Patience Pays in Social Customer Support

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When a customer is upset, and needs something, expects something, is angry about something, it can be stressful. Sometimes the fiery words you are reading can cause your own anxiety level to increase. the  can also cause an urge to act quickly to squash the negative energy coming at you. This urge for quick reply is natural, but can be counterproductive.

With agitated customers, sometimes the best thing to say is… nothing. Wait. Be patient, and listen. This can be done in person, over the phone, or electronically. Allow the customer to vent and say all of the things they need to say before you respond at all. On longer form platforms like forums and Facebook this is pretty easy. The customer is typically done venting by the time the post is published. However on Twitter,  you can’t be so sure. Give it a minute to see if another post pops in. Responding too quickly there can seem like an interruption. On the phone or in person, I recommend just… being silent. Active listening sometimes suggests head nodding and little sounds that indicate you are indeed paying attention. I find that when customers are really angry, pure silence provides room for them to really get it all out. Whether we are the true cause of the angry outburst or not, it really is a nice gift to another person to just allow them room to vent and be unhappy. Another positive side effect of listening to the customer’s full monologue before offering assistance is that you get a complete picture of what the actual root cause is.  A customer may begin discussing one single issue that causes frustration, but then lead into several other events and before you know it, you’ve arrived at the bigger issue.

So next time a customer pops open a giant can of “What-for” on you, resist the urge to start apologizing and fixing right away. Try as hard as you can to just let them vent, and vent, and vent until it’s all out. Being a customer myself, I can admit (though it is a bit embarrassing) that I’ve been that customer that vented before. What’s interesting is I usually wound up apologizing to and thanking the people that allowed me to vent. You might have the same thing happen to you.

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.

Infograph: Customer Service Is Everything

This infograph by ClickSoftware provides some surprising statistics about customer service and satisfaction from around the world.

Kiwi Delivers Great Customer Service To Atlanta Storm Victims

Kiwi ImageKiwi Services, providers of water damage restoration services, impressed me recently with their insightful customer service. The Atlanta area had record low temperatures this January, like much of the country. Water pipes had been breaking all over town for days. I thought I was going to escape the fate so many of my neighbors met. I was wrong. Last Wednesday I came home to a stream of water flowing down my street, coming from my driveway. When I opened the garage door, I realized that stream was coming from inside the house. The source proved to be a burst pipe in the laundry room. All over those nice bamboo floors. Sigh.

Since I was late to the broken pipe party, the service providers were already inundated with repair requests.  Many of the smaller water damage restoration companies in the area had full mailboxes, or busy signals. Kiwi Services answered the phone. They reacted to the demand for service by quickly staffing up for this weather event. The customer service agent advised me that Kiwi was taking contact information and calling back to schedule consultations as quickly as they could. She promised they would keep me advised, but also noted it could be a few days before a team could visit because of the high volume of requests. And keep me advised they did. Someone from the Kiwi office called twice a day to let me know they hadn’t forgotten about me, and kept me in the loop on their plans. They shared with me that they were flying in technicians from California and Arizona to help with the high demand. This made me feel like they were doing all they could, which put my mind at ease and helped me to relax. I was even quite calm. One of the reps that called said “Thank you so much for being so nice. There is actually a note on your file that you are really nice.” It’s easier to be nice when you feel assured you will be taken care of.

When the Kiwi team came out, they listened carefully to my story about how the water damage occurred, where the water traveled, and how it left the house. They thoroughly explained what needed to be done, the options available to me, the procedures they would follow, and what I could expect. They were on time and professional, even though they had been flown in from the west and were living out of hotels, working long hours. My husband brought the crew back pizza, and they were so happy to have it. When it was time to remove the drying equipment a few days later, they called ahead to make sure we knew they were coming, and within a few hours, all was finished.

So, what can you do, today, in your business, to make your customers want to be nice to you? Recommend you to friends? Write grateful blog posts about you? Here are a few things you might consider:

5 Ways to Provide Excellent Customer Service

  • Answer the phone (or post) when a customer reaches out. Even if the answer is “I have no answer, just want you to know we haven’t forgotten.”
  • Update customers regularly as promised, even when that is tough to do. Especially when it’s tough to do.
  • Provide relevant information about new developments to show customers progress is being made.
  • Listen to the customer’s story. Even if you’re pretty sure you already know what it will be, listen anyway. You might find valuable information in that story.
  • Keep promises made about arrival times, services that will be delivered, and results that can be expected.

A great big thank you to Kiwi and their staff for putting in all those extra hours away from their families and traveling far and wide to get so many of us back to normal. Nicely done.

Check them out for yourself at http://www.kiwiservices.com/water_damage.htm

Eye Candy Infographic’s 25 Skills for Excellent Customer Service

Though not specifically directed toward social media, the skills listed here by Eye Candy Infographic certainly apply on social media and all other forms of customer interaction.

25 Skills for Excellent Customer Service

by eyecandyinfographic.
Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

2014 Predictions for Social Customer Support

Crystal Ball

Crystal Ball (Photo credit: justin_a_glass)

Wow, is it time for predictions already? Things move fast in social, and to me it seems the whole year has flown by.

Marketers are predicting that more money will be spent on social media next year because of its attractive price tag and its ability to reach consumers where they are. There is also chatter about whether Google+ will gain traction this year, and questions around how Snapchat will factor in.

Regardless of the platform, it seems that the concepts of social listening and customer support are here to stay. The changing venues of this listening may create some challenges in the customer support department as we scramble to get the feed from the latest new location. Thankfully,  monitoring tools have made tremendous advances and many are able to add sites very quickly to get the data needed. 

5 Social Customer Support Predictions for 2014

  • Measurement – Listening and engagement tools are not only developing rapidly, but specializing as well. This should enable us to move away from soft metrics on social care and get insight to some really neat things, like cost per transaction, handle time, and the like.
  • First Stop: Social Media – Historically, many customers reached out on social media out of frustration with traditional channels, and as a last resort. As social care proves to be a handy option, I think we might see some customers head straight for social media.
  • Push for Faster Response Times – Customers want responses right now. Engagement tools are increasingly able to help us respond more quickly. Seems we may see a trend toward decreasing response times.
  • More Volume, Staffing Increase – As our friends in marketing spend more ad dollars on social (as their 2014 predictions say), and customers come to us first expecting faster response times (boy I’m starting to feel like that song, “On the first day of Christmas” where the list gets longer and longer), we’ll probably need more staff to support that. Take those good operational metrics with you when you ask for that headcount; you’ll probably need them!
  • Integration – Now that social care is established and collecting customer feedback, expect that feedback to be integrated into other departments.

So, what about this concept that if everyone is complaining, it should start to matter less as our senses dull? I do agree that with so many customers sharing their brand experiences it may be more challenging for stories to go viral; however I don’t think that provides any safety to companies. It seems that the general impression your brand makes on consumers as a whole may rise above the din of countless individual stories to leave a lasting impression. We saw this with the cancelled Chase Bank #AskJPM Twitter Q&A. Though you may not have read every comment, the overall sentiment was pretty clear.

I’m excited to see what 2014 holds for social customer support. We have the opportunity to be personal at scale, and then understand what our customers are telling us to better serve their needs.

KISSmetrics Infograph Illustrating Successful Customer Service

KISSmetrics recently published this insightful infograph with useful data gathered from consumers nationwide. Click the image to enlarge.

Why do Companies with Great Customer Service Succeed?
Source: Why do Companies with Great Customer Service Succeed?

Spelling Counts In Social Media Customer Support

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

Not so long ago, the majority of us got our news mainly through television, newspapers and trade magazines. These formal establishments did (and mostly still do) have teams of editors and multiple revisions before articles go to print. Facts are verified with sources, grammar and punctuation is confirmed through style guides, and spelling is double-checked with a dictionary. Boring process, right?

Fast forward to today. Real news is distributed by ordinary citizens without the aide of an editing staff. This allows quick access to so many varying viewpoints. Unfortunately, the lack of extra eyes on work can allow those spelling and grammatical errors to creep in. And though social media has adopted a more relaxed style than traditional business writing, clear spelling and grammar errors can still detract from the point of your communication.

Scenario: You own a vacuum cleaner business, and provide customer support on social media. A customer comes to you with a complaint; your company failed to properly pack a unit and one of the required attachments is missing. In your apology, there is a misspelling. This distracts the customer from your response, and the customer replies “Well, how could I expect your company to remember all the parts if your employees can’t even spell!” This is a severe example, of course; however customers expect professionalism and accurate data from companies.

Much is forgiven in our modern take on grammar; ending sentences in prepositional phrases may not raise an eyebrow. And that’s fine. Overly formal writing is not the point. You can be sure that this blog post on grammar would definitely fail in William Strunk Jr.’s eyes (if you’re not a word nerd like me, that guy wrote The Elements of Style, in 1918).  Today’s point is to write in a way that makes your audience comfortable and creates a sense of trust.

Ways to check spelling and grammar before posting:

  • Use any built-in spell check feature available in your software
  • If spell check is absent, copy your text into Word or other word-processing software, then paste back into Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Use spelling websites to look up words in question (for spelling and meaning!)
  • Re-read your own copy to catch anything the spell check does not
  • Pretend you are your reader. Does your copy make sense? Did you clearly convey your message and answer all questions?
  • When in doubt, ask a friend to read your copy

I hope these tips help you. I know I’ll be re-reading this post before I publish. You might lose faith in me if you found a spelling error in here!

Practice Makes Perfect for Customer Care on Social Media

Undercover Boss (U.S. TV series)

Undercover Boss (U.S. TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Getting really good at something requires practice. So does maintaining that skill level.  I remember my first customer service job, I was so nervous. I had no idea what to do or say. Taking that first phone call was terrifying. What if they ask me… you know, a question or something? What would I do? But then, you do it more, you learn things, and before you know it, you’re pretty good. And you stay good because your skills are constantly used.

Before I knew it, a couple decades passed (can you believe it!) and I’m running a social media customer support operation. Maybe you are too, since you’re reading this blog about a very small-niche specialty. Creating a framework to support operations can be all-consuming. It can seem impossible to find the time to go exercise those customer service skills again. I recommend, however, that you do just that. Taking some time on a regular basis to answer customer posts and complete the tasks your team members perform daily can provide valuable insight into process improvement opportunities. It can also ensure that your expectations of your team and your customer are reasonable. There is just no substitute for walking in the shoes of your team to shed light on their reality. The television series “Undercover Boss” shows us how illuminating it can be to provide the customer service you prescribe (well, it’s a bit formulaic and over the top, but still provides a good lesson.) We see there that occasionally the processes we develop do not perform in the field as we imagined. Below I’ve outlined a few steps that can help ensure you have an accurate view of the team and customer experience.

3 Steps for Hands-on Leadership:

  • Schedule regular meetings with your team. Request feedback and implement necessary changes.
  • Observe team performance. Discuss findings and ask for opinions.
  • Block out regular times to personally complete tasks your team would complete. Correct any pain points after discussion with the team.

So, give it a try. Tweet a response to your customer; post a reply on Facebook. For call centers, go ahead and personally call a customer. If you’re in retail, go chat with your customer. You might find everything running very smoothly, or you may find some opportunities for growth.