Help.com recently had a chance to catch up with Micah Solomon. Micah is a best selling author, Forbes contributor, customer service speaker, and consultant, who has been leading the charge in improving customer service for the last twenty years.
Graham: What prompted your interest in customer service?
Micah: Throughout my career as an entrepreneur, I always managed to stay out of all commodity-pricing situations by making customer service and the customer experience differentiating factors. I then started to share this expertise with other companies in a wide variety of fields, through keynote speaking, consulting, and my books.
Graham: I was reading a 2010 interview with you where you brought up Netflix and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago as examples of great customer service. In the same interview, you also brought up creative ways to limit employee-to-employee handoff between interactions. What’s a company that has successfully delivered great customer service while limiting the number of reps involved in solving a problem? How can customer service teams emulate them?
Micah: USAA is quite good at this for its customers (whom they call “members”). Any USAA representative you work with has all of the information from all different departments, and, to whatever extent it’s practical, from the opposing insurance company as well, at her fingertips. She rarely needs to send you to someone else in the company to get anything resolved.
I think this is by and large an excellent approach. There are exceptions in some more technical fields, however, where a translated version of what the technical people have said ends up being diluted and confusing.
This is one of the reasons that Google’s new approach to customer service is working: they have true specialists on the phone, on their live chat, and now on video calls, because by and large that's who a customer will need to work with to resolve anything that comes up.
Graham: What customer service channel, or channels, do you see being key in the next few years? Related to the last question, phone is tough from an efficiency perspective.
Micah: Me, I like the telephone. I think that it’s ideal if customers don’t have to call you a lot, but for the few times they do connect with you on the phone, they get a really good feel for your company. It can make all the difference in your relationship with the customers.
All of the channels are important: mobile, email, and so forth. I do see more and more “real time” solutions being valuable because they get rid of the whole “please provide me with some information and I’ll get back to you in a while… oops, you left out this piece of information and now I need to ask you for it and then make you wait even longer” cycle.
So real time solutions can be telephone and in person, of course (and don’t discount this, Apple is going great guns with their in-person customer service), but also live chat and video chat.
Graham: For a company that’s based primarily online (web services, e-commerce, etc.), what are the keys to delivering a great customer service experience? What’s an example of such a company?
Micah: There are a lot of things that are important. I think your question is really about how it is different than for a company that also has an important physical presence. I think the difference for the two is that you may want to exaggerate, overemphasize the humanity in everything you do in the e-commerce company so that customers understand that you’re real people. As far as other keys, anticipatory service, accuracy, ease of use, an effective problem resolution/client recovery process are all critical.
Graham: Speaking of that, you talk regularly about building anticipation into products and services. With hospitality, it’s fairly clear how that can be done, even a company like Headsets.com, where they put Tootsie Rolls in every box they ship, has a clear path. What can a company selling software do to build anticipation into their product?
Micah: I think anticipatory customer service applies very well in the idea of software. Most important will be technical anticipation: ensuring that customers get a needed update before they have to ask for it, and so forth.
Graham: What metrics are worth tracking for customer service teams? A bunch of customer service leads are reading this article. What would you tell them they need to track and how would you tell them to do it?
Micah: The biggest problem with metrics is if you focus too much on the wrong, or even an only halfway right one it can send you down the wrong path. So let me turn this question on its head and warn you about this instead: If you have the metric - and it’s a good one, more or less - of striving to have 80% of your calls answered in 20 seconds or less, that’s okay, but it’s not the most important thing.
The most important things to track are - did the call resolve the customer’s issue and – did the customer like the resolution? If you start to think this way, you realize that sometimes it’s okay to not rush to fill an unfilled seat if it means you’re filling it with someone not fully qualified, because the extra few seconds on the phone (temporarily) are worthit to exclusively have great people on the phone with your customers.
Graham: From an organizational standpoint, how can marketing, sales, and customer service work together to create a culture that ensures great customer service? It seems that the incentives don’t always align at some companies.
Micah: Well, the start to creating a great service culture is that someone at a very high level in an organization needs to make a decision to create that culture, lay it out in a very, very simple framework, and then work on integrating it into everything the company does – including, as you mention, incentives, but also hiring and personnel practices.
Graham: You’re one of the foremost customer service experts in the industry. What are three businesses that consistently get your money, and what about their customer service has earned that loyalty from you?
Micah: That’s a fun question.
Graham: What’s the biggest lesson you try to impart to the various companies and teams you speak to? Why is it so key in your mind?
Micah: Of course there are many that I address, but I think one important one is that the customer is at the center of the customer’s universe. It’s so easy to not meet customers where they actually are, to try to make them into someone they’re not, or are not at the moment you’re interacting with them.
It’s also easy along the same lines to try to give such fabulous service in such an obvious way that you’re actually interfering with, rather than being a stage for, their relationships with others in their lives. This also comes from not realizing that the world looks different to every customer, but always they are seeing it from their perspective, not yours.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Thoughts on the interview? Tell us in the comments or @helpdotcom.
Micah Solomon, customer service consultant, company culture expert, keynote speaker and bestselling author can be found at http://www.micahsolomon.com.