Leading With Change + Innovation

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“If you really want to know about business, you should refer to Scott Steinberg.” -Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group

Sales Expert: How to Create Customers for Life

Everyone’s got an opinion: Some are just more vocal (and irate) than others. As many market leaders can tell you, customer complaints are the price of leadership – but it doesn’t mean they can’t be beneficial, or a source or inspiration and motivation both on the personal and organizational level.

It’s true: The amount of critical feedback you can expect to receive is often proportional to the success or notoriety of your business. (Just look at any downloadable app – the more popular the software program, the more commentary it tends to garner, negative or otherwise.) The tough part is that it’s not always easy for us as individuals or organizations to take criticism – how much do you like being told your best efforts haven’t been enough, or that you can do better? – let alone heckling. Worse, compliments and expressions of gratitude are often the exception, not the norm. Luckily, while it’s easy to get discouraged, failing to address customer complaints, and learn from negative feedback isn’t the answer. Instead, it’s better confront the situation head-on, turn detractors into advocates, and turn the scenario into an opportunity to build goodwill.

The worst thing you can do is ignore a customer complaint. Putting your head in the sand isn’t a smart strategy: In the short term, you’ll lose a customer, and in the long term, you’ll likely lose multiples of customers, with word of mouth one of today’s most powerful influencers of public opinion. In fact, a Zendesk survey found that bad experiences are almost twice as likely to be shared with others than good experiences (54 percent versus 33 percent) – making it even more crucial to steer conversations surrounding your business or brand towards the positive. Worse, nearly half of those surveyed specifically recommended that others not buy products or services after having a bad customer service experience. Influence includes the power of social platforms, too, as 88 percent surveyed were swayed by online reviews and commentary – needless to say, an unsatisfied customer can be a very vocal and influential one as well.

The higher your market, the bigger the stakes as well. According to experts, high-income households are 79 percent more likely to avoid vendors for two or more years after a bad customer service experience to boot. Poorly-handed customer service encounters can be costly to say the least – and their effects can impact your organization for some time.

For both individuals and organizations hoping to maintain a positive reputation, and build a healthy brand, finding ways to resolve conflict, and provide superior customer service has become paramount today in today’s always on, always connected world. The net effect on business is twofold, as customers expect faster replies from your business and also feel much more personally connected to your brand because of the more intimate and informal nature of social communications.

Luckily, turning an unsatisfied customer into a happy one doesn’t have to be as hard as you think, so long as you keep your antennae up, an open mind, and work to create win-win scenarios for everyone. Case in point: Southwest Airlines has an entire “Listening Center” dedicated to sifting through messages it received on social media. From its multiple monitors to 24-hour services, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the command center’s setup from the airplane control room. Representatives further respond to customer complaints within 15 minutes, and – approaching each scenario with the goal of satisfying customers in mind – provide a more human touch to the conversation. As one service pro there shared, “To go from ‘Southwest I don’t know if I can fly with you again because you’ve really messed up,’ [to] by the end of the conversation having them sing your praises, it’s just a really great feeling.”

So how can you and your organization facilitate the transition from an irate customer to a loyal one – and do so without having to build an entire social media command post of your own? Luckily, the answers are simpler and more cost-affordable than you may think.

Popular marketer and Hug Your Haters author Jay Baer recommends being proactive in taking care of your customers to begin wtih. “Far too many businesses care too little about retention,” he says. “[They] place much emphasis on outbound marketing and the attraction of new customers, with comparatively little attention paid to the customers they’ve already paid to get.”

Instead, the better approach is to take a two-pronged approach, not only working to attract new buyers but also build brand affinity and loyalty with preexisting customers as well. You can achieve these results through activity on online forums, providing smart context and guidance surrounding your product and surrounding topics, or creating customer champions out in the field.

Before customers find you, you might create a persona and reputation as an industry thought leader and positive contributor to the global community who’s constantly posting or researching ways to save others time, effort, energy or resources. When they work with you, you might always strive to create empathy and goodwill, asking every brand representative (salespeople or otherwise) to put customers’ best interests firsts – even to the point of volunteering to blog and create articles for shoppers about trending topics in your field. (“Shopping for a new washing machine? Here’s what you need to know, and here’s what you need to ask your sales rep!”) And once people have purchased from you, you need to reward their loyalty and build goodwill by responding promptly to concerns, taking pains to act on others’ feedback (and show them how their contributions are impacting your business or brand), and finding ways to showcase, spotlight, and reward your community. And most of all, throughout the process, you’ve got teach your staff to be kind, approachable, and empathetic – every interaction with a customer service team member should make clients feel like they’re being listened to, and that they’re a priority.

Put others first and make them feel that constructive conversation is the best way to resolve the issue, and they’ll respond in kind – you know what they say about catching more flies with honey than vinegar.

It will also help in efforts to stop looking at an irate customer as a nuisance to neutralize, and rather someone bearing the gift of helpful feedback – feedback from which you can learn and improve on an ongoing basis. And to remember that even irate shoppers are people just like ourselves – if your intention is be of assistance, they can tell. If your intention is to get a frustrated consumer off your phone, email, or social media dashboard as soon as possible, then that will come across in your words, interactions and average hold times – and won’t go unnoticed by clients. Noting this, the more you respect customers, the more you work to nurture long-term relationships, and the more you make a point to rectify scenarios and do what’s right (not necessarily what’s most profitable in the short-term), the more successful you’ll be. Note that this may mean putting rules and procedures in place that given brand representatives opportunity to color within set lines – the more creative license you give yourself and your team to delight and please others vs. sticking to an inflexible script or regulation, the happier all parties involved will be.

As popular eCommerce provider Shopify points out, exercising empathy is the key to turning negative interactions into positive outcomes, and building customers for life. A few simple ways to improve results here they suggest including asking yourself, “how might you…”

  • Help customers find what they’re looking for faster?
  • Help customers check out faster?
  • Build a more personal relationship with each customer?
  • Enable a unique and branded shopping experience?
  • Empower customers to spread positive word-of-mouth?

Having a greater degree of empathy for your customers, they say, will enable you to see and solve problems that you previously might never have noticed before.

For instance, Nordstrom’s customer service is considered epic simply because the company empowers employees to do everything in their power possible to please each customer, and take each scenario’s unique circumstances into account. A former employee shares a few highlights:

  • In-store departments value customers’ time, and don’t keep people waiting: They’re trained to answer calls no later than the second ring.
  • A Norsdtrom salesperson doesn’t simply point to where an item is located. Have a question about where something is located? They’ll make a point to take the time to walk you there, and point out other store highlights on the way.
  • Salespeople are trained to walk around the counter and hand bagged purchases to you instead of handing them across the counter.
  • Purchases can be rung up without having to stand in line, and salespeople are trained to offer this option to shoppers – especially those who look like they’re in a hurry.

As a standard rule, Nordstrom employees are trained to make the customer feel like they don’t have to work so hard in the shopping experience. What’s more, the popular retailer makes a point to trust its employees and empower them to take care of customers by exercising good judgement and reason. Just a few stories of these principles in action include:

  • According to The Seattle Times: “A woman in North Carolina recently lost the diamond from her wedding ring while trying on clothes at a Nordstrom store. A store security worker saw her crawling on the sales floor under the racks. He asked what was going on, then joined the search. After they came up empty, the employee asked two building-services workers to join the search. They opened up the bags of the store’s vacuum cleaners, where they found the shiny diamond.”
  • When a parcel delivery carrier (e.g. DHL, FedEx or UPS) leaves a pair of $200 shoes delivered by Nordstrom, the legal responsibility doesn’t necessarily lie with Nordstrom itself. Nonetheless, while many companies would have told him to simply file a claim with the courier, says Forbes writer Micah Solomon, instead, his Nordstrom rep told him: “I’m so incredibly sorry that happened, and I’m bringing over a brand new pair of shoes–will you be home in forty-five minutes?””

As you can see, when you make a point to care about a customer’s concerns, give yourself and your employees the latitude to address these issues, and continually look for ways to prevent the same issue from happening in the future, great things can happen. It can help you to start to look at these encounters, and the feedback and insight they provide, as a vital source of learning and growth. Keep in mind: Market research firms spend millions of dollars trying to get into customers’ heads and understand how they think: Here, your customer just contacted you – for free! – with priceless feedback to improve your business.

Keep in mind as well: People aren’t always outspoken by nature. And a single customer complaint may signal the presence of many, many more disgruntled shoppers who aren’t speaking up and saying anything. As Baer says, “The real problem for your business are the people who have a poor experience but are not passionate enough about you and your company to take the time to say something it in a form or fashion that you can find and act upon. They are the ‘meh’ in the middle, and they are what kills businesses.” The lesson here: Put customers first, always make it right for them – whatever the scenario may be – and constantly listen to what they’re telling you. The more you take these insights into account, and act on them, the better your customer service and the better customers’ impression of your business and brand will be.

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