Superior Customer Service: Getting Back to Marketing Basics

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As bloggers, we all struggle with creating valuable content for our readers, but sometimes great content just falls into your lap and reminds you about what’s really important in selling your brand — superior customer service.superior customer service

Why you need superior customer service

Providing superior customer service helps generate positive word of mouth on social media that supports your goals and also provides a sustainable competitive advantage over the competition because it’s hard to build both the loyalty generated by good customer service and to create a process for delivering it in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, social media is a GREAT tool for creating warm fuzzy feelings that lead to increased sales, but that can all be destroyed in a heartbeat (or a Tweet) when you fail at delivering superior customer service. Then, social media becomes a vehicle for sharing your customer service failure far and wide.

Not only does the world of social media amplify your customer service failures, it means you need to deliver superior customer service every day in every transaction. That’s especially hard when you run a service business since services are an “on the spot” product and you often don’t get a second chance to deliver quality. With a good, if you make a mistake you can reject the product before it reaches consumers with effective quality control processes so customers never get a bad product.

Service businesses are distinctly different from businesses selling goods like toasters and computers. Here are 5 differences:

  • intangibility, which means you can’t touch or smell it, it also makes it harder to evaluate than goods
  • inseparability, which means you can’t separate the product from the person delivering the product. This creates an emphasis on employee management to ensure they’re happy because unhappy employees don’t deliver superior customer service.customer service
  • perishability, which means the product can’t be inventoried. Since you can’t inventory services, you must use yield management to moderate demand during peak times to ensure you can deliver superior customer service at all times. For instance, Disney makes lines at its amusement parks seem less onerous by making the line seem like it’s part of the ride.
  • variability in services is problematic more so than for goods since you can’t quality control them before delivery. That means you must have systems in place to reduce the chances for failure, a process to recover from failures, and contingency plans to reduce the impact on customers of your failures.

I once heard the story of an exec from an airline who fired a flight attendant on the way off the plane as he moved to deplane. The flight attendant tried to argue that she was just having a bad day but she usually performed better to deliver superior customer service. He stated that it didn’t matter how good she was some days because this is the day her passengers experienced. A little harsh maybe but it reflects the reality most service businesses face.

The customer is KING

One factor many companies STILL don’t get is that customers have choices — and in many hyper-competitive markets, customers have LOTS of choices. When a good or service doesn’t meet customer expectations — even by a teeny bit — consumers leave in droves in search of more acceptable products. In companies that make goods, there’s almost always a customer service component such as a salesperson (even though this might be a third-party provider), warranty, or training. So, while goods manufacturers might have it easier when it comes to producing products, they still face problems with delivering superior customer service.

Wisely, Sir Richard Branson, of Virgin Group, includes customer service folks on his social media teams to ensure the team ferrets out even slight dissatisfaction and to identify opportunities for Virgin brands to shine above competitors in the eyes of consumers.

Other companies prefer to gamble by providing minimal or no customer service. To these companies, profitability is a numbers game and the negative impact of a single customer defection is too small to warrant the expense of keeping that customer.

WRONG

Customer service is relationship marketing

Scientific studies show that it costs 5X more to attract a new customer than it costs to keep an existing customer happy!

Throw in the ease with which negative word of mouth spreads in social networks and you’re compounding the problem of a single customer service failure. A single Tweet can snowball into a giant avalanche of negative feelings. Below is one example, with some idea of how to handle it.

deliver superior customer service
Image courtesy of Digital Stack

 

But, you have to figure companies KNOW this stuff since relationship marketing has been a marketing basic for over 20 years.  I think the problem lies in not having systems in place to ensure customer satisfaction.

How to ensure superior customer service that stops defection in its tracks

Step 1 – Customer service audit

A customer service audit tracks the way a customer progresses through the service cycle from their first contact with the firm throughout a customer’s interactions with the firm over time. And, don’t forget that even firms who see themselves as simply selling a good also have service components. For instance, yesterday I encountered the book rep for Cengage Learning — which manufactures and distributes textbooks to colleges, universities, and schools. The rep had repeatedly ignored my request for materials over the course of the semester and became very defensive when I told her I wouldn’t adopt any more textbooks from Cengage.

That single act of poor customer service cost them about $12,000 in sales for just a single textbook every year in a class of 30. Not to mention other books I might have adopted over the course of my career. Of course, that also ignores my immediate recommendation to all my faculty colleagues from Facebook, Twitter, and at the university that they look elsewhere for their textbooks, and, possibly more importantly, when looking for a publisher for their textbooks — which can mean a shortfall in new books needed to remain viable in the market. I immediately got comments from my social network of similar problems with the company — companies rarely have only a single customer service failure — and others pledging to avoid the company lest they suffer the same problems, which make us less effective in the classroom and possibly affect our student evaluations that determine, in part, our tenure and raise decisions.

customer service audit
Image courtesy of ROI call center solutions

A customer service audit highlights areas where customers might experience service failure (such as the sales rep in the above example), determine metrics to track customer service (such as customer satisfaction in this case), and establish processes to both rectify any customer service failures and reduce the chances of future failures.

Tracking and monitoring customer touchpoints

In addition to a customer service audit, firms need to establish metrics and monitor performance across the organization, especially at customer touchpoints. This requires firms to determine how their processes impact customers, determine what metrics reflect success (or failure) with customer service, and create policies that ensure the hiring, training, motivation, and performance of the firm across these touchpoints. See the example below.

customer journey mapDon’t wait for customer complaints to take action. Studies show even seriously unhappy consumers fail to complain — they simply defect to another product. So, be proactive in finding problems and fixing them. Secret shoppers do this in retail businesses. And, the premise behind the TV show Undercover Boss is based on the value of upper management knowing what’s going on at the level where the firm touches customers.

Contingency planning and empowerment

Contingency planning and empowerment are keys to creating processes that ensure superior customer service.

Contingency plans dictate actions when something happens that’s likely to be negative for customers. For instance, when bad weather grounds a plane. Sure, passengers know it wasn’t the airline’s fault, but that doesn’t make them any happier. What makes them happy is KNOWING what plans the airline has for getting them where they want to go with as little inconvenience as possible. Airlines should have systems in place to keep passengers updated on current conditions and plans, tell them HOW and where to go to reschedule travel, if necessary, and provide for expedient handling of these passengers. Of course, we know airlines haven’t done this, which encouraged the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to pass regulations imposing heavy fines on airlines.

Empowerment goes hand in hand with contingency planning. It doesn’t work to have a contingency plan that requires employees in the field to get approval for every action from someone else. The key to handling customer service failure is to do it FAST. For instance, hotels like Marriott that boast really high levels of customer satisfaction commonly allow a great deal of leeway among front desk employees. Thus, when a customer complains about food in the restaurant, rooms not being ready, or other failures, front desk employees can make whatever accommodations make the guest happy — whether that’s comping the room, providing food vouchers, or gift baskets full of all kinds of goodies. This allows front desk employees to immediately make the guest happy.

Communication is key

Running through this discussion of providing superior customer service is the role that communication plays in the process — communication with employees at all levels and functional areas, between customers, and between customers and the company. The better the flow of information at all levels the better everyone is in achieving satisfaction.

AI is a real partner in this process by providing chatbots to address common customer queries quickly and efficiently. Other forms of communication help companies coordinate efforts without the need for endless meetings.

But, bots and humans excel at different tasks, as you can see below. Plus, customers have different preferences for how they communicate with companies. Some are happy with chatbots while others want to text or phone to get support. Still others use social platforms, especially Twitter, to voice their complaints. Listening on social media is critically important as you can’t respond to complaints or questions if you don’t hear them in the first place. Hence, you need multiple communication channels to work in tandem to meet the needs of customers.

leverage your growth
Image courtesy of Intercom

Speed is also important when it comes to addressing queries and complaints. That’s why some companies offer customer service hours on various social platforms and pay staff to monitor and respond during these hours. Others, like Buffalo Wild Wings, don’t respond even when they face multiple complaints across multiple channels.

Conclusion

Delivering superior customer service should be a top priority for a company regardless of size, industry, or resources. This discussion of audits and contingency plans, as well as communication channels, should help you put together a killer program to deliver satisfaction.

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