Robot shopping

Surprise, surprise! Customers are human beings with distinct personalities, needs and wants. Yet for largely commercial and expediency reasons most companies send exactly the same piece of communication to every customer. Some undertake a degree of customer segmentation which may result in a different offer or subtly changed wording in the communication. It may even be personalised by adding the person’s name. The trouble is that what you invariably end up with is a communication which appeals to everyone at some low level but doesn’t really engage and excite anyone. All of us can recognise a standard letter when we get one. The same is also true of customer service.

What has emerged is a sort of norm for customer service levels in different areas.

Online

Take online in the utility, banking or software market for example. If I am going to get the standard model of customer service online I will be directed to the frequently asked questions page. Here I will find a box into which I can type my question and wait in the hope that the person responding actually answers the question in a timely manner.

Telephone

Alternatively I can ring the helpline. Here I will listen to some bad music if I am lucky and if I am unlucky I will be told to “please hold, your call is really important to us….” Of course the best route is to ring the sales line which is answered immediately and then pretend you rang the wrong number and get them to put you through to customer service which may help you jump the queue if you are lucky or land you back on hold and more bad music if you are not so lucky.

Call backs

Now imagine for a minute that customer service actually answered the phone immediately. It has happened to me a couple of times and because it happens so rarely that I’m really impressed and my perception of the company changes instantly. I may even forget I am paying for the call! Frankly, I would rather pay for the call and get it answered. British Gas has worked this out and now promises to answer your call in 60 seconds or call you back. The trouble is that I have never had my phone answered in 60 seconds and I get called back just at the time I am in the middle of doing something else. Nevertheless, in the land of the mediocre the call-back is king. If you are an online retailer or service provider let’s be honest – the customer service bar is set pretty low.

Three things you can do to raise your customer service game:

1. Give some visual indication online as to how quickly my call will be answered should I wish to pick up the phone.

2. If I am to fill in the email box to have my question answered it should be faster than the alternatives, not slower. What is the point of using a less effective medium? Microsoft offer to respond to emails within one working day. I assume it won’t take me a day to get through via the phone.

3. Provide a time box and a day that customers could use to book a call online. If I can do this for deliveries, why can’t I do this for a mere phone call to customer service?

If you are an online business, small things such as the points above can move your customer service from the mediocre to the better and differentiating level.

A frequent complaint levelled at customer service is that it is costly and that exceptional customer service is often only experienced if you have a problem.

However customer service can be a reason for purchasing from you in the first place. Companies that do this well are Amazon, John Lewis and The White Company. These companies all have a value proposition where a key component is their customer service. Consumers buy from them because of their customer service not just because of the product. Each uses its customer service offering to add value in slightly different ways. Amazon adds value by having a vast range of goods, delivered fast and most important, a no quibble, simple to operate returns policy. John Lewis will install your TV, not just deliver it and offer a free 5-year guarantee. The White Company treats you like part of the family, nothing is too much trouble and call centre staff really know their products. They are empowered to make decisions there and then without the need to refer to a higher authority.

If staff members believe in the company then it shows and, as a consequence, so does the customer. At a time when customers have more choice it pays to remember that customers are human beings and if you go to the trouble of being accessible, helpful, efficient and friendly those are things that can help you stand out from the crowd. It is not enough to simply go through the motions. Customers can spot a phoney, so if your staff tell customers to “have a nice day” they had better mean it, otherwise customers will see it for precisely what it is – an insincere platitude and will generally react with a level of cynicism that will hardly win you a new fan.