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Customer service dos and don'ts

Delivering good customer service is an important part of your offering. Getting it right can help you build customer loyalty - ensuring customers come back time after time and recommmend you to others. But get it wrong, and customers will go elsewhere. Derek Bishop, director of Culture Consultancy, shares his tips on how you can get your customer service right

DO ensure that management objectives are aligned with service promises to customers

On many occasions I see management objectives not being aligned to the commitments being made to the customers, which is further exaggerated when it comes to the customer-facing staff. For example, if your customer service proposition is all around quality, ensure quality is the primary objective of the staff not speed of providing the service, as this can drive the wrong behavior - eg provide a quick service, but with mistakes.

DO make sure departments talk to each other

Communication often breaks down between different teams/departments. Often teams do not realise the negative impact this has on their customers. It is crucial that customer-facing teams are briefed on promotions so that there can be agreement on how any queries relating to the promotion will be handled.

DO manage customer expectations effectively

How many times have you experienced a train or plane delay and the message is, we'll be departing in a few minutes, then it's a few more minutes and so on. Once customers have heard this a couple of times and are still waiting the frustrations and displeasure grows significantly. If the message to customers in the first instance was, there will be a 45-minute delay, they have certainty about what to expect. The challenge here is for the customer-facing staff who have to deliver these 'bad news' to be well trained and supported in delivering the message, as often they are only the messenger but end up having to manage disgruntled customers.

DO listen to frontline staff

As they are the people who listen to your customers daily, they will tell you what's working and what's not. All this can be extremely valuable in improving performance. At the same time, if you collect complaints and customer satisfaction data (and if you don't you should be) make sure you take action on the information. Reporting on the data alone will not achieve anything unless you use the data.

DO empower staff appropriately

Empower staff appropriately with clearly defined authorities and ensure clear escalation processes exist where the member of staff doesn't have authority. For example, I was recently staying in a hotel in London and shortly after having checked into my room, I discovered a mouse running around. Having called reception, once they got over the shock of it, they immediately found me another room. I went to reception to collect a new key and to start my complaint properly and they offered to deduct the cost of breakfast from my bill. The staff were doing what they thought was appropriate and operating within their powers of authority, but in the circumstances they did not appreciate the severity of the issue and I had to escalate the matter.

DON'T assume that an online customer experience will replace offline service

In an increasingly web-enabled world, customers are displaying an increased desire for completing sales and service over the web. I often find that whilst the online proposition is well thought through, designed and implemented effectively, similar attention is not given to the offline experience! It is critical that offline support is provided and should match the online experience - thereby providing a consistent and joined-up end-to-end customer experience which matches the brand and proposition. Do not assume that customers will never need offline support.

This is not always as easy to do as perspectives often tend to be focused on specific elements of the service proposition, but in order to deliver a consistent and coherent message to the customer, organisations must take a step away from the business and map the end-to-end customer journey, taking time to consider all 'what if' scenarios. Customers who need to contact you eg by phone or email and are then let down by the poor quality responses delivered by the offline support are more likely to take their business elsewhere.

DON'T oversell yourself to your customers

Often, in promotional material, organisations make aspirational statements about what customers can expect from them when it comes to service. Having built the customers' expectations up, the organisation then fails to meet these expectations, which leads to customer dissatisfaction. Be true about the service customers can expect, and then ensure internal objectives (from management to customer-facing staff), priorities, systems and processes are implemented in a way which will support the service delivery.

DON'T treat customers as transactions

In high volume based organisations and to keep operating costs to a minimum by optimising efficiency, organisations often end up treating customers as transactions. Recognise that customers needs, wants and expectations will vary so in the pursuit of efficiency it is still critical to allow for the human touch and not provide a one size fits all approach. If you do choose to operate a one size fits all approach, ensure you manage their expectations as part of your proposition messages.

DON'T blame your customers for your poor service

How many call centres have you called only to receive a welcome message saying something like 'due to unexpected high volumes of calls there is currently a long queue'. What this message is actually saying it's the customers' fault for causing the delay as so many are calling! Actually the problem lies with the organisation and the root cause could be a number of things. Often it will be due to a marketing promotional campaign that hasn't been fully thought through or the call centre resource planning has not been fully engaged in planning the promotional campaign. Contingency measures may also not have been put in place. Whatever the cause is, don't blame the customers - they are only responding to your marketing promotion.

DON'T hide behind the environment, systems or processes

I had poor service experiences with a car dealership whose brand promises are around quality and excellence. However, the service I experienced was repeatedly very poor and found that the main root causes were around badly designed processes and poor communication. I shared my experiences with the regional director and was able to quantify the financial impact for his business which ran into thousands. Despite this feedback, the director concluded that it would be ok when they moved to their new dealership site - as he felt the problem was their very old and poor quality building. They have now moved to the new site and having been back to test the experience, guess what, the service hasn't changed - poor communication still exists, staff still moan about the systems to customers, the only difference is you have a more comfortable environment in which to experience the poor service.

So do identify the root cause of the problem and don't just assume that changing the premises will fix everything. Unless you improve the processes, systems and manage/develop the people the same issues will still arise.

To read more on creating a culture of excellent customer service, see the Resources box on the right.