[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).
In honor of National Small Business Week ( #SmallBusinessWeek ), here are five highly effective, low- or no-cost ways to amp up the quality of your customer service experience.
1. Train your employees to handle unhappy customers–and to win them back when things go wrong. When things go wrong, it’s uncomfortable for employee and customer alike. But if employees anticipate and train for the fact that things will go wrong, they’ll be ready when they do. Put a system in place that addresses these scenarios (what I call “customer service recovery”) and train your employees until they’re fluent in using it. There are various systems out there for customer service recovery; if you don’t already have an alternative system in place, feel free to make use of my AWARE approach–Acknowledge, Widen, Agree, Resolve, Evaluate–which you can read about in detail here.
When you become good at customer service recovery, your company will experience a wonderful bonus in terms of customer engagement and loyalty. When a customer encounters a problem and then experiences how splendidly you address and resolve it, they’re likely to develop a closer bond with your business than if everything had gone smoothly in the first place–and the customer therefore never got to see you demonstrate your service-recovery prowess.
2. Develop a company language lexicon. Even the most enthusiastic and well-meaning employees can sometimes turn off customers simply by using the wrong language. The solution to this is to undertake what I call “language engineering”: thinking about the specific phrases that employees should avoid using, and about the better alternatives that you prefer. Memorialize these word choices in a phrasebook or “language lexicon” that everyone in your company can refer to and make use of for customer service phone calls, chats, messaging, and email.
Here are four examples:
a) Discouraged: ‘‘You owe . . .’’
Preferred: ‘‘Our records show a balance of . ..
b) Discouraged: ‘‘You need to . . .’’
Preferred: ‘‘We find it works best when . . .’’
c) Discouraged: ‘‘Please hold.’’
Preferred: ‘‘May I briefly place you on hold?’’ (And then actually listen to the caller’s answer.)
d) Discouraged: “No Problem” (in response to a customer thanking you).
Preferred: Almost anything is better than “no problem”: (“You’re welcome,” “You’re very welcome,” “My pleasure,” “Thank you.” )
3. Make the beginning and ending of the customer experience perfect.The human memory is far from egalitarian. It undemocratically selects “snapshots” to store based on whatever your brain considers to be important. One of these mental shortcuts is the brain’s assumption that the beginning and the ending of an experience are particularly worth remembering. Because of this quirk of memory, it’s important to get these two moments right. As follow:
First impressions: Walk up to, and into, your establishment and see things as best you can through the eye of a customer. Is it inviting? Is there anything to trip on? Are the handicapped parking spaces clearly marked and free of impediments? Are customers promptly and appropriately greeted? Do the same survey as well of a customer’s likely first impression when it occurs via the phone, chat, the web, or mobile.
Last impressions: It’s human nature that once you’ve pretty much finished up an interaction with or project for one customer, to rush on to the next one with the next customer. Doing so, without taking an extra moment to ensure everything feels truly complete for that first customer, can erase all the goodwill you created up to this point. So zero in on whether you’re truly giving your customers a fond farewell; if not, what could you do to improve
4. Commit to getting back to customersimmediately. When a customer leaves a message by email or telephone or text, they’re hoping to hear back from you right away. My professional opinion is that it’s essential to respond to all such communications from customers within the same half day (even sooner, if it’s nearly closing time, so you don’t leave anyone hanging until tomorrow). This is essential to do, even if you don’t yet have a complete answer to the customer’s inquiry; if you don’t have all the needed information yet, communicate this to the customer right away, and let them know a realistic time frame for when you will get back to them with a complete answer.)
It’s essential to understand that customer time frames have tightened up dramatically from what they were even a few years ago. Perhaps in 2005 it was okay to take 24 hours to respond to a customer email. Not today. I’d argue that 24 hours feel like 48 years in Internet time.
5. Enable customers to find what they’re looking for themselves. Customers only want to be in touch with you when they choose to do so, notwhen you force them to do so because of bad process design and lazy systems implementation. They don’t want to have to call you just to find out that their order has shipped; they want an automated confirmation. They don’t want to be forced to call your receptionist to have them read out your GPS-friendly address because your site only lists your PO Box.
The solution is to do a complete review of your self-service options and publicly- available information. Are your FAQ’s reasonably complete and readily searchable? Are your hours of business clearly stated (and accurate)? And so forth. (Ultimately you should elevate this exercise of eliminating useless contact to the level of high art. Amazon, clearly, is a leader here; think of how they pioneered the auto-response so you know your order has been received; how easy they make it to return product–without having to call for an RA#–do you remember those bad old days?, and so forth. Another interesting company to emulate is Adobe, with its “curate before we create” approach to self-service customer support. You can read more about the Adobe approach 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).