Improve Your Customer Service–Starting Today–In Seven Essential Ways

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

Customer service transformation isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most effective ways to improve business performance. If you’re looking for a place to start, here are seven service catalysts that can bring powerful results.

1. Empower your frontline employees. It’s not possible for even the most tightly-drafted standards, best practices, and scripts to cover every possible customer scenario, so the only way to ensure superior customer service is through embracing employee empowerment: giving every customer-facing employee the power to do what’s needed to solve the often-unpredictable issues and challenges that come up for and with customers.

2. Stress purpose over function. The concept of purpose-driven thinking (and action) is essential, and closely tied into Point #1. Once your employees are empowered to do what’s best, they need to understand how your company defines “best.” And that definition cannot be based on a specific job description or checklist or daily to-do list; it needs to be based on the purpose of the organization. This way, the empowered actions taken by the employee (and the impetus to take empowered action in the first place) will be consonant with what the company is striving to do.

This is sounding pretty abstract, so let me make it concrete. Consider how Mayo Clinic, one of the world’s great healthcare organizations, defines its organizational purpose (in part) in the elegant behavioral imperative, “The Needs of the Patient Come First.” So an employee in Housekeeping, who is generally charged, of course, with making beds and cleaning up, is empowered to switch gears and assist a patient or a patient’s family in distress as need be—not, of course, by re-doing the surgery, but by getting them to someone who can help explain their treatment or answer their other concerns.

3. Review and revamp your hiring practices. Nothing on this list is more important than how you choose employees for customer-facing customer service work. It’s very challenging to provide great customer service when the employees charged with providing that service are poorly suited to the task. While much can be accomplished to fine tune the performance of most any employee, it’s a huge organizational advantage to start with employees who have a natural affinity for people and service. The way to accomplish this is through improving how you approach hiring (or “selection,” which is a better term for the process). (You’ll find more of my thoughts on employee selection [hiring] here.)

4. Improve your overall talent management. There’s much more to the HR side of great customer service than hiring. You also need to develop and nurture employees—talent, something that needs to be systematically done to develop and sustain a great customer-focused organization. If you don’t, no matter how great the employees you start out with are, their enthusiasm and growth will ultimately wither and die. (More from me on talent management here.)

5. Modernize your customer support response timetables. I have the honor to work with many great customer-focused organizations (as a customer service consultant), and elevated though most of the standards in such companies are, I will occasionally come across this particular issue as a blind spot. If you still have 1995-era response commitments, such as “We strive to answer all customer emails within 24 hours,” you’re not doing business in a way that is suitable for customer expectations in 2018. 24 hours, in internet time, is equivalent to 20 years; by the time that 21st or 22nd hour rolls around, customers are pretty sure they’re never going to hear from you.

6. Double down on customer service training.Perfectly-hired employees only bring great aptitude for customer service, but customer service training can turn that potential into reality, if done right. (Here are some of my thoughts on what it means to “do customer service training right.”)

7. Introduce a daily “customer service minute.” The greatest complement to a program of customer service training is a simple, homegrown ritual: a daily “customer service minute,” as I call it. It’s actually 5-10 minutes (but not as long as 15); during this time you’ll discuss one principle of customer service. Have a different employee lead it every day, so it doesn’t become burdensome to management and therefore eventually fall by the wayside.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

Be Loyal To Your Customers–To Build Customer Loyalty In Return

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

You’d hardly know it, with the reflexive hand-wringing that many businesses engage in today, but customers want to be loyal. They want something to hold onto–and if you play your cards right, that something could be you.

There are two challenges in making this inclination toward loyalty work out, however.

First off: A customer’s inclination to be loyal isn’t sufficient to overcome poor customer service, at least not repeatedlypoor customer service, though loyal customers are likely to cut you slack once or twice, or a spectacularly mis-designed customer experience. And it’s not sufficient to outweigh excessive inconvenience or an overly-large price differential. (Richard Branson once addressed this reality in a hilarious way: When British Airways offered a cutthroat discount on trans-Atlantic flights, Branson ran full-page advertising to the effect that Virgin always has the best interests of its customers in mind, and therefore would encourage them to take advantage of this ridiculously-cheap offer, even though it was with an enemy airline.) The customer inclination toward loyalty tends to be just strong enough, rather, to tilt a customer toward a pattern of repeat business if all things are approximately equal.

But this difficulty isn’t too terrible, is it? All any business can ask for is a fair shake in the marketplace, and by at least trying to be loyal, customers are giving your business precisely this fair shake. It’s on you to make sure that your prices are reasonable, your customer service is empathetic and efficient, and your customer experience is well-designed, convenient, and keeps the customer in mind at all times. And all of this, frankly, isn’t too much to ask.

The second problem is different, both more serious and more easily overcome. It’s that companies themselves fail to be loyal. They fail to recognize this powerful force–their customers’ desire to be loyal, to embrace it and demonstrate their own corporate loyalty in return. This can happen because of mis-designed sales incentives with their emphasis on bringing in new customers rather than tending to the old. It can occur due to a lazy mindset of taking customers for granted, of assuming and taking advantage of their loyalty. It can also come about due to the opposite of taking customers for granted, of assuming the worst of existing customers–that they’re unlikely to turn out to be loyal–and turning that assumption, through customer neglect, into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A customer’s desire to be loyal has limitations. It has impurities. But it is still a powerful force, waiting for your company to embrace it. Once you do, you’re going to be able to watch the results flow–quickly and sustainably–to your bottom line.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

How To Create A Customer Experience That Lingers In A Customer’s Memory

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

For a business to succeed, it needs to maximize the payoff from its customer experience. This payoff comes when customers remember their experience positively and choose to return, ideally bringing their online and offline friends with them as well.

This makes it essential to understand how customer memory actually works. So, let’s look at what the scientific disciplines of social psychology and behavioral economics have to say on the subject, as viewed through my lens as a customer experience designer and customer service consultant.

A central principle is that what’s retained in memory is incomplete and non-continuous. Memory is a collection of moments, undemocratically assembled, with enormous gaps in it. In fact, a customer’s memory of the customer experience is, in a sense, one big gap, punctuated by a couple of “snapshots”–or, if you prefer, a couple of extremely brief “movies”–that define the entire customer experience for that customer.

[A caution: “snapshot” and “movie” are both visual terms, which makes them not fully accurate. The impressions retained by a customer can depend as much on olfactory, auditory, and physical (touch) elements as they do on visuals.]

Since only a very few moments linger in memory, serving as proxy for the entire experience, you’ll of course want to know which moments persist in memory. The answer, I’m a bit afraid to tell you, is that it’s not entirely predictable. But there are definitely factors that make the odds better that something will be retained in memory.

• The beginning of the customer experience is disproportionately memorable; this is the well-established “primacy effect.” (Sometimes, depending on the nature of your business, the beginning of an interaction within the customer experience can also have disproportionate memorability due to its location in time.) Furthermore, connecting with customers in those first moments has practical importance because if you fail at this juncture, a customer is likely to tune out, turn off, or jump ship before you have a chance to proceed further.

• The end of the entire customer experience has similar potential to be memorable; this is known as the “recency effect.”

• “Peak moments” (positive peaks and negative peaks), no matter where they occur, are also highly memorable. That might sound like a silly statement (why wouldn’t peaks be memorable?) but the point is how disproportionate this effect tends to be. It’s quite possible for a single peak moment to matter more than all of the non-peak moments in a customer experience combined. (The disproportionate memorability of these figurative peaks is more or less akin to literal, physical peaks. Think of how memorable it is to reach a mountain peak compared to the longer stretches of time spent nearly at the peak, halfway up the mountain, and so forth.)

This makes it spectacularly important to pay attention to whatever could form a powerful emotional moment in a customer journey; it’s why “wow moments” can be so valuable in forming a bond with a customer and why great customer service-oriented organizations strive to distinguish themselves not only by consistently providing satisfactory customer service, but also by intermittently providing extraordinary customer service moments—wow customer experiences, in other words. (More from me on wow customer service here, some examples here, and some words about the potential pitfalls of “wow” here.)

• A corollary of the peak moment principle is that overall duration of an experience doesn’t necessarily matter particularly much. It’s possible for a customer to take home vivid, warm memories from a mere 25 seconds of spectacular sparkling kindness, yet retain no memories at all from a week of perfectly satisfactory service interactions with the same company. (This “time-deafness” is why it’s a mistake for resort or hotel employees to ask, during the course of a guest’s stay, “how long will you be with us?” This takes the guest out of the moment and projects them mentally past the end of their vacation.)

By the way, don’t mis-apply this time-deafness principle and think it means that speed of service doesn’t matter. Speed of service matters greatly, as I discuss here in my article on the cliff of dissatisfaction. No company benefits from a customer taking home memories of waiting in line or on hold or while a phone rings five, six, seven times and then rolls over to a hold-music serenade.

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Before I leave you, I want to add a final caveat. Though I’ve given you some insight into what’s likely to be retained in customer memory, applying this in a mechanical or reductive manner isn’t going to work. Businesses have only limited ability, on their own, to “game” how a moment is perceived by a customer. A business creates its own end of the customer experience, but a customer then brings their humanity to the experience; it’s this combination of the customer’s personality and what the business delivers that creates the experience as ultimately perceived by the customer.

This reality should inspire you to stay as close to the customer as possible, ideally to individual customers, and it should also­­–and this is very important­–keep you humble about the entire enterprise.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

Customer Service Culture Stimuli: 10+ Ways To Kickstart Company Success)

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

If you want a leg up in providing superior customer service and a chance to bolster employee engagement along the way, then it’s time to expand your viewpoint beyond individual customer interactions to the bigger picture of culture–specifically what I call “customer service culture.”

Building and nurturing your customer service culture should be the foundation that supports and sustains superior customer service. It’s the bedrock upon which a properly designed and focused customer experience should rest.

What follows is a selection of what I call “customer service culture catalysts” to help get you on your way to creating and maintaining your customer service culture. (If you would like a version of this list, formatted for printing or intra-office distribution, let me know and I’ll fix you up.)

1. A well-worded mission statement, short enough to be memorable but long enough to be meaningful. What you want here is something written in understandable English that can be memorized and internalized by all employees to help them grasp the essence of what your company is, or strives to be.

2. A longer but still-brief and carefully worded philosophical framework–I suggest it contain more than 9-12 items. You will also want to create a condensed version of this that’s small enough to be formatted on a laminated accordion card for each employee’s reference. (PS: Don’t condense by eliminating principles; condense by shortening the descriptions.)

3. Explicitly stated and frequently demonstrated support for empowerment. Empowerment should be supported in your foundational documents. It should be reiterated in your training. It should be reinforced every day by people in leadership positions, who should be praising employees for exercising initiative rather than busting chops when empowerment goes wrong.

It’s easy to say, in a vague sort of way, that “employees are empowered to provide superior service.” But to take empowerment beyond lip service, you need to make it clear that judgment calls, even those that prove to be expensive, are the prerogative of every employee (after a training period, of course). And you need to bring this to life through management and leadership that is religious about praising employees for exercising their empowerment even when it doesn’t go perfectly. Make clear that it is okay to make what seemed like the right call at the time even if the results don’t prove to be exactly what you were hoping for.

4. An employee selection (hiring) approach that stresses personality traits rather than prior experience. Different prospective employees will have different aptitudes for service, and if you want your culture to have the best chance of taking root and flourishing, employee selection is an essential place to start. (Here’s some of my writing on how to recruit and hire employees for customer-facing positions.)

5. Involving the CEO or senior leadership in onboarding new employees. This is a non-negotiable. If you don’t make it clear that you value employees’ service right when they join your company, and you don’t take this important early time to stress what is important in your organization, your culture is doomed to emerge haphazardly rather than take the form that you hope for.

6. A daily “customer service minute” (or lineup, or huddle—it doesn’t matter what you call it) ritual. Start every day–or every shift, if you have more than one–discussing a single principle of customer service excellence. By having a different employee leading your huddle every day, this ritual becomes a multi-pronged catalyst of culture: It directly provides learning to all who attend. It develops leadership skills among the employees who lead it. It fosters togetherness and team spirit among the attendees. And, if you make a point of backing up customer service principles with examples of superior service as provided previously within your company, it provides an opportunity to recognize employees for the great service they’ve provided.

7. Managing from the floor. Managers who hide in their offices miss their chance to lend their much-needed support to a budding service culture.

8. In-depth customer service training. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a cultural item (and maybe it seems self-serving, since I offer customer service training myself) but the principle is inescapable: In-depth customer service training is essential. Having the best-intentioned, most carefully selected employees simply isn’t enough if they don’t receive the training they need to do their best.

9. An ethos of lateral service. This means an expectation that there’s no such thing in the organization as “not my job.” It’s demonstrated when everyone, including senior staff, pitches in to get things done in crunch time (like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who famously mans the phones during the holiday rush). (You may enjoy my customer service-focused interview with Tony, which you can find here.)

10. An “all-hands” approach to solving customer service problems once and for all: Encouraging involvement from all departments after a customer service mishap occurs, to identify what led to the problem and find ways to prevent it in the future. Obviously, this has direct value in improving results, but it has cultural value as well by demonstrating what is valued within your organization.

11. An active internal communication channel to serve as a social media grapevine to promote and assess engagement. Without involvement there is no commitment.

Credit where credit’s due: Thanks to customer service blogger Bill Quiseng (whom you should follow at @billquiseng) for his contributions to this list.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

Wrongheaded Customer Service Advice To Reject (And Better Advice To Embrace)

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

On the subject of customer service, some of the received wisdom out there is flat-out wrong. The stakes here are significant; with the wrong customer service approach you can sabotage your business results in the short run and your company reputation in the long term.

So, let me highlight some of the customer service “truths” floating around out there that need to be rejected wholeheartedly, if you want to avoid damage to your cultural, organizational, and bottom-line results.

1. “Hire from your gut.” This advice can have catastrophic consequences. It’s dangerous both because it doesn’t work and because you may never realize how completely it’s not working, because it’s so easy to fool yourself, looking backward, that it does. This is because selective memory–a component of the psychological principle called the “self-serving bias”–tends to make us remember our triumphs (the times we got lucky following our gut) while forgetting the times that our gut led us astray.

So what’s the right way to hire? You need to get scientificabout selecting (a better term than “hiring”) the right people for your customer-facing team. Here’s an article from me on this important subject.

2. “Script everything.” Scripts can’t solve every customer situation, because customers refuse to follow a script themselves! It’s essential to not only allow but encourageemployees to be flexible in responding to a particular customer’s situation and mood, as well as their unique relationship to your company (among other factors).

3. “Script nothing.” It’s sexy to recommend this soundbite-friendly approach (and I tend to lean more in this direction than the other), but there are two problems here. First, consider all the time you’re wasting when you require employees to repeatedly reinvent what doesn’t need to be reinvented.

The second problem with anti-scripting extremism is that there are specific areas in most organizations (certainly this is true more for some industries than others) where scripting is essential: pharmacy and medical situations, security and safety related situations, government and ethically mandated privacy related situations, and others.

4. “Do more with less.” This can be good advice if it’s intended as (and includes the resources for) an invitation to look for and test innovative ways of accomplishing customer-related tasks, such as process and technological improvement. But outside of that context, here’s the problem: There are many human-delivered aspects of customer service that can’t be whittled down without removing your core value to your customers.

Of course it’s more efficient to use an auto-attendant instead of having a live human operator. But is efficiency the main goal here? And of course it would be cheaper (in terms of resources) if you could answer customer emails in twelve hours instead of four, or let the phones roll over to voicemail now and then. But think of the mischief this can do to your business.

5. Customer service is “just common sense.” Don’t be fooled; although the greatest customer service-oriented organizations combine science and art to create an experience for their customers that can appear (to the customer) to be breathtaking in its simplicity, if you were to look behind the curtain, you’ll find it to be equally breathtaking in the complexity backstage that drives that simplicity.

6. “Metrics and ‘best practices’ like 80-20 are carved in stone.” There are some purported best practices in the world of customer service and customer support that are more like superstition. Consider a metric that is widely used in the world of contact centers: “80/20” — 80 percent of all calls should be answered in 20 seconds or less. This caught on because of its facile similarity to the Pareto Principle, but the last thing you should aim to do is to Pareto-principle your valuable customers (i.e., to neglect 20% of them). Always be cautious when you find best practices that are actually received wisdom, with no science or verified experience behind them.

7. “Customer service is essentially a frontline, ‘low level’ issue.” I wrote about this at length recently, but it’s an attitude that causes big, big problems. Although frontline, customer-facing employees are one of the most essential elements of great (and not so great) customer service, what makes service great, or prevents their greatness, also reaches much higher up in the organization. If the folks in the C-suite, including the CEO, fail to demonstrate that customer service is a priority and fail to model good internal and external customer service themselves, it probably won’t be.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

Learning Great Customer Service Habits From Nordstrom, Zappos, And Virgin

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

If you invest the time now to establish the essential habits of customer service excellence at your company, you can later sit back and, to a large extent, watch your business drive itself.

This is the approach I take as a customer service consultant. It’s intended to give a company the legs it needs to continue in the right direction long after I have left the building. And my suggestion to you is the same: Focus on habits of great customer service, and you’ll soon enjoy the dividends.

Calling some of the following items “habits” may be imprecise, but the idea behind every item on this list is similar. Each is a practice that has the potential to become a repeating ritual, an established standard, or, yes, a habit. Together, these can drive customer service excellence, and spare you from having to reinvent your service commitment or service practices every day.

• Compile a language lexicon for your company–and get in the habit of using it. This lexicon is a company-specific phrasebook (or even a single sheet of paper) with recommended and discouraged phrases, and it’s one of the first things I encourage a company to put together when I’m on assignment as a customer service consultant. For example:

Avoid: ‘‘You owe . . .’’

Try: ‘‘Our records show a balance of . . .’’

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Avoid: ‘‘You need to . . .’’ (This makes some customers think: ‘‘I don’t need to do anything, buddy—I’m your customer!’’)

Try: ‘‘We find it usually works best when . . .’’

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Avoid: ‘‘Please hold.’’

Try:‘‘May I briefly place you on hold?’’ (and then actually listen to the caller’s answer)

(Although these three examples are simple and universal, your lexicon can also include more complex phrase preferences that are specific to situations that only come up in your particular industry.)

• Build the habit of “wow.” Wow moments, by definition, are unexpected instances extraordinary, memorable customer service. But just because they’re unexpected for the customer doesn’t mean you can’t plan for them. There’s a chalkboard in the Zappos contact center tallying all of the flowers, cookies, postcards and other “wow gifts” that have been sent to customers in the previous month and previous year. This isn’t so much intended to keep track of resources as it is to remind employees to keep up in their efforts to create “wow.” On a smaller scale, consider how a Nordstrom sales-and-service superstar like Joanne Hassis at the King of Prussia, PA location will maintain a pen-and-paper system to prompt her to send, say, Girl Scout cookies to faithful customers when they least expect it (and keeps track of their flavor preference to boot–Thin Mint? Tagalog?).

And you? What’s your habit of wow?

• Get in the habit of yes–“The answer is yes; now, what is your question?”–rather than looking for ways to say “no,” “we’re closed,” “not my department,” and so forth. This habit of defaulting to yes is an essential building block of a successful culture of customer service. At Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotels, defaulting to “yes” is considered such an important principle that the company’s done away with a half-dozen extraneous buttons on their guestroom phones and replaced them with a single big button with cartoonish red lettering saying “Yes!” Pick up the handset, press the “yes” button, and a Virgin employee with an audibly great attitude will do her best to arrange a “yes” for you, no matter what your request may be.

• Develop the habit of great hellos. The two easiest moments for your customer to remember (everything else being equal) are how they were treated at the beginning and ending of their time with you. So make it habitual to apply your best customer service skills in the very moments when you answer a phone or when a customer first encounters you in person.

• Create a ritual for goodbye. It’s easy to overlook the importance of the ending of a customer interaction, even though it’s one of the two most likely moments to stick in a customer’s memory. A solution is to build a ritual that commemorates this moment, whether it is sending a thank-you note, or having the person closest to the exit door being tasked with wishing the customer well, or cheekily unique like the famous CD Baby shipping confirmation. (Disclosure: A company I founded is now a sister company of CD Baby.)

• Become systematic about customer service recovery. Service recovery–pacifying and satisfying a customer when things go wrong–is hard enough without having to reinvent your approach every time. I recommend my AWARE approach, though there are multiple alternative frameworks that are excellent and time-tested. Here’s an article of minethat lays out this approach, and if you would like a formatted, print-ready version of the AWARE system for customer service recovery, let me know and I’ll send it your way.

• Develop the habit of 10-5-3. This is a way to get systematic about making customers feel acknowledged and welcome while they are on your premises. There are many varieties of the 10-5-3 approach; here is how it is practiced by GM Jeroen Quint and team at Hotel Irvine in Orange County, California, where every employee is expected to use the 10-5-3 system whenever they encounter a customer, as follows:

At 10 feet: Look up from what you are doing and acknowledge the customer with direct eye contact and a nod.

At 5 feet: Smile, with your lips and eyes.

At 3 feet: Verbally greet the customer and offer a time-of-day greeting (“Good Morning”). Use a tone of voice appropriate to your work area or where you encounter the customer.

• Implement and sustain the daily habit of a “customer service minute” or “lineup.” This may be the most important habit on this list, because it can support all of the others. A customer service minute is a very brief huddle or lineup at the beginning of each day (or shift) entirely focused on customer service excellence. Here’s an article of mine on what this looks like and what its value is.

• Develop the habit of “having the last word.” In every interaction with a customer, and every part of every interaction, make it habitual to answer any time a customer speaks to you. Two examples: When you tell a customer on the phone that you’re going to look something up for them, they’ll likely answer, “thank you.” You, then, instead of consigning them directly to dead air or hold music, should answer reply with “you’re welcome,” or “my pleasure” (not, by the way, “uh huh” or “no problem”; more on this here). At the very end of a conversation, a customer may say, “Talk to you Tuesday.” It’s now your turn to say, “Thank you for choosing us!” or “I look forward to speaking with you then!” rather than disconnecting without “having the last word.”

• Finally, develop the habit of saying “thank you” to employees. If you want to have employees make it a habit to deliver exceptional service, you need to make it a habit to recognize them when they do. Whether it is a thank-you note or public praise, build a ritual of showing your appreciation for those who support you.

Credit where credit is due: This article includes a contribution from Bill Quiseng, a thought leader you should be following at @billquiseng, as well as from the author, Micah Solomon.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

Essentials Of Internal Customer Service: Training And Inspiring Employees To Serve Their Colleagues

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

What is internal customer service–a good, workable definition? And how can great internal customer service be accomplished–what are the principles and best practices we can apply to our own internal customer service training to enable us to provide the best customer service possible within our company?

The “what”: Internal customer service is when we provide customer service to the people we work with, helping them to do their best to serve external customers and promote the interests of our company.

Internal customer service is when the support staff serves the attorneys in a law firm. (It’s also when the attorneys turn around and provide customer service to their support staff.) It’s when medical administrators and technicians serve the physicians in healthcare. (It’s also when the physicians serve the administrators, technicians, nurses, and each other.) It’s when back-of-the-house employees serve the front of the house in the hospitality industry–as well as vice versa. (And, in your own particular industry, it’s whatever is analogous to these examples.)

The “how”: Here are eight internal customer service best practices: principles for transforming your company culture into one where internal customer service is a powerful force. Indeed, if you conduct any kind of internal customer service training, these can serve well as the backbone for what should be covered. (Note: I’m revisiting here my work on these pages–screens–from a year and a half ago, as it keeps coming up; in fact I find I’m asked, as a customer service consultant, about internal customer service nearly as often as I field questions about what we traditionally think of customer service: external.) If you would like a copy of these principles formatted for your use in the office, let me knowand I’ll take care of it for you.

1. Strive to serve both the expressed and the unexpressed wishes of your internal employees. Example: a fellow employee makes a specific request, by email. You can either send them exactly what they asked for (and nothing more), or you can also, thoughtfully, include the attachments that they will need to begin working on X, even though they didn’t explicitly ask for them.

2. Informality is acceptable internally–but kindness is non-negotiable. For example, we can informally answer an internal extension with “Purchasing–Jim” rather than “XYZ Homewares, Jim speaking, how may I help you today?”), but the spirit of kindness must prevail.

3. Respect is expected. With no exceptions. Bullying has to be addressed immediately, no matter how high up in the organization it occurs

4. “Please” and “Thank you” are not forbidden phrases. Use them often. Language matters, internally as well as externally, because feelings matter.

5. We step out of our assigned positions to do more for each other, and for the company. By embracing the spirit of lateral service– moving out of our assigned positions to help fellow employees when they are temporarily short-staffed, we build a stronger company for employees and external customers.

6. There are three stages to every service interaction: beginning, performing the service, and closing the service. If you only do the middle item (perform the service), you will fail. (Don’t be the tone-deaf manager who gets all the bills paid, processes payroll and completes the month-end reports but doesn’t say “good morning” or “have a nice evening.”)

7. What gets celebrated gets repeated. By celebrating the times when our fellow employees succeed at work, we inspire further success.

8. Without each other, there is no company. By serving our fellow employees, we empower them to serve their customers, and make magic happen.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

Emotionally Intelligent Customer Service: A Key To Growing Customer Engagement And Loyalty

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

Great customer service has the potential to build customer engagement and loyalty by providing your business with a way to make an emotional connection with its customers. By accomplishing this, your company goes a long way toward rendering itself irreplaceable–a business for which any substitute is just that: an imitation, an also-ran.

Please don’t misunderstand me; there are many other elements of the customer experience that you need to get right to survive in today’s marketplace: Speed (avoiding the Cliff of Dissatisfaction, where today’s time-pressed customers dump you out of impatience), selection (if you don’t have what a customer wants, when they want it, you don’t really have a business, do you?), location and facilities (for terrestrial businesses), proper pricing, and so much more.

Yet the odds are high that none of these factors is going to make your company truly indispensable in the eyes of its customers. There will always be another company that manages to be fast enough or have sufficient selection or a good-enough location to make it suitable as an alternative for “your” customers. Only an emotional connection has the power to make the competition fade from consideration.

So, where do you find the opportunities to make this connection?

The most likely way is through your people: through superior personnel you’ve selected from your prospect pool for empathy and the other essential traits (more on this in my discussion of customer service hiring).

Once hired, these employees need to be trained in the emotional side of customer service–which is quite a different thing from the transactional, technical side. This training should teach important principles and techniques such as the BUBL Method for determining when service is called for and when it will be perceived to be an intrusion (see my discussion of the BUBL Method here).

Employees should also receive frequent inspiration and reinforcement over the course of their time at your company so that they grow, rather than burn out, in their role over time.

••••

Your odds of making an emotional connection, even with properly hired, trained, and inspired employees, aren’t 100%. To improve your percentage here, I suggest you focus, companywide, on three particular factors that, in combination with having the right people on the job, give you the best likelihood of making an indelible connection:

• Personal recognition and remembrance. ”The number one reason guests cite for wanting to return” is recognition, says New York-based legend of hospitality Danny Meyer. What is recognition? It means being seen, literally and figuratively: being acknowledged, welcomed, and appreciated. For repeat customers, recognition should include acknowledging that the customer was missed, that her return fills a gap that was there in her absence, and that you’re attentive to her needs based on your prior knowledge of her wishes and expectations as a customer. (More on this in my discussion with Danny Meyer here.)

• Anticipatory customer service: serving the unexpressed needs and wishes of your customers. One of the fundamental ways to make a connection with customers is through what I call “anticipatory customer service”: taking care of wishes and needs that customers haven’t even–or haven’t yet–voiced. Anticipatory customer service is an essential practice to promote companywide, due to its potential cement your company’s relationship with its customers.

• An aura of reassurance. An emphatic impression of reassurance–the inkling that you’d stand in front of a truck, if need be–is important in insurance and other potentially high-stakes industries). In other industries, a feeling of reassurance can be something more mundane, i.e., the way Zappos and Nordstrom make themselves indispensable to customers not only via product selection and speed of service, but because customers know these companies will have their back in the case of a needed return.

Forbes readers: Get two free chapters of Micah Solomon’s customer service books here.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

Improving Customer Service In Assisted Living, Homecare, Healthcare, And Pharmacy

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

Certainly, opportunities come up in nearly every industry for customer service employees to make a difference for someone who is having a bad day. (These opportunities can be as dramatic as postal employees thwarting burglaries or a Comcast repairperson coming across someone who has been in a serious roadway accident or as subtle as the case of the hotel employee who brought me an over-the-counter remedywhen she heard I had a cold.) However, there are particular industries and settings where customer-facing employees have, ideally, the opportunity all day, every day to be a force for good for people who may not be having a lot of good in their lives at the moment.

While I do my work (as a customer service consultant) in a wide range of settings, from retail to hospitality to B2B, what I’m talking about here are settings such as:

Assisted Living
Homecare
Healthcare–whether ambulatory or hospital-based [More on patient satisfaction and patient experience in hospital and other healthcare settings here.]
HR, particularly when assisting with potentially life-changing issues such as continuation of insurance benefits
Pharmacies
The impact that this work can have on “customers” (aka residents, patients and their families, and others) is all the more striking when you consider the increased challenges these settings have when compared to what you might instinctively think of as “classic customer service” in retail, the hospitality industry and the like. The customer service in the industries on my list above are all what could be considered “required hospitality”: the customer isn’t coming to you out of desire—as they would be when staying at a seaside resort or exchanging a pair of strappy shoes–but out of need. These settings are subject to weighty health-, safety-, and privacy-related regulatory strictures. And, often, these organizations are forced to do their work while negotiating stark resource limitations.

Consider the first setting on this list: assisted-living communities. Employees in assisted living often become fundamental elements in the emotional support system of residents, and sometimes of visiting loved-ones as well. I’ve known assisted-living employees to champion better care for the residents in their units (which sometimes brings them into conflict with visiting physicians who are less attuned to the situation); I’ve known employees to insist—insist!—on being able to attend the graveside service for beloved residents they have cared for, even when this resulted in extra work and inconvenience for them later due to coverage issues.

“What our people do is related to but also transcends a ‘retail’ employee-customer service relationship,” says, Anthony A. Argondizza, the president and CEO of Springpoint Senior Living, which operates eight retirement communities (technically referred to as CCRCs/Life Plan Communities) in New Jersey and Delaware. “The interactions are longer-term; the relationships go deeper; the needs and wishes we strive to meet are more multi-faceted.”

I would argue that to succeed in such a setting it’s particularly essential to not skimp on the following (Note: for each of these, I have provided a link to an article with more on the subject):

Proper employee selection (hiring), onboarding, and training
Efforts that support employee motivation and advancement efforts (what I call “talent management”)
The application of institutional resources where they are most beneficial to customers
Ongoing and sustained management support for all of the above.
If any of these elements is given short shrift, trouble awaits. Get sloppy in your hiring, and no amount of training can compensate. Skimp on your training and even the best-hired employees will lack the guidance and techniques to properly serve their customers. And not even the best-hired and best-trained employees can fully succeed in an organization that skimps on deploying financial, staffing, and technical resources where they are needed.

Argondizza: “Giving priority to and continuously monitoring each of these disciplines is necessary to be true to the promises made to the residents who make our communities their home. Organizational culture is never ‘set and forget.’ It is more like sailing: Setting your sights on your destination is essential, but so is diligent course correction along the way.”

****

Maybe customer service at a retail pharmacy–the final setting on my list of high-impact industries–wouldn’t seem to afford the same kind of opportunities as working in assisted living, but I want you to picture the following: a customer walks into the local pharmacy whose husband is suffering an acute outbreak of a recently diagnosed chronic illness. Feeling terribly limited in her ability to help her spouse in any meaningful way, she’s hoping to bring him temporary relief through a palliative medication prescribed by his neurologist.

Unfortunately, it’s a Sunday, they live in a remote suburb, and the inventory and hours of this particular pharmacy are limited.

If you work in that local pharmacy, now is a time when thoughtfully delivered customer service can make a difference. The options for how to treat the beleaguered wife include some version of “no”:

We don’t have that in stock, and we’re closing in 3 minutes.
or some version of “yes”:

Let me call over to the next town and see if they can have it ready for you this evening. If not, or if the trip is too far, would you like them to send it here in the courier pack for tomorrow morning, and you can pick it up right here at this same counter?
What a difference the customer service delivered in this context can make. And the best people working in the best organizations make this kind of difference, day in and day out.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).

Winning Back Upset Customers: Learning From LEGO On Customer Service Recovery

Photo by Ryan Wallace on Unsplash

[Originally published in Forbes.com. The author, Micah Solomon, is an author, consultant, influencer, keynote speaker, and trainer in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, and hospitality. (Here are three ways to reach Micah: email, chat, web).

Planning for things to go wrong is an essential part of building a sustainably great customer experience. In many cases, this is dependent on hiring and training great employees and empowering them to flexibly and nimbly address the customer service ramifications of each situation as it comes up. (For this human part of the equation, review my 5-step AWARE methodology for customer service recovery, or let me know if you’d like a printable version of my service recovery approach, for your office use.)

But other times, it can be addressed formulaically. Today, I’m going to recap one of my favorite examples of the latter: how LEGO, with a simple customer service letter–and some very smart thinking behind that letter–managed to bring my daughter and me closer to the brand after a product mishap.

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. It doesn’t matter, really, where the problem originates; either way, it’s a problem for the company.

I became aware of this when my ten-year-old daughter 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.’’

‘‘Are you sure?’’ I reply, forgetting for a moment that my daughter’s way-smarter than me.

‘‘Yep, Dad, I’m sure,’’ she responds, and, of course, she’s soon proven to be right.

We visit the LEGO site together and discover that they’ve set up a convenient way to order missing pieces, gratis. Super! But what was really super was the letter that came with the replacement bricks:

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, with its well thought-out, customer-involving approach, can sometimes bring a customer closer to your brand than if things hadn’t gone wrong in the first place. How can that be? Because now the customer has gone through this event with your company, has come out the other side, and feels that you’re both on the same team. Note, in particular, how LEGO cleverly bolsters this “same team” feeling through the part of the letter I’ve bolded, where they make a point of including my daughter in the process of improving things at LEGO.

Now that’s a very smart move.

Micah Solomon is an author, consultant, influencer, thought leader, keynote speaker, trainer, and subject matter expert (SME) in customer service, customer experience, customer service culture, hospitality, innovation. (email, chat, web).