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    Is Customer Service Dead?

    To answer my own question, not dead yet (nod to Monty Python). But it's definitely ailing. It seems like most of the service sectors could use a refresher course in courtesy. Remember back in the day when you would pull into a service station (keyword "service"), and a smiling attendant would come out, pump your gas, check your oil and even wash your windows? And when you paid for the gas, you might even get a free air freshener for your car! (If you're under 30, all of this will sound like some Pleasantville fantasy.) Today you drive up to the self-serve gas bar, pump your own gas, clean your own windows (if you can find a squeegee), check your oil (or decide to skip it because you'll get your hands dirty and you're on your way to work), and pay by credit or debit card at the pump because they don't take cash (too risky - might get robbed). Faster? Decidedly. More enjoyable? Get real. Smiling? Not.

    customer service

    We all realize that we save money by doing it ourselves - whether it's pumping gas or bagging our groceries. Nobody is against saving money if it means skipping a few little amenities. But the whole concept of "Service" seems to have gone out the window along with those little amenities. And as a side effect of convenience, we're robbing millions of high school kids of potential after-school jobs at the gas station or the grocery store. So whatever cash we save on gas and groceries, we end up having to pay out for our kids' gas and cell phone bills.

    Seriously, though, the term "customer service" is made up of two words that naturally go together. Customer Service is defined as "an organization's ability to supply their customers' wants and needs." The definition of a customer is someone who purchases goods or services (that word again). Whether we do business in a brick and mortar building, online, or a combination of both, when we serve a customer we are promoting our brand. The way in which we serve that customer will shape how they perceive our business and will determine not just whether or not the customer will return, but also what they will have to say about us to family, friends and colleagues.

    Every businessperson knows that a business survives solely on the goodwill of its customers. No matter how deep the pockets of your investors are, no matter how flashy and cool and sexy your products are - if your customers leave your store feeling unsatisfied or unhappy, your business is doomed. Bad  word-of-mouth gets around pretty quickly these days via Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and customer complaint and review websites. This morning's bad customer experience can become this afternoon's trending topic on Twitter. Your marketing fail could soon be plastered all over the Internet for all to see, and your brand can be dragged through the virtual mud. For a business that relies on local visitors - such as a restaurant -  this is the kiss of doom. You now will have to look at spending a lot of time, effort and cash cleaning up the PR mess and hoping people will forgive and forget. Or you could just take steps to avoid it in the first place

    Let's go back to that definition of customer service and the part about "supplying a customer's wants and needs." How can we know what they want and need? Well, you can get a clue as to what they NEED by the fact that they've come to your shop or your website. If you sell cars, chances are they're not shopping for window blinds. So you have your first clue - now you narrow the field by asking them what they're looking for, then leading them to the items that fit that description. Narrow the field more by determining the price range, color, size, and other factors that will ultimately affect their decision to purchase.

    We've dealt with what the NEED. But what do they WANT (other than a new car)? That's pretty easy. They want what YOU want - to be dealt with respectfully and fairly, and to be treated as a person. An important person. Someone whose opinion matters. Someone whose time is as valuable as yours.

    I'm going to share an incident that happened to me not long ago. I went to the Customer Service counter in Real Canadian Superstore to ask a question. There were three people behind the counter who were obviously enjoying themselves, joking and giggling together. Unfortunately there were also three of us customers standing on the OTHER side of the counter waiting, and waiting, and waiting, while they had their little laugh fest, and we were not amused. After a couple of minutes of wasting my valuable time, I gave up and left. Now to be fair, I've had positive experiences with Superstore's customer service people on other occasions. But THAT one stands out in my mind. Do I still shop there? Yes, but only because they have a big gluten-free section and their prices are better than the competitors. (Celiac disease sometimes means compromise.) But just because I want to save money doesn't mean I want to cease being treated like a human being. Every business, no matter the size and no matter the clientele, must train their staff to be prompt, courteous and respectful. Don't waste our time.

    Now let's take an example from the other side of the aisle. I stopped at Tim Horton's one morning to fill up my travel mug with Tim's Dark Roast. The lady behind the counter got my coffee for me and then asked me if I was right- or left-handed. Why? Well, so she could put the lid back on my travel mug with the drinking spout on the appropriate side. Now THAT is customer service.

    And remember to SMILE, people. If you don't enjoy your work, then go work somewhere else. Don't take it out on your customers. We didn't hire you. You may be asking, "How do you do all this if your business is online? How can I strike up a meaningful relationship with people I've never met?" Well, people chat with customers on social media every day. "Prompt, courteous and respectful" still apply. Using the words "Thank you" liberally in your emails, post-checkout pages, and contact pages will make your customers feel appreciated. And yes, you can SMILE with your telephone voice and with the words you use on social media. The folks at Big Fish Games do it all the time!

    Let's keep Customer Service alive and well by practicing it every day in our own businesses, and by reinforcing it in others whenever we encounter it in our lives. If a support person or salesperson meets or exceeds your expectations, let them know - and let their supervisors know too. Recognition is like a pat on the back - it encourages people to strive to do their best at all times. If your employees are doing their best for your customers, word will get around and your business will be all the better for it.

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