I remember being a little kid, and being out to eat at a restaurant where my parents or grandparents would gripe about the customer service, “these days”. I was assuredly glued to my Gameboy, barely caring to notice the waitress who rolled her eyes every time they asked for ketchup or, God forbid, clean utensils. Not until I started paying waiters and buying products from salespeople, did I understand the problem.
Let’s face it, in today’s world, we’ve come to expect the eye-rolling, just-hurry-up-already, belittling store employee. Often time, the corporate giant with staffers that won’t give you an ounce of their time or understanding; ala my run-in with Sleepy’s, the mattress “professionals”. But every story needs a hero, right? iHerb.com with its exuberant, how-can-I-help-you, customer-first philosophy will play that part today.
Customer Service: Grandpa’s Version
Good, friendly customer service, from my perspective, has its roots back in my grandparents era.. the 20’s and 30’s. Those were the days where store employees knew their customers names. When you walked into a diner, the host would greet you and your family at the door with a smile, take your coats, ask you how the holidays were, check in on you during and after your meal and hold the door for you on the way out. Businesses were genuinely interested in keeping their customers coming back. Employees respected their jobs, their bosses and the money they made. It was a different way of life. The Golden Age of customer service, if you will. An oversimplification of the times, but for all intents and purposes, it was the way things were and the standard to which I compare all customer service experiences today.
Customer Service: Dark Ages
Flash forward several decades to the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, and even thriving today. Stores of all kinds have become a dime-a-dozen. They’re more concerned with hitting sales quotas, meeting earnings expectations and outdoing the competition. Customer satisfaction was lost in the shuffle. Add to that, the people filling those once sought-after positions are now just your average job for a college kid or a team offshore. Company executives have shifted its “post-sale” staff to anyone willing to work at the lowest dollar amount. And with that, the desire to cater to the customer was dismissed.
Companies move toward silo’d organizations where the sale of an item is partitioned from future support and customer service. Take Sleepy’s, the nationwide brick and mortar mattress-selling chain. The average customer is presented with a couple dozen mattress options, ranging in comfort as well as price level. Most of the store employees know as much about mattress manufacturing as they do child-labor laws in Beijing. They also don’t seem to mind selling their customers mattress lines that have high defection/complaint rates (read more here or here). But they sell them the mattress and one month later when that mattress fails, those same sales people who gladly took your money, now pass the buck and have you take the matter up with the “customer service department”.
Wait, isn’t retaining me as your customer part and parcel of you, my salesperson, providing me lifelong customer service?
Short answer, no.
That is the philosophy that has been allowed to spur out of control, leaving Joe Consumer with an uphill, often expensive battle against these corporate giants. And even during the early, pubescent days of the internet and companies moving operations online, that mentality continues, unabated. The only difference being that instead of walking into a store to seek redemption, customers turn to firstname.lastname@example.org and wait several days before someone on the other side of the globe sends them back a canned, albeit, unhelpful response. The veil between customer and business entities is worse than ever.
Customer Service 3.0
During the last few years, the internet has matured, moving to what the masses refer to as “Web 2.0” which, in short, was the introduction of social elements as well as software that connected previous internet islands, together. Finally, the internet is becoming a cohesive, fluid network for people to work and play on. The lines between business and personal life have been blurred with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and the myriad other social networking capabilities this brave, new web has ushered in. And the trend seems to be positive, but we still have a ways to go.
The marketplace, today, is a sea of businesses trying to sell you a product, service or both. Online organizations, as it turns out, now need to differentiate themselves. To do so, they’re turning to transparency and intimacy with their customers (sort of like Obama and the White House). Whether it’s posting deals on Twitter, sending out personalized email campaigns with coupons for free shipping, polling customers with online surveys or having you sign up as a fan on their Facebook page. More and more, businesses are beginning to pull that curtain back and expose the people behind their enterprise; and this feels real. It builds trust in brands, almost like you’re walking into the hardware store around the corner from your house, knowing someone will be there to not only sell you what you need, but make sure you’re continually satisfied.
I’ll wrap up with a personal experience. A few weeks back I ordered something from iHerb.com, an online retailer offering vitamins and supplements. I use them because they tend to stock products that are organic and/or natural. My package was lost in transit so I emailed their support staff. Within an hour, someone wrote me back, politely asking to check with neighbors, to which I replied “nothing found”. They wrote back stating that my order would be re-shipped immediately at no charge to me. I was sure to write to them, telling them that they had just secured a customer for life. Would I have gotten the same level of service from GNC or Vitamin Shoppe? My guess is no.
When it comes down to it, customer service is easy. Focus on making your ideal customer happy, and not only will you lock up their repeat business, but positive word-of-mouth marketing via today’s communication channels will surely spread.
Have any good or bad customer service stories you want to share?