The Forgotten First Rule of Customer Service

The Forgotten First Rule of Customer Service

 

I recently had an important project with a quickly approaching deadline that I needed to pick up from the printer. When I stopped at the printer’s, I immediately made my way to the print desk. While I waited, I observed that there was one employee at the cash register ringing up a customer and near the back of the store I saw another employee helping a potential buyer in the computer section. So I waited...

and waited…

and waited…

and waited.

After what seemed like several minutes, I looked around to see if help would be arriving shortly. The employee in computers was now helping somebody else with writing utensils, and a line of customers was forming near the cash register. I checked my watch. It had only been a couple of minutes, but it felt like forever. Finally, I saw someone approaching. He walked behind the counter of the printing area, dabbled on the computer for a minute then, without even acknowledging my existence, walked away.

Have you ever been in this frustrating situation? Have you been put on hold for an outrageous amount of time? Have you been told someone would contact you in twenty-four hours only to have to call back after waiting three days with no response? Have you ever had to stare down an employee who is too busy to help you because they are talking with their co-worker or sending a text message?

I have worked in customer service related positions since I was a teenager. I now have nearly twenty years of customer service experience and am highly critical of poor customer service experiences. Everyone knows that it’s important. Everyone thinks they are good at it. Yet, we all have plenty of horror stories about bad customer service experiences.

I believe that whether a customer service transaction is successful or not is a direct result of the first several seconds of the interaction. How does the old saying go? You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Think about going to a restaurant. If you enter and are seated right away, you feel like things go well. However, if you have to wait for a hostess to seat you, followed by a long wait for your server to take your order…things are well on their way to an overall negative experience for you as a consumer.

So how do you ensure that the first several seconds go well when you meet a customer, guest, or buyer? You engage them.

Engaging your guest or customer requires that you first, acknowledge their existence. I know work gets busy. Maybe you find yourself understaffed and have to deal with several people at one time. At least make the effort to smile at someone who is waiting and let them know that you will help them as soon as you can. If you can’t help them because some other daunting task requires all of your attention, let them know that too. If you work in the office, the same can be true for email communication. While you might not be able to fulfill someone’s request right away, it only takes a few seconds to send a brief email letting them know you are working on it.

My wife recently had a similarly bad customer service experience. She was doing our household shopping at a local retail store. As she entered the checkout line, she put her purchases on the small conveyor and waited as her things moved closer to the clerk. She observed and was somewhat surprised when he didn’t even say hello, but rather, just slid her items across the scanner. After scanning everything, he stopped and looked at her. My wife waited for him to give her the total of her purchase…

and waited…

and waited.

When she finally realized he wasn’t going to say anything, she asked what the total was. With a heavy sigh, he pointed to the small display that showed her total. My wife gave him the money, he handed her the receipt with her change and began checking out the next person. He did not say a single word during the whole transaction. How is that for engaging a customer?

So what do people who are good at engaging customers do? It requires more than, “How can I help you?” or “Can I take your order?” It involves talking to the customer and learning what their needs are. Talk to them on a personal level. Talk to them for more than the purpose of getting as much money from them as possible. Ari Weinzweig, author of Zingermans's Guide to Giving Great Service explains that "engaging is eighty percent listening, twenty percent talking." This is the best opportunity to learn their name. Learn it and use it! People like hearing the sound of their own name and there is a special feeling that comes with being known by name at the places you like to go. Remember the theme song from the TV show Cheers*? "You want to go where everybody knows your name." And remember, this is not a one-time thing. If you are engaging your customers and delivering great service, you will be seeing them again.

*Cheers is an American sitcom that ran from 1982 to 1993. The show's theme song, "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, and performed by Gary Portnoy.