5.17.2011

The Importance of Customer Service

Unhappy customers talk. All business owners know the pain that negative word of mouth can bring. But happy customers can talk too. Nothing is more valuable to a business owner than a solid referral. Consumers are used to condescending treatment, long hold times, mediocre resolutions, etc. It's easy to do the bare minimum to keep your customers satisfied, to keep them from complaining. But that behavior isn't going to do much for your customer loyalty, much less for positive word of mouth. Don't just satisfy customers; "wow" them and turn them into brand ambassadors.

In this world of social networks and review sites such as Yelp and UrbanSpoon, bad reviews travel fast but so do good reviews. The power of word of mouth is increased exponentially in this environment. Don't stand idly by, passively watching this conversation play out. Don't be an observer. Go a step further: monitor your brand mentions among the social networks and respond to issues directly in the social sphere. Step in and change the direction of the conversation. Not only will you wow the customer with your proactive response but you can easily turn a customer's negative experience into a positive one, all in a public forum, allowing others to see how adeptly you handled the situation. Not only will that provide some free publicity, but if the customer is truly wowed by your actions, you may even get an additional message of gratitude broadcasted to their social network; a post that can easily compensate for the negative message that may have originally triggered the intervention.
 
Zappos.com is a company that embodies the concept of over-the-top customer service. The website started as a simple online shoe retailer in 1999 and now generates over $1 billion a year selling shoes in addition to various other accessories. The company's success can be attributed to the fact that their entire business model revolves around their customers. If you click on the "About" page on their website, you will read the following statement: "Customer Service Isn't Just A Department! We've been asked by a lot of people how we've grown so quickly, and the answer is actually really simple... We've aligned the entire organization around one mission: to provide the best customer service possible. Internally, we call this our WOW philosophy." This isn't just lip service; the company takes their "WOW" philosophy very seriously, almost fanatically. Each new employee goes through a four-week training course dedicated to the company's strategy and culture, particularly their obsession with customer satisfaction. At the conclusion of their training, the company offers each employee $2,000 (plus time worked) to quit. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says that this is to weed out those who are going to jump ship anyway. Zappos wants employees who are dedicated to the company, their customers and their culture. The company is consistently ranked as one of the best places in the country to work (they were ranked #6 on Fortune Magazine's 2011 list of "100 Best Companies to Work For"), so the new employees would be smart to reject the offer to quit. The company nurtures a tight-knit community among its employees and works to make them all feel part of "The Zappos Family". These practices ensure that the company maintains a happy workforce which in turn projects this happiness towards their customers. They encourage employees to let their personality shine, especially on the phone. There are no scripts or time limits on calls; call center employees are free to say or do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. In fact, Zappos CEO Hsieh's book is aptly titled "Delivering Happiness."
 
The Ritz Carlton is another company that is world renowned for their exceptional service, an attribute that has earned them the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award two separate years (they are the only company in the service industry to win the award more than once). The company instills a culture of surpassing customers' expectations. In addition to an overall culture of customer service, every employee undergoes comprehensive training focused on increasing customer satisfaction. In fact, they have been so successful with this that the company's Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center now provides training for senior executives, managers and general staff in a wide range of unrelated industries. One of the most notable aspects of the hotel chain's service is that they famously empower each of their employees to spend up to $2,000 per day to resolve a customer's problem without needing any managerial approval. This employee empowerment should not be underestimated. It allows each customer to feel as though the employee is bending over backwards for them right then and there. It makes the guest feel as though they are important enough to warrant such a concession. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get an issue resolved when an employee needs to check with their manager for every small decision. So in addition to providing exceptional customer service to begin with, the Ritz-Carlton will go above and beyond the norm in order to resolve any issues that do arise. Personally, I find that a well handled problem often leaves a better impression than if I hadn't had the problem to begin with. We have become accustomed to poor customer service, so to have an issue handled without hassle is so refreshing that it makes most people want to support that business further.
 
In fact, I recently had an experience that illustrates this point well. We had ordered 3,000 copies of a particular marketing brochure from one of our printers, a company called Print Runner. The order came in 3 boxes, one of which was damaged during shipping, destroying the brochures inside. Most companies would blame UPS for the problem, but I emailed Print Runner anyway, hoping there was something they could do. Without any questions asked, they offered to replace the damaged box at no charge. They even sent the replacement package via UPS 2-Day shipping so we would get the replacements as soon as possible. I cannot tell you how impressed I was by the way they handled the situation. They definitely earned our business for a long time to come. The little things, a personal touch, going the extra mile - this is what sets you apart. This is what will win over your customers.