Some folks have been very kind about the various business posts I've thrown up here, so I'm continuing the theme.
Many people don't know this, but a long time ago in a country far away, I was a customer service rep for a large software company. There's a funny story there that I'll share another time. I also ran a Customer Service department in one of my previous jobs.
So here's my $0.02 on how things should work. Easy for me to say, as we are in the earliest stages of customer acquisition, so I know all of our customers by name.
Rule #1: Never forget that for many of your customers, the first time they contact you directly may be when they have a problem. Bad customer service can ruin a company’s reputation faster than anything else -- bad news always travels faster than good. Dell is a great example of how things can go wrong.
There are some simple procedures you can put in place that really reduce customer frustration and maintain, or even improve, your company’s reputation.
Contacting Customer Service should be easy and responsive. Email, web, phone, fax, whatever. It should work, it should be responded to and it should be a priority.
Every email should get an instant answer from an automated system stating that the email has been received and will be answered within a set period of time. Make sure you respond within the time period you state.
Web forms should also generate an email.
Phone systems should always allow you to reach a real live person. If everyone is busy make sure a customer can leave a message and make sure that message is responded to quickly, even if it is an after hours voice message saying “we got your call and will be in touch soon”.
Log all of your calls, emails etc. Track common problems, build a database of knowledge and make sure your all your support people know what the common problems are so that they can fix them quickly. Better yet, keep your product development people in the loop too..
It’s simple really, but most companies don’t do it.
Every time a customer connects with your company is the opportunity to learn something. Don’t waste it.
<sigh>. Yes, I know. Some customers are infuriatingly stupid. But here’s the thing, the customer either has a genuine complaint, or they don’t. If it’s genuine, fix it. If you can’t fix it, compensate for it (free upgrade, extra product, some small perk to take away the pain). If you can’t fix it and you can’t compensate for it, you should at least apologize for it. Many times and angry or upset customer can be calmed by a reasonably heartfelt “I’m sorry this has been causing you so much trouble”.
In fact every person working in customer service should be capable of meaningfully saying “I’m sorry”. And they shouldn’t be shy about saying it.
Now in the case where a customer does not have a genuine complaint give them back their money. If it’s not a real problem, there is no fix. If there’s no way to fix it, you and the customer are just spinning your wheels talking about it. That may be fine for the customer, but you have other fixable problems you could be working on.
An example might be helpful: A long time ago I worked for a very large software company that made Computer Aided Design tools. We had a customer who swore that all of his drawings were inaccurate because the vertical line of the cross-hair cursor looked fatter than the horizontal line. It was clearly just a display issue. The customer was using snap-to features, so everything was lined up correctly. Despite hours and hours of conversation, the customer remained convinced that this problem was introducing errors into all of their work.
There was no solution to this problem because it wasn’t real. If you give them back their money, even if they keep the product, you’ve neutralized their ability to complain. “I bought this product and it had problems. They couldn’t fix it so they gave me my money back” always sounds better than the tirade you’ll hear from an unhappy customer that didn’t get their money back.
There should be a set of escalation procedures in place for situations where a customer is really not happy for some reason. It doesn’t help your Customer Service rep to be yelled at, and it doesn’t help the customer feel as though they are getting anywhere by yelling at the same person. At the simplest level, when a customer asks to speak to a Manager and has a good reason to do so, they should ALWAYS be put through. When a customer has a real issue that goes above and beyond a simple technical problem they should be able to be connected to a Manager.
After an initial customer service call has been logged, there should be a method in place to prioritize future communication. It is incredibly frustrating for a customer with a problem to have to go through your defensive wall (whether that is a hold period on your phone system, a generic response or whatever) EVERY time they contact you. You need some kind of system that allows existing support cases to get through to a tech (even if it’s voicemail and a prompt callback) without delay.
In an ideal world, all customers would be treated equally. But it isn’t an ideal world and the truth is that some customers are more valuable than others. The reality is that customers that invest significant dollars in your company’s products are probably using it in a more mission-critical manner than those that spend less. The remedy can be as simple as an option menu in the support phone system, or separate numbers for different products.