By Enid Burns, Contributing Writer
As the old saying goes, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. This is especially true in the world of customer service, where that first impression can be a make-or-break moment.
Customer service is a component of virtually everyone's job. To carry it off it takes understanding, compassion and occasionally some sacrifice.
"It's your job to delight the customer," said Bill Santos, president and COO of Cerberus Sentinel. "Whether you're the front desk attendant, a sales leader, or a support person, every individual should understand that they own every customer interaction and should feel empowered to do what is necessary to make that customer – or potential customer – happy. It may mean leaving for lunch late, sending flowers to a customer heading out on their honeymoon, or staying on the line when while you transfer to support, but the smallest effort is rarely overlooked by a customer looking to be served."
The importance of great customer service
Every interaction is part of the customer service experience, and dealing with complaints is a crucial time to work with customers. You must train your employees to address every point of customer service properly. Moreover, these practices must be demonstrated at every level of the company.
"A culture of hospitality must flow from top to bottom, where the leaders of the company practice the same tenets they want practiced on the guests," said Denver Severt, associate professor service at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
If a customer or client isn't happy with a product or service, a business is lucky to get the opportunity to make things right. This may be in the form of a refund, replacement, repair, upgrade or complimentary product. Most importantly, it's a time for apology. The interaction is key: A positive customer service experience can turn a dissatisfied customer into a repeat customer and possibly even an unofficial brand ambassador.
Customer service has increased in importance over the past few years, actually evolving as a concept.
"'Customer service' in the last five to 10 years has ultimately evolved into a client success business model," said Leah Adams, director of client success at Point3 Security. "Many business leaders have heard of client success but might rarely understand what it means to operate your business from a client success standpoint, that it can be a business realignment."
Good service is also crucial to customer retention. If a customer is not happy with a purchase or a service contract, they will not return. Worse yet, the customer might badmouth your brand. A happy customer is far more likely to return with more business and recommend your products or services to friends, family and colleagues.
How to handle customer complaints
You can't win 'em all. Every business will experience a dissatisfied customer at one time or another, so you need a plan in place to address issues promptly and remedy the situation. Employees need to react swiftly and be ready to escalate complaints to managers as the situation calls for it.
"Excellent companies must have standardized service recovery strategies that they execute when there is a service failure," Severt told business.com. "This places a nice toolbox solution kit with the front-line staff if they are empowered to be able to solve the issue."
A planned response is crucial in any situation. A business can turn things around for a customer by acting quickly and with compassion.
"I think this relates to how you respond," said Allison Weidhaas, associate professor and director for the online Master of Business Communications program at Rider University. "You always want to respond with your long-term brand in mind."
The service recovery paradox
One strategy that works well, according to Severt, is "react, respond, plus one."
In other words, act in a way that solves the issue, respond by apologizing that something went wrong, and lastly (plus one), sweeten the deal, making the guest happier than they'd be if nothing had gone wrong in the first place. This is the service recovery paradox.
Successful use of the service recovery paradox instills trust, satisfaction, loyalty and inspiration when a service failure occurs.
"Each company must have a list of their dirty dozen service failures that they are acting on at any moment," Severt said. "It may be five things; it may be three. Those are the things that are recurring. Once they perform a root cause analysis on the repetitive failures, it is likely to diminish the chances of those happens. Yet failures will occur, and the right solution can make a guest happier than if a failure did not occur."
Even the best customer service programs can backfire, however.
"The wrong solution, termed 'double deviation from expectations,' can be double failure and can drive guests away from the business," Severt said.
As one example of a response plan done well, Severt cited practices at luxury hotel chain The Ritz-Carlton, where each employee can spend $2,000 to satisfy a guest. This could entail an extra night at the hotel, spa services or a night on the town. Employees have the freedom to determine what it will take and the budget to make it happen.
In other scenarios, the solution may cost the company dollars but retain a customer relationship that should be considered priceless.
"My Press Needs discovered a very expensive machine was damaged in shipping," Weidhaas told business.com. "While the company could have said, 'It's not our problem,' they actually replaced the machine, at a cost of over $390,000 to the company."
While My Press Needs might be able to recover some of the costs by filing a claim with the shipping company or its insurance provider, it still took that responsibility and didn't leave it to the customer to endure. The quick response to the issue should help strengthen customer loyalty, and keep the relationship going with future equipment orders and service contracts as well as other transactions.
Customer service as a comprehensive process
Customer service has traditionally happened at retail locations, over the phone and on sales calls. In today's world, there are many more ways for customers to get support and for companies to practice good customer service. Companies need to work across channels, be present on social media platforms, and utilize other online outlets, such as chat windows on websites.
"You're responding to the customer in the form that best meets the customer's needs," Weidhaas said. "We need to remember that not all customers respond to the same form of communication."
In addition to maintaining a website, it is necessary to be on additional platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so you can be where the customer will respond. Prioritize the platforms that make sense for your customers. For instance, B2B companies may need to look at different platforms than B2C businesses.
While complaints used to spread by word of mouth, they rarely made it much further than a small circle of colleagues or friends. Today, thanks to social media, a problem can go viral and race around the world in minutes.
As many customers now air their complaints on Twitter or other social platforms when they don't know where to turn, what was once just one person venting can take on a life of its own. Because of this trend, many companies have people who monitor social media to respond quickly – and publicly – and take action.
"Companies must work across channels to standardize the best practices for each modality," Severt said. "After the standards are solidified, then they need to acknowledge that nothing 'fails' like standards, because there will be situations where the standards that exceed the expectations of the majority will be lower than the expectations of certain guests."
It is important to be consistent across all your customer service channels. If a representative responds with a tweet that the company will take action, yet the company does not promptly follow through (whether offline or through another online channel, such as email), that goodwill is lost, potentially creating a bigger storm on social media.
Training staff for good customer service
Customer service training (CST) is essential to every business. An employee won't automatically know how to respond appropriately to a customer complaint if there is no plan in place. A new employee at The Ritz-Carlton wouldn't automatically know she has access to $2,000 to make a guest happy, or when and how to offer the benefit to a guest.
"CST is creating that standardized and customized and personal experience for the employees and the guests," Severt said. "In this way, we must train for the culture of service and hospitality so that it is clearly practiced from the top management to the very important front-line service providers. That is, everyone knows they have internal and external guests to inspire. They are taught the standards."
While there are standards in customer service, you should also teach your employees that each situation is unique, and the same resolution will not work for every customer.
"[Employees] are taught ways to personalize and customize an experience beyond the standards," Severt said. "They are taught service recovery strategies and empowered to solve any issues on the spot. Training can be done day by day, using real scenarios that occur on a daily basis in the business."
CST is not completed in a day or one training course; it continues each day in one form or another.
"The service training must be continual in order to be a business that provides exemplary service," Severt said. "Finally, the reward system must be aligned with the behaviors and standards of service that are desired. For example, if attitude and skill and professionalism are three pillars of service for your organization, then employees must be evaluated on those three attributes and rewarded for delivering on those, and shown how to do even better if they are not delivering on those standards."
13 customer service tips you should know
Good customer service is a benefit to any business. While each company should tailor its service practices to its product and customers, there are some standards and best practices that resonate across the board.
1. Communicate proactively.
Communication is the first line of action in resolving any issue with a customer. A customer who is ignored or addressed in a manner inappropriate to the situation will become that much more difficult to please. At that point, the bar for satisfaction is raised and might be unattainable for the company.
2. Err on the side of overcommunication.
Communication is so essential to customer service that it is worth extra. Listen to the customer, follow through with a resolution, and keep the lines of communication open. Tell the customer the time you expect it will take to get a replacement product, or for the credit to appear on their card statement. If there is no follow-up communication, a customer will think the resolution was forgotten and will not be granted.
"Continuous communication … is the key to successful customer service," Weidhaas said. "Of course, communication goes hand in hand with listening, because this allows you to engage in authentic communication."
3. Offer resolutions.
Exceed the customer's expectations with your resolution. Sometimes replacing a broken product with a new one or offering a refund is not enough. If a customer has had a terrible experience, it may be necessary to sweeten the pot with something extra. A gift card, for example, goes a long way in mending a relationship. A complimentary service or even a freebie, such as a company T-shirt, goes above a simple exchange. It demonstrates the company's efforts to make things right.
"Exceed the spoken and unspoken requests of your guests or customers in a way that inspires them, all using the utmost hospitality," Severt said. He suggested employees keep up an attitude of warm reception and graciousness throughout the interaction.
4. Be relatable.
Relate to the customer in order to understand their issue. If you consider how a customer felt when they had to wait to get into their hotel room or when they received a defective product, for example, you can start to think about what it will take to make things better. If an employee is able to go through that process, the customer will likely see the understanding and appreciate the consideration.
"Empathy, reliability, responsiveness, assurance and the tangibles are all attributes of great service that must be practiced," Severt said. "Empathy is being able to place oneself in the situation of the guest."
5. Be flexible.
Allow for individual solutions. Each customer is unique, and the same solution may not work for everyone. The Ritz-Carlton gives employees a generous budget to make things right. If it simply offered a free spa service to every unhappy guest, it would only make a small portion of the guests happy.
Customer service interactions "must be standardized yet allow for flexibility in getting the correct thing for a guest," Severt said.
6. Reinforce your reliability.
Make your company appear as a reliable provider. Show consistency in your products and services as well as customer service responses. A business can remedy a situation, but it is important to instill confidence that this was an isolated instance, and the experience won't be repeated when a customer returns. Severt recommends a focus on "performing the service over and over, accurately and dependably, based on the goal of surpassing the expectations of the guest."
7. Act quickly.
Respond accordingly in a timely manner. Most customers have reached their threshold of frustration by the time they contact a company. Recognize that the issue is important to the customer and that they need an appropriate response at the time of complaint.
"Responsiveness is having a sense of urgency when serving the guest," Severt said.
8. Be memorable.
The resolution should not only outweigh the negative experience, but also offer some positive memories that overshadow the bad experience. If you give a customer a free T-shirt with the company name on it, you want him to have a positive association when he wears it, not throw it into the rag pile.
"Negative cues must be eliminated," Severt said. "Memories must be mixed in so that the guest has a special way of remembering the experience. When possible, the skills we practice with our guests should create a transformative experience for our guests. They leave the experience changed in a positive way."
9. Be accountable at all levels.
Customer service should be systemic throughout the company. The CEO or president needs to follow the same practices they expect of the support team. The trickle-down effect has a big impact when customers see the attitudes of good customer service at every level of interaction.
It should also be said that sometimes employees could use customer service themselves.
"Walk the walk of what you want to play out in the company top management," Severt said. "When you treat your employees as you want them to treat the guests and measure and award in turn for that, [they] will exceed your expectations each time."
10. Encourage repeat business.
Cultivate your business by providing the best products, services and experiences possible. A good experience will create a loyal customer who will be back again and again.
"You build relationships with customers using a structure that includes immediate and efficient support, and trust," Adams said. "... I love the saying 'farm, don't hunt.' The longevity of a business relies on keeping the current customers happy; otherwise, eventually there will always be a steady decline. In order to be successful, you have to cultivate the mindset of your business and perhaps company by shifting away from the 'hunt' mentality and into a 'farming' mentality. It's the key to customer service and customer success."
11. Personalize your response.
Focus on the customer as an individual. Ultimately, you're in business to have satisfied and returning customers. Achieve this by paying attention to each customer's needs and concerns.
"Be customer-obsessed," Santos said. "We talk about this all the time, but living it is essential. Our top priority is always to delight the customer, regardless of contract or situation. Thirty years has shown me that this is essential to customer satisfaction and growth."
12. Track customer satisfaction.
Use metrics to keep track of your customer satisfaction levels. Tools such as customer relationship management (CRM) software can help your whole team keep track of all your business's customer interactions. You might want to request customers' direct input to rate those interactions as well.
"I've long been a fan of Net Promoter Score (NPS) as a simple means of gauging customer satisfaction," Santos said. "It's easy and it gives you a quick indication of customer satisfaction, as well as changes within a specific account that could indicate a potential issue."
13. Praise effective customer service.
Share good customer service experiences within the company. Employees will respond to hearing how their team members helped customers, and they may learn from hearing how an issue was resolved. Next time an employee has to deal with an unhappy customer, they may remember a previous resolution and use that to work out the best solution to a new customer issue.
"Create amazing stories and share them inside the company," Severt said. "When an amazing service encounter unfolds, share it all over the business, and reward [employees] for those. Creating these life-changing stories in your culture inside and outside the company will provide a large return over time for companies when they are able to continually exceed and anticipate the expectations of the guests."
Over time, Severt said, this will help you create a company culture of hospitality. "Such a welcoming and transparent culture will create a wondrous company."