95% of the People Who Read This Won't Get It

I have a challenge for you.

This post describes one of the biggest issues faced by customer service leaders. My prediction is that 100 percent of the people who read this will think they understand, but 95 percent actually won't.

My challenge is to prove to yourself that you're in that elusive five percent who get it. Let's start with a picture:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

I took this picture on the sly.

A colleague and I were eating dinner in an airport restaurant. We had just attended what was then called the American Society for Training and Development's International Conference and Exposition. The woman in the photo had too.

I know this because of two clues.

First, you can see she's reading Keith Ferrazzi's book, Never Eat Alone. Ferrazzi had been a keynote speaker at the conference. His book revolved around the idea that the key to success was building connections with other people.

The second clue was she had the official conference tote bag at her feet. Just like about ten other people in that airport restaurant.

Look carefully and you can tell she doesn't believe what she's reading.

She might agree intellectually. It's a great concept - we can all point to important relationships in our lives that have helped us succeed. But, she wasn't living it. She sat through her entire meal without connecting with anyone else.

That's the issue faced by many customer service leaders.

We tell ourselves we're customer-focused even when we're not. We make the mistake of thinking service is easy or self-evident so we don't put in the effort. We crow about our awesome culture when it's really just an empty slogan (Exhibit A: John Stumpf).

It's why a recent Execs In The Know study found that 79 percent of executives think they're meeting the needs of their customers, but only 33 percent of customers surveyed agree.

Meanwhile, the real work of service doesn't get done. 

Leaders fail to articulate a clear customer service vision. Customers are surveyed, but the data is barely analyzed and rarely acted upon. Training is meager or ineffective. Products are defective and remain that way. Processes are broken and departments operate in silos.

My guess is you're nodding as you read this.

But, how do you know you are truly committed to serving customers? You can find out by taking the challenge.


The Challenge

This challenge consists of one simple question: 

Are you the person in the restaurant?

Obviously, I don't mean literally. I mean, is this picture a metaphor for how you approach customer service or are you fully committed?

Consider a few things before you answer. This person had made some effort. She spent time and money to travel to a conference. She was open to new ideas and struck enough by the speaker's message that she bought his book. After a long week, she was still motivated enough to start reading it immediately after attending.

It's okay to be that person. Just realize that she's not truly committed. 

When Your B Work Is Better Than an A

I never knew marshmallows could be AMAZING until I tried Terra's.

Terra American Bistro is a farm to table restaurant in San Diego. In 2011, they moved to a new neighborhood when their old lease was up. Chef Jeff Rossman used the new location as an opportunity to add a few new touches.

One addition was presenting guests with complimentary house made marshmallows at the end of the meal. The marshmallows were exquisite - a perfect balance of sugar, texture, and a little orange.

Then, just as soon as they appeared, the marshmallows were gone.

The restaurant stopped giving guests marshmallows after just a few weeks. It was the right decision. As you'll see below, sometimes your B work is better than an A.

A's Take More Time

The customer service rep wanted to build rapport with his customer. So, when he learned the customer would soon be visiting his home town on vacation, he suggested a favorite restaurant.

And then, he suggested another. And another. Soon, he was rattling off a whole list of places the customer could try.

The customer appreciated the extra information. Yet, the prolonged conversation prevented the customer service rep from serving other customers who were waiting on hold.

A single restaurant recommendation would have done just as well.

That's the challenge with always shooting for an A in customer service. It takes extra time, and that time can take away from serving other customers. There's almost always a trade-off when you spend extra time on something.

Making fresh marshmallows each day was a time consuming task at Terra. The trade-off was that guests either had to wait longer or the restaurant had to hire extra staff. Part of the reason for moving to a new neighborhood was keeping prices lower, so spending the extra time on marshmallows went against that goal.


A's Cost More

Time is money. If you pay someone to make marshmallows instead of doing something else, that increases the cost of doing business.

Companies wrestle with these decisions all the time.

Should you offer 24/7 service? Invest in a new smart phone app or a new website with all the bells and whistles? Give everyone free shipping? 

Customers might appreciate these touches, but it also increases your costs. Higher costs mean lower profit margins. That's okay if you can make it up in higher volume or improved customer loyalty.

Which begs the question, were the marshmallows driving enough customer loyalty at Terra to justify the added time and cost?


Focus on Value

The short answer to the marshmallow question is no.

They were a nice touch, but that's not the reason people went to Terra. They went for the outstanding food that was expertly prepared with fresh ingredients. They went for the reasonable prices and the friendly service. 

None of those changed when the marshmallows went away.

In their book, Uncommon Service, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss describe the importance of making trade-offs. The key is excelling at what your customers truly value while investing less in places where customers aren't as concerned.

No assigned seating on Southwest Airlines means the airline can offer cheap fares. Slow order turnaround times at In-N-Out Burger mean the chain can make every burger fresh to order. High prices at The Ritz-Carlton mean the hotel can offered exceptional luxury.

So, back to A's and B's. 

Find out what your customers truly value and deliver that. Be careful when going beyond what customers care about so you don't waste time or money.

Inside LiveChat's New Ecommerce Holiday Shopping Report

Is your customer service team ready for the holiday season? 

A new report from chat software provider LiveChat provides some insight that can help you prepare. The report studied 8.8 million customer service chats from 1,400 ecommerce companies in 2015. The results were further segmented into off-peak (January - October) and peak (November - December).

The data reveals when customer chat volumes will be high and provides some tips for staffing to meet that demand. You can also use this data to improve service quality.

You can read the full report here or browse through a few highlights below.

Managing Volume Is Tricky

LiveChat's report reveals that the average company experienced a 63 percent chat volume increase in November and December.

That's not too surprising. The stat that really jumped out was that chats lasted an average of 1 minute longer in November and December (peak season). That jumped up to 1:23 longer on Cyber Monday.

Many customer service leaders will plan for the volume increase. The big question is whether contact centers will be prepared for longer chats.

The extra volume and longer chats means customers may have to wait longer for a live agent. LiveChat's data shows that it took 7 seconds longer for agents to respond to chats during peak season.

A 2015 report from Zendesk shows that customer satisfaction cliff dives after customers wait longer than 50 seconds for a chat response, so that extra 7 seconds can be a problem.


Predicting Peaks and Valleys

Not surprisingly, Black Friday and Cyber Monday were the two busiest days of the year for chat volume.

What happened next was a little surprising.

Chat volume dropped 53 percent the Saturday after Black Friday. For some contact centers, this may have meant being overstaffed if they planned for volumes similar to Black Friday.

Cyber Monday had 10 percent higher chat volume than Black Friday. But, look at LiveChat's graph and you'll see that volume dips but remains relatively high throughout the week. It's only the weekends when chat volume declines.

Image Source: LiveChat

Image Source: LiveChat

You may have similar peaks and valleys in your volume. It's a good exercise to look at your historical data to see when you need extra staff and when you don't. This is old hat to large contact centers, but smaller contact centers tend to keep a more static schedule from day to day.


Customer Satisfaction Dips Slightly

The increased volume takes a minor toll on customer satisfaction (CSAT) as survey scores dipped an average of just .7 percent during the November - December peak season.

Here are the averages from LiveChat's report:

  • 87.1% - average CSAT during off-peak (January - October)
  • 86.4% - average CSAT during peak (November - December)

Scores declined a bit more on the two busiest days:

  • 85.8% - average CSAT on Cyber Monday
  • 84.5% - average CSAT on Black Friday

To me, these stats can be misleading. It may seem that a small drop is OK, but this is a missed opportunity. 

Holiday shopping is a stressful time for many customers. You can distinguish your company if you can find a way to alleviate some of that stress through fast, helpful service.

After all, you want your customers to remember you during the off-peak months of January through October.


What Should You Do?

It takes the average contact center three months to hire and fully train a new agent. That means it's probably too late to add staff now if you haven't already started.

But, there are still things you can do. I shared three tips for handling increased volume without adding extra staff in LiveChat's report.

The Secret, Undercover Customer Service Team

Great organizations have a secret customer service team.

These employees work undercover to help their organizations consistently deliver outstanding customer service. Customers may never see them or realize their impact, but they're there.

Take Alaska Airlines, for example.

In 2016, the airline topped the traditional carrier segment in J.D. Power's North American Airline rankings for an eighth consecutive year. Part of their success comes from their friendly, caring, and helpful employees in customer-facing positions like reservations agents, gate agents, and flight attendants.

The airline's success also comes from their undercover, secret service team. This talented group of men and women work hard to make every flight a success.

Who are they? Look closely, and you'll see.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

They're the people who handle your luggage so it arrives where you do. Alaska Airlines has a 20-minute baggage delivery guarantee that wouldn't be possible without them.

Undercover service agents also include the person who fuels your plane, the mechanic who keeps it running, and the cleaning crew who keep it clean. Their tireless efforts ensure Alaska has one of the best on-time records in the industry.

Many more people form the airline's undercover team. They work in departments as diverse as marketing, finance, and human resources. All of them help contribute to the company's exceptional service.


Who's On Your Undercover Team?

Almost every company has an undercover customer service team.

Unfortunately, they're often so deep cover that even they don't realize the impact they have on customer service. These employees are excluded from customer service training. Their bosses inspire them to complete tasks, not delight people.

For example, an accounts payable clerk might not understand that she helps contribute to her company's reputation through the timeliness and accuracy of the payments she makes. As I detailed in this post, accounts payable is actually a fantastic way to test an organization's customer service culture.

Here's an exercise that you can try:

  1. Think about a basic product or service that your company provides. 
  2. Identify all of the people who contribute. (Better yet, map the process.)
  3. Talk to these people. Do they know they're undercover?

The results can be eye-opening.


Focusing Your Undercover Service Team

Many undercover teams provide internal customer service. These are departments that provide service to other departments so the company can function effectively and ultimately serve it's customers.

The process for developing these undercover teams is almost identical to the one used for customer-facing departments. It's detailed on this page, but here's an overview.

  1. Create a customer-service vision to get everyone on the same page. 
  2. Develop SMART goals to measure progress. 
  3. Conduct an assessment to identify a road map to success. 

Customer service training is also an option. Just be sure you ask your trainer to adapt the content to internal situations or use these techniques to customize off-the-shelf content such as a training video.