Month: March 2014

How to Over-Deliver

Sometimes it can be hard to delight customers with the mundane.  In a transaction based scenario, knowing exactly which button to push during a brief encounter, while also processing a line requires a level of experience and intuition that are hard to come by.  Techniques can be learned and processes can be streamlined, but you can also build yourself a safety net to help manage and exceed expectations.  You can learn to recognize and work within the margin that lies between what the customer expects and what you are capable of delivering so that the perception is that you consistently over-deliver.

When a customer receives exactly what you have promised, their expectations have been met but they are not delighted, wowed, or completely satisfied; they are certainly not likely to become loyal members of your fan club.  To win them over, you must manage your operations and customer perceptions simultaneously.  You can do this in one of two ways:

  1. Set the bar in a place that creates an opportunity for a margin – and definitely not so high that you are only able to meet it 70% of the time.
  • Set a time estimate for wait times when lines are frequent.  Letting the customer develop concerns about how long the line will take when they don’t know creates anxiety and dissatisfaction.  Being up against an invisible deadline is very hard to overcome – so create one that is reasonable and take the guessing out.  Have you noticed that transportation authorities often have freeway signs letting you know how many minutes it should take you to get to XX exit?  How nice would it be if the line to check your bags at the airport had that?  Have you counted the number of times you look at your watch when in this line – chances are, it’s borderline neurotic because it’s totally out of your control and completely ambiguous.
  • Build an extra 5 minutes into time estimate so that there is an opportunity to be pleased when helped sooner.  If you make the mistake of promising 10 minutes, and it takes 11, your credibility and customer satisfaction have been compromised whereas promising 15 and delivering in 11 is a great experience.
  1. Provide something simple, yet unexpected – a differentiator.
  • The warm, fresh cookie you used to receive on Frontier Airlines.
  • The towel animals on your cruise ship.
  • A drawing/raffle with prize.
  • The complimentary bottle of water in your hotel room.
  • The housewarming present from your realtor.
  • The employee who scans a coupon at the cash register without being asked when you didn’t bring yours in.
  • A thank you card.

Look for opportunities to over-deliver through the management of your operations, perceptions, and the margins within your customer expectations.  If your budget permits, consider doing something small yet thoughtful.  Either one will create delight and subsequent loyalty from your customers.  Please share a customer service story where the ordinary became extraordinary!


How Too Many Choices Can Hurt Your Customer Service

Chances are, if you’re in or manage customer service, you’ve managed a complete service disaster at some point.  I’m not talking about a simple easy-to-fix misunderstanding; I’m talking about legitimate, day-ruining problems.  It could be a canceled flight that your front desk and call center employees are handling or it could be an oversold hotel at midnight; not uncommon, but difficult nonetheless.  Here is a tip that will help prevent complete customer service meltdowns:  Provide 2 or 3 specific choices as solutions and no more.

I recently read an outstanding book by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.  He explores the psychology of choice and specifically the number of choices we have and the subsequent effect on our happiness with the selection.  His research indicates that in general, we are less satisfied with more choices.  In one example he describes an experiment where 2 or 3 jellies are offered as a free sample in a grocery store as compared to the same study where more like 10 were offered.  The customers were more engaged in the study with fewer choices and more jellies were sold.  In the study with triple the choices, they not only sold fewer, but the customers seemed overwhelmed and uninterested in even sampling the product.  It was too intimidating to choose from so many options, and the pressure of making the right choice wasn’t worth the pleasure of even trying them – and I get it.  What if you choose the wrong one and you never know it?  You’ll always be dissatisfied wondering if you could have chosen better.  I couldn’t help but see how valuable his research was to the customer service community.

When a customer meltdown is afoot, the best solution is to have a predetermined few choices that are mindful of the misstep and that your organization can live with.  Controlling the situation is the greatest service you can do your customer and your organization.

I realize that every business will have a different set of problems and solutions, so to illustrate my point I’ll use a non-business scenario to demonstrate.  Some of you may have extensive experience on this topic, but imagine you have just asked a 3 year old child what she wants for dessert.  Her eyes get big and she asks for a cookie, ice cream, and a brownie.  Then she realizes she knows of other desserts and begins desperately demanding popsicles, cake, and a candy bar until the worry of not thinking of or asking for the “best” option brings her to tears.  Now imagine that you have simply offered her a piece of cake or a cookie.  Chances are she would easily choose her favorite of the moment and enjoy eating it tremendously without even a second thought.

I don’t mean to insult anyone by comparing adults to children, but in difficult situations the meltdowns can have a resemblance.  If you ask a customer open-endedly how you can fix something, you’ll invite a string of both reasonable and unreasonable demands.  If instead, you provide 2 or 3 viable options you will be helping them feel in control of the situation and they will be able to choose without the concern of wondering if they are leaving something better on the table.

Do you have an example of how this has worked for you?  I’m curious how many of us are teaching our employees this technique.  Please share!

The Importance of Customer Relationships

Have you ever had a customer vanish without a trace?  One day he was there, and the next you can’t even get him to return a call or email?  You’re left wondering if he stopped needing your product or service, or whether he’s gone to a competitor.  Was it an issue with your price, a service concern, did he move to China, was it your breath?  Chances are a lack of a real relationship was the culprit.  Sales and management folks – this message is for you.

Unfortunately, we often make the mistake of relying on our product or service to represent us and maintain our connection with the customer.  After the sale, we forget that maintenance is still required.  The belief in and love for our product can also cloud our judgment about its level of perfection and cause us to miss subtle imperfections that the customer experiences.  The problem with this is that the customer is fickle without the added value of a relationship.  Without one, the organization becomes disposable to the customer.


Ask yourself:  what would happen if my competitor walked into my client’s office and offered the same service at the same price?  If you’re not sure, you have work to do.  If your client would call you and tell you about it, you’ve mastered this.  Here is some food for thought:

  1. It’s harder to fire someone you like!  Service concerns and business hiccups happen; it’s inevitable.  However, a good relationship will open up a dialogue instead of allowing the door slam shut.  If it is easy for them to walk away, you haven’t established your value or your relationship.
  1. The customer is more loyal – it’s as simple as that.  Why would they shop around and try someone else on for size when they have such a perfect fit with you?  You’re service is not a commodity when it has a face.
  1. Pricing is less important.  If a competitor is priced slightly lower, it won’t phase the customer one bit.  You won’t lose them over a few bucks because you have added value that justifies your price.
  1. The customer is more likely to become a raving, evangelistic fan of your organization when you’ve established a relationship with them!  With this comes easy business and warm leads directly to your sales funnel!

In business, a strong relationship means that there is a face and a name with your product or service.  You have listened to needs and found ways to solve problems for your customer through your services.  You have communicated your value proposition and introduced them to your industry and the unique ways that your organization can tailor a fit to meet their requirements.  You’ve also made an effort to know a few things about them personally and you always keep in touch after the sale.

I have been on both sides of this.  I’ve felt the pain that comes with underestimating the power of relationships, and I’ve built lasting foundations after learning the hard way.  Do you have a great story about how a strong relationship saved a customer or account?  Please share!

The Sales & Service Partnership

You won’t find a for-profit company that doesn’t want to increase sales.  What you might find, however, is an organization so focused on sales they are disconnected from the importance of customer retention.  Attracting and getting the customer to buy is far more expensive than keeping them which is why your organization’s customer service should be a way of life and not just a department.

While my colleagues who share this passion will agree, it can sometimes be a challenge to convince high level management to divide their focus.  Sales are seen as a direct improvement of the bottom line and command the lion’s share of their attention while service can be seen as overhead.  I agree that sales are capable of being this “shot to the arm,” but not until the organization has achieved a healthy balance that includes customer service.  Without balance it becomes a tail chasing situation where more sales are needed to replace the lost business instead of being used to grow the business.  Then the pursuit of new customers becomes more difficult because the organization’s reputation isn’t top notch.  It’s a vicious and expensive circle.

I am firm in my belief that service is your best shot at differentiation and your best defense against imitation; you should never underestimate the power it holds.  Strive instead to balance sales and service to harness the potential.

  • Consult your sales force.  If you really want to know what your customers want, spend some time with your sales force.  The barriers they encounter every day will show you your windows of opportunity; they are a direct connection to the service necessary to improve your sales.
    • What objections to your product or service do they regularly overcome?
    • What do they see your competition doing in your marketplace?
    • What are the hang-ups that come after the sale is made?
  • Consider each customer touch point and develop best practices to ensure efficiencies.  Again, the customer service provided by your organization is not a department.  Everywhere the customer encounters a representative is an opportunity to impress.
    • Shop (internally or externally) each touch point and not just the point of sale.
  • Reinvent the wheel if necessary.  Utilizing the tried and true practices of others in your industry will help you, but it is not enough.  To truly differentiate, the organization has to find its own voice and purpose that distinguishes and identifies

What companies have earned your praise with this balance?  Who is doing it right?

Organizational Change & Customer Service

While in the boarding area waiting to catch a plane this morning, I overheard a customer requesting help from an agitated airline employee.  The customer appeared to be somewhat elderly and was struggling with a piece of luggage he was hoping to check.  He waited patiently in line until the employee was available to help and was then, rather abruptly and unapologetically, turned away.  She impatiently explained that she did not work for “that” airline.  When he asked if she was sure that she couldn’t help him, she went on to tell him that he had to go wait in a different line and said, “That merger will take at least two (holds fingers up in face) years!

It turns out that despite a lot of publicity, the merger of two rather massive airlines is nowhere near final and that this gentleman was waiting to speak to an employee of one while his upcoming flight was on the other.  Woops.  Apparently he didn’t have time to google that before heading to the airport this morning and read all of the dual-branded signs throughout the airport incorrectly.

Yes, there are some individual and obvious customer service concerns with her behavior, but I also wonder if her reaction was a symptom of a much bigger problem.  In the 30+ minutes I observed, she provided efficient and friendly service outside of this isolated incident.  As an insightful customer service aficionado and organizational behavior dabbler, I can’t help but wonder whether there are some underlying employee aversions to the change coming with this merger and whether they’ve spent the time and resources to make sure that their front line people are representing the future of the company in the right way.  I was pondering this as I was stepping into the plane and happened to notice an ice chest just outside the airplane door that had one airline’s name written neatly in marker on the front and the re-branded mid-merge name scrawled on top as if to say “we own you now.”

Managing organizational change is critical and not optional.  The customer service provided will be a direct reflection on your efforts – and how the employees of the merger feel about the change will be on full display to your customers; can you afford for those feelings to be negative?  Maybe you think you can if you control the largest portion of the airline market share, or maybe I simply witnessed a one-time slip up, I suppose.

For the record, all of the in-flight messaging was also dual-branded, in fact, I was invited to visit one website to check on flight information for both airlines.  It would appear that the merger is in full swing despite the early morning service debacle.  Sometimes I wish inspiration didn’t strike in such obvious places – it feels like a cheap shot to pick on an airline.  However, it doesn’t make the lesson any less important.  Do you have a story or experience to share about how organizational change can affect customer service?

Generations in Customer Service

Have you considered including generational training in your workplace?  Many organizations are using it to manage diversity on the inside because the challenges of teaching, training, and motivating four different generations are very real.  What about diversity on the outside?  I would think it might lend a hand in understanding the generational needs and wishes of your customers as well because communication is at the center of it all.

Your sales and marketing departments probably have at least a moderate understanding of how these different customers think because they actively work to engage them and get them through the front door.  Unfortunately, your customer facing employees may not yet have exposure to this concept and may miss the opportunity to connect with or properly resolve concerns based on what is important to these groups.

  • Traditionalists – Slower to embrace change, this group places a high value on face to face interaction.  They also respect hierarchy and may request a supervisor rather than negotiating a concern with a front-line employee.
  • Boomers – Hard working, this group enjoys doing business with those who respect them and prefer the face to face.  Think interaction instead of transaction.  Compliments, saying thank you, and showing appreciation will go a long way in satisfying this group.
  • Gen Xers – Flexible and Skeptical, this group is comfortable with both face to face and technological interaction but will notice and challenge inconsistencies.  Loyal to organizations who prove that they can deliver on their promises.
  • Millennials – Tech savvy and time sensitive, this group may enjoy using kiosks, tablets, texting, emailing, or other technology that helps expedite their service without the need for personal interaction.

These brief explanations are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding generations of people – the point is that they are not the same.  They prefer different methods of communication, they like different kinds of appreciation, and they have differing overall expectations.  Knowing this and using the information wisely could improve your customers’ satisfaction.

Understanding generational differences isn’t a paradigm shifting thought process; you probably see it and manage it at your Thanksgiving dinner table every year!  However, considering it in an organizational training atmosphere will provide insight to your staff that they may not have considered.  Adding it to the repertoire of people skills and knowledge will improve your customer service performance and help build the ever-elusive customer loyalty you desire.

Do you know of an organization that is utilizing this thought process to help manage customer service?

Are You Grateful for Your Customers?

Never, ever take a customer for granted.  Unless you are in a pretty unique position to turn down business, revenue and growth, it is important that you exude appreciation for customers.  If neglected, your staff may make a poor decision when at the critical cross roads with a customer because they do not understand the value of keeping them.  I’m reminded and painfully aware of this after last week.

There is a long-standing and complicated customer relationship that I manage.  I handle the business relationship details, but a different division manages their day to day needs for our product and services.  About a year ago, this customer’s parent company decided to make our competitor their primary provider for all US locations despite the great relationship we had established with our local office.  This slid us into the secondary provider slot.  Initially, the operators handling the business were eager to continue providing high service levels to make a case for bringing us back as primary.  However, as time went on and our position remained secondary, we got lazy.

This business partner asked for a favor last week, which I had to politely turn down because the favor had a price tag higher than the last 6 months of business received. Unaware of the service issues they were experiencing with us, I saw this as an opportunity to ask for more business and seized it; bad idea.  The service concerns unraveled fairly quickly from there and we were left looking like amateurs.

Obviously, my next call was to the operators who ultimately decide the fate of this relationship.  I asked them to explain what was happening, and why; they failed abysmally.  Because the business had subsided, it had slid completely off of their radar, and their operational plan to handle this customer had ceased to exist.  They explained (unapologetically) that the customer doesn’t provide enough notice for us to help them and that sometimes they call and don’t leave messages.  They wondered how they could possibly work under those conditions.  They went on to rationalize that it wasn’t very much business anyway, so it was tough to prioritize.

When a customer has difficulty doing business with us, it is our failure and not theirs.  Expecting them to pause their business in order to find a way to work with us in a manner that we’ll accept is a gross display of entitlement and ungratefulness.  We earn money when this customer calls, so it is our responsibility to identify the communication breakdowns and create a seamless process.  Our ability to fix this will demonstrate our professionalism and appreciation, and will ensure consideration in regaining the primary spot in the future.

My goal is to provide a teachable moment and shift the paradigm of these operators. The sooner they understand this concept, the quicker their personal success will grow.  Wish me luck!  I will look forward to writing about regaining customer confidence in a future post!