Indisputably (although many continue to dispute it), customer service and the customer experience have been improving steadily year after year, by any objective measure. Including in such areas as:
• Speed • Efficiency • Transparency (including in accuracy of customer- and agent-facing inventory reports) • Ease of returns • Number of channels supported for incoming customer communication • Number of languages supported • Hours that support is available • Even the training level of service professionals seems to be improving apace, as a general rule.
Why, then, do some customers gripe so loudly about customer service being “a lost art these days”? Because these customers, like the iconic frog in the pot with a gradually rising water temperature, have unconsciously adjusted to everything we’ve thrown at them. All the customer service improvements that have happened over time have only led such customers to set their personal threshold lower and lower for what they consider to be gripeworthy.
It’s this adjustment to newly heightened customer service and customer experience standards that should have you worried. Because although standards on average have been improving, it doesn’t mean that your business’s level of customer service keeping up.
Have you kept up? Or have your customers’ expectations passed you by?
This is a life-and-death question. If your business is still being governed by the customer service standards you had in place five years ago, you may be out of business sooner rather than later.
Five areas where your customer service may need a brushup
The first place you may need to revamp, in order to keep up, is in meeting customers’ rising expectations for speed. Five years ago, you might have gotten away with a standard like, “we strive to respond to customer inquiries within 24 hours.” But in today’s customer service landscape, that’s simply not going to work. A 24-hour response time feels like 36 years in internet time; if you don’t get back to a customer or prospect within a couple of hours, they’re going to assume that you’re never going to get back to them–and they’ll either escalate their fury or move on to one of your competitors that can deliver the timely, responsive service they are looking for.
Second, you need to cut through any reluctance remaining at your company for providing full-bodied, cutting-edge self-service options for those customers of yours who want it. Many consumers today prefer–even strongly prefer–self-service, at least in some scenarios some of the time. It’s true that these can be the very same customers who insist that a human being serve them when things get complicated or emotional, so that side of service mustn’t be neglected either. But when a customer is in a hurry, or it’s late at night, or they simply don’t feel sociable–because they’re at work, because they’re hung over, because it’s just their inclination at the moment–they’re going to insist on self service. A good place to start with self-service is to make sure you’re providing a robust “my account” feature that allows customers to check their account details and their project progress any hour, day or night. An equally appreciated self-service feature is an AI-informed dynamic search bar on your website, which most every company should be deploying in place of the infamous “IFAQ” (infrequently asked questions) that some long-ago web designer populated and that you never remember to update.
A third area where you may need to update your customer service is what I call customer service style. Customers today (most of them) prefer what I call an eye-level, or peer-to-peer style of customer service, as distinct from the more obviously subservient style of customer service that was traditional only a few years back: the towel over the arm, the excessive formality, the stilted use of language. Richard Branson and I were discussing this some time ago at breakfast, and the conversation remains on point for what I am talking about here.
“We take [an] informal approach to customer service at all our Virgin brands,” including Virgin Atlantic, his international airline, Branson told me. By contrast, “the Asian airlines have service standards that are extremely high, but it’s not the right style of service for customers today. All of those…flight attendants who they keep around for what seems like only three years, who seem interchangeable and can only deliver scripted lines—that’s not what we’re about and that’s not the kind of service customers want today.”
Micah: “Stepford Service.”
Branson: “Yes, that’s the image I get too. And that’s what I want to avoid: ‘Stepford-type’ customer service.”
A fourth element of customer service on which you may not be in sync with today’s customers is in offering (or failing to offer) what I call “automatic positivity.” Customers today expect an automatic “yes” to whatever request they make. Instead of letting this presumptuous posture irritate you, I suggest you embrace it as your own, even before any request is actually made.
In other words, the attitude you want to nurture companywide is as follows:
The answer is yes. Now what is your question?
Everyone in your company, ideally, should have a “yes” waiting on their tongues for the moment they encounter a customer. Of course, there will be situations where need to say no, including when a “yes” would run against considerations of safety, security, or privacy (or where it’s simply uneconomical for you to say “yes” at a price point demanded by the customer). But do whatever you can to avoid leading with a “no,” and even when you do need to say no in the end, there is usually a way to soften the blow, typically by offering one or two reasonable alternatives that the customer may not have thought of.
Fifth and finally, has your customer service training kept pace with the increased expectations of customers? One poorly trained egg can do a lot more damage to your company’s reputation now, in the world of social complaints, than it could in the past, and 20 poorly trained eggs can do even more. day.”
Micah Solomon is a customer service and customer experience consultant, keynote speaker and trainer, as well as an executive co-author/ghostwriter and content creator. He was recently named “the World’s #1 Customer Service Turnaround Expert” by Inc. Magazine. Please email Micah directly, visit his website, or read Micah’s new bestseller: Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away) (HarperCollins Leadership).