How to Fix Customer Service

Every time I experience (or read about) a bad customer service experience, I am baffled. Not because I and other customers should get whatever they want, but because businesses don’t seem to understand the consequences of bad customer experiences.

They don’t seem to grasp that whatever happens at the customer service centre or on the customer service hotline directly translates into good or bad marketing. It translates into positive or negative word of mouth (in social media and real life). It translates into sales or loss of sales. And it translates into bottom line results. Whether it’s positive or negative is something the company chooses. If they choose to prioritise customer service, it will have positive effect, if they choose to ignore it, it will have a negative effect. Harsh, but true.

Seeing customer service as tech support or after-sales is a huge mistake. And a lot of companies are making it. Customer services is branding. It is marketing. It is the core of a customer retention program. It is cross-sales, up-sales and more-sales opportunities. See, it’s easy to sell a product or service. Anyone can do it. But it’s hard to make sure that product or service fulfils the needs of the customer over time. Especially if it’s a subscription-based or a product that requires interaction over time. But in that difficulty lies the secret to future success. The way a brand handles it means something to the consumer. They don’t just walk away after a bad experience and think, “So that was bad, I’m sure it will be better next time”. No, they go home thinking “that was bad, what are my options?”. They will actively look for an alternative to the brand. They may grant a “stay of execution”, if they’ve had previous experiences that were ok, but consistent bad service leads to consistent customer churn.

Most CEOs understand this. Unfortunately, most CEOs don’t know their customer experience is broken. In fact, 80% of companies think they deliver a superior customer experience, but only 8% of their customers agree* . So while they think it’s all fine, reality is that it is most likely not.

Fortunately, it can be fixed. By taking a holistic lifetime perspective on customer relationships, adding common sense and a dash of basic courtesy, customer service can be fixed. The first and most important thing to do is actually to listen to the complaint or problem the consumer has. Many times, customer service sends out pre made emails or start explaining a common issue, which usually means that it won’t address the actual issue from this specific consumer. This is such a huge sin, and it will create animosity towards the brand for a long time. Listen, consider, respond. It’s that simple.

Customers come to customer service because the product means something to them. Sure, they may be upset, but because they care about the product, it is possible to turn the negative energy into something positive. The way to do that is not to say yes to every demand a customer has, but to treat that customer with respect, understand them and use a revised customer language to commuicate with them. The worst thing one can say to a customer with a service request is “our policy is…”. People don’t care about policies. They care about getting their issue fixed and they want flexibility. Most of all, they want to be seen as a valued customer that is treated with compassion and understanding. If what they are asking is unfair, well, they will understand that if they are told in a respectful way. If possible, the response should be “Normally, we can’t do this, but because of the circumstances, we are willing to waive…”. If it’s a bigger problem that cannot be fixed, the response should be “I am so sorry you are experiencing this. I understand your frustration, but because you did [this], it is not possible for us to replace/fix/refund… Let me see what I can do instead. I can get you another unit with a x% discount” (or something that won’t cost you much). The value of that exchange is hard to measure, but the customer will go home with a completely different experience. Repeating “there’s nothing I can do”, won’t help the company or the customer.

Another trick of the trade to make people feel that the customer service is actually a service, is to talk to people while they are waiting in line. If a store or brand has a customer service counter where there tends to be long lines, they should send a person out every once in a while to ask what their issue is, to check that they have everything they need (receipts, warranty papers etc.) and to make sure they are waiting in the right queue. Even if theres a queuing system, a short conversation with a customer care officer will make them feel valued and prioritised. Human touch makes a real difference – and it won’t add much cost. Simple things, but it makes a whole world of difference to the consumer. Also don’t ask the customers questions they think are stupid, like “have you been to our website?”, or “did you follow the instructions?”.  Instead one should say “I’m sure you’ve been to our website, did we not have the answer there?” and “When you followed the instructions, at what step did you have trouble?”. By rearranging the language used to talk to customers, we get to say the same thing and get the appropriate answer, without making them upset. Of course, some people are not going to be happy, whatever you do, but the best way is addressing their issue.

In the end, there’s nothing I can teach you about customer service that you parents didn’t already tell you. Courtesy and respect will get you a long way. Compassion and a smile will take you the final stretch.

*(Source: Bain CustomerLed Growth diagnostic questionnaire, n = 362; Satmetrix Net Promoter database, n = 375)

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Main photo by Monrovia Public Library, under CC]