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May 8, 2012

News & Opinion: High-tech, High-touch Customer Service

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 1:04 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Micah Solomon follows up his book Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit, a book he co-authored with Leonardo Inghilleri, with a new book written just by him, titled, High-tech, High-touch Customer Service. Taking some of the core values of good service and applying them to the increasing level of technology that's involved in our interactions, Solomon tells stories and shares insights about best practices in this constantly changing, yet fundamentally human business landscape we exist in.

I sent Micah a few questions after reading the book, and his answers are below. Not only will you get a taste for some of the ideas in the book, but also the breadth of Micah's knowledge and experience. He built his company on principles of service, and was recognized not only by his customers for this, but also by many authors who have used his business and ideas as benchmarks of quality. Read on, and follow-up by checking out his books.

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Your new book focuses on customer service within today’s technology-influenced marketplace. Of all the ways customers have changed of late, which did you find the most striking?

Micah Solomon: I identify six key trends in customer service expectations in High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service. One that’s especially important for businesses to be aware of is this:  Customers now expect personalized, aggregated information—instantly.

Those are a lot of ugly, multi-syllabic words, so let me set the stage with an anecdote.  The 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?”

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.

A study by Accenture showed a manifestation of this trend: Customers in a retail situation often prefer to look to a smartphone for answers to simple product questions rather than working with a human clerk. The smartphone answers just seem to be faster and more accurate and sometimes, sad to say, come with a little less attitude. (Of course, you never get the heights of extraordinary service, either, from a smartphone, which is a lot of what I help companies with in High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service and in my speaking and consulting on customer service.)

What do companies need to watch out for if they’re trying to use social media to deliver, or be responsive with, customer service?

Micah Solomon:
1. Remember the parable of the unzipped fly.

One of the first secrets in dealing with social media feedback is to reduce the need for it by making sure your customers know, as directly as possible, how to reach you. Thinkabout it this way: If your friend saw you had your fly undone, or spinach between your front teeth, would he tweet about it? No, he’d quietly tell you. (And if nobody tells you all day when you’re fly’s unzipped, it’s proof positive that you have no friends!)  Use the same principle to your advantage here. Why should customers address issues to you 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?

With their round-the-clock access to the ‘‘airwaves,’’ make sure that the first impulse of customers is to reach you—day or night. Have ‘‘chime in’’ forms everywhere; it’s like building escape valves for steam into your machinery.

2. Avoid the fiasco formula: a digital stitch in time…
Can you spell F-I-A-S-C-O? 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.

3. Lie back and think of England: Digital arguments with customers are an exponentially losing proposition.
It’s an ancient and immutable law: 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 lie back and think of the future of your company, as Victorian women were told to ‘‘lie back and think of England’’ to help them endure their marital duties. (There is a lot of lying back and thinking of England involved in doing your social media duties.)

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.

Technology is enabling customers to do more things themselves (check out, etc.). While these types of services can be of benefit, what are companies learning about service in the process?

Micah Solomon: You’re absolutely right: The self-service revolution is growing in power every day. Self-service includes touchscreen kiosks on cruise ships that help you find your way back to your room, airline passengers printing their own boarding passes at home, and, of course, Web-based e-commerce and the smartphone revolution.

Self-service, however, is at its heart customer service, which means it needs to follow the rules of great service design, or it risks alienating every customer who comes in contact with it. Here are my principles of successful customer-oriented self-service:

1. Anticipatory customer service is the ultimate goal.
The ultimate goal of self-service should be the same as in all customer service: You should strive for what I call anticipatory customer service. Anticipatory customer service is a level of customer service magic that actually binds customers to you and builds brand equity for your company. In both face-to-face service and self-service, this means anticipating customer requests before they even express them --- or in some cases, are aware of them.

Aim for the classic goal the Ritz-Carlton articulated --- to address "even the unexpressed wishes" of its guests --- and you'll be on the right track. Happily, self-service is likely to be anticipatory by its nature because of 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. Think of IBM's technology in dressing rooms that suggests complementary ties based on the sportswear you're trying on, or amazon.com letting you know what customers like you ultimately ended up buying. Gmail warning you that you're sending out an email that lacks an attachment, when you've typed in the body of the email, "attached is."

2. Customers need a choice of channels.
A choice means they choose, and you respect their decisions. Customers shouldn't be calling your contact center on the phone only to be told, "You really should go to the website for that." There's a reason they called you on the phone, so talk to them. Just as maddening, there's one upscale hotel chain that continually sends me emails every time I'm about to visit one of their properties, urging me to use automated kiosk check-in upon arrival. I ignore the emails, arrive at the hotel, go to the front desk, and am told, "You know, you didn't have to come up here. You could have used the kiosk." But I want to be checked in by a human. It's a central part of the hospitality experience for me as a guest. And the choice should be mine.

3. Self-service needs to offer the customer escape hatches.
Such as:
• When you end your FAQs and similar self-help postings with, "Did this answer your question?" contemplate 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."
• 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.

4. Self-service can't be set and then forgotten.
It's an endless work in progress. Things change. Things break. Self-service needs to be monitored and reviewed regularly, or it may do you more harm than good.

5. Usability is a science that needs to be respected.
Reinventing the wheel as far as usability is self-defeating: Usability is a well-tested science, yet people keep trying to wing it. For example, why do people hate --- truly love to hate --- IVRs (telephone interactive voice response)? In part, because so many companies ignore or try ignore the rules of usability for such systems. For example, most people can't retain in memory more than 30 seconds of information at a time, so an IVR with more than 30 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 suboptions: "For Office A, Office B, or Office C, press 1." That one single suboption actually demands that the customer remember four things: three departments and the menu number.

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Micah Solomon is a customer service, hospitality, and marketing speaker, strategist, and author of the new book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service.