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How to Simplify Your Organization to Ensure Excellent Service

August 15, 2013 at 2:13 am

           Have you ever been frustrated by a call center? It might be because the service provider was looking at as many as eight to twelve screens, trying to help each person to the best of their capacity. Operational complexity describes a business that requires a high level of complexity to operate. This is increasingly common because new products and services are constantly being developed in the effort to increase revenue. New services and products leads to new policies and regulations, new technologies, new customers, and new need. The more complex the operation of your business is, the longer it takes for employees to master the tasks. And let’s face it: not all employees are exceptional. There is a spectrum of employees, and only very few are outstanding.

Your company might deliver great but inconsistent service. Rather than blaming the overwhelmed employees, let’s first take a look at the service model itself. It’s likely that your service model is built for employees you wish you had – not the ones you are actually dealing with.

 Here are some general and easy steps to get you started:

  1. Investigate – Step away from the desk for a while and get some hands-on experience at the front of the organization. Learn what the employees experience every day. Otherwise, how will you know what needs to be fixed? Try to see this part of your business as objectively as possible. As a viewer, you’re trying to shatter some built-in assumptions and denial. Try talking openly and honestly with your employees about their experience on the job. Ask them what could make their jobs easier and how their jobs have changed over time. Roll up your sleeves and join them. How does it feel to take twenty complicated drink orders within five minutes? How does it feel to manage a menu with 200 items on it? Now you know! I recommend doing this for at least a few days.

  2. Make a Complexity Graph – Now that you are pretty familiar with your business outside of your office, try to plot how the level of complexity on the job has changed over the past few years. Time is the x-axis, and level is on the y-axis. Then plot a line showing the level of employee sophistication over the same time span. You can do this intuitively (or, as I say, “eyeball it”). How big is the gap between the two lines? Ideally, both the lines match! You have to decide if the gap is a serious threat to your business or not.

  3. Make Improvements – If the gap worries you, then work on closing it. Either reduce the amount of complexity of the jobs your employees are doing, or increase the skills of the employees you hire. You can select higher-caliber people, or you can train the employees you already have. You can also do some of both. Of course, it’s a daunting task to increase selection standards. It takes a lot of persistence, resources, and time. Training is also an option, but that also takes a large amount of resources to do. It might be worth it, but you have to assess the situation.

You can also reduce the complexity of the tasks your employees execute. You can break large tasks into smaller tasks. You can then divide those smaller tasks among many employees. That way the system remains complicated (which might be necessary!) but each employee only is responsible for a small portion of it. If you’re ready to reduce operational complexity, start with the parts of your business that do not add direct value to your customers – like the 200 menu items, or the 20-step milkshake. Then you can tackle the more systematic complexities.

I hope this helps! I know that figuring out how to increase the efficiency of system-wide operations can be daunting. Like anything else, you just have to take one small step at a time. Before you know it, you will have rejuvinated your business and increased the satisfaction of your customers :)

The Chaos of Customer Service

July 20, 2013 at 8:57 pm

It’s important to examine the role customers play in creating service – not just consuming it. The fact is that no matter how efficiently you have planned your service model to run, you are going to be dealing with elements of chaos. If it takes someone five minutes to decide between a “tall” and a “grande,” that increases the cost and reduces the quality of the service that the coffee shop is trying to provide. On the other hand, you might be blessed one day with fifty customers who know what they want before they get to the counter and who are polite as well. However, that sunny scenario is the exception.

Customers are different from one another – every single one of them has a slightly different preference, arrival time, and mood, to name just three out of hundreds of variables. The diversity of people that walk through your door (or surf through your website) increases the variability of your service model.

 Here are some of the main contributors of chaos in customer service:

Timing: Customers don’t all want service at exactly the same time. There are fluxes and dips in the amount of people who arrive for a service. During dinner-time on a Friday night, a restaurant is overwhelmed by customers. But on a Wednesday morning they might experience a huge lull. This is a major source of variability.

 Preferences: Each customer will order something particular, will desire a different cell-phone plan, or will want a different number of copies at the copier. Yes, there are overlaps, and of course a customer in the mood for a taco won’t go to a furniture store. But within each business, there are usually hundreds of preferences that employees have to acknowledge and fulfill each time a new customer walks through the door.

Abilities: Customers come from so many different backgrounds. They have different levels and domains of knowledge, physical abilities, and financial resources. Some will be able to perform different tasks more easily than others. Some customers might have a hard time describing the noise their car is making or where the sound is coming from, whereas another customer might know a lot about car repairs.

Effort: Customers decide how much effort they will put into the service relationship. Some shoppers always put their carts back at the store, whereas some don’t.

Preference: Customers have different definitions of quality, even if they want similar products or services. If a patron walks into a mall store, they may find it rude to not be approached by one of the employees they see on the store floor. Another customer might find it annoying and invasive to be greeted and periodically asked if they need help with anything.

 Knowing what kind of variables you deal with in your own business can help you manage them.

 Main Source:

“Uncommon Service” by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss

Paying for Excellence – Part Two

July 20, 2013 at 2:53 am

Now that we have learned a little bit about paying for excellent service in the first section of this post, let’s talk about setting these changes into motion. Here are the main ways you can pay for service, taken from the last post:

1. Charge customers extra for it – in a palatable way

2. Make cost reductions that also improve service

3. Make service improvements that also reduce costs

4. Get customers to do the work for you

The simplest, most straightforward way to pay for excellent customer service in your business is to fund that great service (bullet point #1). But a lot of markets won’t tolerate an increase in price, so it’s not always the best option. I’m going to be talking about the three more creative ways to pay for excellence (the last three points).

First step: Look at your cost structure

What is your biggest cost drain? If you figure out what that is, it might lead you to where you can make the most savings. For example, if your largest cost is liabilities in the store from people who slip and fall, you can improve the safety of your store and make the service experience better as well. This is an exercise in brainstorming though, so you have to get creative!

Second step: Find your strength, and monetize them

What do you do better than any of your competitors? What gives you a unique edge? You might think you have a unique edge, but it’s more of a talking point. For example, a company might be proud that they are locally owned and run, but they aren’t actually using that selling point to generate real value that can give them a leg up over the national competition. They can use their local roots to offer real services to their customers that national competitors cannot do. So in this exercise, figure out what you’re good at, and find out what you can do better. Remember that you are trying to monetize what you are already good at so you have surplus money to keep funding great services.

Third step: Make self-service preferable

When companies make self-service an option, it is usually an aim to cut costs and to reduce prices. But if you can make self-service preferable to traditional customer-employee interactions, then you can even raise prices and cut costs at the same time. A great example of this as discussed in “Uncommon Service” by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss is Oschner Health System. It experimented with patient portals for its Baton Rouge clinic. The portals let the clients serve their own needs online: refilling prescriptions, receiving lab results, and scheduling their own appointments into the physician’s schedule. The customers were overwhelmingly satisfied with the online system that patient satisfaction rates went into the 90 percent range (the starting point was 50 percent!). Think about it: can you make self-servicce in your company so good that people pay for it? 

Beyond People Skills

July 18, 2013 at 4:20 am

On this website I talk a lot about people skills: verbal and nonverbal communication. But that’s not all that is important when dealing with customers and maintaining a wonderful customer service reputation. Yes — those things matter…a lot. But you have to figure out how to sustainably implement them in your business or in your own behavior. Ask yourself: “what am I doing to make sure all of my knowledge about my customers really sticks?” In order to create customer loyalty, you need to do more than have good people skills because customer loyalty is not built through surface interactions.

They are built through deeper and maintained relationships, actively looking for potential problems and solving them, and figuring out how to do these things consistently. Let’s break this up:

1. Building deeper and more meaningful relationships – you need to find ways to build relationships with your customers that will last. Can you brainstorm some strategies? Here are a few: write thank you cards; have a manager or business owner personally follow up on complaints; send out friendly e-mails to your customers informing them about deals. Maybe you can even start to build more personal bonds with your customers. When you have a regular customer, find out if they have children or what their favorite hobby is. Then you can continue to ask them about those things. Suddenly, you have added meaning to your business because you appreciate your customers more as people and realize that you really do impact their lives. You are adding meaning to their life, too, by asking them about what is important to them. Customer loyalty is created through emotions – feelings of being included, cared about, and understood. That goes way deeper than friendly greetings and a good store atmosphere!
2. Preemptive troubleshooting – to build customer loyalty, you need to kind of “become” a customer. What can you do that will help you see from their perspective even before problem arise? I like to use surveys. There is always something to improve. Your business is your creation – continue to tweak it and experiment, anticipating areas that might be problematic and fixing them.
3. Consistency – habits take time to form. We all know that. But once they are ingrained, your life starts to take shape around the good habits rather than the bad habits. It is the same way with the relationships you have with your customers and coworkers. The more you focus on consistently maintaining great relationships and service, the more it will just become part of the routine, despite busy schedules and stressful situations. But there are also some concrete tools that can you help you stay consistent.

Time management, though it might not seem related to customer service directly, actually will make a difference. If most of your days are running smoothly without stressful loose ends, then you will have more clarity to be the best service provider you can possibly be.

Are there ways you can utilize your time more efficiently? Can you manage time better in your business on an organizational level, so that everybody uses their time more efficiently?

Paying for Excellence – Part One

July 18, 2013 at 4:19 am

You can pamper your customers all you want, but are they going to pay for it? Is your excellent service gratuitous? Most successful service models use methods for reliably funding a wonderful experience. Without a reliable service model, organizations risk delivering service to customers who gladly enjoy it but never actually pay for it. In the book “Uncommon Service,” Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei breaks up your options into four main categories:

  1. Charge customers extra for it – in a palatable way

  2. Make cost reductions that also improve service

  3. Make service improvements that also reduce costs

  4. Get customers to do the work for you

Let’s get started with number one:

Charge customers extra for it – in a palatable way.

When you go to Starbucks, you aren’t just paying for the coffee (which, by the way, isn’t worth that $4-5 dollars you just spent). You’re also paying for their assumption that you are going to linger around in the shop for a while, working on your computer or talking to a friend. You might even linger for hours. So the cost is higher for the coffee, but it is palatably higher. Whether or not something is palatable as so many factors: what the customer expected from you to begin with, which individual is at hand, and what your competition is doing.

 Make cost reductions that also improve service

Sometimes the very thing that will both reduce costs and improve service (impossible? No!) is so apparent that we don’t easily notice them. I think this is the hardest category to find, but it’s worth looking. Classrooms are cheaper than private tutors; they are also more effective because in them people exchange ideas. The same thing can sometimes be said about group therapy. A major example of this is Progressive Insurance. When a client has an accident, the company immediately deploys a marked van to the scene with a Progressive employee to ask questions and assess the situation. Yes, their service costs real money. But this innovation targets its biggest sources of cost: fraud, disputed claims, and legal fees. By showing up at the scene itself, they combat fraud. By having an employee show up at the scene and take genuine interest in their client, the client is less likely to involve a lawyer. When fraud and disputed claims are less common, so are legal fees. Take a look around your business and see what you can find. You might be surprised. This one takes time to figure out.

 Make service improvements that also reduce costs

 Greatly improving service in an area of your business can significantly lower costs elsewhere. If you provide outstanding phone support to users in your small software company, then you have created two very positive results. First of all, your customers are more likely to return. But more interestingly, you will be able to use the call center as a “research center” for product development. Your call center employees can record the issues so that down the line your costs for technical help will decrease. When you invest in service improvements, you are also investing in advertising. Your customers do the advertising for you, because they can’t stop talking about your business!

 Get customers to do the work for you

 Getting customers to work for free began in the early 1900s with the world’s first self-service food shop. Rather than asking a clerk to collect your groceries for you, people began to have access to the stockroom to pick up their own groceries. It’s more work, but the customers loved the shopping experience. They had more control over what they bought and the time they had to make their decision. Now we have the supermarkets, and we all know what those look like. There are modern self-service solutions that are generally appreciated, like airline ticket kiosks. Other ones, like grocery store self-checkout, can be problematic and confusing. The key is to figure out if you can make your self-service solution so good that customers will actually pay for it. Some restaurants have accommodations that allow the costumer to meet their own needs to their specifications. A good example of this is a salad bar or a restaurant where the chef grills the meat of your choice and then you finish your plate at the buffet. The restaurant is charging the restaurant not for the price of waitstaff, but for the novelty, the experience, and for allowing the customer to customize their own needs.

Sources:

“Uncommon Service” by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss

Customer relationships – The Basic Idea

July 15, 2013 at 7:26 pm

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a relationship is “the state of being related or interrelated; connection.” It’s true that we usually think of relationships as an intimate bond, but it’s also something that happens between a provider and a customer. In this kind of relationship, a customer seeks out a particular person or business who can provide them with needed goods or services. Customer loyalty is when the customer keeps returning to the same provider. The customer in the relationship even will sometimes speak about the provider with terms of ownership: my stockbroker, my manicurist, my gardener, my personal fitness consultant.

Over time, both the customer and the provider will become more familiar with each other and therefore more relaxed. They will still be playing the “roles” of customer and provider, but they will also have a more relaxed and casual way of communicating. Because the provider is familiar with the customer, they might develop shortcuts that help them get the job done faster. Relationships create ties of attachment and trust; the customer and the service provider become dependent on each other. Do you want to hire a child-care worker that you already know and trust, or seek out a new one? A person who has worked closely with a stockbroker will, over time, come to trust the stockbroker to take care of his/her portfolio and make recommendations that are in line with the customer’s own values and wants.

 Solid relationships are labor-intensive – you can’t streamline customer loyalty like products in a factory. Usually providers are limited to a single customer at a time, even if the service doesn’t take long (like an employee at a cell-phone store who is helping a customer choose a plan). Though labor-intensive, solid relationships are also self-regulating. They operate on an automatic feedback loop: the customer needs a service or good, and the provider needs the customer in order to support the business. For this reason, they require very little management and large-scale organizational infrastructure. For example, many traditional services like medicine, law, dentistry, as well as gardening and carpentry, for example, are provided by single providers.

 Beginning a relationship is problematic for both parties. The provider is trying to test the waters to decide if the business is worth sticking with. The provider may do whatever it takes to create a budding relationship, but if the provider senses that a potential customer might be a deadbeat or someone who will offer little business, he/she may not put in a lot of energy to establish that relationship. 

The Unintended Effects of Customer Loyalty

July 15, 2013 at 7:25 pm

We all want our customers to stick with us, but there are also unintended effects of strong relationships that are important to keep in mind. Sometimes friendships develop between the customer and the provider that go beyond the surface interactions. This is good in some ways; it increases efficiency if both parties know about each other. But it also can decrease efficiency because they might squander time enjoying each other’s company. Additionally, the provider might make assumptions about the customer and, since the atmosphere is so casual, might accidentally say something deeply offensive.

 Providers might have to tolerate many small exploitations, like having a customer ask a provider to carry packages out to the car. Some providers might be totally okay with this, but others will find it angering.

 It’s also possible for strong relationships to provide opportunities for providers to manipulate customers. Trust is already established in the customer’s mind, so the provider may be able to convince the customer that they need new offers or expensive items when in fact they do not.

 It’s important to draw the line for yourself and for your employers. Yes, it’s great to have warm and human repor with your customers, but it has to be understood and restrained.

 I’ll keep writing about related topics later, like how to draw the line and how to make your relationships with loyal customers even better.

 What do you think? Have you run into similar problems in your experience?

Will customer service always be an important part of business?

June 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm

We can always try to imagine what the future will be like: automated robots instead of employees? Robots buying Christmas presents for the family? Who knows! But let’s be realistic. As long as people need services and products, there will always be interactions between the provider and the receiver. The interactions might change form. We have already observed how this is true. Customer service used to only include face-to-face interactions and hand-written letters. When telephones were invented, the domain of customer service increased. Now we have e-mail and other technologies like video chatting and instant messaging.

Those technologies have to be understood and addressed when making customer service decisions. But unless something really drastic happens within our lifetimes, I think it’s a fair guess that yes, customer service will always be an important part of business. Remember, business isn’t just about exchanging services or products for money. It’s also about community-building and self-fulfillment. That’s what this website is really about. The best businesses aren’t always the ones that have the biggest net worth. They are the ones that make a real difference, genuinely pay attention to the customers, and consider their community. Think about your favorite businesses and companies and ask yourself: how do they serve their customers? Is that service something that any amount of technology can really get rid of? I don’t think so.

Simple ways to make huge customer service improvements

June 10, 2013 at 6:46 pm

There are so many customer service challenges that take weeks of planning and then years of maintaining to succeed in. But there are also some simple and easy ways to make sure that you get started the right way, right from the start.

What a person has to say and how they behave are extremely important, but how they visually appear is deeply vital. Psychologists have studies this phenomenon for ages. First impressions matter! Nature and learned behavior has taught humans to associate well-groomed appearances, smiling, and confident body language with credibility. Let’s get started:

Smiling – not only does smiling automatically put you, the customer service provider, in a more positive mood, but it also establishes a better first impression with the customer. A relaxed, happy facial expression from the beginning can disarm a disgruntled customer.

Voice – your tone of voice should be friendly and calm. Even if you are tired or frustrated, it’s important to generate patience and at least control your tone of voice.

Talk with your hands – well, words count too. But if you use your hands to emphasize what you are saying, the customer will feel like you are invested in them.

Eye contact – it’s important to establish eye contact with the customer so that they feel connected to. Not everybody maintains eye contact by nature, so make sure you are patient with yourself and your employers/coworkers when improving this simple tip.

Appearance – customers might not notice it consciously, but it really does make a difference to them if your hands are clean, your hair is well-groomed, and your dress is professional or at least uniform and clean. This lets them know that you take them and your position seriously. Think about how you can improve your appearance in your company or where you work. Do you have a uniform? Do you make sure that the uniforms the employers wear are clean? Are you afraid to tell someone to go home if they don’t look the part? These are important parts of a business! All the details count.

Hellos/Goodbyes – stick to some simple etiquette when making transactions with customers. It’s expected in many businesses to shake hands with the customer before and after an important transaction is complete. This isn’t the case everywhere, but consider how the people you work with say hello and goodbye. Do they remember to do this properly? Remember – the customer is the most likely to remember first and last impressions.

Listen with your body – when a customer is talking, try to lean forward slightly and nod your head to show them that you are listening and thinking about what they are saying. If you do this, you will be more likely to actually listen to them, too.

Back up! – make sure that you are at a comfortable distance from the customer. Not too far, but not too close.

Sit up! – your posture shows the customer your level of interest in them. If you are slumping against a wall or in a chair, they will automatically assume on some level (whether consciously or subconsciously) that you aren’t interested in them. Face the customer and have an attentive, forward-leaning posture.

Telephone Etiquette

June 10, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Telephone etiquette is a significant way that you will interact with your patrons. Once you pick up the telephone, you are no longer able to communicate with your guest with body language and visual cues. Your tone of voice is the most important aspect of communication over the telephone. This article will go over the do’s and don’ts over telephone etiquette. Let’s get the “don’ts” out of the way so we can focus on what will lead to customer service success!

Don’t:

Use a flat tone of voice. If you use a flat voice, you are communicating to the customer that you are bored or would rather be doing something else.

Don’t speak too slowly. Remember, you are trying to exude cheerfulness just like you would if you were talking face to face with your customer.

Make sure you don’t speak too loudly. The customer might get the impression that you are angry or impatient.

Do:

Pick up the phone in three rings or less. If you let the phone ring too long, the customer will not only feel impatient, but will get the impression that the company is disorganized and inattentive.

Show respect to the customer by offering a kind greeting. Examples include “good afternoon,” or “good evening.” Even a simple “hello, how are you?” will do.

Give your name right from the beginning. When you do that, the customer feels like he/she is being personally taken care of. They may not consciously register that such a small detail made them feel more positive about their service experience, but it really makes a difference. Additionally, if the customer needs to call back, he/she can easily ask for the same person again as to not restart the entire service all over again.

When you wrap up the call, use a similar approach that you would use when saying goodbye in person. Be kind and friendly, and make sure that everything the customer needed to be taken care of was addressed.

Below are some more specific common challenges that should be handled smoothly and with deliberate thought:

To transfer a call, always begin by asking the customer if it is okay for you to transfer them. Also explain why they are being transferred. If they say “no,” try to give them a little more information about why it is necessary for them to be transferred.

To put a customer on hold, ask them if it is okay first. Make sure that you are putting them on hold for a good reason. Explain to the customer why you need to put them on hold. Make sure you return to the phonecall promptly. Also make sure, if you are a manager or business owner, that you instruct your employees about when it is okay to put a customer on hold.

To take a message, let the customer know that the co-worker isn’t available at the moment but that you can take a message for them. Make sure to not be too specific, as too much information is irrelevant. If the co-worker isn’t working for more negative reasons – illness, family emergency, failure to show up for work, or any other negative reasons – it’s best not to mention it. Let the customer know when the co-worker who is unavailable will be able to be contact. Kindly offer to take a message, and make sure that the message is received. It’s also best to follow through with the message by gently making sure the co-worker has addressed it.