A Recipe for Consistent Customer Service: 5 Key Ingredients
This article was originally published on CustomerThink in my monthly advisor column on March 9, 2017. Click here to read the original.
A customer contacted support because she dropped her beloved Winston and he could no longer stand on his own. She and the support agent discussed various options like fitting him with a peg leg, but ultimately decided that it was best to replace Winston — at no additional charge to the customer. Winston would be jealous but it was for the best.
Oh, I guess I should have mentioned that Winston is a stainless steel water bottle and the customer was thrilled at receiving a free replacement even after accepting responsibility for damaging it in the first place. This whole dialog read as if Winston was a person and the agent played right along to the delight of the customer.
As Glenna Smith and Trevor Stanwood, leaders of one of the programs we support at FCR, recounted this story, they went on to make an all too familiar comment. We discussed their customer satisfaction, which generally hovers in the low 90% range. They noted the variety of reasons customers are dissatisfied — among them was a particular reason that stood out to me.
Trevor commented that customers were often dissatisfied because some agents on the team didn’t always go as far as they could have to take care of the customer. He went on to say that some agents had come from other customer service jobs that had strict limitations on what they could do for customers who were unhappy or whose product had failed, and they weren’t comfortable with this new do whatever it takes to make the customer happy philosophy.
The Problem of Inconsistent Service
I love stories like that of Winston, don’t you? It’s great when agent and customer click and we as the audience get to replay them over and over again, and just feel all warm and fuzzy the entire time. But the reality many of us customer service leaders know all too well is that this type of service can be inconsistent at best. Here are a few common scenarios I’ve been privy to over the course of my career:
Every team has a handful of superstars. These are the agents who exude charisma and empathy and can seemingly do no wrong when it comes to serving customers. They seem to make a new customer BFF every day. While personality is great, and you can certainly hire for it, relying on your superstars to carry the day is inconsistent at best.
- Get me the CEO
There’s also the approach where we make things right for customers only if they are able to fight through our IVR, push past the front lines (or Chatbots for some), and speak with someone who can actually do something — sometimes only after catching the attention of the CEO, or raising a ruckus on social media.
- Loosey Goosey
This one I’m particularly guilty of. Agents are given the directive to do whatever it takes to resolve issues, only they aren’t given any parameters. This breeds three different types of agents in contact centers.
The first group of agents gives away the farm on every call, drawing lots of attention from the CFO.
The second group is so scared of messing something up that they’ll freeze and do nothing at all.
My favorite group, however, is the one that, typically with a strong sense of justice, sets up their own complex set of rules to protect the company from dishonest customers who will do anything for a handout. Trust me when I say that this one can get out of hand fast.
Come to think of it, each of these scenarios has existed on my team. And while I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, I realized, as I spoke with my colleagues, that I’m not alone.
A Recipe for Consistency
In an attempt to create more stories like the one I shared about Winston, we think that giving our teams a directive like delivering AWESOME customer service (My previous tagline) without defining it in a way that’s sustainable and scalable is good enough. It’s not. This is a recipe for inconsistency and consistency is the essential ingredient when we talk about great customer service. Here are five tips that will help you and your team achieve this:
1. Define it!
If you don’t yet have a customer service vision statement that describes the type of service you want to deliver on every customer interaction, create one. A vision acts as a guide and a standard for your team as they tread through a variety of different customer situations.
Here are a couple vision statements I’ve written with my teams in the past:
To consistently serve customers in a way that builds meaningful and lasting connections and leaves them awe-inspired.
Partnering with our clients to craft and deliver an effortless customer experience.
Note: This one is for FCR, and as an outsourcer it takes into account both our client and their customers.
I particularly appreciated the guidance of Jeff Toister who says to make sure the vision statement clearly describes who you are serving and the type of service you want to deliver to them.
Once you’ve created your vision, posting it on a wall somewhere isn’t good enough. I can still remember hiring Toister to assess our customer service operation. He began by asking several members of my team to share what our vision was and got a bunch of great, albeit significantly different answers. We had some work to do. This vision needs to be something plastered everywhere, discussed in every meeting, and bought into by everyone in order to really take root.
2. Authorize it!
The next step is to give your agents the authority to fulfill the mission, which starts by establishing some parameters within which they can operate. You might be tempted to say, “The sky’s the limit if it makes the customer happy” but that’s unwise and unrealistic. Here are a few things you might consider:
- Free Replacement. For a retail product, look at offering a free or discounted replacement — even if the damaged product is actually the customer’s fault. Trevor and Glenna shared of one case where a water bottle was lost in the snow while skiing and they replaced it, no questions asked.
- Warranties. If a warranty is involved, add some wiggle room to the end date. Having read many customer surveys, products that are outside of the warranty can be a significant hot button issue with customers.
- Service Credits. For a monthly service, determine guidelines for service credits when issues arise. In a past life, we would offer a free month of service or a $50 credit, whichever was lower.
Once you’ve established these parameters, create a very clear escalation path for your agents so they know what to do if this compensation doesn’t suffice for the customer — especially if it’s a larger customer. Your goal should be for your agents to be able to handle the majority of customers within these parameters while escalating or getting a second opinion on the outliers. Tools like Slack have been incredibly useful for enhanced collaboration and more efficient escalation.
Some customers won’t ever be satisfied and others will look for any opportunity to troll for freebies. It’s important to address these situations with your teams. Tracking any time compensation is given in your CRM so agents can see this record and make wiser decisions is an essential practice. You’re not going to win ‘em all but hopefully you’ll consistently win the ones you should be winning.
3. Hire for it!
Once you’ve defined great service and set your parameters, it’s essential to hire agents that buy into this. From the outset, all new hire candidates should be exposed to your vision.
You will undoubtedly interview agents who are looking for more of a paper pusher type role and would rather operate within a very strict set of policies or even read from a script. Instead, seek out candidates who are passionate about serving customers and comfortable working within a framework but, also improvising on occasion. A poor cultural fit is a quick way to watch your agent turnover move in the wrong direction.
4. Train and practice it!
I sat down with FCR’s Manager of Colleague and Leadership Development, Sheri Kendall-duPontand she talked about the importance of practicing extensively with agents to help them get comfortable with the type of service they are to provide. Start by really helping them understand the true impact their service has on the organization. Then practice a variety of scenarios where they must work through a decision-making tree all while being sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of the customer.
5. Reinforce it!
As I concluded my conversation with Glenna and Trevor, they reminded me of a few things that are essential in this move to consistently doing whatever it takes to resolve customer issues. First of all, great leaders live and breathe this on the contact center floor with their teams — dialoging often about what’s working and what isn’t, and continuously improving from there. Both speaking with customers directly, monitoring interactions in your quality assurance program, and regularly reviewing verbatim feedback in your post interaction surveys will give you a good gauge of where your gaps are in achieving your vision.
The second thing I was reminded of is the importance of assuming positive intent, both for customers and agents. This takes the pressure off agents, allowing them to do whatever is required to take care of customers without fear of punishment. If leaders always assume that agents have the customers’ best interests at heart, they can always coach to and refine their service over time.
Finally, take every possible opportunity to celebrate the Winstons. Customer service professionals need to constantly see that their efforts are making a difference. This drip campaign of positivity will help your team stay the course, ensuring that there will be many stories of water bottles like Winston in the future.