“Customer service” large and small

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Readers here know what I think about “customer service” marketing claims.  If you are using words like “we have great customer service” you don’t get it.  the question is, instead of touting great customer service, how do you actually deliver it?

I wish I could say our own business is on the forefront of truly providing great service to our clients, but don’t think we are quite there yet.  A few months ago, for example, I discovered an appalling lack of responsiveness to our “accounts payable” line when people calling to inquire about their invoices received voice mail rather than a real response. People questioning their invoices or simply wishing to make a credit card payment generally don’t wish to leave voice messages.  Worse, this problem persisted even when employees who could help would sit a few desks away doing their own jobs and let the line ring.  “Not my job” seemed to be the response.

I could have simply redirected the line to our overworked administrator’s desk, but that had two problems.  First, the calls into the specialized number really should receive special attention and priority and second, our overworked administrator, is just that, overworked.  (Yeah, we could hire more support in this area but I detest administrative overhead as a core business expense.)

My solution . . .  We now offer an internal “bribe” of $5.00 to anyone who answers the phone and deals courteously and immediately with the caller’s requirements.  In the simplest (and most profitable) situation, that involves taking the credit card information for payments.  In more complex situations, this means listening to the client, determining the problems scope, and then relaying the message to the right people internally.

I should be proud of my “customer service solution”, right.

Not one bit.

All I did here was take a really negative situation and make it somewhat okay.  That is NOT great customer service.  It is a band-aid solution.  It has little to do with actually creating a truly wonderful experience for our clients.  In these regards, we still have a very long ways to go.

Compare our service levels, for example, to Host Gator, our new dedicated Internet service provider.  Host Gator is a truly big organization — I don’t know exactly how large — but it acts as a wholesaler and if you really want to get into the Internet service providing business, they can provide the servers and back-end resources for you to get into business for yourself.  Of course we aren’t in the Internet service business, but our former service provider, Web Empowerment Solutions, decided a couple of months that our needs had outgrown their service, but our budget hadn’t.  In an example of “great customer service” in practice, they handed our business over to Host Gator.  (Initially I felt the sting of rejection, especially since the catalyst for our problems had nothing to do with us, but now I respect WES’s solution.

Now, I wouldn’t recommend services like Host Gator for tiny Internet users who know nothing about the basics; but if you have some degree of comfort with setting up and managing domains, email accounts and basic server functions, you will find Host Gator understands “customer service” the way it is meant to be.

Last night, for example, something went wrong with our email accounts.  On the weekend, this isn’t a crisis, but I could sense we had problems and would need to “Call Houston”  (More accurately, Dallas).  Again, I took my customer obligations seriously — don’t ask for help unless you really need it — and furthermore, gathered the best documentation about the nature and timing of the problem as I could, specifically an obscure email message indicating we had some issues with our “Domain Name Server”.

I elected to use Host Gator’s chat service and initially, felt a pang of despair; it seemed there were several dozen people ahead of me in the queue.  But this information took me aback: “There are currently 25 people in front of you and 63 chat technicians assisting customers.”  What kind of business has 63 chat technicians working simultaneously?

It took about 10 minutes for the technician, named Evans Ci to come to the line.  I explained my problem.  He asked some questions to determine if there could be some other issues involved, then frankly admitted that a service upgrade had caused some disruption in the DNS configurations at Host Gator’s end.  Then, to my surprise, he said he would fix the problem right away.  And he did.

Here, of course, we have close to the ideal combination for “great customer service.” On one side, an informed, responsible customer with a valid issue and concern, and on the other hand, a business with the tools and resources to adequately respond to the issues quickly and effectively.  But is that how it works most of the time for your business, or for that matter, mine?

I wish I could say it does, but simply do not have the right to claim that level of perfection.  Our responsiveness to clients is sometimes more cursory and less respectful than it should be; and some of our customers are a pain (perhaps we deserve their anger, by failing to communicate effectively with them from the beginning.)

You can take educational programs and teach “great customer service” solutions, you can design customer feedback surveys and of course you can simply (as an owner) put your nose close to the ground and actually take a few client calls to learn how your customers really feel about your service.  I build into our invoicing system a monthly letter which includes my phone number and email address, allowing our customers to connect with me directly if they sense anything needs to be improved. Our sales representatives are instructed (and we pay them to) send thank you notes to every client, no matter how small.

These may be good ideas but I cannot say yet we’ve created the ideal customer service/customer experience, that magical combination of respect, connectivity and “wow factor” that causes our customers to feel they have been treated really well, without bureaucracy and with a true understanding of their needs and priorities.  Instead, I look at much larger businesses like Host Gator and see how this level of service can reach the  stage where others, in referring business their way, openly say “they have great customer service”.  That is marketing success, in the truest sense of the phrase.

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