, and find an available representative to take the call. The operator should somehow communicate with the representative before connecting the customer to provide the reference ID (so the customer is not forced to repeat the problem), whether it be via some sort of chat system, in person, or by phone. If you must use a PBX system, keep it very simple. Have it be one level with three or four options as well as an option to be connected to an operator.

  5. Keep customers in the loop. Customers should never have to ask what are you doing. Let them know what’s happening as you’re doing something (such as lookup up their account or researching an issue). Extend keeping customers in the loop beyond the actual communication as well – if you’re having a service outage, post it right on the front of your support section. Be honest – tell them what’s the problem, when service will be restored, and what you’re doing to prevent it from happening again. Apologize profusely and don’t be cheap (aka offer compensation). This way, customers feel that you appreciate them and do go out of your way to keep them in the loop.

  6. Make customers feel important. Train your representatives to make customers feel important. If a customer makes a suggestion, the representative should note it and let the customer know they’ve noted it (see follow-up). Don’t hesitate to do things like give credits or say things like “because you’re a valued customer, we can probably do this for you.” Customers are often frustrated when they call customer service or support, so if you can make them feel good, all the better.

  7. Ask them questions and keep the answers in mind. Somewhat like making customers feel important – ask them questions. Don’t assume and feel free to clarify. You should also ask questions like “What’s your level of technical expertise?” and if they say complete novice, give them some extra instructions and help. The same thing works for other industries – anticipate the questions beforehand and provide the answers and clarification without being asked.

  8. Follow-up. Probably the biggest difference between acceptable and great customer service is how often (and how well) the customer service department follows-up. If a customer makes a suggestion, follow-up on it and give them a call or send them an email with the result. If a customer calls with a customer service problem and you believe it’s resolved, send them an email or give them a call asking if their problem has been resolved to their satisfaction. Make follow-ups personal (avoid “Our records indicate you had a problem on April 1, 2006. If you need further assistance, please contact us.”) and sincere and customers will truly appreciate it.

If you these suggestions as well as Guy’s suggestions in mind, you’ll likely see improved customer satisfaction, more referrals, and more repeat business. Plus, when customers are happy, customer service representatives are generally happy, which improves productivity and employee morale.

Be sure to keep customer service personal and make contacting customer service a (positive) experience, and you’ll be well on your to beating out your competition on an increasingly important factor. I’m going to discuss each of these topics more in detail in some of the upcoming posts.

Bad, Acceptable, and Great

When talking about customer service, I usually categorize the level of customer service and the customer service experience into one of three categories:

  • Bad
  • Acceptable
  • Great

I am sure that there are far more technical and perhaps far more accurate ways to classify the level of service and the overall experience, but for me, bad, acceptable, and great has worked out just fine. Some examples of each:

Bad
You call the company and navigate your way through countless menus and automated prompts. Once you get to the right department, you wait 20 minutes to talk to a person. The person who picks up is quite rude, not very sympathetic of your problem, and far from helpful. You’re forced to repeat your problem several times and are regularly put on hold without a “Would you mind holding?” or “Thank you.” anywhere in the call.

Acceptable
Acceptable customer service would be when you call a company and have to go through maybe one or two menus to get to the right department. Hold time is 5-10 minutes and you’re transferred to a person who says “Hi, how can I help you?” and is fairly pleasant and helpful. You do have to repeat your issue one or two times and you’re put on hold more often than you’d like, but the person remains friendly and helpful.

Great
You dial the number and you’re immediately connected with an operator. The operator writes down your problem and gives you a reference ID in case you’re disconnected or need to call back. The operator then says “Would you mind holding while I locate a representative to take your call?” and finds someone and gives them the reference ID. The operator comes back and says “Thanks for your patience. I’m going to transfer you to the appropriate person right now.” and you’re connected. The representative picks up the phone and says “Hi, thanks for calling Company XYZ. My name is Bob, would you mind waiting for just a minute while I review your issue?” You say okay and the representatives reviews your issue and is friendly, courteous, and helpful during the call. You are only put on hold briefly once or twice during the call.

See the difference between bad, acceptable, and great customer service? Most consumers today encounter acceptable customer service and consider it to be great. It’s quite sad how consumers today are thankful if they can get to someone who speaks English and can type and read properly within 15 minutes. Consumers are forgetting about things like being addressed by name and (human) operators that define the difference between acceptable and great.

It’s amazing about how little things like asking the customer if he or she would mind holding for a moment make such a big difference in the overall customer service experience. Whether it be an operator picking up the phone, a customer being addressed by name, or less confusing menus, they all make a big difference.

The next few posts will be about little things in customer service that make big differences and really do greatly improve the customer service experience.

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