3 Common Customer Service Mistakes You Can Fix

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Think back to the last time you called customer service. Usually you call because something’s gone wrong, you don’t understand what has happened, or you do understand exactly what’s gone wrong and you are not happy. When your issue was solved, how did you feel? Did the process end with your anger diffused, your problem solved, and your mood improved? In the best case, all of those things were accomplished. And the Agent who helped you likely avoided three common customer service mistakes:

Mistake 1: You need to be friendly at all costs even when there is accurate, difficult information to share

Mistake 2: The Customer Always Wants All of the Information

Mistake 3: You need to get the Customer Off of the Call as Soon as Humanly Possible

Some Practical Suggestions

Let’s unpack these ideas to see how to avoid them, starting with the need to be friendly. What does this mean from the perspective of the customer? You should embrace the possibility of an unpleasant conversation by first being polite – “Hello, how are you doing today” – and then sharing the facts of the situation. Be careful to ask for as much information as you need from the customer to determine what’s necessary to do next. And when you find that there is accurate, difficult information to share, share these facts in the context of the customer’s response, e.g. “it sounds like you’re trying to do this … the feature or service is intended to do that … and the way you’re using it will not work in the way that you intend. Would you like to hear some options for doing this differently?”

How to avoid the “friendly trap”: acknowledge the customer’s issue, share the relevant facts, provide the impact of these decisions, and ask the customer how to proceed. You can be civil, polite, and cheerful without being friendly at the expense of being accurate.

How Much Information Should You Share?

Now that you’ve uncovered the issue, you might assume – based on your experience – that the customer always wants all of the possible information required to solve the problem. In a complex product or service, there might be (and usually is the case that there are) several ways to address the issue, each way having specific drawbacks or advantages. A superhero customer advocate will understand from the information already gathered whether the customer is open to hearing multiple avenues to success, or simply wants to know “the right way to do it.” And the right way to do it might vary depending upon the customer’s experience, sophistication, time allotted to solve the problem or preference.

How to put the customer in the position to succeed: identify the best solution for that customer to solve that problem, instead of all of the possible solutions.

End the Call ASAP, Right?

You might also think that this investigation will take a really long time, and it’s probably been drummed into your head that you need to get the customer off of the phone as fast as humanly possible. While your longest call likely won’t last nine hours and 37 minutes like the record set by the Zappos team in Las Vegas, it’s more important to solve the problem customer (think about the goal of “one and done”) than it is simply to give the first possible answer and then send them along their merry way. The goal is to get to the root cause of the issue without being rushed, and then to solve the customer’s problem in a relaxed and upbeat way. Your mileage may vary in specifying an “ideal” length of call unless you handle tens of thousands of calls a month, as New Yorkers and Californians may respond to your questions differently. The ultimate goal is the same – be efficient, appropriate, and direct – and if your brand promise demands it (like Zappos) just stay on the line for as long as the customer needs.

When should you end the call? It depends, and usually varies based on the person, the complexity of the call, and the expectation that they have. Be flexible and you’ll make more customers happy; but don’t flex to the point of breaking.

These are a few of the most common customer service mistakes that you can fix, and the best way to identify the types of calls that cause problems are to identify what happened with your most unhappy, happiest, and most frequent calling customers. Focusing on active listening, offering options to place the customer in a position to succeed, and ending the call as appropriate will help you to avoid these common customer service pitfalls.

Is Twitter an Effective Customer Service Tool?

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Is Twitter an Effective Customer Service Tool?
Twitter is absolutely an effective Customer Service tool.

It’s effective because it allows customers to communicate with the company in a channel that they prefer (no more IVR/Phone Tree for me, please); it makes the issue public so that the company is forced to respond and act (transparency = #winning!); and it allows the company to answer questions with a human style and build brand equity (bonus: and builds content for others to search and use for self-service.)

People are raising their hands, why not answer?
If someone walked into your office, would you tell them, “please don’t talk to me, I only respond to phone calls?” Of course not. But this is the attitude many large corporations display when they ask customers to contact them in only one way.

Truth = corporations need to scale, cannot answer every customer in the same way, and need a way to quantify what they do, which is most convenient in email/call centers/CRM systems. But people don’t really care what option you prefer them to use. They just want you to answer. So Twitter is a great option because from the customer’s perspective, they just ask – and you figure it out. (Clearly, from the company view, you need to gather and triage these requests just like any other, but there are lots of good ways to do this.)

Open Communication = Win
Would you rather do business with a company that communicated with you publicly or one that only responded irregularly and never stated its intentions? I’d rather deal with the company that published information to the web, answered questions, and generally made the parts of its business that could be public, well, public.

Acknowledged = that not every business can communicate this way, that there are secrets and private information that should not be shared on an open channel (e.g. medical, financial, or otherwise regulated details) but the initial contact can most definitely be made on an open channel in many cases.

Your Employees are People and Your Customers Are People – Why Not Let Your Brand Reflect That?
There are lots of brands that are doing an outstanding job of sounding like people, not like, well, committees. Virgin AmericaZappos, and Ford are doing a great job in social media, and (surprise!) I also want to do business with them. Even better, when I communicate with these companies on closed, non-transparent channels, I feel like the same brand proposition and value still transmits in these other mediums. (Win!)

Finally, it’s good to note that trying to act in a public or transparent way, treating customers like human beings, and trying to answer their questions in a way that reinforces a friendly, helping brand will also build a large store of indexable, searchable content that might short-circuit many inbound questions, provide self-service options (and save your company money.) That’s a lot of benefits derived simply from thinking that Twitter is a good way to conduct customer service. A focus on the customer leads, overall, to a better Customer Experience.

Follow the discussion on Quora.

How do you build service to scale?

I read @codybrown‘s excellent analysis of network growth and scaling with regards to MySpace, Facebook and Twitter this morning and got to wondering if the concepts he’s talking about can be applied to broader concepts in Customer Service. Brown presents the idea that services like MySpace have failed because they couldn’t channel their explosive growth into a system that worked not only for the core adopters but also for mainstream users. Later-arriving, “fast-follower” services with more focused missions are stealing the MySpace user (Last.fm for music, Facebook for social networking, etc.) because you don’t have to be an insider to figure out how to find the service useful. What does this mean for service concepts in general?

The recent purchase of Zappos by Amazon is a good example of a company with fanatical customer focus acquiring another company with fanatical customer focus. Both Zappos and Amazon have built service to scale — and, I believe, will be able to avoid the problem that @codybrown references — because they focus on three things: Customer Service above all else, Mass Customization, and Back-end services that lower the cost of transactions.

Both Zappos and Amazon practice fanatical devotion to Customers. Zappo’s motto, stated directly in its logo, is “Powered by Service”. About.zappos.com states that “Customer Service is everything.” Amazon has similar focus, calling itself “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.” There are many customer testimonials that might provide additional detail here — the point is that both of these companies have made it possible for customers to tell other customers whether a product or service is good or bad. By empowering the customer and by pledging to fix it when the customer’s expectations aren’t met, both Zappos and Amazon have created a situation where their best customers will shout the company’s name from the rooftops and their worst customers will have a strong process for recourse. Customer Service, and policies that reinforce that customer service, make it possible for both of these companies to build the rest of their brand around that service.

To deliver that service, both Amazon and Zappos practice what I call “mass customization” rather than making an individual web site, store, or product offering for one customer or set of customers. This may sound contradictory, because each customer does get an individual order, and that customer may have an individual concern that sounds different than another customers. But if you take the perspective of looking at groups of customers who buy shoes (in the Zappos world) and then you segment them so that they all buy shoes in roughly the same way (even if front-end design templates and brand segmentation make it seem different), and you fulfill these orders and return them in roughly the same way, then you’ve built the system to have a relatively constant cost per order, even though your product offerings may be myriad in their breadth.
Build once, deliver many different flavors with a common back-end system, and you’ll be able to satisfy the Customer Service needs of all of those different customers.

To deliver this vision of build once, deliver many flavors, both of these companies had to build back-end logistics, supply-chain, and fulfillment services that lowered the overall cost of doing transactions. For Amazon, this meant building software systems to manage inventory, present and build stores, make and fulfill orders, and then building a physical distribution system to implement this vision. For Zappos, the implementation was slightly different, but the effect was the same: build a system that as it scales provides learning curve improvements, opportunities to apply LEAN and greater efficiencies and profitability overall per order. Only now as their services are growing and growing do these investments look particularly shrewd, especially when new product lines (Clothes.com, e.g.) are introduced for the combined company to market. Amazon is leaving Zappos alone to operate as an autonomous unit. Good move — I think it will pay off for both companies.

What does this mean for Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other new product entries? Build your service to planet scale — at least in your head. If you don’t know how your service will function when it’s really really big, then you will miss the opportunity as MySpace did to shape the service and prevent fast-followers from cherry-picking the best parts of your model. Make your offering a defensible position — as both Zappos and Amazon have done — but focusing on a service offering your present and future competitors can’t easily duplicate. And finally, a paradoxical idea: you need to try many ideas and fail fast, but remain focused on the small goal that’s easy to explain to your most fanatical and dedicated customers, as well as the mainstream customers you don’t have yet. Keep it simple, please the customer, mass-customize by configuring your offering rather than building net new code for each segment, and build your systems and your ideas to scale.

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