Sophisticated customer data mining technologies have made it possible to understand and appreciate customers in a variety of new ways. Armed with historical buying and preference patterns, customer service specialists can customize their interactions to truly meet the customer at his or her needs.
Amid new technologies, however, there are a variety of timeless customer service techniques that continue to merit close attention. They include:
• Set and meet expectations that aren’t too hard-edged or soft-sided. It can be very difficult to “lay down the law” to a customer. Likewise, getting trampled by unreasonable customer demands is not a balanced solution either. Typically, the best path is to clearly communicate what is expected of both parties in a firm, straightforward way. Reinforce the importance of everyone meeting their expectations. Then, wrap it up with a commitment to support the process in any way reasonably possible, so that the customer feels protected by an advocacy “safety net.”
• Tell the truth even when it hurts. Too often, businesses are so accustomed to spinning a tale to talk their way out of difficult situations that they forget where the truth stops and the lies begin. Deal with this dilemma by telling the truth, period. People sense when they’re being lied to, even if it’s at a subconscious level – so don’t plant seeds of doubt unnecessarily. Customers may not be so concerned that a mistake was made, but are concerned (and can be impressed) with how the error will be resolved.
One caution: Telling the truth does not mean unsolicited “true confessions.” There’s no need to go into belabored detail just to avoid feeling guilty. State the basics; then, be prepared to answer more probing, detailed questions if asked.
• Give customers a reason to brag without selling your soul. With Google and other social media review sites, your reputation is on the line more than ever before. This creates both an opportunity and challenge: How far do you go to get a positive review? The answer is to use common sense and a reasonable degree of prudence. There always will be unreasonable customers who will spread negative comments. The key is not to let those few malcontents “blackmail” you into submitting to unreasonable demands. Rather, do your best within reasonable parameters. When people see mostly positive reviews sprinkled with a few low grades, they tend to discount the low marks.
• Educate, elaborate, explain…then repeat. Customer education goes hand in hand with customer service. Arm your customers with knowledge and information. They will be much more likely to have realistic expectations and take a proactive role in successful outcomes. Think about it. How often have you gotten upset about something going wrong, only to relent upon learning all the facts?
• Customer service is not synonymous with sales pitches. There is a major trend toward “multitasking” customer service interactions. Often, people on hold for a customer rep are bombarded with offers and other sales-oriented inducements. While this undoubtedly results in some sales (why else would you do it?), it’s also likely to anger or frustrate some people. Especially when someone is on hold because of a problem, the presence of indiscriminate upselling messages may send exactly the wrong message. Customer service reps charged with attempting to upsell customers should be very careful. They need to understand the cues that say “stop” or “go.” If I’m already upset with you, trying to get more money out of me is likely to backfire. Conversely, if a customer service rep offers options without making a blatant sales pitch, the opportunity to build goodwill and loyalty is stronger. In this scenario, “upselling” is not always to benefit the company, but to help the customer. For example, asking customers if they want to order a higher quantity to reduce unit cost can in fact cause a “loss” of revenue.
• Show and tell your customers you appreciate them. For most of us, it doesn’t take much. We all like to be valued and acknowledged, as long as it’s sincere. Obviously scripted comments don’t cut it. Nor do empty good wishes, such as a perfunctory, “Have a nice day.” As more companies develop sophisticated Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technologies, the opportunity to hone in on something to show appreciation or demonstrate valuing a particular customer is much better than ever before. Starbucks does this very well. Once you’re registered on their site, Starbucks periodically sends out invitations for free beverages and the like based on accumulated purchase thresholds. Think about ways to tailor this concept to your customers.
• Mirror customer style and tone of communication. If someone is very assertive, be assertive (not aggressive) in return. If someone is softspoken, return the favor. If someone is emphatically demanding resolution, tell them what you can do (or at least will try to do), versus what you can’t. A substantial part of a customer’s takeaway is tied to the quality of the communication versus just the quality of the solution.
Blending time-tested customer service practices with new customer profiling technologies can greatly enhance customer loyalty and longevity in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Tammie MacLachlan is the customer service manager of Lightning Labels, a Denver-based all-digital custom label printer providing full-color labels and stickers of all shapes and sizes, and custom packaging products. She has been in the printing industry for 19 years and with Lightning Labels for over seven years. Find Lightning Labels on Facebook for special offers and label and printing news. Mark Lusky is a marketing communications professional who has worked with Lightning Labels since 2008.