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the top tens

The three most common contributors to poor customer service are organizational culture, business processes and technology. With this in mind, here are eleven tips on how you can ensure your customer service is repeatedly exceptionalJacob Wackerhausen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Think about the goods and services you purchased this week and ask yourself, "Was the customer service level exceptional, ordinary, or poor?"

The research I do for clients repeatedly demonstrates that the majority of customer service experiences are on the latter end of that scale. Disturbingly, this occurs despite the realization by most business owners and executives that repeat business is the most appealing and cost effective form of customer acquisition.

The three most common contributors to poor customer service are organizational culture, business processes and technology. With this in mind, here are eleven tips on how you can ensure your customer service is repeatedly exceptional:

1. Solicit the customer. What do your customers think of your service levels? Have you asked them? More importantly, what have you done with their feedback? Most of you will say that you already know what your customers think, but in my experience, we have a tendency to solicit feedback from the lowest risk engagement; meaning, we usually ask customers we know are already happy with our service.

But what about everyone else? Have you asked new customers what specifically they found helpful and enjoyable about your level of customer service? What about how you compare to your competition? Creating a dialogue with new and infrequent customers helps us to identify where we need to improve.

2. Titles. I shudder at the title of C.S.R. or Customer Service Representative. I think it sends the wrong message to both the employees and customers. Think about it, these people don't represent customer service, they represent the company. If one of them is ignorant with a customer or fails to meet the customer's needs, who get's the blame: the employee or the company? Clearly it's the latter. It's important to set the right mindset with employees; they represent the company, and everything they say or do reflects on the company.

3. Less complexity, more pragmatics. Customer service is often made more complex than it needs to be. During a recent meeting with a client about her customer service performance, I was provided a massive binder of policies, procedures and guides for the role.

"Here are the role expectations for our customer service team," she said.

"Umm, do you expect employees to memorize these?" I asked. "Because there's no way they'll be able to respond and remain in the moment with the customer if they have to remember all of that!"

To effectively service customers, you must remain in the moment and listening attentively. Complex policies or processes only serve to confuse the employee and irritate the customer.

4. Customers define value. Serving customers is about providing value. Customers determine what is valuable to them. It goes without saying that customer service must be predicated on maximizing customer value. To do this you must first define what your customers find of value. Is it time, price, knowledge, capacity or a combination thereof? Customer service must be built around providing value to the customer, and there is only one way to clearly understand what your customer's value; you're going to have to ask them.

5. Avoid blanket policies. Have you ever had someone tell you, "That's our policy"? If so, how does that make you feel? My guess is, at best you feel like a transaction, not a person. When interacting with customers, regardless of whether there's a policy that governs the interaction or not (i.e. return policy, refund Policy), it's important to never ever refer to them. If you want customers to feel like they are being treated with individualized care, remove the word "policy" from your team's vocabulary.

6. Use the right language. On the topic of using the right language, there are key phrases that you want to inject into your vocabulary with customers, to ensure every interaction is unique and valuable. Consider replacing blanket phrases like "How can I help you?" or "What can I do for you today?" with more personable messages about the customer or client, such as "I noticed you were looking at our thing-a-ma-jig, we've had a lot of great feedback on it," or, "Thanks for making the trip in today," or, "I appreciate your call, what is your priority for our discussion today?" The right language sets the stage for a valuable customer-centric conversation.

7. Focus on needs, not wants. Everyone knows what he or she needs, but not necessarily what he or she wants. I will never forget one incident very early in my career when I sold cars for a living. A very nice lady stopped by one day with a beat up old Grand Marquis – this was basically a boat without a sail. She asked to test drive a Pontiac Sunfire, to which I obliged, following which she went on her way to "think about it." When I called her a week later, she said, "Oh I bought a used Grand Marquis at the dealer down the road." Guess what we also had sitting on the lot? That's right, a used Grand Marquis in great shape. I listened to her wants but I didn't assess her needs. Effective customer service means listening carefully for customer needs, and questioning them (courteously of course) when their wants don't seem to align with your assessment.

8. Increase access points. There are more ways to communicate with customers today than ever before. Social media, telephone, face-to-face, Skype and mobile phones are just a few examples. I find most companies use these channels to market to customers, but few offer customers these channels in return to access customer service. Consider if I have a problem with my car. Most dealerships require you call to set an appointment time. That's fine, but what if I prefer to text? What if I want to use the dealer's website to interact through a chat session with the service department? Is there a forum where I can discuss problems with my car with other dealer customers to find solutions? In today's massive-media environment we must continuously increase, monitor, and respond through a variety of channels if we want to maximize the customer service experience.

9. Responsive, responsive, responsive. I shouldn't need to say much here. Customer service is not about taking a number (despite how Service Ontario might interact with you). It's about being responsive. When the customer says jump, they should have to talk you down from the ceiling. The faster and more effectively you can respond, the more you will stand out from the crowd. Don't believe me? Go down to your local bank at lunchtime and get in line for a teller or a bank machine. Then reconsider what I just said.

10. It's not enough to say you will do something. Serving the customer requires the ability to listen, think fast and take action; the latter being the most important. If employees aren't able to make decisions and take action without getting approval, then your response level will quickly diminish. Employees must be given carte blanche to make decisions that will satisfy customers, which means defining financial thresholds and providing action boundaries. I recall wanting to upgrade my cell phone with Bell. It took four calls and over 20 minutes to get to a supervisor that said they could help. (The initial point of contact couldn't help because my contract wasn't up yet – really?)

Lastly, here's a bonus for you: The starting point is to understand how your customer service is performing today. Start by shopping your business. Call in, make an appointment, have a friend call with a complaint and see how your staff responds. Once you know where you are at, you can create a customer service strategy that incorporates the points above. If you do this, I can guarantee you will see noticeable improvements in customer retention and attraction, most of which will come without spending a dime.

© Shawn Casemore 2013. All rights reserved.

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