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 customer service improvement plan? 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.)
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.
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Antidote! What I outline here is a plan that actually improves 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. And 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.
Step 1: Decide What Specifics You Will Add
First, you need to decide what specific, extra value you can add to each customer service interaction. This “specific extra” becomes a way to involve your associates—and it’s a powerful way to create a lasting, positive impression in customers’ minds. Examples of “specific extras” include brief, meaningful educational content; or a policy that is clearly and frequently articulated like Zappos has with its easy-to-return shoes.
Adding value through “specific extras’ is about consistently doing a little bit more, on top of addressing the question at hand or solving the problem.
Where to start? Gather your customer service improvement team and brainstorm. Then see how each of your good ideas can actually play out in real interactions. Sometimes those great ideas are clumsy when put into execution. So adding a specific extra is both imaginative and iterative, and requires a little 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 your 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, because at present, software is not sophisticated enough to tease out this level of differential nuances.
The solution is to observe a statistically-valid number of your customer service interactions (emails, chats, face-to-face, etc.) and 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:
- Timing: Was the customer’s time valued?
- Information: Were the customer’s questions answered clearly, accurately, and proactively?
- Connection: How engaged was the associate? Was the interaction tailored to the customer’s situation?
- Differentiation: Did the associate demonstrate that your company is special in some way?
To make your scoring rules usable, 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.
For example, when a caller asks a retailer where their package is, connection and information will be most important. But when a caller asks about products they have not yet bought, providing persuasive information and differentiating your brand will matter most.
There is no doubt that developing scoring rules that measure each element is extremely time-consuming. But to be accurate (and truly useful), scoring rules must be specific and include explanations about how to apply each rule.
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.
And without clear models, while some of your associates may make great choices, the fact is, some could unknowingly tarnish your brand.
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, giving them the customer service skills they need to improvise off those structures and develop their own unique responses.
Superior customer service is specific, and specificity is the key to customer service improvement. It’s about specific ways to add value, understanding specific customers and their specific situations, measuring with specific scoring rules, tracking specific metrics, and providing specific examples that give associates the skills they need to deliver the highest levels of customer service. When you follow these five steps and embrace this concept of specificity, you will be well on your way to improving your 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!