Fast, reliable, efficient, and effective customer service can be the difference between your company being a winner or loser in today’s highly competitive marketplace. I knew that when I opened a retail store in 2008. By 2013 we were the third largest single location store of its kind in the country. And if you asked our customers what they liked best about us, the number one answer you would get was, “great customer service.”
I had the opportunity to moderate a panel on improving efficiency at a customer service summit hosted by the Incite Group here in New York last week. While I don’t normally speak specifically on customer service, I was the CEO of a wholesale distribution company and electronics retail superstore for over 28 years. For me, customer service was always a top priority and something I focused on, so I was able to contribute to the topic from a retailer’s point of view.
Joining me on the panel were Dan Touchette, Director of Product, Bitly and Jeff Stephenson, Sr. Director of Customer Service, Warner Music Group. We were a diverse group of panelists: retail and distribution, Internet service, and entertainment. But interestingly enough, the ideas and strategies that contribute to great customer service we similar across our verticals.
Here are ten of the best power tips we shared with the customer service professionals at the summit:
- It Starts at the Top: High-level managers need to set an example by communicating about customer service issues, procedures, and technologies on a regular basis. Making customer service a priority by regularly communicating with customer service department (and the whole company) keeps everyone focused on the importance of customer service and sends the message company-wide that customers and their needs come first.
- Set an Example: No one should be too high and mighty to engage with customers. As CEO of my company, I would routinely answer a customer issue late at night or on a weekend. Sometimes I couldn’t get them an exact answer after hours but a midnight response from the CEO over an order delay that says, “I am checking on it and will be back to you at 9:30 am,” turns a dissatisfied customer into an advocate. They usually are wowed by it. And as a bonus, I would copy staff on my response to the customer, setting an example for how serious the person at the top takes customer service.
- Flexible Response Times: Applying the same priority to all customer service requests can lead to customer dissatisfaction. Set up a system that prioritizes requests based on importance. A customer who hasn’t received his camera for a photo shoot the next day or hasn’t got their concert tickets for tonight’s show has to get priority over some calling about a refund or to change their address.
- Online Access is Expected: If you don’t have a completely functional and real-time online order tracking and customer service system, you are already way behind where you need to be. Customers expect this as well as multiple ways of contacting you if they must. Customers don’t want to speak to humans often anymore, unless they must.
- Humans Available: There are just certain issues that are too complicated or too emotional for the machines to handle. There must be a reasonable path to actually speak or chat with a human or you can expect that sooner or later some customer will end up getting screwed by your company. They will spend time the rest of their life on social media bashing you. All three of us on the panel had implemented relatively easy access to humans for our customers.
- Social Media: Social media has become a popular way for customers to communicate with companies. Sometimes that communication is a complaint or a rant. And it’s there for the whole world to see. All three of us on the panel had similar strategies: Dedicated staff constantly monitoring and quickly responding. It’s an opportunity to show in public you care. You can then take the conversation offline for resolution. But a good policy is to go back online after successful resolution and ask if the customer is satisfied – this can be a great pr.
- Keep Staff in the Loop: Customer service, sales and anyone who contacts customers need to be made aware of changes in product delivery, new products, or any issues that could impact customers. All three of us held regular meetings with our customer service team and in many cases then communicated what happened at that meeting to the rest of the company. There is nothing that looks more unprofessional than when a customer service rep says, I don’t know, or the customer has more information that the rep.
- Train Your Staff: This is something that is easy to slack on, but weekly training of staff is necessary. There should absolutely be a customer service manual updated regularly and staff should be trained regularly on products, customer service techniques, and direction of the company. If certain aspects of training are not available internally, there are lots of outside resources and companies that will help you.
- Get on the AI Train: Artificial intelligence is coming like a tidal wave. Both other panelists’ companies are already using artificial intelligence top handle certain customer interactions. Right now, this is for larger organizations but very soon AI will be available for even smaller companies. I just made a return to Fitbit and used their support twitter to initiate the process. A bot took me through the first steps and then eventually to a personal response and then offline. It was fast and efficient. A low-tech version of AI is to simply have customers respond to an email address or text message and use a third party apps that will initiate an automatic response based on the content of the customer’s request.
- How are we doing?: Every great customer service organization surveys their customers regularly, measures response times, customer satisfaction, and monitors staff and rewards them for excellent customer service performance. This must become part of everyday operations. When one of my customer service reps got a glowing review from a customer, I would make it very public – and sometimes hand out a little bonus.
I know some of the tips listed above are time consuming, difficult to implement and may not immediately lead to increased sales. If you are doubting whether you have the time and energy to improve your customer service just ask yourself: “How badly do I want my company to be a winner?!”
Categories: Business & Social Media