Feature Article - April 2002
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The Art of Customer Service

What goes around comes around when you give customer relations more than lip service

By Elisa Kronish

What do you expect?

Achieving great customer service has a lot to do with the last of Trotter's recommendations—understanding customer expectations.

"If I walk into a health club and buy a membership, but you don't understand what my expectations are—like valet parking, personal training, hot towels, things that are not necessarily in your brochure—am I going to be a happy customer? No," Trotter says.

"The part of this that frustrates customer service people is that expectations are perceptual. They exist in the mind of our customer," writes Paul R. Timm, Ph.D. in 50 Powerful Ideas You Can Use to Keep Your Customers. And, he admits, "Sometimes they are accurate and rational, sometimes they aren't."

Regardless of their merit, though, all expectations are valid to the customer. To deal with them in a productive way, Kate Nasser, president of Somerville, N.J.-based consulting company CAS, Inc. recommends stepping outside of your own perspectives.

"Ask yourself where is this person coming from, what are they going through, what experience does the customer want to have," she says. "Are they at that health club to relax or tone up?"

To find out, Nasser stresses the importance of asking questions, watching and listening to your customers.

"If you listen, you get a clear enough picture so you can deliver," she says, adding that you don't have to deliver everything the customer wants, just deliver what you promise. "If you say, 'Let me check on that, and I'll call you back in 15 minutes,' you darn well better call, even if you don't have the answer," she explains.

One of the expectations of a typical recreation facility-goer might include proper signage, Nasser suggests.

"You should make signs easy to see and understand," she says. "If there's a sign for a road, but it's pointing the wrong way, that customer will be upset."

Another biggie she mentions is clean bathrooms: "It's a key moment in their day sometimes; a nice bathroom makes it a more enjoyable day."

At the other extreme is a facility like The Ritz-Carlton, where lofty expectations are based on tradition. Like The Ritz-Carlton, if you already have a reputation for superior service, you can't afford to sit back and ride the wave—years of hard work can be drowned by a few disappointed customers who spread the bad word. Just consider these disturbing statistics from ASTD's article on first-rate customer service: Of unhappy customers, 96 percent won't ever complain; 90 percent won't come back; each of those who don't come back will tell at least nine other people, 13 percent will tell 20 or more people.

Handling the Difficult Customer

Some people can get the better of you—if you
let them. Learn how to settle even the worst situations, and
turn difficult customers into life-long customers.

Take the advice of the Better Business Bureau, which advises, "Remember, just because the customer is upset, doesn't mean he's wrong. It can sometimes be a challenge to wade through the emotional message and get to the basic issues. Until you've found the core of the problem, you can't resolve it."

The BBB also reminds employees to "maintain a clear mental difference between you and your role." Becoming emotionally involved is not productive.

To reach the core of the problem, you need to put on your listening cap and let the customer vent.

"Make sure you're listening to not only what they're saying but to what they're meaning because when people are upset, sometimes they don't always convey what they mean," says Peggy Boccard, facilities supervisor at Foothills Park and Recreation District in Littleton, Colo. "Ask questions and gather more information and use softening techniques," she says. Softening techniques include an open posture (no crossed arms), eye contact (no rolling of eyes) and maybe moving the customer to a quieter area to sit down to talk.

"Silence works well while they're venting, then a short phrase to empathize," suggests Kate Nasser, president of CAS, Inc., a consulting firm in Somerville, N.J. "Never say 'I understand,'" she adds, "because they'll think you're saying you understand their pain, and you don't, and it may escalate their anger even further. Maybe 'I appreciate what you're saying,' or 'I see why you're upset.'"

Nasser also stresses the importance of keeping customers informed if you put them on hold or leave for any amount of time.

"Customers can start to experience psychological feeling of abandonment and emotions start to escalate," she says.

"While you're discussing a possible resolution, remember not to make promises you aren't prepared to keep," the Better Business Bureau says. And "to avoid confusion, have a clear understanding of what you've agreed upon with the customer."

And keep in mind, as manager, you are your employees' backup.