People pay more for better customer service

While many businesses see customer service as being an unavoidable cost of doing business (on a par with the fact that you will need electricity, say, or staff), the reality is that it’s part of the customer’s decision-making process when choosing to do business with you. Consumers will always seek value for money, especially in tough financial times.

However, a recent American Express survey has reconfirmed that people are willing to pay more than the lowest available price for a given product or service – as long as the customer service is good. The results of this survey place Indian and Singaporean consumers at the top of the list of those who value good service, but that’s not to say that people in other countries aren’t prepared to shell out for good care. Quite the opposite.

One poor customer service experience, and they're off

I can hear what you’re thinking: that people will say they want good service, but when it comes to the crunch, it’s the hip-pocket nerve that drives their decisions.

It’s true that survey results in general are notoriously unreliable, but consider this: customers do switch brands. That’s an established fact. And one of the main reasons they give for switching is that they are unhappy with customer service. So even if you do suck them in with low prices, you’re going to lose them again if your service isn’t up to scratch. With 89% of people saying that they’d switch to a vendor’s competitor after a poor customer service experience, you’re taking a pretty big risk if you focus simply on price. And in the original AmEx survey, 38% of consumers say that they would immediately consider switching to another company after just a single poor experience.

Show customers that you understand their needs

So how does this work? Your customers are influenced by price, but customer service is where the real influence kicks in. Unfortunately many businesses seem to be a bit confused by what good customer service actually is. There is a secret, and it’s probably not what you think it is. In fact, failure to understand this secret is behind 95% of bad customer service experiences. What you need to do, is show customers that you understand their needs.

I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had a bad customer service experience which was founded on a lack of awareness of that simple statement. Companies love to show that they’re speedy (by giving fast reponses). They like to show off how organised they are (automated phone menus with 10 different choices at each level before you finally get put through to a human being). And oh, they love to show off what a wide range of goods and services they have to offer.

Accept, assess and fulfil

What most of them fail to demonstrate is any sort of awareness of the customer’s needs. Let alone understanding of them. Accept that your customers’ needs go further than just finding the lowest price possible. And then to assess each customer communication individually to see just what it is that they need. This part is really not that hard – customers will usually tell you. Customer complaints are invaluable market intelligence. Then once you know what their needs are – and this is the key – fulfil them.

3 golden rules for writing a decent customer email

It might be getting slightly old-fashioned, but in essence, email can still be a convenient communication channel for both business and customer. Customers can reach out to businesses at any time of the day or night, taking the time to outline their issues without having somebody hanging on the other end of the phone line. It’s simpler and easier for all concerned.

Or is it? Some companies seem to use email because it’s faster and easier for them. They use email programmes which allow them to respond to customers in the most efficient way possible – but only because they want to keep their own costs down. If the customer is actually helped by the response, well hey, that’s just an added bonus! As long as the service reps ‘process’ the ‘ticket’, they consider their job done.

The wrong end of the telescope

I encountered this mindset a few days ago. I used the customer service contact form on a company website to ask my question. The reply I received had a very odd subject line: a single number ‘1’. Let me copy and paste the equally stunning body text:

"Thank you for your inquiry of [X brand] products. We only service the United States and Canada from this location. Please contact the facility closest to you for further assistance. They will be happy to assist you. You can view all of our offices worldwide at [X website]. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused."

The intriguing bit about this email is that it’s almost as if the macro – and a macro it clearly is – was composed with the express aim of letting customers know that the company does not care about them. It doesn’t contain a single one of the essential ingredients for a decent customer email.

Some customer service reps, indeed, are looking down the wrong end of the telescope. Although they should be helping customers to find the answers they need (and thus to promote the company’s image), they’re only concerned about processing emails as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, marketers focus on advertising and put an enormous amount of effort into attracting new customers. But just a little bit of effort spent on customer service emails is worth a fortune invested in advertising. Be sure to follow the three golden rules when writing to your customers.

1. Personalise your email’s subject line

Perhaps that lonely figure 1 really does mean something to the company concerned. From my point of view, it looked like the sender needed to put something there and just clicked on the first key that caught his eye.

Sadly this defeats the purpose of a subject line, which is to save the recipient some time. As the reader’s first impression of the message, the subject line should sum up the contents of the email. Choose something relevant, like “Reply to your query about X”, “Your order at X”, or even “X opening hours. Putting even a teeny bit of effort into your subject line helps to make your message more personal and makes the entire email more believable.

2. Make it sound like you care

No matter how boring your customers’ issues may be to you, they’re important to them. They wouldn’t have written to you otherwise, would they? Be sure that you match their enthusiasm. After all, if you don’t care about your business, why would you expect anybody else to? (And if you hire other people to take care of customer service, read our handy guide on how to get the best from them.)

Use a friendly, personal tone in your message. When writing the awful email I got, it would only have taken the customer service rep a few extra seconds to type: “Dear Kelly.” The fact that he didn’t even bother to address me… well, it speaks volumes.

3. Don’t give your customers the email cold shoulder

Your customer has written to you for help – so help them. In the email I received, the person who “helped” me couldn’t even be bothered to look up the specific office I needed to contact. It would have been a small amount of work for him to have copied and pasted the information into the body of the email. Instead, I was asked to click on a link and trawl through a list of all of their offices worldwide. (The best part? None of them included email addresses. Well, that’s one way of keeping your inbox empty.) And would it really have been so hard for him to have forwarded my email to a colleague who could help me, asking that person to assist me?

Household brands like the one I emailed spend many millions – if not billions – each year on advertising. They employ print, television and online advertising in an effort to convince consumers that they care about their needs and know how to fulfil them. And all that good work is totally undone when their customer service staff demonstrate very clearly that they could not care less.

The recipients of their icy emails will probably not try to contact them again; they’ll simply go elsewhere. Following the 3 golden rules isn’t going to guarantee you a happy customer every time. It will, however, help to ensure that you come across as credible and caring. When a customer reaches out to you, you have an amazing opportunity to show that person just how fabulous your company is. It’s marketing gold; don’t just throw it away.

Facebook’s not all that: email is where it’s at

Is your business using Facebook as a push system? Then we’re sad to report you’re wasting your time. Facebook has been working to reduce the organic reach of businesses since 2012, with Ogilvy pegging organic reach at 2% last February. That means that fans rarely see your company’s post pop up in their news feeds. So have you got something to share with your customers? Send them an email.

This will be even more important in 2015, when a new Facebook algorithm kicks in. According to the experts at global research firm Forrester (who recently published a report on social relationship strategies), Facebook is set to slash organic reach even further. This will sound the death knell for customer interaction: unless your Facebook fans expressly seek you out – for example by coming to your page to ask a question, make a complaint, or offer praise – they simply won’t see your posts.

Bye-bye, Faceboook. Hello again, email!

You might not see this as a problem, because customers will still be able to make contact with you. And naturally you’ll be giving them the same lightning-fast, well-considered service you always do, right? The thing is, even the most altruistic of companies do like to get a little something back at times. And that means being able to communicate with customers when you think of them – not only when they think of you.

Short of running through the streets with a megaphone, what’s an SME to do? Forrester analyst Nate Elliott has the answer, though it might not be what you expected. Facebook was never all that, for companies at least. One of Forrester’s recent surveys showed that US online adults who want to stay in touch with your brand are almost twice as likely to sign up for your emails as to interact with you on Facebook. Emails are far more likely to get your customers’ eyeballs than Facebook posts are. Not only that, but you get to decide what you’re allowed to say in your emails – not Mark Zuckerberg.

Email ain’t goin’ anywhere

Over the past few years, the customer service buzz has emphasised the importance of helping customers on the channels that work for them – and those channels have increasingly been social media ones. We at Casengo would not suggest for a moment that you should turn away from offering customer service on Facebook and Twitter simply because it no longer offers you a way to promote yourself to customers. Far from it – you need to keep providing customer service on your customers’ preferred channels. But be aware that the rumours of email customer service’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. So get back in control: fight the chaos in your inbox and reach your customers better than ever!

Crappy customer service? Be banned from selling!

British energy regulator Ofgem is baring its sizeable teeth. The target of its wrath is ScottishPower, one of the nation’s ‘Big Six’ energy companies. The reason? Poor customer service.

Ofgem expects companies to compete keenly on service. Yet this is clearly not happening. Thanks to the large number of complaints Ofgem has received about ScottishPower (about sending bills notoriously late, for instance), it has decided to take the unusual step of preventing a supplier making an effort to attract new customers.

Unless, that is, ScottishPower can prove that it’s able to cope with the customers it already has. And the proof Ofgem wants is very specific: by the end of this month, ScottishPower must catch up on the backlog of actions on Ombudsman decisions for individual complaints. By the end of the year, the energy company must at least have halved the number of overdue bills. And by the end of January, it must have “significantly” improved the speed at which it answers customer calls.

Ofgem has given ScottishPower a three-month period to get its customer service act together. Otherwise: a stiff ban on sales and marketing activities to prospective customers.

Taking care of existing customers

Basically, the message is: “If you can’t manage to take care of the customers you’ve already got, we’re not going to let you advertise to new ones.” A novel solution to a customer service problem! Customers can only dream of having such powerful regulatory bodies in other industries. If they existed, customer service might be very different.

Take your own industry, for starters… Consider how your own business functions when it comes to customer service. If an imaginary Online Business Regulator came to check things over, what would your report card say? Are you putting more energy into attracting new customers than into looking after your existing ones? If an enquiry from a new customer takes preference over a query or complaint from someone who already spends money at your business, that’s a sign that you’ve got a problem.

It’s highly likely that you already have a detailed marketing plan in place. Now it’s time to put a detailed customer service plan in place too. Make a set of Ofgem-style deadlines to get all your outstanding customer service tasks up to date. Clear the backlog of queries so you can start the new year fresh. When customers want to give you money, you don’t hesitate. So make sure you respond in the same way when they come to you with questions or problems.

It can seem like modern businesses are in love with the thrill of the chase: they put most of their energy into winning you over as a customer. Then once you’re on board, they lose interest. Turn that around – it’s a sure way to make your company stand out.

Black Friday: price versus service

Black Friday (November 28) is coming up! Is your customer service team ready for the busiest online shopping day of the year? Traditionally, the day after US Thanksgiving has been a day for massive discounts in retail outlets. In recent years the trend has spread online and around the world.

Are you thinking of taking part? It’s tempting to focus just on turning over lots of stock, but the support you provide to first-time customers on those days will make a lasting impression.

Black Friday: come for the prices, stay for the service

Time after time, surveys have shown that potential buyers rate customer service as being more important than price. I’m not going to pretend that price isn’t important on Black Friday – nobody’s going to come running to buy from you just because you promise good customer service. But once you’ve snagged customers with your low prices, you have a much better chance of keeping them by backing up those great prices with stellar customer service.

My personal experience backs this up – on one occasion, trawling the net for the cheapest printer ink prices, I came across I figured I had nothing to lose by giving them a go. My order arrived the next day and soon afterwards I received personal follow-up. Turns out I’m not the only one who’s been impressed by the great customer service. I couldn’t really tell you where I bought my ink in the past; I just shopped around for the lowest prices. Once you feel like a valued customer, you’ll remember the business and keep on returning.

Quality service remains long after price is forgotten

Of course, the opposite also holds true – you could attract customers with your low prices and subsequently make such a bad impression on them that they vow never to buy from you again. While the adrenaline rush from clicking ‘purchase’ on that great Black Friday bargain is fleeting, dealing with issues caused by potentially defective or not-as-ordered items can take weeks. And that’s the part that the customer will remember.

Prices are transparent, but poor service is hard to spot before clicking that purchase button. That’s why it’s important to be clear about your service standards up front – and then stick to them. Otherwise your customers may well end up being very unsatisfied indeed, and sharing their dissatisfaction with their friends. Experts say that unhappy customers tell up to twice as many people about their experience as happy ones do. And if they write an online review about your company’s bad service on top of that, you could find yourself losing a lot more on Black Friday or Cyber Monday than what lowering your prices will cost you.

So remember: the online retail craziness is more than just an opportunity to increase turnover. It’s a chance to win over new customers for the longer term. It’s important to plan your online offering carefully, but be sure to take some time to work on your customer service strategy for Black Friday. With the right approach, you’ll be reaping the benefits all year round.