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!