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.