customer service

What to do when online reviewers throw eggs at your business

What to do when online reviewers throw eggs at your business

Social media is a double-edged sword: a great tool when it brings clients in the door but an enemy when it becomes a visible vehicle for bad reviews. Legitimate sites like Google, Yelp, Open Table and Facebook will not remove negative reviews. While there are strategies to push the bad down while elevating the good, the best approach is to use social media for the terrific customer service engine it is. 

New workers, new language

How often do you wish you had some of the advantages of a larger business or a big corporation?

A dedicated HR department, a marketing staff, IT experts at the ready? Thanks to crowdsourcing, you can. Leveraging the availability of a small army of experts around the world in every area and the technology of cloud computing, companies are bringing this expertise to bear for every small business with a laptop and an internet connection.

It's another form of outsourcing, freelancing or permalancing - the new way to work and to staff our businesses that is developing a growing following. So here are some terms to learn:

Crowdsourcing: Bringing a group of experts from all over the world together to perform a set of tasks via an internet aggregator. Some examples:
-- myGengo is a distributed network of translators. Need a white paper translated into Mandarin? Submit it to the website for an instant quote and wake up to a translated document.
-- GetSatisfaction is a customer-service platform that integrates to everything from an iphone to a company website and allows users of a product or service to provide customer support for others with questions.
-- Experts Exchange is a collective resource for technology support. You can go there to look for answers to a question or post a specific question on technologies ranging from desktop support to high-end programming. If you are a technologist, you can sign up to be an expert and have a list of open issues in your area of expertise emailed to you daily. The more you resolve, the more points you get. Points allow you to create your own "site" on the ExpertsExchange site and develop customer relationships, which in theory can translate into business.

Freelancing: The term freelancing was coined in medieval times to identify mercenaries who would sell their services to any realm. Thus they were free - lancers. The term is used widely to describe people who have solo businesses although most often to those in design and communication. The idea - and the law - behind freelancing is that the expert is free to accept or decline any position. They use their own equipment, they work on their own time, they do things their own way.

Contractors: Long-term hires, usually through an agency. Contractors are usually not entitled to benefits but may work at the company, using company equipment and interacting - even managing - company employees. Typically they are hired on a project basis for a limited term. But that term can be several years, depending on the project's completion timeline.

Permalancing: Now a new term is starting to be heard that describes a new way of working. Permalancing describes what is happening in larger companies across the country. Freelancers are being utilized to do tasks once associated with permanent staff - bookkeeping, customer service, marketing, communications, etc. In most cases, the definition of a permalancer is someone who falls somewhere between temporary employee and staffer.

The challenge is in not blurring the line that delineates the difference between freelancer and employee.

If outsourcing, permalancing and freelancing for corporations and larger businesses continues, laws may be changed to recognize that a new way to work is emerging. For companies the advantage is in a pay-as-you-go model that is even more attractive now when so many top-notch people are marketing their services. For the free- or perma-lancer, it's the opportunity to control their own work life, to do things that interest them, to fit work into their life rather than life into their work.

Is the day of the full-time employee over? Probably not, but outsourcing - not to cheap foreign labor - but to local experts who are starting small consultancies or freelance shops in your area is a new way to work and get things done. It is bubbling up and its doubtful employers will put a cap on this new type of workforce. For small businesses, it levels the playing field and increases competitiveness without having to grow payroll. The genie is out of the bottle.
Portfolio is a solution provider for small businesses offering expertise from freelance affiliates in communication, technology integration, and software/productivity training. Check us out on Facebook and Twitter or call us for a free consultation at 864-213-6314.

The S-Word

To the list of words that can be spoken only by their first letter (the F-Word and others) let's add the S-Word: Service.

Quality (the Q-Word) has been declining for the past 30 years: Workmanship is a declining art and pride in doing a good day's work has been largely replaced by either greed or complacency (depending on which end of the pay spectrum you are on).

As quality has declined so has brand loyalty. Price is the driver now. Just because I bought a Maytag washer last time doesn't mean I'll buy one again. I'll buy whatever is cheaper because I perceive them to be all basically of the same quality, same features and same expected lifespan.

With quality and customer loyalty lagging, we now spend a ton of time talking, writing and blogging about how to get customers. We are awash in advice on how to get customers: the five keys to marketing, 10 ways to use your database, 15 keys to social media marketing. In the enumeration of our efforts to find them, less time is spent thinking about how to retain them.

As a consumer of products and services, the answer is customer service - plain and simple. It seems so simple, I am always surprised by how hard it is to find and how excited you get when you do find it. On the rare occasion that a company provides me with what I consider to be outstanding personal service, I become loyal, committed and a passionate advocate. I spread the word to friends and associates, I write nice notes on my Facebook page or blog and generally do everything I can to extol the virtues of the company.

The sad thing is that today's great customer service was really just basic business practices a few decades ago. Companies have trained us to lower expectations: consider cell phones, we now consider it perfectly acceptable that you have dead spots where you phone doesn't work, can only clearly hear every third word of a conversation and that the call may be dropped at any time. That's just the price we pay for convenience. None of us is calling AT&T to complain that we have to bend over the kitchen sink to the south facing window to get enough bars to make a phone call. No. We just accept that that's the way it is.

But shouldn't we - as consumers - expect more? And as business owners, shouldn't we at least try harder to fulfill those expectations?

As a small business, we don't have a ton of money and we certainly don't have a huge staff. But here are a couple of small guidelines to better customer service that we can all follow. They won't break the bank and they will increase loyalty.

1. Be an advocate for your customer, not your company. A customer dealt with fairly and honestly, who's complaint was addressed quickly and without recriminations is worth their weight in gold to you. They will tell their friends and associates, they will be your customer for as long as they need that service and they will hold you up to others as an example. This is grass-roots, word-of-mouth marketing you can't buy.

2. If it costs more to prove you're right than it costs to fix the problem, just fix the problem. Recently, I took issue with a supplier over an order. The order cost me less than $125, so I'm assuming it cost the supplier less than $50 to produce. After a day and half of discussion, a courier pickup, and two separate employees including a senior manager explaining to me why it was "acceptable quality," I finally had to give in. Then they overnight shipped the 20lb box back to me. All in all, this company is out money AND they have aggravated me to the point of looking elsewhere for a supplier. I'm sure the company considers this a win, but by my business ROI calculator it's a definite loss. This company missed a huge chance for a big customer service win with a pretty low price point.

3. Manage expectations; fulfill commitments. What do you want from companies you deal with? For most of us, it's pretty basic - do what you say you're going to do for a fair price that we agree on. Unless you are a fast food restaurant or a hospital, your customers and clients can generally understand if you can't do something "immediately." But if you tell me you can't do it until two weeks from Friday because of previous commitments, then have it done by then. Even though this seems basic, I find a lot of companies - big and small - promise more than they can deliver because they think telling the customer what they want to hear is going to make them happy. What makes customers happy, is getting what they are promised.

4. Be honest. A customer with money to spend and who will pay those bills, is in some ways an easy mark. It is tempting to put them into things they may not really need, to create situations where your services will continue to be required for maintenance, or to recommend things for them that you know they can do themselves or obtain for free. If you've ever had the experience of a company that tells you they won't sell you something more expensive because you only need a $2 part, then you know how quickly you become a rabid fan and loyal customer. Sometimes the sale you don't make is the best advertising you can have.

This is only a 4-item list and everyone knows a list must be 3 or 5, 10 or 15. So please comment, tell us your best customer service tip. If small businesses came together and made a commitment to improving our relationships with customers, maybe we can again feel comfortable saying the S-Word out loud!

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.