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John (my co-founder) and I started to get nervous last Wednesday that our weekend travel plans would get canceled due to Hurricane Irene, so we did what most people did: we called the airlines to check on flight status, cancellation policies and airport closures.
While we waited on hold for several minutes, we thought what any entrepreneur in the customer service space would think: how will the contact centers of the country’s largest airlines perform under the stresses and high inquiry volumes caused by Hurricane Irene?
Well, since it just so happens we are in the business of evaluating and rating customer service performance, we mobilized our network of “mystery shoppers on steroids” to find out, and here’s what we found:STELLAService originally excluded replies from tweets sent to Continental’s Twitter account since it stated that its Twitter account is no longer active. Even though United and Continental have merged and now use a single active Twitter handle, @United, we have updated our findings as of 8/31/11 to reflect the 58% response rate to tweets directed to the inactive @Continental Twitter account. The tweets sent to American Airlines were sent to an account they deem to be inactive, so we have removed their Twitter findings and updated the above chart for that as well.
Kudos to U.S. Airways for keeping average hold times under three minutes the day before the storm hit. Most of the wait times at other airlines ranged from 10 minutes to over an hour (American Airlines took an average of 1 hour and 32 minutes to answer our calls)!
As for leveraging Twitter to provide service to travelers in despair, Delta, Frontier and jetBlue proved their social media savviness. Delta and jetBlue even responded to customer service-related tweets within 14 minutes and 11 minutes, respectively. Delta took it one step further and personalized it’s Twitter support by denoting the initials of the specific agent at Delta who replied to each tweet. This is time saving and convenient in the event the issue needed to be taken to the phones and that agent’s name could be referenced as someone who was already aware of the problem / issue.
Considering the major challenges in reaching a customer service agent over the phone and the conversational nature of twitter as a channel for customer support, it was great to see these airlines use Twitter so effectively to help their customers. AirTran responded to none of the tweets we sent the day before Irene made landfall.
It’s obvious we have choices when it comes to choosing an airline, and while there are sometimes slight price differences that make us lean one way or another, at the end of the day it’s all about the customer experience. When things are calm or when things are crazy, we need our airline of choice to be able to help us quickly, confidently and in a genuine way.
Here at STELLAService, we try not to name names when complaining, but I’m sure you can think of a company whose customer service call hold times are consistently so long that you have to block out a time for it in your schedule.
What if I told you that you’ll never have to wait on hold again? Meet LucyPhone, a free service dedicated to preventing the many headaches, neck cramps, and frustration caused by long hold times. Featured most recently in a New York Times article and also on Lifehacker and The Consumerist blogs, LucyPhone does the holding for you. Log on to LucyPhone.com and create your free account. Back on the homepage, you can search for the company within their existing directory of used numbers, or enter the number you wish to call. You then enter your own phone number, and click start. Within seconds, LucyPhone calls you, and reminds you how things work, then connects you to the number you entered online. Things start off as they normally would, until you get put on hold to wait for the “next available customer service representative.”
How many times have you wanted to hang up at this point? After ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? Now you can. When put on hold while using LucyPhone, you simply press ”**” and your phone will be disconnected, while Lucy stays on the line. Feel free to do other things, without having to hear annoying hold music or needing to keep your head pressed to the phone waiting for an answer. When a live agent is on the line, Lucy calls you back immediately and connects you both. If you get put on hold again, just press “**” again!
While LucyPhone’s success does require some cooperation from representatives (albeit this is minimal – when they pick up your call they hear a recording telling them to press “1″ in order to be connected with the awaiting customer), LucyPhone is mutually beneficial for the customer service representatives.
“We’ve cooled their jets a little,” co-founder Tom Oristian said of LucyPhone customers. “These agents are delighted to have customers ready to talk about the problem at hand instead of ranting about how long they’ve been on hold.”
Now, if only there was a solution for waiting in long store check-out lines…
DISCLAIMER: While LucyPhone helps to make things less annoying and more convenient, a long wait for a response is annoying and inconvenient regardless of how the time “on hold” is spent. This invention does not mean –and this post is not trying to suggest- that long call hold times are now okay. Sorry!
Earlier this month, New York Senator Charles Schumer proposed radical legislation that would create cost incentives for companies to keep customer service jobs in the United States. His proposal charges companies a $0.25 excise tax (a big number!) on calls transferred to call centers outside of the country. As you’re probably aware, many American companies outsource their customer service representative (CSR) positions to foreign countries because of reduced labor costs, a practice that many feel reduces the quality of service provided and also takes jobs away from Americans.
In addition to penalizing companies who outsource this function of their business, the bill would also require companies to disclose (via an automated voice system, I’d imagine) which country a customer service representative is handling a call from. This requirement would lift some of the fog from the hazy call center landscape and provide online shoppers with unprecedented insight as to how companies handle their inquiries. Theoretically, U.S. shoppers who wish to support a national economy would be able to exclusively shop at those organizations that keep their call center jobs within the country. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, this is a powerful concept.
What do you think about this piece of legislation?
Comment below or Tweet about it here
Back in dark ages when you had to physically go into a store to get your problems solved or your questions answered, you were in the best possible position to be truly heard and understood by the company. Standing face-to-face with a CSR triggered that person’s need to completely understand you – your issues; your concerns; your demeanor; your nature; your personality; your needs; and the context of the situation – and then appropriately solve your problem in a way that best suited YOU, the individual. Since no two people are the same, it makes sense that no two customer service interactions were the same.
Fast-forward to 2010 and think about all the different mediums through which you can now engage a company for customer support: the store employees, phone, email, live chat, Twitter, Facebook, text/SMS, GetSatisfaction.com and other support forums. It doesn’t take much to see that there’s been a widening “understanding gap” between you (the individual customer) and the CSRs directed to serve you. When it would have been laughable to see a CSR try to repeat the exact same customer service interaction for multiple people that walked into his or her store in a given day, it’s now standard practice for e-mail and live chat support for many companies.
The test for today’s companies is whether or not they can stay committed to the concept of truly understanding the needs, wants, problems and required solutions for each individual customer. Technology can assist this process or work against it. It can be used to gain information about a customer’s likes, dislikes, preferred methods of communication, attitudes toward products or services, etc. – all of which will ultimately enhance the customer experience and the overall service quality. On other hand, technology can be leveraged to provide measly 140 character “answers” or stock email template “solutions” to problems that really call for in-depth conversations over the phone or in-person.
While the “face-to-face” age of customer service required companies to truly understand you (after all, you stood directly in front of their CSRs!), today’s technology-driven consumer marketplace has no such requirements.
Which companies in your world go the distance to integrate new technologies with exceptional live customer support to truly understand the people they call their customers?
A new study just released by Forrester Research tells us that retailers are looking to expand their online customer service channels in 2010. The study was conducted in Q4 of 2009; 291 retail professionals answered a series of questions regarding their current and planned online customer service offerings. The results are good news for those of us who love to have options when getting in touch with companies; 26% of the respondents are planning on adding reactive live chat in 2010, while 25% of those polled hope to use mobile customer service (e.g. SMS messages) to get in touch with their customers this year as well. This part of the study sent a very clear message: companies know the online marketplace continues to grow and consumers are demanding higher quality and convenient mediums to interact with retailers.
On the other side of the study, some interesting news around companies not being “on top of their game” when it comes to customer service. Less than 25% of the respondents thought they had the best metrics in place to monitor and gauge their own customer service activities. One of the more shocking results – only 44% of the retailers polled said they regularly monitor customer feedback on Facebook, Twitter and other sources. You would think as social networking ingrains itself further into the consumer fabric, it behooves all companies to pay attention to their customer feedback that’s also shared with anyone who wants to listen.
These results reveal an enormous opportunity for companies that not only monitor their online customer service experience but use that information to improve their service levels. With companies planning to invest capital into broadening their online customer support options, it will be critical for firms to monitor and adapt accordingly their service offerings in order to remain as competitive as possible.
Overall, this is a terrific study that shows promising trends for the online marketplace when it comes to having easy and convenient customer service options at our fingertips. To download the complete study, click here.
Just the other day, I called eBags.com seeking advice on a popular handbag to purchase for my sister. For those who know my sense of style, it is not surprising that I am clueless about what’s “hot” in the handbag world right now. Needless to say, I was in need of some serious assistance. The customer service representative (CSR) answered the phone and asked me in a cheery voice “..how can I help you?” I actually chuckled a bit because I didn’t even know where to begin. I proceeded to tell her (Kate) my situation and every now and again she politely chimed in and asked me a question or two about where my sister lives, what she does, and what her style is. I answered her questions to the best of my ability (cross your fingers, sis!) and at the end of my rambling, she said “Ok, got it. I have two bags that I think you’re going to love…” I was shocked and relieved. It was only moments until I decided on one of the bags, submitted my credit card info, and went on my merry way. After the call I relished in the great service that I had just received and how easy it all was. I ultimately attributed it to the CSR’s ability to interpret my answer to her question, “how can I help you?” Customer service representatives need to realize that this question is not just a formality. It serves a deeper purpose and its answer needs to be understood (I mean, really understood) every time a customer contacts a company.
Have you ever spoken to a CSR who has an attitude and gives you the impression that you need him or her? In my opinion, this is a distinct difference from when a CSR genuinely wants to help you. Too often it feels like CSRs speak to customers in the context of the former. Utility companies are notorious for this because people really do need electricity or water or internet service, and there’s often just one company that can provide it. Recently, I called Verizon because I thought I was charged too much on my phone bill. After spending countless minutes on hold and being transferred three times, ultimately to a CSR who told me to simply wait for a call back, I was ticked. Not only am I still waiting for a call back (5 days and counting now), but I can’t help but sniff a scent of arrogance emanating from their customer support team. Sure, they asked me “how they could help me”, but it came across more like “why do you need me”? It has left a bad taste in my mouth.
Effectively helping someone is one of the most impressive gestures you can extend to another human being. And you can only help someone if you truly understand what their issue is. Remember Jerry MaGuire’s infamous plea to Rod Tidwell?
Well, Kate at eBags.com, helped me because she got me to help her. She did this by being proactive and asking questions about my situation. Not only did it enable her to give quality service, but it also allowed me to trust her opinion and ultimately her advice. Since Kate truly understood why I was calling and who I was buying for, she was equipped to pick the product for my specific needs. That’s a pretty powerful concept, and it’s the leading reason why CSRs are such an important piece of any business that genuinely wants to meet the needs of today’s highly demanding consumers.
A new survey released today by ChoiceStream found that 59% of online consumers were unhappy with the product recommendations they received at e-commerce sites in 2009. These results marked a significant increase in unease with product recommendations compared to 2007 (46%) and 2008 (45%). ChoiceStream attributed the change to heightened consumer expectations as well as a lower level of expertise among online retailers, many of which are new to automated recommendations.
Since online consumers are increasingly looking to product recommendations as a service to help them make better buying decisions, this study highlights an enormous opportunity for many online retailers to blow past their competitors by providing quality and relevant product recommendations. For small sites, this means you can win over the hearts of consumers by adding a little more personalization and thought into the product recommendations – you’re site’s visitors will take notice. For bigger sites, this means a potentially bigger budget and larger focus on the right recommendation engine and the right types of recommendations, no matter what type of product you sell.
If there’s one thing that jumps out at us, it’s that consumers expect more from today’s online businesses. Only the sites that truly address the needs and wants of consumers will surge ahead in 2010. Instead of simply showing consumers a list of “complementary” products or “recommended” products based on refined algorithms, offer a touch of personal service. Display your customer support phone number, email address or live chat link on all product and shopping cart pages, and explain that your CSRs are ready and standing by to help make smart, relevant and reliable product recommendations. It’s not necessarily the high-tech solution that creates the most meaningful results.
Jay Goltz is a small business owner in Chicago who recently gave us his take on why customer service is slacking these days in his NY Times piece Why Customer Service Is So Bad. He is convinced that consumers are receiving the short end of the stick because of three reasons:
What Jay inherently points out is that the customer service engine is dynamic. Much like a basketball coach substituting players in and out of the game to find the right group of players to win on that particular night, or an e-commerce team trying to optimize their website in order to increase conversions, customer service has many different drivers – all of which can be tinkered with to improve (or not improve) the model. At the end of the day, however, Jay points out that the goal is clear: take good care of your customers so they’ll return to you and refer you to a friend. Above all else, what customers appreciate the most is when they know that a company is passionate about them and their business, and is forever committed to serving them.