What the IRS Knows About Service (and The Gap Doesn’t)

irs buildingA week ago, I thought the post office should be more like The Gap .

I’ve changed my mind. They should be more like… The IRS?!

I was at a Gap store on Sunday and it was mobbed. There was a long line for the dressing room, and once you got in, the staff was completely overwhelmed. There were only two people trying to manage what seemed like thousands of t-shirts, jeans, and skirts. The clothes were overflowing shelves, piled on top of racks, and falling on the floor.

I found a top I wanted to buy, and headed for the cash register. Again, there was a long line, with only 2 cashiers (out of 6 registers). I took one look and left without the top. Sorry Gap, no sale. While I’m sure that $14 more or less won’t make a significant impact on their bottom line, those lost sales do add up. I wonder how many other people abandoned their purchases that day?

Oddly, I did find a startling example of good service two days later… at the IRS. I wanted to check on my refund. They’ve got a site that gives you the estimated mail/transfer date, based on when you filed. Or, you can type in your Social Security or Tax ID number and get personal information! Wow! I’m impressed. If you want to check on your own refund, the site is here.

Photo: /functoruser

Are You Listening to Your Customers?

not listening

A recent survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp (Information Week, 4/15/09) found that 84% of Americans report that online feedback influences their buying decisions. However, only 28% of the survey respondents said they posted their own opinions.

This leads to two conclusions. First, a small minority of people may have an out-sized effect on ratings. And, secondly, if you’re a business, it’s important to monitor what people are saying about you and your products.

Five Ways to Listen Better

1) Develop big ears and start listening.

2) Set up Google Alerts to monitor mentions of your company.

3) Subscribe to blogs in your industry (use Google BlogSearch to find them). Read what the blogs say, and act on it. If the comments tell you something is wrong, fix it.

4) Monitor consumer sites such as Yelp!, The Consumerist, MeasuredUp , or sites in your industry that host reviews. Allow reviews on your own site too.

5) If you see someone with a problem, jump in and participate. Don’t yell and get defensive, try to address and solve the problem. You may not be able to please everyone, but you will be able to demonstrate that you’re truly concerned about your customers’ satisfaction.

Photo: anderson mancini

Do Your Customers Have to Jump Through Hoops?

flaming hoopSeveral years ago, I called Fidelity to make a transaction on one of my funds. I forgot my password, and after several attempts, the self-help system locked me out. So, I called again, to get a live person. The representative wanted me to confirm my identity by asking when I’d opened the account. I didn’t remember, but looked through my files and found the date. She said, “That’s wrong.” Huh? I had the papers in front of me: the letter from Fidelity, the interest statement attached to my tax return, it was clearly 2 years earlier, how could it be wrong? After 10 minutes of arguing and discussing, it turned out she meant not when I opened that fund account, but the date I opened my first ever account with Fidelity: about 15 years earlier! Who would remember that? Plus, it wasn’t clear that’s what she wanted.

The lesson? Check that your communication is clear. Look at your site, your brochure, your email, and make certain the readers can tell what you’re talking about, and navigate your site to find what they need.

Has anything like this happened to you? Share your stories of miscommunication.

Photo: bitterjug

Why Can’t the Post Office Be More Like The Gap?

stampsThere were 14 people in line at the post office Tuesday.  The branch near me has 10 windows, but only 5 of them were staffed.  It took me 25 minutes to get to the front, get my envelope weighed, and hand them my $1 postage.

The post office can operate like this because they have a semi-monopoly. There are other choices for packages and specialty shipping, but for ordinary mail and stamps, they’re pretty much it.

Now, imagine the post office worked like The Gap. There would be a floor manager with a headset. She’d direct people to the right line and offer assistance finding stamps or forms. If it got busy, she could call into the back room and get more clerks out to staff the windows. The line could move faster, customers could be helped more quickly, and waste less time standing in line.

Your business probably isn’t a monopoly, and it’s likely you don’t have the luxury of running it as if it is.  So, are you making it hard for your customers to buy your products? Is your staff helpful? Are you more like The Gap or more like the Post Office?

Photo: kevin dooley

Customer Service: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

How you treat your customers is an integral part of your business. Treat them badly, and they will leave. Treat them well and they’re your friends (and will tell their friends too).

Statistics show that unhappy customers tell 10 other people about their experience. They also show that it’s much cheaper to retain existing customers than to find new ones. This is particularly important in the current economic downturn.

So, here are some examples of what to do (and not do) when your customers have a problem.

The Good
(courtesy of Becky Blanton):
“I tried to renew my Writer’s Market membership online after it expired last week. The system was glitched and after 30 minutes of trying to renew I finally called customer service to do it over the phone.

Hours of operation are 9-5 and it was 4:52, so I fully expected to be placed on hold and then told they were closed for the day.

But – I got a great operator. She apologized, told me the site was experiencing some problems they expected to be resolved in a day or two, then renewed my account for a full month for free.

She said once the system was operational again I could renew then. They could have just said, “Wait,” but she said, “I know how important the site is to a writer so let me get you a free membership for the next 30 days until it’s fixed.” Better yet, when I got off of the phone it was 5:15 and not once did I feel rushed or pressured because it was “quitting time.” Yeah Writer’s Market!!!”

The Bad

Artistic representation of the Devil.

Last year, I started getting Prevention magazine. This puzzled me, since I hadn’t subscribed to it!

I called their customer service and was told that it was a gift subscription, from a company I’d never heard of. They gave me the name of the company and it turned out to be a distribution and fulfillment center in Colorado.

When I tried to call, I got a recording saying the number had been disconnected. So, back to Prevention I went. They said they couldn’t help me. So, they continue to send me an irrelevant, unwanted, and impersonal magazine that I don’t want, because their system won’t allow them to cancel the subscription!

When I got my copy of Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, there was a mailing label inside from a charity called Cell Phones for Soldiers. It said to send them old cell phones and they would forward them on to troops serving overseas, allowing them to call home.

I had a spare phone, so I put wrapped it up, put it in a box, and headed over to the post office on my way to a meeting. They wouldn’t take it. It wasn’t wrapped perfectly. So, I had to take everything out, throw the box away, and head to my meeting weighed down with two cell phones. Then, the next day, I had to go back (this time, with tape and a box, unwrapped) and redo it!

The Ugly
The New York Times (Nicholas Kristoff’s column 3/1/09) reported the story of a mother whose college-age daughter, Michelle, was sick (and eventually died) from colon cancer.

Her doctor told her to leave school, but the insurance company wouldn’t cover her unless she attended classes (this has since been changed). She stayed in school in order to keep coverage, while undergoing chemotherapy.

When her mom was dealing with the insurance companies, one executive “told her indignantly that the company had already paid out a lot of money for Michelle. She responded, ‘I would give my life for you not to have to pay one cent for my daughter.'”

Share your stories of customer service successes (and nightmares) here.

adselwood (angel)

wikipedia (devil)

gaeten lee (gargoyle)