Encouraging Initiative in the Workplace

Initiative is a character trait highly prized by employers.  It's a good trait to have on your resume.  It's what separates the leaders from the doers.  If someone is lacking in initiative, that doesn't mean they are a bad employee, just a mediocre one.  Sometimes though, employees are too fearful or comfortable to show initiative or make big decisions.

An employee that won't speak up or follow their instincts can be detrimental to your business.  However, in a lot of cases you can encourage these employees to show initiative.  Managing "comfeartable" employees doesn't have to be an ordeal.  It can be a matter of shifting office culture, or simply encouraging one person.

A big step is to let your employees know that it's okay to show initiative, to make big decisions.  Some people hold back because they are afraid of consequences for mistakes.  We all know there are good and bad mistakes – "strong effort, weak results" -- but employees need to know that they won't be punished for the good mistakes.

Everyone has varying degrees of stage fright, and it's possible that someone doesn't speak up in meetings because of an audience.  If you tend to get great ideas from someone, but only in private, maybe their stage fright is getting in the way.  Make the next meeting they are in a conference call.  They won't have all those people looking at them and may feel freer to contribute.

Initiative takes courage.  Some people have courage, and some need encouragement for their courage to come out.  Speak to them in specifics and go into details on how they can step-up to a challenge, how best to meet it head on, and how they will be rewarded if they do.

Posted by George Page, Communication Specialist

How Not to Do Customer Service

Bad Customer Service

In the midst of post holiday shopping, I've run into a few sourpuss customer service folks. It's kind of humorous to me that they are so disdainful of customers, especially when customers are scarce in this economy. If I was in retail, I'd be doing what a local retailer did at the mall this afternoon: they sent one of their employees outside with a coat and a tray of free samples of their candy to greet people in the parking lot. Sure, it seems a bit desperate, but it's also the time for Christmas gift returns, great bargains, and free treats. Vast amounts of people go to stores to enjoy these things, even if they don't plan to buy. However, one taste of those chocolates and I bought.

See, it worked!

But back to the sour puss folks who could barely contain their lack of energy when dealing with customers this year.

Above all, don't:

1. Treat your customers as if they are trying to cheat you. If a customer is returning items multiple times because the product continually breaks on first use, it's not because the person is trying to steal or cheat your company. And if an order showed up with all the wrong items in the box, that is your company's problem, not the customer's.

2. Act like it's a huge hassle that they are calling and communicating with you. Isn't that what customer service is for? To let your company know they didn't fulfill the conditions of the sale? Customers aren't really calling to shoot the breeze or find out that your customer service team is having a really terrible holiday season. It's not their fault your company can't complete a simple sales transaction without something going haywire. Perhaps that's why your sales are going down the drain.

3. Not offer them some sort of freebie or promo for their trouble. So, you ask the customer to wait thirty minutes on hold while you figure out what your company did wrong and don't even say "thank you, I'm sorry for the long wait" or "here's a 20% coupon toward your next purchase"? Why would they ever want to do business with you again?

4. Second-guess their request and continue to ask them the same questions several times. Just because a customer is asking you for help because they are confused about your return policy is no excuse to treat them like an idiot. And if they give you clear instructions about what they originally ordered, why are your customer service reps still asking "why," "what," and "when"?

5. Ignore their upset feelings and just act like an automaton with no feelings or empathy. If your customer is upset because your company messed up on their order, it is on your customer service rep to make that customer feel listened to, cared for, and supported. If you are callous and unfeeling, it is perfectly acceptable for your customers to leave and never do business with you again.

There are many outstanding customer service folks out there this holiday season. We've met them, spoken with them, and been helped by them. It's a shame that businesses let this behavior continue, especially when a little bit of customer service will go a very long way. Perhaps even gain you customers in a dire economy. Think about it. Why let one bad apple spoil your barrel?

Marketing Blunders to Avoid in 2009

We are at that magic tipping point of the year when we look back to the past year and look forward to the next year and often we wonder what we should do different (or for many of us, we already know). For businesses, this includes how we market and communicate with our customers. Wonder what you should be doing next year to market/communicate with client? Get some ideas from this list of blunders made in 2008 (explanations of each topic are mine).

Marketing

1. Failure to have an annual marketing plan. If your business is sitting there waiting for clients or customers to just walk through your door, you're looking for the wrong result. Customers will continually walk through your door, if you have a marketing plan in place for the entire year. This is what is called a marketing funnel. Get it? Customers funnel their way through your communications in order to buy from you.

2. Product/service will sell itself. Nope. Not anymore. You have to tell people what your product or service will do to make their life easier. They aren't going to know unless you tell them and they aren't going to care unless you tell them why they should.

3. Promoting products/services without tracking results. Right now, companies just want sales, but tracking how they make those sales may be the most vital of information. Keep an eye out for methods of making sales. Then rinse and repeat for the rest of the year.

4. Limiting marketing to email methods. Email is becoming one of the most least-trusted forms of marketing, because of the volume clients/customers receive and the percentage of spam mixed in with the real messages. What about direct mail? What about a blog? What about becoming the go-to person in your community for your product or service through other means? Read on.

5. Investing only in advertising. A simple advertising slogan won't do it. You have to back up your advertising promises with something solid people can count on. This can be your personal reputation for good work, to a specialization in a particular area in that your company is the only one that comes to mind when people are looking for a solution.

6. Ignoring social media outlets. Social media may be a boon for online companies, but don't disavow yourself from trying it out. Social media is now the way that millions of people communicate, purchase, review, critique, and rate services and products. You can't afford NOT to look into social media.

7. Slashing marketing budgets and programs. This is a bad idea. With the plethora of affordable and simple marketing programs out there, why not utilize at least one to your advantage. You don't have to hire a sales rep or recruit your entire staff to follow some marketing program mantra, but you can try a few simple methods that help you and your team realize what works to make money.

8. Failing to understand why people buy. Why do people buy your product or service? Because they want to look good, stay warm, be safe, be more productive, make more money? You need to know and you need to investigate every angle of why your customers and clients buy from you so that you can make better decisions about your focus in 2009 about how to market and communicate to them.

Larry Golden, co-CEO of RSVP Publications writes, “Avoiding these blunders can make for a healthier 2009 for most businesses. By targeting messages toward the right audience, monitoring and participating in social networks and measuring results after each campaign, businesses can demonstrate the all-important return on their marketing investment. And the level of investment in marketing may well be the deal maker or the deal breaker in such a tight economy.”

First Impressions Matter … Make the Most of Yours

In business, especially with the tumultuous economy, companies spend a lot of time weighing costs and benefits. Are the benefits to a particular venture more or less than the costs; and based on that, is it beneficial for your company to continue this relationship? This judgment is based on numbers but don't forget about human nature. If you're sitting there trying to figure out why you're hitting some roadblocks trying to develop your business relationships, remember this: The maintenance of relationships is based on how satisfied a person is with that particular relationship. If we feel as though a relationship is harming us in the long run, then we will not invest our time and energy into maintenance and cultivation.

Social exchange theory explains how economic principals can be applied to your everyday relationships. Sure, you presented to the best of your abilities, but was there something that stood out about you that might have dissuaded your potential business? Were you confident in speech and material? All of these factors are going to be applied to your "social exchange," which is based on three major assumptions:

  1. Relationships are a matter of subtracting costs from rewards and using that to determine the outcome.
  2. People want to make the most out of benefits while lessening costs (also called the maximum principal).
  3. Human beings are inherently selfish and are going to do whatever makes them happy.

Basically what this means that human beings are going to take the good, subtract the bad, and if the outcome of that is still something they want to nurture, then that relationship will continue. If not, the relationship will no longer be cultivated. While this may not seem like something that you would consider a factor when it comes to business relationships, you have to remember that it's theorized that this happens without our knowledge.

The next time you're trying to figure out why you didn't get the contract or why you didn't make the sale, ask yourself if you presented the absolute best version of yourself. Did you look or sound erratic? Did you dress appropriately for the types of clients to which you were presenting? This theory isn't related to just the physical and everything about you will be taken into consideration. Knowing this theory and being aware of it means even more on a conference call where you only have a couple of different ways to make an impression and to ensure that your rewards will outweigh your costs. Be sure that your presentation is in tip-top shape and that you're well prepared before you dial in and present.

Snap judgments are okay and remember its human nature to "judge the book by its cover," so don't feel offended if you know that's what is happening. A way to combat this when you're going in for a presentation is to know your audience. The most important thing in communication is going to be to know who you're speaking to and realize that your audience (whether it be one person or one hundred) is going to judge you. That's okay.

It's not personal, it's just business.

Posted by Maranda Gibson, Account Specialist

What Customers Want

What do customers want? The answers are not hard to guess at, but if your company makes these customer wishes a priority, you'll sail through the ongoing economic storm with ease. You'll stay on target for your company goals and end up following a nice straight line through the roughest of conditions. Interested? Read on.

1. Company transparency. Clients and customers are weary of corporate greed. In other words, the bank CEOS that took taxpayer money to attend a resort to “rest up” from the exhaustion of having to be bailed out aren't real popular right now with customers. If your company shows a commitment to your clients and customers in that you consider their satisfaction with your product or service the most important issue you deal with on a daily basis, well, that's what they're looking for right now. So show it off, be completely transparent, be honest, be thoughtful and respectful, and above all, make sure your clients and customers are satisfied. If you aren't sure, ask.

2. Customer service. When your phone rings, who answers it? How do they answer? Do they have the information your customers want? Are they helpful? My pressing customer service issue was answered above and beyond this past week (yes, the day before Thanksgiving) by a very thoughtful, polite customer service rep and I was happy to take the time to call his supervisor and get a kudos note put in his file. I will purchase again from this company. I feel completely confident that everything will be done exactly as promised and I have no qualms about recommending this company to my entire neighborhood at the upcoming Christmas party. It's all the result of amazing customer service. Does your company offer it? Start now.

3. Communication. After someone buys something from you, do you follow up and make sure the service or product worked? Did it solve the original problem or issue? Did it work like you said it would? Did they have any issues with the item or service? The easiest step is a customer comment card or quick follow-up phone call to make sure everything was as ordered. Don't immediately try to sell something else. Just make sure what you sold them works. And let it go for now. You can always send a marketing message later on. Harassing a happy customer with a follow-up sale just makes you appear desperate.

4. Accessibility. Can they find you when they need you the next time? Your marketing message should have your customer service number, your web site, and your mailing address every time. Use those marketing message opportunities to offer a coupon or special promotion that does not expire. People save coupons. Be helpful by providing your contact information and leave it at that. Send regular follow-up messages with sale offers and special promotions, but don't be pesky.

5. Long-term memory. A company I order from regularly has all my orders under my name from four years ago. I can trust that they have every single order on record and will always be able to look up past orders by a quick search of my name. It's rather impressive to know that a company service rep can tell me the details of an order from 2005 so that I don't have to dig through past records to find it myself. It also is comforting to know that they care that much to make sure they keep track of my buying patterns. Plus, they offer me promos based on my buying patterns. Call it the Amazon.com effect. Hey, it works!

Anything you can implement right now in your business? Your customers will thank you (and will probably give you their business for years to come).

Great Uses for AccuConference Toll Free

Documentation could be the single most important word in business right now. Who did you talk to? What did you talk about? What conclusions did you come to and how did you reach those? Web and video conferencing haven't just increased in popularity and power due to the struggling economy and increased travel expenses., A lot of corporations have turned to conference calling as a means of being able to document. Pretty much every company offers call recording, and a recording is a document to prove what happened in a conference call. When you're not having a conference call but still need documentation of a conversation, you can do that through your AccuConference Toll Free number. By using it as a fax machine, you can keep PDFs of incoming faxes stored in your email inbox. Listed below are some situations where this would be a great tool for you to use, both for personal and business uses.

  1. One of the first things that came to mind was how this could be useful with online bill pay, which most of us use. When you pay online, you receive a confirmation number, which companies rely on you to write down. It's a good system but it doesn't always work, and as I've said before, having a back-up plan is one of the smartest things you can do. These confirmation numbers are stored in the companies' databases, and many companies are nice enough to fax you a copy of the confirmation if you ask. By using your AccuConference Toll Free number as the fax, you're going to get that confirmation into your email inbox as a PDF. If you follow the steps here, you can label them and file them away so that you always have a copy - . Not just the number you wrote down on the invoice but the actual fax that is dated and has their companies fax number on it. That way if you ever did have a problem with the payment posting or being correctly applied to the account, you have an almost foolproof back-up just a click or two away.
  2. If you're already using the call notes feature to keep your toll free accounts organized, then email notification is a great supplement for storing information coming from clients. If you have a client who's faxing you agreements or proposals, you can create a folder for that client and change the name of the subject line to (for example) “Steve, Proposal for Company X” and file it away under the “Steve” folder.
  3. If those client agreements are ever changed, create subfolders in these main folders for changes like “Steve, Company X, 11/15/08, price changed”. Using this feature allows you to have the most updated agreement, quote, or whatever is being discussed in the one place you're sure to find it: your email.
  4. Fax yourself. Sounds crazy doesn't it? It's really not. Send yourself important documents that one of these days might face the fury of moving, age, water, you name it. Send yourself your birth certificates, wedding licenses, social security cards, driver's licenses, or anything you think could be useful. In the event that these originals got burned, destroyed, ripped, whatever, at least you would have a place to start.
  5. Lawyers love paperwork, we all know that. Renaming subject lines not only works for the lawyers, but also you as a client. If you're buying a piece of property, there is going to be a lot of papers flying around and you're going to want to keep it all. So have it faxed to you, and again, rename it and file it. If you are handling multiple projects at once create folders to store each set of documents. As a law professional, you can do this for your clients who are sending in wills, settlements, subpoenas, and even payment agreements.

As you can see, this is just a place to start. Even if you're not a lawyer, a habitual online bill payer, or a salesman, just keeping important documents on file is a great idea. You never know when someone's going to ask you to see a birth certificate or when that new puppy is going to go exploring while you're at work and find that folder full of documents.

But there would be a lot of really nice confetti to celebrate the fact that you were smart enough to store the documents in your email.

How Communication Can Make You Money

Social media. It's the buzzword for 2008. Bloggers with book deals, Twitter recaps of presidential debates and appearances, Facebook groups set up to discuss a particular product launch, teleconferences by marketing gurus discussing that latest sales strategy. It's all a form of communication that could be very effective for your business. So how do you use any of it to make money?

1. Are you trying to build a buzz? If you're an author, a blog discussing your writing career might work. You can get a fan page on Facebook, where people can ask you questions and talk about your book. Stephenie Meyer's book Twilight (the movie hits theaters this month) has 343,643 fans right now. The page boasts interviews with Meyer and the cast of the movie, discussion forums, and trailers, movie pictures and promos, you name it.

2. Are you an expert trying to build a platform? A teleconference can be a great place to meet potential clients and to give away some great teaser content, such as marketing in a slow economy, how to sell more effectively, even tips on becoming a career coach. You can advertise your conference using Facebook or Twitter, allow people to twitter your call, and then post a recording for download in exchange for email addresses.

3. Do you want to broadcast your expertise into different social media worlds? Your blog can be a great vehicle to showcase your knowledge base. Also link your blog to Facebook so that when you update with a new post, it automatically is updated on Facebook. Start a Facebook group and ask readers of your blog to join. Group members can join a discussion forum to talk about issues you've posted about. One writer currently hosts an Atlanta-based blog on finding good deals and her Facebook group has garnered her hundreds of new readers. She posts deals on her Twitter feed, Facebook status, and on her blog.

4. Do you want to complement your publicity department's work on your product? Any of these tools can work for you. A teleconference where you discuss your newest launch, a blog where you can upload YouTube Videos, or Facebook can host and remind people of upcoming events you'll be at, and Twitter can become a blaster of quick spurts of information as things come up.

5. Do you have doubts about social media? It is pretty new, and yet we've seen evidence that it can invigorate campaigns quite effectively. President-elect Barack Obama harnessed the power of social media to his advantage this year. Voters on both sides used Facebook to remind people to vote, debated policy ideas via Twitter, and even live-blogged the debates. If you're not sure where to start, try one thing at a time. It's fun and you just might surprise yourself at what you can create.

How Not To Communicate Change to Your Employees

The layoffs and the bankruptcies are clogging the national and local news these days. It's affecting more and more people as real estate, construction, and retail markets tighten for this final quarter of the year and move into an unknown 2009.

As a business owner, how do you communicate these changes to your employees? If you find yourself doing one of these things, it's time to shape up your communication skills.

1. You don't really talk about the economy, as there's work to be done. Nope. That's not a great approach. Sticking your head in the sand doesn't leave you with much to see. Your employees are looking to you to decide their future and the least you could do is to keep up on current happenings in your industry and run some numbers with your accounting department. Then call a meeting and talk about it.

2. You keep promising that nothing drastic will happen, but you just laid someone off this week. It definitely shakes the faith of your employees and it may affect your relationships with key client/customers. If you say one thing and do another, your employees may start to disregard everything you say. Far better to communicate change as a process your employees (and your clients) can track with.

3. No one knows what will happen next year, so we'll just wait it out and see. Again, why aren't you strategizing and putting forward possible plans and scenarios in case things get bigger or smaller, the economy stops completely or regains its footing? Isn't that a leader's job? If you communicate that you're thinking about these issues, wouldn't that be better all around?

4. You walk around bemoaning the loss of sales, but don't communicate how it can be fixed. Employees will wonder why the company isn't doing a major sales push or why you seem immobilized by the situation and can't move forward. Employees will begin to second-guess your leadership. It would be better to gather teams and prepare to combat lack of sales with extreme effort from everyone, most importantly, you.

5. You repeat everything the media squawks from television, radio, and Internet.
Your job is to communicate your company's message and goals at all times. If you only repeat what you hear from a media who can only spell out doom and gloom, your communication plans have been vanquished. Don't waste time repeating others' predictions. Make your own, inspire your team, and get to work.

Turn Your 800 Forwarding Number Into a Filing System

Talking about lean management last week was just a brief overview. Part of being lean is about eliminating clutter. We all know the cliché "out of sight and out of mind," and what is more out of sight than the file cabinets in your office. Have you looked in them lately? Some people are completely dedicated to keep those cabinets organized and well taken care of and some offices…well, let's just say you would have better luck trying to figure out what the original content of that plastic container in the back of the refrigerator is.

One of the best ways to clear up some of this clutter is to e-file your documents rather than printing them out and putting them in files. One of the easiest ways to do this is to take your 800 forwarding number and incorporate it into all of your daily activities. Not only can you forward that number to another, but you can also use it as a fax machine. The program will recognize what's a fax and what's a phone call and route it accordingly.

You will get an email notification that you have received an incoming fax, with that fax attached as a PDF file. If you're one of those people who opens the PDF and presses the print key automatically, slow down and rethink what you're doing. Old habits die hard, I understand, but technology is one of those things that can live forever if you embrace it.

What does all this 800 forwarding/email notification mumbo jumbo mean to you? Well, here's the thing: by changing the subject lines in those email notifications, you can help keep faxes organized and eliminate that big file cabinet. Wouldn't that be nice?

So how do you do it?

  1. When you get an email fax notification, double-click it to open it.
  2. Highlight the subject text.
  3. Type in what you would like it to say
  4. Close the email and click "Yes" when prompted if you would like to save the file.
  5. Your new subject line will now be displayed.

When you're trying to go leaner and greener in your office, this is a great tool. By defining the subject lines and creating subfolders for storage, you can not only e-store all the new information coming in, but actually fax existing paper copied information to your 800 number and store those in your email as well.

There are some other added benefits to treating your faxes this way. By storing them in your email you, in essence, have an original copy always ready to go. It's going to have the date and time on it as well as the inbound number that it was faxed from. There's always a copy that is not going to be damaged, torn, ripped, turning yellow and peeling up at the edges from age. Also, the US EPA states that the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper a year, so imagine the amount of money your office will save by making this an office mandate and not just a personal choice.

PS: Did you know that your 800 forwarding number is already a fax machine? Print your 800 number on your business cards as a fax number with no additional steps required.

Posted by Maranda Gibson, Account Specialist

Five Steps to a Leaner Company

If you sat down at a five-star steakhouse and ordered the best T-Bone available, and it came out with big thick layers of fat around the edges, what would your reaction be? Sure, it's still a good steak on the inside but now there's a bunch of extra work you need to do to get to the end result, which is an expensive and delicious melt-in-your-mouth T-Bone that you've been looking forward to for weeks.

Now imagine if they had trimmed the fat off before it got to you, it's still the same steak but there's a lot more time for you to enjoy it. It feels like less work and you're able to enjoy the end result (the steak) a lot sooner and with out all the work to get to the steak, you're going to enjoy it just a little more. Now, if only you could do this in the business world.

Lean Management

Oh, wait, you can.

In the 1990s, the Toyota Production System was developed by Japanese auto maker Toyota and is commonly known in the American business realm as lean manufacturing. The heart of TPS is based around Henry Ford, a pioneer in the automobile industry, who developed efficient assembly line structures that cut his total costs and ultimately raised his overall profit. In short… he cut the fat off his assembly line. Lean management focuses on the types of cuts that can be made across the entire spectrum, for example, a company that is truly lean also examines the number of steps it takes to complete a particular task. If the company is burning too much human energy they might modify the process the employee must take so that every step they make is the most efficient.

You're probably wondering how lean management can affect you and your business if you don't run an assembly line or a manufacturing facility. You can apply lean management in ways that don't require Sigma Six certified professionals to come in and completely revamp your business.

First of all, apply 5S to your office or building. 5S is a method of organization that helps not only to trim the fat from workspaces but to also maintain the organization that is created.

  1. Sort: Go through and keep only essential items on hand while storing or throwing away everything that isn't needed right away.
  2. Straighten: Arrange equipment in the most efficient order. For example if you have someone in your office who is mainly responsible for sending faxes, it would make the most sense to have the max machine set up right beside his or her desk.
  3. Shining: This basically means to be systematic in cleaning the area. Once it's cleaned, it should remain that way. At the end of each shift, the area should be cleaned away of clutter or when you're dealing with individual desks, each person needs to be responsible for cleaning up their own space. Maintaining organization should be a part of everyone's assigned set of tasks.
  4. Standardize: Everyone knows what their responsibilities are. There isn't a need to have two people doing a job that would only take one, and each person should know exactly what they need to do during their work day.
  5. Sustain: Once the first 4 S's are implemented, they need to become the new way to operate. Maintain the new way that things are done without allowing any of the old practices that have been dealt away with to creep back in.

You can cut the fat in other ways as well. Feel like you're spending too much on company travel? Don't travel anymore. Use a video conferencing or audio conferencing service to lower your travel costs and be more time efficient. Think of it like this: a video or audio conference isn't going to run late, get delayed, lose baggage, or get caught in traffic. It's available when you need it and however you need it, so it eliminates the need to make grand plans to get everyone together for a discussion. Conference calls are only the distance from you to a phone or computer, so imagine the energy, time, and money you're saving by just picking up the phone.

AccuConference | All posts tagged 'customer service'

Are You Trustworthy?

There's a lot of rhetoric that surrounds the conversation of "great customer service". I've seen a hundred posts about what makes a company stand out and I've even written a few of those. A couple of weeks ago, a customer that I talk to on a regular basis told me that she trusted me. It resonated with me - what is knowledge about a product unless you're communicating with trust backing up your words.

What makes someone trustworthy? Are we immediately to be fighting against the stigma of negative customer service experiences that we've all had? What can we do to immediately create trust between us and our customers?

Know and Be Upfront About Limitations

If a potential customer calls me and says they need seven thousand lines on a live conference, I am honest about our limitations in that area. This practice doesn't mean that you have to turn the business away but you need to make sure you’re setting the expectations. "Well, no, I'm sorry, we can't do that but here are some other options that might work for you," is a perfect response. Just because you're letting the customer know what they can expect doesn't mean you can't find out more about their needs and try to work a solution into what you can do for them.

Demonstrate Knowledge about Your Products

One of my favorite discussions to have with a customer is to make suggestions that I think are useful for their needs. When someone calls with questions, the expectation is that I will know what I’m talking about and be able to help them navigate the full scope of our products. Doing this allows me to assist a customer in choosing what is going to work best for them. Simply understanding how your product bills, special rates, and additional features goes a huge way in establishing trust with customers.

Communicate Consistent Messages

Consistency is a huge key to being trustworthy to a customer. Chain restaurants are often designed and laid out in the same way so that no matter where you are, you are in a familiar setting. McDonalds is a great example of consistent layout, design, and menu. We have adopted the same philosophy here. No matter who you call and speak to, you will get the same answer for all of your questions. It’s a more challenging approach because we don’t use scripts and much of our success in consistency comes down to our hiring process, but it can be done. Delivering a consistent message on rates, technology, and even limitations will plant and grow the seeds of trust between you and your clients.

The truth about being trustworthy (heh) is that you have to earn it. You may not immediately get that relationship with a customer, but from the first time you interact with them, you should be doing everything you can to gain that trust. What do you do to foster trust between your staff and clients?

Four Inexpensive Tools for Customer Service

If you're considering reevaluating your customer service strategy your main focus is figuring out where you can improve. A business' customer service strategy is not just about what information you're giving customers.

If you want to change your customer service philosophy, here are four inexpensive tools you can implement right away to make a change. I can give the seal of approval on all of these because we use them right here at AccuConference.

Knowledge

One of the most important parts of customer service is that your employees are familiar with your product and your company. When a customer calls in with a question or a concern, your goal is to make sure this is the only call that has to be made. Getting it right the first time makes a big impact on your customers and step one is educating your employees.

Trust

One of the best things you can do is trust your employees and this starts at the very beginning of a hiring process. We have a very specific hiring process that helps us to determine candidates that have the same philosophies and feelings about customer service that we have as a company, and because of this my managers trust me to handle some things on my own and to take a concern to a higher level when I need to.

Voice

This is AccuConference and we are not the droids you’re looking for. (Hah!) We don't use scripting. Sure, we have standard responses to things, but they aren't the product of a script, they are the product of our experience. This is a big difference. Not being on a script gives us the chance to develop a rapport with customers and let them get to know us.

No Bait, Just Fish

An advertisement, whether it is a commercial, a print ad, or even a tweet sets a tone and an expectation with your customers. If you can't deliver on a promise made in an advertisement, then you're suddenly in a position where your first interaction with a potential customer may be viewed as a deception. This isn't a good way to start a relationship and can take a lot of extra work to repair. This is why when someone sets up an account with us they find a low rate, all of our features, and our undivided attention.

How do you approach customer service?

Things You Shouldn’t Say to a Customer

Sometimes we can say things that can be taken the wrong way. When helping a customer, what we say can be the difference between resolving an issue the customer is having or making the customer furious and escalating it. There are words that can have a certain tone or connotation that we may not recognize when we say them.

Blog writer, Keith Agnew, lists words that he believes can kill your credibility. And he makes a valid point with one word in particular. When you start a sentence with the word “actually”, it can potentially have a condescending tone. That’s something you want to avoid when speaking with customers. For example, if you have a customer who believes they have paid their balance in full when they really short paid their bill, you may be tempted to start your rebuttal with “Actually…”. You’re probably just stating a fact, but the customer might think you are being patronizing. Instead, empathize with the customer’s frustration and start your sentence off with something like “I’m sorry for the confusion…” or “Let me see what happened…”. You’ll end up saving the customer the irritated feeling of not being heard and you still get your point across.

Another phrase you shouldn’t use would be “We can’t do that”. Even if you can’t do what the customer is asking for, giving them a flat no isn’t going to solve anything. The customer knows that you can’t perform miracles, but they do like it when you’re able to come up with a solution that fits their needs. I had a customer who needed to have an international call and wanted to use our International Toll-Free Service on their account. There was a problem though. They had a custom conference line with a custom greeting and they would lose the greeting if I added the service to their account. Instead of telling the customer “We can’t do that”, I started my sentence with “The only problem with doing that is…” and explained to them the reason why we couldn’t keep the custom greeting if they switched. I then suggested that they could still have their international call and keep their custom greeting if the moderator outdials to their international participant. Instead of telling the customer we couldn’t do something, I provided a reason why what they wanted wouldn’t work and offered a reasonable solution.

There’s a list of things that you shouldn’t say to a customer when you are trying to help fix their problem. People have even written books about customer service etiquette. Which tells me that those who recognize the importance of what they say and how they say it will have a better chance with understanding their customers’ needs. What words are on your list of things that you shouldn’t say to a customer?

The Fake Smile

Only those who know you, recognize it. It is a disguise to protect you and mask your true reaction. It is frequently used when facing a loss; whether it is a job, a promotion, a loved one, your youthful appearance or even your hair.

Recently, I had a fake smile day. I found myself dreaming most of it and not getting much done. I am a "Doer" not a "Thinker", so checking off a list at the end of the day has always been important. This day, I allowed myself to dream. Dream of what could have been, should have been and what I still want to be. I allowed my dreams rather than my actions to be a better part of the day. It made me cherish existence a little more when I was able to snap back to reality.

I started my day with a fake smile and somewhere along the way. I felt the smile and allowed it to be real. I set this feeling free. It is a not a great day, but I challenge myself to make it a good day, because I realize that life is a gift and a dream can make it even better. If you can use the fake smile long enough, it may evolve into you actually feeling like smiling. And if you take some time to dream, you may find a reason to smile.

Follow Your Instincts in Customer Service

A few weeks ago, something interesting and terrifying happened while refilling my gas tank. When I looked down, there was a puddle of gasoline under my SUV and gas was dripping down the wheel well. Since defects in gas tanks are actually pretty rare I suspected that it had to be overflow from when I was filling up.

Still, something didn't feel right. Even as I told myself that it was simply an overflow issue, I didn't fully accept it as the answer. After driving a block and half, I realized my miles to empty display had dropped nearly ten miles. I decided to take the vehicle to the dealership and lo and behold, there was a crack in part of my tank that needed to be replaced.

Cracks and defects in the gas tank are rare in vehicles. Who knows what could have happened if I had continued to drive around slowly dripping gas? I went with my instinct that something was horribly wrong, and I was completely right.

Instincts are a huge factor in why and how we do something. No matter if you want to call it your intuition, sixth sense, or your gut feeling, we do put a lot of importance on our instincts. They are a piece of us and driven by our personality and our makeup, so there are different instinctual reactions for everyone. Using your personal instinctual reactions at certain time when dealing with customers can be a boost to how you provide service for them.

Jump in When It's Right

If your instinct is telling you that your customer needs help, don't be afraid to go with your gut and jump in. Recently, I was walking a customer through some of the steps and after some of his questions indicated he needed a little extra help, I offered to put his invitation together for him. I want my customers to learn how to do things and I'm highly dedicated to not just answering their questions, but educating them on how everything works. There is a time and a place for education, but there is also a time for taking care of it so the customer doesn't have to.

Step Away When It's Not

It is possible to be unable to adequately communicate with a customer. As a customer, you think you're asking all of the right questions. As the operator, you feel like you're answering them, but you're both getting frustrated. Letting the customer talk to someone else doesn't mean that you're passing the buck, it means that you’re going to send the customer to someone that might have a better approach. We all learn differently, we all have ways that we are comfortable, and there might come a time when you are not able to speak to the customer in the way they need. Don't be afraid to step away from a client if your instinct is telling you that the conversation is going downhill fast.

In Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, he talks about how our spontaneous decisions can sometimes be better than the ones where we agonize over every little detail. Once we become an "expert", according to Gladwell, we can "thin slice" and use limited information to make a decision. This cuts out a lot of the information that can sometimes cause us to over think a solution. Instincts are a powerful tool in making a decision.

Do you trust your instincts?

Information Gap

I put my fingers in my ears and sing La La La La to keep from getting information I do not want to know. Or, I just hold out my hand and repeatedly say stop it, stop it, stop it, in hopes of drowning out sounds. I use these tactics when I do not want to hear an ending of a movie or am in a haunted house. Probably not the most mature response, but it works when you are on the spot. Effective, sometimes funny, but not the right etiquette for work.

Over a phone conversation, it’s hard to gauge interest and engagement. You cannot tell if your clients have their fingers in their ears or their mouth partly open trying to find a point to interrupt. Are you answering their question or are you giving your answers?

Good way to test it is to stop talking and listen. If they have called, then they have something to say. If it is more than one request, then have a means to write it down without interrupting them. Once they finish speaking (there will be silence for a couple of seconds), I go over the points or questions and answer them one by one, making sure that they have received a complete understanding and a clear answer before moving to the next one.

Did that answer your question? Does this help to understand how it works? Is this the service you were looking for? Do you have any questions on what we just reviewed? I find this a more of an effective way then interrupting or answering before you know the question.

As Judge Judy says, "You have one mouth and two ears for a reason". We are all experts in our fields. To be better influences, determining what they know versus what they need takes the power of listening.

Breaking Down the Technical Barriers of Customer Service


I work in a business that has a lot of words for a lot of different things. When you call in ask for a "webinar" we might be talking about a couple of different things. It's my job to break down your needs and ask the right questions so we get you the kind of service that you need. It's not a perfect system because there is a barrier between knowledge. I've been in this industry for a little over five years and honestly, there are still terms that come up that I haven't heard before and have to get clarification.

When hitting communication barriers created by technology phrases, it's not always easy to figure out a way to break down how to explain it to customers, but here are some things that we do here that are really helpful.

Break Things Down into Physical Terms

If I can't adequately communicate what I mean by a conference "line" I will break it down in terms of rooms. If you can provide something physical a customer can picture in his or her mind, you might click a bulb in their heads. It's much easier to imagine a room that is assigned to each person than to try to explain what I mean by "conference line". Something tangible that a person can wrap their mind around can break the technical confusion.

Gauge Your Customers Understanding

In about the first thirty seconds of a conversation with a customer, I can get a pretty good read on their level of familiarity with conferencing. Many times a customer will freely admit they have limited or no experience with any kind of conference technology, but sometimes, it's a matter of just understanding how they are wording and saying things that give you the best clues to how you need to break things down for them.

Repeat It Back in a Different Way

Don't be afraid to clarify with a customer. Part of what our responsibility is to the customer is making sure that we understand what they need so that we can direct them in the best possible way. Make notes as you talk to them and then repeat it back to them in a slightly different way. "Let me make sure I understand, you need a conference call where you can collect the participant's names and companies? Oh, then you need an operator answered call. Okay, we can take care of that for you."

Show, Don't Tell

When going over what a particular product or service can do, always offer to show it to them. Set up a demo with them and then give them access to go in and play around. I always encourage our new customers to go online and click around. Make yourself available to them if they have additional questions or needs so that you can talk them through.

When a customer doesn't understand the technical terms, it's our job to help them through it. Even if we might be speaking a different "language" with our customers, we can still get to the bottom of what they need and help them along the way. How do you help your customers get through the information.

Turn It Up

I have a mirror on my desk with the saying, “Smile! They can hear it in your voice.” I keep it near my phone as a reminder of my duty to try and make the person on the other end of the line feel just a little better.

Your environment and the people you interact with plays a large part in how you look back and say it was a “Happay, Happay” Jack day or a “Hey, I ‘m Like Aretha Franklin, I don’t get no R-S-P-E-C-T” Si day (This is a Duck Dynasty reference, for those of you that are not part of the 11 plus million viewers). The reality is that you are the one in control. Smiling can change your mood and the whole day for you, your colleagues and your customers.

When a smile is not enough then music helps me. If I have a tedious job, turning on a little Josh Weathers and with a few raised eyebrows and some twirls with my pointer finger, a project is turned into a concert. Or, if I need to clean my house, then a turning up the volume with some Rolling Stones gets me bopping through the house, making it feel more like a dance rather than a chore. If I need to paint (as in a room not a Picasso) then Andrea Bocelli helps my one hand maestro my way through the project. Whatever your genre, try it.

Turn it up and smile.

Active Listening Skills for Customer Service - Updated

Update:  After putting my head together with some of the other operators, we determined a couple of other things that can improve your active listening skills. 

When we bring on a new employee, the first thing they learn is customer service, and the most important skill we focus on is listening. Customer service is about being an active listener. You can't just "hear" what people are saying, you have to really be grabbing onto the words and turning them over in your head.

What does it take to be an active listener? There are a lot of rules to active listening but we break these skills down into basic steps. These steps have improved our customer service responses and our communication.

(NEW) Clarify The Message

One of the best tools when speaking to a customer is the ability to clarify the message they are trying to send.  You never want to make assumptions when trying to decide what a customer wants. Most of the time you will get that assumption wrong and have to go back to the customer. It's always better when you're not clear to make sure you understand. A lot of times a customer uses words or phrases that might not be what you would use. You can just repeat it back to them in another way. "It sounds like you need..." or "Let me make sure I understand..." are great ways to start.

(NEW) Test Your Listening Skills

The Active Empathetic Listening (AEL) measure has eleven key items that test how well you sense, process, and respond when you listen to someone else. Sensing is the way you indicate you are taking in the information, processing is how well you construct the narrative delivered, and responding is how you ask questions to make sure you understand.  Take the AEL test and find out where you stand as a great listener and how you can improve. 

Focus on Understanding

Engage in communication with the goal of "understanding" instead of "understood". When your customer is speaking, it's best to focus on what the customer is saying, rather than trying to get a head start on how you're going to respond. Once someone in a conversation goes on the defensive, you are less likely to come to a resolution.

Give Your Undivided Attention to the Person Speaking

This may seem like common sense but devices like cell phones and the constant access to email are roadblocks to active listening. When a customer calls, disengage from the emails you’re working on, the spreadsheet you are clicking through, or the text message that might be waiting on you. Engage fully in the conversation that is present and not the one that is waiting for you to type a response.

Play Pretend

The more I can act like I'm face to face with a customer, the better our conversation goes. Imagine the customer across from you and nod when you understand. Responding to the customer as you would if you were face to face, you will be an even better listener. I will smile while I speak and even nod my head as the customer tells me what’s going on. It makes me feel like I truly understand the customer's needs.

It's not always easy to listen and even more so when we are immediately trying to figure out what we are going to say or have too many things going on at once. If we can just stop for a moment and become a more active listener, it will improve our communication with everyone.


Looking for ways to improve your speaking abilities? Here are four more resources:

When Bad Customer Service is Good

I’m sure the title of this blog might throw you off a bit, but trust me when I say I’m not making this up. A few days ago my husband and I were having a nice conversation about customer service. He and I get into conversations about this a lot, since I work in it, enjoy it, and he would rather… well, do anything else. One of the things we ended up talking about was his favorite place to pick up items – the local QuikTrip.

Why? Because it’s efficient with none of the frilly customer service niceness we have come to expect. It’s easy for me to think that because I expect a cheerful person who wants to chit chat while doing my transactions, and for him a "need anything else – want a bag – here’s your receipt – have a nice night" conversation is perfect.

In this case, for someone like my husband, what I would consider to be bad customer service is actually good for him.

So how do you figure out when a little bit of "bad" customer service might be good for the customer?

Learn How To Read People. When I worked in the rental car industry, I got really good at reading people. I could tell when someone walked in and wanted me to hand them keys, walk them to their car, and wish them a fond farewell. I could spot the customers who might be willing to listen to a little idle chit chat and a sales pitch. I knew the boundaries and when to respect them.

Here are three great blogs offering some simple tips for reading people:

Respond Appropriately to the Issue. When someone calls me with an issue like feedback playing into their conference, it's not the time to chat them up and make that connection. This customer wants me to identify and (when I can) correct the problem. Something interrupting their conference call is the main issue and my job is to fix it.

Follow Up When You Get a Chance. Being intimidated by the customer who wants to handle their business and move on isn't the way to handle things. Sure, you can respect their need to get their business conducted quickly, but at some point, you should check in with them. A simple email or phone call later on that day to simply check in to make sure you solved their problem and that the don’t have any more issues keeps the relationship open.

What works for me when it comes to customer service, doesn't work for everyone, and I know that. I want a chatty person on the other end of the phone who will laugh at my jokes and chat with me as we work through a problem.

For others, it is not what they expect or what they want. You just have to know your customers and not all of them will be the same. Get good at reading them and you’ll know just how to provide what they perceive to be great customer service.