When it comes down to it, the most effective tool any client service representative has in his or her arsenal is an apology. We live in a culture of finger pointing and excuses that make a simple “I am so sorry” a refreshing and genuine way to conduct business. But what happens when the problem is not our fault?

I recently experienced a frustrating interaction with a Customer Service department that was rendered ineffective because it depended on feedback from staff it could not control. My luggage was lost somewhere during a 2 connection flight on 2 different airlines. The worldwide tracking tool was supposed to provide me and the customer service department regular updates on the status of my delayed bag. While the bag did finally show up (damaged) the tracking tool was not updated as it should have been leading to severe anxiety on my part (the customer) and multiple calls to a customer service organization (unproductive use of the call center). There are important lessons to be learned from this failed process.

In an earlier blog post titled: Warning, Is your Sales Force blindsided by Customer Service I talked about the need for customer service to keep sales informed about potential customer escalations and that might negatively impact the sales team. Here is a real life example of a system that was in place when I retired from IBM Canada.

In a large organization, the sales team on an account may not know about issues the customer is having. Customer personnel may be calling the service organization with their problems. In many cases the front line staff in support handle the problems from the customers in an efficient and effective way and the sales team need not know. But what if the customer is not happy with the resolutions being offered. The sales team may be preparing a new proposal for the customer or have a presentation planned with the customer. If the sales team doesn’t know there are hot issues, they may walk into a firestorm at the customer’s office and be ill prepared to handle it.

Customers who are unhappy tell their friends about it. With social media, that information spreads faster than ever before.

We also know that some customers who are happy tell their friends, write reviews and spread the word using traditional new internet techniques as well.

The real challenge is how to turn satisfied customers into these ‘advocates’ or ‘promoters’. An advocate actively spreads positive word of mouth about their experiences. An advocate can help your organization obtain new customers and prospects.

American Express has been focused on improving the number of customers who are ‘promoters’ and would recommend them to family and friends. Here is how they changed their culture to accomplish this mission.

The real challenge is how to turn satisfied customers into these ‘advocates’ or ‘promoters’.

Fonolo has an interesting application that allows consumers to navigate a company’s voice response menus on a PC or an iPhone, enter a number for a call back and get called back by the next available agent. This front end can be implemented without changing an organization’s entire system. Customers may like the alternative to waiting on hold, increasing customer satisfaction and agents may be more productive handling problems they are trained for , without having to transfer customers.

Customers have been turning to social media to complain about companies on Twitter for a long time. Many businesses monitor Twitter for mentions and respond to irate customers. A new focus on Twitter is customers to complain about how long they have been waiting on ‘hold’ to access customer service. They use the hashtag #onholdwith. And a website, OnHoldWith.com tracks these tweets and reports them.

Does the name Dave Carroll ring a bell with you? How about the song ‘United Breaks Guitars’? If you have been watching the development of social media, you are, no doubt aware of the situation Dave Carroll, a musician found himself in, with a broken guitar, damaged by United Airlines and a very stubborn airline that refused to budge on compensation. Dave Carroll, wrote a very catchy tune, posted it on Youtube and the song went viral, attracting the attention of CNN. When CNN phoned United Airlines, they had a different response than Dave Carroll was able to obtain on his own. Dave has decided to become a consumer advocate and with partners has created a new site called Gripevine for consumer complaints.

7 Techniques to Understand Your Customers

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

A prior blog post called Customer Satisfaction Tip: Understand Your Customer reviewed why it was important to understand your customer and what it really meant to understand. Three company examples were included, IBM, Cisco and Apple. This post covers seven techniques and best practices to understand your customers, theirs needs, wants, wishes, complaints, concerns, and the terminology they use.

Customers buy your product or service with the expectation that it will solve a problem they have. If you don’t understand your customer, you may miss the problem they are really trying to solve. If you cannot understand why your customer has acquired your product or service, you may talk to them in an unfamiliar language. You may not understand their problem. And you may make policy decisions that are inappropriate for the market you serve. You may service your product incorrectly. You may sell to the wrong audience with expectations you don’t satisfy. The effect of these misunderstandings or poor policies or service will be customer dissatisfaction, negative word of mouth and loss of brand image, resulting in lower sales.

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