Selling customer service

“Your personal core values define who you are, and a company’s core values ultimately define the company’s character and brand. For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.” – Tony Hsieh, CEO Zappos

The very nature of the Internet provides users a ubiquitous range of venues for purchasing almost any product. Consequently, earning market share and growing your business requires a kind of differentiation that really resonates with consumers.

Although selling on lowest price is the most obvious differentiator, price alone is one of the hardest advantages to sustain long term in a competitive and open marketplace. In the case of the world’s largest retailers, there is even a willingness to sell products in a number of categories below cost out of a simple desire to capture market share in this one-dimensional way. But for small online retailers, pursuing this strategy exclusively can be a kind of slow suicide.

Where small retailers can gain a foothold, however, is in the area of customer service. Despite its massive catalog and low prices, Amazon doesn’t take phone calls to field questions about products or policies. In that way, it differs from Zappos, for example, which is a standout example of how personalized service can intersect with large retail, even on the Internet.

The first half of the year is a good time to review your customer service policies and procedures, and to reinforce the importance of your service orientation with everyone at your company.

Empower your Entire Staff

For starters, I hope that I never hear, as a consumer, the following sentence again, “I’d like to do that for you, but I have to check with my manager first.” I bet you would agree with me.

Every member of your staff is an ambassador for your brand, for better or for worse. The behavior and responsiveness of your team will inevitably be associated with the company as a whole. Furthermore, often enough customer service doesn’t begin or end with the “customer service department.” Anyone who works at your company could be called upon to interact with a customer or prospective customer, and the reputation of your entire organization will pivot around the sum total of all of those individual interactions.

Although part of leveraging the power of this thought has to do with things like rallying your entire team around a set of core values and a clear mission that connects with your passion for what you’re doing, another aspect has more to do directly with what we traditionally think of as the realm of customer service.

For some entrepreneurs, the thought of empowering staff to resolve problems on their own — as they are happening, to satisfy customers without requiring them to get permission to do it — is a bridge too far. Often enough, the concern is that the staffer will do the wrong thing, give away too much, or make the situation in some way worse rather than better. This isn’t an irrational fear in some companies, and owners are reasonable in being concerned about it.

But requiring staff to get permission to really help a customer is a mistake in the other direction – exercising too much control at a time when staff most needs to be able to be responsive and flexible. It also leads to the used car syndrome, where customers are left to feel that the salesman is a powerless conduit between the customer and the unseen and unresponsive sales manager in the back room.

Giving staff carte blanche permission to do anything and everything to resolve a customer concern without needing the say-so of a manager or owner addresses that concern. But it is reasonable and appropriate to provide your staff upfront guidelines about what you want to see happen in various scenarios, and to regularly perform after-the-fact reviews of situations that come up to provide some critique and feedback of the choices that the staff make.

The truth is that much of the success of this approach hinges on hiring smart and sensitive people in the first place; people who understand and support your mission and who are committed to the same values that you are. And then the experience of dealing with a range of situations over a long period of time will hone their judgment and increase their effectiveness in managing difficult situations without someone looking over their shoulder.

Help your Customers in the Way that They Want to be Helped

Technology has made it simple to communicate with customers in a variety of ways. Email remains a standard, but phone-based support is easy to provide, too, and it has become surprisingly inexpensive.

At Stardust Memorials we use RingCentral (a VoIP platform), in partnership with AT&T. RingCentral allows us to provide multiple line toll-free service at a very reasonable cost. We staff our own phones for much of the day but for after-hours and weekend service we partner with OnBrand24 (a U.S.-based call center) to handle our service needs.

Live chat tools are provided standard in many hosted ecommerce platforms, and third-party chat tools are available that offer many options at a very reasonable cost. My favorite is Olark, but there are number of good ones on the market.

Other options to consider are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media channels where your customers are already spending much of their time.

Consider, also, adding a CRM (customer relationship management) tool to the mix. It allows you to tie together input from various customer service communication channels, manage it, assign it to staff, and ensure that it is being handled the way that you want it done.

A tool like Zendesk or allows you to integrate input from sources like Olark, along with traditional email or tickets, Facebook posts, and other communication channels (even the phone system) resulting in a solution where your staff have a single unified shareable interface to manage communication from all those different channels.

Having a toolbox like this gives the owners the transparency they need to see to it that service is being taken seriously and professionally, and it gives staff the ability to manage customer concerns, share tickets and emails between each other, and to make sure that every concern gets addressed and the corresponding ticket closed.

Speed Matters

Responding to customers’ concerns quickly is critical. Speed really does matter.

When customers are asking a question about a product, it is because they are shopping and the requested information is necessary, from the customer’s point of view, in order to move from a purely browsing mode to an engaged buying mode. If they don’t hear back from you quickly, then they are likely going to go looking to other retailers with the same or similar product and asking their staff for the same information. The first one back with the knowledge needed is going to win the sale.

Likewise, when customers contact a company about a product or service failure, or because an order didn’t meet their expectations, they are likely feeling anxious to some degree about how you’re going to handle it. Will you refund their money or replace the product? Or will you ignore their concerns? Leaving customers in a semi-alarmed state for very long is not going to have good outcomes for you or your reputation. You want to get back with them quickly.

Here is where you’re likely to gain from another aspect of using a helpdesk-CRM tool such as Zendesk or Freshdesk. All of the better tools allow you to craft an SLA (service level agreement) policy that is administered automatically by the tool itself. SLAs are essentially sets of rules that “escalate” concerns to the next level of seriousness, and inform the needed staff, whenever the issue goes unresolved for too long. A low-priority concern might be given a longer-term to resolve (say, three hours) whereas an urgent concern might be elevated if it goes unaddressed for more than 30 minutes.

The key to success with using this aspect of the tool is, first, to have a well-crafted policy that doesn’t ask the impossible of the staff. You really need to give this some careful thought and game-out the ramifications of your SLA policy in terms of what the staff can really achieve given their resources.

The second key, though, is informing everyone as to the nature of the SLA policy, the specific ways that the rules work, and the outcomes of elevated tickets, and any other relevant facts that bear on your service commitment.

Be Genuinely Helpful

One of Google’s nine principles of innovation is a relentless focus on improving the customer’s experience through every new iteration of a Google product. Decisions about development priorities, product features, capital investments, and marketing are made with the mantra, “What would be best for our users?” firmly in mind. Google believes that by focusing exclusively on improving the user experience in everything that it does, every stakeholder will be made better off and be more satisfied in the long-term.

There is a customer service lesson in this for every company. We know that it is nearly impossible to satisfy every potential customer with the products and services that you alone have available. Inevitably there will be cases where a potential customer asks for something that you don’t sell or requests a service that you can’t provide.

As much as this might seem counterintuitive, it is almost always best to take a page from the Zappos playbook in such a situation, and to go ahead and have your staff recommend a competitor that you believe will do a good job of providing the customer with what is wanted. In such a situation, you’re not going to get the sale anyway, and the customer will ultimately find a vendor for what they need on his or her own. But by providing that information and support, you’re going to earn a reputation as a company that cares first and foremost about your customers, and that sort of honesty and helpfulness will bring those customers back in the future (or their friends) to make a purchase when you’re better able to actually help them out.

We do this at Stardust Memorials with a select list of competitors for whom we have respect and we have reason to believe will deliver on their service commitments, too. I’ve never personally spoken with the owners at any of these companies, but they have obviously caught on to what we’re doing, as they have in many cases reciprocated the favor and sent us business as well.

Apologize and Empathize

This seems like a small and obvious thing, but it isn’t. When a customer presents us with a problem with an order or is dissatisfied with a product, the first step is to simply acknowledge their concern, express empathy, and apologize.

Just recently one of my purchasing staff was disappointed to find that our box supplier was out of a critical size of box that they had previously assured us was a stock item that we could rely on always being available. The item was on backorder and was going to be unavailable for some time.

Although it was frustrating to hear that, and it required that we make adjustments, what my purchasing staffer was quick to notice and share with me was the simple fact that the salesperson didn’t apologize or seem to care that it was going to be a problem for us. In other words, the inability to deliver what we needed wasn’t nearly as much of an issue for her as the fact that the sales staff was indifferent to the plight.

In Jason Fried and David Hansson’s Rework — a book that I recommend — they discuss the worst ways to say you’re sorry, including “We’re sorry if this upset you,” “I’m sorry that you don’t feel we lived up to your expectations,” and “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.” They call these non-apology apologies because they are impersonal, do not accept responsibility, suggest in a subtle way that the problem is you, and do not articulate a course of action to make things better.

As they write, “A good apology accepts responsibility. It has no conditional if phrase attached. It shows people that the buck stops with you. And then it provides real details about what happened and what you’re doing to prevent it from happening again. And it seeks a way to make things right” (p. 238).

At root, this is a culture issue again — does your staff understand fully that it is not only “OK” but actively desired that, on behalf of the entire organization, they are empowered to apologize when things go wrong (by saying “I’m sorry” rather than “we’re sorry”), to accept responsibility, and to make things better in whatever way they think makes the most sense, given the situation? Has this been clearly articulated by the owners and then reinforced?

The Customer Is Not Always Right; Your Staff Matters, Too

Although virtually all airlines do it, Southwest Airlines has a special reputation for looking after their staff, as well as their passengers. Knowing that a small fraction of the traveling public regularly make the majority of the trouble on airplanes, identifying that relatively small list of problem customers for what they are is part of the formula for long-term success.

When a customer crosses the line from being annoyed, angry, or disappointed to being abusive, insulting or threatening toward your staff, then the rules do, in fact, change. At my company, my staff knows that they have an obligation to provide outstanding customer service, even in cases where we’re dealing with angry, frustrated, or disappointed customers. But they do not have to accept being abused, insulted, or threatened.

In cases where a member of my staff is presented with that sort of behavior (very, very rare), I prefer to take that call myself. Often enough people who act out in those sorts of inappropriate ways ultimately want to “talk to the owner” in order to get what they perceive to be “satisfaction,” so sending them to me is where the conversation was going to go anyway.

But my larger concern is really for my staff. I want to hire and retain great people, and part of what makes that happen is creating a workspace where they want to spend their working lives. I do whatever I can to create that space, and that includes taking the really troublesome and abusive situations out of the range of their concerns in the first place.

Jordan Lindberg
Jordan Lindberg
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