Customer Service Grace Under Pressure

In this video I discuss the art of delivering a positive customer experience, even when things are hectic and you have to move quickly.

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How Fast Are You?

A comment I often hear during customer service workshops is: “Customers have gotten so demanding. They expect too much!”

I respectfully disagree. I believe that customer service in general has gotten so bad that most customers expect nothing, and even a nice smile or sincere hello is a delightful surprise.

The one area in which I do agree that customer expectations have dramatically risen is in regard to speed of service. Technology has trained customers to expect things FAST. Why wait 3-4 days for a book when I can have it in 30 seconds on my Kindle? Why go to the movie rental store when I can use Netflix to stream movies right to my television? Why wait in the store checkout line when I can scan my own items and be out the door in half the time?

And if an organization is too slow, trust me, customers can easily find one that’s faster.

What the Numbers Show

A recent article in Harvard Business Review titled, “The Short Life of Online Sales Leads,” discusses the importance of speed when following up on internet-generated sales leads. According to the researchers, $22.7 billion was spent in 2009 on online advertising in the attempt to attract potential customers. The researchers audited 2,241 U.S. companies to see how well they followed up on the leads generated by the advertising. The results, as you might guess, were all over the map:

- 37% responded to the lead within one hour.
- 16% responded within 24 hours.
- 24% responded in over 24 hours.
- 23% never responded.

The average response time of all companies that responded was 42 hours.

Look at the investment in $$$ to generate business, and the lack of investment many companies make in responding to those leads. Amazing!

And here’s the point – according to the research:

“Firms that tried to contact potential customers within an hour of receiving a query were nearly seven times as likely to qualify the lead (defined as having a meaningful conversation with a key decision maker) as those that tried to contact the customer even an hour later – and more than 60 times as likely as companies that waited 24 hours or longer.”

I believe one of the best comments you can hear from a customer is, “Thanks for getting back to me so quickly!” It sounds like they appreciate your efforts. But remember, if you hadn’t gotten back to them so quickly, they likely would have moved on to a competitor with just a click of the mouse.

Something to think about: Is your speed impressing your customers or causing them to move on to other options?

Do Standards of Performance Stifle Creativity?

In one of my customer service workshops not long ago, I shared some of the practices I learned while working at Walt Disney World. A clearly agitated participant stood up during the question and answer segment. “I’m a university professor,” he announced, “and I’d NEVER encourage any of my students to work at Disney World. They turn employees into robots and stifle all creativity.” He then stood there in anticipation of my response.

Although he hadn’t really asked a question and seemed more interested in provoking, I had to admit it wasn’t the first time I had heard the comment, and it deserved a thoughtful response.

Walt Disney World does have specific rules for its cast members that are non-negotiable such as never eating or drinking while on stage, picking up trash, focusing on interacting with guests rather than chatting with coworkers, etc. Violation of these rules will likely result in some kind of coaching, and continued violation can lead to being fired. They’re not guidelines; they’re rules.

But within those rules, cast members have plenty of room for creativity and for letting their own personalities shine through. I worked at Disney World for twenty years and can assure you that there were (and are) as many personalities as there are cast members. We were empowered to add our own personal touches to how we interacted with guests. The non-negotiable was to make every guest feel special. (Within reason, of course. Making a guest feel special by offering a sip from your hip flask would certainly not be the Disney way).

Having non-negotiables is good business. Every organization has a brand image; hopefully one that is by design and not be default. Behaviors out of alignment with that image damages it, and allowing such behaviors to continue can permanently damage the image.

I’m all for creativity and stretching the boundaries, but it has to be done intelligently, not simply out of a desire to “break the rules” and demonstrate individuality. Imagine going to see the play, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the lead one evening decides to play the role as a comedian instead of as the Phantom. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t go over well with the audience, the other members of the cast, or the producers of the show. Even improv troupes, for all their creativity, have rules such as performing with a “yes, and,” approach, adding to the statements of fellow performers, not negating them, etc.

While I didn’t actually do it, I thought about asking the indignant professor about the classes he teaches. Does he have expectations for his students regarding assignments? Does he have expectations about how students are to behave in the classroom? Does he have criteria for what constitutes an A grade on an exam and what constitutes a C grade? I’m guessing the answer is yes to each of those questions, but I’m sure my professor friend would argue that none of those rules stifle creativity; they’re simply part of being a student in his classes. Ironic.

Great organizations are very clear on who they are and what the customer experience is supposed to be. Great organizations also make sure that they encourage employees to think and to be creative, while expecting  employees to use their creativity to enhance the brand image, not detract from it.

There is nothing wrong with having clear, non-negotiable expectations for employees. It’s simply good business.

Something to think about: Are your organization’s service non-negotiables truly non-negotiable, or are they more like “suggestions”?

Make the Most of a Customer Conflict

I’m not what you’d call a confrontational person. I don’t enjoy being involved in conflict, and I get uncomfortable when I see or hear others in conflict. I’m not sure why, it’s just the way I am.

But I also know that some of life’s best learnings can come as a result of conflict or disagreement. If the conflict ultimately raises our awareness and helps us (and others) to grow, while we might not like it at the time, some good has come out of the conflict.

Customers and Conflict

No organization is going to make every customer happy every time. Making every customer happy every time is a noble goal, but it’s not going to happen. Mistakes will be made, misunderstandings will occur, promises will be broken, and conflict will result.

I’ve written a few posts that relate to the topic of conflict, and how to handle it:

What to Do When Your Company Screws Up

When the Customer is Wrong

Diffuse First, Educate Second

Training employees on how to deal with conflict is vital. Effectively handling a frustrated customer’s problem can result in the customer feeling even more loyal to the organization.

Using Conflict to Become Better

All of this is great, but how can the organization become better because of the conflict? What can be learned, shared, improved so the likelihood of the problem happening again can be minimized or even eliminated? Or at a minimum, what can be learned about handling the problem when it does occur?

Here are a few approaches you can take to benefit from conflict:

  • As a regular part of team meetings, have at least one employee share a challenging situation he or she faced during the last week, and open it up for dialog about approaches to handling the problem. If appropriate for the situation, discuss process improvements that might help avoid the problem in the future.Do the same with management meetings. Encourage leaders to share challenging situations employees have experienced with customers – you’ll be amazed by the similarities of problems discussed. Use these discussions to identify organizational improvements.
  • Use your employee newsletter as well as other communication tools to discuss a conflict situation (perhaps generalizing it to protect those involved), and to offer suggestions for handling such situations as well as resources employees can access if they run into the same problem.
  • Create an intranet location where employees can discuss processes or procedures that frustrate customers. Leaders can review the forum for themes (and there will be themes) and use the information for process improvements, training opportunities, etc.

Since customer conflicts will happen no matter how good your organization is, why not put them to use? A good conflict is a terrible thing to waste. And it is wasted if nothing is learned or improved as a result of it.

Some customer conflicts, of course, will have no long-term solution or process improvement. Sometimes the only benefit is learning how to stay cool under pressure. But many conflicts or challenges can be an organization’s best friends when they result in long-term improvements to the customer experience.

Something to think about: Does your organization or department focus on turning conflict into improvement?

Will the Timing Ever Be Right?

Most of us have had an idea for a project that we’re passionate about, only to be met with resistance in the form of, “The timing isn’t right.” The timing excuse might have to do with the economic situation, the labor market, competition, global warming, etc. The list of possible excuses goes on and on.

We’re usually told to be patient, the time will soon be right and then the project can go forward at full speed. The right time, of course, never arrives and the project, which might have made a positive difference in the organization, begins to fade and eventually disappears completely. How many great ideas end up on the scrap heap because “the timing wasn’t right”?

When my wife Debbie and I thought about starting a family, we worried about the timing. Our main concern was: can we afford kids? We knew we wanted children, but wouldn’t it be smart to wait until our financial situation was better? A wise friend offered wise advice – “If you wait until you can afford ‘em, you’ll never have ‘em.”

Well, our two boys, Danny and David, are now 25 and 20 years old, and although we certainly had our financial challenges along the way, they have brought so much joy into our lives, we can’t imagine what life would be like without them.

Timing and Customer Service Improvement

When I work with clients on a customer service initiative, I can always count on the “timing isn’t right” argument to appear at some point. I’m not frustrated by it anymore because I know it’s a natural fear. And, in fact, the timing probably is not right for starting the initiative. Other issues or challenges exist that could (and some would argue should) be taken care of first.

But the timing will NEVER be right. Competing challenges and projects will ALWAYS be there. And if those competing issues block the start of a service improvement effort today, trust me; there’ll be others to block the project next week, next month, next year.

Is there anything more important to your organization’s future than the quality of the relationships with customers? Nothing should stand in the way of at least taking baby steps in improving the customer experience. Paraphrasing the advice Debbie and I received about having children: “If you can’t take the time to delight your customers today, you probably won’t have ‘em tomorrow.”

Something to think about: In your organization, what excuses are standing in the way of improving the customer experience?