Referring To An Outside Source – Customer Service Excerpt

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This is a preliminary excerpt from “If It Weren’t For The Customers, I’d Really Like This Job”, due out in Q1 of 2011.

There are many situations when a customer has a need or want that you cannot accommodate. Sometimes the customer is angry, and sometimes frustrated that you cannot do what has been asked. Sometimes, the customer can be upset, and sometimes not. A company can win huge public relations points by referring customers to those that can help, even if the ultimate destination takes the customer elsewhere, or even to a competitor. The reasoning is that they will still return to you because you were the person that initiated the process to solve the problem.

Take the example of a hotel that has lost a customer’s reservation and is fully booked. The customer arrives, and is understandably upset. It happens. The well trained hotel staff refers the customer to a competitor’s hotel, AND follows the rules of referral by calling around to find a place for the guest.

While that’s not a perfect solution, it provides help to the customer, eases the interactions, and hopefully reduces hostility. Will the customer come back to the hotel that messed up the reservation? Maybe. Maybe not. We do know that if the hotel staff doesn’t try to help by referring, there is no way the customer is returning.

This also applies when there has been no mistake but the customer is simply at the wrong establishment. Take, for example, a law office that deals only in corporate law. A distraught person calls about being sued by a neighbour who slipped and fell on the sidewalk in front of the caller’s home. Only, the law office doesn’t deal with those kinds of cases. What is the correct course of action? The employee can explain it’s outside the purview of the office, and end the conversation. Or, he can provide a few alternate companies, along with names and phone numbers, so the customer (in this case the potential customer) can get in touch with someone who CAN help.

Or, the employee can go even further, by making the call to an appropriate law office, and then connecting them via a conference system. Connecting a customer with someone who can solve their problem is a good thing.

Here are some similar situations where referral outside to company is appropriate.

  1. Customer arrives at restaurant hoping to order a particular kind of food that the restaurant doesn’t serve. Solution? Refer them to an establishment down the street that does serve the dishes. Next time the customer is looking for what the restaurant can provide, guess where they will go. Straight to you.
  2. Electronics retailer has run out of stock on an item the customer wants badly (and quickly). There no idea of when or if that item will be available. The employee can try to sell something different, or perhaps provide a rain check on the basis that the item will eventually be available. Neither of those results in a happy customers. Refer them to a competitor and you establish yourself as an amazing store willing to lose a sale to make the customer happy.
  3. A car owner comes in to an auto body shop needing some repairs. She’s travelling and is in a hurry, but the auto body shop is overbooked and can’t do the job. Put the customer off? No way. Get on the phone and call competitors in the area to see if anyone else can do the job. There’s no real loss here, since the first shop isn’t going to close this deal anyway. Or provide names, addresses and phone numbers to the customer so she can contact them herself.
  • ¨ As an employee, you need to make sure it’s ok with your manager/boss to send a customer to another establishment. It’s best to ask before you are in the actual situation so you will not delay the customer further by having to get permission.
  • ¨ If you are a business owner or manager, establish guidelines for employees on when it’s appropriate to send customers elsewhere and make sure your employees understand them.
  • ¨ Have a list of other resources to provide for customers in the event that you can’t accommodate them. Do your best to include a contact person, phone number, website, or any other information that might be useful in helping a customer contact or get to the other business.
  • ¨ It’s always a good step to undertake contacting the other business on behalf of the customer to find out if they can help, and to explain and introduce the customer. For example, get a person’s name so the customer can ask directly to speak to that person when he or she arrives at the business, so the person doesn’t have to explain the situation again.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Robert Bacal
Robert began his career as an educator and trainer at the age of twenty (which is over 30 years ago!), as a teaching assistant at Concordia University. Since then he as trained teachers for the college and high school level, taught at several universities and trained thousands of employees and managers in customer service, conflict management and performance appraisal and performance management skills.

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