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April 12, 2006

The Art of Customer Service, Part II

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I found a very good follow-up to my posting called The Art of Customer Service. This is by Doug Hanna, and the entire text plus some other postings about customer service are available here:

http://snipurl.com/p3w5

1. Use their name. Though it may seem obvious, you’d be surprised how much of a difference addressing a customer by name can make. If a customer has their name somewhere in their email (as well as in the actual email address such as [email protected]), start the email with “Hi Bob.” If someone is calling you, ask for their name, and then actually address them by name when appropriate (basically anywhere you’d use sir or madam). Another good way to make the customer service experience more personal is to ask for the customer’s name instead of just a reference or a ticket ID. If there’s a lot of people with their name, then ask for another personal piece of information like an email address or phone number. If all else fails, use the reference or ticket ID.

2. Don’t give them a sales pitch. Never give customers a sales pitch unless they’re calling your sales department. Most customers that call for customer service, technical support, or whatever are not in the mood for a sales pitch and they can be downright annoying. Avoid putting a sales pitch in your hold recordings or actually having the representative say “Would you like to hear about our special offers?” at the end of the call.

3. Have operating procedures, not scripts. You’ve probably called at least a few companies and you’re sure the representative is reading a script - it’s annoying and certainly not personal. Have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for common things like cancellations, frustrated customers, etc. to ensure the job is done properly, but never ask or train your representatives to read from an actual script or anything like it.

4. Use operators. Endless PBX systems (the push 1 for sales, 2 for billing, etc.) are extremely frustrating for customers. If possible, hire an operator. Make it so the operator can answer basic questions (like how do I signup?), collect information about problems, assign a ticket number or reference ID, and find an available representative to take the call. The operator should somehow communicate with the representative before connecting the customer to provide the reference ID (so the customer is not forced to repeat the problem), whether it be via some sort of chat system, in person, or by phone. If you must use a PBX system, keep it very simple. Have it be one level with three or four options as well as an option to be connected to an operator.

5. Keep customers in the loop. Customers should never have to ask what are you doing. Let them know what's happening as you're doing something (such as lookup up their account or researching an issue). Extend keeping customers in the loop beyond the actual communication as well - if you're having a service outage, post it right on the front of your support section. Be honest - tell them what's the problem, when service will be restored, and what you're doing to prevent it from happening again. Apologize profusely and don't be cheap (aka offer compensation). This way, customers feel that you appreciate them and do go out of your way to keep them in the loop.

6. Make customers feel important. Train your representatives to make customers feel important. If a customer makes a suggestion, the representative should note it and let the customer know they’ve noted it (see follow-up). Don’t hesitate to do things like give credits or say things like “because you’re a valued customer, we can probably do this for you.” Customers are often frustrated when they call customer service or support, so if you can make them feel good, all the better.

7. Ask them questions and keep the answers in mind. Somewhat like making customers feel important – ask them questions. Don’t assume and feel free to clarify. You should also ask questions like “What’s your level of technical expertise?” and if they say complete novice, give them some extra instructions and help. The same thing works for other industries – anticipate the questions beforehand and provide the answers and clarification without being asked.

8. Follow-up. Probably the biggest difference between acceptable and great customer service is how often (and how well) the customer service department follows-up. If a customer makes a suggestion, follow-up on it and give them a call or send them an email with the result. If a customer calls with a customer service problem and you believe it’s resolved, send them an email or give them a call asking if their problem has been resolved to their satisfaction. Make follow-ups personal (avoid “Our records indicate you had a problem on April 1, 2006. If you need further assistance, please contact us.”) and sincere and customers will truly appreciate it.

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Comments

I have to agree on the first name issue. NOBODY is allowed to call me "Justin," including those who gave me the name (my parents). I actually even forget that it is legally my name; I only use it on paperwork (checks, return addresses, etc.), and only then if it is accompanied by my middle initial.
I despise being called "Justin," and I am *quite* annoyed by credit card companies and others who send me letters or "greet" me personally on their websites with, "Just for you, Justin" or "Dear Justin."
It makes me want to find another company.
What ever happened to, "Dear Mr XXXXXX" etc?

Recently, upon reviewing a product and deciding that I liked it, I received a "follow up" call from the company that had extended to me a 30 day free trial...this was after I specifically told them not to contact me by phone (I did not give out my phone number), but by email instead as it is more efficient for me. Turns out they used a reverse look-up based on my address...needless to say, I promptly decided to return the product and told them why.

Good customer service also means not using sneaky, back-handed ways to contact the customer through other than their preferred mode of communication.

I enjoyed reading your list, Guy. However, you left out one item that's been an endless source of irritation for me when I call companies for customer service: the OUTSOURCED customer service call center with undertrained employees that don't speak English well enough to solve problems. I realize that running a call center in the U.S. isn't cheap, especially if you want to go 24/7 but sending the business off-shore to a contractor that will annoy customers is way more than a calculated risk. Maybe they do it because they don't really want to hear from customers with problems and they're just "phoning it in," (being fake), so to speak. Instead of going hither and thither across several call centers in several continents trying to get a problem resolved, I'd rather be told to call back between "normal business hours" to speak with someone that can really get the job done, which in many cases, has recently become, "Cancel My Account!"

I had one of my worst customer service experiences ever with Bank of America recently when they violated rule number 2, "Don't give them a sales pitch." I had received a replacement debit card in the mail and was rushing to get it activated before going to work in the morning. I called the phone number to get the card activated. While "waiting for activation," which as a software engineer I know takes seconds at most, not only were there multiple offers in which I had no interest, but when after each offer was refused, it would again ask if I was sure that I didn't want to take advatage of the offer. I ended up hanging up in the middle of yet another offer and calling customer service later to verify that the card had been activated, which it had, and complain about the huge waste of time. The customer service representative said that many people call to complain about their activation process. If it weren't so convenient to have so many of my financial services there, I would be looking for another bank based on that experience alone.

You make an interesting point about not pushing sales in a service call. It's a subject I touched on in a post of my own. I would disagree, however, that it's NEVER a good idea. Believe it or not, some of our clients who have customers that are very open to hearing about the latest/newest offers, even on a customer service call. The key is to know your customers and what drives their satisfaction.

Great advice, but #2 ("Don't give them a sales pitch") gave me a bit of a pause. I'm in the service business, and I think in certain non-sales situations "transition" selling is entirely appropriate, and can be done in a friendly, non-threatening manner that keeps the customer in control. Of course, a tricky technical situation is not the right time for a sales pitch. But there are others (billing inquiries, for example) that if done right, can actually enhance the customer experience (and utlimately, their satisfaction). I'm curious as to what everybody else thinks on this one. Thanks.

A year ago, after a back and forth with tech support from Kingston, the memory company, I wrote them a final email:

"Thanks. Your help and the Kingston support was among the best I've ever
gotten from any company. My initial doubts about buying Kingston
products in the future have completely turned around. As a friend wrote
to me, anyone can ship a product with a flaw. The difference is how
you're treated afterward. And you treated me as if my satisfaction was
your top priority."

-=-Joe

Good points,Guy.
I'd like to chime in on the first name issue - personally I only like being addressed by my first name if I'm dealing with a company I like. Otherwise I'm offended.

I get particularly resentful when I receive sales calls that immediately start addressing me by my first name, preceded by a tell-tale pause (which means the person is looking up your name in a database..)

Funly enough, the most rude customer service I ever got was from a mobile phone company here in the UK called Vodafone. Having got completely fed up with them I rang up to say I wanted to terminate my contract and was subsequently victim of a month-long desperate sales pitch of junk mail appearing on my doorstep nigh on every single day and representatives calling me up at random throughout this period to either persuade, bully or tempt me to stay on the service. Needless to say, I wouldn't touch them even with a bargepole..

An excellent example of good service was when Typepad had an outage a few months ago. They allowed for all customers to determine how they were affected, and to choose THEIR OWN level of compensation, from none to three month's free service (or something similar).

I have to add my two cents on the "name" issue. First of all, don't use the first name and "du" if you're talking to a German or Swiss person *unless* the "higher ranking" person has offered it. Even then, don't start your email simlpy with

"Fritz,"

because that sounds like you're about to scold them. Use something like

"Guten Morgen, Fritz,"

If you're not on a first-name-basis, the general rule is to go with "Sehr geehrter Herr Schmid", but this is highly formal. There is really no good solution for the cases where you know a person quite well, but aren't on a first-name-basis (if anyone knows one, I'd like to hear it). In those cases, I tend to avoid names at all because it's really hard to say something which doesn't sound stupid.

By the way, the fact that Americans tend to call each other on a first-name-basis right away but don't actually treat each other like friends seems really weird to Germans or Swiss.

In Europe, calling people by their first name (especially on initial contact) could offend the sensibilities of some of the more formal people (the Germans come to mind).

For (7), almost no-one will admit he is a technical bobo. Everybody is a friggin' expert.

Oherwise, great article and comments.

I agree with the other posters about using first names not being a good idea. I always know when somebody who doesn't know me is calling, because they ask for William. Only my *Mom* gets to call me William, and only my friends get to call me W.P. Mr. Wily for the rest, until I say "just call me W.P." (or Coach or Sarge, depending on the setting).

That's what we do in customer support as well, it's Mr./Ms. until the customer says "just call me ___", Everyone feels respected, and no one feels like you're overstepping or being phony.

I hate it when people call me by my first name. My father doesn't even address me by my first name. And I really hate companies that insist on having my "real first name".

Companies that can direct me to another company that is better suited to meeting my needs always impress me. I make an extra effort to find a reason to go back and spend money at the referring company.

Companies should reward custom service employees for being a Mensch.

I'd like to add a bit of a dose of the other side:

1) "The customer is not in fact, always right, but they are always the customer"

Face it, the one quality of people in large groups is that they tend towards lazy/dumb. Customers are people. If you go too far with "the customer is always right", you'll not have to worry about it for long, you'll be out of business. Sometimes the customer is wrong...for you. If you're dealing with someone with whom you simply can.not establish a good working relationship, don't put yourself, your people, and the customer through hell in the name of pleasing them. Figure out a competitor they'd be happier with, and tell them, "Look, obviously, we are not meant to work together, and the reasons why aren't that important. However, I have a competitor who is more your style, and I really think that you would be much happier with them." Then call the competitor and tell them the same thing. Don't "dump" people. Only do this if you can sincerely say that you think this is better for them. Sometimes, good customer service is recognizing that you can't provide it as well as someone else.

2) "No, the customer is not the center of your universe" If that were true, then Apple wouldn't exist, and Steve Jobs would be a hippie selling patchouli in Portland. While you always have to listen to the customer, that doesn't mean you have to do every fool thing they want you to. Saying "no" when it's the best answer is important, otherwise your business will be building camels. Not every idea is a good one, but do learn to roundfile them AFTER the customer has left the office. Being Steve only works if you're Steve.

3) "Don't be afraid to say 'no' to a customer" You know what your business is as well as anyone. Just because a customer wants you to do something doesn't mean it makes sense. For example, Microsoft makes a lot of money by pretty much doing anything that any customer wants. They jump into new markets, and you can tell that they have no plan beyond "THROW MONEY". However, that only works for Microsoft because they have essentially unlimited money to throw. Note that it doesn't always get the same results they got with Windows and Office. In fact, outside of Windows and Office, they never get the results that Windows and Office have gotten. Stay focused. You should be able to state your entire purpose for being as a business in a single breath, without hyperventilating. If you can't, time to say 'no' to some things. Saying 'no' is FAR more important than saying 'yes', but a hundred times harder. However, proper use of the word 'no' has just as great a payoff as 'yes'. If someone wants you to do something, give it careful, serious, consideration. If 'yes' isn't obvious, then say 'no'. You're better off delighting ten people forever than half-assing a hundred for a year.

finally,

4) Always go for straight, honest, communications. If you aren't good at it, hire someone. I'm in the middle of a "employee passion" spasm now, and the marketingspeak wonkery writ large makes me want to vomit. It's a life insurance company, I don't need to be reminded that we are trying to improve HUMAN life. Last I checked, we didn't have a budgie business unit. if you're talking about a core value, be direct, and unflinching. Avoid flaccid verbiage. In fact, avoid adjectives. You'd be amazed at how carefully you must write or speak when you don't have a plethora of b.s. adjectives to hide behind.

Hi Iain,

You have a point - some people are upset if an employee of a company calls them by their first name. My post here: http://www.serviceuntitled.com/index.php/2006/04/12/little-things-part-1-use-their-name/ talks about that. It says:

"Calling a customer by first or last name depends largely on the company. A majority of companies that target average consumers call their customers by their first name. If you work in a business that’s considered “up-tight,” call customers by their last name."

Hopefully that provides some additional insight on that particular issue.

Thanks for posting this, Guy! :)

- Douglas H.

I'm not sure if calling the customer by their first name is such a good idea. A CSR recently called my father by his first name, and really annoyed him. He didn't appreciate someone who he had never met being overly familiar.

Personally, I would rather use an honorific and their last name. Or if you're going to use their first name, at least as permission first.

I like the point about using the customer's name.

Apologies in advance for a long comment post-Guy feel free to nuke me:)

I had a great experience yesterday with a company that makes a product called a "SpamCube". I ordered one a while back and when I logged in to check my order's shipping status there were 11 orders when I pretty clearly remember only ordering one.

There was a little "Chat with support now" button next to my order cart, so I clicked it. A box popped up asking me for my first name and email address for look-up purposes, and said it "was going to go get someone right away".

A second or two later a lady named "Denise" popped in to the conversation with an avatar (which I assume was her, didn't look like a rip-off headshot). "What can I do for you Geordie?" was her question... I explained that I seemed to have 10 duplicate orders in my shipping cart, and was wondering how many I was charged for and when the one that I DID order was going to arrive.

"A few weeks back we had some hiccups with our order system, and I can see what happened. I can assure you though that we only ordered one for you, but we're just getting to shipping orders three weeks older than yours this week."

I asked her what that meant for when my order would ship and she said "2-3 more days and they'll be able to get it out the door... Geordie, I have to tell you, we're a pretty small company and we're shipping everything by hand right now so it's taking a bit longer than we would like. Thanks sooooo much for your patience."

I thought this was awesome. Now that she had built this personal rapport with me, there was no way I wasn't going to cut her company some slack on the shipping times and cart screwup.

It was an awesome example of building a relationship with a customer in two minutes or less, letting me know what was going on, and being honest with me as opposed to using some script.

Hi Guy,

Reminds me of Kristen Zhavago's work (that you endorsed). Kind of a "duh", but why not ask the customer... They usually hold the answer to the questions that we have.

Olivier Blanchard prefers to "dance with customers". I like the "make them feel important" point here ... but would add "make them look good". When you make your customer look good (in the eyes of their parter, family, friends, bosses etc) then you are generating a lot of love that will reflect well on you. Will you get a recommendation out of it? I bet you will!

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