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Principles of Excellent Customer Service

In an age of electronics and artificial intelligence that has so drastically changed the process of conducting business, on both a B2B and B2C basis, it is crucial not to forget the importance of excellent customer service.

I worked in retail after university, the epitome of the customer service industry, for a regional chain of shops that sold batteries and electronic gadgets. I had regular contact with customers and enjoyed solving their problems when I could. When I moved back to the Maritimes, newly trained as a graphic designer, my first job was with a different regional retailer, at their head office in the advertising department.

One of my duties was to receive and respond to customer inquiries through the new company website, which I designed and maintained. Most of them were relatively simple questions that I could deal with in a minute or two; but there was one that required more effort. The customer was interested in buying a kit for a shelf unit that was on sale in the latest flyer, but it was not available in their local branch. They asked if it was possible to bring one in.

I knew that the company had options for special orders and stock transfers, and I also knew that those options could take a while. So, I hopped on to the in-house inventory system and discovered that one of the shelf units was available in a location about half an hour from head office. I called and asked them to hold it for me, drove to the other location, asked them to do a transfer to the customer’s local store, and drove it back myself. I left it at the customer service desk of the local store with the customer’s name, returned to my desk at head office, and called the customer to let her know that the shelf unit was available for pickup.

I didn’t think much about this kind of effort. It was only an hour of my time and it allowed me to get out and solve a concrete problem for somebody. The customer was grateful and wrote a letter to the head office, which earned me a commendation and a pin that, amusingly, said only the word “Attitude.”

I no longer work in that kind of capacity, either directly with walk-up customers or through email, but of course I am a customer myself, and I notice when CSRs and other front-line people try to solve a problem. And I really notice when they don’t.

For example, I had an aggravating experience last year with the call centre for a national mail delivery service. I was tracking a parcel that had been processed in a large distribution centre on the west coast and then seemed to disappear. When the package did not appear at its expected date, I called to let them know in case they did not have any automated alerts about this sort of thing (it seemed that they did not). I waited on hold for approximately half an hour and finally spoke with a CSR. He was helpful and sympathetic and promised to call me back with an update.

I never heard from him again.

I gave it a couple days and called again, waited on hold again, explained the problem again, and this time procured a number to call the CSR back directly. There was no follow-up, and when I tried to call the CSR directly, they were not available. I asked a third CSR to escalate me to a supervisor, not because I wanted to get any of the previous CSRs in trouble, but in the hopes of them having access to more information or more options for resolution than the front-line CSRs would.

The supervisor explained that the new, state of the art sorting centre where my parcel was trapped was known to have some issues with packages getting misrouted or mishandled. He said that he would initiate the highest level of searching available, and that either he or someone from the sorting centre would call me with an update within 24 hours.

I’m sure you can guess where this is going. I never heard back from the supervisor, nor the sorting centre. I did try calling one last time a couple of days later; I asked for the supervisor I had spoken with, and he was unavailable. Another supervisor reviewed the case with me and made the same promise of a return call, and again, it never came. The package eventually did arrive, about three weeks after its intended delivery date, one day after I filed a complaint with the ombudsman for the delivery company.

So, from all of this, I have drawn the following conclusions:

  • Lead the customer exactly where they need to go. This is elementary retail wisdom that, surprisingly, is still not an automatic response in many places. If I ask where the salsa is in a large grocery store, it may be generally helpful for someone to say “Aisle 3” in response, but it is much more helpful for that person to lead me to the part of Aisle 3 with the salsa, and ask if there is anything else I need. I think that a failure to do so is a training matter. If you work at a grocery store or some other place with thousands of SKUs that might move around from time to time, you get used to where everything is and you might lose the perspective that the customer has. For those of us working in the knowledge economy, the principle still applies, and we should regularly step back and examine our documentation, websites, and other destinations through the eyes of a customer.
  • The customer does not know, nor should they have to care, about your processes. If you have technology or a policy that prevents you from solving a legitimate problem for a customer, make an exception or circumvent the broken part and fix it on your own time. Trying to explain to a customer how your system is broken does not mitigate their problem; it makes them think they should not deal with your company again. Quickly responding to and addressing their issue, in a world where it is very common not to do so, can build the kind of loyalty that businesses crave.
  • If you make a promise, keep it. Again, this seems elementary, but my own recent and long-term experience indicates otherwise. I think sometimes we break promises to customers because we want to wait and present them with a solution, and if we don’t have a solution for them yet, we don’t want to disappoint them. Most of us, in the customer’s position, would rather get an update (even if it doesn’t resolve the problem) rather than silence. In the case of a call centre, we would especially rather not have to navigate the menus and be put on hold again trying to get the update.
  • Know when to intervene with the human touch. I think sometimes it is easy for those of us who work with technology to assume that there is a way to automate the solution to everything. But no one ever remembers the times that technology quietly and efficiently solves a problem; we remember the times when an actual person went out of their way to help, not because it was cost-effective or because the customer was cranky, but because it was the right thing to do at the time. Different companies employ different strategies to find this sweet spot; whatever strategy you use, you must train and empower the human beings who are the first line of contact in problem resolution, and hold on to the ones who excel.

It feels strange to have to make this kind of plea in 2018, but perhaps it shouldn’t. As I write this, morning news anchors are chatting excitedly about home automation, digital assistants, and artificial intelligence. I understand that those things are exciting, but they don’t replace emotional intelligence. This is an important factor to remember moving forward to ensure the best customer experience possible!

Scott Marshall is part of Innovatia’s documentation team. He enjoys using his experience as a technical writer and graphic designer to simplify and improve the utility of documentation. He is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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