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Sunday 11 May 2003

More Customer Service Rules

Some months ago, I wrote down a number of what I called rules for retailers. These rules were written to be specifically applicable to retail operations, but they apply to pretty much anyone who’s wondering about how to improve his or her customer service. I estimate this group to contain precisely zero members, but

Anyway, I just thought of two more:

  1. Practice customer parity. This is a broad rule. It used to be said that the customer should be treated as an honored guest. That’d be great, but it’s not likely to happen these days. The very least you should aim for, though, is customer parity, which means treating the customer at least as well as you require him to treat you.

    It means issuing refunds to customers in the same form in which they paid you. If a customer pays with a credit card, credit the amount back to the card. If he paid with a check, repay him with a check — on the spot. If he paid cash, you must refund cash to him. Obviously, if the customer voluntarily agrees to another form of compensation, be this a check, a gift certificate, or jelly beans, that’s okay, too. But unless you’re willing to let a customer walk out the door with a television based on his promise to have a check sent in a week or two from his central office, it’s inexcusably arrogant and rude to ask him to accept that promise from you.

  2. Do not outsource your customer-support operations, to India or anywhere else. If you have any respect for your customers at all, you’ll handle supporting them in precisely the same way you handle taking their money. If you do business in the physical world, your prime customer-support functions should take place in your physical locations (i.e. stores). If you have a store, and a customer is in it, and you must refer the customer to a phone number to solve their problem, you have failed.

    A surprising number of companies have arranged their operations so that sales — getting money from the customer — can be carried out anywhere and with ease, while customer support — delivering value to the customer — is a complicated procedure run from a single location with arcane hours. Like the practice of refunding large cash purchases with a check mailed from the central office, this practice makes it clear that you are not really interested in providing value for money.

    Apple Computer’s Genius Bars are perfect examples of keeping sales and customer-support operations in the same place. While Apple offers support over the phone and on the web, they’ve also gone out of their way to provide support in their Apple Stores around the country.

    The best contrasting example I can think of is my former bank. I used to use a bank that pointedly did not have listed phone numbers for any of its branches in the phone book. Their listing consisted of a single 800 number, answered hundreds or thousands of miles away. The people who (eventually) answered that number were unable or unwilling to supply any information about the local branches, so the only way to speak to a particular staff member in the branch was to go down there in person. The bank had carefully arranged matters so that it was impossible to have any kind of continuous relationship with them.

    I understand that the bank was trying to streamline its operations and lower its costs by not having branch employees be bothered with answering phone calls. But what’s the real cost of a policy that makes it clear to your customers that you consider them a burden?

    Operating call centers is a horribly expensive proposition, and it’s quite the thing these days to outsource your call-center operations to third parties located someplace where labor is relatively cheap, like Wyoming or India.

    However, when you outsource your customer contact, you step into the Twilight Zone of business — as in, your business is in the twilight of its life. Outsourcing your customer contact means, obviously, that you don’t talk to your customers and they don’t talk to you. Any customer problem that you did not specifically anticipate and build in to the decision tree that you handed off to the outsourcing company will result in an unsatisfied customer.

    Before you outsource your customer contact, and ask yourself why people should buy their widgets from you instead of Discount Widget Warehouse, or whoever else happens to have the cheapest prices this week. If the answer involves the word “service” or “support” or “relationship” at all, you’re in the customer-service business, and you should probably act like it.

Posted by tino at 19:36 11.05.03
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I would add Don’t Overstimulate the Customer. Unless you run a movie theater, amusement park, or casino, keep the loud noises and bright colors in check. I hate Best Buy because every time I walk in I subconciously start looking for the craps table and never find it.

Posted by: RRP at May 21, 2003 08:29 PM