Are You Suffering From a Customer Service Time Crisis?

The service manager arrived at the auto repair shop for what promised to be another busy day.

He opened up the lobby, booted up his computer, turned on the TV in the waiting room, and started a pot of coffee. The manager went into the shop to touch base with the mechanics as they arrived for work, and went over the day's jobs.

I had an 8am service appointment, but it was 8:10 before he greeted me and checked me in.

If this seems like poor customer service, it's because it is. And it's also an epidemic. So my real question is, do you struggle to be on time with your customers?

Here's why being on time is critical, and what you can do to make sure you are.

Happy man holding a clock.

The Problem With Being a Tiny Bit Late

Like you, the service manager, and just about everyone else on this planet, I've had a busy week. And my ability to get things done has been impacted by service providers being chronically tardy.

My physical therapist kept me waiting for five minutes. A contractor arrived at my house ten minutes late for a sales call. And the service advisor kept me waiting for ten minutes after my scheduled appointment.

So what's the big deal?

One issue is the message it sends. Being just a few minutes tardy sends a signal that you value your own time more than your customer's. Or it could be a signal that you're not very well organized.

It can also have a cascading effect on your customer's day.

A few weeks ago, my physical therapist kept me waiting for fifteen minutes. Our appointment was scheduled for an hour, and I had to get to another appointment soon afterwards. I had to skip out on the last portion of my therapy session as a result of it running over our scheduled time.

The contractor who arrived at my home ten minutes late caused us to rush through his pitch for a remodeling project my wife and I are considering. We had other appointments lined up after his and couldn't run late, so the meeting probably wasn’t his best pitch.

And the service advisor? You guessed it—I had other things to do that day.

Why Are People Late

A few months ago, I uncovered some fascinating research about why some people are chronically late.

One of the most interesting aspects of the research was a study that suggested people with personalities most suited to customer service—easygoing and not prone to frustration—are the most likely people to be late.

There are other reasons as well. One is being over-scheduled.

If you schedule a meeting from 2pm-3pm and another meeting in a different conference room from 3pm-3:30pm, how exactly do you plan to be on time for your 3pm meeting? Unless your 2pm ends early (what are the odds?), you'll be late.

Another reason is we're unrealistic about time.

The service advisor promised to call me in 45 minutes with an update on my car. Unfortunately, that 45 minutes was a best-case scenario. It didn't factor in other customers, mechanics taking longer than expected, or any number of other things that might get in the way. I ended up calling after an hour because I hadn’t heard from him.

We also perpetuate tardiness as customers by letting people off the hook too easily. 

What did you do the last time a service provider kept you waiting a few minutes? In all likelihood, here's how the conversation went:

Service provider: "Sorry to keep you waiting!"

You: "That's okay."

If that's what happened, you accidentally gave the service provider a free pass on tardiness. And you've made it more likely that they'll be tardy again.

Now I'm not suggesting you freak out every time someone is five minutes late. What I am suggesting is you don't let them off the hook.

For example, when I started going to physical therapy for a shoulder injury, I asked my physical therapist how much time I should budget for each appointment. I explained I wanted to be fully present during our sessions, but also had other appointments to schedule around each visit. He told me one hour, so I planned on one hour and fifteen minutes just in case.

So when our scheduled one-hour session ran late as a result of his tardiness, I stayed for an extra 15 minutes, and then left without finishing my workout. I kept my word about honoring other commitments.

The result? I only had to wait five minutes the next time.

Take Action

None of us are perfect.

I was ten minutes late to a phone meeting with a prospective client the very same day I drafted this post. And I didn't even have a good excuse—I simply didn't notice my calendar reminder going off and I got sucked into another project. It was embarrassing.

What we can do is make punctuality more important.

I apologized profusely to my client, but I've also made a mental note that I need to demonstrate my punctuality to this client if I hope to win her business. One of the things my clients know me for is I get project work done faster than promised. If I say I'll get you something by Friday, you'll probably have it Thursday. 

How do I do that?

  • I plan all my work holistically, keeping in mind everything that's on my calendar.

  • I strive to arrive early (my recent flake-out notwithstanding).

  • I work hard to wait on my clients, rather than keeping them waiting on me.

And the service advisor? 

He promised my car would be ready in four hours. I told him I would hold him to it. And he came through. He called me at four hours exactly and told me my car was ready, which was a big relief because I had other stuff to do that day.

How to Learn and Remember Customer Names

Advertising disclosure: This blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. 

Dale Carnegie wrote that in his famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book was originally published in 1936, and calling someone by name is still a powerful way to build rapport. 

It's a core concept in many customer service training programs. Calling customers by name is written into service standards and welcoming procedures. It's a tip I share in my Customer Service Tip of the Week emails.

Sometimes, learning a customer's name is easy. They offer it freely, it's displayed in your computer system, or learning their name is a necessary part of the interaction.

At other times, learning someone's name can be a bit more tricky. I decided to ask some of my colleagues for their suggestions on learning and using customer names. 

Here are some tips that can help you overcome those challenging situations.

Business person holding up a name tag.

Tip #1: Listen with Intention

How many times have you heard someone's name and then instantly forgotten it? Jeremy, a customer experience director, suggests being more intentional. "My biggest thing with names is that I have to actually listen to their name when I ask for it."

Tip #2: Repeat It

Immediately repeating a customer's name can help commit it to memory. Nicolas, an editor, shared this tip. "I immediately try repeating their name right after they introduce themselves ('Nice to meet you, ____!') and when I end the first conversation ('Thanks for connecting with me ____, have a great day!')."

Tip #3: Ask How to Pronounce It

Some names are tricky. Jessica, a customer experience team lead, shared a tip to handle this situation. "I will ask them to pronounce it for me if I’m not entirely sure how to correctly pronounce it, that is if I can see what their name is before speaking with them. I find most people appreciate the effort taken to learn the correct pronunciation."

Tip #4: Ask How to Spell It

I've been doing a lot of book signings lately to promote my latest book Getting Service Right. I've learned the hard way that some names can be spelled many different ways. Take Kari for example. Which may also be spelled as Karie, Carrie, Kerry, Kerri, Karri, or Keri. So I always ask people how to spell their name before I write it in a book, even if the person's name is Joe. (Which might also be Jo, Jho, or some other spelling I haven't seen yet.)

Tip #5: Write it Down

Another way to ensure you retain someone's name is to write it down. Drew, a customer service vice president, shared this tip. "Our business is mainly done over the phone or online and in many cases the customer doesn't introduce their name to start. So, we start by listening about why they're calling and as soon as they're done, we ask their name before we continue on with the conversation and write it down in notepad on the computer."

Tip #6: Get Their Name from Their ID or Credit Card

If you serve customers face-to-face, you might easily get their name from the customer's identification, credit card, or something else. Ruairi, a library assistant, uses this tip. "When they register for a library card, they hand me their ID. I might say 'okay Sarah, what color library card would you like?'"

Tip #7: Spot Their Name on Luggage Tags

This one works well for hotel and airline employees. You can get a customer’s name from their luggage tag. And if you work at a convention facility, you’ll often spot guests wearing name tags from the various trade shows they're attending.

Tip #8: Create an Association

Some people find it helpful to associate a name with a characteristic that describes the person. Andras, a customer service manager, shared this tip. "I associate the first letter of their name with an apparent personality or physical trait. For example, John with 'jovial' or Oliver with 'observant' etc."

Tip #9: Create a Memory

Similar to creating an association, you can mentally repeat someone's name while thinking of how you've met them. Tom, an IT manager, shared this tip with me. "I try to memorize their face and associate it with their name and why I know them. For example I remember you from the HDI conference as the guy who signed his book for me. This helps me associate  why I know you and what you do."

A Few Words of Caution

Try to avoid assumptions when using someone's name. For example, many people assume that I'm really a Jeffrey, so they call me Jeffrey in an attempt to sound smart.

The problem is my full name is Jeff. It's not short for Jeffrey, Jeffery, or even Geoffrey. So calling me Jeffrey backfires and creates less of connection than if the person had just called me Jeff.

I've made this mistake myself, calling Ronald "Ron," Christopher "Chris," or Jennifer "Jen." Today, I always take the other person’s lead and use the name they give me. Calling someone by a nickname without first making sure that's what they like to be called can unintentionally insult the person.

Years ago, another common concern was whether to call someone by their first or last name. Today, this is almost never an issue. First names are typically acceptable and often preferred. (This can vary a bit by industry or company, so it's not a hard and fast rule.) When in doubt, introduce yourself to your customer and notice what name they give. If they emphasize their first name, you know first names are okay.

How a Small Business Owner Kicked Self-Doubt

One of my favorite things is hearing from customer service leaders and small business owners who candidly share the challenges they face. One recent email that caught my attention was from Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts

Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts

He explained that he was trying to use service to differentiate his business from other martial arts studios. Yet he wasn't sure all the extra service was appreciated.

"There are a few [customers] that will go out of their way to say something nice or write a great review online. However, for the majority it just feels like they expect me to do all this extra work because they want it—some outright abuse these offerings.

"This is both infuriating and makes me feel like I should just go back to the hard sales approach and the extra income. I mean, why offer so many things to add value to the program if 80% of our members just act like they're entitled to something no other martial arts school offers?

"What am I missing?"

Too much self-doubt can be paralyzing and toxic. Here's how Pallesen kicked those limiting feelings and refocused on what his business was doing right.

Seek Advice

Pallesen emailed me out of the blue. He was reading The Service Culture Handbook, and noticed I published my email address in the book, so he reached out.

It's incredibly brave to email someone you don't know and share as much as Pallesen did. We often try to protect our egos by pretending things are going better than they are, but Pallesen was brutally honest about what he was thinking.

I immediately admired Pallesen for his honesty, and his story grabbed me:

"My vision when I opened up shop was to provide a far better experience at a more approachable price point for our urban families; often times at the risk of losing a little money in the short term to gain loyalty and brand ambassadors for the long term.

"The moment we opened, I wanted to build everything around a service culture. This means we don't charge $35-$50 per student, per belt test. We don't charge for specialty classes for our tournament competitors that want to compete but can't afford the $30/month extra. I also removed the maximum limit of (2) classes each student can attend during the week, and allow unlimited classes for those that want to pursue it but, again, are held back due to financial limitations most schools apply for the addition classes.

"I don't do contracts and rely on our service for long term sustainability."

Pallesen felt under-appreciated, and he wasn't sure his approach was working. Nobody likes to experience self-doubt like this, but it's something I commonly see in customer-focused leaders. They always worry about finding a way to do better.

Focus on the Facts

Emotions can cloud our perception of reality, so it can be helpful to focus on the facts. 

I asked Pallesen a few questions about his business. His answers revealed his customer-focused approach was actually working!

  • Customer retention is 25% better than his competitors'.

  • Referrals are up 30% in the past eight months.

  • Gross profit margins are a healthy 55%.

Looking at the numbers helped Pallesen adopt a new perspective. His business was doing well overall, despite the frustrations he had experienced.

Pallesen emailed me back to share his new perspective. "I was up until 3am doing a lot of internalizing and looking more into these questions. It really seems I'm focusing on a couple bad apples, and not the majority."

Work Towards What You Want

There's a difference between fixing problems and making things better. I asked Pallesen a couple of questions to stimulate thinking about his desired future state and what he could do to get there.

The first question was, "What would you like to happen that's not happening now?"

"I want people to experience that 'hero' moment more often. Whether it's because their kid no longer needs occupational therapy because of martial arts (true story), or because their child finally has the confidence that there's no need to defend themselves, they just carry themselves in a way that removes that target. 

"We do hear about it sometimes, and some of our reviews gave me goosebumps as I re-read them this afternoon. However, only about 20% of our members have mentioned those hero moments, and I'd like to significantly increase that."

Okay, now we're getting somewhere! The narrative changed from feeling under-appreciated to feeling great about the successes he's achieved and looking forward to delivering a hero moment to even more people.

My next question was, "I’m sure some people notice the extra services you offer—when does that happen and who notices?"

Pallesen did an excellent job of using this question to look at the situation from his customer's perspective. And it gave him an idea to build on.

"Honestly, while thinking this through, I'm suddenly realizing how many people were surprised after they overheard me talking about some of the specialty classes we offer on Saturdays. If I put myself in their shoes, I can see how it would be easy to forget that these extras are offered if the only time they hear about it is during their initial lesson and orientation.

"Since it's human nature to avoid being wrong or uncomfortable, it's easy to understand why people wouldn't ask about the extra classes without me first initiating the conversation."

This insight helped Pallesen realized the importance of offering additional services at the time of need. If customers don't know about something, they can't appreciate it!

Moving Forward

I could really relate to Pallesen. I can't tell you how many times I've experienced self-doubt in my own business. Fortunately, I have a supportive wife and great friends and colleagues who help me work through it.

It was great to see Pallesen work through it, too.

"When I could get out of that funk and look at your questions objectively I was able to overcome a lot of questions I had about what we are doing. We're on track for a record year, and I should continue focusing on what we're doing right instead of focusing on the couple people that want to try to abuse the system."

Please consider giving Hive Martial Arts a visit if you live in the Minneapolis area!

Could Distraction Be Costing Your Company Dearly?

Advertising disclosure: This blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

The bank's customer service rep was distracted.

He was responding to emails in between phone calls. The problem was he'd get halfway into an email and then the next call would come in. It took a second for him to shift his focus to the caller. 

At the end of the call, he'd hurry back to the email. He'd skim the email as best as he could and then hurriedly type his response in hopes of finishing it before the next call came in.

One particular email was from a customer inquiring about his loan balance. The rep looked it up and saw the balance was $15,000. In his haste, he left off a zero. 

His email informed the customer that the loan balance was just $1,500. 

Boss presenting to a group of distracted employees.

Distracted By Design

Customer service reps everywhere are chronically distracted.

They’re balancing multiple priorities. They often work in noisy office environments. The typical contact center rep must juggle five to seven different software programs on two or more computer monitors just to serve a customer. And they’re barraged by messages on email, chat, and even their personal devices in between.

To top it off, many contact center reps work like the bank employee in the story above. They are asked to respond to email or another written channel in between handling phone calls in an effort to eke out every last drop of productivity.

It's thought to be efficient, but it isn't. Customer service reps working in this setup are often less productive and are prone to costly mistakes. For example, the bank ultimately had to honor the erroneous loan balance and write off the $13,500 error.

Here's a demonstration that can help you experience what's happening to distracted employees. The image below contains a number of circles and squares. Try to count the number of each shape as quickly as possible.

image of circles and squares.

Let's try this again with a twist. 

Count the total number of circles and squares by alternating between counting each shape. In other words, count one circle and then count one square. Then count the next circle, count the next square, and so on.

Ready? Count.

Image of circles and squares.

How did it go?

Most people take longer to count the shapes and are more prone to making errors. Which is exactly what happens when you ask employees to switch back and forth between tasks all day.

The High Cost of Distraction

Distraction can cost a company far more than the few dollars saved by cramming in some extra work in between calls.

Another customer service leader told me about the cost of distraction at his company the same time I heard about the $13,500 bank error. This one was even worse.

A telecom customer had emailed to ask if he had won a promotional contest. He had not won, so the customer service rep started typing an email to politely tell the customer he didn't win.

But the customer service rep was answering emails in between calls. And the rep was distracted. So the rep's actual email read, "You did win."

There was a kerfuffle. The company tried to claim it was an honest mistake. The customer sued, and the company eventually agreed to a six figure settlement.

You might be tempted to maximize productivity by having your agents juggle multiple assignments all day. Before you do, think about the potential costs:

  • Expensive errors caused by distraction.

  • Decreased productivity caused by constantly shifting attention.

  • Decreased service quality caused by a lack of customer focus.

Take Action With This Experiment

In my book, Getting Service Right, I constantly search for counterintuitive solutions to vexing employee performance challenges. In Chapter Seven, the book explores reasons why employees often fail to pay attention.

Here's one example:

I once worked with a medical device manufacturer that had its customer service reps answer emails in between phone calls. The stakes were pretty high—the company's products were used in life-saving medical procedures.

We ran a simple experiment. Instead of having reps handle phones and email, we divided the reps into two teams. One team handled phones, the other handled email.

The number of reps on each team could easily be changed throughout the day. If phone volume was high, more reps could join the phone queue. When phone volume decreased, a few reps could be re-assigned to email.

This extra focus quickly had a big impact. Both phone and email quality increased because reps were able to give the customer in front of them their full attention.

But counterintuitively, productivity increased in both channels!

You can test this yourself by running the same experiment for a week. Involve your agents—let them know what you're testing. You can even run a test group and keep another group working the old way so you can compare the results.