Accept Responsibility in Customer Support

Blue Angels at Rochester International Air Show. July 16, 2011. Photo by Ken Mist. http://www.flickr.com/photos/37996606796@N01/5946455173/

Blue Angels at Rochester International Air Show. July 16, 2011. Photo by Ken Mist.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/37996606796@N01/5946455173/

Picture this. You’re at a dinner party. Interesting people are there, the food is good, the drinks are good, and the conversation is going well. As a matter of fact, smart people are looking at you intently as you speak, seemingly hanging on your every word as you tell this really clever story. When you excuse yourself to get another drink, one of your business partners tells you you have spinach in your teeth. UUGGGHHH! How long has it been there? You had interesting things to say! You were witty, and clever, and had the best intentions, and… oh man, that crowd won’t remember any of that. They’re only going to remember that chick with the spinach in her teeth.

So, that happened to me yesterday. Well, kind of. See, I have all these lofty customer care aspirations. I want all customers to know that, even if we mess something up, we are complete professionals and will work tirelessly and put in that extra effort to ensure that our customers receive the best service possible. It will be real, and it will be honest. I have this amazing team working with me. I wonder sometimes if I could do what they do as well as they do, day in and day out, and honestly I’m not sure. I just remember to tell them every time I talk to them how great they are. But, even the best of us are just going to make mistakes. And we did. Our mistake? We told an upset customer that corporate (aka “They“) set the policies. ugggghhh. Spinach in teeth. Big time.

Some of you might be wondering why I’m all worried about this small thing. Well, it’s not really a small thing. And I’ll tell you why. The customer doesn’t know They. The customer only knows You, and You are the brand to the customer. Your voice, your image, your words in print, whatever. The infamous They doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if You, awesome customer service rep, knows that someone in supply chain messed this up, or someone over in accounting, or whatever. The customer does not need to see (nor does the customer want to see, quite frankly) the company’s dirty laundry. Know what they want? A real person to take ownership and answer them. Know what the answer is? The answer is always WE. WE here at (X company) made a mistake. Or, WE here at (X company) stand by our policy, and here’s why. It is not our intention to cause grief, but we do stand by it.

Let me be clear that my team is awesome. Your team is probably awesome too. Anybody at any time can make this mistake. It’s common. As a person on the planet, it feels unnatural to take responsibility for something that we did not personally do. But if you think back to the last time you heard “it’s not my fault,” “I can’t help you,” “It’s a corporate policy over which I have no control,” or “I agree with you, I think the policy is dumb, but nothing can be done,” think about the way you felt when you heard it. Did you have faith in the company? Did you feel like the person with whom you were speaking was useful to you? I’m pretty blunt about customer experiences, and I’ll tell you the last time that happened to me (see Update: Chase Ambushes My Twitter IPO Trade with Poor Customer Service). You can tell that to this day I’m still thinking about how little faith I have in that company, and still make a point to tell at least 5 people a week all about it.

So, how does the WE factor in for me? That one team member didn’t make the mistake. WE did. I did. I own that and am 100% responsible for it. Nobody’s throwing anybody under the bus. As far as I’m concerned, Frankie did it. And we will practice together and get better. We’re in it together, and I’m proud of that.

As a takeaway,  I recommend we all make a point of reminding our teams to take ownership and be a WE with our companies. If the policies should change, by all means, change them. But we can do the customer (and ourselves) a favor by resisting the urge to separate ourselves from the company. You can also check out People Love You by Jeb Blount. I just finished it, and I think it’s a great resource on WE and many other customer service tips for both B2B and B2C.

Communication is Critical to Positive Customer Experience

Contractors review plans (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Marc Barnes) http://www.flickr.com/photos/usacehq/

Contractors review plans (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Marc Barnes) http://www.flickr.com/photos/usacehq/

You may remember my recent post about a water pipe that burst in my house (Kiwi Delivers Great Customer Service to Atlanta Storm Victims). Well, like many other Atlanta residents I’m still going through the process of having those repairs completed. As many of you might know, this involves having a contractor assigned to your claim. The first contractor assigned to my claim reminded me how important it is to effectively communicate with customers. Not only is good communication important, it can save customer relationships. We’ve recently decided to part ways with our first contractor, and I wonder if that could have been avoided with better communication.

The Story (Short Version)

When the estimator came out from (we’ll just call them “First Contractor Company,”) he shook my hand, told me his name, handed me his card, and then just started walking around the house. As I tried to tell him the story of the path the water took, he acted like he was trying to avoid me. Finally, he said “I’ll just take these measurements and if I have any questions I’ll let you know.” So I stopped talking to him. Completely. I felt like a child asked to sit in the corner and be quiet. After 20 minutes, he came to the kitchen table where I sat checking emails and said “so do you know how this is going to work?” Well, how could I? He basically told me to sit down and be quiet in my own house. I said no. He ran through a list of bullet points, none of which sounded negotiable. Never asked if I had any questions. That was it. Then he left. I told my husband it might be best if he worked with the contractor.

Next, our coordinator, after much time had passed, scheduled a time for us to meet at the flooring company (also owned by the same man that owns the contracting company). My husband and I picked out a floor we liked that was on display in the showroom. The sales rep kept bringing out cheaper, dissimilar materials and ignored us several times when we said we liked the sample on the floor. I finally had to be blunt and explain that I was trying to tell her we liked the sample we were standing on, as I said many times before. She made a huge deal out of telling us it wasn’t “in budget” and the other floor was “in budget” but would not give specific pricing. We left and went to a flooring place up the street, found the flooring we wanted, and were told it was in stock and given the exact price. We called the coordinator to let him know we wanted to work with the other flooring company, and were told they couldn’t do that. Also that, even though the other flooring company had the material in hand, the contractor’s flooring company wouldn’t be able to get the flooring for three weeks.

After many weeks of getting nowhere, receiving no information and being treated like children, we called the insurance company and requested a new contractor. No customer wants to feel they are being swindled or patronized. And, I doubt that business owners want their customers to feel this way. How can we help customers feel that we are being honest with them? Here are a few ways.

Ways to Effectively Communicate with Customers

  • Introduce Yourself, and Your Company – When you greet a customer, electronically or in person, smile. Be open. You may be the first impression a customer has of your brand.
  • Listen – I can’t say this enough times. Listening to people conveys the message “You matter to me. Your experience, opinion and feelings matter to me.” Even when you think you don’t need to hear what the person has to say, you may be surprised by some useful information.
  • Be Friendly – Friendliness might be the easiest way to create a lasting customer relationship. It’s so easy to do, and yet we miss it so often. Ask appropriate personal questions, such as how their day has been, if traffic was tough, if they’re looking forward to the next sporting event. Being personable puts people at ease, makes them comfortable. Comfortable people can relax and conduct better business.
  • Provide Information – Provide your mission statement. It speaks volumes about your values. Tell the customer that quality is important to you. Explain that they can trust you. Give specific details about what the customer can expect.
  • Ask Questions – Ask if the customer has any additional questions or concerns. Ask why they chose you over another provider. Gathering background data can help you understand what the customer may be looking for.
  • Be Honest and Keep Promises – I say this often too. Just be honest with customers when you can. Clearly explain pricing, terms, and the like. Call back when you say you will, and deliver when you say you will.

Had any of these things happened with  “First Contractor Company,” I wouldn’t have already moved on to “Second Contractor Company.” It’s more work and time for us both. And, “First Contractor Company” never saw a dime, even after all the time they spent wasting my time.

Are You Wasting Customer Time on Social Media?

image by Tax Credits, A clock with money on it - "Time is Money" http://www.flickr.com/photos/76657755@N04/7214596024/

image by Tax Credits, A clock with money on it – “Time is Money” http://www.flickr.com/photos/76657755@N04/7214596024/

Working in social media, I find it necessary to do quite a bit of research. This includes reading tons of articles and blog posts about customer experience, social media, and customer care. That may sound boring to some people, but I find the subject really interesting. Recently, however, I noticed that I’m having a hard time making my way through some of this material. Last night, as I found myself zoning out on an article published by a very well-respected news organization on a topic I’m very interested in. I scrolled down to find out how much longer the article was. And then it hit me. That’s why I was zoning out. This article was taking forever to get to the point! I found this fascinating, because it was written by people who work in social media, for people who work in social media. And, if you spend any time around us, you know that we have relatively short attention spans in this field. But I bet if you think about most people you interact with, that trait is fairly ubiquitous these days. We want quality information, very quickly, without all those other words that are really unnecessary. How often have you started reading something that might be valuable, but then put it down because it just looked like it would take too long?

This isn’t just about reading. You can just as easily waste customer time talking to them on the phone or in person. Here’s the thing. We probably don’t need to say all those words. It would save us time, and would save the customer time. And saving time is very important to our customers. This is especially important on social media, where customers expect timely responses that are useful and easy to understand. Here are some tips to ensure you’re not wasting time and effectively communicating with your customers.

5 Ways to Save Customer Time

  • Determine your audience – Before writing or speaking a single word, I find it helpful to determine who my audience is. The point of communication is to convey information to the person or people you’re engaging with. How can you best do that? By knowing your audience and how they prefer to receive information. If you are unsure, it’s best to stay on the safe side and be a bit more formal.
  • Be clear – All those words you wrote or spoke, do they really say what you meant to say? Review your words to make sure. If you were the audience, would you have understood what you meant by what you said?
  • Eliminate all jargon – I find that when jargon (also known as business slang) is used, you wind up repeating yourself in English anyway. So, save yourself some time and skip the jargon. It helps to think to yourself, “How do I explain this to someone who is unfamiliar with my line of business?”
  • Use fewer words – Many prepositional phrases can just go. For example, “We can have discussions on our next steps for how to proceed” could just be “We can discuss next steps.” Could you have worded things better? Remember for next time.
  • Review – Before you send that email, take one last look.   If you were on the phone, think about the conversation you had. It’s worth the extra effort to make sure everything is as you want it to be.

These steps can help reduce customer interaction time, and, quite honestly, can leave the customer with a more positive view of the interaction because less effort was spent attempting to decipher the conversation. They’re in, they’re out, they feel better, you feel better.