What humour can do for your customer service

About two weeks ago, an Amazon customer made a silly little joke about the customer service representative who’d accepted his chat request. The rep happened to be called Thor, and the customer just had to ask if he could play the part of Odin, Thor's father in Norse mythology (and in the cult Marvel comic book series - and the 2011 movie). The transcript of the resulting chat went viral – all thanks to the rep’s sense of humour and the way he responded to the customer., though known for its high staff turnover, is clearly not afraid to let its staff show a bit of personality as long as they get the job done. Thor wasn’t using macros at all, so there were no signs of macro overuse syndrome. What he used was his sense of humour.

Should we all use more humour in our customer service? Perhaps, but this exchange would not have had the same effect coming from an unknown SME. It went viral only because Thor works for Amazon, and the chat’s silliness is at odds with the status of a company that had almost US $75 billion in revenue in 2013. As an SME, it’s only natural to want to be perceived as trustworthy, reliable – and serious. So the question is: does humour have a place, even at smaller companies?

Customer vs. Machine

Back to Odin. Thor could have shut the joke down immediately. If Thor is actually his real name, he may well be sick of people commenting on it and could have lightly dismissed the comment. He could have dropped the joke after his first response, or he could simply have ignored the comment in order to get to the point of the chat. All of these options would probably have been faster and kept Thor’s chat times lower, but instead he took the time to run with it.

Fine for Amazon, but would you have run with it? When you are building a business, you want to make sure you project a solid, stable brand. As with everything, though, there is a balance to be struck. Many businesses make the mistake of wanting their entire company, be it big or small, to conform to a single uniform image. They expect every employee to promote the company line in each and every word and action. But when dealing with individuals, we want to feel like we’re interacting with another human being – not a machine.

So how do you show individuality while keeping in line with the company’s chosen profile? It can seem more difficult for SMEs. Bigger companies are able to take more liberties, as they already have a solidly serious image which will not be impacted by the actions of individual staff.

Encouraging individualism

But you don’t need – and shouldn’t try – to achieve viral status or be funny. Just show a bit of personality here and there. It's easy to do this through social media, with low barriers to entry. Encourage your staff to Instagram pictures of their favourite mugs for morning coffee, their new office chairs, or the brownies someone brought in for their birthday. Your team members don’t need make an effort to be entertaining; just let them do their own thing if they want to, and don’t put them under pressure to perform if they don’t. Another plus: studies have shown that encouraging individualism in staff reduces levels of burnout, too.

Sure, you need to work hard to present a strong brand and a professional front. But individualism and humour will actually improve your company’s image, not detract from it.

3 customer service lessons the World Cup taught us

So the World Cup is over for another four years. At first glance you wouldn’t think that it had much to teach us about anything but football. But scratch the surface of any match and you’ll find all sorts of parallels to be drawn with everyday life… and with the wondrous world of customer service.Let’s take a look back at some of the main events of the competition to find inspiration for work at the frontlines of customer service.

Don’t exaggerate (like Arjen Robben)

Dutch forward Arjen Robben is best known for his speed on the pitch – and for his acting skills. When he took a theatrical fall during his country’s match against Mexico, debate broke out about whether he’d been faking. Robben stands by the authenticity of that particular tumble, but has admitted that he does over-egg the pudding a bit on occasion.

Making a big deal out of something that wasn’t really that important is a classic customer service mistake. An extreme (but nonetheless real) example is this week’s Comcast customer service debaclein which a customer made a simple call to close her account. But the customer service rep, refusing to accept that she could possibly want to leave the company, would not let the matter drop.

While this particular case crossed the line into farce, the reason why so many of us have listened to the recording and been able to relate is because many companies do make mountains out of their customer service molehills. If you find yourself in a position where you disagree with the customer, remember that the customer is always right. Let it go, and instead look for ways you can improve your services across the board. Don’t make one incident bigger than it is.

Don’t bite (like Luis Suárez)

Officious customers who sniff “I pay your wages, you know!” deserve a kick in the shins. But there is more than a grain of truth behind what they say. With no customers to serve, there’d be no business. However much a customer may annoy you, there’s no point biting the hand that feeds you. Do it to enough customers, and you may find yourself out of a job.

Uruguay striker Luis Suárez found this out after the infamous biting incident, which saw him receive a full suspension for four months. In his case, with a nice apology and forgiveness from his opponent, he’ll be back in the game before too much longer.

But for businesses who ‘bite’ their customers, redemption is not so easy to achieve. Statistics suggest that 9 out of 10 customers will switch to a competitor if you don’t treat them well. With that kind of defection rate, you’d better make sure you treat the vast majority of your customers like royalty. Otherwise, you have a 90% chance of losing them. Lose enough of your customers, and you’ll lose your business along with them.

Don’t be a badass (but be Leo Messi instead)

Argentine footballer Leo Messi is the seventh most-popular athlete in the United States. That’s not bad going for someone who is not American, doesn’t live in America, and plays a sport which is a minor one in the US. Why, then, is Messi so popular, and so well-known? Apart from being brilliant at what he does, he’s an all-round nice guy.

Being good at what you do is a prerequisite to being successful in business. If you don’t have a good product or service, then being nice is only going to take you so far. But it’s HOW you do what you do that makes the real difference. UNICEF ambassador Messi was going to be well known whatever he did – his football skills are amazing. But it’s his likeable personality and tireless charity work (including the Fundacion Leo Messi, set up to make life better for children around the world) that have made him such a popular guy.

It’s a fact that people respond positively to open, honest contact, be it from football stars or customer service representatives. And as an unexpected bonus, it’s good for you, too! It turns out that when you genuinely enjoy your job (as opposed to faking it), you sleep better and experience less stress than service staff who put on an act to provide service with a smile. And on a business level, companies like McDonald’s cop a lot of flack for their product – but their fundraising and support for families of sick children (through the Ronald McDonald House project) has won them a lot of fans.

That’s customer service on a grand scale. Now that the party in Brazil is over, we’ve got four years to go before the next World Cup face-off. Time to get back to work… Why not try putting these light-hearted tips into practice? With a bit of inspiration from your favourite football stars, who knows how many loyal customers you’ll be able to win by the time the next edition rolls around?

Winnie-the-Pooh on customer service

Favourite author A.A. Milne is best known for the stories and poems he published about Winnie-the-Pooh. The books might be aimed at children, but there are also some timeless gems in there for those of us who are All Grown Up.

Let’s take a light-hearted look at a few quotes, and turn them into customer service lessons.

“Organisation is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up.”

What SMEs can learn from Amazon

Thanks to their size and/or level of turnover, smaller companies occupy a particular place in the market. It's tempting to look only to similarly-sized businesses for inspiration. But that would be a shame: even a 4-employee online perfume business can learn from an online giant like Amazon.

Indeed, when it comes to customer service, Amazon can teach all of us a thing or two. Previous studies have shown that Amazon boasts a 91.7% customer satisfaction rate, and it continually tops the customer service rankings. While no SME is going to be able to rival Amazon for sheer big-budget buying power, there’s nothing to stop you learning to use their tricks of the customer service trade on your own scale.

Lesson 1: Use live chat. Amazon customers love it!

How to make a killer FAQ web page

The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page is one of the most misunderstood web pages around. Too often when I’m browsing through an online business site and want to know something simple, I find myself staring down a wall of text. I just want to know if I can pay by credit card! But though the answer may be buried in the huge lists of questions, my heart sinks.

Considering that smartphone users spend an average of 15 hours per week researching purchases on mobile sites and apps, businesses do themselves no favours by putting too much information online. Here are some FAQs that will help turn your own collection of FAQs into a killer page loved by your online visitors.

What's an FAQ page really for?

A surprising number of businesses seem to be confused about the purpose of their FAQ page. Specifically, they don’t seem to realise who they’re meant to be helping. A gentle hint, dear customer service staff: the FAQs aren’t there for you.

  • They are not there to save you time (so don’t even THINK about using them as a shortcut to answering customer emails by writing “You can find the answer in our FAQs”).

  • They are not there to give your company a chance to be smart, sarcastic or cute, or to show off your mad writing skillz.

  • They are not there as a disclaimer for any and every issue which might conceivably arise.

FAQs are there for one purpose, and one purpose only: to give potential customers the answers to the questions they are most likely to ask, but which didn’t fit neatly into the structure of your website.

What if I can't come up with a simple answer to a FAQ?

The KISS principle, supposedly coined by the US Navy back in 1960, should be foremost in your mind when you’re coming up with your FAQs. Keep It Simple Stupid! KISS reminds system designers that things work best when kept simple. If the purpose of the FAQs is to enable customers to find answers quickly and easily – and it is – then it makes sense that the FAQs should be kept to a minimum and answered clearly and concisely.

What if you can't? Composing your FAQ page provides the ideal opportunity to take a good look at the answers. If you can’t describe something clearly and concisely, chances are that you can improve whatever it is you're doing. Because if you don't really get it, how can your customers?

As an example: if your business ships goods, can the shipping charges be summed up in just a few lines? The usually fabulous Amazon really lets itself down here, with a long list of shipping charges that require a calculator and a clear head to figure out. If yours is the same, consider introducing a new policy. Ehm, how about free shipping?

What should I do with Rarely Asked Questions?

Less is more. Your FAQ page should only list the things that customers most likely want to know. The more questions and answers you have on this page, the more difficult it becomes for a customer to find what they’re looking for. So leave out the Occasionally Asked Questions, and stay far away from Rarely Asked Questions.

Many businesses seem unable to resist the temptation to think up a few extra questions to bulk out the page. Your FAQ page might (if you’re very lucky) only have two questions on it to start with. That’s OK; in fact, it’s ideal. Just keep an eye on the sorts of things customers keep asking you. If you see the same issues coming up over and over again, you’ll need to do one of two things: either add a new FAQ to your page or, if necessary, alter your business’s policy in that area to make it simpler.

So what should you do with questions that are occasionally or rarely asked, but that are asked? Put the answers in your knowledge base and use them as quick replies. You can use quick replies to whip those responses out quickly, without slowing down the people who are looking for the FAQs.

Can I fill my FAQ page with everything I know?

Each page on your website has a specific job to do. It should be finely tuned to do that job and no more. Far too often, FAQ pages are considered a place to dump all the information that didn’t really fit in anywhere else. Resist the urge to get it all out there; your customers’ needs will be much better served by allowing those with less common questions to contact you for the answer. That leaves your FAQ page uncluttered by extra info and allows it to serve its true purpose.

Even if you only have half a dozen FAQs, you should have a short link of each question at the top of the page with a link to the answer (keep those smartphone users in mind). Then customers can scan the FAQs and click on the one they want without needing to scroll through pages of text. Keep in mind that it’s in your own best interest to make it easy to find the answers – then customers are less likely to need to send you an email.

That said, don’t hide your contact information! Ensure that your customer service email address (and contact info for any other channels you use) is listed on the page as well.