I think we can all agree that customer service is important. The better your customer service, the more repeat customers you'll have -- and a repeat customer is one of, if not the most, important assets you can have. Repeat customers easily turn into brand evangelists, which refer new clients and vouch for you in a time when word of mouth and reviews are king.
Most companies lump customer service into operations or list it as its own entity. Customer service's impact is so critical to a company's success that it should be considered an extension of marketing and managed so that it represents the voice and brand of the company it represents. This isn't a new way of thinking, and most professionals know this. But why then is customer service still so difficult for companies to wrap their arms around?
I hate to jump on the "during these hard economic times" bandwagon, but during these hard economic times, there is a lot of pressure to spend time and energy on activities that will produce immediate results. Is it this pressure that causes companies to push customer service to the back burner? We've all felt the frustration of dealing with horrible customer service. Our expectations now are so low that even getting a live person to answer a question without spending an hour of our day is, well... good?
The following recommendations are simple, but can make a difference to improve your customer service. Sadly, most of these came to mind based on real world experiences, but on a more positive note, they are all easily remedied.
1. Make it easy for someone to contact you
You may not be in business to create life-long customers. If that's the case, then I assume you're in business to burn and churn customers. You probably don't care a lick about stats on how your company creates repeat business, and you really only focus on paid search conversion rates. If that doesn't apply to you, then you are in business to keep and retain customers... so make sure you put your phone number, email, chat information, or other contact information in a place where it's easy to find. If you think you're being sly by burying it on your site to keep your customer service costs down, you're not. The only thing you're doing is frustrating visitors who either have a question or find your lack of contact information as a sign that you will be difficult to work with.
2. Bring customer service in-house
As long as you consider customer service a "cost center," you're thinking is ass backwards. Customer service is part of marketing! You have to have proper control over the messages that are being put out into the market, as well as how your company solves problems. Your image is more than your website, more than your logo, and more than your product. The single biggest thing people will remember from an experience is how they were treated. Can you imagine what it would be like to talk to an airline representative who really cared when your flight is cancelled and you're stranded? How many times have you been on the phone with a customer service representative and thought, "I am going to hang up on this representative and call back. Maybe I'll get someone who can actually help." Bringing customer service in-house enables you to have greater control over messaging, as well as have your customer service department more infused into the culture of the company.
Convince and Convert tells a story of signing up for a "free" vase program from an online florist only to discover that he had opted into a reoccurring fee from a third party for the service. Technically it was free from the florist, but technicalities mean nothing when you have an upset customer on your hands. This is shortsighted thinking that has a company focused on driving immediate conversions and not keeping a customer for the long-term. Keep all charges up front and make it very clear what your customers are signing up for. Rule of thumb: If part of your promotional planning includes how to deal with the complaints you'll receive, it's probably time to reassess the program and make some adjustments.
4 Don't treat customers like hot potatoes
Don't you love it when you call a customer service line and each representative you speak with asks for your account number? By the time you get transferred for the fourth time, and person No. 4 nicely asks for your account number, you are about to hit the roof! Whoever answers the call should see it through until the issue is resolved. Stop sending your customers up the food chain so they can repeat their problem or question over and over again. If that is impossible, make sure that customers are warmly transferred so they don't have to repeat themselves. Consider implementing a bonus program for customer service employees in which they're paid for positive reviews and closing customer complaints successfully. That is an easy way to get your employees motivated to make sure they take good care of your customers, and in turn have happier customers -- a win-win.
5. Review your various messaging systems
This is something that I'm guilty of -- it's important to listen to your phone tree. It's one of those things that just gets lost as you're not using it every day -- but your potential clients and customers are. Make sure that your culture shows through messaging. Consider removing automated messages if you can and inserting a live human into the mix. It's a simple yet effective way to enhance the customer experience. Most customers are used to automated responses, and most are happy to get a live person who is willing to help.
6. Create relationships
Think about how great it would be to have a relationship with someone at your favorite airline. Someone you could call and chat with when problems arise with your flight schedule. One can dream, right? My wife has been using Borsheims (a Berkshire Hathaway company), out of Omaha, Neb., of all places, for more than 20 years and has been dealing with the same representative all 20 of those years. This representative not only knows my wife's taste and purchase history, but they also have a great relationship. That relationship is why my wife has only purchased jewelry from that representative for the last two decades (and most likely will for the rest of her life). Relationships ensure repeat business. Zappos is another great example of a company that fosters a relationship between the customer service reps and the clients. People don't establish relationships with a product or a price; they have relationships with people. Without that crucial relationship, your chance of increasing repeat business is tenuous at best.
7. Show who you are
Let customers know who you are as a company. This allows customers to get a sense for what your company is about. This is especially important for companies that don't have any brick-and-motor stores and are only found online. When you are only online, it's easy to blend into the hundreds of other sites out there. Connect with your customers by giving some insight into the inner workings of the company. Blogs are great for doing this. They can take time to set up and manage, but once you get a process down, you'll find it easier to maintain, and customers feel more connected when they can read about the goings-on of a company. Any way you can build a more personal connection with customers is a good use of time and resources.
8. Make your site easily shop-able
I can't tell you how many websites I come across that I can't navigate at all. A site that doesn't have a clear call to action or easy navigation through categories, product pages, and shopping carts is destined to fail. The online marketplace is highly competitive, and it's much easier for a person to go to another site than to try to figure out how to purchase from yours. Simple changes, like adding larger and more colorful buttons that direct users to add items to their cart or to check out, help make sites more efficient. Set up a simple test with help from some of your colleagues. Ask them to go to your site, find product X, and then check out. Ask them to report back to you any problems they had during the process, and then make changes as necessary. The smallest changes can increase your conversion rates and make the customer experience that much better.
9. Respond to emails
How many times have you filled out web-based forms knowing that nobody will read it -- let alone respond to it? Jason Hesse of Abacus24-7 tells a story of sending an email to a customer service department for a shirt he bought online.The shirt did not come as described (see No. 10 below), so he read the T-shirt company's return policy and sent an email letting them know of the issue and asking for an exchange. In the end, it took three emails over the course of a week (with an escalating tone) from Jason to get a response. Of course the response was the canned "Thank you for contacting our customer service department. What seems to be your issue?" email. It didn't address any of the information Jason had included in any of his previous messages. That was more infuriating than getting no response at all.
Jason finally sent the shirt back and asked for a full refund, not an exchange. A little inconvenience is understandable, but if your customers take the time to contact you, it's probably a good idea to read what they have written to you and respond accordingly. You're going to absorb the return either way, so why not make it prompt and increase the chances you'll make it up on the next sale? Jason's site, Abacus24-7.com, promotes that they man their customer service phone lines 24 hours a day and respond to a customer within two hours of receiving an inquiry. Simple and straightforward: Respond and respond promptly!
10. Make sure your customers know what they are getting
Scenario: You are selling a hip, new T-shirt. Your biggest competitor is selling the same shirt, for the same price. Since most customers comparison shop, chances are they are aware you both carry the same shirt. Your website has a picture of the shirt, size options, and a "buy now" button at the bottom of the page. Imagine that your competitor's website has the same photo, same size options, but they also include a descriptive paragraph about the fabric the shirt is made of and a few testimonials from customers. A customer is more at ease with an online purchase if they have a good understanding of what they are purchasing. Take the time to get descriptive about your products so that there aren't any surprises when they get their order. The worst feeling for a customer is opening a box and realizing it wasn't at all what they thought they had purchased.
When evaluating your customer service, your prevailing thought should be, "How would I feel if I had this customer experience?" Don't be afraid to challenge processes that have been in place for years; what worked in the past won't necessarily work now. Fresh competition is popping up daily, and it is most likely willing to do whatever it takes to convert customers. Optimize customer service, keep more repeat customers, and you'll end up not only surviving these tough times, but thriving in them.
Chad Little is CEO of Fetchback.