I always find it amazing that companies place so little emphasis on customer service training. Notice I didn't say "dollars," but "emphasis." Training in customer service doesn't require much money. It's mostly ongoing awareness perpetuated by a service mindset throughout the organization.
Such a mindset reaps great rewards, yet time and again we see companies do poorly and even fail because of poor customer service. Think Circuit City. Before their demise, they ran neck-and-neck with Best Buy. Their sales staff knew their product line and could answer any question.
Then Circuit City's management got rid of their highest-paid – and most knowledgeable -commissioned sales staff and it became difficult to get information about their products. Rather than deal with incompetence, many people just shopped elsewhere. The rest is history.
So what does it take to win and keep customers? Sarah Artis, Manager of the Dale Carnegie Training institute in Boise, Idaho, says providing good customer service means authentically caring for the client.
"When you are working with people, they can see right through you if you're there to only make money. But if you're there to build the relationship, you win and they win. Good customer service means making a difference in that person's life."
Artis says good customer service includes being there "during and after the sale," and she points to three things all service reps should do:
- Begin in a friendly way
- Talk in terms of the customer's interest
- Really listen to what the other person is saying to see things from their point of view.
Incorporating those same guidelines is an organization known for setting the standard in customer service: the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain. Their customer service guidelines can be found in the book Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization by Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon.
The authors' first finding is that it's vital to define good customer service, and then keep redefining it over time. Think of it as re-examining the standards and making sure they're working. If something isn't working, change it. Just make sure changes actually improve the quality of service, not just make things flashy.
Their second finding is that employees must be trusted to act on established standards. I love this one because whenever employees must "check with the manager" before addressing a problem, customers begin to feel their problems won't get resolved to their satisfaction. It's too easy for problems to be misunderstood and therefore not resolved correctly.
Thirdly, service reps need to know their focus must be on the customer. Every situation is different. We must listen accurately to each customer's unique needs.
The fourth facet goes beyond active listening. The Ritz-Carlton model says people should be observing and anticipating a customer's unspoken needs. This is not an upsell, but rather a service mindset. If you know that little things make a difference, then you understand the importance of this facet.
Finally, Ritz-Carlton wants people to be concerned about leaving a lasting impression. They believe that if things are done right, profits will occur, so rather than focusing on profits, we should be looking at doing something that creates a lasting relevance in the world.
All of this is good, but not everybody believes companies should be striving to create overstated, "WOW" customer service. Robert Bacal, in his book If It Wasn't For The Customers I'd Really Like This Job, says it's difficult for companies to differentiate their brands in the marketplace over the long-term by using customer service alone. He doesn't see the point in "being sucked into the notion that customer service is the lever with which you can move the market."
Instead, Bacal recommends that businesses wanting to win and keep customers over the long-term should consistently provide basic levels of customer service.
In thinking about this, he has a point. Because so many companies fall short in customer service, I actually find myself agreeing with Bacal. Just take the basic example of being put on hold. Forever. Or wading through computer phone menus.
Where I live, one local bank proudly proclaims on its billboard advertising that phone calls to their branches will always be answered by a live person. Isn't it sad that people now consider that special service when in fact it's really just a return to basics?
Another basic idea is quick response. In his book The Small Business Survival Guide, Jason Reid says we should respond immediately to customer e-mails. In other words, jump on them as if we were sitting there waiting for the customer's message.
I've personally put Reid's advice into practice and have noticed a positive difference in how customers respond. People love quick responses.
As Artis says, it's all about being authentic. "You must genuinely care," she says. "You might not get their business that day, but in the future, when they have a problem, they'll think of you."