It turns out brick-and-mortar stores can learn a thing or two from eCommerce sites when it comes to customer service.
Companies like Amazon are setting the bar higher because of their ability to translate customer behavioral data and purchasing patterns into a personalized buying experience. Other online companies--and even cities like Boston--are following suit. Still, while automated workflows may feel like a personalized attention, it can't compare to the value of the human-to-human business.
Business expert and consultant Sandy Papavero says there is still value in face-to-face interaction with customers and people who will gladly pay to experience it.
"Money is not always the reason people do business with their favorite vendors. I think we are going to circle back to wanting the human connection, no matter what the cost," says Papavero. "Customer service isn't dead, but when it goes, so will your business."
According to NewVoiceMedia, a leading global provider of cloud technology, U.S. companies are losing $62 billion a year due to poor customer service. That's a 51% jump from 2013--and $20 billion more in lost revenue.
"Companies are constantly seeking out ways to stand apart from their competition. Tens of thousands of dollars in marketing, digital ads, and celebrity sponsorships later, they are still failing," says Papavero. "And a lot of it has to do with their customer experience. Anyone can sell. The best companies follow through, connect with their consumers, and stand behind their products."
Papavero adds that companies can never stop learning how to make the client experience even better, and she offers the following tips to boost the customer experience and ever-important bottom line.
1. Empower your employees to be active problem-solvers.
If a customer has a poor taste in her mouth because a product is out-of-stock or she received less-than-stellar service during her last visit, employees should feel reasonably equipped to make the situation better. Online retailers use email workflows to address concerns quickly; customers are informed within moments that orders have been received, processed, delayed, or shipped. This validation, especially when it is on message and properly worded, feels intensely personal, even if it's being sent by an automated program.
"It often boils down to communication," says Papavero. "The more proactive you are in your communication and in your problem-solving, the more in control the customer feels. When in doubt, make eye contact, sincerely apologize, and offer the next best solution, even if it means thinking outside the box a bit."
2. Remember you aren't just selling products. You are selling an experience.
Your prospective clients get a feel for your business long before they purchase something. Papavero says companies should look to Amazon, Overstock, and Nordstrom when it comes to service.
"They do not have customers," says Papavero. "They have loyal followers. They have raving fans. People come back because they trust the consistent and high-touch service these brands are known for."
Take a nod from online retailers here, too. Amazon records your prior purchases and makes sure to make recommendations based on these purchases. Overstock reminds you how much you loved the last rug you purchased. Both companies make a point to reinforce the relationship and keep interactions positive.
Like Nordstrom, for instance, which offers a free personal shopping service that makes their customers feel like the star of their very own show.
"It's no wonder they gladly pay more and keep coming back. You can't replace the value people place on being seen," adds Papavero. "A happy, loyal customer is always cheaper than trying to entice new buyers through your doors."
3. Apologize proactively.
One of the advantages of online retailers is they eliminate the opportunity for one of their service agents to react poorly to a problem. Even in a complaint situation, emails and representatives are given talking points and escalation chains. A key component of every interaction is a proactive apology.
Brick-and-mortar stores have a more dynamic human element that can quickly escalate the situation in the wrong direction. However, when humans get it right, they have the ability to turn a challenge into a mutually beneficial experience.
"When assisting customers who call in with complaints, apologize for the inconvenience, offer a solution that is acceptable to the customer, and make sure they understand exactly how you are going to resolve the issue," says Papavero, "Never become defensive or angry. Stay calm, listen intently, apologize, offer a solution, and continually thank customers for their understanding."
Remember: it is usually not the initial problem that upsets customers; it is the way it is handled. A problem with a product, service, or pricing issue is only an opportunity to showcase how well your company handles errors.
4. Phone in your smile. For real.
Answer the phone in a polite manner, introducing yourself to the caller. "Good afternoon. Thank you for calling XYZ Company. This is Sandy. How may I be of help today?" This type of attention to detail automatically puts the customer on the other end in a better mood. Much better than "Hello. Dr. XYZ office. Please hold". Answer the phone like you were expecting the customer's call, and do it with a smile, even if you're not quite feeling it. Research shows that even if people can't see your smile, they can hear it. Think about it; there's a reason why Amazon's logo is happy to see you.
5. Always under promise and over deliver.
Speed is important, but accuracy is integral to keeping costs down, says Papavero. Making sure your staff believes in the same corporate philosophies will keep a team cohesive. Invest in consulting and training for your employees. It goes a long way to working towards the same goal of happy clients.
6. Be open and candid with your customers.
If you or your employees are new to a customer service position, let the customer know and apologize for any delays as you wrestle the learning curve. This will diffuse any frustrations on the customer side because they will empathize and be patient instead of agitated if a mistake or a delay occurs. The same goes with product delays or problems; the more proactive you can be in your interactions, the easier the situation will be to manage.
7. Find ways to be memorable.
One of the ways Papavero makes her clients feel special is with handwritten thank you notes.
"I thank each client for choosing me and trusting me to handle their needs professionally," she states. "Taking the time to put a personal touch after a buying decision makes the buyer feel like you really care about them. That is the ultimate goal, and something that online retailers can't embrace to the degree brick-and-mortar stores can."
Quite simply, the bottom line is customer service, and customer service is your bottom line. It's always cheaper to get it right the first time. Move a portion of your marketing budget to employee training, improved workflows, and improved customer experience in the above areas and you won't have to work as hard to grow your business. Your raving fans will gladly help do it for you.