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.