Minggu, 09 September 2012
Micah Solomon: High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service - Author interview
Keynote speaker, strategist, and consultant on customer service, Micah Solomon. was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about his definitive and wisdom filled book High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service: Inspire Timeless Loyalty in the Demanding New World of Social Commerce.
Micah Solomondescribes how to utilize the power of technology and social media to enrich and enhance the extraordinary customer experience both online and offline.
Thanks to Micah Solomon for his time, and for his very comprehensive responses to the questions. They are greatly appreciated.
What was the background to writing this book High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service: Inspire Timeless Loyalty in the Demanding New World of Social Commerce?
Micah Solomon: High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service reflects my desire to combine all that is timeless in customer service – classic techniques that are often overlooked or poorly executed – and all that has changed in the past few years, even the past few months – due to technological change.
Micah Solomon: This is my second book. I’m an author, professional keynote speaker, and consultant on customer service, but I am also a business leader/entrepreneur, and that’s where this all starts.
Having built my business from a leaky basement to a leader in our field, I’ve realized and proven along the way that the customer experience is the one thing you can control and use to reliably build the profitability of your business. With so many things out of the control of business, international tensions, potential technological change, even exchange rates, the one thing you absolutely can control is customer service, the experience of every customer in your business.
Marketers often point out that customers have changed. How have customers changed their behavior in the digital age?
Micah Solomon: Here are four trends selected from the ones I identify in High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service
1. Shame Shift and Values-Based Buying
“Shame shift”: Before the economic downturn, the pride of being able to consume in a conspicuous manner—sitting in front of a many-inch flat screen, taking the family on a summer vacation to a center of tropical opulence—was considered appropriate and enjoyable by economically comfortable customers.
Now this same behavior may be seen as crass, even rude. The attitude has shifted from being proud to show off how much we can afford to being ashamed at consuming too conspicuously. But—and as Pee Wee Herman would’ve said, it’s a “big but”—there’s a huge exception.
“What we’re seeing now is consumption being excused by ‘attached meaning,’ ” as Jay Coldren, VP at Marriott for lifestyle brands, puts it.
What is “attached meaning”? Think of the people you know who willingly pay five bucks for a cup of coffee, provided the coffee shop says that part of that fiver goes to help the rainforest. This phenomenon is significant. A study of consumer habits confirms that shoppers are becoming “more deliberate and purposeful” in their purchasing decisions. “Conspicuous consumption has given way to more conscious or practical consumerism” and “rampant deal-seeking is being replaced by more purchase selectivity.”
Another study shows that 87 percent of consumers in the United States believe that companies should value the interests of society at least as much as strict business interests. Customers are demanding more alignment of company values with their own, and this customer sentiment is being expressed in buying choices.
John Gerzema, chief insights officer at Young & Rubicam, told Inc. magazine editor at large Leigh Buchanan that, according to his vast database of consumer attitudes, 71 percent of people said, “I make it a point to buy brands from companies whose values are similar to my own.”
The trends of shame shift versus attached meaning and values-based buying can affect how you plan your interactions with customers, once you understand that sentiment about your company can involve broad elements of psychological distress or desire that might not seem to you directly relevant.
2. The Demand for the Instantaneous and the Expectation of Aggregation
My battery died recently on my aging Volvo, and with it I lost the stations that had been preset into my car radio. After driving around a few days manually selecting the stations I generally listen to (more or less just one station), I found myself irritated to have to dig up the ancient instructions on how to set a station into memory. I found myself thinking, “Doesn’t my car know I want this station as a preset? I mean, I listen to it every day—it should be inviting me to add it to a ‘favorites list’ or some such.”
But my car was manufactured in 2004, and, of course, cars didn’t “think” that way in 2004. And neither did consumers.
Believe me, customers think that way now: They expect devices—and companies—to, in effect, say, “Mr. Solomon, I note that you’ve been listening quite a bit to your local NPR station. Care to have me memorize it for you so you’ll not have to fumble for it when you’re negotiating a difficult turn?”
Customers now expect personalized, aggregated information—instantly. To get a sense of how deeply customer perspectives have changed, look around. With the advent of mobile computing, a traveler can get all the answers on her iDroidPhoneBerry® that the concierge or bellman or neighborhood know-it-all used to parcel out at his own rate and with varying amounts of reliability: What’s a good Italian restaurant within walking distance? What subway line do I take to Dupont Circle, and which exit is best from the station? My plane just landed—in this country, do I shake hands with those of the opposite gender?
While this bears some resemblance to the model in place only a few years ago—settling into a hotel room, pulling out a laptop, fumbling around for an Ethernet cable, trying to figure out how to log on to the hotel’s network—there are real differences. Specifically, the better aggregation of information. Surfing the net—going out on a net-spedition to look for stuff seems like too much work and too big a time investment for today’s customers. Today, customers expect technology to bring an experience that is easier, more instantaneous, and more intuitive.
They want to type or thumb a few keystrokes into Hipmunk—which lists travel options along with warnings about long layovers and other agonies, and shows hotels with precise proximity to your actual destination, or GogoBot, where your own Facebook/Twitter pals have already rated potential trips for you, or of course TripAdvisor, with its user-generated ratings of nearly everything in the world of travel—and have the information they need served up for them concierge style based on their IP address or satellite location and other useful clues.
3. Customer Empowerment
Customers feel newly empowered in their relationships with companies. They’re expecting businesses to respect that sense of empowerment—and they lash out at those that don’t. They expect that your company will make itself easy to contact and will respond to their comments at a high and thoughtful level. Which I suggest you do. Because feedback will be offered, whether welcomed by you or not. It used to be that a peeved customer might drop by your shop and give the manager an earful. Or go through an extended search to figure out the correct address for an executive high enough to make a difference, and then sit down and write her an angry letter. Later, the Internet brought an increased sense of empowerment, with online comment forms and the ability to send instantaneous complaint e-mails.
Today, those methods are increasingly looking slow and outdated. Technology has created faster, more viral ways for consumers to make their annoyance felt. Exhibit “A,” here, of course, is Twitter: Anyone who has enough people reading his blasts can get a company’s attention in a hurry with a cleverly or powerfully worded complaint—either within Twitter’s one hundred and forty characters or via a shared link directing followers to a longer blog post elsewhere on the web. Not only that, but the people who see it may resend it to their own Twitter followers (i.e., retweet it). Before long, one person’s complaint will reach enough people and elicit enough similar responses to make the company wake up and pay attention to the problems of the original complainer. thanks.”
Customers understand that this is empowerment at the speed of light. And they expect you to understand it too, to incorporate the empowerment expectations of customers into your problem-resolution process. In other words, understand that the playing field has flattened—or prepare to be flattened yourself.
A model for how to encourage customer empowerment comes from Umpqua Bank, an institution top rated for service at its locations in the Pacific Northwest, California, and Nevada. Walk into any of its lobbies and one of the first things you’ll see is a placard reading “Let’s talk” and an antique-y phone with a direct connection to the president’s (Ray Davis, legendary founding president, director, and CEO) office. Is this a gimmick? Nope, because Mr. Davis actually answers it, according to Michele Livingston, senior vice president and regional retail manager. In fact, she says, “Ray loves talking with customers who have an issue, not hiding from them.”
4. The Desire for Self-Service
Self-service, which includes everything from web-based e-commerce to IVR (interactive voice response telephone systems) to concierge-like self-help touch-screen menus in public spaces to passengers printing their own boarding passes before traveling, is a powerful trend in customer service, and companies that ignore it, pursue it reluctantly, or violate the basic laws of its implementation will be left in the dust. There are various factors driving the self-service trend: our round-the-clock lifestyle, a buying populace that is increasingly tech savvy, even in some cases the higher comfort level of some socially anxious customers when doing business with machines rather than face to face or even on the phone.
Micah Solomon (photo left)
While there have been many changes in how customers behave, what aspects of their actions haven't changed?
Micah Solomon: In the instant social media world, many business people are afraid they have lost control of customer service. How has customer service been enhanced with the rise of social media?
You present eight unbreakable rules for social media customer service. Can you share some of those rules with us?
Micah Solomon: Here are four of the central ones:
1. Digital arguments with customers are an exponentially losing proposition.
We all know: You can’t win an argument with a customer. If you lose, you lose directly; if you win, you still lose—by losing the customer. But online, the rule is multiplied manifold because of all the additional customers you’ll lose if they catch sight of the argument. So, you need to learn to bite your tongue and think of the future of your company. A lot. So: Breathe, slow down, and, above all else, avoid reacting in anger.
2: Turn twankers into thankers: Reach out directly to online complainers
Okay, now that you’re lying back, breathing, doing everything you can to avoid reactively flying off the handle, you can respond in a considered, positive manner. Let’s say you’ve spotted an outrageous tweet about your firm:
Company X double-bills all customers—Must Think We R Suckrs—_FAIL
How should you respond? If this twanker follows you on Twitter, that makes you able to send him a direct message—so do it. Include a direct email address and direct phone number. If, however, said twanker isn’t one of your followers, you’ll need to figure out another way to reach him. How about replying publicly, on Twitter, listing your email address and expressing your chagrin and concern. (In an online forum such as a blog, TripAdvisor, or Facebook, you can respond in a similar manner, but through the comment mechanisms available there.)
By responding this way, you have a good chance to move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation, where you can work directly with your antagonist without thousands of eyes dissecting every move or, worse, catching bits and pieces as things progress, without ever grasping the whole story. This dispute resolution approach is like an in-store situation where you take an irate customer aside, perhaps into your office, to privately discuss the matter, giving you both a chance to work together to arrive at a resolution.
And, after a successful resolution, politely ask the complainer to amend or even withdraw those original ugly comments.
Principle 3: The Parable of the Unzipped Fly: How to minimize the likelihood of public social media complaints in the first place. If your friend saw you had your fly undone, would he tweet about it? No, he’d quietly tell you. [And if nobody tells you when you’re fly is undone, you clearly have no friends!]
In this same spirit, why should unhappy customers complain indirectly via Twitter or their blogs when they can use email, the phone, or a feedback form on your website and know that it will be answered—immediately and with empathy? With their round-the-clock access to the social airwaves, make sure that the first impulse of customers is to reach you directly, day or night, by offering “chime in” forms everywhere; direct chat links for when your FAQ’s fail to assist; and an easy way to reply directly to every corporate email you send out.
Principle 4: Avoid the Streisand effect
When someone attacks your business online, you may be tempted to call your lawyer, or otherwise try to intimidate the offending poster into removing the post. I’d think carefully before doing that. The reason? Your reaction will tend to bring excessive publicity to the issue. There’s even a term for this: the Streisand Effect, named after Barbra Streisand, who sued a photographer in a failed attempt to remove a photo of the singer’s mansion from the California Coastal Records Project, a strategic backfire that resulted in greater distribution of the photo than would have happened before.
At the very least, threatening your customers does nothing to reduce the damage—and is very likely to backfire. Look at this hilariously written backhanded ‘‘retraction’’ by a restaurant guest under legal threat, and think if coercing a customer into such a response really serves your business. [This is an actual example, except for some altered identifying words.]
I earlier posted a review on this website and was threatened with a lawsuit by an attorney representing ‘‘Serenity Cafe´. ’’ In response, I’m hereby posting my retraction:
In retrospect I really should have said ‘‘To me, the ‘‘line-caught rainbow trout’’ tasted like farmed fish because it was almost flavorless and it looked like farmed fish because it was the wrong color and crumbly.
Perhaps it was indeed wild trout that just spent too long in the
freezer . . .’’ and I should also have said pertaining to the chicken
that . . .’’this chicken seemed to me like frozen tenders because it was
the size, shape and texture of large pieces of solid plastic.’’
Treat your customers right, or else. And don’t expect to be able to intimidate them into submission.
Many business people believe that if they ignore customer complaints made on social media, they will disappear. Why is this the wrong approach?
Micah Solomon: While ignoring a complaint at least has the advantage of avoiding the Streisand Effect I referred to earlier, by and large it’s not going to work out for you.
Can you spell F-I-A-S-C-O? In social media, the formula is:
Small Error+Slow Response Time=Colossal PR Disaster
That is, the magnitude of a social media uproar increases disproportionately with the length of your response time. Be aware that a negative event in the online world can gather social steam with such speed that your delay itself can become more of a problem than the initial incident. A day’s lag in responding can be too much.
How can creating a high-tech, high-touch customer service culture place a company in an unstoppable leadership position?
Micah Solomon: Building (or overhauling) a company culture isn’t for the faint of heart, and it’s not for those looking for a quick gain. But it’s a key creator and sustainer of any company whose image and livelihood depend on a superior customer service. Here’s why:
> The number of interactions between customers and staff is nearly infinite, the number of chances to get things wrong or right nearly innumerable. Or, if you want to try to put some numbers on it, Cornell’s Center for Hospitality Research estimates that a business such as a two-hundred-and-fifty-room hotel will have some five thousand interactions between staff and guests per day. There’s no way someone in a leadership position can dictate every single one of those five thousand interactions. Rather, a leader’s only chance to get the preponderance of these interactions right is to develop a shared cultural understanding of what needs to be done—and why.
> The ongoing technology and connectivity revolution amplifies the problems of not having a strong culture. The best customer service approach in social media, for example, is to have people who are steeped in your culture handle the social media, and the best email responses to customers come from staff members who understand what is and isn’t consonant within your culture. The risks of deviating from this are potentially catastrophic because of the way issues can spread on the internet like wildfire.
> Employees have incredibly well-calibrated b-llsh-t detectors (to repurpose Hemingway’s immortal phrase). So, cultural alignment throughout all levels of your company is the only way to avoid internal bitterness at organizational inconsistencies that look like unfairness—bitterness that ultimately can end up scalding your customers.
> Finally, consider the number one complaint I hear from consulting clients at the helm of businesses? It’s ‘‘I keep hearing that employees act differently—and not for the better—when I’m out of the building.’’ With a great company culture, your employees will act consistently. They won’t depend on your presence to remind them how to act. Their motivation will come from within themselves, reinforced by all those around
The other thing to consider when considering the value of company culture is this: While just about any business advantage that you pride yourself on can be copied by a competitor, the culture of your company is the exception to this rule. Strong company cultures are overwhelmingly knockoff-resistant.
How can the rise of self service online enhance customer service?
Micah Solomon: Customers and customers today expect—and demand—the availability of self-service options, round the clock. Airline passengers are now accustomed to printing their own boarding passes at home; the latest Royal Caribbean cruise ship has kiosk “concierges” on every desk to help you find your way back to your room; the smartphone revolution gives you access to vetted information from the Mayo Clinic while you’re waiting for your “real” doctor to arrive… and, of course, there’s the Web. To be customer-friendly, self-service needs to follow the rules of great service design. Here are the principles of successful customer self-service.
1. Build your self-service options to provide anticipatory customer service.
Great hospitality companies like The Ritz-Carlton strive to anticipate even the unexpressed wishes of their customers. This goal—what I term “anticipatory customer service,” where a desire is anticipated and then fulfilled, seamlessly, with no effort on the part of the customer, is also what you’re looking for with self-service. Happily, self-service is likely to be anticipatory by its nature, due to its ability to accept unique, customized input from the customers themselves, and smart self-service design can further enhance this.
The most brilliantly implemented self-service helps suggest choices and behaviors in an intelligent manner. Exhibit “A” here of course is Siri, the new go-to guide on your iPhone: Not too long ago I confided to Siri: “My teeth are bothering me. Siri responded: “I found a number of dentists… 23 are fairly close to you.” And think of Gmail warning you that you’re sending out an email that lacks an attachment—not to mention Gmail’s “mail goggles” preventing you from drunk-emailing that you may regret later. Or Amazon.com letting you know which items customers like you ultimately ended up buying, based on what you thought you were interested in. Or IBM’s technology in dressing rooms that suggests complementary ties based on the sportswear you’re trying on.
2. Don’t reinvent the wheel … and don’t relocate that search bar.
Usability is a science that needs to be respected. Reinventing the wheel (or, more to the point, reinventing a location for the search bar on your homepage) is self-defeating behavior. A wheel should be round, and the search bar should be smack dab at the top of a web page, where your customers expect it. Question: Why do customers despise IVRs (telephone interactive voice response)? Because so many companies ignore or try end-runs around the rules of usability for such systems.
For example, most people can’t retain in memory more than thirty seconds of information at a time, so an IVR with more than thirty seconds of options or information is just going to confuse customers. There are similar hard-and-fast rules about how many menu items a customer can remember, yet some companies mangle their application of this rule by loading up each option with sub options: ‘‘For Office A, Office B, or Office C, press 1.’’ That one single sub option actually demands that the customer remember four things: three departments and the menu number.
3. Build escape routes into your self-service. Self-service is fun for customers—until it isn’t. Build in escape routes for customers that take them directly to humans who can help when they’re stuck. To wit:
• If you ask ‘‘Did this answer your question?’’ at the end of your FAQs, spend some time considering what should happen if the customer’s response is ‘‘No, it didn’t answer my question.’’ In my opinion, it should be a response of ‘‘I’m so sorry, we obviously have room for improvement; click here and a live human being will assist you.’’ Or ‘‘If you would like a phone call from a human, please enter your number here. When we call, our humans will have a complete record of your query/issue and its failed resolution, and we will make it right.’’
• “Please do not reply…”—really? Automated confirmation letters need to come from, or at least prominently feature, a reply-to address. When huge companies send confirmations that end with ‘‘Please do not reply,’’ it’s a kiss-off. When smaller companies do this, they just look ridiculous. Either way, it can lead customers to desperation. The asymmetry defies our human desire for reciprocity: The company is sending you a letter, but prohibiting you from writing back!
How can does technological change affect help attract differently abled customers?
Micah Solomon: For people with disabilities, technology is a double-edged sword. In obvious ways, technology can be a godsend: from automobiles and mass transit to (some) e-readers, from medical advances to assistive- technology devices controllable by body gestures, technology has the ability to make life better for people with disabilities, now and in the future. The other edge of the sword cuts in when technology is advanced without consideration for how people with disabilities are using the current iteration of the technology. This has happened repeatedly—and with stunning speed—as internet commerce and mobile technology have advanced.
Be sensitive to this when providing customer care. Not all your customers can interact with your IVR (interactive voice response telephone systems)—they may have hearing loss or vocal limitations to the point that it’s not possible—making it important that you offer an alternative. Not everyone can see the graphics-intensive website you’re so proud of—it may be entirely unreadable by blind customers who depend on screen-reading technology. This is why it’s so important that you follow good accessibility protocols in designing your website. (If your web designer says, ‘‘What’s that?’’ or ‘‘That’s not important’’ when you bring up accessibility, take your business elsewhere or partner your web designer with an expert in this area.)
Mobile technology can be especially problematic, in part because of the miniaturization inherent in this field and in part because changes in the field have been so rapid. Here, even an overwhelmingly positive case in point brings up some issues: The iPhone is one of the most encouraging examples in this regard, packed with accessible technologies, including type you can zoom to many times its original size to compensate for moderate visual impairments, built-in TTY compatibility for the deaf (TTY, also known as TDD, is a two-ended system that allows someone with hearing or speech limitations to communicate on the phone using a keyboard), and more.
Not to mention Siri—the extraordinary voice-based personal assistant. [Disclosure: Nuance, and its acquired brand MacSpeech, where I’ve been a long-time investor, is involved in the current generation of speech recognition technology.] And Apple has been excellent at holding third-party vendors to accessibility standards if they want their software on the iPhone. Yet the fact remains that this largely accessible marvel of technology comes in a nearly flat device, almost entirely lacking in the traditional grasping points and tactile cues of a standard telephone and keypad, making it hard to handle or even hold for people with certainly physical limitations. This being one of the most positive examples, imagine how paradoxical other evolving technology can be for those with disabilities.
Efforts to block the enemies of technology—spammers and hackers—can also end up barring disabled customers, in this case those with visual impairments. Websites try to protect themselves from spammers and hackers by requiring the input of a CAPTCHA (CAPTCHA is a laborious acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) to join a site or use its contact forms. But by doing so without an audio alternative or other non-visual substitute is to lock out customers who have sight impairments.
This is bad business, unethical, and potentially illegal, by violating Section 508. 2 (Section 508, an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is the federal law requiring that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities—further deﬁning ‘‘accessibility’’ as the ability to be used as effectively by those with disabilities as by those without. 3) Note, though, that many of the available audio alternatives to CAPTCHAs are incredibly difﬁcult to use as well (try one out yourself and see what I mean!), so be thoughtful in choosing and implementing these, too.
Help disabled customers and you help the able-bodied (and the bottom line) as well.
Keep this in mind: Technology and processes that beneﬁt people with disabilities often benefit the rest of us as well: for example, clearly labeled website elements, ‘‘universal design’’ in buildings (such as those easy-to-use lever-style door ‘‘knobs’’ even the able-bodied appreciate when loaded down with groceries), and closed captioning in video (subtitles).
This is a lesson which Netflix has had a hard time learning: Netflix has run a highly publicized battle, initially refusing and then dragging its feet on implementation of subtitles for its streamed videos. Captioning clearly benefits the fully deaf and the moderately hard of hearing, as well as fully abled people in noisy environments and movie buffs who want to catch the intricacies of dialog. An overall win, one would think, but in its shortsighted opposition, Netflix has brought forces together against it, including cultural icons like Marlee Matlin, in a battle that makes little sense.
What is next for Micah Solomon?
Micah Solomon: I have a full schedule of keynote speeches coming up this autumn for some great companies and events in many different industries -- I am very excited by the reception so far to High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service and the companies, leaders, and managers who are making use of the concepts in it, here and overseas (for example, I just got word it is being translated into Korean) -- I am enjoying writing my blog College of the Customer as well as pondering what my next book will be – I continue to enjoy my role as President of Oasis Disc Manufacturing.
My book review of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service: Inspire Timeless Loyalty in the Demanding New World of Social Commerce by Micah Solomon.