Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Operations File: Customers training you

We are all customers and therefore we all at times get frustrated when services and products fail. It annoys  us precisely because of the waste of time and money that could be more productively spent.

An extract of an email I sent to a customer service team regarding an IT product:

"I would assume the answer is yes, but clarification would be appreciated. Naturally I will test drive this theory of mine with or without you responding, but I can hardly recommend a company or it's services if it doesn't understand the needs of it's customers.

I happen to have worked with hundreds of programmes, so it is always incredibly frustrating for the user to have to explore how each system works. Know the feeling? I point blank refuse to use any that expect me to be trained to fit how it operates when it becomes too much of a hassle. Programmes and systems are supposed to be useful tools whereby we control them, NOT the other way around.

If your company wishes to continue to be successful it would be wise to bear that in mind as the rate of progress is such that one of your competitors will respond more quickly, understand more easily and thereby take your customers away from you. Fair warning I feel ..."

Feel free to take a similar stance to chivvy things along if you don't already do so. Start-ups tend to be more afraid to do so than larger enterprises which have the benefit of experience of wording things to ensure they get the service they expect and pay for. But what of the effect on the customer service departments and their staff?

The role of customer services

It is only right for customers to complain when services are below par regardless of whether it is a business or a community service. Without that information how can any organisation fix the problems? In my tweets I have let complained at politicians because I am a customer. Not only that, I am one of their employers as my taxes pay their salaries. In effect, we are all their bosses. The same principle applies even to government departments. The point is we are always customers ourselves and should always be aware of how we all prefer to be treated.

It should therefore become abundantly apparent as to what the role of customer service staff is. They have to have extraordinary abilities in tact, diplomacy and empathy to be of any use. Added to which they need to be resilient to the point of being thick-skinned at times and, preferably unafraid to kick their bosses to respond to serious complaints promptly which could otherwise bring that enterprise into disrepute and thereby loose the trust of their clients and customers.

It is also essential that customer services work closely with marketing teams as the last thing you need is the latter going off on some spurious tangent of their own just because there's an opportunity for marketing before things are firmly in place to deliver things. Large companies which take the attitude that they don't need to bother with small fry are quite frankly, foolish, because among those smaller concerns (including individuals) you never know who they know or may come to know and people always, always, always talk when it comes to bad experiences.

I stated exactly that on being told that if I didn't want the freelance work offered (which didn't even cover the travel expenses to get to it), there were plenty of others what would. The result of my saying that was an offer of a meeting with the management of the company which I declined as in the interim I'd heard rumours that 'pay' was subsidised by illegal drugs. Not wishing to become a drug addict, the company was of zero interest to me. I believe it no longer trades which is rather pleasing to know. So even as an employee we can shop for the best service (employer) we are able to afford.

Employers be warned as you'd be amazed at what your workers can learn from just what they witness. I've perhaps gleaned more than most from working in administration, operations and at many a corporate event as a technician. It pays dividends to communicate and be inclusive of staff at all times as that in itself will enhance your customer's experience by ensuring that whoever a client talks to is genuinely upbeat about your organisation for the right reasons.

TOP TIP: Trust people for what they do, not what they say and look for consistency of effort.

Great oaks

Great oaks only grow from small acorns and if you work hard on networking opportunities you will eventually lead to a good return for that investment in some way. It undoubtedly pays to be polite as much as possible, but one should never be afraid to stand up to any form of bullying or stupidity. Customer service staff should be trained, and trained well to deal with instances of exasperated customers. If they are not, then you only have yourselves to blame for the consequences.

In a recession of course there is more safety in numbers than in putting all your eggs in one basket. My first stint of entrepreneurship came when I was production manager of a typesetting company in the 1980s recession. I wasn't a director of the company but I was responsible for production, credit control, invoicing and jointly responsible for customer services when I was still in my early twenties.

While our competitors chased after big contracts, we had a healthier balance of small, medium and large customers as our client base. While our competitors charged more and only supplied proof-reading as an additional fee, we did not. While our competitors in effect bullied their customers into thinking that they were only tolerated if they matched their standards (snobbery tactics), we did not. The result was that we secured overspill work from multinationals including Loctite UK and EMI on a subcontract basis and our competitors went under.

It was still viable when I resigned with only one month's salary to move on with. I chose to turn freelance to gain a broader experience. Eventually the company folded after I left but I cannot comment as to why as I wasn't privy to anything that happened after my departure one way or another. Perhaps it was one customer too many that didn't pay their bill or one investment too many - who knows. I don't.

This highlights another role of customer service professionals - they need to be kept informed about bad debts and agreement as to how to handle customers who have not paid their bills, if only in who they should pass that customer onto when they make contact. It is surprising how many businesses fail to do so with the result that the customer feels they are in favour with one department, but not with another... trust me they will milk that for all it's worth. 

Symbiotic relations

The way in which the best customer service professionals work is very much through building relationships rather than by dictating rules. They should be informing operational managers and company directors of what clients are interested in for the future but also enticing customers into being interested in everything that the company is providing. They are your front line PR team and should always be highlighting products and services that customers might wish to explore as a means of developing themselves. There is little point trying to sell conference facilities to children's entertainers, but the same facilities might be of interest to host parties to both the entertainers and their customers. Talk to both.

Clients who run seminars might also wish to run awards and require some form of entertainment which in turn may lead to you needing to hire entertainers, thereby building not only business but relationships between your own clients which will encourage them all to make use of your services more. And it is your customer service team who are the usually the first point of contact to raise such possibilities simply because their role entails that they should know your clients best. Every conversation they have could lead to new opportunities and ways in which to improve and develop your business. In effect customer service teams are also part sales reps and marketing professionals too.

As people we tend to be most interested in others when they show an interest in us first. Therefore there is no point employing people who do not like conversation and who do not listen properly in a customer service role. The best way of all to gain respect, gratitude, loyalty and trust from your customers is to be honest and be genuine. Faking such things is luckily quite hard as most of us have strong instincts about when we are being lied to.

In essence our relations will always benefit from being honest even to the point of us saying when we cannot deliver something as promised. We know ourselves that we would rather have prior warning of something that is going to be cancelled, late or postponed than to be told at the last minute. So why I wonder do people bother lying when furious responses are the most likely outcome?

TOP TIP: Focus on the content of your client's communication, not the how or who.

The same complaint might come from several sources or only one, but every complaint should be considered to be valid. Dismissing a person or the manner in which they communicate to you could lead to you missing out on a pitfall that could affect many. Don't do it.

Customers should always be training us through informing us about what works for them and what doesn't, without them, none of us would have jobs and no business can evolve, develop and grow. The customer may not always be right, but they will never fail to tell you when you are which I always think is helpful. Remember that usually when we are wrong it's because we haven't done enough to inform people about what we can or cannot provide. With considered communication customers can be brought to a level of understanding of why you work the way you do. After that it is very much up to them as to whether or not they wish to stick with you.

Never try to emulate exactly what competitors do as your client has to have a reason of some kind to prefer and choose you. Identify and be consistent about your Unique Selling Point (USP). Yes you may lose some clients because of it, but hopefully not the ones you wish to attract. (See Operations file on marketing).

Finally, I had profuse apologies over that IT service with the result that the company in question is now on probation while I test drive it's products. Best they don't let me down again, as there are always other service providers out there aren't there? In common with 99% of major companies their USP isn't down to customer service, nor should it be, nevertheless it still matters and will always be a vital element to determine their and your continued success or potential for failure.

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