Providing great customer service is easiest when both employees and customers know what to expect. An official, written policy that outlines your company's customer service policies and procedures will reduce misunderstandings.
Developing a Customer Service Policy
If you do not have a written customer service policy, it is time to develop one. A written policy is a guideline that all employees can easily refer to when providing customer service. It also ensures consistency of service throughout your business, regardless of when or where the service is being extended. In today's lawsuit-happy environment, a concrete customer service policy also protects your business by providing customers with clear expectations and remedies.
Customer Service Policies: Providing Clarity
The problems of a family-run dry cleaning business have been in the news recently. An unhappy customer sued the business for millions of dollars in damages over a dispute involving a pair of pants. The customer referred to the store's customer service policy, which simply said, "Satisfaction Guaranteed," without any explanation of how the business would compensate unhappy customers. The phrase "satisfaction guaranteed" was an open guarantee with no limits or structure.
The dry cleaners might have spared themselves some grief by having a more precise policy posted. "Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back" would have clearly defined what they were willing to do for an unhappy customer. More detail about their policy on late orders or lost articles also would have been a good idea.
While nothing will safeguard your business 100 percent, customers are more inclined to work with you before resorting to a lawsuit if they know what to expect.
There is a wide range of styles for customer service policies. Some are long and quite complex, while others are so simple that they can be stated in one sentence. In days gone by, many companies used something as simple as "The customer is always right" for their official customer service policy. In today's world, this is probably too simple because it is open to interpretation and can lead to unfortunate demands from customers who will expect you to remember that, after all, they are always right!
As you develop a customer service policy, keep several things in mind:
- State your company's promises clearly and concisely. Include the key points of your operating procedure and how you will address customer issues.
- Be clear, but do not make the policy too long or complex. Keep in mind the "KISS" principle: KISS stands for "Keep It Simple, Stupid!"
- The language should be easy to understand. Avoid legal terms or company acronyms that may be confusing to the average customer.
- Keep the language positive; make it about what you will do, not about what you will not do. "We will gladly accept returns for up to 30 days with a receipt" sounds much better than "No returns without a receipt after 30 days."
- Ask for input from your employees. Remember, these are the people who know your customers and what they want best.
- If at all possible, keep your customer service policy to one page in length.
Elements of a Good Customer Service Policy
When you develop an official customer service policy, focus on what your customers would like to know: What are their issues and concerns? Make a list of the most commonly asked customer service questions your company receives and consider addressing each of these in your customer service policy.
The first thing any such policy should address is how each customer should be treated. Although it is obvious that all customers should be treated with respect, reiterating this in your customer service policy tells customers who read it that you are taking an official stance regarding courtesy and manners and that you are serious about it.
It can be as simple as "XYZ Company will treat each customer with respect and courtesy," or a bit more complex: "XYZ is dedicated to providing the highest quality of service to all its customers. We will treat all customers with dignity and respect and strive to meet your needs promptly and accurately."
The specifics about how the company operates should be addressed next. These should outline what you promise to give your customers in terms of specific services. Be honest and fair, but above all be realistic. Customers would much rather have a promise that you can always fulfill than have you make wild promises that you fall through on fulfilling. If you can realistically fill all orders within two weeks, say so. If you can fill 75 percent in only one week, do not advertise that "all orders will be filled within a week" because you think it sounds better than promising two weeks. An honest policy that says, "We will strive to fulfill all orders within two weeks or less," will be one you can fulfill; and 25 percent of your customers will be pleasantly surprised to learn that you are even better than you promised!
Some areas you should try to cover when developing your customer service policy might be:
- Your return and refund policy, including what paperwork is required.
- Your communication policy. Include how quickly you will return calls or respond to e-mails. Within 24 hours? Two days?
- How you will guarantee customer satisfaction. Will you refund the purchase price? Offer store credit?
- Your shipping and delivery policy.
- Your billing policy.
- Your dispute resolution policy.
Using Your Customer Service Policy
No customer service policy has any value unless it is enforced. It is important that both the company's employees and all customers are aware of the policy and can refer to it when the need arises.
Post your customer service policy: A neatly printed copy of your policy should be displayed where customers can see it at all times. In an office or storefront, a framed copy should be shown in at least two places: near any registers or desks where transactions will take place and near the front entrance. If your business has a Web site, be sure to post the entire policy on a Web page that is easy to get to. Ideally, you should make sure customers will see it at some point during the online ordering process.
Train your employees: When an official customer service policy is put into place, it is crucial to make sure your employees understand it and can refer to it. A staff meeting should be called so that you can review each portion of the policy and answer any questions employees may have. Ask all of your employees to familiarize themselves with the policy, and make sure they understand how to handle customer problems using the policy. At your monthly staff meetings, try having your employees act out a few difficult customer scenarios using the customer service policy as a guide.
Be willing to change: Review your policy each year. If your company's policies have changed or evolved, you need to make sure these changes are reflected in the posted policy. For instance, if you guarantee two-day delivery in writing but have expanded and the delivery areas are now much larger, perhaps you need to change the guarantee to a three-day delivery window. Customers would rather know that it could take up to three days and be pleasantly surprised when you deliver sooner than be promised two-day delivery and be disappointed when you cannot follow through. This can become a real problem if you run into this situation more than once; it can be perceived as the wrong kind of consistency. Consistently bad service is not what you want to be known for! And until the change in delivery times is noted in the customer service policy, you need to strive to fulfill the two-day delivery schedule for any customer who demands it. After all, the customer is relying on you to fulfill your promises. You may have to take a few financial hits during this phase, but it will be worth it to make your customers happy.
You also should be willing to change your policy if you have made changes that have improved efficiency or service. Have you hired additional office staff to handle customer correspondence? Consider changing your policy to reflect that. If you used to promise a response to all e-mails within a week but now are turning them around in two days, change your policy to reflect this.
Keep in mind that changes should be introduced only when it is absolutely essential or beneficial to your customers. Constantly changing your policy on returns will only confuse and alienate your customers, who are relying on you for consistent service. They will not like guessing games. For this reason, a yearly update when needed is probably the most often you will want to make changes unless absolutely necessary.
People complain every year that customer service is going downhill. Automated phone systems that are difficult to navigate, less human contact, and larger businesses with impersonal style have all been blamed for the demise of outstanding customer service.
The march of technology is unavoidable in most businesses, particularly with the Internet providing more customers from around the globe every day. While it is certainly easier for local businesses and smaller, service-sector companies to keep the personal touch that most people prefer, it is not impossible to continue to provide excellent customer service despite automation and global markets.
- Personalizing your greeting and changing it periodically. At the holidays, include a holiday greeting. If you are having a special sale this month, mention it briefly in your greeting.
- Make sure your e-mail auto responders have accurate information and include your signature. Also include an alternative contact person in case of emergencies.
- Explain why an auto responder message is being sent and when the person can expect an individual response: "Thank you for your e-mail. Unfortunately I am out of town this week, but I will be checking e-mails regularly. I will try to answer all e-mails within two days of receipt. If you have an urgent customer service issue, please feel free to contact my supervisor, Lisa Talbot, at 1-800-xxx-xxxx."
- Always keep automated responses short and to the point.
- Always offer an alternative, such as being switched to an operator or contacting another team member.
Use new technologies to your advantage: Improving customer service means trying new techniques to see if they will help or hinder you. One way companies are allowing more personal interaction with customers is by using online chat as an alternative to e-mail. Large companies offer this as a way to get an immediate response, which is particularly appealing to customers who have complex questions or need to be walked through a procedure. Some customers love the instant gratification of online chat, which should be available during normal business hours at the least. Take the time to investigate any new communications technologies, from video conferencing to chat.
There are now excellent customer-tracking software programs that can help you maintain detailed files on your customers' purchases, preferences, and needs. A one-time investment in this type of program can give you phenomenal returns. When a customer contacts you and you are able to knowledgeably discuss his or her situation and offer suggestions based on past purchases or prior conversations, that customer will feel special: a feeling that will be increasingly rare in an automated world marketplace.