Self-Help and What It Means to the Future of Customer Service

Self-help–it’s the sort of thing that everyone wants to be able to do in order to be the most efficient they can be without having to bug someone else or take more time out of their already busy day to track down assistance.  Self-help is becoming the norm in everyday customer service, across many different technology platforms.  But, the question that has yet to be answered is, will the general public accept the self help model of service?  The answer is, if implemented correctly, yes, because it will increase productivity and make customers feel empowered–able to assist themselves without having to ask anyone else for guidance and without having to wait around for answers or instructions.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people complain about having to speak to a Help Desk representative because they often sound like they’re just reading from a script, giving no real advice and providing no real insight. Experiences like these offer very little to instill confidence in a customer about the level of service they’re receive.  By giving customers the option of self-help, we’re putting them in the driver’s seat. They can resolve issues for themselves and feel the pride that’s inherent in fixing something on their own.

Support professionals need to be creative in identifying and creating opportunities for customers to embrace the self-help style of customer service, though, in order to encourage the mainstream adoption of the model. Successful self-help relies on detailed and well-informed knowledge base articles, how-to videos, and tutorials. Compiling lists of frequently asked questions is a great place to start–

If we approach development projects with consideration for where we can build self-help options into the software we’re building, we can make it easier for our customers to use and experience the benefits of our solutions. Finding opportunities to place a link or a button that provides immediate access to knowledge base articles that offer step-by-step procedures on how to fix issues are a great example: tutorials and how-to videos make it much easier for users to “see” the application in use, instead of having to read through steps which might be confusing to some. Identifying ways to incorporate both options, like the use of new “multiscreen” software built into many new Samsung phones and tablets, is fantastic because it gives the user the ability to view the help documentation while walking through the necessary steps in the app at the same time.

As developers and support representatives, we need to keep in mind that, the more we can successfully integrate self-help features into the software we build, the more value we’ll provide to the customers using our solutions and the easier it will be for our customers to stay on task without getting waylaid or frustrated. In a society where time is money and instant gratification is expected, this value can’t be overlooked.

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Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 5

OK! We’re in the home stretch of my customer service series.

We’ve followed LEAP; we’ve kept our customer informed and earned their approval for paths forward; and we’ve talked about times when “the customer is always right” benefits everyone and when “proposing a better solution” is worth the extra effort.

So, what else have I learned along the way that might help you?

Well, I’ve found that some customers will behave differently, depending on who they talk to, as they work themselves up the “authority chain.” For example, in the heat of the moment, a customer may yell at your customer service representative even though they work well together daily. But, when you call that same customer to follow up, they act as sweet as pie. What’s really behind this?

The customer may have been under pressure and, in the moment, let loose on your staff member. If so, they’ll probably apologize quickly. But there’s the chance you’re dealing with someone who’s trying to manipulate you and your team. While you’ll never be able to change your customer’s personality, you can coach your customer service team not to give historically difficult customers the privilege of spoiling their day by helping them remember to remain polite, spell out possible solutions, and escalate where necessary. If a customer personally insults a staff member or will not stop yelling, I ask my team to politely state that the conversation will continue at another time and then to hang up the phone. This trains customers that difficult behavior just slows them down.  You may want to consider teaming several people together to play different roles (e.g. good cop, bad cop; sales vs. production). I’ve found approach very effective when dealing with customers who express difficult attitudes. You may also need to offer regularly scheduled meetings for your customer service staff to vent in-house, up stream, in a safe environment.

Sometimes things get really tough and you find yourself continuously dealing with a difficult or manipulative customer. Do a little research here… Does this customer cost you too much to serve them well? While my customer service team doesn’t have the authority to fire a customer, they are empowered to make such a recommendation to the executive management team. If your company continues to work with someone who repeatedly hurls personal insults at your team, and you permit the behavior, you may lose your team’s commitment. Only you can weigh the outcomes, but you owe your employees the humility of listening to them.

Finally, rely on your Terms and Conditions as a guidepost for everyone involved. Your firm’s Terms and Conditions (T&C) are your collected wisdom that protects you and your customer. If a customer can’t see the value in both sides abiding by your T&C, they’re probably not a good fit for your company. But remember, your T&C are a living document; don’t be afraid to change them when appropriate.

What are your war stories from the trenches? It would have taken me a much longer time to develop much of this insight without the help of my two mentors; feel free to share your ideas with us to help continue to conversation!

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 4

So, we’ve followed LEAP – listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, asking clarifying questions and check-downs, and  producing an immediate remedy and long-term process changes to prevent the problem moving forward. Along the way, we’ve kept our customer informed and earned their approval for paths forward. But why go to all this effort when we could just follow the wisdom of “The customer is always right?”

Let’s say that’s true – your customer knows what’s best for them, not you. Your customer has already been inconvenienced with the problem at hand. Why waste their time when you could do what they ask? They’ll come back to you in the future, confident that if things don’t go well then you’ll take care of them. Also, you’ll quickly move on to serving more customers. And, the customer will spread the word about how you took care of them.

In Buffalo, we have a fine grocery store chain that appears to follow this axiom. In practice almost everyone I know who shops there has a story about someone who brought an unsatisfactory item to the store’s customer service desk. Regardless of the problem, even if it was simply that you didn’t like the product, they’d replace the item with something you liked on the spot.

But not every problem is that simple. Does the customer really know the best way to solve the problem? You’re the expert, solving similar problems more often and in greater variety. What if the customer is missing some of the facts? What if you’ve seen their suggested remedy fail for other customers before? What if they’re asking for something that violates your Terms and Conditions? What if it’s not fair as you see it?

It’s hard to frame this in a grocery store scenario–not every business is a grocery store. What if you’re an auto mechanic and your customer suggests a solution that you know would endanger them later? You wouldn’t do it. You honor your customer when you propose a better solution and humbly make the final decision theirs. If they’re not willing to go along, honestly spell out the limits of what you can do. In grey areas, I often find myself negotiating, based on quickly grasping the principles that each side values. Humor goes a long way deflating the stress in the situation.

I think that “the customer is always right” seems to work in simple situations, where facts can quickly be assessed, the cost to get the facts is much higher than the remedy, or the customer isn’t going to hurt themselves. I believe that “propose a better idea” seems to work best when facts are hard to assess well, the cost of fact finding is much lower than the remedy, or the customer could hurt themselves unintentionally. The long term relationship is almost always worth more than the immediate issue, so choose the method that favors your relationship. And remember to go back and improve your process after.

Is there anything I’ve learned from growing my “tough conversations” method over the years? Of course! We’ll talk about that in the next post.

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 3

After two posts in this series, we’ve started with a disgruntled customer escalating a disagreement to senior or executive-level management and we’ve followed a process called LEAP–listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, and asking clarifying questions and check-downs. For produce, we’ve established facts supported by evidence from both sides, proposed an immediate remedy, and proposed process changes to prevent the problem going forward. At this point, we’ve probably sent our customer a lengthy email, detailing all of the above…But do they agree with us? Do they believe our proposal was the best way to solve the problem and will do the best job of preventing similar ones in the future?

When you’ve reached your conclusions about the situation and you know what you’re fairly willing to offer, share your thoughts with your customer using the outline touched on above:

  • Facts
  • Conclusions
  • Immediate Resolution
  • Prevention
  • Approval

That last one is important. If the customer doesn’t believe in the process you’ve suggested, you’re wasting their time and yours. You’ve just accepted responsibility for the whole problem. As an example, I recently received a complaint about screen printing wearing down quickly on garments sold by our customer to a fire department. We took the few garments returned over to our screen printer and asked about the problem. Our screen printer applied an extra curing step to the logos and sent them back to the customer, who promptly complained again. Was this customer just being unreasonable? No, because we failed to discuss our experiment with the customer and get their approval to conduct it. They didn’t participate in the process, so when the garments came back distressed again, we had an even bigger problem.

The next time around we made sure to involve the customer and we discovered that the fire department had an industrial-strength laundry machine built to clean smoke and chemicals out of garments. No normal screen printing could have withstood this mighty behemoth! Now we had our facts and could recommend changes that would truly solve everyone’s problems: switch to embroidery or tackle twill (laser cut decorations that get sewn on). As in this example, it may take several loops through the process to get to the bottom of an issue.

Statistics can be your friend for gaining perspective on a problem. If you consistently make a mistake, it looks bad. If you consistently make a mistake out of thousands of correct operations, it looks different. I once had an airline complain that a logo location varied from shirt to shirt. Even after explaining that the industrial process did not guarantee exact alignment, the customer was unimpressed. But when we sampled hundreds of shirts from a 15,000 shirt order, we found that the variation was within about 3.3 standard deviations (or that around 1 in 1,000 were outliers). These hard numbers changed their perspective. Statistics can help you focus on true bottlenecks.

Another key step in ensuring customer buy-in? As I mentioned earlier, if it wasn’t written, it didn’t happen, so confirm conversations with writing and carbon-copy everyone involved in an issue. Why would you (or your customer) leave someone out? Doing so raises political questions, which almost never contribute to solving the problem or returning to a good relationship. In fact, I find that including everyone often suppresses unreasonable behavior. You may need to take a frank aside with an authority figure to handle a sensitive issue. That’s OK, as long as both parties return to the whole group with information appropriate to the group members’ roles.

For the truly deft, you can position your statements too. I find this handy when used sparingly in politically tough, long-term situations. Are there new people to the conversation? Are there casual readers who need to be kept informed? Are there some people on either side working against the shared relationship? Positioning a statement can help. I might say things like:

  • At the risk of being bold
  • As you know
  • Clearly you would agree that
  • As promised
  • From prior conversations
  • As we agreed

This helps frame the conversation for secondary readers, and forces the primary recipient to either declare their disagreement aloud or passively accept my assertions. This is hardball, and I’d generally avoid manipulating people, but the tool is there if it serves the better interests of your firm and your customer.

Having read all of this, you might ask why I’d go to these measures when I could just follow “The customer is always right” idea and move on quickly? Didn’t I just waste my time? Stay tuned…

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 2

In my first post in this series, I talked about a situation where a disgruntled customer has escalated a problem or disagreement beyond customer service and to senior or executive-level management. We followed a process called LEAP–listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, asking clarifying questions and check-downs, and promising to produce on a way to resolve the problem. But I pointed out the fact that produce hides a lot of detail and can leave you, and your staff, in an ambiguous place about how to completely resolve the customer’s issue. So, how can you make sure your company will take the necessary steps to make things right for your customer?

My second mentor shared tools with me to expand on produce. Yes, starting each conversation with LEAP is great, but you need to change its goal to get the customer’s perspective on the problem. Work on prioritizing the customer’s feedback with him or her; what’s the biggest problem? What other problems have happened as a result? What remedy is the customer looking for and how much time do they have to allow you to reach resolution? It’s important to remember not to take sides at this stage of the process so do your best to distill the customer’s (possibly emotional) perspective down to hard facts. I’d also recommend resisting the temptation to solve complicated problems over the phone. Instead, promise to look into it in more detail and agree to a time to speak again with an update. You’re still adhering to the spirit of the produce step, but I think there’s value in  expanding on it.

Take a look at the unbiased facts you’ve established: What evidence do you have of where the issue went right and where it went wrong? Don’t prejudge and don’t assume that your firm or the customer have diagnosed the problem correctly or have a monopoly on the truth. Start with the first moment of the issue at your firm and follow it until it left your hands but be careful not to end up in an analysis paralysis, diving ever deeper into wasteful facts. Instead, sample a few key points to narrow down the underlying cause of the issue and dig into that spot–kindly challenge your staff, the data in your systems, the paperwork left behind, and any written communication. You’ll likely find things that the customer doesn’t know or didn’t share with you.

Now, let’s assess the facts: Where did the breakdown occur? What does the customer know and of what can you inform them? Where did your staff, and your customer, deviate from the appropriate course of action? List scenarios that explain what happened and eliminate those that don’t match the evidence. You may still have more than one possible scenario. What needs to be done right away to close this issue? How can we fairly make the customer whole? What processes, terms, and conditions could have prevented this?

With facts in hand, explain to your customer an unbiased account of the immediate problem and its underlying cause. Remain clinical and leave emotion out. Distinguish clearly between facts and your opinion and accept blame where it’s fairly due. Most importantly, do not lie. You’ve fixed the source of the leak, now it’s time to drain the basement. You’ve only got two problems left to solve:

First, how can we make the customer whole, immediately and fairly? You still have to solve the customer’s current problem and they’re waiting for that, more than anything else. To me, “whole” means fair to the customer and fair to your company. I find it helps to begin by establishing some principles rather than just splitting the blame. If my team had a verbal agreement about something important enough to cost money and we failed to document it with the customer in writing, then the verbal agreement doesn’t exist and I’ll side with the customer. If we followed our process correctly and the customer missed something, then I’ll suggest that the customer bear the cost to correct it with our help. If both sides made mistakes, then I’ll offer to cover my company’s cost to correct our mistake and suggest the customer do likewise. If our mistake caused a single line item on an invoice to grow more than it should have, I’ll offer to cover the difference on that one item but not to refund the whole invoice. We both follow our Terms and Conditions together, we should solve the problem together, as well.

Second, what can we both do to prevent this problem going forward? Even if the problem begins entirely with our customer’s actions, which I can’t control, I’ll still propose things we can do to watch the customer’s back in the future. That’s just part of a good working relationship. Usually, changes to both sides of an issue can keep it from reoccurring…Until training slips. So, you need to document your processes, update them, and train from your documentation. Does your customer have the power to make the preventative changes on their end? If not, discuss them with someone in authority at their company. I’ve found that customers genuinely appreciate the extra effort.

So, that’s how I often respond to tough customer issues: clarify the problem and then follow two legs: the immediate problem and prevention. But you can still get derailed…What if the customer doesn’t agree with your resolution? What if they don’t believe your remedies will solve the problem? These are the concerns I’ll tackle in my next post.

The Often-Overlooked Value Of A Quality Support Team

My team and I are software support representatives – when end users struggle with issues they can’t resolve themselves or encounter bugs or glitches, they call us.  We’re the first line of defense – being there for our customers and putting their minds at ease.  Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about why the position I hold is necessary (and I’m pretty sure the developers we help would agree).

Frustrated customers don’t remain customers for long:

This one should be fairly obvious.  If a product or service you’re using causes you more grief than benefit, you’ll probably stop using it.  When a support call comes in, it’s the support representative’s job to provide the feeling that someone associated with the product cares about the customer’s issue.  If the end user is forced to leave a voicemail and wait for several hours before hearing a response, they might begin feeling like their problem will never get fixed.  No one ever wants to feel as if they are being ignored when they have a problem; letting customers fend for themselves is bound to have them looking for alternatives.

Support representatives are the face of the company:

Support reps are frequently the first people to have contact with a customer, and first impressions can be everything. A positive experience can make the customer feel confident that their issue will be addressed quickly.  A negative experience, however, can deter the customer from calling again.  Although support representatives often make up a very small part of a company, they’re usually closely associated with a customer’s opinion of the entire organization.  When a customer hears my voice, they have something tangible to associate with their product and my demeanor can set the tone for their continued relationship with the company.  Ideally, you want the person on the phone with your customer to be caring, kind, and patient, so the relationship will be as well.

Developers often don’t mix with customers:

While it’s not true in every circumstance, there are a lot of developers who don’t necessarily want direct contact with the customer. Certainly, it’s tough to concentrate on coding if your phone is ringing several times an hour, but developers can also suffer from being too “sophisticated” for their own good (and the clients’) – since they’re surrounded by colleagues who understand complex processes, it can be difficult for them to put a description into layman’s terms for an end user. Software support provides a bridge between end user and developer; the reps have enough technical know-how to work with the developers on more complex issues, but can easily relate to struggling (and, sometimes, impatient) customers.  Plus, I know some developers who just “don’t like talking on the phone” and that’s not the kind of person who should be communicating with customers on a daily basis.

Support representatives take pressure off developers:

This is obviously related to my previous point, but important nonetheless. When a customer loses patience (and nearly everyone does, at some point), they can lash out.  Support representatives are trained to handle this pressure and work to prevent it from reaching the developers. The goal of the development team needs to be producing quality software; the goal of the support reps needs to be managing the expectations of customers and helping them resolve problems quickly and with minimal pain.

It’s no coincidence that the most profitable companies have excellent support teams to back up their excellent products.  Now more than ever, these companies have come to realize that without a strong, committed support team, there would be no customers to support.  Don’t underestimate the value of a great relationship with your customer!