When customer service consumes a business

Recently a software business came to me looking for some help with sales emails. During the initial discussion, they hinted at being a bit overloaded on support. While explaining the big picture situation that provoked their request about the emails, they revealed some details about support tying up development. This was also keeping them from attending to sales. Thus, the emails needed to improve so that sales can improve without needing quite so many phone calls to people wearing a sales hat right that minute, when they needed to be wearing a different hat.

When the phone rings, it’s important

You might wonder why the same people are doing sales and support. If so, you probably don’t have a small company anymore. Think back to how things were when your company had four or five people juggling business development / sales, customer service and whatever else you have to do.

Three calls come in at about the same moment. All three get answered by the four or five people you have. This is standard operating procedure in a small business. We do what has to be done with what we’ve got at that moment. When the phone rings at a company that maybe doesn’t know with absolute certainty where next month’s revenue is coming from – every ring sounds like “ka-ching”, either whether the money is heading in or out. The phone gets priority.

The idea seemed to be that better emails might reduce the demands on the folks trying to juggle sales and support. While that might be true, it’s the wrong problem, even though I totally understand why it’s the focus. Sales feeds the bulldog, folks.

The trouble with priorities

Jim Rohn once said that every time you say yes, you’re saying no to something else. Customer service calls can consume every moment of your day… week… life. Yes, they can literally consume the rest of your life.

Why? Because your priorities need to be adjusted.

Look, I’ve been there. I know those service calls have to be handled. I know you base your reputation on the quality of your support. But you’re missing the big picture, and I’m that guy who in this very spot has written many times about lame service and differentiating service and so on. I’m not waffling on that, but when support becomes all consuming, it means your priorities need to be adjusted.

It’s time to sit down with the sales, support, development and management teams. You might not do software, so you may have a manufacturing, installation, customization, and/or deployment team. Whatever. Point is, this is not solely a software business issue.

Customer service eats the world

Like a fire consumes all the oxygen it can, that’s also how service loads can work. Certainly you’ve heard “Your call is important to us, please hold for the next available agent, blah blah blah“. Normally, this means that a large company has understaffed their customer service department and simply won’t admit it, so they tell you they’re experiencing “unusually high call volumes”. Yep, sure they are.

Sometimes it means something else is going on, such as the entire internet is down, or Metallica announced an extra show, or similar.

The point is that this is the nature of customer service. It can and will eat the world unless you make an intentional effort to eliminate the need for it.

Eliminate customer service?

Yes. Eliminate it. Not the department. The need.

When ELIMINATING the need for service is the goal, everything changes.

Imagine if you told the people who write your user manual that you were giving them a new goal: Eliminate the need for a user manual.

Next, tell your folks in shipping (or on the dock) that all shipping customer service calls will go to whoever packed the box.

Finally, tell your product development / install / deploy / customization team that  all customer service product questions will go directly to whoever made it.

After they finished howling at you, they’d ask why, how and so on.

Try something like this: “Let’s build something that people can use without asking for help.”

It completely changes how they think about what they do, much less how they do it. What about new users? What about experienced users? What about power users? Which one of those users does the dev team focus on now? Probably none of them.

It also completely changes how & what you manage.

 

Photo by Kay Kim(김기웅)

Ask questions while the answers still matter

Back in November 2017, my wife hit a deer at 70 mph on a four-lane road on her way to work in the pre-dawn hours a few days before Thanksgiving. The events that followed provided a number of takeaways for business owners, in addition to pointing out the importance of asking questions while the answers still matter.

tl;dr – If you have an admin with little or no domain knowledge make the initial sale, review what they sold. Call or email to suggest any changes based on your experience, what you know about your customer, or tell them you did so and have no changes to suggest. Speaking of, follow up regularly with customers who have damage claims. Consider what carnage has been introduced into their lives. Don’t make your customers do your job. Even better, have a documented process for your team thats over and above what the national carrier forces upon you. Don’t be an order taker.

Timeline

Monday 11/20 – National claim office person tells me they expect the car to be totaled. They tell me to run out and collect whatever I need from the car because they are going to tow it to a salvage facility. I make 2 trips out to the car, which is 12 miles down the road. 1 of those trips is my fault, forgot the garage door opener and the plates. Took the plates since we may never see it again. Presumably we’ll be able to use them on the replacement car. Tow truck driver also predicted it would be totaled because five air bags were deployed.

Tuesday 11/21 – Based on what the national claim center told me on Monday 11/20, they are supposed to pick up the car from the tow place today. They didn’t.

Wednesday 11/22 (day before Thanksgiving) – Salvage yard’s tow truck goes to pick up the car, a day late. The tow place that originally picked up the car is closed for Thanksgiving.

Thursday 11/23 – Thanksgiving. Didn’t expect anything to happen today.

Friday 11/24 – Nothing happens. Not really surprising. Tow place is probably still closed.

Monday 11/27 – I call the claims office and find out nothing has happened. Person I spoke to seemed kind of short with me. Maybe they think I’m asking too many questions or being too persistent by expecting them to predict / commit to dates when something will happen. I didn’t get fussy (yet) so maybe she was getting abused by someone else before getting me.

Interestingly, when I call, the system knows I have a claim based on my phone # and asks me to press 1 to confirm that’s the claim I’m calling in about. Despite that, when I am connected to an agent, they ask for my name and claim number. Agent tells me that they haven’t got any scheduled date in the system for review of the car. Then they tell me it was never picked up from the tow place (this was supposed to happen on Tuesday).

I get the idea that this process will never complete without me hounding them every single day. I no longer feel like a client whose car was ripped from my hands. I now feel like a transactional sucker who pays someone to abuse me when and if I need their services.

It has been a week since the accident. Zero contact from the agent.

Takeaway – If you make your customers do your job, they are going to be frustrated, or they are going to expect a great deal. Set expectations up front.

Tuesday 11/28 – I will call and see if the car got towed to the salvage yard today. I will ask if an adjuster is now scheduled to visit the yard and assess the status of the vehicle. Call the agent and ask what the process is supposed to look like. Am I expected to nag the adjusters and the claim office every day or twice a day to get this stuff done in a reasonable timeframe?

Called mid-afternoon. Spoke to a very helpful woman named Tonya. “Tow dispatched but we cant tell if it was moved yet.” Adjuster will “automatically” check the car once it is “checked in” at the salvage yard, but that check-in hadnt happened yet. Otherwise, she didn’t have further info on the schedule.

Wednesday 11/29 – Called about noon. Got Donna (I think – was hard to hear at first). She was very friendly and ended up having to call the salvage yard and other people to find out out what was going on. The car is now at the salvage yard and checked-in, so the adjuster is expected to look it over in the next 2-3 days. Tomorrow is possible, but she couldn’t give me a firm date as the adjusters apparently work their own schedule. Doesn’t sound like they are insurance company employees, but I might be reading too much into her comments about their appointment schedule and work load. It’s possible that adjusters work for an adjuster firm that handles estimates / assessments for multiple insurance companies in rural areas. I don’t know the workload of these folks, but that would seem more efficient than every company having their own and trying to keep them all busy. I’m guessing someone who reads this might have more information about that.

Takeaway – When a situation clearly has the potential to frustrate a customer, a little extra effort on the part of your team goes a long way.

Thursday 11/30 – Received a voice mail about 820am saying that the vehicle is repairable (ie: they will not total it). They asked me to call them back. Called and reached Paige, who explained the situation and the benefits (warranties and such) that selecting a body shop that the insurance company “works with” (ie: trusts, has ongoing experience with, saves them money and probably hassle/paperwork). She emailed me a list. I reviewed the list, posted a few names on Facebook to see if any Missoula-based people had suggestions about the list. Chose one of the shops suggested to me. Called insurance company back, told them which body shop to use.

Later in the day, called back, asked Raul to explain the benefit that you get when using a body shop on insurance company’s preferred list (you can choose anyone, including a vendor not on their list). The deal is that repairs and anything else that comes up related to the wreck are guaranteed by the insurance company for as long as you own the car. NOTE: I haven’t seen the actual terms of this guarantee as yet. Given that we keep cars until they “BluesBrother“, this is a potentially valuable benefit, so we chose a shop on their list.

This is what I mean by “BluesBrother”:

Estimate arrived in my email. Called claim line again, turns out this estimate is actually from the insurance adjuster. $6200. Car is scheduled to be towed to the body shop on Friday.

Takeaway – Give your customers a good reason to make the choices you want them to make.

Friday 12/1 Car being moved from salvage yard to Action Auto Body in Missoula.

Monday 12/4 Called body shop, talked to John,  who happened to be the guy finishing up the estimate. Tells me it will take a week to get parts and 2 weeks to do the work. Very nice, detail oriented guy who seemed happy to answer all my questions without sounding the least bit tired or annoyed.

Takeaway – Having technically adept people on the phone who also fully understand how to work with a customer who lost use of a car is a big plus. Being able to do that job and put up with 15 minutes of questions from me without getting frustrated is impressive.

Tuesday 12/12 While I haven’t heard a word from anyone at the insurance company or the body shop since 12/4, today I received an automated survey email from insurance company. The nine page survey asked me to evaluate the claim handling. The survey clearly isn’t designed to be filled out until the claim is completed, yet it allows only 10 days to complete the survey – which will expire at least a week before the body shop expects to have the car back to me. Obviously, the technology generating the surveys has no visibility into the status of the claim in question.

Takeaway – If you care about survey responses, make sure the surveys are sent at the proper time. Automation handles this kind of stuff in it’s sleep – if it’s automated with the right data. “Ask questions while the answers still matter” also means don’t ask too soon.

Thursday 12/15 Received a mailer from insurance company suggesting that I could refinance the Subaru at a lower rate. Only if they’re offering negative interest.

Takeaway – Wording on your direct mail matters as much as it does in tweet or email. The assumptions you make can make your marketing piece all but invisible.

Friday 12/16 Talked to body shop. As of today, all the parts showed up, so they will start work on Monday the 19th. Parts were supposed to take a week, but my guess is that ground shipping has been impacted by Christmas shipping season. It’s clear we wont’t get the car back in 2017.

Tuesday 12/20 30 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.

Friday 12/29 Work is underway, had to order another couple of parts for previously unseen damage, and those parts have not arrived yet. Holiday shipping traffic and people on vacation have probably slowed delivery. Body shop estimates the car will be completed sometime the week of the 8th-12th.

Monday 1/8 Checked in with body shop. They asked me to bring in plates so they could drive it. They say the car is pretty much done, looks great. Told me that they were taking the car to Subaru to get it started again and certify sensors and automated driver-assist systems, etc. He cannot start the car, so Subaru apparently has to reset the computer or similar. Once they get it back from Subaru, they will highway test it to make sure all is well, and then we’ll be done with it.

Wednesday 1/10 Checked in with body shop. They reminded me to get plates to them. I have no car since the Mrs is driving mine to work and they are not open outside normal working hours, so I’ll have to drop them off during off-hours.

Saturday 1/13 Dropped the plates by the body shop so they could drive it.

Tuesday 1/16 Spoke with John at the body shop. Subaru has had the car for about 10 days. They were unable to get the car started for days. Apparently, they were unable to convince the computer to allow it to start and no one knew what to do. I’ve seen what happens when this occurs at other dealers – the service manager calls the factory and gets some help. Apparently, they managed to get it running a couple days later because a factory-certified master mechanic happened to be passing through Missoula and helped them figure it out. Makes me wonder if our local dealer has any factory-certified mechanics for 2018 vehicles. John tells me they told him to come pick it up. He did. On the short drive back to his shop, John sees that the dash is lit up like a Christmas tree – every light is on. Clearly, the dealer didn’t finish the job and left the car in a state where it is running, but not ready to return to the customer (ie: me). No idea if driving in this condition would have eventually caused engine damage. Body shop guy turns around, returns the car to them, tells them not to bother giving the car back until it is 100% perfect. I suspect it wasn’t worded that way, but the point was still made.

Takeaway – Notice how the body shop advocated for the customer? Can you imagine the response you’d get if you made a similar demand of your dealer’s service department?

Takeaway – Don’t all dealers have at least one factory-certified master technician? If you have them and you know the other dealers don’t, why isn’t your advertising letting people know this important detail?

Friday 1/19 Spoke with John at the body shop. He tells me that Subaru seems to be making progress. They found a sensor or something that needed to be replaced, so they ordered it for Monday (1/22) delivery.

Saturday 1/20 60 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.

Tuesday 1/23 Spoke with John at body shop. Dealer still has not returned the car to them. He didn’t know if they received the part on Monday, or what progress had been made. Said Dar has been working with them and that he would know, but he was gone for the day.

Wednesday 1/24 Called body shop to see if they had any news from Subaru. Dealer is still trying to figure out engine issue.

Friday 1/26 Body shop called. Subaru dealer still lost on what’s going on. Thought it was figured out, they gave him the car on Thursday. Once again, on the drive back to the shop, it started throwing engine failure warnings, so he turned around and took it back.

Monday 1/29 Body shop called, said that Subaru finally reproduced the problem so now they seem to have it narrowed down to a computer error or an oil sensor error. Apparently the problem is intermittent. Every programmer you know will tell you this makes the problem harder to find.

Wednesday 1/31 Called body shop. They explained that after they called Subaru late on 1/29 after we last talked and found that Subaru techs determined that the one of the car’s computers was messed up. They figured this out by swapping a new car’s computer into our car and re-testing, as well as swapping ours to a new car. As your programmer friends will tell you, this is debugging 101. Replace / disable the components that are involved, but do so one at a time. Why it took three weeks to arrive at that point, I have no idea. Interestingly, the dealer does not stock computers for the current model year even though the Outback is the highest selling model in the U.S. as of 2016 with a mere 16.0 days to turn (ie: days on lot before it gets sold ). Perhaps computers don’t fail that often. Dealer apparently isn’t allowed to take the computer from a new car, so they had to order one (delivery time: three to four days). Body shop was hopeful (but not super confident) that he would get it back late Thursday or early Friday so he could get it to us before the end of the day on Friday.

Friday 2/2 Body shop called in the morning to say that he got the car back and that it was OK. They need it for a few more hours to finalize cleanup and then we can have it. I was able to pick up the car about 4:30pm. The total repair bill was just short of $16,000. Later that night, I got a detailed email receipt from the body shop, as well as an automated email from the insurance company that an “updated claim estimate” had been received. The body shop gassed it up before returning it.

Takeaway – Filling the tank was not required and not expensive, but it was a nice gesture when returning someone’s car after over two months. What “not required and not expensive” things can you do to impress your clients?

Saturday 2/3 Received an automated email from the insurance company noting that the claim had been paid. On a Saturday. Despite decades of working on automated systems, I’m shocked this didn’t require management approval, particularly given the amount (almost $16K). It appears from Friday night and Saturday driving that the car is back to pre-deer condition. Body shop’s paint/finish job was very well done.

Takeaway – Systems work. While the efficiency provided by inter-company systems produce a time and cost savings benefit to the insurance company, body shop and dealer, these systems are also a benefit to customers.

Verdict of the experience:

Body shop – Great job, both on the work and as an advocate for me when dealing with the local dealer. Slower than expected, but three holidays and the shipping time for multiple parts orders didn’t help. At times, they seemed surprised that I didn’t go ballistic on them or at least take out my frustration with the situation on them during our calls. I never felt the need to do that because they kept me informed, set expectations, and were clearly playing the role of advocate for me when dealing with the dealer. They didn’t make me do their job.

Local dealer – They had the car for over three weeks. I wonder what would have happened if that factory-certified technician from somewhere else hadn’t been in the area twice while our car was being diagnosed. I got the impression that this guy was the savant who twice rescued the dealer’s service department from throwing up their hands and giving up. Imagine if a random customer had been dealing with the dealer instead of a peer in their industry. The body shop guys tell me that they still believe in the dealer’s service department, so that goes a long way. The dealer should appreciate that they were held to the body shop’s standards.

National claims office – Outside of a slow start with the tow (which added a week) and the adjuster (which added another week) and one episode of snark on the phone, they performed as expected.

Local agent – Was a non-factor in the process. Agent missed a substantial opportunity to create a relationship and show how they care for clients.

What’s missing from this timeline?

A personal contact from the agent.

The lady who cuts my hair knows more about our experience with the deer hit and the subsequent repair adventures than my (former) insurance agent. If this seems normal, you have the wrong agent or you are the wrong agent.

In the nine weeks between hitting the deer and getting our car back, our only contact with the agent’s office has been my call to their office where I talked to his admin on the morning of the deer hit. She was pleasant, asked if everyone was ok, took a little bit of info, then transferred me to the national claim office. That part was expected as the priority at the time is to get started on repairing the car once we’re clear that there were no injuries.

A week after getting our car back, it was clear our agent wasn’t going to reach out. I called them to move our coverage to the CFalls agent we previously worked with for almost 15 years (call it a corrected oversight).  The old agent’s admin was pleasant and said she would take care of it, noting that she would contact me if they needed more info. She didn’t ask about my wife or the car, which tells me that their customer contact software doesn’t give them any sort of recent history to help “make conversation” & check in on a customer’s satisfaction level during customer calls.

The next day, the agent called me for what I believe is the first time in three and a half years.

He was calling to tell me that he had released our policies to CFalls & to ask if we were moving because of something they’d done. It was too late to ask. They might be able to fix it for someone else, but for anyone wearing the customer hat, it doesn’t matter. Some might share, but most are going to say whatever gets the guy off the phone – and that’s exactly what I did. I was busy with work at the time and didn’t have time to get into what would probably become an hour-long discussion.  Interestingly, the agent said he asks the same question of customers transferring business to his office – ie: what made you leave the other agent? What about the gap between getting and losing a customer?

It’s critical to ask good questions, but be sure to ask them while the answers still matter.

Fill gaps of inattention

So let’s get back to the real reason I bothered to share all of this with you: To help you understand how you might be leaving gaps of inattention in your relationship with your customers.

After my wife hit a deer at 70 MPH on a pitch dark morning just before 6:00 am, no one called during that nine week period to ask if:

  • … the driver is still doing OK (injuries and issues often show up days/weeks later)
  • … we’ve gotten the car back or to ask if we know why it’s taking so long (we have and I do).
  • … if we’re satisfied with the repairs (we are).
  • … if we want to make any coverage changes (we do).

This is below my expectations.

Some agents might say they “aren’t allowed” to make that sort of contact with customers. Don’t confuse being a real person who cares about their clients with being an order taker.

If your parent company doesn’t allow you to have personal, caring contact with your clients, find another company to represent. If anything, that sort of rule may indicate how that company will treat you someday.

Some insurance agents reading this might be thinking “we’re not told to do that“. Bear in mind that there are many things you should do to keep and care for a client that no one tells you to do.

Don’t be an order taker.

An order taker says “Do you want fries with that?”, yet an order taker can show some humanity and assess the purchaser on their feet and comment/question accordingly when appropriate.

An order taker can be replaced at will. I can switch to another agent for the same company without a second thought. I can switch to another insurance company without much thought, if all I want to do is compare dollars and cents.

On the other hand, if a client is madly in love (maybe that’s a stretch) with the care and attention provided by their insurance agent and their team, you’ll have to pry them away in most cases.

Which agency do you want to own? Which agency do you want to use? The order taker or the caring, attentive team?

What premier service do they reach for?

How do you keep your clients excited and/or interested in your company? This shouldn’t be any problem doing this for your highest-value clients as I expect you already have premier programs and services for them. I’m talking about your newest clients, as well as those who have been around a while but haven’t yet “made it big”. Have they seen a premier service or product waiting for them on the next rung of the ladder?

What convinced your newest clients to buy ProductX? How do their reasons vary from those who have used ProductX for a decade or more? These two types of businesses could be quite different. It’s likely they see your business and your offerings in two completely different light.

Why did your newest client buy your products and services? Right now, you would hope that means that you’re best of breed. The long-time client not only wants the product that supports their needs, but they also have to see a compelling reason that prevents them from changing to another provider. The pain of change is a substantial contributor to decisions not to move to another solution, but you’d probably prefer that the primary reason for not changing is that you are keeping up with (and preferably anticipating) their needs.

Both groups need to climb the ladder.

What’s on the next floor?

One thing that you rarely see from companies that have multiple levels of product and/or service offerings is guerrilla-style marketing of those options to people who don’t yet qualify for them, or don’t know of them. This creates a gap in your clients’ understanding of the maturity of your business and what offers to them. As an example, some hotel chains have concierge floors. These are typically available only to clients who have a long history of stays with that hotel chain.

If you haven’t yet developed an allegiance to a hotel chain, or don’t see much difference between them, you’re likely to pick the cheapest one that fits your level of comfort. That isn’t what the chain wants, yet they seldom do anything to inspire allegiance, much less aspiration to the next level.

Have you ever toured the concierge level facilities of a hotel prior to earning access to them? Have you seen the differences between a regular and concierge level rooms? If not, what motivates you to choose that chain consistently and move up to a frequent lodging level that has access to those floors?

While a hotel couldn’t do this every night, on nights when room capacity is lower, the hotel’s systems could automatically identify a handful of travelers for a free upgrade to a concierge level. They should be people whose stay history indicates they’ll be good candidates for the company’s frequent lodging programs. If the systems can’t do that, local management can make the upgrades happen.

You’d be surprised how a “small favor” like this can turn a relationship up a notch and generate long term loyalty.

Peek behind the curtain

The same sort of idea works for an airline, or a company that has multiple service levels. I was recently on a sparsely seated flight to Minneapolis and was surprised to find eight empty first class seats on the plane. These days, that’s very unusual.

A smart automated system should have identified fliers in economy who are close to reaching the next frequent flier level and upgraded them to a higher level seat moments prior to boarding. These systems might choose a passenger whose originating airport is a United hub, presuming that a percentage of those passengers might be ripe for change.

Similarly, if your company staffs premier service levels such as extended weekday or weekend hours, you may have people in place who can service a one-time upgrade. When someone asks for help outside their allotted service window, they’d normally expect to wait until the next business day. Instead, you could occasionally deliver service right then – even if they aren’t paying for extended service.

Be sure to explain what you’re doing and offer this to a good candidate for your premier services. A follow up with their management to explain why you provided a taste of up-level service might be the conversation that moves them up a tier.

Every business should seek ways to provide an ascension ladder for their clientele – and create the desire to climb it.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tipsfortravellers/

Strategic Notepad: Take Ownership

Last week, we talked about the opportunity presented to you when you find yourself helping a client in a stressed, deadline-driven or other pressure-filled situation. You can either create a good memory or a bad one.

We’ve talked about how to make the best of these situations and we’ve talked about the opportunity created and what I experienced with a travel agent. Sometimes people act on your behalf because you have signed a contract with them to do so. For example, I have a client that owns a bed and breakfast and they are “represented” in some fashion by online booking agents, travel review sites (like Trip Advisor) and so on. If a reservation agent treats one of their clients rudely, you can bet it will reflect on the B&B.

Take ownership

Whether you like it or not, anyone who sells for you, advertises for you, reps for you or in any way helps you sell what you do REPRESENTS YOU. Make no mistake, if they do something wrong while working on your behalf, your client will associate you with the situation – and they should. While you can’t always control whether or not these situations occur, you can certainly impact what happens when it manages to roll downhill to you.

Here’s an example of the wrong approach:

When I contacted the car rental company about the situation I was dealing with, this was their response:

Hello Mark, I can understand how this experience would be frustrating for you. Expedia is an independent third party brokerage service that is not affiliated with Enterprise. If given the wrong information such as the address and pickup time, please contact Expedia for further investigation.”

Read that again… “NOT AFFILIATED WITH ENTERPRISE”.

While I have little doubt that this description is accurate from a legal / terms of service perspective, the reality is that I rented a Enterprise car via Expedia. Affiliated or not, anything Expedia does regarding that rental certainly reflects on Enterprise whether they like it or not. Expedia doesn’t own the cars. They’re basically a combination of Google (ie: a search engine) for flights, hotel rooms and cars – and a store that can hook me up with those time and location sensitive assets.

Keep in mind that this was the response vs. something like “Hmm, that’s unfortunate and I apologize that the site sent you to the wrong address. I will reach out to our Expedia vendor rep and make sure the rental location address is corrected.” Most importantly, there was no “Can we get you a car, or have you taken care of that already?” – remember, their business is renting cars, not tweeting. There was STILL a sales opportunity and more importantly, an opportunity to “come to the rescue”. That opportunity was squandered.

While it might seem like I’m busting on the support representative who sent me this message, that’s not the case. Almost certainly, the text of this was approved by management for situations like this. A few minutes later I received the same message intended for someone else. The only difference between the message addressed to me and the second message was that the second one was addressed to “Dan” and mentioned Travelocity rather than Expedia. I politely noted that to the rep so Dan would get his message.

Canned responses are a normal part of customer support. You wouldn’t want reps who handle hundreds of messages per day retyping them, much less authoring them on the fly. The rep did exactly what she was trained to do and in fact, provided the fastest response I received from anyone – but it didn’t help me get a car.

My response to the rep is the real message of this post:

I get that, but do understand that ultimately they represent you and I suspect, do so on millions of bookings per year. Its not solely on them.

If someone sends you thousands of purchases per day, for all intents and purposes, they represent you even if the TOS says otherwise. Take ownership. People are buying your stuff from you, even if someone else takes the money. YOU deliver.

The most serious error of this entire situation was the failure to close the sale and provide a car for me. That’s the business they’re in. NEVER forget what business you’re in, or your clientele might.

Strategic Notepad: Customer Service

Last week, I noted that how you should recover from a client’s poor experience with you is dependent upon the context.

For example, a four hour flight delay is meaningless if you have a six hour layover. It becomes serious if you have a three hour layover before an international flight late in the day, or if the delay causes you to miss an important meeting, a wedding, or a funeral. If the delay causes you to get bumped to a connecting flight later in the day, it might not be a big deal. If it causes you to get bumped to next Saturday…

Context matters a lot.

Serious context is a serious opportunity

When your client is under pressure, deadline, stress or similar, you have an opportunity to create a memory that can last a lifetime. Will that memory be good or bad? Whichever way it goes is likely to be how your relationship with that customer… unless you treat them like a client.

What’s the difference? A customer is a transactional thing. Customers buy and consume “stuff”. Clients are like patients – under your constant (or at least regular) observation and care. Which are you more likely to take better care of, based on that definition? My guess is the client. Despite the definition, it’s all about perception. If you perceive them as an asset to be cared for (and to extract revenue from for a lifetime), you’re likely to treat them differently than you would if you think you might never see them again. Thing is, if you treat them like you’ll never see them again, you might experience that.

The opportunity to save the day / be a hero in your client’s most stressful, pressured, awful moment is a gift – but only if you open it. Sure, you might push COGS a little higher for their transaction. You might take a little heat from your manager if you take the initiative to solve a client’s problem in a slightly unorthodox way – but not if they truly get it because they’ll know you’re protecting the business.

Are you encouraging initiative?

One of the things that seems to be getting being “beaten” out of employees these days is initiative. Evidence? The fact that people are so impressed when someone takes initiative to help them as if they read the Business is Personal playbook. Businesses have produced a generation of workers who fear helping clients in an appropriate manner (when context calls for it) because not adhering to policy and procedure is often considered as a firing offense, even if you acted in the client’s best interest.

Even if you can’t stretch, provide options

Last month, I reserved a car rental with a pickup at 3:00pm. The rental location address provided by the vendor was wrong – fortunately it was wrong by a few blocks (and across the street). However, the rental location closed at 3:00pm and the nearest open branch was about 50 miles away. After waiting on hold for 54 minutes, customer service basically said the whole thing was my fault because I arrived a few minutes after the pickup time. By the time my call came off hold, I was more than an hour’s drive from their only open location and due to my appointment schedule, I was unable to visit that location. I made it clear that I was more or less stranded but my comments were ignored.

How could this have been handled – even if the customer service person couldn’t spend a dime? They could have offered to send someone to pick me up – but at 5pm on a Saturday (which tells you how long I was on the phone), there was no extra staff at the airport to shuttle a car to me. Had they said they checked and couldn’t do that due to a lack of extra staff on duty, I would have appreciated it. They could have asked which hotel I was at and (because they are a travel agency), offered to rebook me at a hotel close to me and have the car delivered the next morning.

Instead, they chose to blame me for the entire situation. They were focused on shifting blame, rather than helping a client juggling business and family travel on a very important family day. I will not forget and neither will your (former?) clients.

Protect your business by protecting your clients.

Protecting your business

Business owners protect their business by reducing risk, managing cash flow, getting appropriate legal advice and insuring their people and assets properly. Most businesses decide to check out motor trade insurance instant online quotes and look for the company that suits them. The thing is, you can do those all things properly and still leave your business open to damage that’s incredibly difficult, expensive and time consuming to repair. How? By providing out of context customer service.

Specifically, I’m referring to what tends to occur when you’re trying to recover from a mistake. The perfect time to show them you have their back… or to turn your back.

Which do you do?

Every once in a while, you make a mistake. Hopefully you learn from it. If it was caused by a systemic failure, you know by now to put a system (preferably automated) in place to prevent it from happening again and of course, integrate it into the rest of your systems. If it wasn’t caused by a systemic failure, then the problem might have been caused by a customer service flub, a product or service mistake, or a failure to deliver – regardless of the reason.

What happens next is where I see businesses repeatedly making a mistake: How they recover for the customer. That’s when context becomes critical.

Recovering FOR your client

When approached by a disappointed, angry, concerned, distraught customer, it seems that many businesses have trained their people such that their Customer Service Prime Directive is to protect the business at all costs.

Guess what. Recovering from your mistakes in a way that preserves the customer relationship IS protecting the business, but only if it’s done right. While protection of the business is essential in these circumstances – your legal paperwork and insurance should have already done that. The third leg of the stool is how the customer feels when the exchange is over.

Consider what happens if a flight attendant accidentally spills a cup of black tea in someone’s lap on a plane. The passenger’s linen skirt is stained (a bit embarrassing for now), but it could impact the skirt wearer’s day severely if they’re being met at the airport by an important new prospect. What if their next direct manager is meeting them at the airport for an interview? What if the flight arrives at midnight and the traveler simply has to grab their bag and drive home alone at midnight.

The subconscious loss of confidence in the client / employment situations could alter the airline client’s entire life. Maybe that’s good, maybe not. How the airline reacts FOR their customer can determine how that customer feels about them for the rest of their lives. People remember how they were treated – particularly in situations like this. The context the client provides (even if you have to extract it from them) is critical to the level of your response.

I’m reminded of a surprise Peter Shankman received in 2011 from Morton’s Steakhouse after he jokingly asked for a steak to be delivered to Newark airport. You might think that was an expensive response resulting only because Peter had a lot of Twitter followers at the time. I think they saw an opportunity to make a lifetime memory for a good customer, even if they knew that he’d blog/tweet about it. Five years later, where do you think he takes clients to dinner more often than not?

How you recover for the client in their current context is everything. If Peter was landing in Missoula (which has no Morton’s), then a clever tweeted response might have sufficed, though they could take if further if they had a connection to a solid steak house in MSO.

In Customer Service, context is everything

Sometime’s a “Sorry” and replacement / discount will suffice. Sometimes, the client’s context makes your $154 mistake a memory that could last for years. Imagine you had a romantic evening out of town planned with your significant other and when you arrived at the hotel, they didn’t have a room – even though you’d paid in advance. What if the town is booked solid because of a local event? There’s “no room at the inn”… ANY inn.

How you protect the business is everything at that point – keeping in mind that the wrong kind of business protection creates customer defection. If you’re going to create a lifetime memory, make sure it’s a good one.

A simple, high value tactic many miss

When people know that you help small businesses and you’ve had a newspaper column since 2007, everyone who has a bad (or even mildly annoying) experience at a business wants to tell you about their latest adventure in commerce.

Sometimes I hear about situations that really aren’t the fault of the business. Other times, the stories I hear make me wonder what the business owner(s), or their staff, is thinking. Of course, there are always two sides to any conflict, including the parts you never hear from either side.

Conflict isn’t number one

While you might think disagreements and conflicts are the number one think I hear about, that isn’t the case. Today’s topic isn’t really about conflict, but it can easily become a source of conflict if the affliction goes untreated.

The affliction? No follow up. Insufficient follow up often feels like no follow up. Prospects call or email and want to order something. Their call or email goes unanswered. They get frustrated. They call someone else in your market. You not only lose the sale, but you probably lose the possibility of ever having that person as a client.

Recently, I heard a story from someone who wanted to buy an item, called several vendors in that market, failed to get any follow up action or contacts by anyone in the market, then called a nationwide retailer with a local presence and didn’t even hear back from them. When they contacted the retailer, the retailer’s staff couldn’t provide any information about when the item would show up, much less if it was on its way. At this point, months have gone by without any progress, despite involving several vendors.

So, on a $500+ purchase, multiple vendors in the same market appear to be unwilling to do the work to close the sale. Normally, this situation would make me a bit suspicious of the would-be purchaser’s mood, but in this case, I know them well enough that this isn’t about the person wanting to buy.

Follow up. That’s all.

While this is a pretty unusual situation, the key for all of this is follow up. Return calls, emails, etc are a necessity to close a sale and keep a client. So why would vendors who routinely sell a $500-3000 item fail to do that? I can’t explain it. What I can do is tell you that this isn’t unusual. Lots of businesses fail to follow up enough, or fail to follow up at all.

Solo entrepreneurs fail to do it. Small companies fail to do it. Medium sized companies fail to do it. Large companies fail to do it. I can’t explain why, but I can tell you it is the number one source of frustration of the people I talk to. I hear it about salespeople, order departments, support and customer service as well as repair and service people.

Communicate. It’s that simple. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign you care about your business, much less about your clientele and their needs. It’s an incredibly easy and inexpensive way to make a client stick around and develop a loyalty to your business that’s incredibly hard to break. Think of it as an almost impregnable fence that your competition can’t get past to gain access to your customers. It’s not expensive or complicated.

Why doesn’t follow up happen?

Follow up doesn’t fail to happen because the business owner or their staff don’t want to take care of their clientele. Most of them do care. Sometimes it isn’t obvious that follow up isn’t happening, or the owners and staff don’t realize that some of the most important follow up is letting their clients know what’s going on even when nothing has changed.

The most common reason that follow up doesn’t happen is that there’s no system to manage it. Without a system to make sure it happens, today’s daily chaos takes over and those follow up tasks are soon forgotten.

When I say “system”, I mean a mechanism that makes sure that you follow up with clients, whether or not the system consists of paper, technology or something else.

The key is that you put together something that you and the staff will actually use because “I need to remember to call Joe” isn’t a system for anything other than disappointing Joe.

 

First impressions: Driven by mastery

Most likely you’ve heard the saying “A poor artisan blames their tools.

Despite the ROI of blame being zero (at best), this situation goes well beyond blame.

When you blame the tool, at least two situations can pop up:

  • Your current tools don’t produce the kind of benefits / outcome / work you need (even if they used to), and that suggests you need to choose another tool that will do the work.
  • Your comfort level with the existing tool may exceed your need (or desire) to select a better one, even though the better tool has substantial benefits to your business. A frequent obstacle is the inertia created by the anticipated learning curve of a new tool. Even the perception of that curve can prevent a tool switch capable of producing massive benefits.

However, there’s far more to mastery than your expertise with the tools used to create the services and products you deliver.

Beyond mastery of production

This experience includes the tools used to communicate with your client community, such as your accounting system, email list management (such as http://enews.aweber.com), webinar software, phone systems and redundancy management such as backup systems.

Low tech systems should also be a part of these discussions, as they’re as important as the others. Examples of low tech systems include office / shop / restroom cleaning, plumbing as well as trash and scrap disposal. Hazardous materials management (such as benzene containment) will also play a part in the equation for many service and manufacturing businesses.

Even if none of these systems touch the service or product your clients receive, they do form the foundation of your clients’ experience. How they interact with each other, as well as how they interact with your clientele, is critical to the first impression you make, much less the day to day experience you create.

Master your communications tools

Communications tools are a common stumbling point in this way. Consider the last few webinars or conference calls you’ve attended.

How many times have the organizers struggled with the webinar or phone software or hardware? Did it reach the point where it was a distraction that kept participants from accomplishing the meeting’s goals? Did it prevent effective communication in the meeting?

The frustration factor of these things wears on participants, particularly if they experience it repeatedly. The more organizers struggle with the technologies, the worse it gets.

A common factor in less-than-ideal group settings like webinars, call-in shows and conference calls is a lack of rehearsal by the presenters. When presenters read from a script or bullets they’ve never rehearsed, the mechanical / monotonous nature of reading text that the reader has not rehearsed reduces attendee comprehension.  If interaction is expected between presenters, an unrehearsed presentation’s conversation isn’t conversational, it’s mechanical.

Good speakers can ad-lib from bullets or scripted text, but if you haven’t practiced enough to make the ad-lib feel natural, it won’t be sound nearly as smooth as you’d like.

When a conversation loses this natural touch and goes mechanical, it leads listeners down the road to inattention and boredom.

Bark, meow, disconnect

When speakers confuse the mute button with the disconnect button on their phone, it produces a jarring experience. In some webinar software, it’s a challenge for the organizer to return to the call, and in some cases, the conference is terminated when the organizer disconnects. Are you ready to lose 1000 listeners because you clicked or touched the wrong button?

Less serious flubs like echo, feedback, cell phone rings and animal noises in the background not only distract the listener, but they speak to your attention to detail – prompting listeners to wonder where else your lack of attention will manifest itself.

Is it streamlined?

First impressions are rooted in streamlined interactions, a lack of jarring experiences and consistently well-met expectations.

How you achieve these things is not driven solely by product and service quality. Consistency in delivery, interaction, returns, accounting, conference calls, billing, refunds, follow ups and a litany of other minutiae (like spelling minutiae properly) contribute to the overall experience your clientele has, remembers and expects.

When great first impressions become a streamlined, consistent experience, it transforms referrals from “We use so-and-so” to “You’re totally crazy if you don’t use so-and-so. Don’t use anyone else!”

Isn’t that what you want?

You will not receive a reply.

JConnectFeedback

What message do you send to customers when you tell them up front that their feedback will not get a response?

How many businesses have you stopped communicating with because they don’t listen and reply? Does anyone feel that way about your business? About you?

If you have to do less communicating in order to do so in a way that creates better client relationships, give it a try.

As for the graphic – If you don’t have time to reply, do you have time to read their feedback? Maybe, but that’s not the worst of it. If you aren’t listening and people know it, they won’t share anything with you.

It isn’t the customer who won’t receive a reply… It’s you.

Why isn’t everyone on time?

IMG_1362

One of the things I notice while working with clients (and being one) is that some of us are pretty good at making things hard on our customers.

Hard on customers?

You might be.

Let’s clean up a few things so you can make it easier on them (and easier to keep them as clients).

Show up on time

Given that so many people have smart phones, smart watches, computers in their cars and so on – you would *think* that they’d be on time more often.

When you don’t show up when you said you would, you make it hard on your customers. I know, I know. You can’t always do that.

Here’s what you can do – the instant you know there’s a chance you’ll be late, call to warn them. Give them options (bail or wait?) If you can, dispatch someone else to take care of their situation. Few things annoy a customer or partner more than setting time aside (or taking time off work) to meet you, only to have you show up 90 minutes late without a call.

While it’s an obvious, common sense competitive edge, why isn’t everyone on time?

Close the four hour window

My impression is that a lot of vendors are getting better at this, but there are still enough out there telling their customers that they’ll meet them between 8:00 AM and noon, or “sometime in the afternoon”.

This shows a (perhaps passive) lack of respect for the customer’s time.

Do you really manage your time and your staff / equipment resources so poorly that you can’t estimate arrival windows to smaller increments than half a day? I doubt it. I think you’ve gotten used to it and haven’t changed it because it’s comfortable. Comfortable for you, that is. I assure you that your customers don’t feel this way. Don’t trust me on this – ask your customers if they’d appreciate a smaller window. They might even pay more to get a smaller window.

Arrive with what you need

Sometimes, you don’t know what the deal is because the customer didn’t explain the situation too well. Sometimes you don’t know what size of this or that to show up with, and if you took this too far and showed up with the right parts every time, you’d have to drive an eighteen wheeler to work. While you probably can’t know what you need every single time, do what you can to reduce the “I’ll be right back, gotta grab some parts” trips. They increase your overhead and they annoy your customer.

Make it easy to pay

Offer some payment convenience.

Fewer and fewer people like handing over a piece of paper with their bank account number on it (ie: a check). If you get a smartphone-enable credit card reader such as Square, you save a trip to the bank and they get to pay without a check – if that’s what they want to do.

Keep track of the paper

If you must save the business paperwork that your customers send you and you can’t replace the paper system with something else (assuming that thing will work better), make sure you can find their paperwork when you need it.records. I recently sold a house. On two separate occasions, the deal was almost scuttled (or made far more expensive) because someone misfiled paperwork related to little things like septic plans and wells. A sharp agent is the only thing that prevented an expensive, annoying outcome.

Making it easy back at the ranch

Fact is, we don’t limit this “making it hard” thing to customers. We’re also pretty good at making things hard on our own people.

While work isn’t necessarily supposed to be easy, there’s no reason to make it more difficult than it already is. Each of the make-it-easier for customers things have an impact on your staff. Your internal systems for communication, tracking and appointment management are critical to making this easy to fulfill for your clients. If they aren’t, your products and servers are much less likely to be delivered in a friction-free manner. Don’t make your staff fight the system to get their work done.

Always be looking for bumpy spots and internal / external hassles you can eliminate. Make it easy for them to recommend you to someone, and to call you back the next time.