Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Value of Good Customer Service

Technical support and customer service in general seems to be one of those areas where companies are always trying to save money.  They frequently direct you to FAQ's on web sites, phone recordings, and other self-support mechanisms.  When you do need to reach somebody, you often have to go through layers of "press one for this" and "press two for that" until you can get into the queue and after 30 minutes you eventually your patience is rewarded with an operator from the lowest-cost provider of call center outsourcing services.  Does this model of support make sense?

For some common queries, I think that self-support makes a lot of sense, both for the company and for the consumer.  I remember when I was working at an electronics store in the days before there was the Internet, about 90% of the calls that came in were asking for the store's hours or asking for directions to the store.  As you can imagine, this took up quite a bit of time and effort for something that can can automated easily.  Now, stores put this sort of information on their web sites or through a recorded phone message.  People can get the information that they need easily and the company can redirect their employees to higher value activities (i.e. selling product).

However, when a customer calls with a more complicated question, a more personal touch is necessary.  Often times, the customer who is calling has some sort of issue or problem which needs to be solved.  This is a critical point in time for the company, because this is where you can lose a customer for life, or gain them for life.  How many times have you had some sort of a problem with a product, called the support line, and been disappointed with the company's response?  When this happens, not only do you vow to never do business with that company again, but you also might be compelled to tell others about what happened.  Not only will the company lose your future business, but they might also lose the business of dozens of other people.  In this age of social networking, word of mouth has more of a reach than it had in the past.

On the other hand, if the company handles your problem professionally and without any hassles, not only will you be more likely to continue to do business with them, but you are likely to sing the praises of that company to others.  The company just might have gained hundreds or thousands of dollars (or more) in additional sales by treating your problem like it is the company's only problem.

The question I have for companies, then, is why is customer service an afterthought to be outsourced and downsized, rather than a competitive advantage that deserves the proper amount of investment?

Here are my suggestions on what companies should do in order to make customer service a competitive advantage:

1. Make it easy to talk to a person.

Nothing is more frustrating than having to wade through "press 1" hell just to wait 30 minutes to talk to a person.  This just gets the relationship off on a wrong foot.

2. Empower the person to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy, even if that means giving the customer a refund.

Having a liberal return policy in general can help make the sale.  People are more likely to buy a product if they perceive that the risk is low.  If they know that they have an "out", so to speak, it provides some measure of safety to make that leap and buy.  Ultimately, the goal is to get people to try your product, love it, and sell its virtues to others.  Think of it as a form of marketing.

Also, if the customer does have an issue, if you give them their money back without any strings attached, they will come away from the transaction with a good feeling about your company and will be more likely to come back in the future.

3. Make customer service a core competency.  Don't outsource it to the lowest bidder.

Many of these outsourced call centers service all different companies.  The operators don't have a vested interest in making your company look good, and they don't have any incentive to differentiate the service that your company provides from that of another company.  Also, the low cost provider is low cost because it pays its people the least.  When you don't pay people a lot, you get what you pay for in terms of talent.  Anybody who has any sort of ambition and drive won't stay there for long.  Those people will be replaced by whomever they can find off the street.  Do you think that somebody like that is going to care about making your company look good in the eye of your customers?

The other advantage of keeping it in house is that you can keep tabs on the sorts of problems that are occurring.  If all of your complaints are coming through a call center half a world away, how likely is it that you will get a true picture of what your customers are saying about your product?  Not very likely.  On the other hand, if your call center is at your corporate office, it makes it easier to keep tabs on the pulse of your customers.

4. Pay customer service people a good wage and give them a career path.

This sort of goes along with #3.  Since you should have a web site or phone recordings that handle all of the common questions with simple answers, the only calls that should be coming in to a person are those that require special handling and complex problem solving.  You want to make sure that the person answering those questions are up to the task.  There is nothing more frustrating to a customer then a person on the other end who has no clue.  If you pay people well and show that this isn't just another dead end job, you are likely to get smart and ambitious people who can provide exceptional customer service.

At the end of the day, the customer service rep is the face and voice of your company.  He or she is the one who is interacting with your customers directly.  This interaction can make or break your company.  Shouldn't this role be treated as an investment rather than just another expense to be cut?

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