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Customer service during bad economic times.

Earlier this evening, I was watching the news and there was of course a story on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. In addition to aggressive promotional sales and reduced purchases, the story briefly mentioned how retailers were asking employees to be extra friendly. This comment made me wonder about how customer service was being affected by the economic trouble going on around the world.

I think there are two schools of thought on how a bad economy could affect customer service.

Customer service is pushed aside. During bad economic times, consumers are looking for good deals. They want their dollars to go further and to get more stuff for less money. Customer service is a “nice thing to have,” but not a necessity. As a result, consumers are willing to put up with bad service in exchange for cheap prices. If the service is good, great. If not, no harm done. Consumers are going out shopping to get the things they need at cheap prices, not necessarily to have an enjoyable shopping experience.

Customer service is more important than ever. During bad economic times, consumers are looking for good deals and retailers know this. Competition is stiff and good deals can be found everywhere. Every retailer has the same product for less money than it was selling a year ago and they are constantly slashing prices. Because the flat screen TV or collared shirt cost the same at two retailers, customer service can set them apart and create a competitive advantage. If both Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue have sales on the same items and the prices are essentially the same, the customer would prefer to spend his or her dollars at the store where he or she is treated better.

The report talked about how Neiman Marcus was the darling of retail last year. This year’s darling of retail is on the opposite end of the retail spectrum: Walmart. It makes you think about how consumer priorities have changed with the economy.

I think the current situation is a mix of both situations I outlined above, depending on the purchase and the particular consumer’s financial situation. The people who are hurting the most are going to care the most about prices and the least about service. In turn, though, the people who are hurting less are likely going to care more service and that is where a lot of the service-based competition will arise.

What are your thoughts on how the economy is affecting customer service? What have your customers told you and what have you learned from your competition? Oh, and in case you’re looking for something more directly related to today’s shopping events, this was the post I wrote on Black Friday last year.

Engage on Social Media

A lot of companies have a presence in the blogosphere, on Twitter, Facebook, or one of the other social media sites. This is a step in the right direction and any site that does have such a presence should be rewarded for it. However, when companies treat their social presence as just another marketing channel, they often miss the point and lose out on a possible opportunity to engage customers.

I won’t reference companies that do it poorly, but I will reference a company that does it well. Comcast has a very strong presence on Twitter. The person behind their presence on Twitter is one guy, Frank Eliason. I’ve exchanged emails with Frank before and he is a personable guy. Even though he is usually “strictly business” on the company’s Twitter account, Frank is by no means a robot and will interact with customers and be personable at least several times a day. Zappos has a pretty sophisticated Twitter site and has also embraced the medium well.

As someone who has worked with companies developing a presence on Twitter and other social media sites, I will say that some of the questions you’ll end up seeing are odd. However, there is nothing wrong with that. Tell customers about some weird things that your company does or about the way the CEO of the company does this or that. It lets customers see a different side of your company.

The companies that just use Twitter to post links to blog posts, promotions, etc. are missing the point. Twitter is a place to get to know your customers better and to interact with them in a different way.

You absolutely want to use it to reserve customer service issues and let customers know about updates and promotions, but you also want to take advantage of it to let customers know that there are people behind your marketing department and that your company has a personality. There aren’t that many places to do that in the corporate world and a presence on a site like Twitter or on your corporate blog is a perfect place to do that.

To everyone in the United States, have a Happy¬†Thanksgiving! Eat a lot and be safe! If you aren’t in the United States, have a great Thursday.

A Lesson from Chick-fil-A

I’ve said plenty of good things about Chick-fil-A in the past, which was why I was surprised when I had a negative experience with one of the fast food company’s franchises last week.

The experience actually started as a positive experience. I had been mailed a page of coupons from Chick-fil-A. A few them appealed to me and I knew I went to the Chick-fil-A near me every so often, so I kept one for a free milkshake in my wallet. When I went to the Chick-fil-A near me the following week, I used the coupon and got my free chocolate milkshake. The woman who helped me then handed me a very similar coupon that also said “free handspun milkshake with any lunch or dinner meal.” Simple enough – I put the new (identical) coupon in my wallet.

The following week, I was back at Chick-fil-A and tried to order the milkshake and was told I had to get a peppermint milkshake because “that was what the coupon was promoting.” I asked the person to show me where it said I had to order a peppermint milkshake (the only criteria I could see was “handspun,” which they all are) and was again told that the picture of the peppermint milkshake on the front negated what the text said. The “fine print” only covered copyright issues, not issues relating to the promotion. I told the person that I had used successfully a similar coupon with the same picture on the front the week before and received no response.

In no mood to argue at length over a free milkshake, I took my peppermint milkshake and a comment card and left. I called the number on the comment card and got the local store’s answering machine. I left a message explaining the situation and my contact information. A week later, I still haven’t heard a word from Chick-fil-A, which is almost as annoying as having an advertisement that misrepresents what you can actually get.

What surprised me most, though, was Chick-fil-A unwillingness to give me the benefit of the doubt, even after I explained I had used the same coupon a week earlier. The cost of the milkshakes is probably the same and would have avoided the issue all together.

Good customer service companies give customers that “misunderstand” a policy the benefit of the doubt. I had a similar experience with Amazon.com over a year ago in the past, but unlike Chick-fil-a, they decided to give me the benefit of the doubt (even though the policy was clearly spelled out on Amazon’s web site).

Teach your customers with online classes.

Photo1HP announced a series of changes to their online support offerings earlier today and one of those updates was the expansion of the free online classes they offer.

HP’s offering is interesting because they don’t limit the classes to HP products exclusively, but instead offer instructor-led classes on a variety of subjects, ranging from digital photography to creating business cards. The instructors are experts in their particular subject areas and the “students” can ask the instructor questions as the classes are going on.

I like what HP has done with these classes. A lot of companies will offer webinars that teach customers about their products specifically, but very few expand the scope beyond that. HP is smart for offering to teach its customers how to get the most out of their PCs and technology in general. If customers know how to get the most out of their PCs, they are going to be a lot more interested in upgrades for their existing PCs or in the mood to buy more powerful PCs (hopefully from HP) when they are looking for a new computer.

There are lots of companies that could benefit from similar views. Web hosting companies could have classes on web design, clothing retailers could have classes on fashion, supermarkets could hold cooking classes, and so on. All of these classes complement the core product or service and still help to improve the company’s brand (assuming the classes are good, of course).

Setting this up for your own company would not be overly complicated. You likely have someone with the expertise (and hopefully, the attitude) to design and run such a class in your support team. After that, it is matter of getting the technology in place and promoting it among your customers. Try it with one or two classes and survey your customers to see how much they like it.

HP has had good luck with their classes to date; 93% of students surveyed responded saying they would take another class and 92% of students surveyed said they would recommend the class to a friend. Hopefully your implementation will have similar (or even better) results.

Track utilization of resources.

An average company will probably provide its employees with a plethora of resources (tools, guides, tutorials, etc.) they can use to do their jobs better. But do you really know which tools your employees are using and which ones they aren’t? Probably not.

Track with objective statistics. If you have technical resources that you are making available to your employees, chances are you can use some sort of analytics to track the true usage. Internal web sites can be tracked, computer programs can be tracked, etc. Using technology to obtain the data about the usage of your resources is a great way to understand how they are utilized and if they are being utilized effectively.

Ask (with a survey). Survey your employees and ask how they using the various resources available to them. Ask about what they find helpful, what they don’t use, what they still need, and so on. Ask about the effectiveness of the current resources, their ease of use, and so on. Design your survey to give you actionable data (i. e. if you’re curious about navigation, ask questions that will help you understand how your employees navigate the resources available to them).

Use your data to draw conclusions. If your analytics show that people are clicking to several different pages before they stay on a page for a while (indicating it takes them a while to get somewhere) and they complain about navigation in the survey, something is obviously wrong with the layout of that particular tool or resource. Figure it out, ask employees if that is actually the case, and then take action.

Ask (with an interview). Once you have some initial points collected and to work off of, interview some employees about what resources they utilize and how they utilize them. The interviews should be open ended and pry around for additional information and additional areas to work on. The more you know, the more you can do and the better spent your time and other resources will be.

Greet your customers by name.

Glenn posted an interesting discussion on his blog about greeting e-commerce customers. I’ve written about utilizing technology to help personal the customer service experience before and Glenn brought up another great aspect of the use of technology in customer service.

When you have the information, make use of it. Use it to personalize greetings on your web site, to offer customers promotions on when their birthday is coming up, etc. The information is only valuable when you make use of it. Without actually going out of your way to use the data you collect, it’s worthless. As Glenn pointed out, there is a lot you can do with the data to make customers happier and to make money.

As the Internet has gotten more advanced, personalization on web sites has become commonplace. A web site saying “Welcome John Smith” is no longer a big deal. Even a web site saying “Welcome John Smith, here are some products you might find to be interesting” isn’t anything to write home about. A company that consistently identifies customers and personalizes the customer service experience for them is something unique, though.

If John Smith calls or emails in, and the representative knows who he is and can address him by name and be familiar account history, that will help to improve the customer service. Verifying John’s identity with his email address or phone number is technologically possible and fairly reliable. It’ll also make John feel more appreciated as a customer. Then, when he visits the web site and is also greeted by name, it just adds to the collective (and now positive) experience.

Technology is a great asset to customer service. I don’t think high tech can replace high touch in customer service, but I certainly think they can work well together and one of the many ways they can do so is by personalizing and customizing the customer service experience.

Utilize internal mailing lists.

I’ve talked about internal blogs before, but I haven’t talked about the importance of internal mailing lists. Mailing lists have been around since before the Internet as we know it was the Internet and that isn’t an accident – they’re useful and easy to use. Internal mailing lists can be used for a wide variety of purposes:

Collaboration with employees. Mailing lists can be used to collaborate with other employees. Work on projects, make other employees aware of particularly tough issues, point out bug fixes, etc. A mailing list can be used not only to keep other employees in the loop, but also allow them to contribute themselves.

Sending service updates. Service updates should be sent to both employees and customers, but that isn’t always possible. Internal mailing lists can be used to keep employees informed about service updates (including those that are upcoming) as well as any information about outages, upgrades, etc.

Reminders and tips. Some companies send out a useful “hint of the day” about a new system or how to help customers. These are great to send over mailing lists and can help employees do their job better. Tips of the day via email aren’t typically sent over mailing lists, but assuming the tips are actually helpful, employees will actually appreciate them.

A lot of these uses seem obvious, but when each team or group gets its on mailing list, it can really help make communication easier and more unified than just CC’ing people randomly. Be sure to give each team (or any group that asks for it) their own mailing list. Make sure archives of the mailing lists are kept so people can easily refer back to them and ensure that the archives are searchable. That will allow you to get the most out of them and let people who weren’t on the list originally get caught up.

Communicate expected hold time.

Communicating expected hold time is something that almost all great customer service representatives do and also something that almost no mediocre or below customer service representatives do. Communicating expected hold time is really polarized in that regard, but it is not something that should be ignored.

The rule of thumb is dead simple: let people know how long you expect them to be on hold. If you only need to look into the customer’s account information, ask if they’d mind holding one or two minutes. If you have to get up and find your supervisor and ask a question, ask if the customers minds holding five to six minutes. Be realistic and be consistent. Always let the customer know how long they’ll be holding.

Some (generally lazy) representatives complain about this and say they can’t be sure how long the customer will hold. This is a good point, but I think most customers would rather have a ballpark idea about how long something will take than no idea at all. They don’t expect you as a representative to give them a scientifically accurate timeline, but they do expect for your estimate to be in the ballpark. As always, if something changes, you should let the customer know and if necessary, change your estimate and communicate that to the customer.

The customer service experience is about the customer. They should know how long it is going to take and what is going on. Never hesitate to tell the customer either of those things. They’ll certainly appreciate it and in the long run, it’ll make the customer service experience much less frustrating for both the customer and the representative.

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