customer service equals solving problems

We all know that customer service – whether the customers are external or internal – is crucial. But stating that raises an important question: “What, exactly, is customer service?”

The answer is: “Solving the customer’s problems.” That’s it. And we tend to forget that. Then we focus on creating structures and processes to provide “customer service” and forget the reason behind the structures and processes. Companies with great customer service invariably have strong processes, but processes alone ensure nothing.

Solving problems is more than structures and processes. In fact, great customer service is hard. It requires thinking. It requires being creative. It requires really understanding the customer’s needs. It might even mean sending the customer to (gasp!) a competitor. But here’s what the customer remembers: you solved their problem. Or: you didn’t solve their problem. Or: you prevented them from solving their problem.

I was once trying to return home from a business trip in Europe. A flight attendants’ strike in Berlin delayed my flight from Spain to Frankfurt enough to cause me to miss my connecting flight back to the States. The flight from Spain was on a small, economy carrier and Frankfurt to home was on Lufthansa. Even though it was not Lufthansa’s fault, they VOLUNTARILY (I did not have to ask) booked me on the first flight out the next day, paid for a hotel room, and gave me meal vouchers for my dinner. Maybe they did that for everyone because of the strike, maybe it was because I was flying Business Class – maybe I don’t really care. They solved a big problem without me asking. Any guesses which airline is my absolute favorite?

Here’s the example that sparked this posting. I recently broke some important parts off my mountain bike. When I went in to the local bike shop I was told that the part I needed was backorded for at least a month. Their tone and expression suggested that the “month” was going to be a lot longer than 30 days. They said they could order the part and let me know when it came in or I could try eBay. Not wanting to wait, I scoured eBay, even resorting to looking at eBay pages in Europe (international shipping can’t be that much extra, right?). A friend who currently lives 2000 miles away and runs a small bike shop offered to help. He contacted some folks at the manufacturer and found they had the part I needed still attached to a frame that had been sent back on warranty. Two days later the part is in his hand. Could my local bike shop have done that? Absolutely! Did they? Nope. They probably thought they had provided good customer service by being honest, offering to order the part, and suggesting other solutions. Truly, it was better than most shops, but they failed to solve my problem when another solved it easily.

This struck a huge chord with me from an HR perspective. How often does HR offer the bare minimum of service (“Read the employee handbook.”)? How often do we stop at the policy or just shrug shoulders and say, “Sorry, we can’t do that.”? How often do we forget that our customers are looking to us for help and guidance? How often do we treat our internal customers – the managers and employees – like actual customers who have a choice in whether they spend money with us? (By the way, they do have a choice. It’s called outsourcing. If HR isn’t providing real value by solving problems, it deserves to be disbanded and hired out to a vendor.)

So what are some of the basic tenants that make a person stand out as providing excellent customer service? Here are some thoughts in no particular order. These aren’t customer service secrets, just some observations from over the years:

  • Set and manage their expectations. When can they expect an answer, when will you follow up, what is the process, what can they expect, etc.
  • Do what you say you are going to do.
  • Take time to really understand the problem the customer is trying to solve. They may be asking for one solution when, if you had better understanding, you could easily offer a better solution.
  • Let them know if you can’t do it AND then explain what you can do to solve their problem.
  • Suggest alternative solutions AND provide the pros and cons of each. You don’t always have to have the one right solution, just provide them with the information they need to decide on a solution.
  • Great customer service does not necessarily mean doing things for free. Sometimes you can through extra service or product in for little or no cost to you. However, if they ask for something beyond what you normally provide and this will create costs, the appropriate response is: “You bet we can do that, it will just add $X and Y time to the process.” Then let them decide if it’s worth it. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Either way you are helping them solve the problem in a way that best fits their needs.
  • Communication regularly during the process. Even if it’s only to say that you have nothing new to report. People can deal with waiting much better if they know you haven’t forgotten about them and understand the general timelines.
  • In fact, go above and beyond all the time (hunt that part down!) AND let the customer know what you’ve done for them. Not in a martyr-ish whiny way, but so they know how hard you’re kicking butt on their behalf. I’ve known so many people who go way beyond and then get resentful when the other person didn’t appreciate it – even though the other person had no way of knowing about all the extra effort. I guess they “should have known.”
  • Respect people’s time. Treat their time like it’s precious and you’re practically guaranteed to be providing great customer service. Treat their time casually or disregard it and they are practically guaranteed to resent you no matter what else you do.
  • People remember how you treat them. Even when they don’t like the outcome, your behavior sets the stage for their response. Grant them the understanding, compassion, and humility that you’d want if you were in their shoes.

Actually, I’ve probably overcomplicated it. Maybe it’s as simple as: help them solve their problem and treat them the way you’d want to be treated while you do .

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