Are Your Customer Service and Customer Experience Falling Apart on the Handoffs?

I know we’ve never met. But I have a pretty good idea of where you’re dropping the ball in your customer service delivery.I’ve seen companies like yours (probably) in my work as a customer experience consultant, keynote speaker, and customer service author.

And, odds are, you’re dropping the customer service ball on your handoffs.

It’s easy for your employee to promise something to a customer– and then send the customer elsewhere within your organization for actual results.

Fair enough: but did the details of the customer’s needs actually get fully conveyed to the person who was handed the ball?

And, did the handoffee follow through on these instructions?  Or did she hand off the responsibility again?  And, if so, was the customer support fumbled on that handoff?

Follow-through and follow up are keys to a successful customer experience.  And often best accomplished by the person who first took the request.

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Here are my four steps to customer service recovery. And note how follow-up is baked into the sequence.

Pet-Friendly Hospitality And Human-Friendly Customer Service

A dog walks into a hotel lobby

I can be a little hard to impress. Which is probably a good trait for keeping me sharp in my work as a hospitality and customer experience consultant, keynote speaker, and author.

But this story blew my mind. 

© Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com – Dog with expectant stare

A dog walks into a hotel lobby – © Micah Solomon – micah@micahsolomon.com

It’s a story of a small but intentional act of heroic service.And it’s nifty that it comes from a modest, extended-stay property: the Hyatt House in Herndon, Virginia.

Put yourself in this scene. You’re walking by the front desk at the Hyatt House (an economically priced, extended-stay hotel brand that Hyatt carved out recently from its AmeriSuites acquisition).

Out of nowhere, a dog bounds up to the hotel’s front desk, wagging his tail. You watch the desk agent lean over and toss a rolled newspaper into the dog’s mouth. The dog then walks away down the hall and the desk agent goes back to work processing paperwork for the next guest in front of him.

A colleague and a collie

Let’s let Sara Kearney, Hyatt’s Senior Vice President for Brands tell us what in the world was going on. “Turns out, Mrs. So and so [the dog’s owner] had just sold her house after 40 years and–like many of our guests at Hyatt House–is in a sort of limbo before moving into her first empty-nester. So my colleague at the front desk [at this point in the interview I had to confirm that she said “colleague,” not “collie”] was trying to help her maintain her routine.

The dog jogs on over from her hotel room to the front desk, gets the newspaper just like he did when he lived in the house and takes it to her every morning. Vladimir, the front desk agent in question, always saves that paper for the dog before handing out the rest of the papers to the other guests. ”

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An extended-stay brand like Hyatt House is especially important in terms of the power of positive service. Why? Because somebody who is in an extended-stay situation is likely to be a bit out of sorts. The recently divorced. People on long job assignments away from their families. People whose houses have sold and their new home isn’t ready yet. This is a situation where the psychological realities of a customer’s life can be weighing heavily on their perception of the goods and services you are providing.  And where service—hospitality– like this can shine.

Micah Solomon is a customer experience consultant, customer service consultant, keynote speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

The customer is at the center of the customer’s universe.

The customer is at the center of the customer’s universe.

© Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com - If you want my business, spell my name right

© Micah Solomon – micah@micahsolomon.com – “Nice swirl, but they spelled my name wrong again.”

It’s hard, but necessary, to drill this reality into your staff–not just once, but as often as every day–and to keep it in mind, in good times and bad, yourself.

Here’s what “the customer is at the center of the customer’s universe” means in day-to-day language:

• Your hangover doesn’t matter to a customer, even though it’s making you ache behind your eyeballs.

• The traffic jam you suffered through on the way to work doesn’t matter to your customer, even though it’s still rattling around in your head.

• Your frustration with the new technology in the office doesn’t matter to the customer. Even your fascination with nifty new features in the technology doesn’t matter to the customer.

Who should be responsible for the customer experience at your company?

Here’s my answer to the very important question: “Who should be responsible for the customer experience at your company?”

Make everyone responsible for the customer experience.  Responsible for handling complaints. For suggesting improvements in your processes. For maintaining the customer-friendly processes you already have. If you don’t,  you’ll find the actual responsibility for the customer experience at your company devolves quickly “no one.”

This answer isn’t as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds. “Everyone” here is shorthand for “everyone, to the extent of their abilities, to the extent of their trainability and to the extent they interact with customers.”

The picture of customer service we need to get out of our heads — and out of our businesses — is the old, compartmentalized version: an isolated clerk on an upper floor of a venerable department store, where customers have to schlep their returns to get an adjustment.

Instead, teach Joan in Sales and Jeff in Shipping how they themselves can initiate a service recovery. Jeff may not be the right person ultimately to fix the problem, but if he encounters an unsatisfied customer, he needs to know how to do more than say ‘‘I can’t help you, I just send boxes.’’ Even Dale, who cleans the toilets, should be empowered beyond helpless reactions like ‘‘Um, you’d need to ask a manager about that.’’ Customers hate to hear ‘‘You need to ask a manager.’’

Dale will feel better about himself and your company, his customer will feel better about herself and your company, and service problems will tend to turn out better if Dale has been trained to express confident enthusiasm: ‘‘Certainly, I am so sorry. I will help you with that,’’ followed by finding the right person to solve the problem (even if that does happen to be, in fact, a manager).

Micah Solomon is a customer experience consultant, customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

Even Though The Customer Isn’t Always, Right, They Might As Well Be

Here’s my definitive answer to the inevitable question, “Is the customer always right?”

No. The customer isn’t always right. But you want to make her feel like she is.
“Right” and “wrong,” even in situations much more crucial than a mere customer service misunderstanding, are hard to sort out. Think of the sworn – but completely misremembered – eyewitness testimony that has convicted so many innocent men and women.

So in working with customers, your goal needs to be the polar opposite of trying to play Sherlock Holmes, by and large*.  It’s not your goal to make it clear to the customer how inaccurate their position is.  Instead, focus on putting yourself in your customer’s shoes, their eyes in your sockets, until you understand why they feel, and in fact “are,” “right.”  And make them feel good about it.

They’re your customer, after all.

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*Are there exceptions? Absolutely.  Including safety and health-related scenarios, where sorting out the facts matters more than anything else. And expensive, ongoing B2B situations where there are disagreements on details of contracts that truly need to be resolved in a factual manner.  Though even in such situations, there likely are gracious ways to demonstrate your factual correctness without proving the other party baldly “wrong.”

Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant and a customer experience speaker, trainer, seminar leader, and bestselling author.

The Patient Experience and Patient Satisfaction–Quick and Quick-ish Wins

Let me to share some quick (ish) ways to win with healthcare customer service and patient satisfaction, drawn from my work as a consultant and speaker on customer service, patient satisfaction, and (perhaps most important here), corporate culture. These suggestions will, I have every hope, help uplift your institution in the eyes of your patients and their loved ones: in other words, your customers.

The stakes are high, going far beyond low HCAHPS scores, when patients and their loved ones are mistreated. High for the patients, and high for the institutions involved: Lawsuits can be triggered as easily by simple unkindness as by bona fide medical mistakes; institutions have a hard time growing when they are unable to command patient (or employee) loyalty.

Patients don’t stop being consumers – customers – when they put on a hospital gown.

The biggest obstacle to improving customer service in healthcare is the industry’s insular nature and the way this makes its problems self-reinforcing. In other words, healthcare providers and institutions compare themselves to each other – to the hospital in the next town, the surgeon in the next O.R. – and benchmark their customer service accordingly. And to do so is to set the bar too low.

It’s not as if patients stop being consumers – customers – when they put on a hospital gown. And it’s not as if their loved ones surrender their identities as businesspeople, twitterers, [entity display=”Facebook” type=”section” active=”true” key=”/facebook-ipo” natural_id=”channel_3section_122″]Facebook[/entity] users, either, when they enter your institution. So, it’s time to benchmark healthcare customer service against the best in service-intensive industries, because that’s what your patients and their loved ones will do.

Every patient’s interaction with healthcare is judged based on expectations set by the best players in hospitality industry, the financial services industry, and other areas where expert players have made a science of customer service.

First things first: Fix your hellos and your goodbyes

Psychological research, most notably by memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, has proven that the first and last items in any list are by far the most easily remembered. In customer service, the same principle holds true: The first and last moments of a customer interaction are what a customer is likely to hold in memory as the permanent “snapshot” that encompasses the whole event. It is very hard to recover the goodwill of a patient whose first impression is:

• A front-desk staff member’s irritation at being “interrupted”–even for that telltale half-second.

• Spending a long, tense time finding a parking space (and when she does, the space she finds is a six minute walk to the front door—and she’s on crutches).

• Signage in the building that is confusing (once she finally does manage to hobble the six minutes to the front door).

As far as goodbyes: Your goodbye needs to be better than just a chilly invoice sent through the mail by your billing service. (Why do veterinarians universally follow up to see how Rover is doing but physicians rather rarely do the same? It could make all the difference.)

Realize that expectations of speed have changed: Your patients are not as patient as they used to be

Patients live in a world where Droids and iPhones, laptops and iPads, can connect them – instantly! – to vetted advice from the [entity display=”Mayo Clinic” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” key=”mayo-clinic” natural_id=”fred/company/91337″]Mayo Clinic[/entity].  Where [entity display=”Amazon.com” type=”organization” subtype=”company” active=”true” key=”amazon” ticker=”AMZN” exchange=”NASDAQ” natural_id=”fred/company/196″]Amazon.com[/entity] can get them a book of expert advice instantly in electronic form, or within eleven hours in hardcover. So to think you can get back to patients with information at the same sluggish pace you always have doesn’t cut it. Patients don’t want you to shoot from the hip, but they need to be kept informed. Frequently and speedily. And, by the way, they don’t expect lab results to take three days. Nothing takes three days anymore, outside of the healthcare industry.

Everyone on your team needs to know how to apologize

Resolving patient issues means knowing how to apologize for service lapses pointed out by a patient. It means getting rid of the defensiveness (or, at best: apathy) that tends to mar the healthcare industry when confronted by a patient upset with what she perceives to be a service gaffe. Instead, take your patient’s side in these situations, immediately and with empathy, regardless of what you think the “rational” allocation of “blame” should be. And spread this approach throughout your staff through role-playing and other training devices, so it will serve you fully every time a patient hits the fan.

The key to a great healthcare team is getting across the difference between each employee’s purpose in the organization—as opposed to one’s mere job function.

A particularly crucial aspect of great patient service is ensuring that every employee—from orientation onward –understands her particular underlying purpose in your organization and appreciates its importance. An employee has both a function—his day-to-day job responsibilities—and a purpose—the reason why the job exists. (For example, ‘‘To create successful medical outcomes and hospitable human experiences for our patients” is a purpose.   “To change linens” is a function. A properly trained and managed employee will know to—and will be empowered to—stop changing linens if creating successful medical outcomes or being hospitable require a different action at the moment. And afterward, she will be celebrated for doing so, not scolded for being a few short in the number of linens changed.

Or: Have you ever been to a hospital and stared, obviously bewildered, at a confusing sign—while a security guard idly stands there ‘‘protecting’’ you, all of two feet away? Did the security guard proactively help you out with an ‘‘Anything I can help you find?’’ If he worked in an excellent health care facility, he would. At orientation, you would have started him off understanding his higher purpose: ‘‘To create successful medical outcomes and hospitable human experiences for our patients.” Sure, that could include deterring and apprehending bad guys, but it also includes attending to patients and their families who have that unmistakable lost look on their faces.

Micah Solomon is a customer service and patient experience consultant, patient experience speaker, customer service consultant and bestselling author.

How Lego and Nordstrom Create Customer Loyalty

I’ve never heard: “I’m loyal to Apple because of their [nonexistent] rewards program.” That’s because true customer loyalty has a limited relationship to customer loyalty programs, customer loyalty cards, customer loyalty rewards. Dubious at best.

Programs and rewards deserve consideration in your marketing mix, but it’s a novel, even cynical use of the English language for a consultant to tell a merchant that when a customer hands you a card to scan at the register it’s somehow akin to having created a loyal customer.

If this were true, how come not a single shopper I’ve ever surveyed who’s responded “I’m loyal to Nordstrom because of their rewards program.”

(Instead, loyal Nordstrom customers I survey say it’s because “I like my personal shopper”/”They delivered my shoes to me at home when I was on crutches”/”They take back my returns, no questions asked”/”I feel they have my back when something goes wrong.”)

Giant LEGO soldier guards LEGO retail store, Copenhagen © Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

LEGO retail store greeter, Copenhagen © Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

So what does create a loyal customer?  Well, I think you can see a theme in my examples above: Sometimes, it takes having something go wrong–and handling it correctly, rising to the occasion in a way that cements your customer’s attachment to your brand.

What does “handled correctly” mean?  It means that your customer service problem-resolution process successfully serves the emotional needs of your customers.

This means, in part, teaching your staff to apologize and empathize immediately with the customer’s version of the story, sincerely and without hesitation or equivocation, saving the idea of ‘‘right and wrong’’ for another time.

This can feel uncomfortable, but it’s worth it:  A response like this can make a customer more loyal than if things hadn’t gone wrong in the first place.

I know this sounds a tad like pollyannish hooey, so let me give you an example, featuring one of the truly great brands of our time: the Danish company, LEGO.  Then I’ll explain the methodology behind the approach.

LEGO knows that every once in a while some of its plastic bricks will fail to make it into one of its kits, or that one of LEGO’s youthful customers will lose a few specific bricks and become frustrated partway through a challenging project. Where the problem originates doesn’t matter; either way, LEGO realizes that it’s a problem for the company. I became aware of this when my ten-year-old was three quarters of the way through a challenging LEGO kit modeled on Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece.

(LEGO kits are of an order of magnitude more intricate than what was available when I was a kid,when yellow, blue, and red were the primary — get it? — options available.)

‘‘Hey Dad, there are two bricks missing.’’ Forgetting that my daughter’s twice
as smart as me, I cluelessly asked, ‘‘Are you sure?’’ ‘‘Yes, Dad, I’m sure,’’ she responded impatiently, and, of course, she proved to be right.

We looked on the web together and discovered that LEGO had a convenient way to order missing pieces, gratis. Super. But what was really super was the letter that came with the replacement bricks. Some highlights from their letter:

Thanks for getting in touch with us. I’m sorry there were item(s) missing from your new LEGO set. We try really hard to make sure all LEGO toys are perfect, but sometimes a faulty one sneaks through. Actually—controlling the quality of the toys that leave our factory is a big job (about seven LEGO sets are sold every second!) . . . and we have a whole department of experts (and machines) who test every LEGO set before it leaves us—they even weigh every box to make sure there’s nothing missing. We’d like to get even better at catching any faulty LEGO sets, though, so I’m passing your comments on to the team in charge of testing. It’ll help them make sure this doesn’t happen again. [Emphasis mine.]

A response like this can make things better–bring the customer closer to, more engaged with, and ultimately more loyal to your brand than if things hadn’t gone wrong in the first place, through its well-thought-out, customer-involving approach.

How can that be?  Because it brings a customer closer to the company: now the customer has gone through this event with your company, has come out the other side, and feels that they’re both on the same team.

Note, especially, how the LEGO letter makes a point of including my daughter in the process of improving things at LEGO.

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Expect things to go wrong. Plan for this eventuality, keeping the
emotional needs of your customer central.

Micah Solomon is a customer loyalty consultant, customer service consultant, speaker, and author.

Don’t Ruin Your Customer Service Impressions With A Poor ‘Entry Level’ Performance

I have a small, but very important, customer service question for you.

Who’s the first and last person who interacts with your customers and prospects when they’re on your premises, on the phone, or making an initial general email inquiry ?

Whoever this is, and regardless of title (receptionist, office manager, host, dude-wh0-sits-near-the-door), how carefully did you:

…vet this person when hired?

…train this person, before you foisted her or him on unsuspecting customers?

… supervise this person?

And:

• Is this position a quickie stepping stone, or, worse, a throwaway position? Or do you allow employees to settle into this position, grow with it, make it something they can be proud of?

I suggest that you consider how utterly crucial this position is.  (Rename it, for starters:  How about calling it “Director of First And Last Impressions” and meaning it?) I’ve written elsewhere about how science shows the huge influence that first and last impressions will have on your customer’s overall evaluation of you. Truly, these moments can make all the difference in your brand image.

Greeted with genuine caring and courtesy, a customer will forgive later minor problems, and will be more pleased with your later successes. Start off your customer’s visit with a good feeling, and the rest of their time with you is so much more likely to feel good to them, too.

And a caring farewell has the power to soothe a customer’s lingering concerns, and can transform a fairly positive experience (“Most things were pretty good”) into a wonderful memory (“Everything was just perfect!”).

Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

The Customer Service Secret To Handling Customer Returns

Look, there’s no bigger buzzkill for a retailer than holiday returns. I’m not dumb. I get this. And I know you get this.

Nonetheless, when January comes, be ready to perceive–and capitalize on– the upside of returns.

Because there is an upside.

In retail, we take it as a given that returns are bad for the bottom line. But here’s the silver–maybe even platinum–lining: A return, at least one that is made in-store, means the customer is in the store!

(You’re a shortsighted retailer indeed if you don’t want a customer to enter your store.)

Sometimes a return even means a chance to introduce yourself to an entirely new customer who received the item as a gift, but in the wrong size or color, and is now showing up at the slowest time of the year, when you really need traffic in your stores.

Don’t waste this chance to wow her.

Work the returns process using those employees who have the best people skills, the best sales skills, the highest scores for empathy and optimism, to help you make the most of this opportunity.

And be sure your employees, as well as your customers, know that you see it as an opportunity. Self-fulfilling prophecies really can be the most powerful kind.

So: What’s the right way to handle holiday returns?

Cheerfully.

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Also (if you want a few more key words):

Frictionlessly.

Optimistically.

With an eye on the future and on the big picture.

Micah Solomon is a customer experience consultant, customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.

Great Customer Service Depends on Smiles and Systems

My formula for a great customer experience is three words long: systems and smiles. This framework has served me well as a company builder and in my work as a consultant and keynote speaker on the customer service experience.

I offer it in gentle contrast to the great car dealer and customer service philosopher Carl Sewell, who proposed ‘‘Systems, Not Smiles’’ in his classic, Customers for Life. Sewell explained his point as follows: If the food in a restaurant is lousy, no matter how much the staff smiles and apologizes for it, you’ll likely not eat there again.

Of course, Carl’s kind of right. But the flipside is that without those smiles, nobody wants the service experience in the first place.

As restaurateur Danny Meyer puts it, the two things people want from the hospitality experience are a sense of acknowledgment and, on returning, a sense of being remembered.

Both of which, I would say, are best delivered with a smile.

The Movers from Hell (or thereabouts)

Although my systems plus smiles formula is simple, it’s not easy. And not too many companies are good at both.

To wit: A few years back, my family was planning to move just a few miles and a local moving company was recommended to us. The movers’ smiles were as broad as the day is long—I assume that’s why the company got those recommendations.

Somehow in the sea of smiles, I missed a fact about its operating procedure: Our dozens of boxes had approximate names scrawled on them like ‘‘girl’s bedroom,’’ ‘‘his office,’’ etc. But there was no numbering system, no real tagging system. In other words: no way to prove if every box had made the move. Or hadn’t.

This situation seemed all right (the smiles fooled us, in other words), until we found ourselves missing something, a small work of art we’d bought years ago, precious to us for nostalgic reasons.

Could the sweet little local moving company help us? Uh, no. There was no way to trace where, or when, or even if a box had gone missing. There were no smiles anywhere once this reality sunk in.

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Systems and smiles—the two will take you a long way. More than twice as far as one or the other.

Micah Solomon is a customer experience consultant, customer service speaker, trainer, and bestselling author.