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Stuck in the Middle – Do Customers Belong Here?

While on a client engagement, I could hear customer service personnel repeatedly apologizing to customers. When asked why, they informed me of a scenario where customers make purchases and are promised a 24hr installation of the product by one department, when in fact, the department in question had no idea if the promise could be met. The customer was stuck in the middle between the sales department and the installation department. It’s important to remember to make sure your customer’s experience is as seamless as possible. Let’s look at a few ways to accomplish this feat.

Establish Customer – Focused Policies
When developing policies and procedures for customer service personnel to follow, it’s important to remember to get their input. After all, they’re being held accountable for both adhering to the policy and providing a great customer experience. They know what drives the customer crazy about your company’s policies and procedures. For instance – if your company has a product return policy, be sure to take into consideration how this will impact both customers and customer service personnel. Will you allow returns for specific reasons? Make sure the customer is fully aware of your return policy when they make a purchase. If your customer purchases your product online, make sure that your return policy is prominently displayed on the page where the purchase is completed. Will you allow blanket returns – or in other words – can they just bring it or send it back for whatever reason? Think about this – Do your policies make sense? Are they easily understandable by customers? Will they encourage repeat business? Will they incent customers to refer your company to potential customers? These are some issues to consider when developing policies and procedures.

Create Employee Autonomy
Often times the customer ends up in the middle of your policies when customer service personnel are not provided with the power to make decisions. When working with a hospitality client recently, it became apparent that front desk personnel were not equipped with options to deal with a variety of situations they faced when dealing with hotel guests. After about 15 minutes of identifying issues which required they contact either the hotel general manager or assistant general manager, we were able to create options that could be utilized without the need to contact anyone. The front desk personnel were visibly relieved upon the completion of this exercise as they could now feel good about their ability to make decisions that were both good for guests and for the hotel. Give customer facing personnel options that can be executed autonomously. It’s a good idea for both customers and customer facing personnel.

Communicate Internally
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s of the utmost importance to make sure that there is good cross functional communication within your company. Make sure that everyone understands how their roles impact other employees, departments, etc. Your customer need not be caught in the middle due to poor communication within your company. The goal should be to ensure that the customer receives a great experience. This requires setting customer expectations that are achievable by personnel who will actually perform what the customer requires. When developing policies and procedures that impact customers, remember to get input from all departments that contribute to and or participate in the process of providing a great customer experience. As my Dad used to say – “Everything you do affects someone else. You do nothing in isolation.” One should never hear this statement from a customer – “It seems as though you all do not communicate with each other there.” If you do, it’s an indication that you probably need to work on improving internal communications.

Well, there you have it. In order to make sure your customer is not “stuck in the middle”, be sure to Establish Customer-Focused Policies, Create Employee Autonomy and Communicate Internally. Doing so will lead to both great customer and employee experiences.

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Are You Using Band Aids or Cement to Improve Your Customer’s Experience?

When I was a kid, my father would often say “Why try to fix something with a band-aid, when you know cement is required?” Ever noticed what’s required when utilizing cement? A little more effort is required when attempting to put something that will last for a while in place. This made me think about strategies that are often used to “fix” a customer service delivery problem. Let’s take a look at some of these “band-aids” as a way to improve your customer’s experience and why cement is the better option.

Motivational Talks
While motivational talks are a great tool to utilize, they are but a spoke in the wheel of creating great customer experiences. Now, everyone needs a little motivation now and then, but be careful not to totally rely on this option. Attempting to “motivate the troops” without first listening to the troops is in my opinion a tactical error in the quest to provide great customer service. A common military tactic is to send out a “point man” ahead of the troops to look for and report back on hazards that the platoon might encounter. To ignore the point man’s communication would be unwise as this information was key to the mission’s success and to the safety of the entire platoon. It’s the same in customer service. The people who service the customer as well as the people who service the people who service your customer are your company’s “point personnel”. Here’s the cement: Get their opinions regarding the state of your current customer experience strategies. They can identify “hazards” that may cause a significant decrease in customer satisfaction and revenue. Here’s a formula for you: Motivational talks before investigation usually results in disengagement. Motivational talks, when utilized in isolation, will just like a band-aid slowly lose its ability to stick. The result is the underlying issue reappears.

Customer Service Training
Often I hear managers or business owners say that their employees need customer service training. Now you would think that as a customer service training provider, I would be excited to hear about that need. My first question is always “Why do you feel your employees need customer service training?” Some of the answers that I receive are “I want them to learn how to be nice to our customers.”, “I want them to understand how important our customers are to the company.” or “I want them to learn how to handle angry customers.” Now these are all some legitimate reasons to consider customer service training as a solution, but when used in isolation might be considered a temporary band-aid. Customer service personnel might for a time exercise some of the skills learned in training sessions, but if the internal issues which create problems for employees during their customer interactions go unaddressed, then the concrete has not yet been utilized.

Manipulation
Some managers and supervisors use this tactic in hopes of getting improved results. Comparing their team’s results to another team within the same organization, or to another location – in another state or maybe even on the other side of the world without considering the various dynamics that may be at work. This is a band-aid laced with poison. Most people do not enjoy having their performance negatively compared to someone else’s. Some companies feel that “a little competitiveness” is okay amongst employees. Make sure that this “competitiveness” does not induce cheating to stay under the numbers radar. The cement to be applied is to allow employees the proper time to take care of the situational needs of customers. When monitoring service interactions, make sure to consider whether or not the actions taken were such that the customer should not have to come back,, call back, email again or engage in an additional web chat conversation. To base performance incentives strictly on meeting a number is somewhat dangerous to the work culture. Did the actions taken not only meet the purchasing customer’s needs, but also those of the internal customers? Was someone else negatively impacted by an employees quest to “meet the numbers” goal? Beware of manipulation. You may in fact be creating additional work when utilizing this band-aid.

Remember – using a band-aid in the quest to create great customer service experiences is but a short-term solution. Get the cement out and develop an environment that thrives on providing the best service for each individual customer’s situation.

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Customer Service Does Impact Your Brand Image

It’s important for customers and potential customers to be familiar with your brand if you want to attract and keep their business. It’s just as important to protect your brand image by consistently providing great customer experiences. Let’s take a look at a couple of reasons why protecting your brand is imperative.

Brand Recognition Development Cost
Let’s consider the cost to gain brand recognition for your product or service. Capital is required to establish a presence with your target market. How much does it cost to get in front of your customers? Developing your brand recognition strategy requires time and effort. Can you place a cost on your marketing team’s time and effort? Once your strategy is developed and ready to roll out, how much are the actual advertising costs? For some companies, this can be millions of dollars. Make sure that you back up the cost of brand recognition with excellent customer experiences.

Reputation Cost
It’s amazing to see the number of companies that receive negative comments about their product or service on Twitter. Try searching for “poor customer service” and review the results. Some of the companies have national and international brands. YouTube is another medium customers can use to speak about their dissatisfaction with companies. Should one of these complaints go viral, the company’s reputation might take a huge hit. How much damage to its reputation can a company stand? What will be the cost to put out this particular “fire”? What might be the impact to future revenue? How might competitors take advantage of this particular situation? These are questions to consider in regards to the importance of protecting your reputation by creating excellent customer experiences.

Always, always remember the importance of protecting your brand image. With every customer interaction, your brand’s reputation is at stake. Customer facing personnel – sales, service, etc. – are all crucial to keeping your company’s image intact. One negative tweet or video containing a bad customer experience can quickly spiral out of control. Be sure to educate everyone within your company on the importance of creating great customer experiences. Constantly remind them of how are important they are to protecting your company’s reputation. Share information regarding the cost of brand development with all employees. Today’s customer has many available options to express how they feel about your products and services. Strive to ensure that your brand is protected by providing great customer experiences!

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Take the “We Will Provide Great Customer Service!” Pledge

The advent of social media, specifically Twitter, provides an avenue for customers to express their happiness and unhappiness with products and services. Just search for “bad customer service” or “poor customer service” and you’ll be presented with a plethora of comments regarding customer service experiences gone wrong. There are, however, companies and organizations that strive to provide great customer experiences. I am issuing the challenge for 10,000 businesses – large and small, across all industries – worldwide to take the “We Will Provide Great Customer Service! Pledge. Let’s talk about what I am challenging businesses to pledge to exercise:

1. Reliability – Our customers can believe that our products and services will meet their standards. Our customers can unconsciously trust us.
2. Credibility – We will strive to maintain a positive reputation with our customers and employees. We will do what we say we will do.
3. Competence – We will take the time to properly train our employees to ensure they are fully knowledgeable about our products and or services. We also provide basic customer service skills training to all employees – especially those who interact with customers on a daily basis.
4. Accessibility – Our customers can easily reach and communicate with us – whether that be via phone, face-to-face, web chat, email or SMS text. If we have brick and mortar locations, we will utilize customer friendly signage to allow for quick locating and retrieval of our products. Our website will be customer friendly – easy to navigate and free of industry jargon.
5. Responsiveness – We are serious about responding to customer inquiries, requests and complaints. We will set time standards for responding to customer emails, chat requests and especially customer complaints. In addition, we will proactively provide updates and progress reports when working on projects. We will develop update criteria with the customer – #of updates, frequency and method.
6. Courtesy – We will remember and exercise the principle that everyone, customers and employees, deserves a measure of respect. We will courteously acknowledge our customers presence – via whatever method they choose to engage with us. When customers are angry, we will remain courteous to ensure that we do all we can to resolve the issue and retain their business.
7. Consistency – We will strive to consistently apply the aforementioned six keys as our ability to do so day in and day out, month after month, year after year is what will makes us great at providing an excellent customer experience.
Is your company up for the challenge? Go ahead and commit to the pledge today!

Commit To The Pledge!

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