The day before I was going to ride a 105-mile gran fondo, my bike broke.
First I freaked: The route included four mountains and over 11,000 feet of climbing, I had been training for, oh, forever...and now this? So I called a local bike shop.
And got voicemail. Great.
I tried another bike shop. The phone rang eight times before an employee answered…and put me on hold. Great.
I tried one more shop and an employee answered on the second ring. I explained the problem. "Can you fix it?" I pleaded.
"Sure," the mechanic replied. "When do you need it?"
"I really need it tomorrow," I said.
He paused. "Wow. That’s quick. Let me look at our schedule." I heard keystrokes in the background as he said, "Why do you need it so soon?"
"I'm riding an event," I said. "I have another bike I could use, but between all the climbing and the gravel roads it will be terrible."
"Gotcha," he said. "You definitely need something light, but also with a little give." He paused again and then said, "I'm sorry, but there’s no way we can get it done today."
Oh no, I thought.
"But," he quickly continued, "We have a Domane we use for test rides. It's both super light and designed for endurance and comfort. We could let you use it for the day if that helps."
Absolutely: problem solved. I didn't get what I thought I wanted…but I did get what I needed. Why? The bike shop employee used a process best described as, "Just because there's nothing you can do for the immediate request, doesn't mean there's nothing you can do."
How can you do the same thing using quality customer service – and in the process set your business apart from your competitors?
Don’t forget the phone
Technology has changed, and you’ve changed with it. So of course you use email. And Twitter. Maybe you even provide a chat function on your website. So your customer communication needs are covered, right? Not necessarily. There is still a place for outstanding phone support allowing people to make purchases, register complaints and ask questions. That’s especially true when a customer – like in my case – doesn’t want to wait for some type of digital response.
Phones still matter – and that means answering every call matters. Create an infrastructure that ensures no call goes unanswered.
Telstra business plans allow you to bundle fixed lines, mobile phones and nbn™ broadband in one account.
Think of it this way: every missed call could result in a lost customer – or at the very least a lost opportunity to delight a current customer.
Try to never miss calls.
Don't be quick to say "no"
The key to making an alternative suggestion work for a customer is to avoid immediately sharing what is not available. Take time to ask questions and determine the customer's actual interests, not just their stated request. Try to determine what's really going on, and how flexible the customer might be.
In my case, the mechanic probably already knew he couldn't fix my bike that day. Instead of saying so, though, he asked a few questions to find out what alternatives he might be able to suggest.
My request was, "Fix my bike today." My need was, "I have to have the right bike for tomorrow's ride."
Work hard to meet needs, not just requests.
Don't explain your way out of a high-effort situation
Many businesses waste too much time and mental energy explaining why a customer can't have what he or she wants. While justifying a decision or policy might seem logical to you, to the customer it can sound defensive or combative.
"All you're doing is justifying why your company can't give me what I want,” the customer thinks. “How does that help me?"
In customer service, if you're defending…you're losing.
The mechanic didn't tell me why he couldn't fix the bike. He didn't talk about a backlog of work or needing to order parts. He told me he couldn't – and quickly moved on to finding a solution.
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Don't take customer requests literally
In many cases, the service a customer requests and their actual issue may be very different. When you understand the full context, a different need may emerge.
I needed the right bike for a specific ride I had made a huge physical and emotional investment in. All I could think was, "I need to get my bike fixed!" I was too frantic to consider that it didn't have to be my bike: The mechanic did because he didn't take my request literally.
Will this approach always work? Of course not, but the percentage of situations when alternative positioning could work definitely makes it worth trying if you give your employees the latitude (and training) to address customer issues. To make it work, you must allow your employees to tailor the resolution to the needs and outcomes an individual customer hopes to receive.
In my case, the "Just because there's nothing you can do doesn't mean there's nothing you can do" approach succeeded on multiple levels: One, I got a great bike for the ride, and two, I liked it so much I later bought one. Now that’s customer satisfaction.
Don’t ask the worst question
The most common – and worst – question asked by customer service reps is some form of, “Have I fully resolved your issue today?”
Why is that a terrible question? Often customers don’t know what they don’t know. They think their issue is resolved, but secondary issues or outcomes often arise which force them to call back.
Who does know what the customer doesn’t know? You do. You know what often happens next. You know what other customers have struggled with in the past.
Your job is to make sure customers don’t have to call you back, at least not for problems or issues related to their original call. That way, you save time and money by avoiding a call…but more importantly you do everything possible to ensure a satisfied customer stays satisfied.
Train your employees to head off the next issue. The customer doesn’t know what might happen next – but you do.
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Originally published 12 June 2014. Updated July 31st 2019.