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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Customer Service - A necessary soft skill

Many people think that customer service is what happens in situations where you are purchasing something or have a contract with someone like your phone service or a waiter/waitress in a restaurant, or the salesperson in a retail location. But customer service is inherent in almost any job that a person could have.

Customers are the lifeblood of a business, winning new customers is important, but retaining customers is even more important. Customer service and quality products are the two factors to retention. If a product has a quality control issue, it is the customer service that can help rectify the situation. There is too much competition in today’s marketplace to not be concerned with customer service.

External Customers – Since this is the most common form of customer service, we can begin with our discussion here.

In the days preceding social media, customer service was how you gained and maintained your customer base. If a customer was treated well they may tell two people. If they were treated poorly, they told ten people. With the expansion of social media, the numbers of people who are being informed of the customer service of a particular organization can reach into the thousands and millions. For example the case of the guitar player who had his expensive guitar banged up and a particular airline only wanted to reimburse him with the standard luggage rates. After a posting by the musician on YouTube, and over 8 million views later, the airline conceded to paying the full cost of the guitar.

There are different kinds of customers. Some want to be left alone, others want to know that you are close by if they need you, some want to be directed, others want you to take them by the hand and guide them through the entire purchasing experience. Knowing the difference between those types of customers and employing the proper techniques for each of them is a skill. Being able to determine expectations that a customer has is key to winning the sale and possibly a devoted customer. BUT if you make the wrong choice, say the wrong thing, aren’t available or don’t respond in a timely fashion, you could alienate the customer and potentially end up with bad press on YouTube, Twitter or Facebook.

Some key components to good customer service are:

  • Making a good impression – You are representing your organization. You may be the very first contact this customer has with your company. Are you dressed according to company guidelines? Is your grooming within standards? Are you smiling? Do you say hello or welcome when a new customer enters your work area? Most companies will have a “prescribed” greeting to use that may include current specials or promotions that are taking place – use it.
  • Accentuate the positive – Find out the benefits of the product or service you are working with and convey those to the customer. A half-full attitude is always more appealing than a half-empty one. If you are required to provide comparisons between your product and the competitors, avoid being negative. Stay with the facts.
  • Good communication skills – The biggest factor here is: are you hearing what is being said or are you LISTENING? Ask leading questions to determine what you can do to help the customer. Speak clearly. Practice active listening skills that require the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they heard. This also helps alleviate having to resolve conflict later.
  • Dealing with a difficult customer – just do an internet search of this phrase and the results bring up over 16 million links. This can be the most frustrating part of providing excellent customer service, but being able to accomplish it, is the most rewarding. Most of the time you will find the difficulties in a return/refund situation or the redemption of a promotion. Implementing active listening skills and providing a timely response or action will help diffuse the situation. You could also employ non-defensive communication tactics:
    • Focus on the situation or issue
    • Empathize
    • Strive to remain calm in the interaction
    • Take responsibility
    • Be assertive, not aggressive or passive
    • Depersonalize the situation
    • Ask what you can do to rectify the situation (if you are empowered to do so)
  • Phone etiquette – This topic depends upon the type of customer service you are doing. If you are in a call center, there are guidelines to which you must adhere. If you are working at a carry-out pizza place, your customer service will depend upon you getting the order correct and providing the right cost and delivery/pick-up time to the customer. In general, several key components come into play:
    • Diction and tone – people need to understand you. Not everyone will speak the same language, so you may need to speak more slowly, more clearly, you may need to repeat yourself, or you may need to ask a caller to repeat themselves. Because you are not speaking face to face, your tone is how someone will interpret your words. Unless you know someone personally, you should maintain a neutral/positive tone.
    • Polite – ask someone if they are able to hold. If you don’t know the answer to a question or have to reference something out of the reach of phone, ask someone if they have the time to hold. If not ask for their number and give them a time frame for a return call from you. And then, call them back. The Golden Rule applies here – treat others as you want to be treated. If you need to transfer a caller, know how to complete the task, let the caller know that you are doing it and if possible stay with the call until someone answers.
    • Listening skills – (notice a theme here) it is difficult to hear what someone is saying if you are speaking at the time. It is compounded when using a telephone for that conversation. Employ the active listening skills, wait until someone is finished speaking before you begin.

Internal Customer Service – you may not work for a company that deals with sales or service, or you may not work in a department that deals with anyone outside your company. A good example of this is the benefits division of a human resources department, the IT department for a call center, or the vehicle mechanics for a delivery company. You have customers - the other employees of your company. You still need to employ the same techniques to keep your customers happy. The key components here are cooperation, coordination, and teamwork. Again, active listening can help if you need to be “cross-trained” in other areas of your company. Sometimes good customer service is nothing more than knowing who to call to obtain an answer or knowing what the responsibilities of another division of your company are.

In general, no one likes to feel neglected or an inconvenience if they need to ask for something. Be proactive with your outreach in your customer service and you will win them every time.

What is your best or worst customer service experience?  What did you learn from it?


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