By Gregg Schwartz
People often assume that customer service performs a “support” function in a business, not a “sales” function. But every time customers are on the phone with your customer service people, this is an opportunity to either keep or lose a customer. Your customer service team is on the front lines of building relationships with customers—not just taking routine calls or fielding mundane questions.
Lots of companies miss out on opportunities to maximize the potential of their customer service team. With some additional training and a shift in focus, you can help your customer service team add more value for the company by enhancing customer relationships, improving customer retention, and building momentum for more sales.
Your customer service team is the first line of defense against customer turnover.
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Here are a few simple strategies to improve your customer retention with your everyday customer service interactions:
1. Ask good questions and go deeper
Instead of asking customers simple yes/no questions, train your customer service people to ask open-ended questions. Ask your customers things like:
- “How can I help you today? What made you decide to give us a call?”
- “How do you feel about your experience with our company?”
- “What is the biggest problem we can help you with today?”
- “Have you tried our new product/service? How did it go?”
- “Have you heard from any of our competitors recently?”
Be inquisitive. Be prepared for customers to say more than you expected. And, most important, listen! Talking with customers can be an excellent source of competitive intelligence. For example, you might learn from a routine customer service call that your biggest competitor is doing new product testing, or that a new competitor is entering your market, or that the competitor you barely beat for a big contract is going after one of your favorite accounts.
Hearing the same complaints and issues from multiple customers might give you the insight to identify high-priority opportunities for making changes in your company’s processes, or even get ideas for new products and services. Customer service is not just about solving mundane problems, it can be a vehicle for learning more about your customers’ attitudes, doing market research, conducting customer satisfaction surveys, and keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in your industry.
2. Empower your customer service people to make things right or make accurate promises
A common cause of frustration for customers is calling customer service and feeling like there is no one who can actually help them resolve their issue. Sometimes people need a higher level of help. Not every frontline customer service rep needs to have authority to issue refunds or offer complex solutions, but they should at least know how to take down the customer’s name and number and promise them a call back by a manager before the end of the day.
If one of your customers calls for help and gets nowhere, that could very well be the last time you will hear from them. To prevent this from happening, invest in your customer service team by developing robust training programs, incentivizing great performance, and always stressing the importance of the work that gets done in your customer service department. Encourage your customer service team to think critically and find creative ways to go above and beyond.
Also, flag big accounts and important clients so they can be easily identified when they contact your company. Sometimes long-term clients just like to be recognized and acknowledged with a little extra consideration and special treatment. If the size of the account warrants it, have a dedicated customer service contact available for them.
Obviously, all of your customers are valuable, but sometimes it’s worth giving the “big spenders” and repeat customers a little extra care and attention when they come to you with an issue. A polite and professional demeanor is imperative when speaking directly with customers, but it’s even more important to actually deliver results and help resolve your customers’ issues.
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3. Escalate effectively
We’ve all been there—getting stuck in an unending hold trying to get through to a real person who can actually solve your problem. Regardless of what type of business you’re in, your customers’ time is valuable. Develop an efficient system and process for connecting customers to the appropriate party quickly when they call your business looking for help. Build systems and processes into your customer service function to help people actually get directed to the right help faster. If there is something in your system that is slowing down the process, you’re wasting your own time as well as the customer’s.
Cultivate a sense of urgency in the ranks of your customer service team. It’s important they pass along any and all useful information they’ve learned from a client to the next customer service representative the client will be speaking to. Nothing is worse than identifying yourself and explaining your problem to one person over the phone just to be transferred to a different person and having to repeat the process all over again. If there is any part of the customer service experience that is awkward or needlessly time-consuming, find a way to streamline or eliminate it altogether.
4. Choose the right metrics for customer service “success”
So many companies are constantly trying to get their customers off the phone as fast as possible. Many companies evaluate their customer service reps’ performance based on how quickly they can get phone calls resolved. But what if you changed the metrics to more of a results-oriented, outcome-based approach?
How do you know if your customer service team is really “worth it?” Look for ways to evaluate customer service based on a fuller picture of the value it provides, whether that’s customer surveys, number of new business leads generated, costly problems identified and solved, or early warnings of larger risks detected.
Customer service is the front line of your business
Instead of treating customer service as a “cost,” treat it as an opportunity to learn more about your customers, to find out what’s going on in your industry, and to get inspired for a new level of success. Customer service reps aren’t just there to answer the phone—they are the front lines of your business and the first line of defense against customer turnover.
Gregg Schwartz is the director of sales at Strategic Sales & Marketing, a leader among appointment setting companies, providing lead generation consulting to hundreds of businesses. To follow the latest discussions in best-practices for lead generation, join Gregg’s Linkedin Group with over 6,500 sales professionals and business owners, Manage Your Leads.