Archive for the ‘Customer Service’ Category


Anticipatory Customer Service In Action

7-02 training wheels smallWhat I call “anticipatory customer service” is the fastest, most direct way to create customer loyalty. The power of anticipatory customer service, of serving customer wishes that they haven’t even yet articulated, that they don’t even yet know they have, is this: While customer loyalty can be built through repeated iterations of merely satisfactory service, that’s a dangerous way to build a business. Every time someone has a satisfactory (but not extraordinary) experience at your property, it’s fine, and far preferable to that experience being unsatisfactory. But satisfactory service isn’t enough to draw you into a category where you’re not at the mercy of someone switching to get points from another brand, or because–when booking a return trip– they notice another hotel with a tripadvisor rating that’s .01 percent higher than yours in the same town and they’ve forgotten why (actually they haven’t been given a “why”) to return to you over checking out that other property. You’re in the dangerous, deadly realm of “who cares,” in other words.

What anticipatory customer service looks like

Tonya is a house attendant at The Inn At Palmetto Bluff, a strikingly picturesque inn-and-cottage institution nestled among ancient, Spanish moss-draped live oaks along the May River thirty minutes from Savannah.

What’s a house attendant? It’s the hospitality position that used to be called a “houseman”: part of the housekeeping team, with duties that include ensuring housekeepers are stocked with towels and waters, helping them to flip mattresses and the like, as well as helping with the cleaning itself. House Attendant is an essential position in hospitality, but one that is invisible to guests under normal circumstances and, like other housekeeping positions, at the low end of the hospitality org chart.

(Although intelligent hoteliers understand that housekeeping is the most essential department in a hotel—as Diana Oreck from The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center pithily puts it, “if the housekeepers didn’t come to work tomorrow we’d have to shutter our hotels,”—housekeepers, due to low socioeconomic status and the challenge of meeting with/socializing with the rest of the hospitality staff when you’re in a position that is as mobile and labor intensive as housekeeping, can get the short end of the respect stick in many hotels.)

Tonya pulled up outside our rooms in her golf cart–a necessity on the sprawling Palmetto Bluff campus–bringing supplies such as bottled water, towels and sheets to the housekeepers working inside. On her way in she greeted us cheerfully. (The three of us–my young son and his youngish parents–were out front of the cottage getting my son seated on one of the bikes The Inn provides to guests.) A minute or two later, on her way back out, Tonya again looked our way, took in that we were still more or less in the same positions where she’d left us, having not made any progress down the road as my son teetered atop a bike he clearly wasn’t ready to handle.

After Tonya [whose last name I’ve redacted, by the way, at her manager’s request] took in the details of the scene in front of her, she announced, “Your boy needs a bike with wheels,” by which she meant “training wheels.” “I’ll be back in five minutes.”

When she returned (in four minutes) with the newly equipped bike, she also brought Angella, a manager from Palmetto Bluff’s recreation department, with her to ensure our son was properly fitted and instructed in how to get off to a successful start with the new training wheel-equipped bike. (Tonya also brought a helmet, which showed further mind reading on her part, as we’re the kind of parents who would make our kids wear helmets even in the back seat of the car if we could.)

Her observation and anticipatory action that morning transformed the rest of our stay at Palmetto Bluff. Our son, on his now-appropriately equipped bicycle (more a quadricycle, I suppose), could range all over the gorgeous trails of Palmetto Bluff from that point forward. It was, if not life-changing, at least vacation-changing.

What Tonya did wasn’t just making an extra effort. It was making the right extra effort. Contrast how appropriate and on-point she was compared to the restaurant that messes up your check and then tries to give you a free dessert in compensation–the last thing you have time for at that point, after the 8 minutes it took to get your bill adjusted. Or the young lady at the Panera register who I just saw offer a roll “for just an additional 25 cents” to the gentleman who had just asked for no croutons in his Caesar salad. Or the hotel where five or six employees in succession ask you “how was your trip in today?” because they’ve all been told to ask that by a management that hasn’t calculated how grating that sounds after the third identical query.

Assistance like Tonya gave us didn’t cost her company anything, directly.  What this kind of service does cost is proper hiring, proper training, and proper reinforcement. When Tonya was hired (or, the term I prefer, “selected”) to work at Palmetto Bluff, she was selected not for her water-carrying, towel schlepping abilities, but for what is inside her: her natural affinity for people and for service.

Then she was trained, including a two-day onboarding with Palmetto Bluff’s current management company, Montage Resorts, that they call “morés,” which goes far beyond teaching brand standards like “answer the phone within three rings” to encompass how a talented employee like Tonya can make use of her innate empathy: to combine it with her senses, including her peripheral vision, to ensure she is picking up on issues and opportunities that are meaningful to her guests.

Finally, she is celebrated for it, and held up as an example to her co-workers of how things should be done. When I recounted to David Smiley, Director of Guest Services at Palmetto Bluff, the full Tonya saga, he reported back to me later the same day that he had set Tonya’s accomplishment to be the centerpiece of Housekeeping’s “lineup” the next morning: a celebration of Tonya’s work and a teachable moment for her co-workers.


To Fix Your Service, Fix Your Systems

Man working with electrial componentsLet’s imagine you own a body shop.  Some of your customers start reporting (in person if you’re lucky; on Yelp if you’re not) an unsatisfactory customer interaction with one of your cashiers.  Your first impulse is to bite the young lady’s head off, but I hope you’ll hold that impulse in check and look at the situation dispassionately.  You may see something like the following:  your cashier’s disorganized, doesn’t have proper change, doesn’t have her computer turned on at the beginning of her shift–in time to serve you, the first customer who walks up to her–and can’t find a pen for you to sign the credit card slip.

What you’ll discover, in other words, is a failure of systems.  Including some or all of the following:

• Onboarding: why wasn’t she prepped on what the necessary supplies are for starting a shift?

• Training: has she been instructed in one of the workplace organization systems, perhaps 5S, which is a component of Lean Manufacturing methodology?

• Scheduling:  Was she told to show up at the minute the body shop opens rather than a more realistic 30 minutes earlier so she could both mentally and physically prepare, get her terminal switched on, get her bank ready to make change, and so forth?

• Hiring. Saying that there was a failure in hiring is sort of like saying it’s the employee’s (cashier’s) fault, but not really.  If she is wrong for this position–too shy, not detail-oriented enough, etc.–it’s not her fault, it’s the fault of the system (or hunch, in far too many companies) that is responsible for selecting her, in error, for this position.

So, when the customer service at your business goes bad, it’s almost certainly because one or more of your customer service systems are broken. (As the founder of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has often said, if something goes wrong once, it might be the fault of the employee.  If it happens twice, it’s definitely the system.) And that’s what’s most important to understand about customer service systems: Gaps in organizational performance are almost always the result of a breakdown or lack of an appropriate Service System.

In my cashier example, it’s clear that a system needs to be developed to ensure that all supplies are stocked before each shift. This could be in the form of a small checklist or a job description that clearly defines the role of each employee. However the organization chooses to deal with the situation is fine – as long as it solves the problem for good. The absolute wrong thing to do is to yell at the cashier for not stocking the items. Not only is this demoralizing for a good employee who is trying her best, but it also doesn’t solve the problem systematically–in other words, in a sustainable manner.

So, how do you discover the systems that are missing or mis-designed? There are systems for that, but it is first and foremost dependent on building a culture where mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities, and guest complaints as opportunities for improvement. Turning every issue that comes up into a witch hunt will make your service team timid to the extent that they’re more focused on covering their, uh, assets than on providing service. You need your employees to tell you when they’ve made a mistake – so that it can be fixed in the future–systematically.


Lifetime Network Value: Even More Important Than Lifetime Customer Value

Roundabout traffic signTaking the time to calculate the lifetime value of a single customer can be a powerful motivator to treat your customers right: Once a company realizes how enormous the value of a single customer can be over her lifetime, it provides a great encouragement to stop nickel and diming your customers, to stop arguing over responsibility for a FedEx upgrade, and so forth.

But there has been understandable concern among businesses about brand fickleness in today’s–and tomorrow’s– generations of customers.  The ability of customers to switch providers at the click of a mouse, as well as the surfeit of acceptable providers in many consumer and B2B categories, is troubling and has created a competitive landscape in which our existing lifetime customer value calculations may no longer valid.

However, this required recalculation isn’t exactly bad news. The occasional straying of customers today due to the ease of switching masks a more important positive change in today’s landscape: the extent to which social media and Internet reviews have amplified the reach of every customer’s word-of-mouth.

Never before have customers enjoyed such powerful platforms to share and broadcast their opinions of products and services. This is true today of every generation—millennials, Gen X’ers, Boomers, and even some Silent Generation customers share on Facebook and post reviews on TripAdvisor and Amazon. (Millennials, thanks to their lifetime of technology use and their growing buying power, are likely to make especially active spokes-customers. Boston Consulting Group, with grand understatement, says that “the vast majority” of millennials report socially sharing and promoting their brand preferences.)

Customers today are talking about your business when they’re considering making a purchase, awaiting assistance, trying something on, paying for it and when they get home. If, for example, you own a restaurant, the value of a single guest today goes further than the amount of the check.

The added value comes from a process that the great Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor of the double five-diamond Inn At Little Washington, calls competitive dining: “comparing and rating dishes, photographing everything they eat, and tweeting and emailing the details of all their dining adventures.”

By doing so, they’ve greatly increased what I call their Lifetime Customer Network Value. And this makes them at least as valued as any customers in the past–even if they have wandering eyes and wallets to an extent not expected of previous generations of customers.

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It’s easy to underestimate the commercial power that today’s customers have, particularly when the network value of the youngest of these customers doesn’t immediately translate into sales. Be careful not to sell their potential short and let that assumption drive you headlong into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Remember that younger customers are experimenting right now as they begin to form preferences they may keep for a lifetime. A little love lavished on these customers now will likely be repaid in spades in the future.


Take Ownership of Errors — Even When Customers Make Them

Posted on by Carol Roth

Young businessman scratching his head confusedly.

Young businessman scratching his head confusedly.

The customer is always right … well, maybe much of the time. But when they place an erroneous order or even break a product out of carelessness, it can cost you big time. It’s not always fair, but if you want to retain your customers, you may have to suck it up.

Regardless of who is at fault, it is your job to fix the problem without laying blame. Your goal is to make the customer happy by resolving the problem — and taking measures to ensure that it never happens again.

Strike a Deal Rather Than Laying Blame

Small businesses cannot typically afford to spend time, resources and money fixing major customer-caused errors for free. But, you can often take advantage of the personal relationship that you have with customers to negotiate a mutually-beneficial solution.

Your job is to strike a deal that gets them what they need, but you may not need to take a huge loss to do it. For example, what if the customer provided the wrong specs for a customized product? If you charged $50 per hour for the original software development, maybe charging $25 for the fixes will cover your costs.

Make sure that your customers know that they are getting a special deal in these cases, but don’t use the word, “compromise,” and don’t come right out and say that you’re taking a loss. Your spirit of cooperation will increase their loyalty, even while they foot part of the bill.

Fix it Promptly — and Stay in Touch

Even clients who are fully at-fault for errors should not jump to the back of the line to get them fixed. If the fix is as simple as exchanging one product for another, take care of it immediately.

Unfortunately, not all problems can be resolved instantaneously through a simple product exchange. Depending on the issues, a fix might take a prolonged period —which might be the case if you have to re-tool to produce the custom-sized widgets that the customer did not originally request.

Even in these cases, you can communicate promptly. Tell customers when they can expect to receive the new products or services. Make sure that they know your plans and, for complex issues, set milestone dates. Then, be sure to check in promptly to inform them of your progress.

Learn How to Do It Better Next Time

Every customer error presents a golden learning opportunity for your business. You just have to be willing to recognize that a change in your process might prevent customers from making the same mistakes again.

Could you prevent future issues by carefully reviewing an order with the customer before making it final? Or perhaps the customer who ordered sauerbraten at your restaurant might not have placed that order if the server warned her that she was ordering sour meat.

You cannot control customer behavior. But, if you keep your mind open, you will see that you do have some control. So, whether you prevent issues by better educating customers, or you double and triple check custom orders before doing the setup, you can go a long way toward vastly improving your customer/vendor experience in the future.

Know When and How to Walk Away

Mistakes happen and everyone deserves a second (or maybe even a third) chance. But you can’t afford continued losses from the same customer forever, so learn when to say “no” to their business.

Your bottom line probably plays the biggest role in helping you decide when to turn down business, but other issues can come into play. Perhaps you realize that the customer is looking for a product or service that you cannot deliver. Or, maybe you cannot come to a meeting of the minds when it comes to price or quality.

Even if you are dealing with a toxic customer that isn’t worth your time or effort, do not walk away in anger. Turning down business is a part of customer service, too. Handled badly, you will gain the wrong kind of fame via vitriolic social media complaints. Handled with sensitivity, you can part company as friends who agree to disagree. 


Why your Business Loses Customer Focus as it Grows & How to Recapture It

5-15 lose focus smallThe attention lavished on customers in the early days of a business tends to slide when your, oh, five initial customers became 50, and a thousand, and ten thousand. Back in those exciting, if stressful, early days, the level of detail you kept on each customer and prospective customer, the number of times you followed up, and the care with which you did so, were no doubt impressive. These were big-ticket customers to you when you were just starting out; each of these customers was absolutely crucial to the survival and ultimate success of business.

But now that you’ve grown, you stop signing your notes by hand. You stop writing “thank you” on the invoices. You get rid of Jackie and Joanne, your quirkily charismatic receptionists, and switch to an auto-attendant to answer incoming calls.

This loss of focus doesn’t happen on its own, or overnight. At every step of this downward journey, there are defining moments, the moments when you answer, one way or the other, questions like: Do we really want to stop including a postpaid return envelope with our invoices? Should we just let it slide when a new employee is sneaking texts in on the job, in sight of customers, where in the past we would have been sure to gently and quickly correct such behavior?

These moments represent your chance to prevent, or slow, the blurring of your initial customer focus, but only if, in every single case, you answer the relaxing of standards with the following retort: “If we would do it for our first customer, we’ll do it for our 10,000th.

The secret, in other words, is to never stop believing in the importance of every single customer.  Never start believing – as cell phone providers and so many companies in so many other industries have – that there is an infinite cohort of customers out there for the taking, if only our marketing and sales get the promotions and discounts out there far and wide.

Tell yourselves instead that there’s just one customer, the one you’re facing. The one you need to follow up with, to make sure her problem was successfully resolved.

There’s only customer Jim. One Margo. One Alecia. Which means that even after you have thousands of customers, you need to do everything you can to maintain the mindset that every one of them is a core customer—and to treat the loss of a single customer as a tragedy.

Here’s why: Because every single customer is irreplaceable. Regardless of the size of your market segment, once you start writing off customers, I can predict the day in the future (and it’s probably not far into the future) when you’ll be out of business. And this is a calamity to be avoided.

Let your competitors keep thinking of customers as an abstraction, as an infinite plurality. You need to think of them, and serve them, in the specificity of their individuality, their Jim-ishness, Margo-ishness, and Alecia-ishness. Jim, who likes his service languid with plenty of time to consider his options. Margo who is always in a hurry, and doesn’t care to hear how your day was. And poor Alecia, whose cat is at the vet, and isn’t in the mood for your Pollyanna ponderings.

Every customer’s different from the next one — Jim from Margo, Margo from Alecia, and Alecia from Jim. Some will be easier to serve, and some harder.  And some are easier to serve sometimes and less so at others.  But each of them is precious. Recapture this attitude. Stop thinking “good enough” is o.k. Stop thinking your early reputation (built on those moments when you were treating every customer as precious) can pull you through your current slackness. It won’t. Only your redoubled attention to superior service can do that.


I Wouldn’t Serve You (Like This) If You Were the Last Customer on Earth

5-7 Last customer on earth smallAdvocating and helping your employees sustain a “treat each customer like the last customer on earth” attitude is one of the most important leadership responsibilities you have in your company, one of your key weapons against losing customers through employee and organizational neglect. When you treat each customer as if she’s the last remaining customer on the planet–the customer on whom the very existence of your business depends–things start to change in your perception, and, almost simultaneously, in the results you get from your customer relationships: Every customer request is an opportunity, not an imposition. Everything about your customer is worth learning, and remembering, in order to help you serve this last remaining customer better. Every opportunity to connect with, assist, serve, and ultimately sell (and re-sell) your last remaining customer is one you’ll want to maximize.

Here’s an exercise to start your employees off in this new mindset: to help them habituate to thinking about each customer as a singular, irreplaceable entity. Ask a group of your employees to imaging the following customers, Mrs. Jones, Jane Anderson, Raymond Washington and Jeanine Chamberlain, all in a line waiting to be served.  (Use actual customer names in this training exercise.) Confer with your employees on how it feels to think about customers in this context. Your employees will probably be affected by picturing them en masse, waiting in line for service; it will up their internal pressure to rush these customers through the system, to minimize the personalization offered, to minimize the service enhancements offered, rush through or even eliminate the greeting and the goodbye they offer to each.

Second, encourage your employees to think about Mrs. Jones all by herself.  This feels different, doesn’t it? Your employees’ thoughts linger on what they know about Mrs. Jones as a person, and as a customer, as well as on the cues they can pick up on from her demeanor today.  They’ll be able to think about ways they can personalize their greeting and their good-bye for her, and about upsells that might be appropriate to offer Mrs. Jones.  All in all, there’s a lot that employees were leaving out when they thought of customers only in the plural, wasn’t there?

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Now, I need to concede right here that delivering this level of service to Mrs. Jones without inconveniencing the rest of your customers can be a significant challenge, involving investments in training, processes, and technology. In fact, you will not–I repeat: not–be able to execute a “last customer on the earth” approach to your satisfaction all of the time.

But if you don’t start with, strive for, this last customer on earth approach, you’ll end up compromising on the service you provide and not even realize that you’re making compromises in your service standards. By contrast, if you set out explicitly to play the “last customer on earth” way, every time you are forced to compromise your service ideal–due to limitations of time, staffing, technology, or other resources–you’ll acutely feel the discrepancy. You’ll know that you’re not living up to your ideal. And you will be motivated to work on the staffing, systems, technology, and processes that can bring you closer to the ideal.


Scenography: A Ritz-Carlton Secret For Creating A Magical Customer Experience

A frustration I have as a customer service consultant is the difficulty of convincing business leaders I work with to think in a less transactional, less fractured manner about the customer experience, to correct their misconception that improving independent pieces of the customer experience in isolation is sufficient, as if customers will logically tally up every aspect of working with their company and then dispassionately rate it.

This, of course, isn’t how the customer mind–the human mind–operates. Instead, a customer either decides that she enjoys being your customer or decides that she doesn’t. Your challenge in business, therefore, is to create this state of enjoyment for your customers: to envision what pleasure looks like for your customer and then­–and only then–get to work on the individual pieces that will make up this whole.

One approach I’ve had success with in getting this through the heads of leaders is to ask them to think of directing a movie with their customer as the star.  Once you decide to direct such a movie, and to put the customer (rather than your business, its processes, its internal org chart) in the starring role, we can get to work creating a tremendous customer experience.

Scenography at the Ritz-Carlton

There’s nothing more potentially interchangeable than a hotel room. Rectangular, built to particular safety standards, available at a particular price point.  What infuses a hotel room, and the surrounding property, with life is the experience of the guests within it.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company works every day to escape the commodity rut by taking the idea of moviemaking seriously, to the point of set design, music, lighting, and the rest. In Ritz-Carlton lingo, their approach is called “scenography.”

What “scenography” consists of is a little bit soft-focus, gauzy, hard to pin down.  And that’s the magic of it.  Scenography isn’t about features. Spec sheets. Room upgrades, and other easily-copied competitive advantages.  It’s about creating a feeling.

Scenography involves creating a property-wide theme and supporting it with accompanying design elements, lighting, cast participation and so forth (I think you get the theatrical metaphor here, so I won’t belabor it).

This overarching theme supports the specific hotel or resort’s “sense of place,” its uniqueness, even its quirkiness, something that has been an important change in the Ritz-Carlton brand's identity from its earlier, more cookie-cutter incarnation.
bagpipper

For example, Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, perched as it is above the Pacific Ocean, has adopted a theme related to sunset:  Candles.  S’mores or wine around the firepits. A bagpiper who plays each night as the sun falls into the sea.

Or look at (listen to, really) what’s going on at Ritz-Carlton’s Dove Mountain Resort, in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Guests having cocktails outside its Ignite bar will suddenly hear melodies played on a handmade wood flute by a Native American musician (pictured below) who is perched on a hill some ways away from the hotel–played in a way that makes use of the answering echoes from the opposing mountains. Giving an auditory guide, in a sense, to the local landscape.

sonoran desert

The thing is, I’m laying out these component elements for you individually because, well, it’s my job as a customer service consultant to break things down into their individual components to see how a “whole” has been created.  But in practice, if you ask a Ritz-Carlton guest what they loved about their visit to, for example, Half Moon Bay, the answer is by and large “it was great,” not “the bagpiper played a modal air for eight repetitions before retiring for the evening.” Because the elements are designed and executed in a way that lets the guest, the “star,” go about their activities, but with critical enhancements that they wouldn’t necessarily notice on their own but would miss if the elements were absent.

To succeed with scenography requires first and foremost creativity on the part of the hotel staff.  This creativity has to reach all the way up to the traditionally RevPar (revenue per available room)-obsessed General Manager and throughout the ranks of the employees to make the program a success. Rather than there being a list of “ten rules for successful scenography,” the rules that matter are more like the following, to paraphrase Fred Dust from Ideo, a creative firm that was involved in the creation of scenography. “1.  Leaders, be more creative!” and 2. “Empower your employees to be more creative as well.”

The Ritz-Carlton’s commitment to scenography is such that they’ve written into their business plans that every year each individual hotel GM has to deliver three unique scenes as part of this scenography. Let me say that again: this fluffy, fuzzy idea of scenography is required now as part of each property’s business plan, to lay out that “these are the scenes we are going to be working on this year, and here’s the date that we’ll put them into motion.”

The thing about the creativity requirement is that it’s not just required to create these scenarios. The requirement for staff creativity continues to be important in implementation, in keeping each hotel property from becoming a slave to its pre-determined theme. Because every guest is unique, and the concept of creating, directing, supporting scenes needs to be modified, sometimes on the fly, based on the nature of the guest and the visit. For example: If you’re not much of a drinker, you can count on Half Moon Bay’s empathetic staff to pick up on this and not force their “red wine by the firepit” theme down your throat.

Ditto for smaller touchpoints, each instance of which may require adjustment for each guest: A stressed and jetlagged exec arriving at two in the morning needs one “scene” while   leisurely lovers arriving midday need another, and so forth.   The same approaches apply: preparing for likely scenarios (such as these two) and throwing out the script if something even more unusual is called for.  Creativity, again, carries the day.


Doing Away With Customer Service Scripts

4-3 no script smallCustomers today are looking for genuine customer service, for the authentic customer experience of one human being assisting another. So it’s time, in most business contexts, to do away with word-for-word scripts while retaining a “punch list” of points that need to be covered in the course of a customer conversation. (Life-and-death settings such as healthcare and pharmaceutical delivery are important exceptions to this rule, as are interactions with privacy or security implications.)

For example, let's look at Drybar, the blow-dry-and-style salon phenomenon that has transformed the hair care landscape in just a couple of years. The Drybar customer experience is extraordinarily well thought out, made up of hundreds of carefully created touchpoints that make the experience memorable for its customers.

And it all happens without a script. At no point in its operation, explains cofounder Michael Landau, does Drybar “train to a script, though in our contact center we give [agents] a lot of prompts they should hit on the phone—to ask about [the customer’s] hair length and other such details,” because checking in about these details directly improves the experience once the customer arrives at Drybar. “Because our growth has been so fast”—when I first became aware of Drybar in 2010, it had four shops, all in Southern California; as of this writing it’s up to nearly 40 salons across the U.S., with London coming soon—“we think a lot about how, as we grow, we will manage to convey ­to customers and to employees that they are part of a business with the spirit of a smaller, more flexible company.” The refusal to script allows Drybar to maintain this flexible, genuine feeling in two ways: It provides a less stilted experience, and it builds more empowered and flexible employees to serve customers, thanks to the leeway that Drybar is providing these employees.

Drybar isn’t providing or enforcing a script, but its leaders have laid out guidelines that its contact center employees need to heed to ensure a successful booking and blowout session, in other words a carefully plotted framework for ensuring their customers are properly cared for. While training and monitoring are needed to ensure these intakes are executed properly, this isn’t scripting.

And it couldn’t be successfully scripted because high-quality service requires employees to tailor their approach to the quirks of a particular customer in a given context. Scripting, on the other hand, is “dependent on your customer following a script himself!” as contact-center expert Colin Taylor puts it; it only works if customers behave in an expected pattern to which you can respond with a predetermined line. But customer concerns come in infinite varieties, with infinite moods, paces and nuances. So instead of training to a script, the best thing an organization can do is teach its people to deal with situations, both good and difficult. Give them the tools to recognize behaviors and respond appropriately and effectively.

Or as Doug Carr of FRHI Hotels & Resorts (Fairmont, Raffles and Swissotel are their brands) puts it, “The things that matter can’t be scripted. You can build scenarios for your staff, but you need to couple this with encouragement and training for your staff on how to read the customer, and then doing what’s right and what’s appropriate.”

Sara Kearney of Hyatt puts it like this: “It takes an awful lot of practice to come across as completely unscripted.” Kearney continues: “We don’t script [at Hyatt’s innovative new luxury brand, Andaz], but we do an awful lot of role plays and dress rehearsals to help people understand their role in bringing the brand experience to life.”

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Departing from formula isn’t easy. ("Easy" is prescribing specific words for an unempowered employee to read.) But the results are worth it, and the impact will be clear in the flexible, nuanced, genuine brand of service you offer.


A Look At The Omnichannel Retail Customer Experience

4-3 retail experience smallToday’s newest retail customers have come of age lacking the sense of limitations in commerce that their elders have long been forced to accept. They don’t see why commerce needs to take place on one channel to the exclusion of another. They will be sure to Yelp your business a new one if you don’t honor your online pricing in your store (or vice versa), or if you refuse to honor a gift card in your store that someone sent the customer by email.

What they want is what’s called—jargon alert—omnichannel. To put it simply, omnichannel is the future of just about everything that involves extracting money from a customer in a way that they actually enjoy having it extracted.

So what does–should–omnichannel look like? Let’s take a peek.

Meghan Millennial’s Omnichannel Shopping Spree

On a late, bright Thursday morning, Meghan Millennial is walking down a Washington, DC, sidewalk when her phone buzzes, inviting her into an adjacent store for a cupcake in a flavor she’s enjoyed there before. Having just eaten brunch (one of the most important meals of the day), she keeps walking, but mentally files the text for later.

Half a block later, a Patagonia store catches her eye and she steps in. As she enters the foyer, her phone buzzes again with a coupon for 20% off for the next two hours on dresses. Meghan likes the offer and works with a salesperson to find the right dress. However, the store doesn’t have it in her size. No biggie: The salesperson locates it in another store and offers to drop-ship it to Meghan’s house.

But wait! Meghan now wants two of the dresses, and Patagonia’s other location only has one. The salesperson locates one dress in that store and one in a store in Ohio, coordinates the drop-shipping for both, and gives her the BOGO (buy one, get one) discount she deserves (better, after all, than the 20% off that tempted her initially), even though both dresses come from different stores, and neither from the store in which she’s standing.

That afternoon, back at home, Meghan finds that three shoeboxes from Macy’s have arrived. Two of the pairs fit her perfectly; the third is too tight. Needing that third style for the weekend, yet dreading the time it’ll take to hunt for the item in person, Meghan opens Macy’s mobile website on her phone before setting out. She finds the shoes in a better-fitting size and orders them for in-store pickup the next morning, which suits her schedule better than waiting at home.

The pickup is ready when she comes in, and with the proximity functionality on her phone, the store’s employees are able to recognize her arrival, stop folding clothes and other low-value tasks, and hurry to meet Meghan at the front door—handy, since in grand DC tradition, she’s double-parked—where they hand her the package and accept her exchange, wishing her well with an e-coupon to return.

All of the channel-melding that our hypothetical Meghan has just enjoyed can currently be accomplished in retail. It isn’t easy for a business to pull off, but customers want and are starting to expect exactly this. Furthermore, customers have little to no understanding of or sympathy for your difficulties in pulling off omnichannel retailing, even though these difficulties are assuredly significant.

Your inventory systems and databases need to be connected. Your return procedures and order histories need to be synchronized. While none of this is easy to accomplish, it’s easier now than it used to be. Companies like Micros, recently acquired by Oracle, specialize in building systems and technology that allow this coordination: When a customer returns a dress via any channel (ships it back, drops it off in-store, etc.) the merchant’s general ledger is adjusted, order history is appended and inventory is updated. So a phone call or Web interaction, even moments after an in-store return, for example, can be based on up-to-the-minute information.

New technology also offers merchants the opportunity to expand inventory beyond what’s in front of the customer: Small retailers can use systems such as the Lightspeed solution, while larger retailers (such as Macy’s) can use the more elaborate systems that Micros and others offer that provide a “show-and-tell” feature with enhanced-resolution photos from multiple angles. This feature allows a customer, still interacting with a salesperson in-store, to examine in detail items that aren’t found on the showroom floor. This, in effect, expands the store’s inventory without requiring the store to commit valuable real estate. And it puts to bed the perennial frustration customers have after schlepping across town to a store only to learn that the desired item is unavailable in the right size/color/fabric.

When this experience becomes truly seamless, truly centered on the customer and her perspective, you’ve achieved true omnichannel.  And the benefit to you is more than the pleasant experience you’ll be providing your customers, although that’s a big part of it. This approach makes sales seamless and almost invisible to boot, and by removing barriers to buying you will likely spur customers to purchase more. When you lower the barrier to returning items, perhaps a few more items get returned, but again, you increase present and future sales due to greater customer comfort with the returns process. When you lower the barrier to reaching your company through any possible channel, you’ll hear from the customer more—and more often with an open pocketbook.




 
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