“Customer service is not about fake smiles and cold emails, messing one customer relationship could end up being a PR nightmare.”

The members of the band Sons of Maxwell were seated on a United Airlines flight after landing. Suddenly, the singer-writer Dave Carroll heard a passenger exclaiming, “They are throwing your guitars out there.” The band members suddenly turned behind to see that their guitars were being tossed by the people handling baggage. Carroll’s guitar was broken. And so was his heart. The guitar could still play after the repair, but it has lost its speciality. For almost nine months, Carroll’s phone calls and emails did not get him the compensation of $1200 from the airline. It was then that he decided to take the issue into his hands. He created a piece called “United Breaks Guitars” and posted an incredibly hilarious video online on Youtube. That was enough to damage United Airlines.

According to Times of London, within four days of the song going online, it caused bad PR to United Airlines. The stock price fell by 10%, costing shareholders $180 million. As a result, the brand was affected.

Today, social media is used as a forum for people to talk about their complaints. They voice their opinions, and also communicate to companies if they are unhappy with the customer service.

In the case of United Airlines, they did get enough opportunities to rectify their mistakes. Carroll made various attempts to reach the customer service for compensation. This happened for almost nine months. Finally, he wrote an email informing them about his plan to write songs, video them and put it on Youtube. United Airlines never responded. Finally, the video was out on Youtube, creating waves, and causing the company’s brand to go down. United Airlines tried to make things right by donating $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz as a goodwill gesture. It was too late by then.

In contrary to this video, there was another video made by Gory Bateson- ‘Southwest Never Broke My Guitar.’ This video spoke about the customer service of Southwest Airline.

Companies love creating a new product or taking their business to a new level, but it is important to create an experience that customers love. Bad customer service is in a way connected to how strong the management system is. For example, if there is a problem, and the employees fail to communicate it to the higher authorities out of fear, the problem magnifies and becomes an issue. If there is no trust at the management level, it is time to look at a change in corporate culture.

Accept your mistakes and take corrective action McAfee, which provided virus protection and internet security, faced an issue when their software update caused computers to crash. Windows XP users of the software had a tough time as their system shut down and had continuous reboot cycle.

The company apologised for the issue. On the company’s blog, the executive VP of support and customer service wrote an open apology. The company also offered to reimburse ‘reasonable expenses’ for the damage caused to customers on its website.

Those computers that were inoperable were eligible for a free, two-year extension of existing McAfee subscription. Till they sorted it out, the company urged customers to call their support team and fix it. Since few customers had permanent damage, the company wanted to set their computers up and running.

The company took active steps to get the problem sorted. The company owned the problem and sorted it out. This is essential when dealing with a customer service issue.

The British Standards Institute (BSI) reported about one of its surveys about customer loyalty and service. The report suggested that 76% of consumers said they had taken their business to a competitor as a result of poor customer service. Do you want this to happen to your customers? Think about it!

The survey also reports that where a company apologises for a customer service failure, consumers would be loyal to them and come back. It is essential for a company to retain its customers as that would lead to increased profitability. But do companies realise the value of an apology?

Dell call centre operation in India was forced to shut it, following the complaints about customer service. The operation for OptiPlex desktops and Latitude laptops was moved back to the United States. The Bangalore centre was not able to deal with the volume of calls on the product. The efficiency was suffering. They weren’t meeting the customer expectations. According to surveys, though the market share of Dell grew, the customer satisfaction declined.

The company acknowledged the problem. They also informed that they are taking steps to improve upon their services. It was important to have systems/processes that would minimise the risk of service failure. In case of a service failure, the company has to compensate for the inconvenience through credits, discounts and apologies.

For customer satisfaction, two elements are essential- strength of the customer relationships and the magnanimity of the service failure.

There are some customers who are transactionoriented and they want only service recovery. Their relation with the organisation is immaterial. On the other hand, there are customers who have a strong commitment with the company. They could demand less compensation, but they expect stronger interactions and correction of customer service in future. Even after a strong recovery, sometimes customers may still be upset, according to research. It is also possible that they could engage in negative word-of-mouth and will have less trust or commitment to the organisation if the customer service failure was bad.

In such cases, it becomes imperative that managers should bring in better relation and restore the faith of customers. Service companies need to track down and also identify about these failures and the degree of severity of these issues. There are measures for identifying the strength of customer relationships. The data/information provided by customers during the time of complaint should be taken as crucial marketing data and should be used for future performance improvement.

When talking to a customer it is important to get feedback about the service. Rather than putting forth a generic question on ‘How did you like our service’ it would be better if you can ask the customers to rate their service on the scale 1-10. It is also essential for organisations to motivate the customer service team. There has to be a consistent learning through training in the company. It is also important to adjust the attitude of professionals. The team leader’s tone and energy is important as that will transform into the customer service professional’s attitude and approach towards customers. It is important to put the employees in the shoes of customer for them to understand what they feel and go through.

Once the customer buys the product, the company representatives can call them and enquire about how the product is. Also, occasionally, the company can keep sending customers newsletters, brochures and keep them updated about what is happening. These small initiatives can help to retain the existing customers.

“Your employees don’t care about service targets. Here is why and how you should deal with it!”

For years, businesses have developed countless theories and ‘best practices’ to either get employees who care or to get employees to Care.

Most smart companies focus on hiring the right people and have put in place incentive programmes for improving service. Increasingly, compensations and appraisals are now being tied to percentage improvements in customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, repeat revenue per customer, referrals per customer, service recovery rates and many other such indexes.

Here’s the problem:

Employees don’t live in the world of index improvements. Many may not even understand it.

Once leaders declare the importance of service and tie incentives (financial or social) to index improvements, these indexes become external influences on employees’ daily behaviours. There is frantic activity among employees and managers to improve these scores, provided the incentives are well designed. These different activities and attempts at improving the scores are often random, uninformed and misaligned across the organisation. Resulting index improvements, if any, are typically marginal, erratic, unpredictable and difficult to reproduce and scale. Leaders then feel the need to change something (quite rightly so) – they implement new incentives and programmes (or even change the indexes) to get employees to care – leading to further confused activity by employees and managers.

How do you get employees to care?

As leaders, you live in the world of indexes and outcomes. Your employees live in the world of tasks and actions, and people-to-people interactions.

It’s not natural or comfortable for business leaders to step into employees’ shoes and ‘meet them where they are’. But that is where they live, and where you need to meet them. End of the day, you need to effectively translate scores and targets into the ideas and actions employees care about!

To help your employees understand and care about quantitative measures, consider and take these five steps:

Step One: Identify and quantify the changes you want to achieve

“We want our employees to be more proactive, efficient and value-adding” is a common statement by leaders worldwide. It is a vague idea to employees who live in the world of daily tasks and procedures. Leaders and managers must talk about metrics in language that makes sense to their employees. “We need your help to find and fix the source of these ten complaints before our next survey” is a clear request to client services. “Let’s find a way to shorten the time to process claims by at least 10% while maintaining accuracy” makes sense to the people who work in Finance.

“As leaders, you live in the world of indexes and outcomes. Your employees live in the world of tasks and actions, and people-to-people interactions.”

“Let’s work with our suppliers to reduce the number of steps required to place our orders” may sound like a good idea to the folks in procurement.

The good news is that leaders don’t have to figure everything out. As new practices become standard practice, employees will see the possibilities of positive change and will help identify more areas for quantifiable improvement.

Step Two: Design and deliver effective communications

Leaders can achieve effective communication by using these five fundamental components:

The Declaration: What is your intended outcome? What indexes are you trying to improve? What is your target for this quarter/year? Why?

The Assessment: What is the impact of current practices for your employees, organisation and customers?

The Promise: What will be the benefit of the proposed new practices? What new possibilities will be created for your employees, organisation and customers?

The Offer: What incentives will be provided (financial reward, social recognition, etc.) to these employees demonstrating new behaviours? (‘None’ is also a valid answer, but this needs to be communicated clearly.)

The Request: What exactly do you want your employees to do? What are the conditions of satisfaction? How will you evaluate their performance?

These five components cannot be communicated in a single memo to the entire organisation. They must be customised and conveyed to each employee, or to groups of employees in language that reflects the concerns of their functions, roles and departments.

Leaders and managers should genuinely listen to employees and appreciate what they care about – their goals, concerns, preferences. Only then can leaders understand the full impact of their proposed changes, take full responsibility and effectively communicate their vision to others. Most leaders communicate only ‘the request’ to their employees. In his paper, My Problem with Design, Chauncey Bell, asks change designers to consider this:

Who do we think we are to mess around with others’ lives? By what kind of audacity do we set ourselves up in that kind of position in the world? If we puncture the pretence of being involved only in the design of artifacts and the arrangement of activities, and we open ourselves to a fuller recognition of the implications of our designs, then we must ask where to stand to be confident in our judgements about what will be better, or right, for those on whose behalf we design.

Step Three: Measure intent first, not outcomes

We’ve all heard stories where an enthusiastic employee goes overboard trying to do something extra for a customer (higher discount, extra attention, etc.) and gets reprimanded by the manager. This not only demotivates the well-meaning employee but also instills a fear of trying something new in others across the organisation. The manager didn’t do anything ‘wrong’. He was merely focusing on the unintended outcome – probably increased costs of service or decrease in average response times to customers.

“Internalise mistakes into your service improvement process instead of treating them as anomalies.”

When your employees try new things to achieve new outcomes, they will make mistakes. Internalise mistakes into your service improvement process instead of treating them as anomalies. Some metrics that work well for measuring intent: number of unsolicited ideas, number of unrequested (or unauthorised) actions that generated positive responses from customers/colleagues, number of constructive complaints by employees about business processes.

The desired outcomes will be achieved when employees who care are provided with effective service education. You can pontificate till the cows come home about how empowerment is important, but empowerment is useless if your employees don’t care enough to take new actions.

Step Four: Design effective systems and processes for support

Existing business processes and systems may need to be re-engineered to support new initiatives and revitalise employees. New systems may also be needed to support specific improvement initiatives such as measuring intent, tracking behaviours and outcomes, reinforcing the leadership visions, building transparency into operations across the organisation, reinvigorating values, improving reporting structures and SOPs to empower employees, etc. This redesign is typically ‘easier’ to do when there is high involvement of employees who care. In an uplifting service culture, employees are constantly looking to add and create more value in all areas!

Do these four steps sound like a lot of work? They are.

But here’s a bonus step that will help:

Step Five: Realise your managers are more important than you.

Managers generally understand frontline employees’ worlds much better than senior leaders. Emotional buy-in and involvement of mid-level managers is absolutely critical to get employees to care. As Ron Kaufman says, they can make or break your service culture.

In Step One: Managers’ input is essential for leaders to translate ‘index improvements’ into specific employee behaviours.

In Step Two: The five components of change communication must be reinforced by managers every day.

In Step Three: Managers need to appreciate employees’ good intentions and make it really OK for them to make mistakes, and help build a culture of Service Recovery.

In Step Four: Process improvement projects need to be driven by managers collaborating cross-functionally to ensure alignment and effectiveness.

When these five steps are taken frequently and constructively in your organisation, then your entire team will be stepping up to new levels of service, caring, and results every day.

“There are umpteen loyalty programmes out there to make you come back again and again. Here’s a list of brands that have scored brownie points with this concept.”

If you have ever flashed your frequent flier card for special privileges or redeemed your collected ‘points’ for some goodies at the city mall, you are definitely reaping in the benefits of Loyalty Programmes. Designed to reward the customer’s loyalty, these programmes are generally a plastic card or smart card in physical form.

For the customers, these cards offer a wide range of advantages from special discounts to easy online shopping. As for the organisations, the programme helps not just to lure the buyers but also to ensure their dedication towards the brand. An outcome of the loyalty business model, the card is an identification of the consumer and is often used for most transactions. This identification can then grant the consumer several entitlements, be it access to the luxury lounges at airports or a special preview of the season’s sale. The concept has hit the Indian market in heavy doses and almost everybody owns a special privilege card of one the several brands. Here are some that have hit the customer’s pulse:

The Inner Circle

Part of the Landmark Group, the buyer can acquire the card by either paying Rs. 150 or by shopping for a specified amount at select stores. A simple form filled in gives the buyer a life-time membership, wherein he can collect points at Lifestyle, Splash, Max, Home Centre and Spar. Two points are awarded for every purchase made. One point equals 70 p. Once the buyer has accumulated 143 points he can redeem it for a gift voucher for Rs. 100. Other yields include an exclusive preview of the annual sale a day before it is kept open for everyone else. Though a lot of other retail outlets offer similar programmes, the reason for The Inner Circle’s success are the brands it covers. Lifestyle and Splash are definitely pioneers in apparels and accessories. Max has struck a chord with the college crowd and Home Centre boasts of the finest home décor. Plus, who wouldn’t love to take back more than what they paid for?

Net Card

It’s no surprise that this marvel is a product of one of the finest banks in the country – Kotak Mahindra. Designed to provide more security and ease for online transaction, this virtual card is truly a wonder piece. Needless to say in this case that Kotak’s account holders are the only fortunate ones. At a time when online theft is increasing by the day, the Net Card spells a boon. Every time an account holder wishes to make any kind of online purchase, he can log on to the Net banking portal and generate the Net Card. Similar to any other credit card it generates a card number which can be used for payments. The card is valid only for 24 hours, further adding to the security. The Net Card not only allows users to enjoy online shopping but also frees them from the worry of having their debit card details stolen. The best part, it costs nothing

King Club

As the name suggests, King Club is a feature created by Kingfisher Airlines. It aims to offer an experience of luxury and comfort to the maximum. Based on the concept of earning miles on frequent flying, it offers four varieties of cards, namely King Red, Silver, Gold and Platinum. All the four cards offer the basic reclamation of miles travelled for free tickets. Also, flyers can avail of extra services like access to international lounges and extra baggage allowance. Adding to the exclusive offers, King Club allows members to pool miles among families and earn extra rewards for referring to friends. It is no surprise that this special feature had 2 million takers last year. Flying the good times attained a whole new meaning.

Fuel Card

Movie lovers in Chennai rejoiced when Sathyam Cinemas launched the Fuel Card. India’s first ever prepaid movie card saw many takers in no time. A one of its kind, the Fuel Card allows cinema goers to book tickets online, without the hassles of a debit card. To get started, one has to pay a nominal registration fee and choose from one of the four attractive card designs.

It then works similar to a prepaid telephone service wherein the consumer needs to maintain some balance which gets deducted according to the ticket charges. The Fuel Card is restricted to not just movie tickets but can also be used for buying food and beverages. Chennaiites love their cinema and the Fuel Card has indeed brought in a whole new charm to their movie watching experience.

Though a lot has been spoken about Loyalty Programmes, it has always been a topic of debate among most market analysts. Although it is certain that they have helped increase revenues for organisations, how profitable they are for the buyer is still a question not completely answered. Most programmes are definitely true value for money at the start, but as competition builds, the returns begin to deteriorate. The customer too gets carried away by way too many options, not being faithful to any one in particular, thereby losing out on the points, extra miles etc. Also, many a time the unclear policies lead to exhaustion of the programmes. Many of the frequent flyer programmes now come with an expiry date. In most cases, the buyer completes his tenure before yielding the extra miles.

But as there is no supply without demand, these programmes have made a secure position in the market. The rest is up to the consumer to decide.

Fuelling a trend

Sathyam Cinemas have been known to be pioneers in converting the simple form of movie going into an entertaining experience by transforming the multi screen cinema complex into a Cineplex.

To facilitate more loyalty amongst regulars of Sathy­am, the management launched in 2006, India’s first-ever prepaid movie card – Fuel. “Fuel is a product of convenience, it allows our customers to book tickets online and over the phone without any hassles,” says Priya Krishnan, Marketing Head, Sathyam Cinemas.

The Fuel starter pack at Sathyam Cinemas is priced at Rs. 300. It contains the Fuel card with a stored value of Rs. 250. Does Sathyam Cinemas see it as a source of revenue? “Fuel’s focus is the customer. There is no revenue as such as the card is simply a me­dium of purchase used instead of cash. There are no extra fees other than the one time fee of Rs. 50 which is charged at the time of purchase which goes towards the fabrication of the actual card itself,” says Priya.

What has been the biggest benefit to Sathyam after the launch of Fuel cards?

“Fuel was launched as a tool that would benefit our customers rather than us. For example, when you want to book your tickets over the phone, all you have to do is give the rep your Fuel number and you will be issued a booking number with which you can straight away pick up the tickets from our counters before the movie. This cannot be done through a debit or credit card. Our goal is to keep our customers happy. And happy customers would be our benefit!” says Priya.