Friday, August 04, 2006

What I learned about customer service in France

Last week, I spent 9 wonderful days in Paris and Normandy. I love the French towns and countryside, but I found the customer experience with their service industries to be less fulfilling.

We took the train to the airport our last day, and exited into Terminal 2. This was a wild guess on our part, since the signs didn't list anything about the differences between the various terminals, such as which airlines are there or if the terminal has domestic or international flights. We walked to the information desk and said, "We're trying to find American Airlines."

The agent replied, "Why did you get off here?"

"Umm, well, we didn't know which terminal to enter."

"Well, American isn't here. It's in Terminal 3."

The agent promptly looked down, ending the conversation. I had to then ask, "How do I get to Terminal 3?"

The agent replied without looking up, "You can take the train or the bus."

I'd already been on the train, so I asked, "Where do I find the bus?"

Apparently I had exhausted the limit of the agent's patience, so he just waved his hand to the right and said, "Over there."

It's probably a cultural difference, where the French expect you to be able to solve your own problems. But I realized that I've come to expect excellent customer service, where the customer's problem becomes the supplier's problem. I expected that the information agent would have understood that I must have been lost, otherwise I wouldn't have come to him in the first place, and I expected that he would provide a solution from start to finish, rather then just answering my questions one at a time.

I see both good and bad customer service in America all of the time, unfortunately, even in my own company. This experience led me to crystallize some of my thoughts about what I hope our company will offer it's customers.

  • The fact that the customer contacted you means they have a problem.

Even if you've seen this mistake a thousand times, it's likely the first time they have encountered the situation. Always start with the assumption that the problem is real and that you can help them.

  • The customer is the most important person to themselves.

When you provide service, the customer should feel like they are the only person in your world, and that their problem is the only one you are working on. This will never be true, but they deserve that level of respect and focus while you are communicating with them. It makes me cringe when I hear a service representative say "We're really busy right now with a lot of other customers" (i.e., "you're less important then them") or "I haven't been able to get to that because I'm working on another project" (i.e., "I'm too busy to deal with your issue"). This leads to the next point:

  • Your problems are not your customer's problems.

Good service means that you focus on listening to the problem, document the issue, and either provide a resolution or an estimate of the solution delivery time. And you should do this without trying to pass your problems or your other customers' problems off as excuses against delivery.

  • The customer needs a solution, not an answer.

Instead of giving simple yes/no answers to the customer's questions, or providing a standard solution from a list of FAQs, I try to listen for the root problem. Often, customers ask questions that are symptoms of the real problem, or that are just plain the wrong questions to ask. Don't answer their question right away; take the time to drill-down to identify the problem, and then provide a solution, which should anticipate follow-up questions and issues.

  • Communicate and follow-up.

Excellent service keeps the customer informed of the progress on their issues, and follows through with the customer after providing the solution in order to make sure that it met their needs. This sets the stage for a good working relationship when the next issue arises.

  • Be nice. Be polite.

On the flight home, the American Airlines attendant had the happiest face I'd seen all week. She looked me in the eye and smiled when she asked me questions, and used "please", "thank-you", and "you're welcome" liberally. Personally, I think that "you're welcome" is a phrase of beauty that is being destroyed by "no problem".

  • Be honest. Be fair.

When I mess up, I fix it. And if I've caused you financial loss, I offer to share it. If I promise that my service will be available 24/7 and it's interrupted for 8 hours, then I think that a 5% reduction in your monthly service bill is appropriate, i.e. 1 workday lost out of 20 for the month. The customer would rather have paid the money and not had the problem, but this is both a gesture of fairness and a way for me to quantify the financial cost of my mistake, so that I can justify any financial investments required to prevent it from recurring. (Note that this is the way that I would run a business, but it doesn't reflect the policy of any company I've ever worked for.)

  • Charge the customer enough so that you can profitably deliver the service they need.

Everyone tries to keep costs down, but sometimes this can be counter-productive. If I have to service 50 accounts, then they are each going to get, at the most, 2-3 hours per month of my attention. If this is not enough, then reduce your number of accounts and increase your support fees so that you can provide superior service. I saved this point for last, because it is often the root problem when a service agent does not meet the above points. If you have fewer accounts, then you can focus on individual problems, you won't have to pass excuses about being over-worked, you won't be mean becuase you are stressed out, and you'll be fair because you aren't operating on razor-thin profit margins.

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