Improving Customer Service

Remember, good customer service is good business; Bad customer service is bad business.

Customer Service is the front line of a business. It answers customer questions, schedules appointments, troubleshoots problems and acts as the customer’s ombudsman. Although some people consider it an inconsequential function, I consider it vital to the success of a business.

Let me give you an example, a few years ago I was flying on American Airlines from Tampa to Seattle, with a connection in Dallas. This was an important business call as I had a sales presentation to make. Understandably, I became upset when the Tampa flight left unexpectedly late. As I arrived in Dallas, I realized I was going to miss my connecting flight. Consequently, I was instructed to get in line to talk to a customer service agent, a line which moved painfully slow and my temper began to rise noticeably. So much so, an older agent read the rage in my face and asked me to step out of line and over to the counter where she was working. Before I could give her a piece of my mind, she raised her hand calmly and said, “Stop. I will take care of you.” I explained my problem and, to her credit, she had me rerouted and solved my problem. I found it remarkable how she was able to read me and defused the situation. She did it professionally and, frankly, with a lot of class. So much so, she turned a hostile customer into a happy one. I think her maturity and experience had a lot to do with it, but “Okay” was not okay with her, nor was the status quo. The process didn’t solve the problem, it was her personality and socialization skills that saved the day.

The benefits of Customer Service are often overlooked. The intent is to make customers happy. By doing so, happy customers become loyal and buy more (repeat sales). Better yet, happy customers tell their friends about your business thereby creating new revenue streams without having to advertise for it. By doing so, customer service can help reduce marketing expenses.

Over the years, I have learned it is a myth that “the customer is always right.” As Americans, we have developed a unique knack for attacking the wrong problems which I commonly refer to as the “Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” phenomenon. I see this not only in the corporate world, but in our private lives as well. Instead of addressing the correct problems, we tend to attack symptoms. This would be like taking an aspirin to alleviate a major head injury. Because of this, it is the responsibility of the Customer Service agent to read the symptoms and diagnose the true problem, and its cause.

Symptom > Problem > Cause

In this way, Customer Service establishes a doctor/patient relationship. The patient may very well possess a misconception of the problem. The Customer Service agent must diagnose the patient’s symptoms and work backwards to discover the actual cause. The cure for the problem may actually cost less than the symptom the patient described. True, you could gouge the customer based on his interpretation, but in all likelihood, the patient will eventually discover the swindle which will ultimately cost you business later on. To this end, you may need to perform some preliminary tests to verify the problem. In other words, do not act on impulse, find out what the problem truly is and what the cost will be to correct it. By going through this process, you give the customer what he needs, not necessarily what he wants.

If you want to cheat the customer, fine, but do not expect any repeat business from the customer and understand he will likely tell his friends of the indiscretion and your reputation will be ruined (as well as your business). The lesson here should be rather obvious, “DO NOT LIE TO THE CUSTOMER.” This can have catastrophic consequences. Do not fabricate an excuse or a lie. You will inevitably get caught. Instead, find and report the truth at all times, e.g.; “I’m sorry, I do not know that, let me look it up for you and call you back.” Remove negativity from your vernacular as it is a sign of weakness, develop a positive “Can Do!” attitude instead. For example, replace “I don’t know,” with, “Let me research it for you.”

Throughout this doctor/patient process, your patience will likely be tested. Now is the time for you to maintain a cool disposition and treat the patient like the professional you are. In the airline story, the ticket agent read my temper correctly and surprised me by raising her hand calmly (yet forceably) and said, “Stop. I will take care of you.” By doing so, she defused the situation and took charge like a professional.

Customers do not like to be taken for granted. They want to be assured their best interests are being maintained by their vendors. From this perspective, “Okay” is not okay. The only excuse for indifference in customer service is when the customer is becoming more trouble than he is worth. Even then, he may affect sales simply from a reference point of view. This also means maintaining the status quo will not suffice. Regardless of the policies and procedures in place, customer service reps need to go beyond the call of duty to keep the customer happy. It is what we used to call “hustle.” In other words, they cannot afford to go on automatic, but rather think and take charge of the situation.

I have a friend who is a sales manager for a large distributor of industrial supplies. He primarily hustles around the area meeting new customers and checking on existing ones. After a customer is established, they can call in orders, large or small, to the main office who should promptly process and ship accordingly. One day, late on a Friday afternoon, a customer called in a small order for a box of tape. Since it was late in the day on the last day of the work week, the customer service rep figured the order could wait until Monday morning. He thought wrong. The box of tape, as innocuous as it seemed, was actually very much needed by the customer. When he didn’t get it in time, he became very upset and the company lost the customer forever. This did not sit well with my friend who had to discipline the customer service rep for the snafu.

There are two other simple things you can do as a Customer Service rep to develop trust and rapport with the customer, first; HONOR YOUR COMMITMENTS. In the 43 years we have been conducting business, we have never failed to meet a customer commitment, be it a training class, or a consulting project. By doing so, our customers trust our dependability. If we agree to a date or a price, they have confidence we will honor it. Second, FOLLOW UP WITH THE CUSTOMER, particularly after delivery of the product or service. Questions, such as, “Is everything okay?”, “Any problems?”, or “Is there anything else we can help you with?” can work wonders in terms of building trust and satisfaction, not to mention leading to additional sales.

Customer Service is really not that difficult as long as we remember customers do not want to be taken for granted and want to have confidence their interests are being maintained by their vendor. Most customers do not want to jump from one vendor to another. They actually want to build a loyal relationship with someone they trust. They are just looking for a little hustle, to be treated fairly, and some professional courtesy. A good firm handshake can go a long way to instilling confidence.

In summary, Customer Service is simply a matter of diagnosing the true problems of the customer, and giving them what they need as opposed to just what they want, and doing it with a sense of professionalism. In a nutshell:

Good customer service is good business; Bad customer service is bad business.

Keep the Faith!