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Another Customer Service Improvement Plan?

In the US market alone, there are hundreds of customer service consultants offering thousands of customer service improvement strategies which begs the question: does anyone need yet another plan to improve customer service? I think, decidedly, yes, for the simple reason that most customer service remains lackluster and inconsistent—while executives routinely believe their customer service is better than it really is. (For more information on this, just ask, we’re happy to share.)

What’s Wrong With It All?

So why does customer service tend to be largely reactive, inefficient, and overly transactional?

From having evaluated tens of thousands of customer service interactions, I find that when customer service disappoints it’s almost always because it has been managed in an overly general, cookie-cutter way. The result is that customers are treated more similarly than they really are, as though they have the same needs, expectations, and perceptions.

But of course, that’s not true. Each customer is unique, making their inquiries at least a little bit different. So when companies treat everyone the same, rarely are customers fully engaged or completely satisfied.

The Antidote!

Antidote! What I outline here is a plan that will actually improve customer service. I know this plan works because we’ve been using it for more than a decade to improve customer service for clients in a wide array of industries.

The reason it works is that the entire plan hinges on a single proven concept—one that’s paid huge dividends for our clients: specificity. That’s specific ways to add value, relative to specific scenarios, measured by specific scoring rules, summed with specific metrics and last but not least, coached with specific model answers to build necessary customer service skills.

If your immediate reaction is, “…but that’s not scalable!”, I assure you it is. There’s a well-crafted process behind this plan, so it’s actually more scalable than the usual approaches to customer service that are less formally conceived.

5 Steps to Improve Customer Service

Step 1

Decide What Specifics You Will Add

Decide what specific, extra value you can add to each customer service interaction. This “specific extra”  is a powerful way to create a lasting, positive impression in customers’ minds. Examples of “specific extras” include a policy that is clearly and frequently articulated like Zappos has with its easy-to-return shoes.

Where to start? Gather your customer service improvement team and brainstorm. Sometimes those great ideas are clumsy when put into execution. So adding a specific extra requires a bit of trial and error to land on what’s right for your brand and goals.

Step 2

Take a Complete (and Specific!) Inventory

In order to improve customer service, you need a clear and specific picture of who contacts you and why. Don’t assume customers who ask the same question need the same answer. And don’t assume that your customer service report or software analytics are picking up on unique scenarios.

The solution is to observe a statistically-valid number of your customer service interactions (emails, chats, face-to-face, etc.). Then, classify them by touchpoint, inquiry type, customer state of mind, and customer objective.

Once you’ve figured out the possible combinations of touchpoints and customer characteristics, you’ll have your list of specific customer scenarios.

Step 3

Define Specific Criteria

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. So for each unique customer scenario, develop specific scoring rules. When figuring out what to measure for each customer scenario, start with the four dimensions common to all customer service interactions:

  1. Timing: Was the customer’s time valued?
  2. Information: Were the customer’s questions answered clearly, accurately, and proactively?
  3. Connection: How engaged was the associate? Was the interaction tailored to the customer’s situation?
  4. Differentiation: Did the associate demonstrate that your company is special in some way?

Break the four dimensions down into specific elements (usually there are between 8 and 20 elements) and weight these elements depending on what’s most relevant to the specific scenario.

Step 4

Track Specific Metrics

Measure often and keep track of progress using specific metrics based on the elements you’ve defined in your scoring rules. Metrics that are specific show you exactly where and how you need to improve. Metrics that lack specificity (read: net promoter scores and C-SAT scores) don’t give you exacting details about where your customer service is going wrong.

Manage and share these metrics with a dashboard that enables you to coordinate improvement efforts across teams. Dashboards are also a great way to engage associates with the customer service improvement process.

Step 5

Provide Specific Examples

Finally, provide specific examples that show associates exactly what you are looking for in how they handle each specific scenario. If you can’t show your associates model answers, you’re missing a vital tool, because while it’s possible that associates could build out these models, they probably don’t have the time.

Specific examples may sound like you want rote answers to customers’ questions, but you don’t. To prevent that hollow, robotic quality that creeps into customer service, coach associates on the structure behind each model answer. Give them the customer service skills they need to improvise off those structures and develop their own unique responses.

Specificity Is Key

Superior customer service is specific, and specificity is the key to improve customer service.

Perhaps the best way to think about this “specificity concept” is as a mindset that actively focuses on awareness of variation and difference. This is a decidedly different way of thinking and perceiving that social scientist Dr. Ellen Langer describes as mindfulness, in contrast with the usual mindless ways most of us tend to our experiences. Let me know how it goes!

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