Five keys to superior service

By Laura Haight

A happy customer may bring in more business; but an unhappy customer will most certainly drive it away. There's little disagreement about the need for better customer service, but there does seem to be a lot of discussion of how to achieve it.

My take is to be genuine and open. Here are five ways to provide top-shelf customer service.

1. Be proactive
Look beyond the obvious. People often don't really know what they need, although they think they do. So rather than take the easy way of providing exactly what the customer said and then finding that they are dissatisfied because it wasn't what they really need, try to dig a little deeper. Ask questions to find out what they are trying to accomplish and suggest alternatives.

2. Manage Expectations
It sounds so trite to "under promise and over deliver". But as much as it is said, practicing it seems much harder. The key to making this work is communication. Most people can accept changes, delays, unexpected problems, things were worse than they seemed, etc., if they a) are told what happened and b) kept apprised of new information. If a delivery date is missed and the customer doesn't hear anything, they are going to be irritated. Now, they have to take time out of a busy day to call you, maybe leaving a voice mail and waiting for a call back. If you'd called the day before and explained that a holiday backlog means the delivery will be two days later, most people would accept it without pushback.

3. Make it easy
Technology is not the enemy of good customer service. Some businesses refuse to move forward because they don't want to sacrifice personal service. But what customers truly want is accurate information, ease of use, error-free results and to spend as little time as possible worrying about getting those things. Technology that is well thought out, carefully implemented and thoroughly explained and intuitive is a welcome benefit for most customers. The major issue here is often adaptation of your employees. That should also not stop you. If technology can smooth out processes and pathways between you and your customer, it's a road you need to travel.

4. Train your staff
There's nothing worse than a customer getting conflicting signals from your company. If you've implemented new technology but your employees just shrug their shoulders when asked about it (or worse, criticize it outright), you are not putting forward a very strong image to your customer. Implementing something new: make sure everyone who will be dealing with the new technology and/or the customer is involved in the process. Training is critical and is often skimped on as a cost saver. What you spend on training is an investment that will have significant returns in time saved, better employee attitudes and improved customer service. Make sure everyone understands and can repeat the four Ws: Who is using the technology, What does it do for us, When should it be employed, Why are we using it.

5. Ooops
Despite your best efforts, you may make a mistake. Your customer may not get something they expected. It might not even be your fault. Doesn't matter. Solve the problem. There is nothing worse than the time spent trying to find out who is at fault or why something happened while the customer hangs on the line. I recently had a great customer service experience with a company called Bulb Solutions. I had ordered a DLP replacement lamp for our big TV. The lamp itself isn't cheap, but because the TV was dead in the water without it, I also ordered the very expensive 2-day-Saturday-delivery shipping option. Come Friday, UPS arrives and delivers. At first, I was thrilled since I got the bulb a day early. Until I opened the package and found ... the wrong bulb! I called the company and within a few minutes they had put in a new order to be sent to me overnight for Saturday delivery. Without my even asking, they said they would credit back the delivery charge (for both deliveries) and were sorry for the inconvenience. The next day, the right bulb arrived and within a day or two the delivery charges were removed from my credit card. Perfect. Of course, I had still benefitted from Saturday delivery and probably would not have complained about the charge so long as I still got the product when I originally expected to.

The nice thing about this example is that the person answering the phone, empowered by her company, handled the whole thing. I was never transferred or put on hold.

This works its way back to #1 - be proactive. Develop a customer service approach in your organization - whether it's internal or external - that rewards taking responsibility and proactivity. Every good customer service experience you've ever had probably involved those two elements.