Excellent customer service can be best defined by the act of helping a customer achieve their objective. This objective may be something as simple as returning a product to a retail store, or asking a question about a bill they received for a service. This is a dying art and in the age of outsourced call centers and pre-scripted responses, the level of service receiving by customers has been in decline for some time. This article will describe what excellent customer service is and how to help your organization improve customer retention and ultimately revenue by utilizing these proven keys to success.
What is Excellent Customer Service?
Before we improve something, we have to understand exactly where we are trying to go. Regardless of how many books you read or seminars you attend, there are only three concepts that account for 90% of what makes a world class customer service organization.
Since the age of the Internet began, people have grown accustomed to getting what they want when they want with little delay. This is a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future and only get worse. The idea of waiting on hold to ask a vendor a question, or waiting in a long line to return something at the store is very painful for most people. This frustration increase exponentially when the customer does not receive what they want or find out they were in the wrong queue to begin with.
In addition, customer service associates are usually trained to work at a pace that benefits the organization, not the customer. The frustration gets even worse after the customer has waiting in multiple lines or had to make multiple phone calls to finally get to the right person that is clearly in no hurry.
This gets even worse, if that is possible, when the agent spews the same fake lines that everyone receives. Things like “We are sorry for your inconvenience and we will do everything possible to help you now” are not helpful. Having a customer service agent that truly understand the frustration that the customer has and going out of their way to not waste any more of their time is a much better solution.
Consider the fact that the customer only has limited time. He may work all day and want nothing more than to sit in his chair and enjoy his evening. In fact, often the goal of his phone call is not worth the pain that the organization is putting him through.
Summary: Excellent customer service is achieved through quickly addressing and fixing the customers issue, whatever it may be.
People like to work with service providers that understand their products and are capable of thought. This is seldom the case with customer service people; they were either hired because they were inexpensive, are not allowed to go off script, or are overseas workers. All of these types of employees only benefit the organization and not the customer.
This is especially annoying when working with a technology help desk or customer service department. The customer service people are trained to match the customers issue to one of several troubleshooting documents. There is no thought or actual troubleshooting taking place on the phone. Instead the company is simply going to waste the customers time until their premade solution fails, then escalate to someone that has a chance at actually being helpful. These days’ customers are becoming more technically savvy and it is pretty clear when someone from another country is wasting their time. In addition, this effects the entire call center as one agent A is helping wasting a customer’s time, the agent is not helping someone else. Thus, the queue and hold times increase.
The simple fix is to hire individuals that have experience and knowledge of the company products and services. These individuals don’t have to be highly skilled, but some chance of solving someone’s problem would be helpful.
Summary: World class customer service means having an agent answer the phone and resolve the customers’ problem on the first try without escalation, calls back, or pointless exercises that are designed to waste time.
Throw all your company policies out the window. If I purchase something from a company, I couldn’t care less about their policies. The simple reason is, I have policies of my own that they don’t care about. The large corporations stopped carrying about any one customer or any group of customers for that matter. Unfortunately, this means creating policies that are terribly one sided and are designed to benefit the corporation only and make the customer jump through hoops to get was they deserve.
Did you ever try to cancel a movie channel or extra service with your cable or satellite provider? It is a complete nightmare that takes several hours to accomplish. The fact that you don’t want to pay $30 per month for a channel you don’t watch, causes a lot of pain. The first step is to call the customer service number, wait on hold, jump through hoops to confirm your identity, hear a speech about why the movie channel is good, confirm you actually want to cancel it, listen to another speech, then get told that you have to call their customer retention number to cancel the service. As you guessed, you then have to call the customer retention number, wait on hold, jump through hoops to confirm your identity, listen to the same speech you just heard, listen to the sales speech about special offers, confirm you want to cancel, go to the verification department, listen to their speech and upsell, then it is a complete crap shoot if the service actually gets canceled. Indeed, often other parts of your bill will magically go up as you no longer have a package deal, therefore you didn’t actually save a nickel. This is completely criminal, but the provider knows that you have few choices and are pretty much stuck with them.
This type of policy will work for a while, but someday there may be competition in any given area and there will be a mass exodus. This can all be avoided just by doing what the customer wants the first time. The experience will be a pleasant one for the customer and chances are you will gain a customer for life. You can always upsell them through the mail and telemarketing anyway, there is no need for this via your customer service group. However, so many people just give up after they get to hour two, they probably have a 90% retention rate on upgraded packages.
Summary: Lose the company policies and focus more on what you can do for the customer. Quoting policies to people is just like telling them that you own them and you will do whatever you want because someone wrote it in the policy manual. Instead, when you have to say no to someone, always have something else to offer. This may be something as easy as free shipping on their next order, or a 10% coupon through the mail. This one change no matter how insignificant will work wonders.
Now that we understand what excellent customer service is, we can discuss why you should make changes within your organization.
Better Customer Service – What’s the Upside?
Which company in the US has the best customer service? Regardless of your answer, a specific company just popped in your head. For me it is Nordstrom’s. Next time you are in that store, try to get someone in the customer service department to say the word “No”. How long is the line for customer service? How long did you have to wait for a salesperson? Where is the Men’s Department? Is there a bathroom nearby? How long is the line to purchase your items? Did the salesperson answer all your questions? Did the salesperson try to sell you something you don’t need and didn’t ask for?
You may argue that Nordstrom’s is a high end store that can afford the labor volume and higher end people than say, Wal-Mart. This is kind of the myth that we all seem to bite on. The reality is Wal-Mart will bury Nordstrom’s in single store profit, margin, volume, and nearly any other benchmark. It is not a fair comparison as the business models are clearly different. Wal-Mart’s focus is to be the cheapest store on earth and Nordstrom’s is to be the most customer friendly. Both achieve their goals, but did you ever wonder how much more a product would cost in Wal-Mart if they put even the slightest bit of effort into customer service? I do.
There are a lot of higher end stores in nearly any mall. However, the people that shop at Nordstrom’s do so as they have the best experience in that store. This allows them to be competitive and actually beat a lot of bigger stores that are within the same niche. In addition, people that shop there always shop there. They do not stray and they have the highest customer retention rate for any store in the country. This is their value proposition, they don’t compete on the price of their items with any one, they provide the best service, cleanest stores, and most comfortable experience you will ever have in a store. They have that market completely locked up.
The moral of the story better customer service is a revenue generator, not a cost of doing business. If your customer service is so good that customers walk right past your competitors to get to you, there is no limit to the upside that can be achieved. Stop treating customers like a herd of cattle and they will respond to your brand.
Achieve Excellent Customer Service
There are two things that should be realized, the first is your customers pay your bills and the second is customer service is a form of marketing. As soon as you understand these two simple concepts, the better off you are going to be. A better customer service organization will live and breathe by these two ideas.
The first step is to understand the normal experience your customer has when he contacts your customer service group. This may be understood by analyzing data in a call center environment or observing customer interactions within a retail store. Focus on the middle third – In other words, ignore the best 33% of the interactions and the bottom 33%.
Once you have the data gathered, you can ask questions that a customer may be thinking about. Such as: How long is the line to the customer service department usually? How long does the average customer wait on hold? Once the customer speaks the customer service agent, what is the average resolution time? What is the average first call closure rate?
Document the problems customers experience. When you have all the data gathered in one place, this portion of the process is pretty simple. It may be something as a long hold time or the fact that a high percentage of inbound calls require intervention and are not resolved by the person answering the phone.
One you understand the problems, you have to create a plan to address them. Again, this is usually relatively straight forward. It may be adding another agent to the call center, or creating a backup group for your retail store. Something like whenever x number of people are in line, Mr. X helps out until the queue is gone. These are very simple fixes and often won’t even cost you money.
However, sometimes the biggest problems exist around policies. Do you make the customer answer a million questions before he even gets to the point that he can ask his question? Can this entire process be bypassed if the customer has an easy, non-account related question? Is this information even necessary? Also, as a side note, no one knows their account number. If your system requires an account number to help your customers, get a new system. Consider the minimum amount of information that is required to access a customer’s account and that is all you should be asking for.
Consider the scripts that the customer service people are given, can they be shorter? Do a lot of customers call with the same issue that cannot be addressed by your L1 support? Are your L2 support people overworked or unavailable when a customer needs them?
Again, these are all simple problems to fix and only require effort. You may train L1 to handle a specific issue on their own or hire another L2 guy so the customer never has to wait very long.
Implement your plan. Once you decide to solve the problems, there should be nothing standing in your way. The vast majority of support organizations only need direction, not a major overhaul. Your effort alone can turn things around very quickly.
After your main plan is in motion, you can now focus on more micro detail. This is where you can focus on the third of the worst customer interactions that you ignored thus far. In this stage you may uncover that the all of the poor performance took place during certain hours, on certain days, or with a certain individual. Once again, this is an easy fix. You may change around staff working hours to accommodate a rush during certain hours or retrain or terminate employees that consistently have issues. Both fixes are inexpensive or free.
Repeat steps 1-6 perpetually. You should never be satisfied and be in a constant state of checking data. Once you have the data, achieving the best customer service department around should be simple. Nothing here is complicated and the fixes that need to be implemented should be absolutely clear as day.
It should not take very long or require a lot of effort or money to create a great customer experience. This is also a profit center, not cost center. This is an old way of thinking and you should be acutely aware that saving a customer is just as good, if not better, than obtaining a new one. Financially speaking, retaining a customer is also cheaper than marketing for a new one. This is a lesson that comes hard to many managers, but if you keep precise records the data should speak for itself. Excellent customer service should be the number one goal of every organization, and will keep you profitable in any economy.