Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Customer Service books reviewed

As promised...

Customer service isn't just for dealing with complaints.
Two new books show how to use it to strengthen loyalty.
published 7/28/08 in The Miami Herald

Business is more challenging than ever. Competition, consolidation, inflation and other economic pressures make it difficult for any company to survive, let alone thrive. Adding to that is the ubiquity of the Internet and the shift of power to the consumer, with more choices and the ability to subvert traditional distribution channels in unprecedented ways.

But the number of firms who still conduct business in the traditional manner without taking the Web into consideration is amazing.

Sure, they may have shiny websites, and some provide e-mail addresses for ''feedback,'' but the majority seems to either ignore or minimize the potential benefits of customer interaction. The prevailing notion that ''customer service'' exists only to deal with defective products or unhappy customers is equally odd.

Two new books examine how discontent can often be transformed into opportunity.

Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World. Pete Blackshaw. Currency/Doubleday. 208 pages.

Blackshaw, of Nielsen Online, is kind of a guru on customer interaction and invokes a bunch of well-publicized horror stories, including blogger Jeff Jarvis' online counterattack against shoddy treatment by Dell Computer, critic Bob Garfield's similar crusade against Comcast and an AOL user who wasn't allowed to close his account despite numerous requests, so he recorded the interminable and frustrating phone conversation and posted it online. All of these episodes received considerable publicity, much to the embarrassment of the companies involved.

The resulting losses of good will and sales are impossible to quantify. (The author also recounts episodes where companies treated customers well, but those occasions, unfortunately, rarely receive much amount of publicity.)

In addition to the anecdotes, Blackshaw provides suggestions for taking a more proactive stance in dealing with unhappy customers. Given the high cost of branding, marketing and advertising, retaining customers would seem to be more cost-effective than recruiting new ones.

A Complaint is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong. Janelle Barlow, Claus Moller. Berrett-Koehler. 250 pages.

The Internet provides numerous opportunities for companies to develop closer relationships with customers. E-mail, for example is essentially free and one-on-one, even when sent out in bulk, yet few firms understand how to use this interactivity to cultivate positive relationships.

Barlow and Moller have a healthy and somewhat unusual perspective. They view complaints as gifts. Sure, it sounds goofy, but the passion evinced by unhappiness can be an entry point for further dialogue. Like Blackshaw, they recount tales of customers' bad experiences and how the companies responded. It's interesting, of course, to read about these tales of woe, but it's also instructive to see how even a hint of humanity trumps the usual corporate-speak. That's the paradox of high-tech — it allows an unprecedented level of human contact when correctly deployed. But at best, it's only an expression of genuine consideration.

It's not that surprising, though. People generally prefer to be treated well. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell observed that doctors who spend more time and were friendlier with patients were sued less frequently for malpractice than doctors who behaved in a more authoritarian and curt manner. Trust is a function of being treated like a person, which seems to also be good business.


Anonymous said...

I am a former Service Director with Citibank, and currently work for the Palm Beach County Resource Center, an economic development not for profit corporation that helps small businesses and agree that customer service is vital to the success of any business. At Citibank I generated a customer service profitability model for the bankcard division that quantified the additional revenue earned from providing excellent service. I also just wrote a book, How to Get, Keep and Be Well Paid in a Job (ISBN: 9781432725297) that is available at online bookstores stores and covers the topic of customer service (along with many other work readiness topics). The book is a great customer service (plus) training tool for employees. It covers why customer service is important, and how to perform customer service effectively. The book even covers specific customer service skills such as choosing the right words, personal signals, recognizing customer comments as questions, statements or objections, and much more.

Superb customer service is vital, but employees need to know how to deliver it effectively. Check out my book.

rap said...

Thanks, Jay!

I'm from the school of thought (and action) that says EVERYONE is responsible for customer service.

When all employees are empowered to address customers' concerns, the whole business benefits, imho, except for those who don't want to participate, and can't be bothered because it's "not their job."

Anonymous said...

All employees do have a customer service function, even if they do not deal directly with the people who buy their company's products or services. Co-workers who rely on their work are their customers.

While in a perfect world it would be nice for all employees to be able to deal directly with customers, if an employee does not possess sufficient product/policy/etc. knowledge, and does not have excellent customer service skills, they can do harm than good in some situations (for example an employee saying, "I agree the company should do that for you" in a situation where what the customer wants is against company policy).

It takes a well run company, one that values employee training and development to be in a position where it can feel comfortable empowering all its employees to handle customer issues. Customer service is a science and needs to be performed correctly to help add to the profitability of the business.

Making matters worse is that some companies have no handle on how to effectively train employees to ensure proper customer service is being delivered. How many times have you heard a statement from supposedly trained customer service rep like, "Your problem should be resolved". The word should has no business being in that sentence. That word can lead to an unpleasant interaction between the customer and employee (what do you mean should be resolved, it better be resolved) which can lead to customer dissatisfaction, bad word of mouth, and no repeat business. The sentence needs to be, "Your problem is resolved."