Customer Service: The Talking Wall

Sushrut Munje shares insights on how effective customer service means keeping the promises you make, being transparent, accountable and simply human.
courtesy: Craig Sunter

Information Age has truly seen an explosion of how-to articles and experts have sprung up for almost everything. However, an average small business still struggles with multiple things because even the ‘expertise’ focuses on the simpler aspects, and some seemingly simple aspects are left for entrepreneurs to learn by themselves. Also, we mostly assume that the basic traits of a civilized human being are naturally taught and their importance in running a business shouldn’t be stressed on. Thus we struggle on something that’s so easy, it’s hard.

Understanding Customer Service

As the man Shankman has highlighted in one of his popular blog posts, good customer service simply means meeting customer expectations. No going out of the way, no unsustainable exercises, no bending backwards – simply deliver what you have been promising. And of course, being polite doesn’t hurt either.

Thanks to the connected world – which is quite a new thing actually – organizations are expected to be human. No one buys the ‘silent wall’ anymore, we can no longer hide behind the ‘customer care’ facade. Customers understand that humans build companies, and humans are accountable for goof ups.

Customers seek honest and useful answers.

Dishonesty and shirking responsibility invites retribution, and no matter how much we hate it, we cannot blame customers using social media to shame the brand online – that’s their only weapon. We need to ensure that it is used for us, instead of suffering from it being used against us. Forget delight – even if you meet expectations, the word is going to spread. Everyone likes people who keep their word, who stand by their promises and deliver consistently. Everyone LOVES brands & companies who do that.

We Need to Talk

It all starts with the first conversation – the first ten minutes which make or break a deal. A customer seeks authenticity and empathy – someone who can understand the problem and offer a solution. The team answering calls ought to be empowered to be themselves instead of being forced into formats & templates. Humans are natural at communication, the trait ought to be encouraged. Everyone has a unique style and that aspect should be exploited. Some excel at selling through cheerful conversations, some can do it even better in half the time and a serious tone. Allowing our people to be themselves and making them talk helps.

Humans are Funny

Yes, I am a human being and I am funny too, because my thinking patterns change when I’m a part of the crowd. Grab a stranger at Times Square and ask him for directions, he’d gladly help. Talk to him as your colleague by the large office pantry, and you might not be sure of the same helpfulness. Our reactions change based on context and our role in the larger scheme of things. Put people in groups in certain departments and they would not be as helpful and naturally human as they are supposed to be.

Sadly, we cannot assume that people would be good to other human beings when they are doing a ‘job’. As a result, there is a need to ‘train’ service folks and everyone else to make them better at ‘soft skills’. Since they are being paid to do something which is not natural to them, their reactions are artificial. This needs to be done away with – because we need humans to be serving humans.

Being Transparent and How

First step is authenticity, and we can trust our people to be so once they are free of the unnecessary shackles. Second step is correct information. Our teams ought to be armed with all the information that a customer needs – and we should be the one to decide what should the customer know. This information has two categories – pleasant and unpleasant.

Arm them with information. Ask them to be transparent.

‘Pleasant’ is the good part, which reduces the customer’s hassles and is simply something that helps close a sale faster. ‘Unpleasant’ is the ugly yet the more important part – for it may ruin the experience for the customer after the sale has been made. And if this information hasn’t been shared earlier (thus setting expectations right at the start), it leads to undesirable reactions from the customer later – thus nullifying your chances of good feedback.

Being transparent and parting with all facts helps the customer be ready for what to expect, and perfect delivery would make the customer happy. For the same service, you might have an unhappy customer if expectations are set unrealistically high. It is a short sighted way of selling things.

We Need To Own the Lifecycle

All business-to-consumer companies have two critical functions: communications and operations. The first part (front end) talks to the customer and closes an order, the operations (back end) delivers. As organizations grow, the parts becomes departments in themselves with deliverables often independent of each other. As a result, the performance of the front end is based on the number of sales made. The performance of the back end is based on the efficiency of the deliveries. And that messes things up.

Service is a Ferrero Rocher – ops is hazelnut, comms is chocolate.

Their functions are heavily interdependent. It is unfair to judge the back end on efficiency when the front end controls the details of every sale being made – because ineffective communication will certainly mean an unhappy customer which the back end will have to deal with. Even for a decent service delivery, they would still have a highly displeased customer on their hands, hurting their performance rankings. The front end, on the other hand, would try to close each and every sale without being completely honest about the back end’s capability to deliver. As a result, the organization as a whole suffers, and both the departments do not really feel responsible.

Front end cannot really be a separate department, it needs to own the complete lifecycle of the customer. As a result, it ‘coats’ all customer interactions thus shielding ops from the responsibility. Everyone gets to do what they do best and it is a win win. Customer stays in touch with people who matter and who can control the delivery. They get served by folks who know their job and do not have to worry about talking their way out of things. When you do not have to cover your back side every time you work, the world is a happier place.

It is a Team Job

Something that Ron Kaufman echoes in every other post, customer service cannot happen without teams buying into the process. Managers need to talk to their teams, departments need to work hand in hand with trust, for the bigger picture and the organization. It’s easier now, because we are encouraging everyone to do what they are good at, be themselves and be helpful. Also, situations would arise where team members would need to step into each other’s shoes – and that is where this spirit helps.

Being a Talking Wall

A crucial point to note is that effective customer service neither means spending more on customer acquisition nor running to an airport with a free delivery just because a hungry customer tweeted about it. A wall does not move from its place, it stands there doing its job, with people approaching it because they need it. Be a helpful wall, point the customers in the right direction. Be a responsive wall, understand where the customers are coming from and where they seek to go. Be a responsible wall, acknowledge the fact that things have gone wrong and do your utmost to help customers out. They do not expect a super-wall to help them out, merely an empathetic one which listens, feels responsible and tries to help. And if you fake it, they will pull you down :)

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