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The 5 Rules of Self-service

I read an article in Inc. Magazine about self-service in customer service. Self-service is extremely important to a lot of companies (like the company mentioned in article, Carfax) because it helps reduce the number of necessary customer service interactions, thus keeping costs low. It also keeps representatives from going insane because they keep answering the same questions, which reduces turnover and saves money by itself. As a customer service consultant, I advocate self-service, as long as it isn’t the only option and isn’t forced upon the customer.

I found it difficult to get a live demo from any of the companies mentioned in the articles without going through a lot of hoops, but did I manage to track down these two pages, which are good examples of self-service at work (and I think use software from RightNow and eGain, respectively):

Quite frankly, I think both of them are terrible (which is often the case with self-service). I like how the Carfax articles show related questions and how the LucasArts one has a “did this help answer your question” prompt with a comments box. If you look at a third example such as Google’s Help Center, you’ll see both the “was this helpful” and related articles feature. There is also a contact us link for all three, which is good.

Self-service FAQs are terrific, but there should be some quick rules associated with self-service:

  1. It should not be forced. Companies should never require their customers or users to use self-service. They can suggest it or make it more noticeable, but they should never force it.
  2. It should be intelligent. FAQs and self-service options that are static are worthless. The systems should update based on popularity, helpfulness, etc. There should also be humans watching the self-service systems and how customers are using them. Use Google Analytics if your system doesn’t already have an analytics tool.
  3. It should ask for suggestions. Like Google and LucasArts, good self-service centers should ask if articles were helpful, if they helped resolve issues, etc. To take it a step further, human representatives should ask if customers tried self-service. If they say no, ask why. The answers may be surprising.
  4. It should be up-to-date. There are very few things that are less helpful than an out of date help center. Make sure yours stays up-to-date and contains relevant information.
  5. It should be easy to navigate. It should also be easy to search. Make sure your help center is easy to navigate. It should be easy to go back, easy to explore relevant entries, and all of those good things.

There you have it, the 5 Rules of Self-Service. Try to apply them to your self-service systems and see what sort of results you get.

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Friendly Reminder from Bank of America

bofalogo_01_07 I have a confession to make. I am obsessive with keeping track of my bank balance. I don’t check it 30 times a day (more like once a week), but I do know how much money I have in the bank to the penny whenever I need to. I know this without having to login to my bank’s web site.

Apparently, Bank of America knows that I don’t use their web site as often as they’d like. They sent me this email the other day. The subject was  Can we help you with online banking? (which I really like).

It’s been a while since you’ve signed in to Online Banking, so we wanted to remind you of just a few ways it can help make managing your finances easier. Sign in again today and:

  • Access your accounts online. Check your available balances, view your transactions and transfer funds.
  • Pay 10 bills in as little as 3 minutes with free, unlimited Online Bill Pay.
  • Rest easy with our $0 Liability Online Banking Guarantee. You’re not responsible for any unauthorized activity on your accounts if you report it promptly.

Take the Online Banking Test Drive to see how easy it is to manage your accounts and pay bills online. Or sign in today to get started.

bacThe email (which you can a screenshot of to the right) also had several side boxes assuring that the email was not a scam by listing by name, reminding me of how to sign in, telling me they can reset my password if needed, and so on. There was a clear link to contact Bank of America and another clear link to unsubscribe from the email.

When used correctly, emails can be really useful (see this guest writer post). There is a fine line between useful and annoying and this email was useful. People spend quite a bit of time setting up their online banking and they might have forgotten about it. Or, they were unsure of what to do.

This email could have been better if Bank of America did one or more of these things:

  1. Included their phone number right in the body of the email (as opposed to having a contact us link).
  2. Addressed the email in a Hi So and So format (instead of Prepared For). This makes it seem more personal and less like a form.
  3. Had it so a customer could just reply to the email instead of having to go to the contact us link to get help.

I could see how and 1 and 3 could possibly be a security issue (phishing is obviously a huge problem with online banking), so that might explain why Bank of America decided to not do that.

Overall, the tone was friendly and helpful. It was a nicely designed and well written email that offered to help. Bank of America did a good job and I think everyone could take something from their email and apply it to their own.

What do you think about this email? What other good emails have you received from companies?

And Happy New Year! I’m looking forward to 2008.

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Account Numbers Instead of Ticket Numbers

ist2_405671_binary_code This morning’s post is short – just enough to get you thinking about customer service and how to do it over the weekend.

With most companies, when you call (or email) in to get help, they assign you a ticket number. Some companies call it a case number, an incident ID, etc. There are a whole bunch of names for them, but you know what they are. It is some sort of unique identification tag to keep track of your issue, what has been done, etc.

However, some companies don’t do that. A company I worked with did things purely my account, not by incident. Their actual system kept track of things by ticket number, but they modified it to tie in with their account system. That way, the customer didn’t have to keep track of ticket numbers – only their one account number.

The company had already given printed ID cards to everyone. The ID cards had everything the customer needed related to the company – web site address, phone numbers, account representatives, and finally, account number. The customers’ account numbers is what the company used to keep track of all customer service issues.

Think about it – the average customer doesn’t have to call all that often.

Have a great weekend!

Sample Customer Survey – Toyota

I have already told you about my experience with Toyota (the good part and the bad part). A few days ago I got a survey from Toyota in the mail. I could either fill out the paper version or go to a web site called Toyota Voice and answer the questions there.

I decided that I share the questions that Toyota asked with Service Untitled readers. Commentary will follow soon.

They asked these questions to verify that the survey was going to the correct person, that they had their records straight, etc. Toyota said the survey would take about 5 minutes.

  • <shows name and address> Is all of the information above correct? (Yes or No)
  • Is NAME the principal driver of the VEHICLE TYPE?
  • We do not have an e-mail address for you on file. Please provide your address:
  • Do you still own/lease this VEHICE VIN# NUMBER? (Yes, No, Never Owned/Leased)
  • Did you have your VEHICLE serviced at DEALERSHIP? (Yes or No)

Survey Questions:
This is the actual survey.

  • Why did you choose the dealership? Trust dealership personnel; Authorized Toyota dealership; Convenient hours; Referral/recommendation; Coupon/service reminder; Other
  • If you made an appointment, how would you rate the following?(If no appointment was made, skip to question 3) Excellent, Good, Average, Fair, Poor, N/A
    • Waiting time on the phone
    • Effort to understand needs
    • Availability of appointment times
    • Confirmation call
    • Comments on question
  • Please rate the following when you first arrived and had your service order written up:  (Five Point Scale – see above) 
    • Promptness of greeting you                         
    • Courtesy of service advisor                         
    • Effort to understand service needs                         
    • Recommendation of appropriate work                         
    • Explanation of work, cost & time required                         
    • Length of time to drop-off vehicle                         
    • Comments on question
  • In regard to the work done on your vehicle, please rate the performance of the following: (five point scale)
    • Completed all requested work                         
    • Quality of work performed                         
    • Work completed within time promised                         
    • Effort to obtain parts
  • Was your vehicle fixed right the first time? (Yes or No)
  • If not fixed right the first time, what explanation was given?  (Check all that apply)
    • Could not identify or duplicate condition
    • Deemed normal condition
    • Parts not available
    • Work not performed properly
    • Other
  • After the service of your vehicle was completed, please rate the following: (five point)
    • Explanation of costs                         
    • Explanation of work done                         
    • Price paid met estimate                         
    • Helpfulness of cashier                         
    • Ease of picking up vehicle after service                         
    • Length of time to pick up vehicle                         
    • Cleanliness of vehicle
    • Comments
  • After your service visit, did the dealership phone, mail or e-mail you to determine your satisfaction with your service experience? (Yes or No)
  • At any point during or after your service visit, did you ask the dealership to resolve any concerns regarding the visit? (Yes or No)
  • If yes, how would you rate the following?  (five point)
    • Efforts of dealership personnel to resolve the concern                        
    • Outcome of the contact
    • Comments
  • Please rate the service department on the following: (five point)
    • Hours of operation                         
    • Cleanliness                         
    • Comfort of waiting area                         
    • Amenities in waiting area (television, magazines, refreshments, etc.)                         
    • Ease/convenience of parking at the dealership
  • Please rate the overall performance of the dealership on this service visit: (five point)
  • Would you return to this dealership for future service needs? (Yes, No, Undecided
  • Would you recommend this dealership to a friend or relative as a place to service their vehicle? (Yes, No, Undecided)
  • What aspects of your service experience did you LIKE MOST?
  • What aspects of your service experience COULD HAVE BEEN IMPROVED?

What are your thoughts after seeing the survey? I will provide mine in a post soon.

Figure Out Why They’re Calling

1195585627_aa1f126c3d A post on Paul Sweeney’s You’ve Been Noticed pointed out the obvious thing I missed with how to reduce phone calls to customer service: figure out why your customers are calling. I missed the elephant in the room when I forgot to mention that. It may just seem like common sense, but it makes a ton of sense and is something that has to be considered.

A crucial element to self-service is being able to provide information that the customers care about (relevant). If the self-service tools, information, resources, etc. are relevant, then the customer is a lot more likely to use them.

However, in order to figure out which ones will be most relevant to customers you need to figure out why a majority of your customers are calling. Then, once you know the answer to that question (and questions like it), you can provide the appropriate information, tools, resources, etc. via your standard self-service outlets (such as automated phone prompts, your web site, etc.).

There are a lot of ways to figure out why your customers are calling:

  • Ask your representatives to describe the issue in the log (as they should already).
  • Have some sort of definitive drop down to describe the category of issues (i. e. a representative could pick order status, defective product, return, etc.).
  • Ask representatives what the most common issues seem to be.
  • Survey your customers about why they call.

All of these methods are good ways to find out about why your customers are calling. Once you know why they’re calling, you will have some very valuable information. You can then take that and start working on improving your self-service.

Photo courtesy of tambako.

Get people to read the newsletters you send them.

email-te I recently saw this interesting post on the 37signals. The post talks about newsletters that are actually interesting to read because they are useful to the customer. They teach the customer something instead of just boring him or her with promotions and other marketing material.

In a past life, I was a marketing, not a customer service person. My job duties and title were all marketing focused. Customer service came into the picture fairly often, but most of my work was marketing focused. As a marketer, one of my mantras was to answer the customer’s constant question of “what can this do for me?”

For example, customers, clients, etc. could care less about:

  1. 100 GB of storage
  2. 1 TB of bandwidth
  3. 24 / 7 customer service
  4. Choosing to make customer service a core element in their company
  5. A huge selection

On the other hand, they do care about:

  1. Plenty of storage (100 GB) to upload and share the files that matter to your business. Avoid the time and hassles involved with emailing large files.
  2. More than enough bandwidth (1 TB) to share those files with anyone across the world.
  3. Get help whenever you need it and whenever is convenient for you.
  4. Have more fun, set yourself apart from the competition, boost your bottom line.
  5. Get everything you need in one place – and have plenty of choices.

I remember reading about an IBM training tactic. Sales representatives were trained to think there was a little man sitting on their shoulder who always asked “Why do I care?” after everything the representative said. It is rather interesting to think of it that way.

Getting back to newsletters, you should be answering the customer’s inevitable question (which they answer is about a second or two after seeing the email in their inbox or in the mail) “what can this do for me?”

If your newsletters can teach or inform, chances are your customers will want to read them. If the material that you’re teaching or informing about is really well done, customers will even look forward to seeing the newsletter.

Here are some general tips for writing newsletters that people will actually read:

  • Have some product specific tips. Teach your customers about how they can get the most out of your product or service. If you have a really useful and powerful application that can do a lot of cool things if you know how to use it (I’m thinking like Photoshop or Microsoft Word), then customers will likely get a lot out of this.
  • Have general tips. Another thing to consider is having general tips relating to the industry that a lot of customers are in. For example, a company I worked with that was known for their customer service provided customer service tips in their newsletter since a lot of their customers were small businesses.
  • Use plain language. I am a big advocate of using plain and simple language. Avoid jargon, product specific terms, complicated words, etc. You are writing for easy reading – not to get into the New Yorker.
  • Make it look nice. I tend to think emails that look nice get read more. See this related post.

If you follow these tips, people may actually read your newsletters. It worked for SmileOnMyMac – they provide tips about how to use their products in the newsletters they send. As a result, people not only read them, but like them.

What are your suggestions for newsletters?

5 Ways to Reduce Average Call Time

Reducing average call time, call handle time, etc. is something that all customer service managers want to do. Even the ones who really want the best customer service experience don’t mind reducing average call handle time. Customers don’t mind being on the phone less time, either.

With that in mind, here are six ways to reduce average call time.

Encourage self-service.
Encourage the use of self-service tools. If the tools are useful and easy to use, more and more customers will use them. The reason for customers not using self-service tools is not because they are out to get you – it is because the tools are useless, hard to find, and/or hard to use. From my experience, customers like tools that are interactive, FAQs, tutorials with pictures, and searchable knowledge bases. Keep in mind that there is a fine line between encouraging and forcing self-service, though.

Build tools to answer common questions.
If possible, build tools that help answer common questions that you would normally have to ask to find out about an issue. For example, have me to go a page that diagnoses my computer automatically of asking me a whole bunch of questions that does the same thing. It makes the experience easier for everyone.

A lot of support calls require verification of a customer’s identity. Or at the very least, gathering of the customer’s personal information. There are always ways to include some sort of verification or reduce call time through your IVR. Invest in a system that can look up a customer’s phone number and ask for the last four digits of their credit card number. Most importantly, once the customer has verified their information using the IVR, don’t ask them to repeat it.

Get to the root of the issue.
Train your representatives to get to the root of the issue. Doing so usually involves learning how to ask the right questions and finding out what happened, what the customer expected to happen, and what the customer wants to happen (or a variation of that). If they know how to find out what the problem is, representatives will be able to resolve it much sooner.

Have fast systems.
I am sure the IT managers, software engineers, etc. looking at this are groaning right now. As an executive, it is worth investing in fast systems. If the systems ran faster, there wouldn’t be as much waiting. Use technologies that can make your systems fly and there will be less waiting.

What strategies do you use for reducing average call time?

Admit Your Mistakes

Something that a lot of companies seem to have trouble with is simply admitting their mistakes. They will apologize for you feeling that way or for the misunderstanding, but it is rare to hear a company say something like we messed up or we made a mistake.

Sure, no one likes admitting to mistakes. I certainly don’t. In companies, representatives aren’t supposed to admit to mistakes or errors. Nothing is the company’s fault – it is always someone else’s fault. That isn’t a healthy attitude.

While it obviously depends on the issue, a majority of mistakes can be admitted and the customer will be okay with it. For the customer to be okay with the mistake, the company has to make a solid effort at fixing the mistake and of course, apologize, but more often than not, the customer will forgive the company (especially if they have had good service to date).

Here is your new operating procedure for admitting mistakes:

If the company has made a mistake: If the company is at fault and has made a legitimate error or mistake, please follow this procedure:

  1. Explain the mistake.
  2. Apologize to the customer.
  3. Explain why the mistake happened. (Do not make excuses.)
  4. Apologize for the inconvenience. Assure the customer the mistake will be fixed.
  5. Work on fixing the mistake. (If needed, offer to follow up once the mistake is fixed.)
  6. Explain to the customer why it won’t happen again.
  7. Apologize again for any inconveniences.
  8. Offer appropriate service credit, compensation, etc. (To show our apologies or We would be more than happy to).
  9. If customer accepts, do the appropriate actions.
  10. Ensure the mistake is fixed.
  11. Provide the customer with your direct contact information and encourage him/her to ask questions if there are any.
  12. Before ending the interaction, thank the customer for his or her understanding.
  13. Follow up in 5 days with another apology and offering help if needed.

If the company has not made a mistake: If the customer thinks the company has made a mistake, but the company has not explain why it is not a mistake. Keep explaining until the customer understands. Fix any problems and try to alleviate the problem.

Appropriate Compensation: If the customer has had to pay for anything as a result of the company’s mistake, the customer should immediately be re-imbursed, refunded, credited, etc. If the mistake took a lot of the customer’s time to correct, a service credit should be issued.

Serious Mistakes / VIP Customers: If the mistake is a serious one or the customer is a VIP customer, apologize and elevate the call to a manager. Ask permission and explain why the call is being elevated (Mr. Smith, to help you get a faster resolution, I am going to give this call to my manager. Is that okay with you?). Answer any questions in the mean time. Do not elevate if a manager is not available.

That is your operating procedure for dealing with mistakes. Obviously, you can change it and add to it as needed.

How do you deal with mistakes?

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