Recently I was privy to a document issued by a beleaguered software firm labeled “Customer Handbook.” One might infer from the title that such a document outlined some basic operating principles of the software, troubleshooting techniques, perhaps a FAQ. Ah, but no: this dissertation led with a paragraph about how one might get frustrated when in need of technical assistance, in which case the customer was to “pause, take a breath and determine a solution”. Thereafter followed sixteen pages of rules the customer was meant to adhere to when communicating with software developers, and how the rules – this was the term used – might only be slightly relaxed if one was willing to pay a retainer for “preferred customer” status.
Evidently, not only is the customer not always right, but they are only marginally tolerated.
Exposure to this wonderful example of what not to do in customer service got me thinking about ORCHARD At The OFFICE, the largest office fruit delivery service in Dallas for which I am proud to be the one primarily responsible for customer care. As we are firmly in the service sector, customer satisfaction is the principle by which our company lives and dies, more so than in other sectors which deal with, for example, finite resources or public trusts. Our organization simply must be experts in how to provide great customer service.
By contrast, I have noticed a recent up-tick in companies taking a more entitled approach, with an attitude at times strikingly similar to one an angry teen male might have when watching Clerks for the first time. There has always been a bit of a tug o’ war between the hardline approach of deflecting customers with “It’s Company Policy” (which was especially prevalent in the airline industry for several decades) versus “The Customer Is Always Right”, a lofty goal employed by the hospitality industry but perhaps not fully realistic for those in the field of, say, medicine.
While I can’t profess to have a mystical formula, I thought I’d share our experience. At the end of the day, everything comes down to managing customer expectations. There is an art to this, which at times requires utter pragmatism and a bit of “going with a gut feeling”. Still, there are the general principles to which one can adhere. Below are examples of the premises by which ORCHARD At The OFFICE operates.
Immediate Response to Customers
We pride ourselves on a 24-hour turnaround in resolving customer issues. Key to that is communicating back: if they leave a message, return the call. If they send an e-mail, reply right away. I have found that even if I don’t have a solution yet, simply validating the customer’s concerns by acknowledging we got the message and we’re working at a resolution goes a long way. It is a vital component to how to retain customers.
Now, there are times that the resolution may not be exactly what the customer requested. For example, we deliver fruit to businesses. If someone requested that we cater, say, a funeral, and supply cakes with messages of bereavement and/or levity in addition to our usual fresh fruit, we wouldn’t just say “well, the customer’s always right, so I guess we’re in the confectionery business now!” By the same token, to merely respond with a terse “we don’t do that” is, to my mind, a real waste of a customer service opportunity. Every interaction is a chance to create positive relationships, so my policy is to essentially become their Googler. “I’m sorry, we can’t do that for you…but let’s find someone who can.” If I know a company who can provide the service they’re looking for, I’ll let them know. If not, I’ll find it for them. It takes so little time and effort and those situations have paved the way for future customer relations. Maybe those people didn’t need ORCHARD At The OFFICE then – but they remember the person who took the time to help them and a few months down the road, when seeking fruit for a business meeting, they remember us.
Inform Customers of Temporary Difficulties
This has become standard practice in the communications industry, almost to excess. “Owing to maintenance you may experience a 3% decrease in bandwidth between the hours of 3-4am on Thursday, September 32nd”. This is done because these companies have learned the hard way that when ordinary interruptions happen without informing customers, call centers get flooded.
By the same token, as customers ourselves, we’ve probably all experienced the Lie of the Customer Service Cutback: “In order to Serve You Better, our offices are now open from 3-4am on Thursday, September 32nd, and we can only receive inquiries using our app or carrier pigeon.” Just because one attempts to lay out boundaries – or rules, guidelines, or “company policy” – it doesn’t mean that customers will accept it. Thus the downward spiral where customer service budgets are trimmed, minimizing support, thus decreasing the quantity of customers to support, meaning trimmed budgets and so on until the business inevitably closes its doors.
At ORCHARD At The OFFICE, “our problems are NOT your problem”. In the coming months, the oranges we supply will be less plentiful owing to Hurricane Irma’s impact on the U.S. crop. We are taking the position that this will not impact what our customers pay for our product. However, during the hot summer months when citrus crops in general are not of the quality one can find the rest of the year, we have learned to let our customers know in advance, and to offer alternatives.
Give a Little to Get a Lot
What I mean here is that there are times in which one may sacrifice a short-term gain for a long-term value. The simplest and most effective example is the full refund. In the restaurant business, a manager decides to “comp the meal” because patrons had a poor experience as a way of showing that their concerns are of value. (I realize there are very strongly-held opinions on the pros and cons of waiving the charges for a restaurant meal. I offer no opinion on the subject myself; I only use it as an illustration.) Indeed, at ORCHARD At The OFFICE we have at times made the decision to offer a full refund for produce that didn’t meet the standard of ourselves or the customer, not necessarily because they asked, but because we wanted to convey the lengths we are willing to go in order to help our customers feel valued. The retention level of these customers has convinced us this is the proper path.
At the end of the day, as a consumer myself, I want to know that inside each business I interact with, there is some degree of accountability. There’s an attitude of caring and a system designed to promulgate customer care. That’s why, at ORCHARD At The OFFICE, I make absolutely sure “the buck stops here”. If you call us at 972.295.9091 right now, whether it’s to order fruit, ask questions about customizing an order, or request assistance with a bill, it is the cell phone currently in MY pocket that would start vibrating. If I don’t answer, that only means I’m dealing with another customer or employee in some capacity, and will respond immediately. There is no phone tree, no request that you follow a series of rules. Getting fresh fruit to your business is my responsibility. And that stark simplification, that singleness of purpose, is the heart of superior customer service.