Monday, October 10, 2016

The Way Customer Service Should Be

Disclaimer: I do not now work nor have I ever worked for or been paid or compensated in any way by L.L. Bean. 

I live in Maine, and the state has a marketing tagline: The Way Life Should Be. Granted, that's a bit oversimplified, but there are certainly things about Maine that make it a wonderful place to live and work. There are several companies that are famous for their Maine roots, probably none more than L.L. Bean. The stories you hear are true: People wear the iconic "Bean Boot" everywhere. I've seen lawyers--men and women--walking into the local courthouse in suits and Bean Boots in wet or snowy weather. Mainers tend toward the practical.

Yesterday morning, I was set to check out of the hotel where I was staying along the route home from a brief vacation trip. I walked out of my room and started towing my usual suitcase--a roll aboard carry-on bag. Suddenly, the suitcase--one of a set--was on the floor and the handle was still in my hand. Just the handle. It had broken. And I'm headed on a business trip next week. The suitcase was an L.L. Bean. 

The route home took me and my longtime friend right through Freeport, Maine, and as it turned out, my buddy wanted to pick up something there anyway. So off to the main store we went. I quickly emptied my suitcase (I use packing cubes) and carried it into the store, with the broken handle in my pocket. 

Sunday afternoon at the height of foliage ("leaf-peeping") season in Maine is busy in Freeport. Add to that Bean's weekend 20 percent off sale, and a rainy day. It was crowded, to say the least.

1) They had enough staff to handle the traffic
The line in the customer service area was long, but kept moving because they had adequate staff. Every station was open (about a dozen, though I did not count). No one looked angry or impatient in the line, because we could all see the progress of the line and the business-like demeanor of the representatives. 

2) The system works
I got up to the counter and put the suitcase and the handle in front of the rep. He didn't have to ask to see some ID--I already had my license out, being a veteran customer. "Broke this morning," I said, pointing to the handle. He opened the suitcase and looked inside for the label. He entered some information into the computer in front of him and said:

  • You bought this at our outlet store at a discount [Correct]
  • You paid $xx [Correct]
  • I will either give you a gift card for that amount, or refund it to the credit card ending in xxxx --the one you paid with at the time of purchase [Correct]
This is CRM (Customer Relationship Management) at its best. 

3) No fuss
This is what the L.L. Bean guarantee is all about. I wasn't asked any questions about the article, or if I did something wrong. I wasn't told I didn't have a receipt or given some lame excuse why they couldn't help me. I just was refunded the entire purchase price.

4) Problem solved for everyone, not just me
I walked over to the luggage department and found the current equivalent bag in the same color, so it would match my other bags. I examined the handle, and it has been updated and strengthened since I bought mine. 

They gave me the 20 percent weekend discount and I paid the difference between the full retail and what I had paid at the outlet store using my gift card and some additional dollars. Done.

My friends and colleagues know that I wear and use L.L. Bean clothing and accessories all the time. In fact (with no idea I was heading to their store at the time) I had on Bean shoes, jeans, sweatshirt, and jacket yesterday. Things fit. Things work. Things last--or if they don't, they are replaced.

Every business can learn something from the way L.L. Bean does customer service. OK, maybe you don't have 104 years of reputation and customers. Maybe you can't afford to replace anything and everything you sell. But you can make it painless for your customers to receive the best service you can give them.

Leon Leonwood Bean made a promise to his first customers, and his brand holds true to it today.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Monitoring Social Media for Customer Service

There was quite the social media buzz created when this story in the Huffington Post broke. It sure looked like Amtrak had left a woman stranded in an elevator by not responding to a tweet for 7 months.
tweet stuck in elevator
But on closer examination it appears that that Amanda Carpenter was tweeting to whoever happened to be reading her tweets: "Guys." 

She did not use Amtrak's Twitter handle, @Amtrak, but rather the word amtrak

She did not use BWI Airport's Twitter handle, @BWI_Airport.

Does this let Amtrak and BWI off the hook entirely? No, it does not. 

If you are a customer-facing entity (and probably even if you aren't) you should be running social media searches for variations of your name, including misspellings, all the time. You should try to catch as many mentions of your business as possible, even if they are not "correct" social media mentions.

Does that let Amanda Carpenter off the hook entirely? No it does not. What she did is roughly equivalent to shouting "amtrak!" in the elevator. She should have had no reasonable expectation that either the rail company or the airport would "hear" her tweet. Communication is a two-way street.

So, what can we learn?

If you are a customer:

  • Look up the social account of the company you are trying to reach - and remember there are unofficial "fan pages" on Facebook and fake accounts on Twitter.
  • Unless there are are no other reasonable alternatives, or if you know a brand is very responsive, don't use social media as your first method of contact.
If you are a brand:
  • Monitor social media constantly
  • Search for variations of your name
  • Reach out whenever you can
What do you think?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Customer Service: Inconsistency Doesn't Fly

We say things and write things, and we think they are the messages we send. They are not the only messages we send.

Let's take a look at one case from a recent story in The Guardian titled, Got a Customer Complaint? Take It Up with the CEO. If you travel by air, chances are you've had a flight canceled due to bad weather. Airlines do not put you up or compensate you when this happens; they just get you on the next available flight. 

In the case related in the linked story, however, one woman managed to get hundreds of dollars, thousands of airline miles, and elite frequent flyer status by making her case to the director of customer service. 

Then the story goes on to say:
"Two weeks later, Delta’s complaints department responded to the same email she had sent the head of customer service, stating that it was against the airline’s policy to issue refunds due to poor weather, and offering her a £37 voucher."

There are many things wrong with this case, not the least of which is the complete lack of consistency in the responses from the director of customer service and from the customer service team. Apparently there was no communication from the director to the team responsible for contacting the customer, letting them know what remedies had already been given. 

  • Could Delta have possibly offered this level of compensation to everyone on that flight? I don't think so. 
  • Is the airline's policy now to accept responsibility for compensating customers when flights are delayed or canceled due to bad weather? I doubt it. 
  • Did the vast difference between the director's action and the response of the customer service department make that entire department look bad? Yes. 

But for me, the larger issue is the unspoken message here: Complain loudly to a high level person, and you shall be rewarded. And that's the whole point of The Guardian's article.

What this type of reaction does is train people to skip over the customer service system your organization has in place, and go directly to the executives. Although I am a very strong proponent of executive involvement in customer service, this is not the way it's supposed to work.

Here's the alternative:
  • Build your policies to be more favorable to the customer in the first place*
  • Be consistent
  • Use your CRM to include all communication with the customer so you don't make your team look like idiots
  • Offer something to remedy the situation if you must, but don't go so far overboard that you insult everyone else who had the problem

If customer service personnel (and in my view everyone in the company is included in that) had done their jobs properly, the loud complaint would never have made it to the executive level. 

*Are airlines responsible for the weather? No. Could they offer passengers whose flights are seriously delayed or canceled some type of remedy? Yes, but it should be something sustainable and as fair to everyone as possible.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Consistent Service Counts

Every time I see my friend "Barb" (not her real name), she has a terrific story for me about either good or bad customer service. This past week was no exception. 

In a previous post, I described how she had become a "customer for life" of one company because of the service she had received. There's a saying in customer service that you are only as good as your competitor's last interaction, but the same is true for any company, whether you are competitors or not. If a customer receives outstanding service, their expectations are raised, and those expectations will be applied to you when it's your turn to assist.

This time, Barb told me that she had received a great gift last Christmas: A new push-pull golf cart. It stayed in the box until a couple of weeks ago when the weather here in Maine got warm enough to start thinking about golf. When she went to assemble the cart, she found a couple of small pieces of plastic, and then discovered that the lower strap that holds the golf bag to the cart was broken. Undaunted and confident that she'd receive great service, she called the manufacturer to ask for a new lower strap.

The customer service rep who handled the call was a man; you'll see later why that is a factor in the story. He listened as she told him why she was just contacting them now about a Christmas gift, and she described the problem. With only the upper strap, a golf bag would not be stable on the cart. The rep told her that she would have to download a PDF form, fill it out, and mail it in to request the strap.

"What if I went to the retail store where this was purchased?" Barb asked.
"Same thing. You'll have to fill out the form, and the store will send it in. It will probably take longer."
"You can't just send me a new strap?"
"No. You have to fill out the form."
"OK," agreed Barb. "Can you email me a link to the form?"
"Yes," said the rep. "You'll get email today."

No email came that day, or the next, or the next. Barb called the company again, and got a woman on the phone this time. She related the story of her previous conversation. 

The female rep asked, "Was that rep a man or a woman?"
"It was a man," said Barb. 
"Unh-hunh," said the new rep. "Let me get your mailing address and I'll send you out a new strap. You'll have it Wednesday." The rep confirmed the model of the cart, and whether it was the upper or lower strap. Barb had her doubts she'd really receive the new strap, despite the attentive nature of the female rep.

The new strap did arrive on the following Wednesday, and Barb installed it with ease. No PDF form, no fuss, no trip to the retail store.

Now, it seemed to Barb that the question about whether it was a man or a woman who told her she'd have to fill out a mail-in form was a clue that a male on the team (maybe the male on the team) was known to provide less-than-stellar service. Of course there's no way to confirm that. She hopes that he received some instruction on how to respond to a simple customer request, as well as being told to follow through on commitments, even just sending an email when you said you would.

Here's the point: Consistent service counts.

  • All your reps should offer the same level of service
  • The solutions for the customer should be the same
It should always be easier for the customer than it is for your business. Let's not forget who is paying whom.

Give it some thought.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thinking About Customers: The Pink Bicycle

V Manninen, Creative Commons
One morning shortly before Christmas, a man and a young girl entered the bicycle shop. The owner of the shop greeted them and asked how he could help.

"I'm getting a new bicycle!" said the girl.
"You've come to the right place," said the owner, looking from the girl to the man. 
"She has a December birthday," said the man, smiling.

The man and the girl began looking around the shop at the various sizes, shapes, and colors available. After a short time, the owner of the shop noticed that the girl was spending some time looking at a blue bicycle, while the father was carefully checking out a pink one.

"Come look at this one, sweetie," said the dad.
"I kind of like this one, Daddy," replied the girl.
"They are both really nice bikes, and suitable for someone her age," said the shop owner to the man.

After a fair amount of debate, the man and the girl left the shop, with the man telling the shop owner that he would call later in the week. He did call, and he talked over the purchase with the shop owner, who wanted to know the outcome of the pink-versus-blue debate. The dad said simply that he had decided that the pink one was the right one, and put a hold on the bike by making a deposit with his credit card. The pink bicycle went to its new home the following day.

A few weeks later, the girl came to the shop with the pink bike.

"I was wondering if I could trade this bike for the blue one," she said.
"I think I have to talk to your father, since he's the one who bought the bike," said the owner.
"Oh, OK. Never mind then," said the girl. She turned and rode away.

The pink bicycle wound up staying in the garage. The girl almost never rode it, despite expressing gratitude to her father for the gift.

What had happened?

If we consider the dad--who paid the bill, after all--as the customer, the shop owner did everything right. If, however, we look beyond the payment, the person who would actually use the bike didn't really want that one, but a different one instead. So, rather than a great gift, the dad wound up with a disappointed daughter and an unused bike. There would be no word-of-mouth about how great the bike was, and no friends of the girl would be buying from this shop.

The shop served the wrong person. The owner could have said to the father, "I think your daughter would be much happier with the blue bike. It has all the features she wants, it's safe, and she really likes it." Instead, he listened only to the man with the money.

Is the customer you are are serving the right customer? Will they benefit from the product or service you sell, or are you just making a sale?

Give it some thought. 


Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Customer Experience Better Be Good for the Customer

Some years ago, a couple of investors bought an old church in a lovely town in New York's Hudson Valley. They hired an architect who transformed the church into a lovely, modern, artsy restaurant space. The owners hired kitchen staff who had attended the nearby Culinary Institute of America. The place generated a lot of buzz, and even won a pre-opening architectural award or two. The customer experience was promising: Beautiful surroundings and great food.

But it went out of business.

Why? Because the architect didn't understand the food service business. The design made it virtually impossible for the waitstaff to get into the kitchen and get the food out to the customers in a timely manner. Collisions happened. Dinners were ruined, dropped, or arrived at the table cold. Customers stopped going and the place was vacant again within months.

The investors had thought that the customer experience consisted of world-class food in a world-class facility. They were wrong. A good customer experience would have consisted of customers enjoying world-class food in a world-class facility. But the customers couldn't enjoy it.

Businesses are now talking about "designing the customer experience." If you are trying to do that, make sure that the basics are included--like getting the food to the table. If you can't deliver, don't try to design.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Attentive Service Yields a "Customer for Life"

In a previous post, I mentioned my friend "Barb" and how she came to realize that service can be a two-way street. I talked with her a few days ago, and she related the following story about how she has become a "customer for life" for one company that provided terrific service to her this winter.

Unless you've been hibernating, you probably know that the northeast U.S. has been having a very rough winter. Barb lives on the coast of Maine, as do I. It has been intensely cold and very snowy. Some of the storms have included high winds, and that's where the story begins.

Barb has a Char-Broil grill out on her deck. She had a cover for it, until the cover blew off during a storm, and disappeared either into the distance or into the snow, so she checked out the company's website to see if she could get a replacement. After a minute or two, a box popped up asking if she wanted to engage in a live chat. She accepted the invitation and started chatting with an agent--let's call him Brian.

Brian asked the basic questions, such as what Barb was looking for. When he found out she wanted a new cover, he asked if she knew the model number of her grill, so she'd be sure to order the correct one. Unfortunately, Barb didn't know the number, and the grill was embedded in snow. He asked her some questions about the grill and said he thought it would take a 65-inch cover. She said OK, and they worked through the order.

Now that her curiosity was roused, she went dug out the grill enough to see the model number, and started having doubts about the size of the cover. She jumped back online, clicked on the Chat Now button, and asked if Brian was stiff available. The reply came that he was. (More about this later.)

Indeed, Barb had ordered the wrong cover, but it was easy enough to fix, said Brian. He asked if she had received a confirmation email. She had, and Brian confirmed the order number with her. He then said he could cancel that order and place a new order for the correct size. Barb agreed. She said there was no rush in shipping, and so the standard shipping method was specified--one that begins the shipment with UPS and completes it through the US Postal Service. Barb thought it was a regular UPS shipment and so no red flag was raised. (UPS and USPS need to find better abbreviations so that it's clearer who is delivering a package, by the way.)

A couple of weeks went by, and the cover did not come. Barb contacted Char-Broil, and they confirmed that it had shipped by the specified method. Since it should have arrived and hadn't, Char-Broil said they would send another, this one via FedEx. 

Barb asked, "What if the first one gets here?"
"Don't worry about it," said the rep. "Keep it with our compliments. You never know--another one might blow away."
And Barb decided, right then and there, that she would buy her next grill from Char-Broil. And the next. For the price of a grill cover ($40 retail) the company created a repeat buyer who already has her eyes on a $500 purchase. For the actual cost of a $40 product (probably half of that price) they had virtually eliminated the competition and created great customer loyalty.

By the way - the first cover did show up, about a week later. The USPS normally doesn't deliver to houses in Barb's area (everyone has P.O. Boxes), so the delivery was delayed.

Now, Char-Broil could have put a trace on the original shipment. They could have said, "We are not responsible." They didn't. They owned the interaction, took responsibility, and made the customer very happy. They probably also saved themselves money trying to track the errant cover, or restocking a return if they asked her to send one back. That's not only good service, it's smart business.

Now back to Brian still being online: Was he? Maybe. But with a good customer relationship management system and a good knowledge base, he didn't need to be. Any agent could answer the questions and take care of Barb.

Is your business being "penny wise and pound foolish"? 

Give it some thought.