Sunday, December 25, 2011

When Too Much Knowledge is a Bad Thing

In my last post, I talked about how important it is that a company staffs their call center with well-trained and knowledgeable service professionals. But is it possible for a customer service professional to know too much? It's possible, especially if they don't wield their power appropriately. As Peter Parker's uncle said, "with great power comes great responsibility."

The other day I popped into my local car parts store for help with my battery. I am not mechanically-inclined, but I try, and I have a great deal of respect for those who know their way around an automobile engine.

I approached the man behind the counter explaining my problem. He proceeded to bombard me with a series of jargon-riddled questions that I did not understand. In frustration, he finally told me that he couldn't help me without the battery. Fine, I told him, I'll bring it in. I asked if I could borrow a wrench to remove the battery and he asked what size. I told him the truth, that I wasn't sure. He shook his head, mumbled something about 1/4" and brought out a wrench. It was too big.

Honestly, I was afraid to go back in. Is this how your company makes customers feel? Another counter clerk saw my plight and helped me, but he was also a bit rude and stand-offish. I've seen this happen at every company I've worked for - customer service reps who think the customers share the same body of knowledge. Well guess what? They don't.

That's right. Most customers don't know what the power company's billing cycle is, or what PIP covers, or even what an EFT is--and we can't expect them to know this.

Here's what I teach: start with the lowest common denominator and work your way up from there. Your customer will tell you if they know more.

For example, if a customer calls an auto insurance company and asks what physical damage coverage is, an okay answer might be "comp and collision." A better answer would be "that is what covers damage to your vehicle and comes in two different forms: comprehensive and collision. Are you familiar with these terms?" Perfect. Descriptive, short, and most importantly: non-patronizing.

So when you monitor customer transactions look for this patronizing tone of voice and coach your customer service professionals appropriately. In fact, ask them if they've ever been made to feel stupid by someone at another company. Chances are they have.

Tashi Delek!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Knowledge, Knowledge, Knowledge...

I'm reminded of the old axiom that if you give an infinite number of typewriters to an infinite number of monkeys, that an infinite number will bang out the complete works of William Shakespeare. While true, it doesn't mean the monkeys know what they are doing. I'd like to propose another axiom: give a call center rep a script, and they will talk to a large number of customers. But do they really know what they are doing?

I was billed $73 by a satellite radio company that shall remain nameless (that's supposed to be funny since there is only one). I called inquiring about the charge. You see, a few days earlier I had ordered two "free" radios as promotions for switching from one receiver to another. I think the company, who recently merged, is trying to consolidate operations. One radio I can see, but two? I thought it was too good to be true, but the rep assured me that yes, they are giving away two radios to each customer making that switch. I only have to pay for shipping and pay for three months when activating my radios (I wanted one for my daughter for a xmas gift, the other was for me to replace my old non-functioning radio). That's the catch I thought - they probably want to bolster their year-end numbers. Okay by me, I just saved $120 on radios.

When the $73 charge showed up on my bill I thought, "yup, too good to be true -- I was only allowed to have one free one and now they are charging me for the second one." I was upset, having been told two were free and wasn't going to back down. But guess what? I called and the rep could not see what the charge was for. He figured it was "probably additional shipping charges " (for $73? What, were they going to hand deliver the radio?). At that point, I talked to the supervisor who also had trouble finding what the charge was for and put through a request for a refund. It was a very frustrating, and lengthy, phone interaction for all of us.

That brings me to my point: customer care professionals need to know what is going on. You can't sit someone down in front of a teleprompter and expect them to take care of customer problems. When a customer calls, they are calling because there is a problem, and chances are it's complex, otherwise they would have taken care of it on-line.

Training, training, training. I was about ready to cancel my subscription and go HD, but held back. The point is that the company (who I understand is in financial trouble) probably cut their training budget to save money, but how much money are they losing by losing customers? Probably more than it would have cost to properly train their call center reps.

I am still not convinced I'll ever see that refund, but either way the reps I talked to should have been able to find the charge and identify (1) what it was for and (2) whether or not it was valid. Plain and simple.

If you are a customer service manager, what kind of training do you have in place? A good customer service training program should include the following components:

1) Company's customer service standards (how to interact with customers).
2) Extensive systems training (reps should be able to find anything on the computer without asking. A good system training program includes plenty of real-life exercises).
3) Product knowledge (how a satellite radio works, what programs are available, what goes wrong and why).
4) Process knowledge (reps should know how their interactions are tied to other parts of the company and should have access to at least a visual display of their systems).

When I was with the local electric company, our meter changers and testers received all of this training, as did our customer call center reps. Our metering crews knew how a meter worked (and could take one apart and put it back together again), how the meter billing system worked (including who to call in the office if there is a billing problem), how to use the computer system, and how to interact with customers. It was all there. And you know what? The department received consistently high scores on their service skills and there were very few complaints.

So take the time to make sure your training is comprehensive and if you need help (shameless plug coming) drop me a line. I'll be more than happy to work with you in making sure your training meets the needs of your customers because really, that's why we're in business.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Understanding Your Customers, Understanding Yourself

"Your thought is the parent that gives birth to all things." -- Neale Donald Walsh.

Our civilization -- in fact, our entire world -- is full of quotes like this one. Dr. Wayne Dwyer said that, "our beliefs are invisible ingredients in all our activities."

This is the heart of my customer service philosophy -- that no matter how much we teach our customer service professionals what to say, they still won't be able to provide exceptional, relationship-building, customer service unless they truly care about the customer. We need to make sure that good customer service begins on the inside - with the thoughts and perceptions of the customer service professional. Anyone can say, "thank you and come again," but it takes a special kind of employee to really mean it.

What can we do?

First, make sure only those who care about helping customers are hired for customer service positions. Don't just ask interviewees to tell you about a time they went out of their way to help a customer, but ask them why they did what they did and how it made them feel. A good customer service professional, one who truly cares about the customer, will respond with an internal motivation (it made me feel good, I felt sorry for the customer) instead of an external one (because I would have gotten in trouble if I hadn't).

Second, give your customer service professionals some flexibility in how they deal with their customers. Don't script their comments. That only leads to a disconnect between your employee and the job -- they'd be doing it by rote instead of engaging. You want customer service professionals who engage with their customers.

Finally, when coaching a customer service professional, don't forget about the customer, or even the person you are coaching. Ask your employee to put themselves in the customer's shoes by asking them what they would have wanted as a customer. It's all about perspective. Questions like these will bring out your employee's internal motivations: Do they care about the customer? Are they just trying to get by? Do they resent the customer? Either way, make sure your employee walks away knowing what should be done differently next time.

One thing I've always stressed in my customer service training is that when confronted by a problem, don't think about it as "you vs. the customer," but instead think about it as "you and the customer vs. the problem." That's an important concept to pass along to your customer service staff.

It's important to change your customer service professionals from the inside--to change their perceptions of the customer, and if necessary, the company. If they can't change their perseption, then perhaps it's time for your company and that employee to part ways.

Another idea is to host a "Customer Appreciation Day" and allow your employees to interact with customers as individuals. It's a lot harder to hang up on someone you've spent some time with than a complete stranger.

It's all about engagement. You must make sure your customer service professionals engage their customers. It all starts with their perception.

"We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think." -- The Buddha.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Six of One?

I've had several agents tell me that businesses would not be interested in a concept/book called "The Zen of Customer Service." One told me that businesses really aren't interested in the spiritual side of what they do and another told me that "Zen" was past its prime.

I can see their point but I wonder if it's accurate. I can see many larger businesses shying away from the use of a program with religious implications, especially in a post 9/11 world where anything non-Christian is looked upon as suspect. But what about more avant-garde businesses? Steve Jobs was a Buddhist. Would he have been interested in this program?

I have had trouble coming up with an alternate name. "Inside-Out Customer Service" would have been my first choice, but that was already taken.

After careful consideration and many scratch pieces of paper, I'm proud to announce a new "branding" for my concept: Right Way Customer Service: The Path to Delivering Exceptional Customer Service.

I think this ties in nicely with the Buddhist principles of the book, based primarily on the Buddha's Eightfold Path of Right Understanding, Right Wisdom, and so forth--but I wonder if I'm giving up too easily on Zen?

To pick your brains, my beloved readers, I have created a poll to solicit your opinion. This poll can be found to the right.

Please take a moment to let me know which name you think would work better in today's business world - not necessarily the one you like best. If you don't like either, select "other" and please post a comment stating your reasons and/or other ideas.

You input is greatly appreciated as I move forward with this endeavor.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Collateral Damage

I dropped by a local convenience store the other day to pick up a soda (for my readers from the South that's a "pop") and a bite to eat. The person in front of me was obviously irritating the clerk behind the counter, who was doing her best to stay patient. The customer finished and left and when it was my turn, I was met with a curt "Is this gonna be all for you?" Now, I try to be a nice guy, but there is a side of me that gets defensive and locks up. That's what I did in this case. I could feel my pulse rate increase and blood pressure rise. For a soda and snack I was confronted in what I perceived to be a hostile manner. I paid, collected my junk food lunch and left--feeling very uncomfortable.

As a business, or even customer service professional, is this how you want your customers to feel when they leave, whether they're walking out the door or hanging up the phone? Thought not.

Why does this happen? This phenomena is actually pretty common in the customer service profession and has been called "emotional leakage" by the Telephone Doctor. It involves unresolved issues from a previous customer spilling over to other transactions, and is human nature, the "kicking the dog" syndrome. There are things we'd like to say, but for one reason or another, we hold back. The anger lingers but now it probably has a touch of shame for not confronting the issue, for sitting back and "taking it." For whatever reason, innocent customers are hurt, something the military calls "collateral damage."

It's not right, and it's not good for us--customer service professional or customer. This is why I promote the use of "mini-meditations." You've heard this before - the "count to ten" exercise. It works, but it only works if you actually do it! It's simple and doesn't take much time.

After a rough transaction try this: close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Purge your mind of ANY thought whatsoever. If a thought enters your mind, picture yourself escorting it out. After ONLY A FEW SECONDS, you should have a fresh outlook and be well prepared for your next customer.

If you can't do that for some reason (e.g. other customers waiting in line), just smile--my guess is that you'll like the customer's reaction.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Good and Bad of Customer Notices

I sat down with a friend of mine at a local Chinese Buffet (something I've avoided while dieting) and we were given a small card to place at our table. In addition to being a table-holder (to avoid losing our table while we were at the buffet), the card had a few buffet rules, one of which read, "In order to keep costs down, we ask that you do not take any food from the restaurant." I thought that was well put. Why? On one hand it is polite and respectful, and on another, it lets the customer know that by abiding by the rule, they will benefit. Take food out = higher costs; don't take food out = costs are contained.

But how many times have you seen something like this: "Taking food out of buffet is PROHIBITED! Anyone caught taking food out will be charged at take out buffet prices." How does that make you feel? I feel insulted myself. I've actually seen restaurants with notices like that all over the place. Do I go back? Nope. To me, statements like that send the message that the establishment has either a contempt for its customers or lack of trust - or both. What if I had an issue with them in the future? Think they'll believe me? Unlikely.

A few years back I was on my Parish's Athletic Association Board and we were concerned about the number of people littering on our fields. One person suggested a harshly worded sign, such as "Do Not Litter! Those caught littering will be asked to leave." I suggested one more kindly worded: "Please help us maintain an attractive and pleasant sports venue by depositing your litter in one of the conveniently located trash cans." They opted for the former (much to my chagrin) and I'm not sure what difference it would have made, but I felt that statement was too confrontational and the last thing we want to do is to make parents any more confrontational at their child's sporting event.

Another example are postings about surveillance cameras: "For your safety, these premises are under surveillance." Really? The company went through all that for me? I Doubt it. Again, I feel insulted by such signs--as if I'm going to tell myself, "wow, this company really cares about me." Why don't they be honest? They can post something like "For your safety, the safety of our employees, and to reduce crime, these premises are under surveillance." I can buy into that. Nobody wants to be robbed and if someone does rob the store, quick shop, gas station, or whatever it is, I'd want them caught!

There are more examples, but you get the point. Next time you want to post a statement for customers (in writing or even as a recorded message) consider how the customer would feel about its tone, demeanor, and underlying messages.

Tashi Delek!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Is the Customer Always Right?

The answer is definitely "no." We all know that. The reason? What I like to call "wrong understanding" based on the first step of the Buddha's Eightfold Path.

The customer might think they are right, but without a right understanding of the situation, it is difficult for them to know the truth. This is why I like to say that, "the customer is always right - in their own mind." That's not to denigrate the customer, but to make the point that customers do not always know what goes on 'behind the scenes' and that's why customer service professionals must educate them when necessary.

A good example of this comes from my time with a local electric utility company where we'd have the occasional power outages due to storms, accidents, or equipment failure. During widespread outages, we'd get calls from customers complaining about crews “just sitting” in their trucks doing nothing. Or, they would approach a crew and demand they fix their problem next. It didn't work that way – but the customers didn't know that.

When I arrived at the company, the standard responses were “they're taking a break” (which doesn't sit well with customers whose power has been out for several days) or “the crew has their next assignment already.” Needless to say, this increased the frustration in an already stressful situation and local media featured interviews of irate customers complaining about their service. A drastic change in direction was needed.

After months of meetings, a decision was made to educate our customers about the storm restoration process. This process, of course, had to start with the call center representatives who take the brunt of the complaints during these outages. You see, they were kept “in the dark” as much as the customers. They had no idea how the storm restoration process worked and instead took guesses or made generalizations based on the scant information they had received over the years.

Training programs were developed to teach the representatives how the storm restoration process worked and the safety-related measures crews were required to follow. Now, instead of being told a crew was “on a break,” the customer was told the crew was taking a required safety “stand down.” In fact, many representatives used their newly-acquired knowledge to explain that stand downs were necessary since crews often worked long days around dangerous voltage levels and needed to maintain a high level of alertness. Representatives were even able to quote company safety statistics showing a decrease in injuries since the requirement went into effect. Everyone wants their loved one to come home from work safely, and customers are no exception. By rephrasing and restating the situation, we were able to reach out to the customer and involve them in the process - they understood and were therefore more accepting of the situation.

As for crews working assigned jobs, call center representatives were able to explain the prioritization process to customers and give them a good idea of when their power would be restored. Instead of a seemingly random assignment of work (on which rumors of restoring power to the wealthier neighborhoods first was born out of ignorance), customers understood that power lines feeding emergency facilities were repaired first and from there, lines were repaired based on the number of customers served by that circuit

Within a few years of implementing this training, people were praising the company's work on news reports and giving workers “high fives” when company trucks rolled into their neighborhoods. What a difference a little information makes.

Wrong understanding works both ways. Take the time to educate your customer and don't assume they know the company's systems and operating procedures. If you need to put them on hold to process a transaction, or make a few calls to other stores to check on stock, advise the customer of this instead of just telling them to hold – or worse, asking them if they can hold and not waiting for an answer. Let your customer know you're on the same side. Training, of course, is key. Uninformed customer service professionals bring about uninformed, and often angry, customers. And what do angry customers do? That's right, they take their business elsewhere.

So, if you are a customer service professional, take the time to inform and educate your customer. If you are in management, make sure your front-line representatives are armed with the knowledge they need to do this.

Tashi Delek!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Customer Service: Done Right

I recently opened up a trading account with Sharebuilder and bought some "no transaction fee" mutual funds. Well, due to a change in my main client's budget, I found myself cashing in on those funds to help pay some bills (that and with the stock market swinging back and forth the way it has been I didn't really have the stomach for it). I turned a pretty good profit and was happy with it, but when I received the final payout, it was $200 less than I expected! Apparently the "no transaction fee" did not apply to funds sold within three months of purchase. Fair enough, and I vaguely remember reading that when I bought the mutual funds and probably dismissed it, thinking I was going to be holding on to them for a very long time.

But when I went to sell the funds, it listed "no fee" and gave me a payout amount based on that day's market close. I figured since my fees for the transaction were "0" that there would be no fees assessed. Period. What's more, I had ordered the disbursement and transfer to my savings account for the full amount. It was after that request was placed that they took the $200 out ($50 per fund sold and I had sold four funds) - AND I did not receive any email or message explaining the reason for the shortfall.

Well, I was a bit miffed, so I sent the company an email (I don't like calling when I don't have to...I had already had enough drama for the day) and four days later received this response:

Hi Albert,

Message received! We posted a yellow alert message on each review order page informing you that by placing the sell order, you may be subject to the early redemption charge. This message was shown when you sold each of your American Century mutual funds. The early redemption charge is in effect for the no transaction fee mutual funds to discourage customers from short term trading these funds. (Stocks or Exchange-traded funds may be more suitable for short term trades)

Since this was your first experience trading mutual funds on our site, I am willing to work with you. I can reimburse you for half of the charges that were assessed. The credit would be $99.90. I would post the credit to your Individual account, as your Traditional IRA would have tax consequences.

If you would like me to post this cash credit to your Individual account, please respond to this email confirming that you would like for me to do so. Should you have any further questions about this issue, feel free to contact us again.

Remember what I said earlier about "fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me?" Why not give the customer the benefit of the doubt - at least once, and especially with new customers.

I was ready to sell everything else (it wasn't much, but it was something and I hope to have more to add in the future like all of us) but instead Sharebuilder now has a loyal customer.

Sure, they didn't refund the entire $200 but they did something - and that's what counts.

Tashi Delek!

Monday, October 3, 2011


There is an ancient story told in many traditions that goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail in the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the first day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence.

"You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same.

If we fail a customer once, we probably fail them for a lifetime. It takes a long time to rebuild trust. In my last post, I spoke of an incident I had with an auto supply store. Despite the fact that another counter person stepped forward to help out, I will probably never go back there - at least not for a very long time.

Make it your New Year's resolution to make sure you never leave your customer with scars.

Tashi Delek!

Too Late, Too Little?

I may have mentioned before a problem my grown daughter was having with getting pictures back from a photographer who took prom pictures of her and her friends - six months ago. The photographer (also a casual friend of the family) didn't return phone calls, emails, or even Facebook messages. My daughter finally filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and I wrote her a harshly worded email. I got involved because this woman's son was a friend of my son and not only was she not returning calls to me about the photos, but her son was not returning calls to my son. It was a bad situation.

Well, last Friday my daughter received her pictures and we both received apologies via text. Now, I'm a big proponent of telling customers you're sorry, especially if you messed up, and this apology was well-deserved. Her son resumed communicating with my son and my daughter proudly posted the pictures to Facebook. Case closed. Or is it? Apologies are good to build customer loyalty, but they must be delivered in a timely fashion. While there is no animosity amongst the involved parties, a business relationship has been irreparably damaged. Neither I nor my daughter will ever do business with this woman again, nor can we recommend her to others.

Furthermore, my daughter had been doing unpaid intern work for this photographer and the woman mentioned how she could really use the help now. Think my daughter is going to help? No way, nada, not at all. On top of losing a customer (and I was actually thinking about having this woman do some professional shots for me) she lost a loyal, hardworking, and cheap assistant.

So apologies are good, but they must be given swiftly and timely. An apology delivered too late might stave off legal action and resolve a situation, but it can still lead to the loss of a loyal customer -- or customers.

Tashi Delek!

The Apology

A Facebook friend of mine posted this picture that really sums up what I was trying to say before about apologizing to customers. Giving an apology does not necessarily admit guilt - it is a simple way of saying, "I understand." What a powerful tool that can be used to build a better relationship with your customers.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Silent Former Customer

This has been a hot topic in customer service for years - the silent customer who doesn't say anything when they leave for another company. I'm like that, except for when money is involved. Then I make sure I get back what's mine. But other than that, if I'm not happy with service and decide to take my business elsewhere, I usually don't say anything. Why not? Because I don't know that it will make a difference. This presents a problem for businesses because if they are bleeding customers and don't know why, they can't fix the problem.

It's important for businesses to approach this problem on several fronts:

1) Make sure your customers are happy and stay happy.
2) Provide a welcoming method by which customers can complain.

Of the 2, the second front is critical for businesses to be successful.

How can a company make sure they are one that welcomes customer complaints?

1) Training at all levels -- Even entry level, first-contact representatives need to know that it's okay (and even desirable) to let customers complain about the company and to empathize with the customer. Empathy is not an apology and an apology does not necessarily acknowledge responsibility. For example, at a funeral one often expresses condolences by saying something like "I'm sorry to hear about your loss." This doesn't mean that person is responsible for that person's death! In much the same way there's nothing wrong with a customer service rep saying something like, "I'm sorry to hear that you're so upset..." but what comes next is critical - a commitment to take action, such as "...let me see what we can do to resolve this situation."

Here is what I've told my trainees over the year...if you have an upset customer, take the HEAT:

Here them out
Take action

The "take action" can be something as simple as explaining pricing or policy, or as involved as opening up a formal investigation or complaint. Much of this is determined by the industry in which you serve but most companies have a formal complaint resolution process - if they don't, they should.

2) In fact, I think a company should have at least one person on staff who handles customer complaints. At my former employer, an insurance company, we had an entire department devoted to resolving customer complaints. As a result, the company was one of the highest rated insurers in terms of customer satisfaction. They later disbanded that department and now they are rated in just the middle of the pack.

So, in order to succeed, a customer needs to let the customers and first-contact employees know that it is okay to complain AND have a formal process in place by which to resolve the complaint. Transferring a customer to a first-line supervisor (or below) or worse - telling the customer that there are no other options to discuss a complaint - just doesn't cut it in today's world. There are just too many choices.

Tashi Delek!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Owning Up to Mistakes

People make mistakes, and the more authority you give customer service reps, the more mistakes they will make. But often, these mistakes will be made in favor of the customer. Is this such a bad thing?

Sure, the company may lose some money on the transaction but what they lose they will gain back in customer loyalty, the value of which often exceeds the initial mistake.

However, one concern about a mistake is that the customer may understand the mistake to be company policy, or at the very least, claim that since an action was taken on his behalf before, that same action should be taken at a later date.

As an example, let's say a customer calls because he failed to make an insurance policy payment and his policy cancels. When reviewing the policy for reinstatement, the customer service rep misses the previous accidents and decides to reinstate the policy. Oops. Hopefully the customer doesn't repeat the same mistake in the future, but for now the company has two options:

1) Call the customer back and rescind the reinstatement, which may not be legal in many states.
2) Honor the reinstatement.

If the company decides to rescind the reinstatement, they are going to have an upset former customer who will more than likely spread the story and worse - put his own spin on the story, painting a not-so-good picture of the company. The company may also face legal issues.

The best course of action, unless the company is dealing with a really, really, really bad customer (one with a history of DWIs say) is to honor the reinstatement. However, if this is done, the customer should be advised that a mistake was made and that contact should be done by the customer service rep who made that mistake.

The customer service rep should advise the customer that a mistake was made, clarify what should have happened and why, and let the customer that they will honor the decision this time but that next time the company has the option to make the correct decision.

Why is this important? Simply, for legal reasons. Once a company, especially one dealing in the legal environment, takes a certain action, the customer can, within reason, assume that the company will take a similar action in future similar situations. By letting the customer know that a mistake was made, it is made clear that the action take is not normal operating procedure.

By having the original customer service rep make the call, you are giving her ownership of that mistake and allowing her to correct the mistake on her own. If someone else, such as a supervisor, would make that call, my guess is that the rep would be ashamed/embarrassed for making the mistake because she did not have the opportunity to address it on her own -- maybe giving her the impression that management doesn't think she can handle the responsibility.

People like to take ownership of their problems and the opportunity to finish what they started. It might be awkward at first, but by building a culture of responsibility, a company can truly deliver exceptional service - from the inside out.

Tashi Delek,

A Tale of Two Transactions, Part II

In my last entry, dated a few months ago (my apologies, I've had a very busy summer), I promised a customer service experience I had with a company that did it right. That company is AT&T Wireless. That's right. I know they have a bad reputation, but I have not had one customer service problem with them over the years like I had with my previous carrier. For this reason, I can call myself a loyal customer. Unless they screw something up really bad, I will probably never switch and if I have any problem with my current cable service, I'll likely switch to AT&T U-verse. That is the the power of customer loyalty.

At the same time I was having trouble with the gas company, my cell phone got shut off (what can I say, it was a busy month). Frantic, I called them to see how much I needed to pay to get my service restored. I didn't have the money to pay all of it, and was hoping to take a partial payment.

Because of my decent (not great by any means) payment history, they agreed to restore my service - with only a promise to pay in six days! Of course, if that payment didn't go through, I would lose that option for future payments but still - talk about exceeding my expectations. I really thought I'd be without cell phone service through the weekend but AT&T really came through for me.

What's more, the rep on the phone didn't need to contact a supervisor to make that decision, nor was she reading from a script. She had the knowledge and the authority to make that decision, something the reps at my local gas company were lacking.

So many companies fear putting authority into the hands of a customer service rep but the rewards are many. Sure, they are going to make mistakes and often they will be in the favor of the customer, but what price to pay for customer loyalty?

Tashi Delek!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Transactions, Part I

Sorry it's been a while since my last update...been busy with a slew of projects, both paid and unpaid and even one hope-to-be-paid-for project. It's been a busy month!

I will be the first to admit that I'm not great with bills. While I was working full time I'd get paid, pay the bills I had in hand, spend the rest, and wait for my next paycheck. That worked well enough but when I left the security of my full-time job to pursue my dream of working as a writer full-time, that method didn't adapt well. As a full-time employee I received a regular paycheck. As a writer, I don't, so I fell behind on a few bills and, as a result, had to call the dreaded toll-free number to work something out. It's when a customer struggles paying bills that a company can rise to the occasion or fall flat. I have an example of each.

First, my gas bill. I was on a budget billing plan, paying $100/month and fell behind three months. Oops. So I called to see what I could do and I was told that by paying 2/3 of the bill, I could stay on the budget plan. So I went to the nearby pay station, did I was told, and called back to confirm the payment. I also confirmed that I would not be taken off the payment plan at which time I was told that the previous rep had made a mistake and that I would be taken off the budget plan! She assured me that she would tell that rep's supervisor so that rep wouldn't repeat the same mistake. Well, I don't know how it is where you are at, but here when they take you off the budget plan they make you pay your total balance, which in my case included most of my winter usage - a total of $600! If I had known that $300 would have saved me from going off the plan, I would have paid $300, but the second rep didn't care and told me - get this - that people make mistakes and that I should understand that. Well, needless to say that pissed me off. Yes, people do mistakes, I understand that. But most people usually take responsibility for their mistakes, especially corporations. Second, how confident do I feel with information I get from this company in the future? Not very!

When you are working in customer service it's important that everyone talking to customers KNOW THEIR JOB - and thoroughly! Training, training, training and testing, monitoring and coaching are key to a successful customer service operation - whether it be in retail sales or a call center setting. Is it the customer's fault the rep didn't know the job? NO! It's the company's fault. Period.

If you're a customer service manager, make sure you have a good trainer, one familiar with with the ADDIE process (ask your candidate about this, if they don't know this acronym, don't hire them) and make sure you have a quality assurance team that monitors calls, is able to identify problem reps, and adequately coach.

If you're a customer service professional, make sure you know your job. If you aren't sure of something, ask! If you make a mistake, take accountability for it. Talk to your supervisor to see if an exception can be made. If your work culture is a good one, you will not have to hide your mistakes. Listen to those around you and be accepting of feedback and criticism.

Unfortunately when a customer falls behind on their bills there is a belief among customer service professionals that the customer is lying or trying to pull a fast one. I even worked for a company whose reps called them "deadbeats." People don't like being treated like that and for the most part, they want to pay their bills but just can't for whatever reason. The first step on the eightfold path is right understanding - understand your customer and his or her situation. Empathize if necessary and even if you can't help them, at least treat them with respect and sympathy.

You never know when it's karmic payback time and you are the one on the other end of the phone having trouble paying bills.

Next time I'll share the story of a company that did it right.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dont' Worry, Be Happy!

Most of us are familiar with Bobby McFerrin's cute tune of the 80s espousing us to "be happy" and telling us "don't worry." But that is hard advice to follow. We all worry, it's common. Books line the bookshelves about decreasing worry and a quick Google survey reveals countless quotes on the topic, my personal favorite belonging to Thomas Jefferson, who said "How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened."

Again, easier said than done. Even with the songs, the books, and the quotes I still found myself worrying, until I came across some ancient Buddhist wisdom:

There is no need to worry. If there is a problem that can be fixed, fix it. If there is a problem that cannot be fixed, there is nothing you can do about it.

What a great quote - if there's something you can do about a problem, do it. If there isn't, there's no use worrying about it. And that's really how I try to live my life. My favorite saying is, "it is what it is." In other words, deal with it and move on.

This little trinket can be applied to customer service. How many times as customer service professionals have we had that call that really set us off? They were irritated and yes, even abusive, and not matter how many times we tell ourselves not to take it personally, we find that customer's words haunting us the rest of the day, even beyond.

But why bother? We don't know the customer. The customer doesn't know us. Maybe the customer was having a bad day - or maybe the customer was having a good day, made bad by some experience he or she had with our company. Think about it. We've all been upset at one time or another and I'm sure there are times we've expressed our anger in ways that aren't always appropriate. That's no excuse, but sometimes we forget that the person on the other end of the phone is an actual human being - just like us, and like all humans (and all creatures for that matter) that customer desires one thing - happiness. Sometimes we prescribe super human properties to our customers. They are as super human as we are.

Next time there is an irate customer on the phone, try to remember that the customer is a human - like us - and try to think about the problem, not the customer, as the enemy.

When there is a customer that can't be satisfied, and may even be abusive, take a few moments after the call to clear the emotional toxins from the system by taking what I call a "mini-meditation."

Take a deep breath, or several, and try to clear you mind of any thoughts. If any thoughts come into your mind, let them pass out without affecting you in any way. This doesn't have to take long - one minute or even less sometimes. That's it. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever had was to take ten deep breaths when upset. It's amazing how that can clear the mind.

And if it matters, that customer is probably feeling pretty bad about what they said. Think of that. That should make your day.

Tashi Delek!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Awakening Kindness

I just finished reading Awakening Kindness by Nawang Khechog, and while I thought the book was mediocre (it might be good for someone new to Buddhism, but honestly, it's a very 'tired' theme for me) I thought it had a few great nuggets of wisdom, nuggets that can easily be applied to the customer service profession.

(1) All living creatures want happiness - This is a common theme throughout Buddhism. All creatures seek happiness, although happiness to one person is different than happiness to another person. As customer service professionals we have to determine what that is and we cannot assume that your customer wants the same thing you would want. But at its root, people do want to be treated with respect - that's pretty common. No matter how ridiculous a customer's request might be, treat that request - and the customer - with respect. See how it goes. In my own life I've just completed a month-long issue with my Internet Service Provider. A month. I was close to bolting and finding a new provider, but the company did have a few people that treated me, and my problem, with respect. There was one however that didn't, and believe me, I could have easily left because of that one person (it's a small, local company). There was also a tech support person that wasn't very respectful toward me. Neither thought I knew what I was talking about and were both confident that my problem was with one piece of equipment or another. The thing is, they were so stubborn in their belief that they did not listen to what I was saying. But that's a them for another post.

(2) Kindness begets kindness. So simple, so true, but so hard to practice. The nicer - and more respectful - you are toward others, the nicer they are in return. This is almost universally true. Sure, there are some exceptions, but not many. Those of us who have spent time in call centers know that the same people get the bad calls "over and over" again. But guess what? It's not the customer, it's the representative who receives the call! I know this is hard, but the next time a customer is upset with you, try being kind. I've always used an acronym for this: take the HEAT:

Hear them out
Take Action

This is a good way to express kindness to the customer and let them know you respect them.

Again, I know this isn't easy. Customer service professionals usually get the problem calls and most of the time someone can't pay their bill for some reason or another and as a professional, I'm sure you've heard it all - illness, lost job, car repairs, etc. To you, this is run of the mill. But try to put yourself in the customer's place (and do not assume they are lying - that will only make things worse!). There aren't many people who enjoy not being able to meet their financial obligations. How would you feel if you lost your job - and your income? Sure, the customer could have saved more, or should have been more careful about their job, but coulda, woulda, shoulda doesn't help. Kindness does. Try it next time.

Next time you have a problem call, take a mental pause and ask yourself:
- How is this person feeling right now?
- What do they want and need?
- What can I do to help them?

Remember, the good customer service professional doesn't look at it as them vs. the customer, but instead as them and the customer vs. the problem.

Tashi Delek!