Posts Tagged ‘Customer service’


A Great Customer Experience Depends on Great Hiring

About this series: This series of articles from Nextiva will help you grasp of the essentials of customer service: the principles and guidelines that will serve you well in any era, regardless of trends, changing technology, and a constantly evolving customer base. Our guide is Micah Solomon, customer service and customer experience consultant, author, and speaker.

A great customer experience depends on great employees. To get those great employees, you need to know what to look for in an employee you’re going to put in a customer-facing position.

The trick is to hire your customer-facing team based on the following psychological traits, even before you start thinking about the specific skill set you’re looking for.  (Yes, the appropriate technical skills also matter. You can’t hire an empathetic surgeon who is also a klutz. But for most customer-facing positions, the technical skills are largely teachable, while the underlying personality traits can be much more easily hired than taught.) 

WETCO: The five crucial traits of customer-facing employees

Employees Only: Do Not Open Door-Snake Pit (humorous signage from Wall Drug, Wall, ND) © Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

Wall Drug, N.D. (c) micah@micahsolomon.com

The traits I consider crucial for customer-facing work are contained in my acronym “WETCO.” My suggestion is to picture a big, wet dog at PETCO, and you’ll never forget this acronym.

Warmth: Simple human kindness. Warmth is perhaps the simplest and yet most fundamental of these five personality traits. In essence, it means enjoying our human commonality, flaws and all.

Empathy: The ability to sense what another person is feeling. Empathy is a step up from warmth; empathy moves beyond the plateau of liking other people and is more like reading hearts—the ability to sense what a customer needs or wants, whether or not this desire is even yet apparent to the customer.

Teamwork: An inclination toward ‘‘Lets work together to make this happen’’ and against ‘‘Id rather do it all myself.’’   On the one hand, customers do need the help of entrepreneurially minded employees who will take charge of the situation without prodding, people who are willing to fix a problem all by themselves, if necessary. But that attitude needs to be seasoned by an inclination to favor a team approach, or your organization will soon suffer from the friction created.

Conscientiousness: Detail orientation, including an ability and willingness to follow through to completion. Conscientiousness is a key trait for successfully serving customers, and unfortunately may not always be found in those who are otherwise suited to customer service work. The quintessential ‘‘people person’’ may lack conscientiousness, and this one flaw can be fatal: An employee can smile, empathize, and play well with the team, but if he can’t remember to follow through on the promises he made to customers, he’ll kill your company image.

Optimism: The ability to bounce back and to not internalize challenges. Optimism is a necessity in customer-facing positions. Employees who can’t shake off a drubbing from a customer won’t last long. Support from management is, of course, important here, but the employees themselves need a positive, optimistic self-image as well to propel themselves forward in the face of daily adversity.

How to select for WETCO

How to select such people? An ideal approach is to match candidates to the psychological profiles of existing, successful employees. You may not have gathered this data for yourself yet, in which case you’ll be dependent on an outside company to provide it. That’s okay, because some of the available external tools are excellent. But you need to use your chosen methodology consistently: on every hire, rather than as the whim hits you. If you use scientific methods only sporadically you’ll never know what worked and what didn’t. Instead, the selectiveness of your inherently biased—that is, human—memory will trick you and you’ll continue to favor unscientific, ineffective hiring patterns that will hamper your organization for years to come.

If you start with externally generated profiles, as you grow be sure to gather data specific to your company. This process isn’t that complicated. Have your best performers answer profile questions and then bank these results. Have your average performers do the same, and then bank those results. If you show a consistently measurable difference between these two categories of employee, you have a valid test.

The necessity of a trial period

Great companies tend to have a lengthy trial period before newly hired employees become ‘‘brand ambassadors’’—that is, are ready to be foisted on the public. This is important in providing consistently great service, because how your brand is perceived is only as strong as the weakest cliche´—sorry, link. There’s no truer truism than the simile of the weak link; it’s one of the unnerving truths about providing customer service. You never want those potentially weak links out there representing your brand, whether at the returns counter, the contact center, or connected via their workstations to customers.

The trial period is also important for protecting your company culture. Even in the best-handled hiring scenario, it can take ninety days to know if you have a fit. Most often, it takes that much time for the employee to know if there’s a fit. At the Ritz-Carlton, for example, the first twenty-one days are treated as crucial, and if you’re not there for the big, transitional ‘‘Day 21,’’ you’re taken out of the work schedule. They don’t cut corners here, and neither should you.

Article © 2014 Micah Solomon


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: How to Hold an Online Focus Group

Stocksy_txp14c2a2052O6000_Small_64388 (1)Holding a focus group is a great way to learn what your target customers want from your business. Until recently, however, focus groups required physically getting representatives of your target market into a location; rewarding them with money, free gifts, food or some combination of all three; and organizing and recording the focus group session. This could be an expensive, stressful hassle for small business owners.

Now there’s a better way: You can simply go online to host a virtual “focus group” using survey tools and social media. While it may not be as in-depth as a real-world focus group, because you’ll be able to incorporate more people’s opinions, you will actually get a better feel for what your target customers think.

Here are some tips for making online focus groups work.

  1. Be specific. Online focus groups work best when they cast a wide net over a narrow subject, so it’s important to narrow down exactly what you want to find out. For example, if you sell women’s clothing online and you’re considering opening a physical store, you could ask whether customers would drive to a physical store, what local area would be preferred and what days and hours they would be likely to shop.
  2. Keep it simple. Customers get bored and tired if your online survey goes on too long. You can break your survey down and ask one or two quick questions a day right on social media. For example, use polling apps to set up a poll with radio button options on Facebook, or tweet out a question for users to answer. Even if you are conducting a longer survey, it’s best if you ensure it can be answered in just a few minutes.
  3. Provide room for expression. Radio buttons are an easy way to conduct online surveys, but make sure you leave a blank form at the end of the survey where users can add detailed comments or opinions. This can provide valuable insights into what customers want (or don’t want) from your business.
  4. Pay ‘em back. You may not need to order in pizza for customers of your virtual focus group, but you should reward them for their time if they take a survey longer than one or two questions. A good way to motivate users without going broke is to enter all survey respondents in a drawing to win a free product or other prize from your business. You could also offer a discount such as a code good for $5 off their next purchase.
  5. Use technology. Survey tools such as SurveyMonkey, Create Survey and QuestionPro let you create surveys in a variety of formats, then use analytics tools to dig into the results.
  6. Follow up. Ask survey respondents to share their contact information with you if they are comfortable having you follow up with more questions. This enables you to probe deeper into customers’ interests, wants and concerns, just as you would in a real-life focus group. 

Mondays with Mike: 5 Foolproof Tips To Make Better Decisions

Stocksy_txpfff38493BN6000_Small_45968When you think about it, running a business is all about making decisions.  Let’s face it: if you didn’t have the drive to be a decision maker, you’d work for someone else, right?  As an entrepreneur, you’re faced with decisions every day – whether it’s a question about hiring a new employee, embarking on a new marketing plan, or managing costs by improving efficiency.  Successful business owners make good decisions, and the good news is that you can improve your decision making skills by following these tips:

  1. Follow the 10-10-10 rule.  Biz guru Suzy Welch gives us this technique for making decisions based on their long-term effects.  Consider the outcome of your decision in ten minutes, ten months, and ten years.  Let’s say you’re struggling with a particularly difficult client – the one who sucks up all of your time and energy and provides little in the way of revenue.  You’re trying to decide if you should kiss up to them for the umpteenth time to smooth over their latest ridiculous complaint or if you should cut your losses, fire them, and move on.   If you fire them, you know that in ten minutes, you’ll be panicked, worried about the loss of revenue.  But in ten months, you’ll realize that you’ll be happier for having eliminated the anguish this client produced, and in ten years, you’ll have been able to generate far more income from new, less problematic clients that you’ve been able to bring in with your renewed energy and freed-up time.  Think long-term.
  2. Create a stop-loss plan.  And follow it!  Entrepreneurs are seldom devoid of ego, and it’s far too easy to make a decision, ignore all the signs that the decision wasn’t the wisest, and continue well past the point at which you should have thrown in the towel.  A stop-loss plan forces you to evaluate your decision based on predetermined, concrete parameters, rather than on the results you’re hoping for.  Whether it’s a trial period for the pricy new sales rep you hired on, or whether it’s a minimum requirement for a new advertising campaign, you’ll make better decisions if they’re based on results, rather than hopes and ego.
  3. Employ split testing.  When you’re torn between two (or more) equally plausible choices, use split testing to try both options out before you commit to one.  Let’s say the sales rep for the community circular that you advertise in brings you two options for your next ad.  If you have the chance to run both ads, perhaps in different areas, or in different months, you can find out definitively whether the ad that touts your long-established history in the area is more effective than the ad that shows off your reasonable prices.  The idea is to make a decision based on hard data, rather than assumptions.  Online advertising makes it particularly easy to run split testing, as you can create and employ multiple variations with ease.
  4. Do thorough research.  You’d feel like a fool if you tried and failed with some radical new tactic to bring in new business only to discover afterwards that your competitor had already tried and failed with that tactic.  Look around you.  See what your competition is up to, and look to history to give you insight into proven – and disproven – strategies.  Fortune does favor the bold – those folks who forge new pathways – but fortune also favors those who do their homework.
  5. Sleep on it.  This last tip is the easiest and most foolproof of all.  People make decisions based on emotion, and that’s often a mistake.  Simply giving yourself time to think a decision over will almost always lead you in the right direction.

Hiring, firing, spending, saving … all decisions that we face every day.  Commit to making better decisions, and you’ll find those good decisions reflected in your bottom line.  


Selling Your Customers What They Need — Not What They Want

Posted on by Carol Roth

Stocksy_txp0272139ak36000_Small_169040The Rolling Stones said it best, “You can't always get what you want.  But if you try…you might find you get what you need.”  Regardless of what kind of business you own, you may find yourself in the unwelcome disconnect between providing what your customer needs to be successful versus what they think that they want.  So, how do you guide them toward the right path without losing the sale?

Outright Refusal is Not an Option

Even though you may want to do it (and sometimes, I really want to do it), the quickest way to walk away without the sale is to flatly tell prospective customers that their visions are two levels short of insanity and then, proceed to explain what they really need.  Even if you’re a rocket scientist in your field, you need to recognize and respect that they not only believe that they know what they need, they also have some important information about their objectives.  Their vision on how to accomplish their goals may take them in the wrong direction, but there may be significant value in what they have to say.  Your job is to guide them in the right direction without rolling over their dreams (or at least doing so without their clear knowledge).

Unless you decide that you do not want the customer, your first response should affirm that you understand their objectives.  Then, tell them how you can meet or exceed expectations while saving time, money or effort, even if it’s with a different product, service or strategy.

Identify Specific Issues

Once you understand the customer’s desired outcome, you can begin pointing out the issues that may prevent clients from meeting their goals.  In many cases, they may be asking for more than they need.  For example, if they want three manuals for a new software system, you can explain how a single well-designed manual can meet or exceed the requirements at a fraction of the cost.  How many people do you know who will insist on paying too much for a project?

There will also be times when customer visions simply will not meet their expressed goals.  In other cases, the entire goal may be unrealistic or even severely misdirected.  A customer who comes to your candy store in August asking you to ship a gift of chocolate-covered cherries to a close friend in Arizona might better maintain that friendship if you suggest a less perishable confection.  But logic alone might not be enough to sway that customer.  If you can tell a story about how people react when they open the box, smell the heavenly aroma and then, realize that the melted chocolaty mess is not safe to eat, you can really drive the point home.

When Offering Alternatives, Focus on the Benefits

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, “The customer is always right” has been the motto that great businesses live by, but that doesn’t mean that you should take it literally.  Customers need to feel that you respect their goals and visions.  But a great way to open their minds to change is to focus on what’s in it for them.  In other words, when you propose changes, lead with the benefits. 

You can’t always convince customers to buy your goods or services just because you know best.  Customers want to hear, “You can double sales and long-term brand loyalty with just a ten percent increase in the quality of the base materials that you use to build your product.”  When you present the advantages up-front, they will listen more closely to solutions that they may have never considered.  With the right incentive, they may choose to pay slightly more to improve their product quality, rather than just modernize the packaging, as they originally requested.

By Remaining True to Your Principles, You Instill Customer Confidence and Boost the Success of Your Business

Here’s a story that illustrates how sticking with your convictions can make a major difference to your customers — and to your own business.  Five years ago, a new customer came to a full service print shop seeking a new supply of the black and white leaflets that he periodically distributed in neighborhoods to sell his lawn services.  The printer advised that people are less likely to toss well-designed color brochures, which convey a more professional image.  The customer recognized the value of this advice and even used the printer’s in-house designer to upgrade the look of his advertising.  He spent more on his new brochures, but that increase was more than offset by the significant increase of new business those brochures generated over the response rate generated by his leaflets during the same period in the prior year. From that point on, he became a loyal customer, turning to the printer for all of his marketing material needs.  And to this day, he continues to send many new customers to the printer. 

Your customers may need convincing, but they rely on your knowledge and experience to get the greatest value from your goods and services, even if you sell them something vastly different from what they initially wanted.  The printer addressed his customer’s wants by focusing on what he really needed.  When you take this approach with your customers, you will not have to rely on a hard sell approach to develop a loyal customer base.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: 3 Types of Loyalty Programs and How to Make Them Work

Does your small business use a loyalty program to keep customers engaged and spur them to buy? The Boston Consulting Group recently published a report on loyalty programs and what it takes to make them profitable and effective for businesses.

According to BCG, there are three main types of loyalty programs:

  1. Earn-and-Burn. The classic punch-card program (Buy 10, get one free) is an example of earn-and-burn, in which customers benefit from their purchases by earning rewards at specific thresholds. Other types of earn-and-burn loyalty programs include points programs (in which customers earn points they can redeem for free products) and discount programs (in which members get discounts).
  2. Recognition. In a recognition program, repeat customers get special perks or services only for them, based on the total amount they spend or the total number of points they accumulate. Airline rewards points are an example of a recognition program; customers who accumulate a certain number of points earn special perks and upgrades. 
  3. Customer Relationship Management. CRM programs are the most sophisticated type of loyalty program. They typically use loyalty software to capture purchase data, then use that data to develop targeted special offers for loyalty members. Examples include members-only promotions or targeted communications such as newsletters, emails or even website content.

According to BCG, each type of program has its pros and cons. The cost of an earn-and-burn program can eliminate any gains, while recognition programs by their nature limit the number of members, and CRM programs can have both of these flaws.

Ideally, you’ll want to find a loyalty program that enables you to prompt more spending from customers, increasing your margins rather than cutting into them. BCG uses the example of a company with a 35 percent gross profit margin. In this case, a customer who spends $100 annually generates $35 in profit. If the customer joins the loyalty program and increases spending by 10 percent, to $110 annually, the company makes an additional $3.50 in profit. However, the cost of the loyalty program ($3.30) eats up most of that; essentially, the business is breaking even. But if the customer spends 20 percent more, the company makes $7 in profit, or $3.70 minus the cost of the loyalty program. At this point, profit begins to grow rapidly.

According to the study, the most profitable loyalty programs invest more in the customers who spend the most. Typically they do so by using a tiered rewards system: As customers meet increasingly higher thresholds of spending, they qualify for bigger and better rewards.

Ideally, you’ll also want to use rewards that are inexpensive for your business to give, but have high value to the customer. For example, a hotel that has an expensive room sitting unused can score points by upgrading a loyalty customer to that room. It doesn’t cost the hotel anything, but it earns greater loyalty from the customer.

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7 Content Marketing Rules to Break

Content marketing is the way to stay in front of small business prospects to showcase expertise. There is a lot of advice on how to do this that is just plain wrong.

For example, here are seven content marketing rules to break:

Rule 1: Send a monthly newsletter to tell customers and prospects about multiple topics they may be interested in. How to break the rule: Send one subject emails to highlight one relevant piece of advice. In this way, the customer will read it quickly and the company will get the brand reinforcement they want. It now takes 21 brand reminders for a prospect to remember the brand.

Rule 2: Don't mix education messages with selling ones. Content marketers advise the company to split out theses two types of messages. How to break the rule: Always be up selling. Condition the audience to always be expecting offers from the company while they are being educated. This will result in more sales annually.

Stocksy_txp47ea4fcagK5000_Small_192861Rule 3: Always be part of the online social media conversation in the company's area of expertise. How to break the rule: Only participate when the company has something useful to say and can contribute value to the conversation. While this should be consistent, a company does not need to be part of every conversation on every platform and website. This will result in being productive, not just busy.

Rule 4: Pre-program posts in advance so they systematically appear throughout the day.  How to break the rule: This can be dangerous because a company could have pre-programmed posts about getting rust off a car and the news of the day is that one of the big car companies filed for bankruptcy! Be part of what is relevant.

Rule 5: Don't measure the outcome because this type of marketing takes a long time. How to break the rule: All marketing needs to be measured for results. If there are no results, do not invest in it. Think of what success looks like before starting a content marketing strategy.

Rule 6: Leave the review process to customers to post. How to break the rule: Some customer sets will naturally post comments on social media sites. Other customers need to be solicited by the company to encourage reviews and references. Don't be afraid to just ask.

Rule 7:  One size fits all. One piece of content can be shared in its same firm across multiple sites and platforms.  How to break the rule: Customize the content to fit the site. Emphasize quick advice or wit on Twitter. Use pictures or video on Facebook. Highlight the post 's educational nature on LinkedIn. Show it in a series of pictures on Pinterest.

What content marketing rules do you break?


Work Your Biz Wednesday: Turning Negative Reviews

Manage the online reputation of your small business with these tips from Melinda Emerson, the Small Biz Lady.



Nextiva Tuesday Tip: 3 Ways to Conduct Focus Groups for Your Business

Have you ever conducted a focus group for your small business? Focus groups are a great way to find out what customers—and potential customers—think about your business, your customer service, new products or services you’re considering launching. The list of questions you can ask is pretty much endless.

Technology has greatly expanded your options for doing focus groups. Here are three alternatives:

  1. Hold an in-person focus group. In this method, you bring a small group of people who fit your customer profile together to discuss questions about your business. Because this option requires someone to record the conversation, someone to lead it, and getting people physically to your location, it can be costly and inefficient.
  2. Hold a virtual focus group. You can use conference calling or video conferencing technology to hold a virtual focus group. Videoconferencing can make it a bit easier to identify who’s talking and for people to feel comfortable with each other. The benefits of the virtual alternative are many: It’s cheaper and faster than bringing people to your location, and enables you to bring in potential customers from around the country or even around the globe. Typically, videoconferencing or conference call technology is set up to record your interaction, so you don’t need someone to tape or take notes.
  3. Hold a focus group on social media. Go beyond the basics—like just asking poll questions on your Facebook Page—to dig a little deeper. Technology is available to help you create more in-depth surveys on social media. For instance, you can use SurveyMonkey to create a free survey you can embed into your business’s Facebook Page. Or you can use Napkin Labs’ Brainstorm app with Facebook to make it easier to engage with your focus group. When doing a social media focus group, choose the social network where your customers interact with you the most. And keep in mind that people probably don’t want to spend a ton of time on a social media focus group—so consider breaking it down into small parts. For example, you could ask your focus group five questions a day for a week, or one question a day for a month.

Whichever venue you choose for your focus group:

  • Narrow your focus. Have a detailed list of questions drilling down into a specific topic, such as your online customer service, your in-store customer service or your product mix. Don’t try to cover every possible subject.
  • Reward participants. Whether focus group members give up five hours of their day to come to an in-person session or five minutes a day to answer social media questions, they deserve some reward for participating. This could range from money to coupons, discounts or free products. If you’re on a really tight budget and can’t reward everyone, draw one person’s name to win a prize.
  • Act on what you learn. Let participants—and all your customers—know what changes you’re making as a result of their input. It will make them feel that your business truly listens and cares about their opinions. 

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