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Airlines snow storm or snow job?

Snow Storm Feb 2010 (#4)Can you even imagine waiting all year for a great holiday weekend, and then getting stranded at an airport not just for hours, but two or three days? Travelers are blaming the airlines for not being prepared.

The airlines have always used weather conditions as their fall back , but consumer advocates state that they should have been prepared. Thousands of stranded passengers couldn’t get through to reservation agents to rebook their flights. Even more passengers who were languishing in the airports for days couldn’t get any current information from airline employees. People found more information when they called their home town travel agents than at the airport.

Brandon Macsata, a spokesperson for the Association for Airline Passenger Rights had this to comment;

“The airlines just seem to be saying, ‘suck it up.’ People are tired of sucking it up.”

Passengers were left on hold for hours or told to call back. Some passengers complained when they finally did get through the customer service agents were rude and inconsiderate.

So let us examine what happened and why the airlines really need to start thinking about their passengers and less about their profits. Continental cut 600 call center jobs out of 2600 jobs earlier this year. They then closed their Florida call center which eliminated another 500 jobs. American Airlines cut 500 jobs in their Connecticut center, and United Airlines cut 5000 customer service jobs. At one time United had 17 reservation offices; now they have only 3 left. So here’s the problem. The staff was allegedly cut because more passengers were booking their reservations online, but if someone wanted to call and speak to a live agent, there was an additional booking fee! Hardly seems fair does it?

The state of the economy has resulted in fewer fights and less planes, but the airlines are raking in the profits. US Airways did impose mandatory overtime for their customer service employees to handle the extra calls, but what about the other airlines? It is estimated there were 9,400 flights canceled since Saturday, and one million passengers affected by poor customer service. We know it’s not their fault that it snowed, but it is their fault that so many people have to be continually taken in by their snow job!

photo credit: jfinnirwin

How to improve customer satisfaction

This year may be fading away swiftly, but a better, new one is on the horizon. So what does that mean? Well, it means that we all make plans for a successful new adventure into a promising new time, however the basic ingredients of success haven’t changed nor does it change with the drop of a brightly lit ball in Times Square at the stroke of midnight.

The four success factors are still the same as it has been for years; technology just gives it a boost, but customer satisfaction is dependent upon what customers want, how they get what they want, the service a business provides to give them what they want, and the partnership of the organization so that everything a customer wants – they get in a smooth and easy to deal with process.

Let us begin with what the customers want. Customers want product quality at the most competitive prices. They expect you to provide a wide array of choices, and make it attractive and convenient from which to choose. As an organization implements the sale with readily accessible product background information and innovative solutions to a customer’s questions, the customer feels they are important and more likely to remain loyal, however there is more to achieving that ultimate customer satisfaction than just delivering the best products, the best prices, and the best answers.

Now customer satisfaction demands the best service – not just the ease of checkout, or the customer service agent being available to address refunds, complaints, or make friends on Facebook, the customer wants to be sure you have their best interests in mind. Are you delivering the most effective level of service with the most innovative solutions?

To say the sales staff and customer service agents are the main characters in the play is not sufficient. The cast of an organization needs to include everyone including the business development people; those who maintain the working relationships between vendors and the organization. Executives who get out from behind their desks and help to further the goals, mission, vision, and value of a company make a profound impact on the entire organization.

To maximize  customer satisfaction for 2011, why not consider the following suggestions:

  • Use surveys to analyze customer satisfaction of your organization. Check out web sentiment on social networks, and use the accumulated data to analyze how happy customers are with the total service experience your company provides.
  • Publicize the results of your customer satisfaction surveys, however do not forget to also explain how your organization has listened to their valued customers and made changes according to customer suggestions.
  • Recognize employees who have stepped out of the box to do something exceptional – either for the company or for the community. Show how proud a company is to have such revered employees, and let these employees shine as examples for others.
  • Have a plan of action for the new year, and keep everyone apprised of what needs to be improved upon or changed in the coming year.
  • Always keep track of the whole organization.

May the New Year bring everyone good health and a lot of satisfied customers!

photo credit: Debs (ò‿ó)♪

What do re-stocking fees say about a retailer?

PurgatoryChristmas is the time for good will toward shoppers, and with that in mind, Target, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy have dropped their re-stocking fees to boost customer service. Ethan Jones, a customer service administrator for Best Buy assures customers that as long as everything is returned in the original box, all re-stocking fees will be waived.

Other stores, in an effort to boost customer loyalty offer generous return policies. Without a receipt, some stores however will offer an exchange, store credit, or a customer will have to settle for the sale price. Returning holiday gifts really do vary from store to store, but most stores aren’t in it for an argument, so it is always best to check each retailer’s return policies.

All of this gift returning does make one think about a store’s reason for assessing re-stocking fees. Is it just another way for a retailer to add a little more profit to his bottom line? Greg Catrasinsky, a local merchant who  builds and installs custom play houses  who charges such a fee stated:

“I charge on all non-defective returned items because my margins don’t allow me to take a product back on a whim. I provide excellent customer service, competitive prices, and inexpensive delivery. I couldn’t afford to stay in business if I didn’t charge to disassemble the project. Sometimes a parent buys a playhouse and doesn’t think of the child’s needs, but I ask all of those questions when they come to my shop. I once had a little girl call to say she wanted to return the playhouse because it wasn’t purple.”

Most re-stocking fees keep a portion of the price; usual charges run between 10 to 20 percent, and apply to returned products only that are not returned because of defects. Is it easier to just buy from a store that doesn’t have a re-stocking fee? Is it just pure greed or is it justifiable to charge re-stocking fees in certain circumstances? After all, don’t most stores have to deal with more processing when an item is returned?

So let’s assume that it is very possible a store could be stuck with a product that can no longer be sold as new. If I purchase a new HP laptop and decide in a week it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles I want to have now, or maybe that pink Dell isn’t so much my favorite color anymore, my returned computer can’t just be taped up and placed back on the shelf. What’s on the hard drive? If I purchase a printer and return it in a few days, it still has to be checked and rechecked before being offered for sale again. When you’re dealing with “consumables” shouldn’t there be some kind of responsibility on the part of the consumer too?

Stores, whether brick and mortar or online don’t just absorb extra costs of doing business; we as shoppers pay the extra freight when we shop. Is it just the cost of doing business? I don’t think we can make any generalities about re-stocking charges nor should we just do our shopping elsewhere because a store has that included in their return policy, but I do think customer service agents should be granted the power to make case by case decisions. If I purchased an I Pod today, didn’t take it out of the original box, and returned it tomorrow, I wouldn’t expect to pay a re-stocking fee, but if I played that I Pod for a week and returned it because I didn’t like the color anymore – well then that’s another story.

You do understand I hope!

photo credit: psd

Customer experience trends engraved in social media channels

Paul Stockford, president of Saddletree Research, an organization that gauges industry change trends, notes that the changes of customer experience management will continue an upward movement in social channels. Interestingly enough, the social trends since 2008 have grown exponentially. In 2008, social media and customer service were not even on the radar; in 2009 it grew to 13%, and this year 40% of contact centers actively use social media in their customer service.

Stockford provided some suggestions that organizations should be aware of as to the ever-changing environment of social media and its profound influence. For instance, the power of the media can cause a singular customer experience to “go viral.” We all remember JetBlue’s Steven Slater from Flight 1052 from Pittsburgh to Kennedy Airport last August. After a heated exchange with a female passenger who stood up before the plane came to a complete halt, and began to pull her luggage from the overhead compartment and hit Slater in the head, a rather heated argument ensued. Slater told off the 100 passengers over the public address system, activated the emergency chute, jumped on the evacuation slide, and high-tailed it out of the airport. The debacle made headlines for days!

There is also a powerful link with companies and customers who actually listen to the suggestions and feedback of consumers. When consumers feel that the phrase, “We take your suggestions seriously,” is more than just an ego rub and feel their suggestions, complaints, and compliments have made a difference, it becomes a positive way to bring about customer loyalty.

Powerful brands help customers make educated choices. Even though established brands are still vulnerable to criticism and loss of revenue, their constantly increasing improvements set new parameters for customer confidence, trust, and convenience. Zappos brought “quirky” to our shopping experience, but their shopping experiences, quality of products, and customer service protocol with devoted employees and branding continues to set them apart.

Also, Stockford pointed out the relevance between the marketing departments of a company and customer service. Once upon a time marketing departments were considered profit centers, and their primary task was to only drive sales. In direct contrast, customer service departments were painted as cost centers – never the two to intertwine. Now, with so much information available over the internet, both about companies and the consumers who buy from them, there are many more methods of delivering positive customer experiences; thus the new connection of all departments urging each other to work together for the total positive experience of the customer.

Let’s face it; the younger generation is driving these changes. Everyone who wants to survive needs to pay attention and be ready to advance as technology demands.

photo credit: MoritzBarcelona

Happy Holidays from Service Untitled!

It's the most wonderful time of the year!Just a quick post today to wish everyone a happy and safe holiday. Please enjoy some time with your family and friends.

As always, thank you for reading, sending in post ideas, linking to Service Untitled, commenting, and more. We’ve had a great 2010 and we’re looking forward to an even better 2011. And of course, we wish the same to you, your family, and your business.

Thanks again and happy holidays,
The Team at Service Untitled

photo credit: Paigey Pics

Amazon.com takes first place in customer satisfaction

A Christmas Customer Satisfaction Index survey showed Amazon as the top online retailer to best satisfy consumers during the busy holiday shopping season. The study, done by Fore See Results stated that Amazon offered the safest and best online opportunities, but also showed the lesser e-commerce sites slipping and failing to meet the improving standards of the larger companies.

The survey was based on five main categories:

  • Quality of service
  • Functionality
  • Price
  • Merchandise
  • Quality of content

What is of real significance is the more satisfied a customer was with their online retail experience, the more likely they were to purchase online and recommend the site to friends and relatives. When customers have a good experience, they return and stay loyal.

Smaller online companies are going to be eaten like the small fish in the big bowl if they don’t use additional resources to continue to improve their services. They need to rethink what the larger companies are doing to compete in the ever improving market. So what are customers getting from Amazon that they find they are not getting from smaller online retailers?

Besides the most obvious, consumers want to be sure their purchasers are secure and are looking for an engaging and satisfying experience. What that means is that customers are actively comparing prices between different websites and looking for the best deals. With that comes the search for discounts and vouchers prior to their purchases. Customers are looking for a complete experience which shows them the product description, customer reviews, manufacturer specifications, guarantees, and of course, the best prices of all the online competition. Then the customer moves on to the quality of the customer service experience, ease of checkout, security measures, and the significance of the entire online experience becomes the buyer’s reality.

Interestingly enough, the survey also asked how shoppers ended up at specific websites. Primarily 46% were influenced by the familiarity of the brand, 13% used search engine trawls, 10% went to a site because of a promotional email, and oddly only 4% were influenced by social media. People using mobile and smart phones rarely made purchases that way, and mainly used the devices to research prices, compare product specifications, or do product research. Companies might be reconsidering the heavy financial investments they have been making in promoting the mobile advantages.

So the questions and answers remain – half of the visitors who come to websites come to research and not to buy. Only one-fifth of those shoppers purchase online, so online retailers need to figure out exactly what customers want, and convert all of these browsers to buyers by offering best product selections, best prices, and the best service.

photo credit: hospi-table

TSA suffers the slings and arrows of the worst customer service

Haha... Is this Miss TSA for 2011?For as long as most of us can remember, the airlines industry has always scored the worst customer service marks on almost all surveys. Within the airline industry, the marks for whom is doing it better for passengers may have seemed significant, but let’s face it, the airlines industry doesn’t really care how we feel. Now the Transportation Security Administration has surpassed the rudeness, incompetence, and general discontent of even the major airlines.

A recent survey conducted by Consumer Travel Alliance revealed more than 50% of the participants rated the TSA as offering the worst customer service. Following close behind with 29% were airlines, 10% were car rentals, 5% were hotels, 3% were cruise lines, and 1% were for online and brick and mortar travel agencies.

So why all the discontent with the TSA? After all, aren’t they in charge of  protecting all of us from terrorism on transportation conveyances? As that may all be true, the survey showed the most outrage with the inconsistency of the TSA. During Thanksgiving, the vast media coverage involving no responses from TSA officials over alleged egregious acts affecting passengers during “pat downs,” incompetence of agents, and non-existent compromises from passengers with legitimate physical complaints were heard nationally and internationally – most people reacting with disgust and discontent.

But alas the airlines followed in the worst customer service in an overwhelming second place. Passengers are especially unhappy with extra baggage fees and the “unbundling” of services that used to come with the purchase of a ticket. Now everything is extra from booking a seat, where the seat is located, to extra charges for the first bag. Still other passengers are  disgusted by delays for maintenance or just plain rudeness among airlines staff.

Now this is the part of my blog post where I recommend changes that could be made to improve customer service with the Transportation Security Administration and the airlines, but it doesn’t seem as if either organization is interested at all. Air service is a necessary travel conveyance for many, and unless travelers are able to obtain alternative transportation, it would seem neither the TSA or airlines have any motivations to change. The TSA states they will not entertain any compromises to the controversial scanning and pat down procedures. The airlines are reporting record profits with all of these add-on fees.

So what’s our only hope to recapturing some dignity and customer service which we all pay grandly for when we choose air travel? It seems that is now up to the government. Congress has pending legislation designed to limit the TSA – making the rules more tolerable and less invasive than searching inside someone’s pants or bra. Legislation is also pending which will require all airlines to quote fares that include the cost of a checked bag or other consequential service that might be reasonably encountered  when traveling.

In the meantime, we are all the victims of terrible customer service.

photo credit: char1ie

Saying “Bon Voyage” to Your Customers

As service professionals, we all understand the commitment and effort needed to acquire new and retain our existing customers. But what about the customer who has decided to leave? What do we typically do for them?

In his book It’s Your Ship, Michael Abrashoff talked about how important it was to give a warm send off and thank you for Navy personnel who served under him but opted not to re-enlist. On other ships in the fleet, these people typically just packed their gear and left. But the author went out of his way to make sure a full-scale recognition of their contributions and duty to their country was provided to his staff.

Why did he do this? Simple! He wanted to make sure the servicemen/women under his command left with a positive impression of their tour of duty, knowing that if he did these people would speak positively to others about their experience in the service, which in turn, might inspire someone else to enlist.

The same holds true with our customers.

We recently received a very nice email from a customer who had contact our support team to cancel her service. Her business was shutting down and as a result she no longer needed our service. In the email, the customer expressed her gratitude for the service provided by our support associate who closed the account. The customer went out of her way to tell us that the rep was courteous, efficient, handled her cancellation cheerfully, and even went above and beyond to help the customer download critical information out of our system and get a refund for the unused balance on her account!

At the end of her email, she let us know how much she enjoyed using our service and would “definitely recommend your company to business owners who I know could benefit from using your service.”

We put so much effort into “on-boarding” a new customer, maybe it’s time to start thinking about how you “off-board” customer when they leave. Give them the proper send-off and they can still act as your “good will ambassador!”

With twenty-plus years working in a variety of contact center roles, Larry now heads up the award winning Customer Support team at Constant Contact, the leader in online marketing tools for small businesses. Insuring the 1.2 million calls, chats, and emails his staff handle each year with nothing less than an “awe-inspiring” experience is Larry’s passion. With a keen eye for recognizing service triumphs and failures, Larry loves to shares his experiences on his blog, www.serviceexcellencedefined.blogspot.com.

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