Customer Service: Use your own bad experiences to sharpen your game

Outlooks from organisations such as the FSB: “business prospects for the year ahead are looking bleak”, to the CBI: “bumpy times ahead for businesses in Britain”, may well indicate that 2011’s going to be another tough year. Whatever your take on the matter, it makes sense to look at ways you can differentiate your business and improve your chances. Looking after the customers you’ve worked so hard to win over is one crucial area with plenty of potential.

For any of you that might feel a bit discouraged at another exhortation to raise the bar yet again, I have some good news – the standards out there aren’t that high. Instead of doing the usual examination of best practice, let me give you some examples I’ve observed recently of things NOT to do if you want great customer service, to stimulate improvements:

The product or service isn’t fit for purpose. I’d purchased a pair of Salomon walking boots that were definitely not made for walking! The soles completely fell apart after only 3 years’ moderate use. “Normal wear and tear” was how Salomon’s service department described them. Yet I’d bought them as walking boots – not bedroom slippers! Action: Check what your customers really want – this may have changed from when you originally designed your product or service.

The people or processes aren’t up to scratch. I wanted to transfer money from one of my NatWest accounts to a third party and used their telephone banking system, carefully giving the instructions on account number and amount. I then found that they have taken the money from a different account, causing it to go overdrawn, triggering a raft of correspondence about unarranged borrowing and fees etc. Bad enough that someone should make a mistake, but apparently having no check to prevent taking more out from an account than is available seems bizarre to me. Action: Work with your people to think through any point where things could go wrong for customers – and what to do to avoid it happening.

Customers can’t contact you easily. When I trawled the Salomon website looking for a “contact us” type page, I was amazed to find absolutely no way of getting in touch with them. It was only by seeking help from outdoor shops such as Snow+Rock that I managed to track down the one sales rep come service man – who was then only interested in trying to sell me another pair of boots rather than deal with my complaint. Action: Seek out feedback from your customers before they even think of complaining and nip any problems in the bud.

The call centre experience is truly awful. I’m sure you’ve got your own nightmares of seemingly endless and confusing lists of options to navigate through before you even get to the call centre. When trying to resolve my problem with NatWest, I was told I was being passed to the person who had investigated the original problem. After 7 minutes of waiting the call dropped into thin air and I was back to square one. When I called back I was told “You need to speak to the Lending Department”, who were of course unavailable. Action: Test out your own service lines and listen in to calls regularly to understand what’s really going on.

Over promise, under deliver.  One my first call to NatWest I was promised everything would be sorted out no problem. On the second time, that my Relationship Manager would be in touch. Neither happened. Action: Make it your policy to always do what you say you’ll do, and to ensue that your business processes can deliver. If you can’t, at least let people know!

We’re experiencing customer service – good and bad – all the time and it’s very easy to criticise poor performance. Rather than get angry or distracted by the problem cases, use them to generate tests for your own business. How does your business avoid that kind of issue? If not, how could you? Small steps of improvement day after day will give you the competitive edge and increase the robustness of your business to weather whatever may happen in 2011.


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