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How Customer Service Works


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­No doubt you've been on the receiving end of lousy customer service a time or two. You've come to a company with questions only to be told by some sterile voice to press this or click that until you arrive full circle to your starting place with no help at all. Or, worse, you've reached some bored CSR (Customer Service Representative) who calls you by name but delivers only the infamous phrase, "I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do."

Now you are on the other side of the equation. You own a business or you manage a department and you want your customers to be happy, to come back for more products or services, and to tell others wonderful things about your company. What do you do?

In this edition of HowStuffWorks you'll learn some of the steps to take to create a responsive, caring organization. As you read about how customer service works, you'll transform what you learn into your own, unique style. You will merge these ideas with the mission you have for your organization. It is vital that your front-line people understand and share this vision. You must give them the tools to put that vision to work. We'll tell you how.

Courtesy, Caring, and Willingness to Serve

If you were raised with basic good manners and along the way ever joined a service group, like the scouts or 4-H, then you've got the groundwork for providing great customer service. The foundation you need is one of courtesy, caring, willingness to serve, and an attitude that lets your customers know that you they matter-and that you care. There are skills and technologies that can help you put it all into practice, but don't get your head turned by all the whiz-bang tools that are out there. Great customer service has its basis in good manners. See? Mom was right.

These days it is fashionable for companies to refer to customer service as "customer retention," but that can lead to backwards thinking. To retain a customer, simply serve him and do it well. If you focus on retention you'll miss what is important, which is the customer and his or her needs.

Making the Most of Opportunities

Whatever it is that your company does, no matter how you do it, you make a promise to each and every customer that darkens your virtual door. You enter into a contract, even if the terms aren't explicitly stated. The consumer pays you something, and you promise to provide a product or a service. There are pledges of quality and quickness. Customer service involves living up to your word on these matters, but it really gets to shine when something goes wrong.

Here's the thing. Mistakes are opportunities -- golden ones. Here's why. Studies show that a satisfied customer will tell 2-3 people about his experience with your company. A dissatisfied consumer will share their lament with 8-10 people and some will push that number to twenty.

But here's the opportunity. An unhappy customer will become a loyal consumer if you fix his complaint and do it quickly. Eighty percent (80%) of these folks will come back to you if you've treated them fairly. That percentage rises to the upper 90s if you respond immediately. Every day you have the chance to transform your mistakes into returning customers -- the kind who will tell other people good things about you. Imagine that.

Building the Framework

There are, of course, tools and technologies to help you, but the basis of your success will lie in the framework of customer service that you establish for your company and the atmosphere you set through your mission. Here are the building blocks you will need for a solid framework:

  • A clear, stated vision of what your company does and how it does it, with employees who understand that vision and make it their own. This is the place for mission statements and employee training. This is the place for a lot of hard work before you put your first product or service on the market.
  • Stated promises that you strive to keep. When you offer your company to the public be explicit about what you will do. Remember quality and quickness-two aspects that matter most.
  • Ready access. Give your customers tools to find the information or the people they need. Technology will play a vital role here as you establish networks by which your customers gain access via their computer or telephone. If your customers press a number or click a button, always give them the path to a live assistant. No technology can substitute for a real person who has the knowledge and the authority to solve a customer's problems. Read on.
  • Linked Sales and Service Departments. When you create the framework for your company, it is vital to keep your sales and your service closely tied together. A salesperson who has no accountability for quality and quickness will lose commitment to the customer and focus instead on his own success in numbers. The CSR who had no part in the sale will feel little accountability when things go wrong; "Hey, it wasn't my mistake!" Create a corporate body in which both hands, the head and the feet are part of one accountable being. Every department shares in the goal of excellent customer service.
  • Authority to resolve problems is what your front-line people need to keep your customers happy. Companies that don't trust their CSRs engender fear in the employees that becomes an unwillingness to provide the "on-the-spot" solutions that create loyal customers. "I'll have to check with my supervisor", is a formula for disaster. There is a high correlation between excellent customer service ratings, a solid bottom line, and employee loyalty. Build these strengths into your structure. Teach your CSRs to say, "I can fix that," and give them the authority to do it. They won't give the store away. They will deliver profits.
  • Service that goes beyond expectations. If you've made a mistake, fix it, and then provide a perk for the customer-something that says, "I'm sorry," and, "I care". When all is said and done and the dust has settled, follow up with the customer. "How did we do?" "Is there something else you need?" Chances are you'll get another order on the spot.
  • A forum that gives a voice to the silent customer. Fewer than 10% of dissatisfied customers actually complain to a company, but they do complain to each other. They'll tell other people what you did wrong, even if they never tell you. Remember the statistics, and give these people every opportunity to tell you how you're doing. What you don't know can certainly hurt your company. Call them. Send them an e-mail. Write them a letter. Ask them if they're happy and what they need from you. Much of this will lead to more requests for your services or products.

Now, none of this takes into account the occasional customer that is rude, irate, and unreasonable. They're out there and despite what you've been told, they are not always right. But this is true, they are always human and chances are they will cool off and get their wits about them when they realize that you are listening, that you can help them, and that you care. Most customers will respond favorably to good manners.