Customer Service: Mind the Gap
- I'm sorry, this customer service line is only for our online customers. You'll have to go back to the store where you had the problem.
- Excuse me? Oh, no, you can't lodge a complaint here. You'll have to call the store.
There's nothing today's customer dislikes more than falling into the gap between a company's online and offline operations. Feeling stranded, abandoned and disrespected, even previously loyal customers start looking elsewhere when channel conflict gets in the way of their needs. Customers want a coherent, seamless and positive experience — not your conflict.
Multiple channels mean multiple opportunities. With conscious outward attention to the customer's experience, they are opportunities for engaging, involving and otherwise building strong emotional ties. With a less-than-conscious focus on customers, channels can give them many reasons to slip away to the competition, sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly. At any rate, ex-customers leave trails of negative word-of-mouth behind forever.
Empower the customer to be in charge of the conversation. Every touchpoint — web, store, call center, fax, chat, social media and in-home installation — offers a chance to build your brand and create the emotional attachment called loyalty. And loyalty transforms economics.
Invest in Relationships
It costs five to 30 times more time, money and energy to get new customers than it does to keep the ones you already have happy. Companies that closely analyze their customer economics understand that investing in customer relationships is where the payback is.
Dick Nelson, CEO of Marco Promotional Products, a B-to-B seller of promotional products, makes it a point to focus employees on delighting customers by encouraging everyone to call first-time buyers "testers."
Customers often test you — these days in particular. Once they experience the "one-click" checkout at Amazon, for instance, the bank that stays open all weekend or the free shipping both ways at Zappos — not to mention the contagious happiness of Zappos' staff — it's hard for consumers to settle for less.
Take B-to-B shipping supplies marketer Uline as a good example. Uline can answer its phone with a real person and get a customer to the right rep in less time than a three-tier phone tree. Customers can look up their accounts online because it's hard to remember what they ordered last when there are 15,000 items to choose from.
Spread Good Will
You can't deceive your customers. They can sense the depth of your commitment to their happiness and well-being. If they consistently leave interactions with your company feeling positive emotions like confidence, serenity, competency, pride and delight, they're likely to perceive you as caring and generous. If they don't, you need to make some changes.
Customers have a dizzying array of choices today, and having too many choices puts people under stress. If your cross-channel conflict makes them feel angry, frustrated, incompetent or disappointed, they won't look forward to coming back. And what they tell their friends is determined by how high their blood pressure rises.
Negative emotion has profound physiological effects. A single incidence of anger can shut your immune system down for six to eight hours. Haven't you ever wanted to throw the phone across the room after you'd screamed "representative" three times?
Marco Promotional Products keeps its finger on the pulse of its customers. Marco sends an email survey after every order. The return email on the automated survey comes directly from Nelson, and 30 percent of Marco's customers respond to it. Once in a while, they simply hit "reply" to correspond directly with "Dick," which he likes. Managers and team leaders go through customer satisfaction reports daily, sifting through every customer comment. If something's wrong, they make it right.
Nelson emails everyone on Monday morning about what happened the week before and lets all employees know where they stand with weekly objectives. He trusts people to take care of his customers, treats them like the businesspeople they are, and shares numbers and customer analysis so they understand what it takes to convert "testers" to happy and loyal customers. Keeping people informed keeps fear to a minimum. Being clear about expectations gives people direction.
Speak Their Language
Customers want to feel appreciated, cared about, well-informed, respected, acknowledged, recognized, important, special and understood, and they expect that from every channel. Take the customers at Great American Business Products, a B-to-B seller of property management products. They feel understood and always find an empathic ear. Reps there speak their language because they learn from the same people who teach at property management schools. Many are former managers themselves.
Behind the scenes, as a major part of Great American's culture, there are some guidelines and technologies that help the reps continue to "amaze" customers with their knowledge of their industry and products that can help them be more successful, points out Director of Marketing Barbara de la Riva. Customers know the reps are fully empowered to handle any problem on the spot, so they take heart in knowing that, should there be a problem, it'll be fixed on the spot with no hassle.
As the CEOs of Cushman Fruit Co., Cabela's and Overstock.com (among others) would all attest, a passion for customers needs to be in the heart of those running the company. That passion's importance needs to resonate in every aspect of running the business. Culture eats strategy for lunch. If yours isn't focused on the well-being of people as well as profit, it'll derail your best efforts to create a positive customer experience in any channel.
Learn From All Channels
Moving seamlessly from channel to channel requires abandoning your silos and learning from and sharing with each other. You have to change the way you measure, incent and praise people, while adjusting to customers' changing needs.
"Learn something new about the customer, regardless of channel, at every interaction, and then do something about it," advises Scott McIntyre, former director of multichannel development at consumer electronics retailer Best Buy. "Large multichannel companies often have individual channel goals that compete against each other on operational, cost and revenue metrics. Ultimately, this causes tension and mistrust with customers, leading to higher cost of service and ultimately erosion of their brand loyalty."
In an economy where precious few customers are buying, don't allow any of them to slip into the gap between your competing or misaligned channels. Get the culture and channels aligned in one direction: facing the customer — and smiling, of course.
Follow author/consultant/speaker JoAnna Brandi on her blog, CustomerCareGoddess.com, as well as in her forthcoming web column at AllAboutROImag.com.