I was recently interviewed by a reporter from the Fiscal Times regarding how to improve customer experience. The topic came up as a result of the widely-publicized issues that customers have been facing while attempting to access the on-line health insurance exchanges in compliance with the Federal Government’s Affordable Healthcare Act. 

Customer Experience Standards2While customer service is usually thought of as a private-sector concern, it is clear that customer service, customer experience, and employee experience are vital to all industries—and sectors—public and private included. At CSE, we like to say: if you have people, we can help…because the efficiency and success of any enterprise is largely determined on the ability of PEOPLE to work together toward a common goal.

So, here is our take on the minimum standards needed to deliver—or improve—customer experience:

1. Availability: 

In this world of 24-7 activity, the acceptable availability standard has been raised. Customers expect information at their fingertips; when they need it and where they need it.

CONSIDER: Time is at a premium for customers and to successfully meet their needs, organizations must be available to deliver. Check out this blog post to see how internal process affect the customer in every way!

FOR EXAMPLE: As I am writing this article, I saw this verbiage at the bottom of the Google homepage:

"New! Get real help from real people in real time. Helpouts by Google."

I thought: AWESOME! This feeds directly into my point. So, I clicked the "Helpouts" link to chat with the "real people" and …Oops! Epic fail: the following is the error message I received when I clicked the link: "500. That’s an error. There was an error. Please try again later. That’s all we know."

OK, so Google tried to take the last bit of advice from above and it appears as though they have some more work to do.

HOW TO DO IT RIGHT: Your processes shouldn’t be so difficult to implement—implementing them consistently is the key.  This means being available in person, on-line, over the phone or in the cloud.  At the very least—when a customer cries "Uncle" in frustration over your technology, provide them with an outlet (phone number/chat pane) that will connect them to a human.

2. Courtesy: 

In creating amazing customer experiences, courtesy goes far beyond having nice manners and smiling. There is courtesy in the way our people behave that yes, includes the observable traits of pleasant tone, nice words, welcoming and friendly body language, etc. And there is a deeper courtesy that addresses thoughtful design of the way our places are equipped, our processes are designed and our messaging is delivered.

CONSIDER: Are our physical interaction points, ie. store, restaurant, signage, website, app, all customer-centric? Are they making the user experience easy and engaging?  Or, are we blasting our customers with messages and processes that suit our purpose?

FOR EXAMPLE: One of the most relatable examples I can share for this is the concept of the bank line.  The bank line is one where customers enter one line in the order in which they are ready.  As a bank teller becomes available, the first person in line is served by the available teller.  This way, customers aren’t forced to choose which line/teller is moving the fastest only to find that they have "picked the wrong line".

HOW TO DO IT RIGHT: Bank lines whether virtual (put your name on a list and as tellers become available the customer is served) or physical—actually standing in line—are an easy example of design courtesy.  Analyze your processes and procedures to ensure they are not only customer-centric, but also seamless and painless for employees to implement.

3. Consistency: 

Customers appreciate consistency in service and services. This poses a challenge when employees go out of their way or bend a policy to please a customer.

CONSIDER: What are the chances that another employee will be creative or motivated enough do the same? And, if that customer finds him or herself in the same situation in the future, will they likely expect consistent treatment?

FOR EXAMPLE: I consulted with a large retailer who thought a great way to serve customers would be to have people at roving podiums selling gift cards throughout a very large store—so customers would not have to go to a central location to purchase gift cards.  This sounded like a great idea—until the next time the customer comes in and swears she purchased a gift card at a podium in the shoe department and now it isn’t there.  This is inconsistent and causes frustration for customers.  Taking the product to the customer is fantastic—keeping it consistent is even better.

HOW TO DO IT RIGHT: Determine when and where the lines can be drawn and how much latitude employees can have so that service is not perceived as inconsistent.  Also, be sure that employees explain what they are doing and why so that customers can keep expectations in check.  Additionally customers want to be able to count on the same services and processes each time they interact with your organization—unless of course they are improved and communicated clearly.

4. Accuracy: 

Providing correct information to customers—be they internal or external—is imperative to deliver at least the minimum level of service.  People make decisions and act upon the information they receive—and receiving inaccurate information could potentially make a customer or co-worker go down a very wrong and inefficient path…leading to poor customer experiences.

HOW TO DO IT RIGHT: 1) Keep it simple! Make policies, products, processes, etc. simple for both the customer AND employees so that information is less likely to be miscommunicated and more likely to be understood. 2) Encourage information sharing: provide job aids, training, and a culture of inquiry—where it is natural for employees to seek correct information if they don’t know it or are unsure.

5. Responsiveness:

Readily reacting—in a timely manner—to needs or requests from both internal or external customers, and consistently communicating progress. No one wants their requests to go into an abyss—void of communication or acknowledgement. At the very least, communicate with your customer that you have received their comments/request/question and what you are going to do about it.  Will you seek the counsel of a co-worker? Will you have an answer in 24 hours?  Will you need to further clarify their request?  Whichever direction suits the situation—be sure to communicate it to the customer, and continue communicating the steps in the process and what to expect until the item reaches resolution.

FOR EXAMPLE: I had a question for EZPass (a pre-paid toll collection device). I checked their website and couldn’t find the answer. So I completed the "Contact Us" form, stating my situation and my question. That was 6 weeks ago. I still have not received a reply. I have no idea if they received my email. I have no idea if they were working on it. I have no idea if my question went into the abyss…If I had a choice in prepaid collection devices, I would likely not choose EZPass—my perception is that the service stinks.

HOW TO DO IT RIGHT: Communicating with your customers is the absolute minimum; and providing a platform for them to communicate back to you is imperative to an organization’s success as it serves customers. However, ensure that the support systems are in place to respond to customers whom you have asked for feedback. Ie: don’t have a contact us form unless you are planning to have a consistent and timely process to respond.

6. Efficiency:

The efficient use of your and your customers’ resources: human, financial, time, etc. will inevitably lead to delivering great service.

CONSIDER: From a human perspective—are your people operating with a sense of urgency…or simply wiling away the day?  From a financial perspective—are your profits being marginalized because of waste of time, energy, raw materials?  From a time perspective—are our processes as streamlined as they could be, focusing on being effective and efficient?

HOW TO DO IT RIGHT: Customers appreciate and reward organizations that keep it simple and efficient on the back end, which translates to efficiency on the customer-facing side because it shows that you respect their time, their wallets and their satisfaction. Analyze your operation to ensure that you are operating in the most efficient manner possible.

Perfecting the customer experience is a bit of an art and a science; and an effort that will never end. While striving to ensure that you and your employees, processes, messaging and place are all designed and delivering exceptional experiences; be sure to innovate to keep it relevant.  While venues, technology and society are ever-evolving, we will always be human and the standards that humans desire will never change.

How do YOU deliver availability, courtesy, consistency, accuracy, responsiveness and efficiency?

Now that you know more about the minimum standards for an optimal customer experience, take a look at how this information could have improved the launch of the Federal Government’s Affordable Healthcare Act: