August 2018

Feature

5 Tips to Take Customer Service Up a Notch

Stephanie Overman

It’s no surprise that great customer service increases customer satisfaction and ups your company’s value. The reverse is true for poor customer service: If your customer service satisfaction—as determined by the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)—declines, so does your company’s value.

This is precisely the point performance coach Leanne Hoagland Smith makes in a recent article published in CSM, a magazine for customer service managers.

“Data suggests that the ACSI scores and the companies’ share prices tend to move in the same direction,” Smith wrote in the article, “Your Company’s Bottom Line is Tied to Customer Satisfaction.” The range of this drop averaged between 1% and 5% depending on the industry.

“This research only strengthens previous customer service data that shows building customer loyalty is critical to organizational success,” Smith said. “With the average business losing 10% of its customers annually and [the cost of] acquiring new customers … 5 to 6 times more than keeping existing ones, businesses must create exceptional customer service action plans that will develop customer loyalty from additional purchases to making those precious referrals.”

Jeanne Bliss, founder and president of the management consulting firm CustomerBliss, believes that for customer service to truly drive business growth, “it must rise above the fray of being defined by reactive problem-solving to the most recent customer calamity, or chasing survey scores” and become “customer-centric.”

What steps can you take to become more customer-centric and take your business up a notch at the same time?

Data suggests that companies’ consumer satisfaction scores and share prices tend to move in the same direction.

1. Listen to Your Customers

The often-quoted adage by Walmart founder Sam Walton is: “If you don’t listen to your customers, someone else will.” But, in today’s noisy world, how can you best listen to the needs and wants of your customers?

Don’t rely just on survey data, Bliss says. In a blog about the “Customer Listening Path,” Bliss advocated for considering customers’ “aided” feedback—survey responses and other solicited input—in tandem with “unaided” feedback—unsolicited comments provided in person and via social media. The latter, she said, is in far greater supply.

To get unaided feedback, many companies have turned to customer experience management platforms that track comments about their companies on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other elements of the social ecosystem.

Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores uses such a listening tool, according to Michael Richardson, vice president of marketing. “We get not [just] complimentary comments, but when we see any issue, we’re able to reach out to the folks and try to correct it or at least send out our apologies,” he said.

Casey’s combines this information with data gleaned from focus groups, Internet surveys and customer intercept interviews to help track consumer trends. Then, these concerns and complaints “are documented and given to people who have authority to get something done about it,” Richardson said.

2. Listen to Your Employees

When it comes to customer service, listening to your employees is just as important as listening to the people who are shopping in your stores. After all, it’s front-line employees who are likely to hear consumers’ complaints and suggestions. And it’s front-line workers who are likely to see where improvements can be made.

Casey’s General Stores has a system that allows employees to send in comments and questions that are discussed by managers and supervisors. “We tell them, ‘We welcome what you have to say—some of the best ideas can come from anywhere,’” Richardson said. For example, employees have suggested best practices on how stock a cooler or how to respond to a difficult customer. “There have been suggestions for new pizzas, doughnut toppings, how to make a prettier doughnut,” he said.

Casey’s, like many employers, surveys employees. It’s important, according to Richardson, not only to be open to the recommendations that come in, but also to be honest about the limitations the company may have in implementing those recommendations.

“You have to be willing to act on good ideas that come in from the field,” he said. “You have to get back to people and say, ‘This is where we’re at with it—we will work on it, or this is not something that fits in at this time.’ If you continue to ask for input and never get back to [employees], it doesn’t work well.”

3. Train Your Employees to Give Good Service

Employees who have some control over what, how and when they learn are more invested in learning, according to Michele McGovern, editor in chief of The Customer Service Advantage newsletter. In a Customer Service Insight blog post McGovern recommended offering employees a variety of ways to receive training—online, self-guided, classroom and peer-to-peer.

Keep in mind that people remember what they’ve done better than what they’ve been told, McGovern noted, so “give employees every possible opportunity to try their new skills as they’re learning them,” she said. “A broader view of the entire experience helps employees get through almost anything with customers down the road.”

On-the-job training is critical, said Kris Boesch, founder and CEO of Choose People, a company that aims to boost bottom lines by increasing employee happiness. If you want to train new employees to provide good customer service, make sure you team them up with your best people, Boesch recommended.

If a new employee seems shy when working with customers, Boesch said its best to start by letting the employee know what’s working well—for example, “You’re rocking the register.” Then discuss how the person can demonstrate a more positive attitude and help find solutions.

“Often we say we want someone to change, but we don’t say how,” Boesch said. “Give them something they can hang their hat on.” She suggested providing specific tips such as, “Here’s what I’d like you to say” or “You should be smiling more.”

Front-line employees are the most likely to hear consumers’ complaints and suggestions—and see where improvements can be made.

4. Empower Your Employees

When it comes time to provide customer service, make sure your employees truly have the autonomy to provide the best attention and response possible. Or, as Boesch put it: “Are your front-line people able to make decisions, or do they have to go through four levels of red tape?”

Casey’s General Stores gives its employees guidelines on how to respond to complaints, starting with an apology if something isn’t right. Importantly, Richardson noted, employees “do have the power to make it right on the spot.” In addition, he said, the company keeps a customer service log sheet so that managers can follow up on complaints and make sure they were resolved in a fair manner.

5. Give Incentives for Good Service

How do you make sure you give employees the right rewards to encourage the very best customer service? The key, according to McGovern, is to ask.

“Ask employees at least once a year what they’d like as rewards,” McGovern wrote in the Customer Service Insight blog. She suggested sending out a form asking employees to list their favorite restaurants, activities, hobbies and events. “What’s most important is that the rewards are customized to the group, or even better, to individual employee preferences.”

McGovern also suggested that companies “ask employees to nominate colleagues for things they’ve done and that [managers] didn’t even know occurred.” But before you ask, make sure you outline the level of service that warrants a reward, McGovern recommended. “And ask another manager to oversee the final decisions so there isn’t any chance of favoritism,” she said.

At Casey’s General Stores, the “True North” incentives program recognizes employees who demonstrate they are good ambassadors for the company, according to Richardson. “We expect them to thank customers and be nice to them, but sometimes they go over and above,” he said. For example, he said, one employee changed a customer’s flat tire.

When it comes to customer service, “we preach that without customers we don’t have anything,” Richardson said. “Customers need to get the sense that employees are happy that they are there, that they’re glad they chose us.”

Stephanie Overman

Stephenie Overman is a workplace writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.