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Customer Service Week: Here's Your Call Center This post originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of their influencer program on October 7, 2013.  To see the original post click here. As we begin Customer Service Week I want to thank all those...

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Customer Service Week: Here’s Your Call Center

Posted on : 07-10-2013 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Customer Service, Leadership

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This post originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of their influencer program on October 7, 2013.  To see the original post click here.

As we begin Customer Service Week I want to thank all those who strive to serve Customers each and every day. In my view we do not always show them the respect and gratitude they deserve every day, not just during one week out of the year. These individuals do more to contribute to your brand than any marketing message ever will. In my book @YourService I wrote extensively about their experience and how that ultimately reflects on the brand. As leaders we do not equip them with the right tools or empower them to truly help, then when things fail we do not look at ourselves but instead to these same service departments. The fact is we are the one’s to blame for not creating the right culture to ensure our Customer Service staff are successful. Your call center is not a cost center, but instead it is the hub for the ongoing, fruitful relationship with your Customer. To celebrate this week, below is anexcerpt from @YourService, published by Wiley. Parts will make you laugh, but the fact is this is the reality of most call centers. Is your Customer truly important to you?

Chapter 18: An Inside Look at a Call Center

Let’s take a visit to a call center. Some of you may work in one, others may have drifted through, but some may never have had the opportunity to experience daily life in one, although we have certainly all called one! Over the years, I have had the privilege of working in many different call centers and visiting even more. Please note that the following scenarios outlined are not specific to any call center that I have worked in or have done business with, and you will want to thoroughly investigate the ins and outs of life in your call center after reading this. It is so very important to know exactly what is going on in your call center because the impact on the Customer is enormous. This is often how your Customer sees you or hears your message. Please try to wear all hats when reading the following, especially the Customer’s hat. If your business does not have a call center, you can still think of this through the mind of your frontline employees and the Customers you serve.

Imagine that today is your first day on the job as a new Customer Service representative. You walk in and see balloons and what appears to be a happy place. You check in with HR and are brought into a classroom. As you were walking to the classroom, you thought about how thrilled you were that you found a job where you can help people. At the front of the training room stands a cheery trainer excited to have you and the rest of the new recruits onboard. Training will be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on the type of call center it is. During the training they teach you the basic technical aspects to the job: usually the system that you will utilize and the knowledge base to obtain information to answer Customer questions. Often you will not be taught exactly what to say, but you will be referred to the talking points in the knowledge base. The systems can be confusing because many companies use multiple programs. This adds to the complications of the new job because you will be expected to know how to use each one.

Nevertheless, training is always a happy time, even when you get to go out on the floor to listen to calls. They will probably sit you with the best representatives at the company. These individuals are usually very nice and they always follow the rules to the letter, at least in the eyes of their manager. During the training process, trainees split time from the classroom to on-the-job training and listening to calls. As time goes on, agents start to share the reality of working in a call center. The first thing they do is start to go over pain points that Customers have and what, if anything, can be done to counteract this. Sometimes you will learn shortcuts and workarounds that are not demonstrated during training. Finally, the conversation shifts to the different managers and their styles.

Toward the end of training, a manager comes in to go over the rules. Much time is spent on attendance and behavior policies, emphasizing how you will be fired if you do not abide by them. You are now starting to wonder if some of the representatives are thinking that the balloons decorating the call center may be more appropriate in a day care center. The manager also spends time going over how your performance will be measured and what this means to you. Typical call center metrics will be average handle time, or how long you have spent with each Customer, compliance to scripts or quality, adherence to your schedule, attendance, and finally sales. Often the expectation is that you will sell on every call, whether it is appropriate or not. You can easily spot these call centers when you are a Customer calling with a problem; before the representative addresses the reason for your call they’ll try to sell you something. This is simply the agent trying to meet the quality goals, and this is part of the checklist.

You now start to take live calls, usually with a buddy right next to you. This is when you will learn all sorts of things that weren’t covered in the training class. Calls come in and they let you go listening half-heartedly because they are just excited to be off the phone for a little while. The cube that you are sitting in is fairly close to the person next to you and the noise level is high due to all the talking. During this nesting period, all is well but it does not last long. Suddenly you hear beeps across the floor and red digital signs are blinking. You see the manager walking around yelling at everyone to get on the phones. Your buddy jumps up and says that you are on your own, as she makes her way back to her desk to take calls. The next call comes through and now you are flustered with no help. You are hitting the keyboard going through each of the systems, trying to find the right answer, but with no luck. The Customer is getting irritated at the lack of help and is sniping in your ear. You try to ask those around you, but they are busy with their own calls. Finally you get up to ask the supervisor, who snaps back that the answer is in the knowledge base. Frustrated, you go back to look again. Finally, the Customer hangs up without the right answer and another call comes through even before you are ready to start again. Now even more flustered, you struggle with the next call and they wish to escalate as the caller hears the uncertainty in your voice. You go searching the floor for your supervisor and he is nowhere to be found.

Finally, another representative whom you sat with during training offers to take the call for you. Now you have some relief. After the call has been completed, you need to go to the restroom. So you place your phone in break mode to go. When you return, your supervisor is at your desk asking where you have been. He explains that you are not scheduled for break until later in the morning and asks why you only took a handful of calls.

Certainly this has not been a good day and definitely not a great start compared to the high hopes that you had for this new job. As you get back on the phones, you get a call from a Customer whom you want to help. You understand precisely what she needs, but the call will take a while. You think, I can’t have another long call, but there is no choice. Then the Customer, who greatly appreciates how well you are listening and the understanding that you seem to have, says that she has to run but wants to call back and speak directly to you. Unfortunately, policy and the phone system that the company uses do not allow you to give the Customer your extension. During training you were told to simply tell the Customer “Everyone is able to help you just as well as I can. Just simply call back at a time that is convenient for you and they will care for you.” With this the Customer, who is now yelling, says that she has called six times and you were the first one to understand. They then hang the phone up out of frustration.

Interestingly, many call centers are designed not to have personal phone extensions. This was based on the business decision that Customers might call the same person back frequently or they might call and leave a message, but the agent might not follow up or have that extension anymore, in effect causing a worse Customer experience. There can also be a concern that the agents will take personal calls.

The next call comes through and it is regarding a policy that Customers do not like. You heard all about this during training and reviewed many calls on the topic. The answer is always the same, so you provide it. You have yet to hear a call where the Customer was thankful for the answer. You read the answer directly from the script that references this as instructed and the Customer yells in the same manner as the last caller. The company requires you to end every call the same way and ask, “Is there anything else that I can do to help you today?” In response, the Customer yells back, “You have not helped me yet, so why start now?” The phone slams down. After that call you are late for break, so you go. Upon return the supervisor is right there at your workstation again stating that you are late coming back from break. You then explain that the call lasted after the start of your break so you went as soon as you could.

Once again you are back to the phones. As the calls come in you notice that your system is running slower and slower. You help the Customers as best you can, but it is taking minutes for an account to even come up on the screen. At one point you apologize to the Customer for how slow the system is. You eventually help them out, but when you have finished, you look up and the supervisor is back at your desk. He is upset because he was listening to the call, heard internal jargon regarding the systems, and is really upset that you told the Customer how slow the system is. You ask what else could have been said during the lull while waiting for it to come up. He responds, “Anything but that” as he walks back to his desk.

As time goes on, you start to get a little more comfortable but realize there is not all that much that you can change. You stick to the procedures outlined and you do your job. You watch the clock. Eventually the mirror that they gave you during training to encourage you to smile during calls breaks but you leave it hanging on the wall. Broken tchotchkes are not an uncommon site in a call center.

Often, a career for a Customer Service agent is not as pleasant as it should be and coworkers who often want to escape the Customer surround you. At many companies, service is at a location with other business units, and you will find that employees in the other areas look down on the agents and the job as something that is clearly beneath them. This sends a message to those serving your Customers about the focus of the company. Although there are excellent supervisors and managers out there, many are burnt out and many others worked their way up in similar conditions so they are not that interested in changing them.

Defining the Customer Experience Role

Posted on : 02-10-2013 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Brands, Customer Service, Leadership

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This post originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of their influencer program on October 2, 2013.  To see the original post click here.

Customer experience is a term growing in popularity within businesses big and small. I am sure many will point to social media as the cause but the reality is we often see Customer and employee experience gain importance as we experience economic improvement. I am seeing more and more companies hiring leaders for Customer experience at a much higher level than I have seen in the past. For someone like myself these are exciting times, but set to move with the whims of the business world.

The challenge for businesses may be very different today than any other time in history. The decisions (or bets) companies make can have long term repercussions for the brand and their position in the marketplace. The challenge is those making the decisions for these roles and the strategic direction are doing so based on their own experiences or beliefs and not necessarily a holistic approach across the organization. Stated in another way, they are not viewing the brand as a Customer. The key factors that are driving the current shift are:

  • Achieving Savings with the Shift to Digital
  • Seeking Competitive Advantage
  • Being Outpaced by Competitors in Ratings
  • Increase Sales
  • Social Media and Escalation Emails Causing the CEO to Take Notice

No matter the reason, I am glad to finally see the focus by senior leadership. Out of each of the reasons the one that causes me the greatest pause is the goal of achieving savings. I do not disagree that the right digital experience will definitely reduce calls therefore reducing a huge chunk of budget, but if this is the cause do you really care about the Customer and their experience? I would further caution companies to be careful what you wish for. If you are fully successful at stopping your Customer from calling you, you may find that the opportunity to truly build the relationship will be gone. This is when people will usually mention the efficiency of Amazon and their digital experience. I agree Amazon is an amazing company. I spend a great deal of money with them, but they built trust in their experience over years. The digital experience was core to who they are as a brand. Does your brand exude that same level of trust? Amazon has proven time and time again that they understand me, and their experience fulfills that. Do you understand your Customer? I would make the case that the reason Customer experience has been so poor in the first place was due to this lack of understanding. Yes I know companies often have the data, but the reality is they look at their Customer on a macro level or the “process”, not clearly understanding who the person really is. Amazon does not make you feel that way from the contextual way they present their website, to the speed they fulfill orders and their pricing is considered fair, or often, lower than any competitor. Cost of switching from Amazon is minimal, all I would have to do is change a favorite in my browser or add a new favorite, but the reality is their experience in my view is so above any of their peers that I have no reason to look.

One of the reasons the Customer experience is broken at many companies is we have tried to force the Customer into our view instead of taking the Customer view. We create processes for everything assuming that every Customer fits that exact situation, but at least in the Customer’s mind there is plenty of gray area. This gray area, which probably would never show up in a survey, has a deep influence on the Customer’s view of the brand. As an example, I personally love how Starbucks asks for your name when you order. It tends to personalize the entire experience. It was a great process to implement, but the challenge is on the micro level when incorrect names are heard or mispronunciation happens. To some this could become insulting (Starbucks please note I am not recommending discontinuing the practice, I personally love it). I think it is important to recognize any program is not a one size fits all Customers. The challenge for Customer experience is it goes well beyond our typical silo of operations that the role is often forced into. The experience is defined every day at all levels of the organization. Your marketing defines the expectations your brand wants to put forward, your legal department outlines risks often seen by Customers (terms and conditions often define your brand to Customers), compliance, fraud, even IT have direct implications on the Customer perceptions of the brand. I can go through every piece of your company and find the link. Often I hear CEO state that Customer experience is everyone’s responsibility. I do not disagree with the statement but the reality is we all view things based on our own experiences. I doubt a lawyer would say you know Customers would love us if we got rid of the terms and conditions, so let’s do that.

I often find myself thinking about these macro vs micro experiences that brands exude. I doubt most brands even see these tiny issues that have an impact on some of the Customers. This post came about because I have been speaking a lot to many businesses about the Customer experience. I continue to find the same issues at play. We want this macro answer to this micro problem. I was speaking at a hotel recently. One I have spoken at numerous time. It is a beautiful place with world class service, but I often receive a different message while I am there. In the area where I have spoken for the past year there is a spot where their is duct tape on the ground. Each time I would see it I would think about the message this was sending how the brand does not care for themselves to fix this frayed carpet. That carpet is part of the experience, maybe not to the extent as the check in process, but the message no matter how subtle is there. Duct tape is so useful it can fix almost anything but not your Customer experience. Unfortunately because of our traditional macro view of the Customer our Customer experience today is filled with a lot of duct tape.

We are entering an age of context and it will change how we do business (to learn more about the age of context check out Shel Israel and Robert Scoble’s new book of the same name). It will require us to know the Customer like never before, and get it right. It will impact marketing to Customers shifting from hitting the masses to one of targeting the person, at the right moment. It will be a time of proactive Customer Service as opposed to the current lack of reaction that seems to take place. There will be huge pitfalls during this time as well, especially regarding the data that is available on Customers and how to best utilize that information in a way that the Customer desires, even though each Customer may have vastly different views. Keeping ahead of all this will be a challenge for all, but the Customer Experience role will help organizations lead the way!

The Customer Experience Role is to bring the Customers view, no matter how big or small, into the conversation across all silos of the business. It is not specific to a channel of communication or product line. It is this person’s role to connect the dots and ensure the brand lives up to the promise that they give to each and every Customer. This promise will vary dramatically from brand to brand and so will the challenges within the existing culture of the business. For this person to be successful, the senior most leaders must buy into the shift. Success can never be achieved if this role is silo’ed in any way, except in the way the Customer views the brand.

If your business is taking a harder look at Customer Experience, I highly recommend that you follow the Customer Service channel on LinkedIn. I also recommend following my hero in the space, Don Peppers.

Remarkable Experiences: Is Your Brand Shareworthy?

Posted on : 28-01-2013 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Business, Customer Service, Inspirational, Leadership, Personal, Social Media

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The Merriam-Webster Definition of Remarkable as
“worthy of being or likely to be noticed especially as being uncommon or extraordinary”

In 2003 Seth Godin introduced us to the Purple Cow, explaining in the future the key for brands is not striving to message the masses, but instead look to the extremes. Stated simply, we all see cows all the time and do not think to comment, but if you saw a purple cow, now that is something that is remarkable.

People are striving to get their brands noticed through all types of channels, especially social media, but in this day and age it is not as much about the content of the brand, but the willingness of regular people like you or I to discuss the brand. The challenge is most larger brands have sought to go after the mass market. Oftentimes this results in brands being average, or not very differentiated from other competitors. They are not remarkable in any way. This is why I believe larger brands will often struggle in an age where we are bombarded with messages from everywhere, and we are going to filter the message that most resonate with us. These messages are often found not from the brands, but with people we relate to and trust.

Now I would like to ask how you personally use social media? What brands do you like to discuss? For me, I like to talk about experiences that I consider amazing, or, more often than not, poor. This is why I wrote my book @YourService. For years companies have told us how great their service was, but reality proved to us differently. Now that we control the brand message, we will and have, set the record straight regarding our experiences with products, especially when that experience is at one of the extremes.

I have often said that a social world is a better fit for small and mid size businesses. This is because these businesses are often nimble and hungry to win. It is also because they tend to be the best suited for a relationship driven world, which to me is what social media is all about. This past weekend I had witnessed this in action and wanted to share the experience here. The story starts when I moved into my house a year and a half ago. At the time I knew I needed to replace the stove and ventilation system in the kitchen. I have put it off as long as I could but now it must be done. The challenge for me is the remaining appliances are not in need of replacement, in fact they look relatively new. I know in the future, I would love to upgrade all of them, but as you know that can be a costly undertaking. Over the past month I started shopping around trying to figure out what I may want and what the best long term approach was. At first I priced replacing all the appliances with what I would love to own, but that was not going to work out. I then decided I would try to find a middle ground and find something inexpensive, but something I could build on in the future. I did all my homework, even finding great prices online. In doing this, I noticed one of the appliance stores I already visited, Mrs. G’s in Lawrencville, NJ, had some floor models on clearance, which would help keep costs down yet possibly provide something worth building on in the future. I went to the store to compare the floor model item to a few other brands I was considering. When I arrived I was immediately greeted by a few people offering to point me in the right direction. The kind woman offered to set up our kids with coloring books while we looked at the items. If you have ever shopped for appliances with kids, you know exactly how pleasing this action was. She was also kind enough to help connect me with the salesman I spoke to the other day.

As my kid were coloring, and being offered cookies and candy, my wife and I looked over the appliances, hopefully narrowing our direction to one model. I mentioned to the salesman what we were considering and I asked about the floor model for the higher end brand that I saw online. Unfortunately the model we saw online was no longer available. I told him if we went that direction we would probably then buy online due to a cheaper price I found. We then went to look at the other models we were considering. As we continued to chat he understood my concern at spending too much money, especially if we decided to redo all the appliances in a few years. This was the top reason for our reluctance to buy sooner. I think we were hoping another appliance would go, forcing a decision. Anyway, he then suggested looking at a completely different type of cooktop that would be a little cheaper yet have a very nice look no matter the other appliances present. This new option turned out to be the ideal option for us. As we spoke he suggested looking at two, one of which had a floor model available at a very good rate. What a great solution to our problem. We were able to get great products but at a price that we would not be upset if we had to make changes in a few years. I am so thrilled by it.

What made this situation remarkable were a few key points:

  1. Listening – The salesperson was listening not just to the words I stated but also understanding the overall situation. This placed him in a position to point out alternatives that would meet all my needs. Listening is not about hearing words, but truly building an understanding. Unfortunately most companies say they listen but the reality is they do not understand what is being said
  2. Valuing My Time – I already spent a great deal of time on this effort and really wanted to bring it to a conclusion and this transaction was completed very quickly
  3. Winning with my Kids – My willingness to spend time on a transaction really depends on how the kids are during my time there.
  4. Culture – When I visit a store I love watching all the employees and how they interact with each other and Customers. I noticed this from the first greeting, to the leader and founder’s granddaughter, Ms Debbie, Schaeffer taking our kids to color at one of the desks, to watching the other Customer interactions and even joking among the staff. My favorite moment was when one of their support team members came to me asking if he could give the girls cookies and milk. Every person in the organization seemed to understand the new relationship world we are in.

Thank you Mrs.G’s and congratulations on your success. It is obvious to see why! This experience was remarkable to me and I look forward to continuing to build the relationship with you!  Mrs. G’s created an experience that was shareworthy.  How often does your brand?  Social media is so much more than marketing, PR or branding and now businesses are starting to understand that.  What brands have you found to be remarkable?

Now this does not mean every company should strive to use service as a way to be remarkable, in fact over on LinkedIn I posted about another brand who takes the exact opposite approach, yet they too are remarkable and shareworthy!

If You Do Not Know Me By Now…

Posted on : 05-11-2012 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Brands, Customer Service, Marketing, Social Media, Technology

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This post originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of their influencer program on November 5, 2012.  To see the original post click here.

I can’t seem to get the song ‘You Don’t Know Me By Now” out of my head lately.   I am writing this in New Jersey shortly after Hurricane Sandy caused widespread destruction and has wreaked havoc for many of the great people within the New York/New Jersey community.   I am proud to watch the community come together and bring back a sense of normalcy as quickly as possible.  I have also seen an amazing outpouring of support from many people especially via social media.  In some ways this has emphasized some of the great strengths that social media has.  The ability to connect people is amazing.

As the song goes on to say, “If you do not know me by now, you will never, never know me.”  This is so true of most companies I have seen during this crisis.  Each day I received spam emails telling me how great products were, but the reality is I do not care about your product.  I had more pressing things going on in life, such as the quest to have electric or help my fellow community members recover.  The companies already had enough information to make this judgment but oftentimes chose to ignore it because they felt their marketing information was too powerful to ignore, or they felt I would just ignore it if I were not interested.  Well I will not be ignoring it, but I will not be buying the product as well.  It was a message to me how these companies do not care about me, so I will not care about them.  Of course some companies did a better job.  Surprisingly I saw some of the best understanding from companies we often love to hate, such as banks, cable companies, and at least one utility company (there is another that I would leave on the bad list but that will be a conversation for another day).

This song has so many words that correlate to all types of relationships, especially the connection that we are seeing between businesses and Consumers in a socially connected world.  If you watch social conversations as much as I do, you have noticed that often Consumers, at times, are very negative toward brands.  Well “We’ve all got our funny moods” and this is a reflection of that.  Often this negativity is a reflection of that.  Always remember that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy.  This negativity exists because your Customers want you to see success.  The key is that they want the relationship to go both ways.  As the song says, “Just trust in me like I trust in you.”  Unfortunately this is not always part of our message to our Customer.  We like to dictate to them instead of inviting them to be a part of something special.

We often look toward social as a way to get our message out, but in reality our message is meaningless.  We send messages all the time to our Customers, and in social they can take the message to their audience.  Winning within social is simply reflecting your message through all touch points and then allowing your Customers to take that message to the broader public.  The challenge is that we have not always lived up to our end of the bargain, such as marketing messages that did not reflect the actual Customer experience.  Many companies like to say how great their Customer service is when in reality, at least when we need them, it is horrible.  Now is the time to change that.

In my book @YourService, I also talk about “Scalable Intimacy,” which in my mind is more pertinent than ever.  Throughout the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, anyone could have followed what I stated in social media, and they could have easily known what was important to me, yet no company was able to correlate that to their marketing messages.  It is really sad, especially because we have discussed the importance of listening in social for years, yet very few brands actually do it well.

So my message to businesses looking to bring social to scale, which can also be found in the song:, is as follows “Just get yourself together or might as well say goodbye.  What good is a love affair when you can’t see eye to eye.”

The Customer & Employee Renaissance Series

Posted on : 12-10-2012 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Customer Service, Inspirational, Leadership

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This post originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of their influencer program on October 2, 2012.  To see the original post click here.

The business world is changing around us in many ways, but hasn’t it always been changing and evolving?  We have just been through a time of greater focus on metrics and processes.  I refer to the era as the Jack Welch era, based on the Six Sigma evolution that has come and gone.  This focus brought greater efficiencies to business, but, as with anything, the case can be made that it was at the expense of other areas of business, such as employee turnover, innovation, or Customer experience.  Now we are entering a new phase that is being defined by a new generation of employees and Customers alike.  In some ways it is a Renaissance or a rebirth.

Times of change can be exciting to many, but very concerning to others.  We like to say change is good, but we need to face facts that change is hard on everyone, even those who may be excited by it.  As I write posts we will explore pieces of this renaissance and how it is impacting your business.  I would imagine we will have people reading the posts in various stages of the change.  Often small business owners are the first to see change in front of them and they sieze the moment to build there business.  Those of us working for larger institutions we may see the need for change, but due to the speed larger businesses move, seeing the shift is not always noticed until it is too late.  This is an era where smaller, more nimble businesses will have the chance to really excell.

Economic times always play a huge part in any revolutions, or even renaissance.  There is a reason why people look for something different, and often it is a chance to grow personally, professionally or a mix of both.  Historically in the US we have been very optimistic, and even if there were different views, we celebrated them.  As I look back I think we started to see a shift to a more divisive society from the late 1990′s and that continues through today.  The economic realities of the past 10 years have contributed to this tremendously.  In business our own artistic abilitiles were limited as we focused more and more on processes.  This also led to growing frustration with work.  At the same time technology advances changed the way we work.  Today many of us are connected day and night to our work email, expectations of our own performance has grown, especially as companies have cut back.  It sometimes feels non-stop.  

From a Customer perspective we have seen amazing amounts of change.  Shopping has shifted from smaller businesses that knew who we were and what we needed to larger stores with amazing selection.  In many ways that selection and price reduction was a huge plus, but we have all seen the drawbacks as well.  Service was not like those smaller stores.  Finding those hard to find parts by simply asking the clerk from the local hardware store was replaced with going through countless drawers in the nut and bolt aisle at the big home improvement store.  Of course this is changing again as we are now able to search the web.  Companies constantly looking to reduce costs added new technology, such as the automated voice when you call an 800 number.  Now instead of reaching someone we get to push 1 to be transferred to someone eventually after we are forced to enter all kinds of information that never seems to make it to the representative, then we have to repeat it all again.  You can also press 2 to be disconnected or 3 to reach the wrong department.  When your call finally reaches someone, they are limited to a process of a script. Of course no one provided you the other side of the script so you are at a major disadvantage. Hopefully your issue is on the script because the representative does not have access to decision makers and their abilities are confined to the process and systems they have in front of them. No deviation! When you go to the local supermarket, the checkout process has shifted from that friendly person, to either a person who is concentrated on meeting the number of items checked per hour, or worse yet, the supermarket forces the Customer to do the checkout for themselves.  Has all this new technology led to a better Customer experience?  Statistics would say it has not.  In fact many polls shows Customers feel the experience with most companies is not near an acceptable level.

I am sure if you asked a CEO, they would tell you how great their Customer and employee experience is.  We would all love to believe that, but often times our real life experience is different.  As Patricia Martin points out in the video below, a Renaissance comes about after a period of dark times.  The question is are we now in the dark times for employees or Customers?  I think it is possible, but I still have a sense of optimism and I think the best of times are in front of us.  As part of this series we are going to take a deeper look at the past, present and the future.  Together, we will start painting that future, and I expect it will be a masterpiece.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to present at TedxBroadway.  It was an amazing experience and I loved listening to all the speakers.  One of the speakers I enjoyed learning from was Patricia, and I thought this post was a great opportunity to share her perspective with you.  It was funny because Patricia and I had similar thoughts in our presentation, but prior to the conference we never had the opportunity to meet. I hope you enjoyed the post and the video!

Frank

Welcome to an @YourService World

Posted on : 12-04-2012 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Business, Customer Service, Social Media

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My book, @YourService is now available via Amazon, and coming soon to a book store near you!  The book was originally titled in my mind as Common Sense.  The reason for this is service has been in trouble for years, but, thanks to social media, the Customer is gaining even greater control over your brand image.  Now it is key for companies to deliver on their brand promise, otherwise Customers will define that promise for them.  Customer Service has struggled for years in developing their identity; oftentimes referred to as a “cost” center.  Companies had the opportunity to change this on their own, but instead the call center became the “sales” center.  Don’t you love call centers that run as sales centers?  Every time you call, instead of focusing on your needs or the reason for the call, they focus on selling some additional service.  Social media is a game changer.  Many have thought the change was too marketing or PR, but in my mind it is really a change to the overall culture of the company, and the Customer will now be first!  I hope you enjoy reading the book, and please share with others.  Together we can change the Customer Service industry and drive all businesses to focus on the relationship!

Here is a foreword from the book written by Jeff Jarvis:

I thought Frank Eliason had a terrible job: handling complaints from customers for the largest company in a much-disliked industry, Comcast.

But he did wonders. He fixed customers’ problems. He doused a bonfire set by a well-known grump (I’ll let Frank tell you about ComcastMustDie.com). But most amazing—with humor, directness, and credibility—he put a friendly, human face on a cold corporation.

He did it on Twitter. While many other companies were just discovering social media and using it mostly as a promotional platform for their institutional messages, Frank used his Twitter name, @comcastcares (picked, I’d like to think, with just a dash of irony), to talk with customers, to listen first, and to build relationships. He lived and worked the precepts taught by that seminal work of Internet culture, the “Cluetrain Manifesto,” now a decade old, which decreed that markets are conversations; conversations are held among people, not institutions; and we customers can hear the difference.

Frank brought his company back from the brink of its own Dell Hell. I should know. I’m the customer who unwittingly set loose a consumer firestorm on Dell when I complained on my blog—these were the ancient days before Twitter—about a lemony laptop. Dell at first ignored the complaints of bloggers, but after a year, when Michael Dell returned to the company’s helm, it dispatched technologists to fix grousing bloggers’ complaints. It blogged with a human voice. It set up a service, Ideastorm, to capture and implement customers’ ideas. In social customer service, Dell leapt from worst to first, setting a model for many to following, including Comcast.

Frank has since moved on, from cable to banking (or some might say, from the frying pan to the fire). And customer service as a trade is also moving on with new tools introduced regularly to help companies track and respond to complaints, sentiment, and memes about them traveling through the net at broadband speeds.

But this isn’t a craft—and Frank’s isn’t a story—of technology. It’s a story of people. It’s about returning to the days when people at companies knew customers by name and customers could name people in companies. It’s about a resurgence of accountability. It’s about the kinds of sensible, courteous, and decent suggestions Frank  give you here to build honest and productive relationships with customers.

Productive. That, I believe, is the next phase in this rapidly evolving field of social customer service: moving past complaints to collaboration, moving from putting out fires to building new products together. In my book, Public Parts, I tell the story of Local Motors, a company that collaboratively designs and builds cars. Now that might sound absurd, but it works so well that the company is not only producing cars—together with customers, making design and business decisions—but the company is also in a position to help even big car companies learn how to make customers partners.

When customers are treated with respect and given the right tools to connect with companies—with the people inside companies—then amazing things can happen. That’s really the moral of Frank’s story about his relationship with customers.

One more note: By day, I am a journalism professor at the City University of New York. As such, I will confess that I cringed when I saw Frank capitalizing the word “customer” at every reference. The copyeditor in me wanted to correct them, to make each lower case. But Frank will explain why he does this and he won me over because we are all Customers.

—Jeff Jarvis Author, Public Parts

What Messages Do You Send to Your Customers?

Posted on : 21-03-2012 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Business, Customer Service

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Business, as well as people, are constantly sending messages to others without realizing it. These subtle messages send clear information, at least in the eyes of others. For many businesses this is what defines your brand to the Customer. There are tons of examples of this in businesses large and small. That receipt checker many companies have does not send a message of security or low cost, but instead it tells every Customer that you do not trust them. Some messages can also be positive, such as the greeter that used to say hi when you entered Walmart. Often this person was older or had a handicap, but they were usually very cheery and they sent a message that Walmart was part of the community. Of course taking them away, as Walmart has done, also sends a clear message. In my upcoming book @YourService I share many observations regarding brands we all know and love (or hate). Often I do not mention the specific brand, but you may recognize them from the stories I share. One of the brands I talk about but do not disclose by name is Lowes, but after reading this post on the Consumerist and my own subtle example from this week, I decided it might be helpful for businesses to learn from them. In the Consumerist post the Customer, Paula, ordered a dishwasher from Lowes.com. As with many Internet orders, the website posts a delivery date. It turns out that the delivery date they post is not to the Customer but to the local store. Why would a Customer care about that date? They want the product in their home!

Overall I love both Home Depot and Lowes. It is this love that causes me to want to see both organizations create the right Customer experience. In general I feel Home Depot faltered under former CEO Bob Nardelli. Under his leadership the stores were not as helpful and obviously focused on costs for Home Depot instead of the Customer. Under Frank Blake, the current Home Depot CEO, they seem to be working to correct that. I will continue to watch with interest. During the Bob Nardelli time, Lowes did an excellent job at filling the gap and creating the right experience, but a few recent subtle examples, make me wonder if they are not going in the opposite direction. In the book I talk about two experiences at Lowes where I wonder if self service has gone a little too far. One example is the cashier asking me to go to the other end of the store to get a new item because the one I had did not have a UPC. Why should the Customer have to do that? Of course I did, without even questioning. In another story I talk about the store only having self checkouts open and watching an older Customer struggling to use it. Should companies force self service? It is interesting that many supermarket chains are starting to get rid of self checkouts, preferring the opportunity to interact with their Customers. I personally like self checkouts for certain items and small quantities, but there are times I would prefer a cashier.

Earlier this week I was in Lowes and once again the only lane open was self checkout. I was purchasing about 20 little bags of bolts and washers. Have you ever done this in self checkout? First to prevent a Customer from accidentally or purposely not counting items, you are not permitted to enter a quantity. So I scanned each one, but of course the scale did not know I put the item in the bag since each item weighed virtually nothing, so it kept prompting the cashier to log in. This happened more often than I can remember during one transaction. This typically would have been a quick in an out with a cashier but due to their system it was a lengthy process. The person watching over the area was great at helping but did not enter any of the items. Tiny bags with UPC codes never easily scan. While I was struggling through this process I watched people walking up with carts of doors and wood, asking the person they are with how they could do self checkout with such bulky items. I finally made it through the process and paid. One cool part about Lowes is if you are a Lowes credit card holder, you receive an automatic 5% discount. So I used my Lowes card. After swiping the card I put it back in my wallet but then their system asked me to enter the last 4 digits of the card. Do you know why that is done? I am guessing that those who created the Lowes self checkout experience do not know either. This was started years ago because unscrupulous people would change the data on the magnetic strip of cards to reflect stolen card information. In a self checkout situation if I were using a card with stolen data, I would know the right digits to enter. Overall a very silly addition to the Customer experience. If you ever want to have fun with a self checkout get a lot of tiny bags of items!

Now let’s compare this to a self checkout experience this week at Home Depot. I ran in to buy a few small thing plus while I was there I decided to but one large deck board. Since I bought more than planned, I did not have a cart. There was a small line at the regular checkout and no one at self checkout, so even with the bulky board, I went there. As I walked up, the cashier walked over to me to scan the board even before I made it to the checkout. He then went on and scanned each item that was in my hand. I put the items in a bag, swiped my Home Depot card and a receipt printed. It did not ask me to type last 4 or even sign.

The process at Home Depot made me feel like my time was valued in every aspect of the experience. It was well thought out from the wireless scanner from the cashier to not weighing items scanned by him. He never had to log into the machine I was at. I also was not forced into the self checkout area, it was my choice. I would hope that the decision not to have cashiers available at Lowes was a local management decision (although poor one) as opposed to a corporate one. Of course the poor design of the user flow is corporate, so a bean counter there may be making the decision to force self checkout too. Either way, decisions companies make like these, impact decisions Customers make on where to shop. If I ever need items that I prefer not to take through self checkout, I know where I will shop. They sent me the message loud and clear! What are subtle messages businesses send to you?

Is It Just Me?

Posted on : 23-01-2012 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Business, Customer Service, Uncategorized

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I just finished my book @YourService and it is filled with Customer Service stories. It has the good, the bad and the ugly. In my view the businesses must make a shift in the new @YourService economy. Your Customers and employees now control your brand image. Often I am struck by stupid easy things businesses could fix, yet they fail to do so. Is it just me that sees this?

As Customers, new technology has brought us greater ease, yet it has caused us to grow ever more frustrated. Case in point is my recent experience with Best Buy. Best Buy has been an interesting case study for me. Over the past few years the company has gained greater control of their market by the departure of Circuit City. I am a tech geek and have spent a lot of money with them, and most likely will continue to do so (although debating that based on my experience with Amazon). Recently Forbes had an interesting piece on ‘Why Best Buy is Going Out of Business Gradually‘. The post has many strong and truthful observations about Best Buy and ways they could improve. For a few years Best Buy has also been trying to send the message that they are working to improve, including their Twitter Twelpforce initiative, their community forum and ideation efforts, as well as their CEO blog, where he welcomes feedback. I did enjoy the CEO’s post in response to the recent discussion of the Forbes piece. The problem is it should never have taken such a long time to gain reaction from the company. No matter what words are said, actions are louder. Online feedback regarding the retailer has been negative for a number of years, and I have yet to see evidence of any changes the company has made to create the right experience. I should note that I know many people within the Best Buy social team and I adore them. The failure here is not their efforts, it is the failure of the leaders to understand their Customer. Winning in social media is not some program, it is creating the right experience for the Customer where they want to talk about your brand.

Unfortunately I want to speak about the brand in a negative manner, because that is more fitting of my recent experiences. As Consumers, I wonder if our actions have told companies that poor service is okay! I especially think that way because I tend to attract it. That is probably for a post another day. On Black Friday I was wasting time so I went window shopping at Best Buy. While I was there, a TV caught my eye and the price was great. I decided to buy it. Well after waiting really long (not in a line mind you, just one Customer was doing some odd things involving credit, which they were not approved). There were 3 associates there but no one could do anything while this situation played out. So I went online and ordered the TV from a store that was on my ride home. When I arrived I already received the email that it was ready so I went to pick it up. Amazingly there was no line late in the day for pickup so I thought I would be in and out. Well that was not the case. It took well over 40 minutes to get the item from the back. I chalked that up as my fault for shopping on Black Friday. A week later I decided to order an accessory for the TV. I did it online with store pickup. This is where I started to see the dysfunction of the company. About an hour after ordering I went to pick it up. I never received the email but in my prior experience this typically took about 30 minutes. I went to the store and the associate said there is nothing they can do until ‘they’ transmit it to us. First of all they is you and you are Best Buy. After waiting in the store for 30 more minutes, I decided to pick it up myself figuring I could easily cancel the order. Probably my mistake too. First they could not cancel the order in the store. The mysterious ‘they’ had to do it. You also are not able to do it online. Now this makes business sense, take someone who prefers to self serve and send them to a call. If you want to save money, make it easy to do things online! Calling is a trip, but needless to say, after many transfers it did not happen. I did learn that if you do not pick up the item, eventually they cancel it, so I did that. That brings me to my latest. I ordered a game system and some games for store pickup. When I received the first email it had an item with the wrong store as the pickup location. I quickly relooked at the order and for some reason the incorrect store was listed for 1 out of 7 items. Why would your online system even allow that to happen? Bad Customer experience! An easy warning asking do you want to pickup items at two locations would resolve this. Of course I still blame myself for not catching it prior to submitting the order. I do take issue with what transpired next. I called to cancel the order. When you do the only real option that fits is speak to someone, so I select that. Once you get to that point you have to describe your issue, and more importantly, the product you purchased, then you are transferred to describe it all over again. Of course you do not get to describe it when you are transferred to dead air or disconnected. After working on this for 30 minutes, I give up and head to pick up my items. I assumed the products were ready, even though the confirmation only listed two items. I luckily assumed right. While driving I called again and on the 4th attempt I was able to get the item cancelled. Why do I have to go through all that? Why, as I was getting increasingly frustrated, did no one empathetic to my frustration? I am willing to bet it happens so often that the agents simply do not care. This is all emblematic of a larger cultural issue.

As I vented this on Twitter, others came out to vent frustration, including Lon Seidman, who shared a strikingly similar post from 2009. Now I do love Best Buy and hope I start to feel the difference, but if it does not happen soon, I am afraid I will be seeking alternatives. Is it just or is service going downhill?

Is It Really the Agent’s Fault?

Posted on : 19-01-2012 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Customer Service

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As Consumers when an experience is not pleasant we like to blame someone, often times it is the agent we are dealing with. Is this right? Usually not.

I was reading a few news stories that my readers will find interesting. First was from SmartMoney regarding 10 Things You Will Not Here a Customer Service Rep Say. It is a very thorough look at the state of Customer Service. It is sad to me that we are training Customers to be loud to get proper service. Do we really think that is a good idea for our brand image? Service better get their act together if they want to win in an @YourService world.

Another article, Customer Service Needs Friendly Returns, comes from the Columbus Local News. This article takes a look at a popular topic this time of year, retail returns. Like many of us I feel the same way as the author regarding returns. Often you feel like a suspect instead of a Customer. But to me the friendliness of the representative is determined by the culture of the business they work for. Have you returned items to Target in recent years? A few years back they changed their return policy to be more stringent. Basically for most items you have 90 days and you must have a receipt. If you do not have a receipt they will try to locate it for you (of course you have to know the credit card that was used and be the one with the card). You can fully review their return policy by reviewing here and here. I have witnessed and experience with the no exceptions to the policy, including one person who was at 91 days.

Now let’s look at the return policy for a store I enjoy shopping at. Kohls, often ranked as a top Customer Service retailer, has their Hassle-Free Return Policy. One time I returned a George Foreman Grill that was used but had trouble in the first couple of months. I dreaded returning it because I lost the receipt. I walked up to the service counter prepared for a hassle and instead I was greeted with the friendliest person who said no problem, I would be happy to process that return for you. It amazes me how friendly they have been over the years. Because of this I have spent a lot of money there.

Where would you rather work? Kohl’s is constantly sending messages to the Customer and employee about trust and creating the right experience. Have you ever forgotten a coupon at Kohl’s? No problem here is one for you. I remember years ago working for a different major department store retailer the senior leadership made the decision to not honor coupons unless they brought them with them. How stupid is that to send a Customer ready to buy out of the store. These decisions impact the culture of your employees and the trust of the Customer. I am sure Target’s decision was based on tons of data collected. I am willing to bet, it is impacting their bottom line but not in the way they expected. Including less loyal Customers (I am in that boat) and employee turnover.

I agree we need friendlier returns, but it starts with having an @YourService culture.

Do You Build the Right Messages for Your Customers?

Posted on : 18-01-2012 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Brands, Business, Customer Service, Uncategorized

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I had a great experience returning an item to Lowes last week. The cashier made if fast and was very friendly. She even noticed, without me saying, the color difference which was the reason for the return. Even with that great experience I left with a different message and it is something that can help other companies too. Like many retailers, the service desk is located by the front of the store. It is fairly open area, so it is easy for Customers to see behind the counter. I am always fascinated by hand written signs behind service counters. They usually are something about the policy. In this particular location the sign was signed by the Loss Prevention department, so of course, I had to read it! I did take a picture but it was too blurry to share. Basically the message was to the service team. It was a reminder of a policy about Customer or employees trying to exit through the entrance. I immediately thought about all the times I exited through the entrance. 9 times out of 10 it was because I forgot something in the car. No the 1 out of 10 was not theft! It was because they did not have what I was looking for so I was leaving. Anyway the sign tell the service personnel if anyone tries to exit through that door, you are to immediately stop what you are doing, including helping other Customers and confront the person using the wrong exit and guide them to the other exit by the cash registers.

I should be clear that I understand the need for loss prevention, and years ago even did it. There are benefits for Customers in keeping costs low. That being said, telling a service agent to break away from the Customer they are helping to help the loss prevention team, is ridiculous. It is not the Customers fault that the loss prevention team is not able to watch the door properly. I also do not think it is a good practice to dictate what doors a Customer must use.

In this new world of @YourService it is important to know the message you are sending to your own employees and Customers. Their interactions are what define your brand. This handwritten memo is an example of this message. Have you seen message like this? As a Customer how do they make you feel?