How to Improve Customer Service and Avoid the Hall of Shame

Delivering good customer service can be tricky for small businesses. It often takes just about everyone working full days to keep processes moving and profits coming in. So when something does go wrong, the team has to scramble to resolve the issue internally in order to right the ship, often requiring an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Which leaves the external side of things neglected.

For example, let’s say that your small business makes custom sweaters for dog owners. Customers submit a photo of their pets through your website and those photos are then printed on the front of an ultra-comfy sweater.

You reinvest your profits into a new system that allows faster photo uploads and more secure storage. Riding a wave of confidence, you also hire 3 additional employees. Things are going great for your business until one day when your system crashes. Pet photos that had already been submitted are inaccessible on the server. New customers aren’t able to submit photos.

Your team scrambles into action, trying to figure out what went wrong so that you can get things running again. As the hours pass by, all you can think about is how your expensive new system has now become your greatest liability. You’re missing out on business and if you can’t get things figured out soon, the results could be catastrophic. You might even be forced to lay off your new employees.

With all this chaos running through your head, it’s understandable if you don’t think about a customer named Debbie Hornsickle. But Debbie recently uploaded a photo of her dog, Pinkerton, for a sweater. And she’s devastated to learn that the sweater will no longer be delivered in time for Pinkerton’s birthday.

This might be a small aspect of your larger problems at the moment, but to Debbie, it’s the entire problem. And you should care about her feeling for 3 compelling reasons:

  1. She’s a good person and deserves to be taken care of
  2. She’s part of your loyal customer base
  3. She’s about to warn her entire dog club to never do business with you

So you can’t focus all your efforts on internal fixes. Let some of your employees handle the triage, while the rest serve as ambassadors for your brand. Because the “Debbies” of the world deserve a helping hand—and will repay you handsomely in the future with their business.

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Your Other Option Is the Customer Service Hall of Shame

If you decide that your business takes priority over everyone else, you’re not alone. History is full of entrepreneurs who neglected or targeted their customers in rotten ways. These people only worry about profits, rather than learning how to improve customer service and refining their customer service improvement strategies.

It’s time to take a visit to the “Customer Service Hall of Shame.” Be forewarned… these tales are not for the faint of heart. You’re going to read about unsympathetic business owners and clueless employees. There will be details that send chills down the spine of any service-valuing entrepreneur.

But it’s important to explore the “Hall of Shame” from time to time to remind yourself of who you are and how you want to run your business. And there’s no better teacher than the failings of others.

With no further ado, let’s journey into this world of apathy, anger, and deceit.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

When you’ve saved up for a custom guitar worth thousands of dollars, you understandably want it to be handled carefully. But when musician David Carroll landed in Chicago, he was dismayed to see the United Airlines baggage handlers were acting more like baggage abusers.

He brought his concerns to a customer service agent at the airport, but she brushed him off. Upon arrival at his final destination, Carroll discovered that his guitar had been badly damaged.

Carroll then spent the next 9 months trying to get the airline to pay for the repairs. All he got for his efforts were rude replies and the eventual proclamation that because he didn’t file an official complaint within 24 hours of the incident, he would get no compensation.

So the musician wrote a song called “United Breaks Guitars.” It went viral and attracted tens of millions of views on YouTube. As the awful story spread via the song, public sentiment turned against United. One analysis suggested Carroll’s song resulted in a 10% decline in the airline’s stock. If that’s true, their awful customer service cost them $180 million. Ouch!

Cello, I’d Like My Instrument to Sit With Me

Let’s look at another airline/musician collaboration that resulted in awful press. Things began going awry when Jingjing Hu was returning home from a music conference on American Airlines with her $30,000 cello. She had purchased 2 tickets for the trip: one for her and one for her cello. When booking the tickets, the American Airlines agent assured Hu that she’d have no problem bringing her instrument in the cabin for the flights.

Things had gone smoothly on the outbound flight, but on the return, flight attendants kicked Hu off the plane just before takeoff. She was already seated with her cello snuggly strapped next to her, but the attendants said the plane was too small for the instrument. Law enforcement officers were even brought on the plane to march her out in shame.

Hu was promised by United officials that she’d be allowed to board another flight leaving that same day, but that didn’t happen. She was stranded at the airport with no consolation other than to play mournful tunes on her $30,000 cello.

Hu’s husband posted about the unfolding drama on social media and the public quickly pounced on American Airlines for their terrible handling of the situation. After the story had become national news, the airlines issued a statement and admitted their blunder.

Your Delivery Charges Stink

What’s the most you’ve ever paid for shipping on an online order? Maybe $50 for expedited delivery? For one Amazon shopper, the shipping price for 3 packages of toilet paper was $7,455.

Barbara Carroll (no relation to David Carroll) ordered a big batch of toilet paper and as an Amazon Prime member accustomed to free delivery, she initially didn’t notice the ridiculous rate for the shipping. Whoops. By the time she realized she’d been grossly overcharged, the packages were already in transit.

Carroll called Amazon multiple times to request a refund. Each customer service agent expressed shock at the shipping charge but told her that because the package had been delivered on time no refund could be given (even though the excessive shipping fee was a violation of Amazon’s own policies). She was told she’d have to take it up directly with the seller.

As you might guess, any seller crooked enough to charge thousands of dollars to ship toilet paper isn’t going to be great at customer service. Carroll never got a response from them, so she took her story to a local news station. After an avalanche of bad press, Amazon finally agreed to refund the money.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, You Will Be Charged

Have you ever heard of the Union Street Guest House? It was a hotel and wedding venue in Hudson, New York. And if any guests left a negative review, the owners were aggressive as they come.

Here’s the controversial policy as it was outlined on the Union Street Guest House website:

“If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review.”

So if you found a fingernail in your soup or were disappointed by the water leak in the wedding hall, you would be wise not to try to warn anyone else about it in a Yelp review. Because the hotel owners indeed went after people to enforce the fine. That was until new outlets began exposing this abusive policy and they were forced to change course.

Doubling down on their bad behavior, however, they claimed the fine was actually a joke. But dozens of guests had been threatened with $500 fines in the past for their reviews, so their lies were obvious. Disgusted by all this dubious behavior, former guests and strangers alike left an avalanche of awful reviews that ultimately sank the hotel.

Sorry About the Tornado… Now Hand Over the Cable Boxes

After tornadoes ravaged Alabama, shell-shocked residents emerged from shelters to find their homes in ruins. Many sympathetic utility companies immediately suspended services (if your house is destroyed you obviously no longer need to cool it).

But a cable company called Charter Communications refused to let survivors off the hook. They told customers to return their cable boxes or face a hefty fine. But how do you locate your cable box after a tornado? That didn’t concern the folks from Charter Communications, who sent this message:

“If your house was destroyed, and you have looked around the neighborhood for our cable box and cannot find it, you owe us $212 and you need to either pay us or make an insurance claim on our behalf.”

Yikes. Some customers were even told if they didn’t pay the fine promptly, they’d be hit with late fees and handed over to a collection agency. The only thing that got Charter Communications to call off the dogs was the inevitable bad press that came from the incident. After numerous customers publicly complained about the mistreatment, the service provider decided to release the tornado survivors of responsibility. But the reputation damage had been done. Who would want to work with a company that bullies survivors of a natural disaster?

How to Improve Customer Service with Experiences

Customers like David Carroll, Jingjing Hu, Barbara Carroll, and others don’t want explanations when things go wrong. Sure, context is helpful. But what they’re yearning for is a customer service team that can take care of them. After all, the word “service” implies the action of a noble variety.

So if your business encounters an issue that will disrupt things for your customers, go heavy on the empathy. Look for ways to not only discuss the problem but provide positive experiences that let them know how much you value them.

Pratik Dholakiya explains the importance of this approach:

Customers value experiences. A recent report from PWC reveals that 86% of customers are willing to pay more for a brand that offers a great customer experience. Yet, another study found that customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. No wonder delivering the best experience has become the topmost priority for ecommerce stores. A great customer experience (CX) can profoundly influence your audience’s purchase behavior, improve brand reputation, and give you an edge over your competitors […] But delivering the best experience in today’s competitive market is a tricky undertaking. You may already be investing resources, but unless you measure your efforts, you will never know what satisfies or dissatisfies your customers.

If you care about your customers, you should be passionate about delivering meaningful experiences with your brand. If you only care about money, on the other hand, you should still be passionate about delivering meaningful experiences with your brand. Regardless of your motives, these experiences are the essence of success.

5 Customer Service Improvement Strategies

Your goal should be to deliver such helpful and expedient service that your customers become evangelists for your brand. It’s possible to have hundreds or even thousands of happy customers singing your praises to friends and family. Not only is this type of marketing the most effective, since it comes from such a trusted source, but it also involves no media buys or charges per click.

So if you’re having a hard time justifying the added expense of training and equipping your employees to provide stellar service, go ahead and move all the related expenses into your marketing budget.

Perhaps you feel that your business isn’t currently in a position to deliver the positive experiences that customers crave. It’s a situation where “the team is willing but the processes are weak.”

Fair enough. Exceptional customer service doesn’t just happen by accident. You’ll need to remedy the problem by adopting new strategies that will yield better results. This is especially true for ecommerce businesses, as you lack the experiences that come from face-to-face interactions.

Let’s look at 5 ways you can improve customer service and begin creating impactful experiences that get noticed.

1. Be Prompt

The longer a customer waits for a response, the lower they will rate the quality of that response. Start things off on the right foot by quickly answering the customer and demonstrating how much you value their time.

2. Deliver a Great First Impression

Your first contact with a customer sets the tone for all subsequent interactions. So if you project even a hint of annoyance or apathy, it becomes a situation where perception is reality. The customer will perceive your motivations to be negative, and whatever you do afterward will only confirm it.

You can convey a helpful attitude by focusing on tone and word choice. If it’s a phone call, start by thanking the customer for reaching out and then ask how you can be of assistance. If it’s a chat conversation, add an emoji or 2 to lighten the mood and show your friendliness.

3. Know the Subject Inside and Out

The only people who should be allowed to interact with customers are those who thoroughly understand your services or products. They should also be familiar with all current sales and promotions. It’s frustrating for customers to waste time with someone who lacks the knowledge to actually be of assistance.

Even better than merely understanding what you’re selling is to believe in it. Your best customer service representatives will always be those who take pride in the brand.

4. Listen with Purpose

There are few things in life more annoying than when you take the time to explain an issue to a customer service agent and their response makes it clear that they weren’t listening to you at all. You can use scripts and talk tracks with your teams, but make sure they make the customer’s actual words the priority.

5. Follow Through

We all want to impress our customers. But you can get into trouble if your customer service teams promise things that aren’t backed up in the real world.

This point goes back to the idea of completely understanding your product or services. Your people should also understand what your business can do to help customers. You’ll want to deliver the best possible resolution in each situation, but it’s better to do nothing than to promise the moon and fail to deliver.

Want More Tips for Building a Customer-Focused Business?

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