- Sep 15, 2014
Customer Service & Support
Customers are the life blood of your business. Whether you call them customers, clients, or visitors to your website - they are the people that make the revenue come in directly or indirectly. I need to drive home how important they are. Those hits on your analytics software aren't just magical numbers, they are people. People that are looking for a solution to a problem which your service can provide. For this post I'm going to consider every website as offering a service since they technically all do.
When a pro-active marketing campaign is being utilized and visitors are coming to your website, the first thing they see is crucial to the sales process. In order for them to exchange money for your service or to click on your advertisement, there has to be a sense of trust and those are instilled by trust symbols like a phone number they can call, a customer support ticket system, a support chat box popup, or an email people can send communications to.
You have to not only make sure these are visible but also make sure you answer your communications through them in a timely manner. What's a timely manner? I like responding within 5 mins. Even on weekends, but that's not always possible, so a good rule of thumb is for anything under 15 mins people will think you are on top of your game. Under 5 mins you are serious. Within an hour is great. Within 24 hours is good or rather "okay". Over 24 hours, completely unacceptable - even on weekends. This is the internet after all, normally business works 5 days a week, 9 to 5, but when it comes to the internet, you have to consider you have a whole world of potential customers that all live in different timezones - and if they took the time to message you on the weekend, they expect a prompt response even though it's the weekend.
First thing you should have done in your market research is know where your primary target audience lives. If it's a specific geographical location figure out what's the custom to doing normal business hours there. Now match and EXCEED the norm. Why? Cause you want to set yourself apart from the competition. If you had a major plumbing problem like a burst pipe in the middle of the night and there were no plumbers that could get to you except that one 24/7 plumber, you'll call them immediately. It's an emergency situation - and you can bet for that complete 24 hour availability they're going to charge you more and you will be more than happy to pay for it cause again, it's an emergency situation.
Any small advantage your business can take over the competition, take it, and wear it as a badge of honor when talking about your business. It may not seem like much, but all those small added values help your overall brand image and will result in good karma coming back to your business.
Now think about all the times you had horrible experiences with businesses? 90% of the time it was due to their customer support. Whether it was because you were on hold way too long, or they didn't get back to you quickly, or they just seemed like they didn't care - all those things irritated you, and it adds up and that's when you became a terrorist.
I'm going to expand upon a concept created by Harvard Business School professor James Heskett and developed by the likes of Jones, Sasser, Xerox and Intuit - there is a great piece on ReturnOnBehavior.com regarding this which I recommend you read at some point to get a better sense of what I'm about to explain. There are multiple levels of customers and if you can identify each and everyone of them by a pattern of usage, feedback, and their overall feeling towards your brand, you can figure out how you can leverage them to your advantage - to not only ensuring continued business but also increased business with word of mouth, positive mentions, and referrals.
Apostle - These are customers extremely happy with your service. They will sing your praise over and over to whoever is willing to listen. The key with these guys as with all is rapid communication and a good response rate to solve any issues. You want more and more people to turn to Apostles, and that's the main goal of every customer interaction. Some may love you just for your willingness to listen. Now it should be noted that you don't have to bend or break to any customer's will, however explaining the reason you cannot do something is always better than simply stating "No.".
For example if a user has a suggestion for a new feature that you simply cannot implement, explaining the reasoning calmly and professionally while showcasing that it's not exactly aligned with your overall company's mission turns you into what the industry calls a "Best-In-Class" company. People would appreciate a response that was even shot down versus not answering.
It's critical to note that you need to constantly let people know what's the best method of communicating with your company. I get customer service questions from multiple channels and attempt to answer them within my set timelines. But to make sure you don't go crazy always encourage and let people know that there is a best format of communication and it is XYZ.
Here is an experience I think we've all had - we try to cancel a cable, cellphone, or some other similar services and it seems the cancellation option is hidden in some deep dark corner of their website. There is no simple contact phone number, and when you finally find it, it happens they only take cancellation calls from 9 to 5 - I'm looking at you Sprint. Like come on guys, you clearly didn't do your job and I've had enough - adding one more layer of nonsense isn't going to deter me to not canceling your service.
If I'm at this stage of the process most likely one more straw on the camel's back WILL turn me into a brand terrorist. You see plenty of them when it comes to certain niches with cable, cellphone, and internet provider companies. You can bet your damn ass when Google Fiber comes to my area - my cable, cellphone, and my internet providers are all going out the window. That industry has made a majority of their customers defectors, and on the brink of leaving to a better solution the second it presents itself. Learn from this lesson.
Terrorists - These are customers that hate the brand and have felt betrayed at a certain level and have been so hurt they are extremely vocal about this. They can create problems for your brand in the search engine results pages in the form of RipoffReports, scam reports, or forums where they'll spend their time bashing you and getting anyone potentially interested in doing business with your brand to think twice.
Avoid creating terrorists at ALL COSTS. A full refund will cost you less in the long run versus dealing with brand terrorists. People get angry and frustrated all the time, and they'll vent it to you. The way you handle the situation is going to determine their reaction. If you handle a rude customer with rudeness you'll create a terrorist. If you handle a rude customer with kindness but they still feel like you didn't solve their problem you'll create a terrorist. If you handle a rude customer by acknowledging the problem, accepting blame for the problem, and then giving them something extra on top due to the problem - then you've just stopped a new terrorist from being born.
In fact the ultimate customer service skill is being able to turn a terrorist into a Apostle - And it can happen. In fact terrorist turning into apostles are more common than any other customer level turning into apostles - because of the emotion. People react to brands with emotion, the more emotional the reaction the more power behind that emotion. Don't leave a customer simmering or feeling like they got cheated - they might write it off, but at some point in the future when your brand comes up, they'll make sure to talk about their bad experience, therefore hurting your reputation through word of mouth.
If you've already got terrorists, try to win them over by asking them honestly what they believe you need to do to improve to your service to make it better. If they are not a troll they'll have a list of stuff you can improve on, and most likely those improvements can help your overall company. The key is to open dialogue and being able to spot these terrorist before they become terrorist in the early stages. All terrorist have attempted to communicate with your brand at some level - cause they want their problem solved. But your company's response wasn't satisfactory or it felt like their voice went unheard and THAT IS the problem.
The first level is to take every communication of a customer like it's the President of the country calling in. Take it seriously and make sure they walk away feeling happy, at the very least for being heard, but if you can implement solutions right away to solve their problem, then you turned a regular customer into a loyalist - or maybe even an apostle.
The only terrorist that never communicates with you are trolls. When you have a situation with a "customer" that's trolling you on a certain platform, NEVER ever engage them with emotion. Explain the situation with nothing but facts and professionalism, and tell the audience that this individual may be a troll so this will be your one and only communication about this matter, anyone that has any questions/problems can message you directly and you'll personally attend to the matter to make it right, but strongly state you will not engage with a troll or a smear campaign.
The whole point is to state your case with facts, the reasoning behind your decision, with absolutely NO anger or even passive-aggressive response (see example ahrefs on reddit <- do not respond like this - in fact there are dozens of examples on the internet of people making a fool of themselves and therefore their brand while showcasing ridiculously low level of awareness of how they make the brand look as a representative of the brand - I actually cancelled my ahrefs account cause of that foolishness). You need to showcase that you are willing to listen to customers when there is a problem since when they have a problem you have a problem and you are in business to solve their problem. Now if you just can't solve their problem, don't ignore them, but acknowledge their ideas then explain your positions on why you cannot do what they are asking you to do. They'll appreciate your honesty and will gain a bit more respect for your brand.
Hostages - These guys consider themselves stuck with you. They will leave if a better solution comes along - especially when they feel like they cannot leave now. Engage with them to see what you can do to improve your product/service and turn their emotional feeling towards you from a hostage to a loyalist at the very least. Engaging these customers is key, and when I mean engaging I'm not speaking of simply sending a "feedback survey" to the whole user base.
Try an approach that will NOT scale well - yes, you'll be amazed at the results. This is a great article, How We Got 2,000+ Customers by Doing Things That Didn’t Scale, in which Groove does a handholding approach. Imagine sending out a 2 sentence email to each customer, seemingly written for them specifically asking for Honest feedback and what they think you can improve upon with the service going forward in the future. If you are doing this one by one - throw in a personal tidbit from the past history you may have had with them - this shows that you really care.
Customers will jump at this to list their praise or grievances - this is great, cause it's raw feedback that you need to grow. It WILL be hard to hear about the problems and pains. I personally know from experience, but know that they are being critical cause they believe in their minds that you can elevate your game to meet that expectation - so DO IT - FAST. Customers from non-emotional levels may add their 2 cents in as well, but the key is the customers that don't necessarily answer will know there is the opportunity for genuine feedback, and that'll put your brand in a better light in their minds.
Mercenaries - The vast majority of your audience will include these ranks. They are here for practical necessity and if your product starts creating new problems rather than solving them, they'll look to copycats or "good enough" solutions - if they are enticed to. This is why so many copycat services simply use discounts and coupons to attract audiences. Their service is not better nor worse than the competitors, and their customer support maybe in fact be completely worse but they can entice your mercenary level customers since there are certain needs this customer group feels are not met.
Realistically I doubt any of my complaints will ever reach Comcast's CEO's ear - so giving the company feedback, I assume will be useless. But imagine for a moment that the Comcast CEO sent out a personal email asking for honest feedback from his customers about his company and their performance. BAM - that could shake the foundation of any negative press they've had in the past and showcase that they are at least trying to change. It would be such a shocker to the whole base it could save their reputation in ALL of their customers. Now imagine if the CEO responded to as many emails as possible in a blog post, and explain their position - The internet would break, literally, cause it's such a 180 degree turn for a company like that to do.
But you aren't Comcast - however people generally feel there is a lack of "empathy" for customers from brands. So if you can do moves like personal emails and personally responding to customers, it will put you again in a "Best-In-Class" category for your industry. It sounds crazy, but imagine a CEO responding to customer complaints - it shouldn't sound crazy, cause the CEO, of all people, needs direct feedback from his customers. Yet there is a disconnect now-a-days when customers get started with a new relationship with a brand, they automatically feel like they will not be listened to - Change that persception at least for your company and stand above the rest.
Defectors - These are baby terrorist but don't have the energy or will to act out against a brand. However you still need to treat them with the same velvet gloves as terrorist and convey to them that their problems, worries, or fears are heard loud and clear. And if you need to explain why you can't do something do it professionally without anger - even if they call you a "stinky-face-stupidhead". Oh yes, customers can get really nasty - they might not even be lashing out at you specifically, but are lashing out at anyone cause of other events in their lives which you may not be aware of - so don't get emotional or take anger personally. Solve their problem and attempt to rectify any situation with some added bonus or positive energy.
One technique you can utilize to get defectors to come back into the fold is to ask for their help. Getting them involved in your company or brand will make them feel like they have an invested interest in your success - and therefore want you to succeed. Some subtle ways are to ask for a follow on Twitter or Facebook and help spread the word whenever they think you've published something worthwhile.
Allow shareable sections of your service/product with their friends and colleagues and add some gamification to your service - where they get a small reward or badge for adding value, then you've got them addicted like a video game. Check out Hooked - you might want to get the book and absorb all of it's information.
Loyalist - This group is tricky since it has so much potential into becoming an apostle but they simply aren't vocal about it. You can engage these users by asking for feedback or even a testimonial about their experience - Apostles will jump at it, Loyalists need a bit of a nudge, but it can work.
An example, if a customer of your SAAS (service as a software) has a problem and gets responses within 5 to 30 mins, and has their problems fixed or at least acknowledge, then they'll have "less bad things to say". Every business always has small problems here and there, but the key to keeping customers coming back is to reduce the small annoyances as much as possible, if not totally eliminate them. And that's how referrals happen, that's how customers come to your defense in case people question your brand, and that's how you create customer apostles. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tactic and making sure every customer interaction you put out into the universe is positive which will keep your brand in a positive light.
Pro-Actively solving problems
Not all customers will attempt to communicate to you directly, they might ask questions on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, or forums to other individuals. What you need to do is make sure you have Google Alerts setup and also use another service like Mentions or similar to get immediate alerts when something regarding your brand hits the internet. Depending on your setup you can get alerted within seconds and react to a potential problem or a general curiosity question that can turn a would be customers into an impressed customer due to your quickness and professionalism.
Scrub Your Userbase
Some customers will not click the "unsubscribe" link for your emails or communication but simply click spam - whether on purpose or accident. Make sure you have a setup like Mandrill or others that alert you of spam complaints and allow you to remove problem emails so you always stay within the good graces of email services. The key to communicating with each customer is - they have to be able to get your communication, so keeping your lines of communication open and clean is critical.
"Just Keep This Between Me and You"
(Someone is thinking right now "hey wait a minute!") Apple Stores are constantly praised for their exceptional level of customer service and it's overall brand. But little do most consumers know Apple has actually been taking notes from The Ritz-Carlton.
Apple mimics the Ritz-Carlton's customer experience and takes the empowerment approach to their employees. I once had an excellent experience when my motherboard fried on my macbook pro 17. They examined it, then fix it at no cost to me cause it was a defect and their fault. Problem is when I got it back it had the wrong chip in it, so I took it back, and they replaced it again, but then this time it didn't turn on, while I was in the store - now normally people would get mad, but the Apple rep that was helping, with their empowerment initiative, stated they would get me a brand new model, AND move all my files, without any extra cost to me. I was extremely happy cause it was over 2 weeks without a laptop, but at the same time I got the newer model at no extra cost.
The representative realized the situation and knew it would be better in the long run to keep me happy cause now I sing Apple's praises all day and night cause they knew they were at fault and corrected the situation as best they could, and when they couldn't they really fixed the problem. I believe the Ritz-Carlton allows each employee up to $2000 in spend towards correcting a problem for a customer before they have to go to a manager, so they empower their employees to make common sense decision and the right choice for their brand. Apple has taken notes from Ritz' level of customer service, and that is now ingrained within the brand and it's core message.
Customer service is a huge part of Apple and a key ingredient in a successful brand. Where I see a ton of service providers and other online ventures failing at is this simple idea. Your customers are your life blood, treat them with respect, communicate accordingly in a timely manner AT ALL TIMES even on weekends, and especially if there is an emergency and you as the service provider have screwed up or aren't on time. The absolute worst thing you can do is ignore a customer or not get back to them and have them stewing in anger; it's completely unprofessional but this practice is notorious within the SEO industry as a whole.
Just letting people know what's wrong and how you are going to fix it is better then ignoring them and making up some excuse - you'll lose trust and their future business and hurt your brand through bad word of mouth. Whenever there is a serious problem, fix it, and then offer a bonus or something on-top as an extra to make things right with your customers, and sincerely apologize for the problem. Those small gestures can go along way turning your brand into a best-in-class brand people will recommend.
Here is a great article on Forbes about how Apple and Ritz-Carlton handle customer service: How Wegmans, Apple Store, and Ritz-Carlton Win Loyal Customers
The key to all customer service is making sure that you understand where the customer is coming from and why they are contacting you in the first place. They are contacting you since they WANT to do business with you - Engage them quickly while their hot. Be professional, courteous, respectful, and be willing to listen to their problems. The faster you can put a bright smile on their face the easier it will be to deal with each individual in the future.