Tough Times Demand Better Customer Service

If there are fewer customers with less money to spend, it might seem obvious that your customer service needs to be top-notch to get more than your share of whatever demand there is.

That obvious lesson seems to be lost on the usual cast of characters according to the MSN Money’s third annual Customer Service Hall of Shame. It found that AOL LLC ranks as consumers’ top pick for the worst customer service — the second year in a row AOL has ranked worst.

The survey found that AOL received a “poor” rating for its customer service experience from nearly 45 percent of respondents. Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp. ranked second with 41 percent of consumers rating their customer service experience as “poor.”

Banks also scored low for customer service. Bank of America, Capital One and HSBC all made repeat appearances on the Hall of Shame list, joined by Citibank, the only new company on the 2009 list.

Here is MSN Money’s 2009 Hall of Shame:

  1. AOL
  2. Comcast
  3. Sprint
  4. Capital One
  5. Time Warner Cable
  6. HSBC
  7. Qwest
  8. Abercrombie & Fitch
  9. Bank of America
  10. Citigroup

MSN Money also puts together an annual Hall of Fame list, with companies that score the highest for customer service. Military banking, insurance and investment giant USAA ranked No. 1 for best customer service. Here is the list:

  1. USAA
  2. Trader Joe’s
  3. Netflix
  4. Amazon
  5. Nordstrom
  6. Publix
  7. Whole Foods
  8. Apple
  9. Costco
  10. Southwest Airlines

What may be surprising is not that the Hall of Shame companies continue to do poorly but that their raw scores remain low at the very time other businesses are improving customer service in response to market uncertainty.

It probably is a good indicator of the quality of management that these companies have.  They may well be consoled by the mantra, we’re no worse than our competitors.  How much better they would do, if instead they were looking for ways of improving results.  Customer service is a powerful lever in such endeavors.

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The Best (and Worst) In Customer Service

The Wall Street Journal blog, Independent Street, has news, trends, tidbits and tools for and about entrepreneurs. It features some listings on customer service from Angie’s List, which are most thought-provoking.  Angie’s List provides consumer ratings for service businesses, based on a survey of its more than 750,000 members. Ratings are based on overall experience, price, quality, responsiveness and punctuality.

The following lists the best and worst service companies for 2008:

The Best

  1. Piano Tuning
  2. Music Instruction
  3. Lamp Repair
  4. Dryer Vent Cleaning
  5. Mailbox Repair
  6. Home and Garage Organization
  7. Party Rentals
  8. Roof Cleaning
  9. Upholstery Cleaning
  10. Animal and House Sitting

The Worst

  1. Home-Warranty Companies
  2. Home Builders
  3. Landline-Phone Service
  4. Cable-TV Service
  5. Satellite-TV Service
  6. Internet Service
  7. Cellular-Phone Service
  8. Furniture Sales
  9. Computer Sales
  10. Bridal Shops

“It never ceases to amaze me that most of the problems cited – across the board – could have been resolved had the companies only worked harder to listen and respond to their customers’ needs,” said Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, in a statement. “In today’s economy, no business can afford to push their customers out the door, but that’s what a lot of these poorly graded companies are doing.”

The other lesson to be drawn from these lists seems to be that bigger companies appear more often in The Worst list, rather than in The Best list.  Perhaps smaller companies are more aware of the realities of survival in these recessionary times.

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Hostgator Web Hosting Services

Hosting Problems

Our faithful readers may have noticed a dearth of posts in the past two weeks.  This was because of hosting problems with our previous hosting service, which shall be nameless.  Although this is a fairly standard WordPress blog, when it inexplicably went off-line, they could not correct the situation and indeed blamed the blog.  Since another WordPress blog on a separate domain hosted with them ran into problems at exactly the same time, this seemed somewhat unbelievable.  However they were unable to correct either situation so we looked for other hosting solutions.

Hosting solutions

One of the advantages of getting involved in online communities is that friends are always close at hand.  Donna D. Fontenot, a fellow moderator at Cre8Asite Forums, recommended checking out Hostgator among others, which I did.  I found their hosting plans attractive and their KnowledgeBase and supporting information most complete.  If you are looking for a hosting solution I would recommend them without reservation.  To do so, follow this link to Hostgator.   (Full disclosure – this is an affiliate link but this in no way influences my unreserved recommendation.)

Hostgator Tickets

The online interactive site and the Hostgator Cpanel are excellent and for most applications it is unlikely that you will need to contact Hostgator.  I had some minor complications and I found the support via the e-mail ticket system surprisingly fast (usually within an hour or two).

Hostgator Live Chat

While setting up a series of domains on my Hostgator Business Account I had a small number of points where I needed additional clarification.  I used the Hostgator Live Chat facility and was delighted by the speed and excellence of the service.  Sometimes there was an immediate response: on the busiest occasion, I was third in line with 19 chat operators who were dealing with 25 chats but a response came in minutes.  It is a most impressive service.

Hostgator Hosting Recommendation

I am a really satisfied customer and, given that customer service is often less than satisfactory, I believe Hostgator is worth writing about.  If you are looking for a hosting solution, I hope you will try them out.

To provide the most useful source of information here, please add your comments, either positive or negative.  So often people only record their criticisms but rarely comment on their satisfaction.  If you have suggestions on how the service might be improved, then why not add those too.

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The business case for excellent customer service

Customer service is more than Goodwill.

The title of this post sprang instantly to mind on seeing the latest post from Matt Cutts of Google. His was entitled “The business case for goodwill“.

I will come back to goodwill later but first let us explore customer service. Perhaps everyone in Canada is currently much more aware of customer service given the lamentable Customer Service from the Canadian Cell Phone Companies. Currently it seems to be getting even worse with the oligopoly of Bell, Rogers and Telus braving the wrath of many customers as they squeeze every customer for as many dollars as they can. They are clearly acting against their own best long-term interests and some government control is essential if government is to reflect the will of the people. It’s no surprise that Canada is seriously falling behind on the mobile Web but that is another story.

Some companies realize the importance of excellent customer service. One of the best case studies is that of Portakabin in the UK. Portakabin hires and sells permanent and relocatable buildings. Its clients include hospitals and schools, government ministries, universities and major business players such as Sony, Vodafone and Tesco. It is the leading brand in this market with 16% of the UK market.

Portakabin has unique Customer Charters for its sales and hire customers. These set out, in detail, the high levels of service that customers can expect. They include:

  • completion of every project on time and to the agreed contract sum
  • a service response within 24 hours from the customer services team
  • picking up the phone within four ‘rings’ – and by a person, not an automated system
  • a response or visit within 24 hours of a request
  • to be included in the customer care programme.

For Portakabin, good customer service is vital. It is aware that satisfied customers return to the business and ensure that healthy profits are made. They also help to build a good reputation. It knows that if customers receive good service ‘This time, next time, every time,’ then they are more likely to return.

Matt Cutts refers to a blog post by Carolyn Y. JohnsonHurry up, the customer has a complaint. She cites examples where firms monitor the Internet looking for dissatisfied customers. If you blast a gripe about Comcast on the social network Twitter, then Frank Eliason who is ComcastCares will likely be in touch to try to fix the problem. Dell is also listening carefully to what customers have to say on its DellIdeaStorm website. .. and they are are not the only ones.

Surprisingly Matt Cutts did not refer to customer service but rather to goodwill. As he questioned:

The fly in this ointment is how to make a business case for listening. What are the metrics that argue for having someone engage with a community, listen to feedback, and push for changes? Any smart person intuitively knows that good community relations are a solid idea, but how do you prove that? In a company of size X, how many people should pay attention to or be dedicated to community relations? Id be interested if other people have thought about the business case for goodwill, or know of resources that discuss this.

Perhaps the reason why a Googler would talk goodwill rather than customer service is that Google may feel it does not have customers. It provides its search results for free and its real concern is for its advertisers. That may be a somewhat short-sighted view of reality.

Sometimes public corporations go for short term results to please the stock market. However such short-term results are often achieved at the expense of long-term growth. Kaplan and Norton in their Balanced Scorecard approach suggest that other factors are important for long-term success:

The balanced scorecard retains traditional financial measures. But financial measures tell the story of past events, an adequate story for industrial age companies for which investments in long-term capabilities and customer relationships were not critical for success. These financial measures are inadequate, however, for guiding and evaluating the journey that information age companies must make to create future value through investment in customers, suppliers, employees, processes, technology, and innovation.

Satisfied customers can represent an important long-term asset. Short-changing customer service is a false economy that will be paid for by much bigger losses of revenue in the longer term. For graphic examples of this, just watch the progress of Rogers, Bell and Telus in the Canadian telecom market in the months and years to come.

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Bell Canada Website Problems

Rather surprisingly in a Google search that should have pointed to the Bell Canada website, the following page was at the top of the listings.

Bell Canada website browser detection web page

Who knows why this should rank so well in the Google rankings? It seems somewhat ineffective to allow such a web page to be the top marker. What is more of a worry is the attitude that such a message signals. For up to 1 in 20 of the visitors to the website, it’s the visitor who will have to make the extra effort to enjoy their experience in visiting the Bell Canada website. It seems that the shopping section of the website will work fine, but after logging in you may have problems. Does that signal as usual that customer service may not match the attention you’ll get as they try to sell you something?

Whether by switching browsers such visitors will enjoy their experience more is open to question. Kate Trgovac seems to have had some issues with the usability of the Bell Canada website in trying to solve her telephone problems. Of course big websites do require extra efforts to make them work well. Usability doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. It requires a customer-centric attitude and unfortunately the Canadian telecom companies have somewhat shaky customer-service records.

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Your Lawyer Is In India, So Why Not Your Web Designer?

Your call is important to us. We hear it so often and many times question the sincerity with which a company spouts this line. Customer service in many cases seems to be done at minimum cost. That sometimes means that the customer service function is outsourced, perhaps to India.

That shouldn’t necessarily be a problem. After all, telecommunications and the Internet are shrinking the world. Aren’t we all one global village now? Our similarities are often much stronger than our differences. It shouldn’t be rocket science to make it all work well.

Although it can sometimes work well, in other cases it becomes a nightmare. For just one example, consider the case of Web.com that eventually decided Outsourcing Customer Service Doesn’t Make Business Sense. The case study is worth reading and there are a number of reasons why it did not work out:

The greatest problem we faced with outsourcing our customer service, however, was the cultural clash. More times than not in our business, there’s a communication gap between the support staff and customers; but take that misunderstanding and add to it a cultural gap, and you’ll start to see some serious problems – like we did. In addition to customer frustration, reduced sales and increased cancellations, we witnessed on-going technological gaffes.

Legalwise

If outsourcing a relatively simple function like customer service is risky, why would one think of outsourcing anything more complex. You might think that legal services would be a real challenge for outsourcing. However Legalwise, headquartered in Toronto, is now providing offshore legal services from Mumbai, India. (Note that their website has sound, which you may find objectionable and which can only be avoided by skipping their Flash introduction.) They claim that their experienced lawyers in India can become an extension of your North American legal team for a more efficient legal resource.

Since 1995, numerous law firms of varying sizes in the United States and the United Kingdom have been outsourcing some of their work to lawyers in India. For example in 2001, GE Plastics and GE Consumer Finance began outsourcing some of its legal compliance and research work to India. GE is reported to have saved about $2 million in one year by outsourcing legal work to India. DuPont has been an outspoken advocate of outsourcing a portion of its legal work to India. DuPont is reported to have saved about $8.8 million in legal fees in 2002 alone. Other companies such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems are all said to be outsourcing legal work to India with very significant savings.

If it can work for legal services, then what other functions might be outsourced successfully? Obvious choices would be anything involving mathematics or programming since these follow universal standards that apply around the world. Web designing would seem to be a prime candidate. There are many success stories but not everyone is happy with the result. For example, Aaron Wall, a well-known SEO consultant in looking for Drupal developers made the following statement: We recently had another project outsourced to India and are not likely to go that route again soon, if ever.

Legalwise

That is of real concern to someone else well known in SEO circles by the name of Bob Massa, who opened his own outsourcing company in India in July of last year. Although Aaron Wall’s view is a concern to him, he knows the outsourcing experience can be different and he is intent on changing that perception. He is making the following offer:

We can develop php, .asp and are proficient in drupal, mambo, video applications and we can install and/or modify just about any open source scripts. There is no development job too big or too small. I can have my design people create a new, updated site including logos, banner ads and templates. We are fast and affordable and we will prove it BEFORE you have to pay a dime.

If you know outsourcing would be better but didn’t want to take the chance of being ripped off, then just send me an email or call my people on live chat. Let us show you what we can do for you and only AFTER we prove you can trust us to do what we say we will do, will we expect you to pay us.

That would seem to be quite an offer. Provided the Techndu design team have the necessary skills, it would seem to be an offer that is difficult to refuse. Even in working with North American web designers, it is important to develop a strong team relationship and be assured that the web design will be done with flair, competency and according to applicable standards. Web designing is very complex and often requires a number of repetitions to get it right. I know many in North America who have not been happy with their onshore web designer experience. I suggest it is worth approaching this whole subject with an open mind. If you decide outsourcing is for you, you could be one of the real success stories.

Related: Choosing The Right Business Website Designer – The Bottom Line

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How Good is Customer Service from the Canadian Cell Phone Companies?

Just getting through isn’t enough.

An earlier post discussed the customer service provided by the Canadian cell phone companies, Bell, Rogers and Telus. It was based on a remark by Peter Mansbridge on the CBC TV Nightly News. He said all three were low on the customer service scale as measured in a study they had done. You can now read more on this in CBC Customer Service Survey.
This describes the details of the process:

Working with the CBC Research Department, we developed a unique set of standards that evaluate everything from the interactive voice response system that answers most calls these days, to the time you’re left waiting on hold. We also measured the effectiveness of the operator – how well they understood the caller, how well the caller could understand the operator, and their demeanour.

We called each company three times: once during a weekday, once at night and once on the weekend. Our call researchers kept detailed notes of each call and then scored the company’s performance out of 100

The actual rankings were as follows:

  1. Sears Home Repair Retail 90.9
  2. Bank of Nova Scotia Visa Credit 90.3
  3. Aliant Telephone 86.8
  4. Fidelity Investments Brokerage 86.6
  5. TD Waterhouse Brokerage 86.6
  6. Flight Centre Travel 85.7
  7. Cogeco Cable Cable 84.6
  8. RBC Visa Credit 84.2
  9. Shaw Cable 83.9
  10. Globe and Mail Media 83.2
  11. American Express Credit 80.5
  12. SaskTel Telephone 80.0
  13. Sears Catalogue Retail 78.3
  14. Canadian Tire Retail 75.2
  15. Microsoft Computer 75.1
  16. CBC Media 74.8
  17. TD Canada Trust Visa Credit 74.8
  18. Aeroplan Travel 73.6
  19. Telus Telephone 73.6
  20. Bell Sympatico Computer 72.8
  21. Rogers Wireless Telephone 72.3
  22. WestJet Travel 70.2
  23. CIBC Visa Credit 67.0
  24. Chapters Indigo Retail 65.7
  25. Expedia.ca Travel 64.4
  26. Air Canada Travel 64.2
  27. Rogers Cable Cable 64.0
  28. Dell Computer Computer 60.4
  29. National Student Loans Government 60.4
  30. MTS Allstream Telephone 58.0
  31. Rogers Yahoo Internet Computer 57.7
  32. National Post Media 57.1
  33. Telus Internet Computer 56.2
  34. BMO Bank of Montreal Mastercard Credit 53.2
  35. Bell Mobility/Home Phone Telephone 52.7
  36. Sun Life Insurance 51.3
  37. Great West Life Insurance 50.0
  38. Canada Revenue Agency Government 49.0
  39. HBC Retail 48.3
  40. President’s Choice Financial Mastercard Credit 22.8

Certainly it’s surprising that the telephone companies are not higher in using their own technology, the telephone, to provide customer service. As the author of a post on the survey in the CMA – Canadian Marketing Association – Blog commented, he or she had some reservations:

There is one area that leads me to want to ignore the findings of this survey. The size of the sample of the survey was too small. They called the businesses once during the day, once during the evening and once during the weekend. They based their entire satisfaction rating on 3 calls. Most of these businesses will receive millions of calls each year. The sample size is simply too small to make an accurate rating on the level of service provided by these organizations.

Your level of satisfaction with a company has everything to do with who you reach when you call. We all hope for a minimum of fast and excellent service and are satisfied when we receive it. Unfortunately this is not realistic in many cases. Even the highest rated call centres achieve satisfaction ratings in the 80% area. That means 20% of customers are not completely satisfied at any given time.

In fact customer service in general is even worse than these figures show. If you read the small print, you will see that this was only measuring the customer experience. This is just whether you can get through and communicate intelligently with an agent. For that the small size of the samples is not quite so critical. These figures do have some relevance and they are confirming that the telephone companies don’t do too well even on this.

If you do manage to get through, the true measure of customer service is whether the client is satisfied with the outcome. On that it would appear that the Canadian cell phone companies are again falling down as measured by the chatter in the blogosphere. There are a number of reasons for this but the gotchas in the complex rate plans seem high on the list. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the politicians who are usually seeking popularity and votes would take a highly popular decision and open up the Canadian cell phone market to increased competition.

Related:
Real Competition Coming To The Canadian Cell Phone Market
Bell Canada Website User Experience

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How can I help you? Is that Bell, Rogers or Telus?

Customer Service -
a failing grade for some.

CBC News had an item this week on a customer service survey they had run.

The survey look into the level of customer service provided by 40 of Canada’s top companies through their call centers. In the survey, Sears Canada came out on top. Eleven other companies scored 80 per cent or better in our ratings. These companies were quick to answer their calls, and we found their interactive voice response systems easy to navigate. The results may go against the conventional thinking that a telephone-based customer service experience is usually a bad experience.

The written summary fails to mention that three of the worst companies were Bell, Rogers and Telus. How can it be that the three major suppliers of telephone services are so poor at using the very service they provide? The survey results are no surprise for many of us have been affected. The Your View item had 381 comments mostly within the span of 36 hours, after which comments were closed. Many of the comments were lengthy and quite naturally related to our friendly telecommunications suppliers. Here’s one that could well apply to any of the three.

Kim F
Vancouver

I’ve had really bad experiences with XXXX for customer service, mostly in terms of billing. I’ve been over billed based on the regular monthly rate vs. the “promotional” rate that I was promised when signing up for their services more than once. I’ve had multiple cell phones over the years and with XXXX it had happened twice. It’s not a big deal but straightening it out takes up my time and the agents are only so-so when it comes to knowing what they are doing.

There is lots of food for thought for Bell, Rogers and Telus in the comments if they are looking for ways to improve. Here’s just one that caught my eye.

Tim E

I had occasion last year to order some electronic parts on-line from Digi-Key, an American parts supplier. It was ten pm when I sent the order via Internet. Imagine my surprise when fifteen minutes later I had a call from a CSR who suggested a small change in my order that would save me a small bit of money.

The rep then said that they would process the order and ship it right out. What did “right out” mean? I received the order from them the next afternoon. (This from a company across the border) With service like that, its no wonder they claim to have grown their business by taking good care of customers. If only one company of the big three (Telus, Bell, Rogers) would figure this out, they would smash the competition.

Isn’t that so true? The three of them are like the razor blade suppliers. They give you the razor for free and make their money in selling you expensive razor blades. The zinger in the cell phone case is that the packages in all cases are incredibly complex. Often different agents will give you different interpretations of what particular packages include. It’s really very disappointing from companies that are technically very expert.

Much of the customer dissatisfaction comes from those complex rate packages. That Tim E story suggests a way they can really be seen to be helping their customers. Their computers contain all the details of each customer’s calling experience. It would be no great computing feat to calculate each month which package would have best met the customer’s calling needs. In other words, what would have been the cheapest package given the calls the client made? If this was say 50% less than the actual bill, as can easily happen, then the client would receive an e-mail message pointing this out. The client could then choose for the future to adopt a different plan. Of course they would get less money from that particular customer but in essence the existing contract was a gotcha. How much better to create customer goodwill than to create resentment when the customer eventually realizes they have been hand.

The idea is offered freely to Bell, Rogers and Telus. If one of them should pick it up, then I’m sure the other two would match the action within days. It’s that kind of approach that will help to move the three of them from the bottom of the league on customer service.

Related:
Customer Service From Telecommunications Companies
Your Call Is Important To Us – Roberto Rocha
Bell Canada Website User Experience

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Customer Complaints – Are They Worth It?

Your Call is important to us!

Is it worth complaining? As Donna Swain recounted in a discussion on the Cre8asite Forums, an online retail company lost a sale and didn’t even want to know why. Others had had similar experiences and it was suggested that it’s all a wasted effort. Perhaps the most effective way to get your message across is to blog about it.

That’s all very unfortunate. Indeed any successful company should be asking that question in the title. Their answer should be an emphatic yes. Sometimes the non-complainers are equally dissatisfied but never bother to send word. If you’re looking for ways to improve then those complainers are like gold. They are particularly important because at least they wanted to be customers. As Brendon Sinclair put it, Learn to Love Complaining Clients.

Happily the Internet is levelling the playing field. Consumers have a greater voice. That’s why it’s perhaps less surprising now to see a headline like Will Customer Complaints Bring Call Centers Back to the US? If our call is important to them, then it should be handled in the best possible way. Perhaps the message is getting through.

The study found that customers who believed they were dealing with a call center outside the United States rated their overall satisfaction 26 points lower than those who believed the center was U.S.-based. In addition, callers to foreign centers were almost twice as likely to sever business relations with the company.

Related: Your Call Is Important To Us

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Your Call Is Important To Us – Roberto Rocha

The Crowdsourcing project on Customer Service that Roberto Rocha has been conducting for the Montreal Gazette on his Technocit? blog has now run its course. Crowdsourcing is finding increasing favour and you can get an idea of the range of crowdsourcing projects at the Openeur website. Crowdsourcing has been defined as the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

Crowdsourcing only works if there is a crowd that wants to get involved. This project asked Canadians to help create a feature story on poor customer service. Since all of us are afflicted from time to time by that ironic putdown, Your call is important to us, the crowd on this one was guaranteed. The project mined a wealth of material. Here are some of the more important posts that came up:

What are the important insights that come from all that material? The most important is that customer service clearly does not get the attention that customers feel it should. It’s almost as if the words customer service mean different things to suppliers of services and to customers.

It’s the old now classical distinction between being product-driven and customer-centric. In March 2000, Harvey Thompson of IBM published a book, “The Customer-centered enterprise, How IBM and other world-class companies achieve extraordinary results by putting customers first”. It would appear the message has not got through. Many banks and telecoms attempt to develop the very best products for their clients. They presumably feel that the products are so good that clients should be able to use them without needing any customer service. For that small fraction of customers who run into problems, they try to provide help in the most economic way. They do not regard the product/service package as what customers are paying for. Instead it would appear that customers pay for products and the cost of providing the customer service is assumed to reduce profits.

The Gazette Project shows that this way of thinking is not delivering what customers want. The advantage of adopting a customer-centric approach should hardly need proving now. There are many case studies to demonstrate this. Just compare the fortunes of WestJet and Air Canada if you’re not convinced. Let’s hope that the message that customers want customer service and are willing to pay for it gets through to the powers that be.

Related:
Customer Service From Telecommunications Companies
IVR (Intelligent Voice Response) Doesn?t Spell Frustration

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