Establishing Quality Customer Service

Prior to the early 1980s, most literature about quality focused on the physical product. “Service” quality was a byproduct of marketing, something that either helped the customer choose a product or use it later. Service was something extra - having to do with such things as payment terms, directions for use, guarantees, repairs, maintenance, and other “nonhuman” issues.

Today, you can page through scores of books about quality and you won't find even one that doesn't define quality in terms of customers and customer satisfaction. And that makes sense. A process, product, or service has no relevance without customers; everything that's done in an organization is done for the customer. Attracting, serving, and retaining customers is the ultimate purpose of any company. Without a customer focus, a commitment to quality is meaningless.

As a customer service representative, you play a pivotal role in your company's commitment to quality and excellence. You are on the front line, dealing with the client. You report the bad - as well as the good - to the people who can change or improve your product or service. There are a few things that you can do to help your firm achieve better quality of materials and services:

1. Listen to clients. Spend the time daily to discover your clients' wants, desires, frustrations, and successes. Know how they use your products or services in specific detail. Knowing them better will help you serve them better.

2. Ask questions. Don't let a quietly simmering problem boil over from lack of attention. Learn to ask your clients effective questions about the performance of your products and services. Write down what they tell you.

3. Report findings. Immediately and completely share the information about your client with those who can bring about change. A small alteration, such as changing a service schedule or modifying product design, can vastly improve what you offer to customers. It might even make the difference between buying from you or a competitor.

4. Notify clients. If your company affects a change (and policy permits), call the client back to let him or her know what's been done. Not only will your customer know you've really listened, but he or she will also have a sense of partnership with your company's quality and excellence. If your client realizes that your firm constantly strives to improve, he or she will keep coming back, and everyone benefits. But you can achieve this only through effective, regular communication with your clients and management.

Customer service is the quality hot seat. You are the link between your company and its customers. Your actions can make or break the relationship between your organization and the customer. How can you provide the quality customer service that customers expect? Here are some ideas.


Practice What You Promise

Late in the day, a customer places an order that she needs “right now.” You may lose the order if you don't promise overnight delivery - a promise you aren't sure you can keep.

You obviously want to do all you can to provide quality service, but if you can't keep a promise, you'll do more harm to your company's reputation - and your own - than you'll do good. Saying “Sorry, but I can't promise that” may be difficult, but it's much easier than saying “Sorry the order didn't get to you when I said it would.”

When a customer (internal or external) asks for a promise:

1. Know what is impossible. Promises get us in trouble when we don't know all the facts. If you aren't sure, find out before you commit yourself.

2. Don't bow to pressure. When a customer, coworker or boss is in a hurry, you may not have time to think of all the consequences. But don't just tell people what they want to hear. The truth is better than broken pledges.

3. Keep your promises. If you do give your word, you'd better follow through. You'll gain a reputation as someone to be trusted.

'Quality? I Know It When I See It'

Quality “It's a nice word and all, but what does it mean?” a frustrated customer service rep asked recently as she sipped coffee from her “Quality” coffee mug. Many managers and supervisors talk about the need for quality without explaining what it is and how it can be achieved.

Ask a customer what makes quality in a product or service, and the reply might be, “It's hard for me to describe it, but I know it when I see it.” What the customer is saying is that quality is something that is perceived, or felt, as well as seen.

The top factors to measure “quality” in the companies people do business with are: courteous or polite behavior, satisfied needs, promptness, and a satisfying past experience with the company

Quality, ultimately, is what the customer expects to receive and is satisfied with when that expectation is met. Quality is more than an attribute; quality is an attitude.

Set your own quality goals. Forget the clichés and vague motivational posters. You can help bring meaning to your company's quality goals through your personal definition of quality. What follows are goals for customer service excellence that you may want to adopt for yourself.

Being Responsive Is Only A Start

In the minds of business professionals, quality is usually associated with results. However, this may not always be the case for your customers. Customers often view service - how they are treated - as the measure of quality. Something as simple as turnaround time on callbacks can quickly establish a customer's impression of your company's commitment to quality.

Being responsive is the bare minimum. It's nothing close to total quality, but it's a start.


Let's Do This Again (And Again!)

The easiest customer to satisfy is the one you already have. Your competitors have to work extra hard to take customers away if you do what you're supposed to do. But, as soon as you start to neglect current customers, you make it easy for competitors to sneak in. Here are some ways to satisfy current customers again and again:

1. Call to wish customers a happy birthday. Or perhaps you'd rather recognize their anniversary with your company. Whatever milestone you choose to celebrate, make it a purely social call. Don't let customers wonder what you really called about. Keep all business out of the conversation, and you'll show your customers that you value them as people, not just as account numbers.

2. Drop by to say 'Hello.' If you really happen to be in the neighborhood of a longtime customer, stop in to say “Hello.” State from the start the informal purpose of your call and the short amount of time you intend to take. You don't want to interrupt a busy day, so be sensitive to the customer's schedule.

3. Identify discounts or other savings. Customers appreciate when you have their best interests - not just their business - at heart. Demonstrate your concern by alerting them when items they usually purchase go on sale, or if they could save money by altering their purchasing schedule.

4. Study the big picture. Don't look at each customer interaction as an isolated event, but as part of a larger relationship. Determine what is best for the customer - not just today, but a year from now. If possible, sit down and plan out your service with long-term customers to show the depth of your commitment.

Need Fast-On-Your-Feet Solutions? Try These

Many customer-related problems on the telephone can be avoided with a quick, appropriate response from you. Here are some minor problems that may arise - and “fast-on-your feet” responses that you can make to prevent a problem from escalating:

1. Problem: A caller hasn't given his name and declines to do so after your request.

What to do: Let the caller know why you need his name. Say, “Having your name would make it possible to…”

2. Problem: The customer's speech is garbled, and you simply do not understand what she just said.


What to do: You don't want to insult the customer for being inarticulate, so you must be particularly careful. Start by saying, “I'm having a hard time understanding you, Ms. Smith. Could you please speak more slowly?“ If that doesn't work, say, “Let me be sure I heard you correctly. Were you saying that…?” and then repeat what you think the caller said.

3. Problem: A coworker begins talking to you, and you've become distracted, missing what your caller has just said.

What to do: Be honest: “I'm sorry, Mr. Jackson. I was distracted for a moment. Could you please repeat what you just said?” Or say, “I'm not sure I understand you clearly. Could you please restate your request?”

4. Problem: The caller isn't speaking loudly enough.

What to do: Say, “We don't have a great connection, Mrs. Brown. Could you speak a little more loudly?” Or say, “We've got some background noises here that make it hard for me to hear Would you mind speaking a little louder?”

5. Problem: It's early morning, and the person the customer wants to talk to has not yet arrived.

What to do: Since it's early and your coworker isn't expected in yet, you don't have to worry about “covering” for him or her Tell the caller the truth: “Mr. Kaplan hasn't arrived yet. I'd be happy to tell him you called.” Then find out if it is necessary for the caller to speak only to Mr. Kaplan. Ask, “Is there something I can help you with?”

6. Problem: It's early afternoon, and the customer asks for someone who has already left to attend to personal business.

What to do: Don't explain too much. Say, “Mary Smith is not in this afternoon. I can take your message and see that she receives it first thing tomorrow morning.”

7. Problem: Your boss wants you to screen her calls.

What to do: Ask callers, “May I tell Ms. Williams who's calling, please?” or say, “Ms. Williams is in a private conference at the moment. As soon as she's available, I'll see that she receives your message.”

8. Problem: The caller asks for information that is available from another department but starts explaining the problem to you.

What to do: Say, “Mrs. Stacy in our accounting department is the person who would be able to help you most effectively. I'd be happy to transfer your call.” Or say, “Thank you for explaining your concern. Mrs. Stacy in our accounting department is better prepared to help you in that area. I'd be happy to transfer you.”

The Pros Know: Tips From Service Reps

Looking for some ideas on how to improve your telephone customer service skills? Consider these bits of advice:

1. Good service and a weather report! Watch the Weather Channel on TV, observing the different weather patterns across the country and paying particular attention to any troublesome weather conditions. Then, on the telephone with customers, refer to the weather they're experiencing in their respective areas. Customers appreciate this personal approach and truly feel that your company cares about the customer.

2. Get that name right! It is important it is to pronounce the customer's name correctly. If you mispronounce a name and the customer corrects you, makes a special effort to repeat the name (pronounced correctly!) immediately after you are been corrected. Also repeat it several times throughout the call. This lets the caller know you care about getting their name right.

3. Surprise! A real voice! It's okay to have callers leave a voice-mail message - but only after hours. Customers much prefer the personal touch - talking to someone who can help them instead of to a machine. All incoming calls should be answered personally by a customer service rep. If you cannot answer the caller's question, you transfer the call to someone who can.

4. Help! Our switchboard operator has switched off! Before going on vacation, reps who work at switchboards should compile an instruction sheet for the people who will be substituting for them The guidelines should include specific forwarding instructions provided by various departments. That way the replacements will be able to answer questions like: What calls will the vice president accept directly? Which calls should first be routed to the secretary or assistant? Last, but not least, notify each department before going on vacation. This gives employees the opportunity to forewarn the new person if an unusual situation is pending.

5. You got that write! Every phone rep makes a written record of every call that comes into the office. Note the time of the call, the customer's account number and a brief description of what transpired. Reps turn their logs over to their supervisor who can then give her manager and the board of directors accurate and detailed information about the amount and kinds of calls that were received. The reps don't even mind the extra paperwork. Many times, these logs prove invaluable in tracing problem histories.


Oops! Did I Really Say That?

What you say to customers - and how you say it - can have a significant impact on your company's public image. Far too often and far too easily, that image can be a negative one when we don't think before we speak to customers.

We all know what it's like to misspeak by saying something off the top of our heads. To avoid miscommunications that can escalate into sarcasm, argument, and/or bad feelings, you need to be aware of how your words may be misinterpreted by your customers.

Here are some tips for avoiding such miscommunication:

1. List standard questions you ask customers. Then review the questions to make sure they really ask what you intend to say. Rewrite any questions that could be misinterpreted.

2. Keep a record of the wild things customers say to you - and you say to them. This list will serve as a reminder of how easy it is for both you and your customers to say the wrong thing. It also may help you to be more cautious verbally, and to forgive your customers for their blunders.

3. Identify your own pet peeves as a customer. Then, follow the golden rule by avoiding imposing these peeves on your customers.

4. Post your best “verbal goof-up graffiti.” Nothing can get you through a tough day better than laughing at yourself. Reading the incredible things that have been said can give you a real lift - as well as remind you how easy it can be to go astray from quality communication.

Recapturing Customer Loyalty

Customer loyalty can never be taken for granted, particularly when a mistake on your company's part has damaged a formerly good relationship. That's when you need excellent 'recovery skills' that will help recapture the customer's goodwill.

When a mistake is made, apologize sincerely. This sounds so basic, but I hear a lot of complaints about apologies that aren't really apologies. Your voice, facial expression, and eye contact should show that you really regret the customer's difficulties.

Use these steps to recapture the customer's loyalty:

1. Fix the problem, not the blame. Customers are only concerned with having the problem fixed. They're not interested in who did what, or why it happened. They want action that will put things right.

2. Use extras to compensate for the inconvenience. Just fixing the problem isn't enough to win back the trust and loyalty of the customer. The way the customer looks at it, things should have been done right the first time around. And because they weren't, the customer has spent time, energy, and perhaps even money dealing with the problem.

Your company may offer compensation as a matter of policy: like a dental office that offers movie passes, or $10.00 off the bill, for clients who have had to wait for their appointments. (Follow any such policy with enthusiasm, however. Don't be like the tellers at one bank, who sparked a flurry of new service complaints by only very grudgingly handing out the $5 bills promised to all customers who had to wait in line longer than five minutes.)

Even if your company doesn't provide such compensation, you can help make amends for the customer's inconvenience. Call the customer about a week after the problem has been resolved. Repeat your apology for the inconvenience, ask if the customer is satisfied, and thank him or her for allowing you to solve the problem. Follow up this call with a handwritten note thanking the customer for his or her patience. Invite the customer to contact you personally with any questions or concerns.

3. Always ask for repeat business. Be very direct about this. When you call the customer to see if he or she is satisfied with the resolution, you could end by saying, 'We hope you'll continue to do business with us. Based on how we handled this problem, will you?'

4. Initiate problem prevention. Be proactive in suggesting changes that you think will avert the kinds of problems or concerns that damage customer loyalty. Look for problems you can solve. Let's say you've taken a few calls from customers who are confused about an item in your company's mail order catalog. They've ordered the merchandise, only to discover that the color was not as depicted in the catalog. Track these calls, and notify the appropriate person: 'Perhaps we need to alter the description to depict this item more accurately in the catalog.'

Cashing In On Customer Feedback

How are you doing? Are you increasing your knowledge, improving your personal image, advancing your career? Or are you spinning your wheels? According to Plato, “The life that is unexamined is not worth living.” How true! Self-assessment is the key to self-improvement.

If you are employed in sales or as a customer service representative, self-assessment from a career and job standpoint is inextricably tied to the critical question: How do your customers feel about the products and service they are getting?

Examining and evaluating yourself is well and good. But unless your personal evaluation matches your customers' assessment, your self-appraisal may be falling short of the mark. How you are doing - plus how your comp any and its products and service are doing - depends in large measure on the quality of your performance from your customers' point of view.

The conclusion is clear: To assess yourself intelligently and practically you will need information that helps you zero in accurately on the efficiency and profit value of your products, services, and customer treatment as they are perceived by your customers. The best way to determine the level of customer satisfaction in response to your efforts is by obtaining and cashing in on customer feedback. Feedback can be communicated either aggressively or passively.

To pursue feedback aggressively, question the customer directly:

“Was the problem resolved to your complete satisfaction?”

“Do you have any complaints about the product or service?”

“Is there anything about the transaction you would like me to clarify?”

“Do you have any reservations about the way it was handled?”

Passive feedback is the kind that comes to you gratis and can be equally, if not more, enlightening. A customer complaint, for example, can be a valuable input for service and sales personnel - an indication that something is amiss that requires attention.

Not all customers readily voice their gripes, and this may cause the problem to fester. Customers who keep their complaints to themselves are often well on the way to becoming ex-customers. This underlines the importance of passive feedback as demonstrated, for example, by the customer's changed behavior:

  • An unaccustomed coolness or aloofness;
  • A decline in orders or calls;
  • A lack of interest in new products or special offers, reflected in the look in the customer's eyes or in the sound of his or her voice.

All you have to do is to keep your own eyes and ears open to these telltale signs. When you detect any of the signs, you can position yourself for more aggressive actions so that you can pinpoint the problem and follow up with appropriate action.


Measuring Customer Satisfaction Isn't So Easy

How do you compare the service you give customers with what they receive in a different market or other unrelated industry? The service ratings your customers give you and another company depend on their own or friends' experiences with the products of both companies. Your customers, however; still might have difficulty in making comparisons.

The problem is that customer service does not have a range of concrete measurements for different markets or unrelated industries. Customer service can be measured and agreed to by people only in the same field. However; a procedure of establishing concrete measurement standards has begun and is beginning to exert its influence within the industry where it was initiated. For example, your company may decide to promote a claim for fast service by providing part of the service free or paying $5 if the customer has to wait more than 10 minutes.

But there is little evidence proving that to be highly profitable, a company or organization must give superior customer service. If customers are equally dissatisfied with all companies, and If they are unable to compare the service offered in the field with that in other fields, the situation likely can continue.

Not-for-profit organizations also supply service, both good and bad. Most of these organizations determine their success in ways other than the amount of profit they make. Meeting contribution or membership goals is one of those ways.

Timing and evaluating short- versus long-term profits are factors. If a particular company's service levels decline and cause the company to lose its customers, quick cost-cutting or prompt acquiring of new customers can prevent the decline in service from affecting profitability. But when there are no further cost-reduction steps to take or any new customers in sight, the service decline eventually will hurt the company.

Last, there are some customer-service variables that simply resist measurement. For example, how do you measure your degree of empathy and the consequent attention you give a customer who is returning a purchase with the empathy and attention given by a competitor's employee in a similar situation? Until such variables are measurable or eliminated as factors good or bad customer service will remain subjective.


1. Be a counselor. Ask customers what areas are troublesome. If your service isn't part of the solution, offer suggestions for improving the situation. Always act as a counselor to the customer.

2. Smile. You probably should be in a different field if you haven't by now seen that you should be happy to see customers, that you should be happy to be of service. Without customers, you wouldn't have a job. So smile!

3. Ask yourself: “Who'd miss me?” Quality programs say you should please all customers - internal and external. But how do you identify them? “Ask yourself, 'If I stopped doing what I do for two weeks, who would complain?’” This test can help remind you just how important your job is.

4. Build morale. Ask your employer to set up a “morale coupon” plan. When you see coworkers carrying out outstanding service with customers, give them a coupon. After they've earned five, they deserve a prize.

5. Handle calls personally. Pleasantries such as “good morning” and “good afternoon” help convey a positive impression to customers. But you can take personalization a step further by identifying the customer as soon as possible. Use their names throughout the conversation to demonstrate that you are personally interested in them.

6. Meet top three expectations. Quality revolves around three service characteristics: timeliness, accuracy, and responsiveness. Type those three words on a card and keep them in view when you're serving customers. The reminder can help keep your efforts on track.


What You Can Do

Quality processes often get their start on the factory floor where the focus is on manufacturing standards and manufacturing consistency. But there is another aspect of quality that cannot be ignored: customer service. Because the ultimate goal of every business is customer satisfaction, pleasing customers has to be a major component of any quality effort. You, the front-line customer service rep, are the human link between the customer and all the behind-the-scenes quality actions and processes that take place in an organization.

  • Acquire feedback from customers to help your organization deliver the quality customers expect.
  • Provide courtesy service that is fast and efficient. Make customers feel important. Be responsive to their questions and to their needs.
  • Develop techniques for relieving stress and for keeping your composure during difficult customer contacts.
  • Build partnerships with customers. Always keep in mind that the customer indirectly pays your salary. Seeing customers who are happy and satisfied can be very rewarding.

The “people skills” you develop in customer service will help you be considered for promotion and can only advance your future career opportunities.

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