Customer service, at its core, is ensuring that your customers are happy with your products and company so they will continue doing business with you. Seems simple, right? Yet it’s becoming increasingly complex as the responsibilities of customer service change, the number of customer service channels expand and customer expectations increase. When you consider that 82% of consumers have stopped doing business with a company because of bad customer service, you begin to understand the scope of the issue. Poor customer service ultimately means lost customers and lost revenue. Even worse, given the information-sharing tools available today, unhappy customers can impact the choices of prospective customers more than ever before.
The good news? Customer service still comes down to prompt, honest, empathetic communication with your customers, and even small companies can do it well. The question is – how? We are tackling this question on our Focus On: Customer Service series, where we’ll explore planning for, implementing and scaling customer service for your subscription business. The full series includes:
Hopefully, there will come a happy time when your organization has grown large enough to need the tips in this article – or you may be there already! If so, you likely have individuals on staff, support of service and technology providers or the ability to hire consultants. This article simply highlights some of the key Customer Service challenges a large organization faces, along with a few final tips.
Achieving Data Integrity and Systems Integration
One of the best indicators of world-class customer service is when a customer feels like they’re being treated as an individual. This requires a 360-degree view of your relationship with that customer and is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, as some of the largest publishers and subscription businesses in the world have yet to master it. Particularly, data inconsistencies in organizations that have grown as a result of an acquisition are some of the most difficult challenges to overcome. Even the best system integration in the world can’t make up for misspellings, inconsistent abbreviation and use of different classification systems. The good news? With a methodical review and some system redesign, establishing data integrity is mostly just about setting proper rules and sticking to them. The following are some of the action steps toward gathering quality and current customer data:
Leverage Existing Standards
DUNS numbers, EIN’s, SIC and NAICS codes may not be a perfect fit for your organizational data needs, but appending them to your customer files in addition to other, in-house coding systems will ensure that you have some ability to consolidate, sort and analyze all your customer data. There are all sorts of data providers you can use to append customer information, these services include updates to individual and company data, individual and corporate-level purchasing data and much more. Depending on your needs and budget, you can not only normalize your customer data through existing standards but also layer in added intelligence and updated data for your customer service team.
Another tip in this category is to use USPS address standards instead of creating your own.
Establish a Business Data Dictionary
The information you collect about your customers gives you the ability to help them better, faster and more effectively (yes, cheaper too!). Take data consistency seriously by creating and maintaining a business data dictionary. Chances are, your IT staff already has a Data Dictionary – probably several of them, probably all with different requirements for the same data. When the business side of the organization creates data requirements in collaboration with the engineering team, the results are significantly more user-friendly.
Make the Systems Do the Work
A product manager at a subscription business serving the legal profession commented on this topic, saying “I recently worked for a competing company where the leadership was saving money by giving a binder full of data-entry rules to the sales and customer service teams, rather than updating the systems to validate for proper data entry. To say that it’s not working out is the understatement of the century.” Tying systems together so that a subscriber’s address, for example, is entered just once and then auto-populated everywhere else, is an example of making your CRM and other Business Intelligence systems work for you.
Empowering Customer Service
It’s natural for a business leader to want to stay involved in all the workings of the company, but impossible to keep up in practice. Keeping senior executives in the loop on every decision is a recipe for disaster, so how can you push responsibility and decision-making down into the ranks of Customer Service?
Revisit and Update Policies
Make sure that your subscription terms are spelled out clearly for customers at the outset, and that approval policies for refunds and cancellation still make sense given the bandwidth of the approver.
Establish a Workflow for Transferring Decision Rights
One of the reasons empowerment fails is because it’s implemented all at once, instead of in phases. First, explain to the Customer Service team that a policy is going to change, how that process is going to happen and approximately when you hope to have it completed. Then, depending on the significance of the decision (full versus partial refund, for example), you may decide to implement a “decide alongside” process for a period of time where the Customer Service rep brings their recommendation to the former decision maker for validation or correction, prior to acting on the choice. This engages both team members in a positive way while continuing to minimize the risk of a bad decision until the nuances of a policy are completely understood.
Next, you can implement a “downstream correction.” This process delivers the decision made at the line level to the former decision-maker after the fact, so that it can be reviewed. While these decisions may not be revocable, the process minimizes the impact of any ongoing misunderstanding of the policy.
Finally, everyone is ready to move into their new role. The former decision-maker is freed up to work on other responsibilities, while the front-line rep feels – and is – empowered to make increasingly responsible decisions as part of their job. This process removes the stress of transition from both parties, ensures that service to customers remains excellent and improves job satisfaction by elevating the responsibilities of both parties in the equation.
Another area of concern for the high-growth subscription business is policies that were set back when everyone was working on card tables in the garage. We’re talking about product requirements that were never written down and customer surveys that are still in a marketing person’s desk, under a banana peel from 2009.
This was fine when you were just starting out, but to ensure that you and your customers are getting the best possible value from your customer service organization, it’s time to centralize the information that the team needs to do its job. Earlier we discussed tying systems together and tidying up customer data to give customer service a 360-degree view. By centralizing key business knowledge in a Business Information (BI) system, however rudimentary, you:
- Accelerate the ramp-up of new hires.
- Ensure consistency of policy execution.
- Increase the frequency of one-touch customer issue resolution.
- Unify the team around a foundational set of business knowledge.
Even large organizations that are new to centralizing knowledge may want to use a simple tool, like the free version of Dropbox or BaseCamp, although they are short on cross-source aggregation and analytics capabilities. To truly integrate within a complex organization, an interactive BI platform like Tableau allows users to create “data stories” to which Customer Service contributes and leverages. Our goal with this article, however, isn’t to evaluate BI systems but to encourage you to incorporate some level of knowledge centralization into your own business.
Some Final Thoughts on Customer Service
Former Dell CIO Jerry Gregoire said, “The customer experience is the next competitive battleground.” According to a 2014 study by Gartner, 64% of people say the customer experience is more important than price in their choice of a brand. Clearly, customer service will be foundational to your success as you grow your subscription business.
Critical to providing customer service that will give you a competitive edge is planning and establishing standard policies. Even at the very beginning of a new business or product, anticipating how best to serve customers will bring a confidence and ease to your customer interactions that will benefit both of you.
As you expand, hiring the right people for customer service roles will be critical. The time has passed when businesses hired less-than-qualified individuals or farmed out call center work to any 3rd-party firm. Today, challenging interview questions and a sharp eye for indirect skills such as personality, phone skills and grammar are techniques you must employ in order to bring the very best talent to your team. And, whether that talent is in-house or offshore, the ability to measure success will allow you to continue to improve as your company grows.
It’s easy to lose the personal touch in customer service as your organization grows, but the implementation of standard and centralized technology can not only provide a 360-degree view of the customer that enables excellent customer service, it can tie your team together, no matter how large and dispersed it is.
Since 1750 BC, Customer Service has evolved, becoming nearly as important as the product itself in assuring your success. We hope that this series of articles gives you a few tools you can leverage in your own subscription business to provide truly excellent customer service. Good luck!
Diane Pierson has deep experience in product management and marketing, having delivered results to companies including Dun & Bradstreet, LexisNexis, American Lawyer Media and Copyright Clearance Center. She has built products & services that have delivered over $100 million in revenue and knows what works, and what doesn’t, when executing product plans and strategies. She is also a contributor to Subscription Insider. (Read Diane’s full Bio)