Soothing the Savaged Consumer Soul

Jeanne Bliss

Top Ten Customer Management Tips for Companies and Customers

In this economic crisis, when our nerves are raw and we are stretched like a rubberband ready to snap—we all need a kinder hand, a kinder voice…just plain more kindness in our lives. Nearly every interaction tests us now. Opening the cell phone bill and gasping…then endeavoring to get a bit of help. First the queue, then the call. Not much kindness there. Putting gas in our car. Forget about the boat. Buying groceries that are creeping up in price daily. Trying to sell our home or buy one. Calling the support line to have the appliances fixed, which, of course, chose now to conk-out. If you are in the customer service business, now is the time to seek out the intangible opportunities to soothe the savaged consumer soul. Here are ideas that will bring you dividends in rising above the fray and soothing frayed customer nerves during this economic crisis.

Customer Management Tip1: Become Wizards at Alternative Solutions

Creative solutions that help your customers cope and manage during the current economic crisis will be long remembered. Can you offer revised payment plans or offer different pricing schemes? Coach your frontline how to hold a diagnostic conversation with customers to understand the financial implications of the current market with customers. And reach out to customers proactively, especially if service contracts or annual commitments are due. In this economic crisis, customers are more likely to opt out and disappear. If you show up with a helping hand, empathetic approach and creative options prior to this decision, you can save business and build allies; and the memory of your customer service actions will serve you long after this economic crisis. Customer service management is crucial.

Customer Management Tip 2: Listen, Then Repeat

This sounds ridiculously simple, right? Think again. Eight out of 10 phone calls, retail interactions and service calls begin with prescribing a solution to a customer before the customer need is really listened to, understood and validated. This economic crisis is a time when customers will want to vent. Let them. Then repeat back to the customers what they said. Because not only do we need to vent right now, we need validation—that times are tough, that prices are high and that we’re in pain. Repeating the reason a customer walked in the store, called your number or e-mailed your "contact us" address will take your organization to a customer management level that not many organizations reach today. This involves internalizing what the customers need and using that knowledge to drive an outcome that is right for them. Lisetening to the voice of customers is key.

Customer Management Tip 3: Practice Wild Empathy

Customer empathy is not a pity-party! The ability to empathize and to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes so we understand what they are going through tests the humanity of our organizations—especially during this economic crisis. Bring groups of employees together in clusters of 20 or 30 and have them identify the top 10 customer frustrations that are occurring right now. Identify which have emerged recently, and discuss how customers are responding and coping with challenges. Then bring people up in groups of two and have them role-play customer conversations. Film these and make them available to everyone. I guarantee that the small investment in filming will be worth it. Giving employees permission and good examples for how to empathize will not only provide comfort to customers who receive it, but also to your employees who are feeling the pinch of the economic crisis themselves. The customer-centric humanity and humility that comes with acknowledging this condition will bring you closer to your employees as well.

Customer Management Tip 4: Deliver Small Heroic Acts of Kindness

Small acts of kindness will go a long way during this economic crisis. We are all so fatigued from walking away empty-walleted that small gestures really stand out. Zane’s Cycles, a bicycle shop in Connecticut, sells $15 million worth of merchandise a year from a single shop. They also give away any item that a customer is in a panic about finding (for example, a link that will fix a broken chain) that costs under a dollar. Think Dad with a 10 year old whose bike is broken; one stop at Zane’s and Dad saves the day—without paying anything. Every day Zane’s extends these small heroics that send customers away shaking their head in amazement. What can you do to provide customer service like this?

Customer Management Tip 5: Find Your Best Customers and Love Them

Your best customers deserve all the love you can give. First, let your customers know that you’re glad they’re sticking around. Then, reach out to them to ensure their customer loyalty. Are you developing new products or services? Bring a group of your best customers in for an evening of food and feedback. Perhaps you can send them a letter acknowledging that you value your relationship with them and offer an extra service. One company I work with rotates their executives calling their best customers per month. The impact of this personal contact lets your customers know that you care about them and are reaching out. This will improve your customer engagement and customer loyalty by leaps and bounds!

Customer Management Tip 6: Play Defensive-End for the FrontLine

Your employees at the front who are working directly with customers are likely feeling two things because of the economic crisis: the pain of their customers and their personal pain in the wallet. This economic crisis is the time to come up with uncommon acts of kindness for them. Create a monthly casual conversation with your front-line employees so they can tell you what they are hearing and where they are perhaps being beat up a little by beleaguered customers.

Rotate in 10-20 per month so everybody has a time to vent and have a bit of cheerleading. Host something fun once a month—bring in lunch, host a karaoke night. Most importantly, listen to what they have to say. Make a list of the biggest issues your employees mention that your customers are having and work to systematically cross items off the list. You’ll perhaps need to create some tools to help them talk customers down from that ledge that some may be standing at right about now. Don’t wait to do this! Employee engagement leads to customer engagement.

Customer Management Tip 7: Hire Those with Dash and Daring

Indications are that it will take some time to recover from this economic crisis. Profile the type of employee who will thrive with customers in this type of economic environment: listeners, creative thinkers and naturally service-oriented people for those serving and interacting with customers. Hire for passion and the natural ability to empathize. Find leaders who find the glass half-full and who can motivate creativity and inspire creative solutions. While these leadership skills are always desired, if you want to emerge above the rest, they are a necessity when times are tough. Amy’s Ice Cream, a beloved place in Austin, Texas, actually has their job candidates make a creation out of a white paper bag instead of filling out a standard application form. What’s your particular brand of experience that you’re delivering? And what can you do differently in the job interview to make sure you’ve got the right job candidate for the job? You want to hire brand ambassadors who will embrace everything about your company's brand.

Customer Management Tip 8: Call Customers Who Have Left Your Company

This is the time when acts of heroism for consumers and business accounts will not go unnoticed. So reach into your customer database and identify some customers who have left you. Then reach out to these former customers. But before you do, build some creative financing and pricing options for them. When you call, first apologize. Then listen. Ask why the customer left. Repeating back the reason is extremely powerful…yet yet few do it. Finally, ask to be given another chance and then offer your new creative finance and pricing options. Even if they don’t bite right away, this type of gesture sticks with customers. One financial services company that did this ultimately got back 35 percent of customers who had left. This will set you apart from the rest and will increase your customer engagement and customer loyalty.

Customer Management Tip 9: Give What You Want to Get

If we all let our stretched rubberbands go flying, well, somebody’s gonna lose an eye (thanks, mom!). Before you call that call center, remember the gal on the other end of the line is stretched like a rubber band, too. You’ll get a lot more back if you decompress before you call. Just wrap your tone in velvet. Who knows, maybe 2009 could go down as the time when we all grew our humanity instead of the economy. While our bank balances may be a bit thinner, as people, we’d all be richer for working through this time with grace.

Customer Management Tip10: Redefine the "Good Life"

We’re too used to having the barometer of our success connected to how much we’re spending. Stuck in that rut, our measure of how good our life is right now will clearly sink. Instead, redefine what "good" is. A great cup of coffee and the paper is good, but blended with 30 minutes that you give yourself to just "be" is…well, great. If we can re-blend our consumption to one part purchase and three parts enjoying the time between the spent, I bet we’d actually enjoy those purchases more. All this thinking-time will create the next new breed of customer management breakthroughs—which we can get back to after this economic crisis.

First published on Call Center IQ.