Five Things (Not) To Do When Talking To Customers

Economics tells us that buying decisions are a function of price, the intersection of demand and supply, and a willingness to pay. ‘Willingness to pay’ – such a clever term that can encompass so many biases.

Ever decided to buy from one shop rather than another because the shopkeeper at the first talked to you nicely while the one at the second was too curt for comfort? Ceteris paribus, a rational buyer should be indifferent between the two shops, but buyers still do make different choices based on how the seller interacts with the customer.

Large corporations have been able to remove any personality-driven biases in the customer’s mind by having a faceless Customer Service Department (CSD), aka Customer Relations Department (CRD) or Customer Care Department (CCD), do all the talking with customers. Without a face, however, the brand takes a hit if something goes wrong.

Here are five things that a company should do when talking to customers:

#1: Talk to the Customer

It doesn’t get simpler than this. Open up channels for the customer to reach you and make sure that someone with a solid idea of what your business is about is sitting at the internal end of the channel.

On one end of the scale, there’s Zappos, the American e-retailer, which made customer service their raison d’etre and the phone their main channel of communicating with the customer. Zappos removed the ‘script’ from their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) process and allowed its executives to speak to customers for as long as was reasonable to resolve their issues.

On the other end there is Vodafone India, one of the largest providers of telephony in India, which does not want to talk to the customer at all! When you call them, you could press through their endless IVR architecture about eleven times before you find an option where you can speak to a real person only to be told that your waiting time to speak to a Customer Service Executive (CSE) is 26 minutes! Worse still, you actually have to pay for every extra minute beyond a stipulated number that you spend on the phone talking to the CSE. It would seem that Vodafone India’s processes and incentive structure for the CSD are driven by a single metric – the least time spent talking to customers.

#2 Listen to what the customer is saying

Duh! Instead of rattling off a spiel that your CRM Manual proposes, take the time to actually hear what the customer is saying.

Emirates, the international carrier, has possibly trained their CSEs to record the gist of conversations with their customers, especially in cases where issues were not resolved, such that they are able to make it up to them, if not immediately, then in the near future. So, the next time you are flying them after a customer upset, don’t be surprised if your name is suddenly called out at the boarding gate for an upgrade.

HSBC India, the Indian arm of the global bank, could take a leaf out of their book. Whether it is a new product that they want to tell you about or a delayed credit card payment that they want to remind you about, the CSEs will take a good 120 seconds to trundle through your account status before getting to the point. Never mind if the customer has gone to sleep by then.

#3 Empower the CSE

In addition to imparting a solid understanding of the business to the CSE, give her some teeth to actually resolve customer issues.

Hilton, the international hotel chain, has a transparent and speedy escalation mechanism so the front-desk executive can not only make a note of the grievance you bring to his notice but also propose a resolution that is satisfactory to the customer, without seemingly overstepping his authority.

HDFC Bank, the leading Indian bank, however, is a different story. Their so-called Relationship Managers, who change every three odd months (too soon really to be able to form any ‘relationship), are rarely able to answer basic account-related questions, let alone resolve queries without checking with another two levels in the chain of command.

#4 Time cross-selling opportunities cautiously

Ensure that there are no unresolved issues for an existing customer before trying to push more products/ services down her throat.

Jabong, the Indian e-retailer, has done this beautifully and unobtrusively. A hard-nosed e-commerce player, it has refined its website based on surfer clicking patterns, cookies and cataloguing. Their returns policy makes them stand apart from the Amazons and Flipkarts of the industry. A no-questions asked returns policy in almost all cases, effortless reverse pick-ups, Jabong credits (with a year-long validity) for returned items, and fantastic discount schemes for all seasons, keeps customers coming back.

ICICI Securities, the Indian financial services company, on the other hand, has not realised just how many hand-offs they could do without in their customer care routine. Certainly the time when many of the hands in their extra-long chain fail to pick up the load should not be the time for trying to sell an already frustrated customer the latest product that has been launched.

#5 Be fair

It’s far easier to retain a customer than to find a new one (true with any professional relationship, really), so don’t take her for granted.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Uber India, the taxi network company, will charge a customer for a ride that has been cancelled by its driver at will. It is then up to the customer to petition for a reversal of charges.

FirstCry, the baby and child care e-retailer, on the other hand, has made its EZReturns policy so easy and transparent that the refund could come into your account as soon as you disconnect your call to the CSE, much quicker than the goods to be returned will be picked up from your doorstep.

From ‘let the buyer beware’ to ‘real’ customer care…

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