Provide Positive Customer Service
By Phil Minix, senior vice president of catalog and tours marketing at Reiman Publications
Let's face it: We've gotten spoiled by the fact that we can count on our staffs to answer calls promptly, take phone orders efficiently, easily process Web orders, ship products to customers in a timely fashion and have the merchandise arrive in good condition.
Since the processes often run so smoothly, we sometimes take them for granted. But should we?
Here are six suggestions on things we could be doing — as an industry — to make customers' experiences more enjoyable and rewarding, and to ensure they become sought-after multibuyers.
1. Keep products in-stock and thus your backorders to a minimum. Put a huge effort into your inventory planning, and make sure you have a high level of initial fill — as high as you can afford. This can make or break customers' perceptions of your commitment to good customer service. It doesn't matter how beautiful your catalog is, how great your merchandise is or how quickly you deliver it. If you don't have product in stock, customers will be disappointed and may shop elsewhere.
2. Make customer data readily accessible to your customer service reps (CSRs). If you use an answering device (e.g., interactive voice response technology) that allows a customer to choose the call's route and provide information (e.g., customer or account number), be sure the information automatically is passed to reps when they take the call. That way reps can greet the caller appropriately and not ask for data that were just provided. Reps should certainly verify the information, but don't expect the caller to give everything to them a second time.
3. Set up the initial customer screen to provide reps with data they can use to make a personal connection with the caller. Reps should acknowledge good customers: "Oh, I see you've placed several orders with us, Mr. Smith. Thank you for your past business." Or they can inquire about a recent order: "How did that blue blouse you ordered work for you, Ms. Jones?" They also can comment on returns: "I'm sorry to see you had to return the sconces. Did we handle the return to your satisfaction?"
Any of these type of statements provide a "WOW!" experience for the caller and make your company that much more memorable to him or her.
4. Give CSRs and your Web site personnel enough information to easily answer customers' product questions. With technology the way it is today, it's unacceptable to not to provide customers with enough details about a product to make an informed and confident purchase.
The more information you provide, the more likely you'll be to sell the product to a wide range of customers. Unanswered questions provide enough doubt to prevent some customers from ordering.
By the way, a really good phone rep will remind a customer who's struggling with a decision that they always can return the product if they aren't satisfied. If it's a higher price-point product, the rep can even provide a return label along with the original shipment for additional ease and convenience for the gun-shy customer.
5. Equip CSRs with tools for cross-selling. When done well, a good cross-sell comes off as great customer service, not pressure to purchase more.
When your reps suggest matching pants to go with that beautiful tunic top, it further reminds callers that you care about them and want them to look their best. Because you've already got them on the phone, about 20 percent of your costs are gone (that is, the promotion cost to get them to call). So if you sell an additional item, you can give the customer up to 20 percent off and still be even.
In addition, giving buyers a chance to hear about unpublished deals is a reward for the purchase, and even if customers don't bite, it'll make them feel good to have the inside scoop.
Along the same lines, if you're temporarily or permanently out of an item, provide CSRs with information on similar items. You may even want to offer a percentage off the purchase (or a free return) on the substitute item. Don't forget to post this information on your Web site, too.
6. Call customers if you encounter merchandise problems or are unable to ship on time. This is something my company does that gets huge kudos from customers.
For example, if we have a textile item that gets shipped from the vendor with a different fabric composition than advertised, and we can't ship it to them without obtaining the customer's approval (to comply with FTC rules), then we don't just send a postcard with the information and ask them to take action. We call the customer directly so we can get an immediate decision and not hold up her order.
Around the holidays, we call customers if an item with an expected pre-Christmas delivery date becomes backordered. We tell customers the problem and explain that we wanted them to have enough time to make another purchase from us (or someone else). We lose very few of these orders, and customers are delighted we took the time to call.
Although the front end of the catalog business — preparing and placing a book in the hands of consumers — sometimes seems more exciting, don't forget to plan well and put creative thought into the customer experience from the time they place an order to the moment that fabulous product hits their doorsteps.
Phil Minix is senior vice president of catalog and tours marketing at Reiman Publications.