For companies with a customer-centric culture, improving customer service isn't just a goal—it's a decision. They know the benefits of improving customer service are too good to pass up:
- more repeat business
- loyal fans who recommend their friends
- lower customer acquisition costs
- a solid reputation that can put the occasional negative review into perspective
Increasing customer satisfaction may take time, but the internal rewards alone—a sense of shared purpose, for example, and reduced turnover—can make the journey more than worthwhile. Here are five keys to help you start improving customer service today:
1. Customer-centric culture
"Make the customer the hero of your story." — Ann Handley
Before you can create a customer centric culture, you need to remind yourself who your customer is and what business you're truly in.
For example, early in my career when I worked as a financial newsletter editor, our customer was not the reader but the buyer (financial planners and company HR departments). We weren't simply in the financial education business, we were in the business of helping our buyers create goodwill among their audiences.
Which meant not promoting investments that clashed with what our buyers/customers were selling. Or not using phrases such as "Christmas shopping," which were sure to rankle our customers in HR. I didn't always like these restrictions. But I learned to accept them.
Who is your true customer? For a more in-depth look at customer centricity, please see HubSpot's article Customer-Centric Culture Leads to Greater Employee Retention.
2. Internal customer service
“Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person—not just an employee—are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.” — Anne M. Mulcahy - former CEO of Xerox
Internal customer service is more than just a sentiment. It means giving staff and co-workers what they need to engage and serve external customers. A few examples of internal customer service in action:
- Timely and forthright communication
- Decision-making power; if you want employees who are problem-solvers, give them the authority to problem-solve in the moment, when it counts—and help them grasp when it's okay (or advisable) to bend the rules for a customer
- Soliciting employee opinions
- Recognizing employee contributions
- Cultivating pride, awareness and appreciation for employee contributions
For example, sometimes when I'm speaking to multiple departments within a company, I tell them to imagine when they came in tomorrow, they would be working in another department: marketing in engineering, for example, and engineering in human resources.
Then I have the audience stand up and go interview someone in the room who works in a different department. Interview questions may include:
- What do you find most difficult about your work?
- When it comes to your work, what are you most proud of?
- What's the one thing you wish other people in the company understood about your work?
It's interesting to hear what people learn about themselves and their co-workers. And it almost inevitably increases the internal customer service among them.
3. Customer service strategy
Think of your customer service strategy as a roadmap or framework—one that helps ensure a consistent customer experience and makes providing excellent customer service more automatic.
If you've decided as a company to improve customer service, now would be an excellent time to review (or create) your customer service strategy.
Improving Customer Service: A Simple 9-Part Framework
This framework will be especially useful if you work with patients, customers or clients face to face. It is built on the acronym CARPE DIEM:
C - Connect. A smile, a gesture of welcome; something that conveys "I'm glad you're here."
A - Acknowledge. Maybe you can't take care of the customer right away. But you can acknowledge their presence. "Thank you for waiting. I'll be right with you."
R - Respond. Instead of asking "Can I help you?" (which begs the question, "Why else would I be here?"), ask "How may I help you?" Use less formal language if you want. The point is, be one step ahead of the customer—not one step behind.
And if you're doing an intake, remember this is part of the customer experience. You can ask questions gently and conversationally, thereby increasing customer satisfaction, or fire them off like it's a deposition. Choose gently and conversationally.
P - Pitch solution. Waiting at the doctor's office seems to be unavoidable. But is there something you can offer while the person waits? A cup of water, for example. Look for ways to be accommodating.
E - End on a positive. As I wrote about in an earlier post, Sorry vs. Thank You, most customers would rather be thanked for their patience than reminded of a difficulty. Ending a customer conversation on a positive leaves a favorable impression. Common sense? Of course. Common practice? Not always.
DIEM stands for "Do It Every Moment." Yes, even when you think no one is looking. This is often the make-it-or-break-it moment for the customer service experience. Nothing "breaks" the experience like seeing an employee who could be helping a customer absorbed in their phone instead.
4. Hiring for customer service
When recruiting, interviewing and hiring for customer service, what you're after is not so much the candidate's "philosophy" of customer service, but actual examples of how they went above and beyond the call of duty—and/or a time they dealt with a difficult customer. These sort of behavioral questions will help you assess:
- What the candidate considers above and beyond
- What they consider a difficult customer
- Whether the candidate showed initiative and problem-solving, or merely followed orders
- The candidate's level of customer empathy; i.e., the ability to see oneself through the customer's eyes
Speaking of empathy: Especially if you work in healthcare, this video clip should be part of your employee training. It deserves to be viewed with your full attention and a touch of reverence:
5. How to deal with difficult customers
No discussion of improving customer service would be complete without including a few words on how to deal with difficult customers. Again, it pays to have a framework. Here is an informal framework to share with your team (no acronym):
- Resist the urge to be defensive
- Do not take a customer's irate attitude personally
- Stay calm; do not let someone else's demeanor determine your own
- Stay focused on solutions, not on rehashing the problem
Give your team the training and support they need to problem-solve, use good judgment, and otherwise act in the customer's best interest—preferably before they have to.
Here's a brief look at Starbucks' LATTE method, taught to baristas to deal with angry (or under-caffeinated) guests.
Start improving your customer service today
Are you interested in improving customer service? I can work with you to help communicate your customer service standards, gain companywide buy-in, and reap the benefits of increased profitability and employee engagement. To take the next, no-obligation step, simply click the form below.