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More Than Lip Service

  |  August 13, 1999   |  Comments

It costs less to keep satisfied customers than to get new ones. Good customer service isn't easy to pull off, but it deserves more than lip service. It's worth spending up front for premier customer service technology - to increase revenue and generate good word of mouth. If you don't spend money on customer service now, you'll spend it later to acquire new customers.

We've seen it everywhere: It costs less to keep a customer satisfied than to acquire a new customer. Yet there are two aspects of customer service: proactive and reactive. Both are necessary, but most companies only give lip service to this vital function.

Amazon.com has created the ultimate proactive customer service machine, but reactive customer service is just as important. Customers will give you feedback mostly when your company is doing a good job, and when you're doing a poor job.

A customer who gives you feedback when they have a problem is a customer who is concerned about your business; otherwise they would not have taken the time to talk to you. These customers can quickly become loyal customers if you handle their problems correctly. This is where most companies fail.

Good customer service isn't easy to pull off. In the online space, many companies use customer service as their point of differentiation, but then fail to perform it well.

The statistics are alarming. The majority of email responses take more than 48 hours, and since some are automated, they do not always address the customer's concern. There are some customer services you can automate and others you cannot.

Go ahead and automate the smaller problems (I forgot my password, etc.). But if a customer has a bigger problem, they will want to talk to someone about it. Don't ignore the human touch, especially in dealing with customers on the Internet.

Having a knowledgeable, friendly person on the other line -- voice or email -- when there's a problem can not only make or break a sale, it can also make or break a loyal customer. It can mean the difference between a customer finishing a transaction for a $2,000 computer (and coming back to your site to buy peripherals) or logging off the web, picking up her (or his) keys, and driving to CompUSA -- never going back to your site again.

So what should you keep in mind?

The only thing to keep in mind is that your customers are all important to your business. Customer service is still a very personal, one-on-one matter in both the online and bricks-and-mortar worlds.

In the real world, customers want to speak with someone on the phone or to the store manager -- pronto. Response time is key, but so is the ability to solve problems. Online stores need to offer customers the opportunity to talk to a real person who can answer their questions accurately and help with problems.

I have a friend who never talks to the first customer service person who answers the phone or sits behind the customer service desk. He politely asks for the customer service supervisor, and when the supervisor gets on the phone, he politely asks for the customer service manager. His reasoning: My question/concern is extremely important, and my time is extremely important. He wants to talk to the decision-maker immediately.

Let me clarify: He wants to talk to the decision-maker that will provide him what he needs, immediately.

Again, customer service is not about which company can answer email the quickest, although response time is an essential step. The response must be correct and address the problem at hand. Don't be afraid to tell the customer how long it will take to get a correct response. As a customer, if I get a correct response to my question but it takes a little longer, I don't mind.

You'll notice that customer service centers are now telling customers how long they will be on hold. A great concept, but nine times out of 10, it's never correct. And it's completely unacceptable to be on hold longer than 10 minutes -- staff your call center correctly.

I recently emailed National Geographic about a subscription problem. After emailing the company three times and getting an incorrect response each time, their final response was that it would take six to eight weeks to work out the problem. I'm still waiting.

There are technologies that can help you develop your customer service into a point of differentiation between you and your competition-- intuitive customer self-help, automated email response, intelligent routing based on your business model and rules, and real-time communication capabilities.

Don't ignore the real-time communications. The money is well worth spending up front on premier customer service technology. It will help increase revenue and will generate good word of mouth, which is priceless these days.

I can put it another way: If you don't spend money on customer service now, you will have to spend it later on marketing to acquire new customers.

Audit your customer service department. Check to see how they are doing, from customers that have needed their help. You will find areas that need improvement, and you may win back some customers that dropped off at the customer service point of interaction with your company.

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Michelle Ellis

Michelle Ellis is Director of Account Planning at M2K, a top-100 interactive agency. She started her career over a decade ago focusing on the retail and business-to-business industries. M2K specializes in interactive marketing solutions for clients, including strategic positioning, media planning and buying, offline and online creative, web site design, intranets, and extranets.

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