Good cus­tomer ser­vice can go a long way

Lead­ing com­pa­nies show how to get ex­pe­ri­ence right

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - MEDIA& MARKETING - CARO­LINE BAUM

WASH­ING­TON: Any­one who has sur­vived a marathon phone ses­sion with an in­ter­net ser­vice provider knows the frus­tra­tion, not to men­tion the el­e­vated stress, as­so­ci­ated with to­day’s au­to­mated world.

In many cases, cus­tomer ser­vice has been sup­planted by do-it-your­self phone menus and web­sites. In some cases, do- it- your­self beats do­ing it with a real per­son.

What got me think­ing about the value of good cus­tomer ser­vice was a re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence with bad – make that aw­ful – phone sup­port. It doesn’t seem as if it should be all that hard to do right.

Surely cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives weigh the costs and ben­e­fits of hav­ing an ad­e­quate staff of well-trained rep­re­sen­ta­tives to field cus­tomer calls and pro­vide so­lu­tions on a timely ba­sis.

Mar­ket re­search con­firms that a happy cus­tomer tends to be a cus­tomer for life. Bad ser­vice, on the other hand, costs the com­pany in lost sales. And cus­tomers are much more likely to tell friends about their neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences than their pos­i­tive ones.

I started my quest by call­ing a few com­pa­nies that pro­vided ex­cep­tional cus­tomer ser­vice for me in the last few months.

I also spoke with South­west Air­lines, based on the rec­om­men­da­tions of friends who swear by it.

I’ve tried to dis­till the mes­sage I got from th­ese com­pa­nies into some im­por­tant con­cepts.

● Cus­tomer ser­vice is mar­ket­ing: sur­veys sug­gest that cus­tomer ser­vice has a large and long-last­ing im­pact on the buy­ing be­hav­iour of cus­tomers.

“It’s the phi­los­o­phy: above all, you need to get it right with the cus­tomer, or make it right,” said Bob Maresca, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive at au­dio sys­tems man­u­fac­turer Bose.

● The price of loy­alty: at We­ber, man­u­fac­turer of braai grills, they call it the “loy­alty loop,” said chief ex­ec­u­tive Tom Koos. It all starts with a great prod­uct, easy as­sem­bly and a great cook­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

I’m in the loop, as they say. Last sum­mer, I called We­ber to get a re­place­ment part for my gas grill and ended up with the part plus in­struc­tions for cook­ing a tur­key on a gas grill.

Koos said busi­ness schools teach the four Ps of mar­ket­ing: prod­uct, price, place and pro­mo­tion. But they “miss the fifth ‘P’: pos­i­tive word of mouth.” At We­ber, 60 cus­tomer-sup­port rep­re­sen­ta­tives take 500 000 calls a year.

“No­body else talks to cus­tomers,” he says. No­body has to.

● Who we are is what we do: that might not be good ad­vice for some­one search­ing for his iden­tity, but it sure fits South­west Air­lines. Cus­tomer ser­vice “is part of our core be­ing,” said Teresa Laraba, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent for cus­tomer ser­vices.

Ever since South­west started 42 years ago, the goal has al­ways been “to bring cus­tomer ser­vice back to the skies”.

New can­di­dates in­ter­view with re­cruiters and then with em­ploy­ees who are do­ing the spe­cific job.

“We want em­ploy­ees to be in­vested in some­one who’s go­ing to share that job,” she said.

South­west’s poli­cies are an added perk. Even cus­tomers who pur­chase tick­ets with the most re­stric­tive fares can re-use the ticket as long as they can­cel be­fore the flight. (See No 2 above.) No won­der South­west ranks near the top – sec­ond be­hind JetBlue – among US low-cost car­ri­ers in cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion sur­veys.

● The time value of money, or the value of our time: con­sumers may com­par­i­son-shop for the best deal on a com­puter or flat-screen TV, but if they’re like me, they will gladly pay up for ser­vice.

We hate be­ing trapped in au­to­mated-phone menus and wait­ing on hold for a real per­son to an­swer. We hate be­ing dis­con­nected. We hate the do-not-call(back) pol­icy many com­pa­nies seem to favour. And a cus­tomer-sup­port agent knowl­edge­able enough to solve the prob­lem is key. Fix­ing any or all of th­ese prob­lems would win our hearts and minds.

Ama­ re­cently in­tro­duced a May­day but­ton on its Kin­dle Fire HDX tablet. Press the but­ton, and in 15 sec­onds or less you are con­nected to an Ama­zon ex­pert who is avail- able 24/7, 365 days a year.

“Ama­zon’s goal is to be Earth’s most cus­tomer-cen­tric com­pany,” Kelly Cheesman, a com­pany spokes­woman, told me. I think chief ex­ec­u­tive Jeff Be­zos has suc­ceeded. I am a de­voted Ama­zon Prime cus­tomer.

And I just re­alised that in all this time, I have never had rea­son to con­tact a real per­son at Ama­zon. Now that’s the def­i­ni­tion of good cus­tomer ser­vice. – Wash­ing­ton Post

● Baum is au­thor of Just What I Said

THE WAY: A call cen­tre op­er­a­tor is trained in the finer points of cus­tomer ser­vice.


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