Customer Service: How it can mean a whole lot of difference to a company

Businesses function by selling products and services to their clientele and their source of revenue comes ultimately from their customers. One can’t deny that even B2B businesses need their business clientele to survive. In the era of globalization and increasing competitiveness, maintaining customer’s loyalty is perhaps one of the most important lessons for managers. The right question is how does one manage to ensure customer’s loyalty. One might say by price, but every single company in the world can lower their prices, thus the more crucial factor has to be an emphasis on differentiation.

Because not every company can have the level of innovation that Google or Apple has, they should differentiate by providing customer service. I don’t know about other people, but if I am served well and can emerge from purchasing goods and services from any particular business and be happy about spending my money there, I am certain I would consider my next purchase from that company again. Lots have been said about the success of Apple but I have to stress once again the point is that they do not just innovate, but the level of customer service in Apple-owned and managed stores are a cornerstone in their business strategy. I can feel comfortable browsing their products in Apple stores worldwide, and have experienced help from their customer service associates. Getting refunds or exchanging one’s products is as simple as buying their products. That I suspect is why some people still buy from them even when their prices are high in comparison to other electronic gadgets. One buys into the holistic customer service experience.

Another case in point comes into mind, which is purchasing online from Amazon.com. Having done purchases online from various sources, Amazon.com is perhaps one of my trusted online vendors, due to their accessibility and excellent customer service. Packages delivered from online orders all came in good condition and have that familiar sturdy boxes. This gives customers a sense that the business cares whether or not they receive their package in good order. I have no qualms in repeatedly ordering products from them. During my travels, I have also experienced great customer service from brand-name hotels, with excellent service notably from the Hyatt and Starwood chain of hotels. There was a mix-up on my luggage in a Grand Hyatt stay in Jakarta once, and not only did the whole management cared, they tried to make amends, providing complimentary breakfast and chocolates after finding our luggage for us. Upon check-out they apologized and on my next stay with them, I had an upgrade to a suite. It shows they care about their customers and truly wants business.

While these companies might sometimes charge higher prices for the same level of goods and services provided, I get a peace of mind knowing that I will be able to get the level of service I expect as a paying customer. It means I am happy even after spending money with them. Compare my hotel stay experience in the Hyatt with that of a lesser known hotel group managed by Millennium & Copthorne, also in Jakarta. I had a minor issue with the key card and requested an exchange. The front desk personnel, instead of apologizing, tried to push the blame on the customer. I might have let it go had the agent just changed the card for me, but for a service professional to shift the blame on the customer is just so wrong. Even if the card had been de-magnetized by the effect of mobile phones or other cards carried on my pockets, why was it I do not experience that often? It goes to show there is some fault in the hotel’s card systems or the machines used to magnetize the cards. Either way, the hotel has to improve, but ever since that experience, I wouldn’t even care to return to the hotel or other properties managed by the brand.

A bad experience in customer service can leave a bitter after taste and I have given up on say Starhub since a bad customer service experience, which is why I stick to Singtel. In this example, while Starhub might have a better branding and varieties of services, just the sheer thought of handling with their customer service department is unthinkable. I had the unfortunate experience of having to deal with a bad case of customer service experience with a business I truly admire in the past. Everyone knows Singapore Airlines is one of the best airline in the world, having garnered multiple awards globally. Having been a loyal customer and choosing to fly with them, placing them on my first airline in consideration whenever I have a trip planned, I have not been disappointed by their on board service. Till today I have been pleased with their on board crew even in Economy Class since I have never flew with them in their premium classes before.

But today, a bad case of dealing with their online reservations and Krisflyer customer service agent left a bad impression which makes them just any other airline out there. I had redeemed my miles earlier for a Business class trip between Jakarta and Guangzhou, and on their website, I was able to choose a flight schedule that allowed me a transit in Singapore for 40 odd hours due to the fact that only one flight per day departs for Guangzhou and somehow on the day I arrive in Singapore, no other flight exists that would bring me to Guangzhou until 2 days later. Happily, I booked this flight and with the required miles, and even till the process where I had to input my payment method, not once did the online redemption system told me it was an invalid fare or routing. I even managed to pay the taxes and other charges for the redemption, and obtained a booking reference. The system ended with a note stating that the e-ticket and accompanying receipt will be sent shortly. Fairly standard routine in a redemption then, and nothing wrong so far. I wasn’t at all bothered in the ending message since SIA did mention teething problems in their new website and I thought it was quite alright for online transactions to be processed later for credit card verification purposes, and since I already had a booking reference code, I thought what could go wrong?

This is where I was proven wrong. I had made travel plans, arranged my accomodations and transfers since I thought all the flight plans were fixed in place. Another mistake. That is because an email came saying I need to contact Krisflyer Membership Services and they are only based in Singapore. For a global airline, it is ridiculous to expect people to call long distance phone calls since I expect a local representative office should also be able to handle it. In the end only after 3 calls to the Jakarta office was I able to get a return call from the Krisflyer office. Apparently SIA did not want to honour the redemption that I booked since my ‘special’ transit flight was not eligible with that ‘measly’ miles of mine. Granted I am not a PPS club member (their higher tier status to reward their most prized customers) but I had provided them loads of business over the last decade or so. But what I got an adamant rejection and even after mentioning to them my fixed itinerary, they said my only option is to cancel the booking or top up with more miles (or money). They added that I should have known something was amiss when the e-ticket was not processed at the end and like I should have expected this. Since this was my first time redeeming a flight with SIA, I didn’t expect this at all. This was what I thought was ridiculous, since nowhere during the course of my online booking did their website mentioned these flights with long layovers were ineligible for the ‘special’ redemption rates. Having redeemed flights before online on other airlines, I know that if it is ineligible, I am not able to choose it in the first place or a highlighted remark will indicate I need more money or miles for those ineligible schedules. Furthermore, on the dates of my travel, I wasn’t even able to find a redemption that allowed a seamless transit since that would also remove the hassle of stopping over in Singapore. However, as my opportunity cost at this point with a week less than to departure was much more than the cost of topping up miles for the flights I had booked, I wanted to save myself more hassle and just resigned myself to spending more for my flights.

With this experience, I would have to say that there is a lot more for SIA to learn if it wants to become the world’s leading airline company. SIA might have great onboard crew, but I have experienced great onboard crew from a Lufthansa intra-European flight in Economy, great food and attentive service from JAL jumbo jet flights across the Pacific, and a wonderful service from Cathay Pacific and Qantas in Business Class. The differentiating factor is then the level of service on the ground, and having redeemed a flight on Cathay Pacific recently, the ease of redeeming flights without the drama involved puts me at ease and relaxed before the flight, knowing my redeemed tickets are confirmed and nothing would go wrong. So the next time I am going to take a flight, there is no question of which airline comes first into my mind. And if anyone is going to say that because I am redeeming my flights, I am not a paying customer and deserves to be treated this way, I would like to point out that one who has accumulated miles shows how much business they have provided to the airline in question and they still have to pay taxes and fuel surcharges on top of spending the miles. Less one is still in doubt, they should not forget that miles are worth some money in the eventual sense, as discussed in business journals. Also do note that airlines have been known to post mistake fares online and they have most of the time honoured these ‘mistake’ fares. A ‘mistake’ redemption online should be borne by the company since it is a public accessible front for the company.

A good customer service would only manage to retain normal customers and will not provide the loyalty a business wants. Especially if a business is operating in an industry where competition is high, they have to ensure excellent customer service. What is excellent customer service then? In my opinion these factors come into mind, even though they might not be sufficient, but they do form the backbone of how excellent customer service can come about:

1) Never say the customer is in the wrong – Like I said if a business tries to shift the blame to the customer, it just irks them further after having to spend the time and effort to contact the customer service department.

2) Try not to reject the customer outright, instead find a way to rectify the problem – For example, in a Starwood hotel I stayed in Chicago, the room was so small that I even knocked myself a couple of times using the bathroom. Upon enquiring with the front desk, they managed to put me up in a more spacious room at no extra charge. Granted they might have went a step further, but in the Singapore Airlines experience, I was rejected outright when I don’t see that it is wholly my fault.

3) Provide a one-stop customer service – Imagine a customer who needs to be routed to an Indian call centre and then again tasked to call another department in the organization. They would not be happy at all. Clarify at the start on who to call and which department to look for in case of need for service. Simplify the ‘contact us’ process, and make it easy for customers to find help when needed. Just like the case of the Genius Bar in Apple stores around America. I can pop into any one of these for assistance in refunds, service and help in Apple products or accesories bought in any Apple Store. They will even provide a receipt indicating problem and solution in case that particular branch cannot solve it, and I need to head to another branch for help. With that slip and computerized entry, I do not need to explain the whole problem again. How simple is that?

4) Think in the shoes of the customer – Some companies like Mandarin Oriental Hotels have a function which allows their customer service representative to contact customers by an online appointment process. Customers don’t like waiting to ringtones even if they are nice corporate music. It is better for customers to spend the time they want to do their work and enjoy their life rather than waiting for an agent to pick their call. An online appointment system is beneficial in managing time for busy periods too.

5) Be prepared to take a small loss for the long term view – Companies that cannot take losses on mistakes caused by their part would have to end up taking losses in the future. In the case of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels and Singapore Airlines, I would only perhaps consider their services only when their prices are substantially lower than competitors. Either way, they get less or no business from the in the future, since I am a negligible customer to them.

6) Small touches like a smile matters – Service comes with a human touch and had the front desk manager in Millennium & Copthorne been more friendly and helpful or the customer service agent in Singapore Airlines been more proactive at getting help for me, I might have thought that these people working in the organization do care about what happens to their customers. Extending small touches like an apology card after a mistake or a smile from customer service agent always make for a pleasant encounter.

These are just points that I have experienced makes a difference between good and great customer service. Businesses that provide the best customer experience makes me satisfied even after spending money on their products and services. And I am bound to remember them and ‘like’ them and promote their products and services, since I am a happy customer. And for those I have had the unfortunate experience with, the only way to gain my business back is by providing me a benefit that I could not refuse.

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