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This article was written by retail educator and author Micah Solomon, who will be leading a session at this year's Retail Customer Experience Executive Summit. You can get up-close access to Micah and all of our educators in this intense day-and-a-half event, August 13-14 in San Diego. Advance registration pricing is currently in effect.
Marshall Plympton* is the owner of an ''eclectic American'' restaurant with forty-seven reviews on Yelp, and the majority are pretty positive. Marshall, however, responds to even the smallest online slight or constructive criticism with outrage. For example:
If any other jerks like ''Jjhamie319'' are thinking of coming to my restaurant, listen up: DON'T. I have enough work serving the rest of you people without this kind of grief.
Marshall doesn't need this article. He needs a new line of work, far away from customers. But smart business owners and their service reps realize the landscape in which customers operate has shifted — and that profoundly redefines what good (and bad) customer service means.
Here are some ways in which customers have changed that will profoundly impact how you deal with them.
Social media has empowered customers. Respect and work with that power, not against it. Specifically, they expect that your company will make itself easy to contact and will speedily respond to their comments at a high and thoughtful level. Which isn't to say that this feedback has to occur in a public forum. If you strategically make the people at your company easy to reach round the clock, you can by and large avoid public outbursts on social media airwaves.
Think about it this way: If your friend saw you had your fly undone, would he tweet about it? No, he'd quietly tell you. Use the same principle to your advantage here. Why should customers address issues to you indirectly via Twitter or their blogs when they can use email, the phone, or a feedback form on your website and know that it will be answered — immediately and with empathy? Make sure that the first impulse of customers is to reach you directly, by offering "chime in" feedback forms throughout your website; direct chat links for when your FAQ's fail to assist; and an easy way to reply directly to every corporate email you send out.
Customers expect companies to share their burdens. The companies that are thriving today realize that what reasonably could be considered a customer responsibility is now a great opportunity to take something on themselves. This is why your bank tells you when your mortgage payment is due and your pharmacy reminds you that it's time to refill your prescription. Amazon even notifies you when you already purchased a particular title for your Kindle two years ago, and refuses to let you accidentally pay for it again. These best practices should be in every company's ballpark if you want loyal customers.
Your customers demand their right to serve themselves. Self-service, formerly the sketchy domain of snacks and cigarettes, is now an absolutely central right. Customers are talking online about your brand at all hours of the day; and so they require round-the-clock convenience, a level of autonomy in how their experience is constructed, and the ability to apply intimate knowledge of their own problems to the task that no service rep can ever match. Royal Caribbean, for example, augments its human concierges with interactive kiosks on every deck of their new cruise ship Allure of the Seas. These kiosks answer two crucial and oft-asked questions: "What activities are happening now?" and "How the heck do I get back to my room?"
So, what hasn't changed? Most centrally, great customer service — the kind that builds loyal customers, brand equity, and sustainable profits — relies on anticipating what they need. Anticipatory customer service can be accomplished by technological or human means, or both. High-touch examples include the attentive doorman at the Ritz-Carlton who notices the flush of your brow and brings you water before you even realized you were thirsty. Hybrid human/technology examples include my recent trip on Southwest Airlines: Landing very late in Denver for a connection I had clearly missed, I was astounded when a gate agent came to the plane and handed me an already-issued boarding pass for the very next plane out of the airport. Up-to-the minute, entirely technology-driven examples include Gmail warning that you forgot to add an attachment because you typed "attached is" in the body of the email, or Amazon letting you know that "people who considered item X ended up buying item Y."
Providing the kind of customer service and customer experience that will generate loyalty and profits in our technologically altered world isn't a fundamentally different proposition than it was a decade ago, but it's faster. More transparent. More twitchy. Unforgiving. Viral. Magnified. But still designed by, implemented by, and dedicated to people. So don't throw the baby out with the digital bathwater. Now, more than ever, customers need a lot of careful babying.
*Not his actual name (although I was tempted).