Fast, reliable and effective customer service can be the difference between your company being a winner or loser against Amazon or the big New York stores.
I knew that when I opened Unique Photo in 2008. By 2013, we were the third largest single-location store of its kind in the country. Moreover, if you asked our customers what they liked best about us, the number one answer you’d get was “great customer service.”
I had the opportunity to moderate a panel on improving efficiency at a customer service summit hosted by the Incite Group in New York recently. While I don’t normally speak specifically on customer service, I was the owner of a wholesale distribution company as well as camera superstore for more than 28 years. Customer service was always a top priority and something I focused on, so I was able to contribute to the topic from a retailer’s perspective.
Joining me on the panel were Dan Touchette, director, Product, Bitly, and Jeff Stephenson, senior director, Customer Service, Warner Music Group. We were a diverse group: retail and distribution; Internet service; and entertainment. Interestingly, the ideas as well as strategies that contribute to great customer service were similar across our verticals.
Here are 10 of the best power tips we shared with customer service professionals at the summit.
1. Thou Shalt Communicate. The owner/manager needs to set an example by communicating about customer service issues, procedures and also technologies regularly. Making customer service a priority by routinely communicating with the customer service department—and the whole company—keeps everyone focused on the importance of customer service. It also sends the message company-wide that customers and their needs come first.
2. Thou Shalt Set an Example. No one should be too high and mighty to engage with customers. As president of my company, I would answer customer issues late at night as well as on the weekend. Sometimes I couldn’t get them an exact answer after hours. However, a midnight response from the president over an order delay that says “I am checking on it and will be back to you at 9:30 a.m.” turns dissatisfied customers into advocates. They usually are wowed by it. Furthermore, as a bonus, I would copy staff on my response to the customer, setting an example for how serious the person at the top takes customer service.
3. Thou Shalt Have Flexible Response Times. Applying the same priority to all customer service requests can lead to customer dissatisfaction. Set up a system that prioritizes requests based on importance. A customer who hasn’t received his camera for a photo shoot the next day or hasn’t gotten their workshop confirmation for today’s event has priority over someone calling about a refund or to change their address.
4. Thou Shalt Have Online Access. If you don’t have a completely functional and real-time online order tracking and customer service system, you’re already way behind. Customers expect this as well as multiple ways of contacting you. Customers don’t want to speak to humans often anymore, unless they must.
5. Thou Shalt Always Have Humans Available. There are just certain issues that are too complicated or too emotional for machines to handle. There must be a reasonable path to actually speak or chat with a human, or sooner or later some customer may end up getting screwed by your company. They will spend time for the rest of their lives on social media bashing you. All three of us on the panel had implemented relatively easy access to humans for our customers.
6. Thou Shalt Do Customer Service on Social Media. Social media has become a popular way for customers to communicate with companies. However, sometimes that communication is a complaint or a rant. And it’s there for the whole world to see. All three panelists had similar strategies: dedicated staff constantly monitoring as well as quickly responding. It’s an opportunity to show publicly you care. You can take the conversation offline for resolution, but a good policy is to go back online after a successful resolution and ask if the customer is satisfied. This can be great PR.
7. Thou Shalt Keep Staff in the Loop. Customer service, sales and anyone who contacts customers all need to be made aware of changes in product deliveries, new products and also any issues that could impact customers. All three of us held regular meetings with our customer service team. Moreover, in many cases we communicated what happened at that meeting to the rest of the company. There’s nothing that looks more unprofessional than when a customer service rep says “I don’t know,” or the customer has more information than the rep.
8. Thou Shalt Train Thy Staff. This is something that’s easy to slack on, but weekly staff training is necessary. There should absolutely be a customer service manual updated regularly; staff should be trained regularly on products, customer service techniques and the direction of the company. If certain aspects of training are not available internally, there are lots of outside resources that can help you.
9. Thou Shalt Investigate Using AI. Artificial intelligence is coming like a tidal wave. Both other panelists’ companies use AI to handle certain customer interactions. Right now, this is for larger organizations, but very soon AI will be available for smaller companies. I just made a return to Fitbit and used their support Twitter to initiate the process. A bot took me through the first steps and eventually to a personal response and then offline. It was fast and efficient. A low-tech version of AI is to simply have customers respond to an e-mail address or text message and use third-party apps that will initiate an automatic response based on the content of the customer’s request.
10. Thou Shalt Measure Performance. Every great customer service organization surveys their customers regularly, measures response times and customer satisfaction. It also monitors staff and rewards them for excellent customer service performance. This must become part of everyday operations. When one of my customer service reps got a glowing review from a customer, I’d make it very public—and sometimes handed out a little bonus.
How Badly Do You Want It?
I know some of these tips are time consuming, difficult to implement and may not immediately lead to increased sales. However, if you are doubting whether you have the time and energy to improve customer service, ask yourself: “How badly do I want customers to not order on Amazon and come into my store?!”