10 Steps To Great Service

June, 2003

On his ninth birthday, Makua Kalama celebrated with family and friends at California Pizza Kitchen in Ala Moana Shopping Center. Engrossed in his chocolate sundae, Kalama thought the night couldn’t get any better. That is, until he was approached by an employee from Jungle Fun, an arcade on the ground floor. “Hi, I hear you’re having a birthday,” the employee said. Perplexed, Kalama nodded. “Well we’ve got some complimentary birthday tokens for you, and would really like it if you and your friends would come down and join us for some fun after dinner.” The boy’s face lit up.

It turns out an off-duty Jungle Fun manager was also dining at CPK that night. He noticed Kalama enjoying his birthday celebration, and phoned his employee to bring up some tokens. The next day, Kalama shared the incident with all of his friends, and now, whenever he visits Ala Moana, he always drops by the arcade for a few games. The small, thoughtful gesture didn’t cost Jungle Fun much, but it paid off in a new, loyal customer and the best kind of advertising – word of mouth. Small things mean a great deal to customers. But going the extra mile is just one of many ways to build lasting customer relationships. Here are 10 simple steps that will lead your company to superior service.

1 INVEST IN YOUR EMPLOYEES 

Competition is fierce for Big City Diner’s coveted employee of the year award. And it isn’t because the winner receives a $500 shopping spree at Costco. It’s because there are so many deserving staffers in contention. “We really do have some of the best employees around,” says co-owner Lane Muraoka, like a proud father. But if Big City service is first-rate, it’s mainly because Muraoka and partner Rob Nitta lead by example.

The duo treats their employees the way they expect customers to be treated – like family. It begins with the hiring process. They never hire wait help, only food runners, hostesses and bussers, who are all expected to learn one another’s roles – just like siblings. “It helps them build compassion and empathy for each other’s positions,” says Muraoka. “Because you can’t have even one person thinking, ‘It ain’t my table, so it’s not my responsibility.’”

He and Nitta also spend time teaching employees the importance of good service. “Food service used to be a profession. Now it’s usually just a second job, or a means to get someone through school,” says Muraoka. “So we really try to instill the commitment and understanding of what it means to be in a service position.”

As a result, Big City boasts an incredibly low turnover rate of around 5 percent. The company’s repeat business is impressive as well, at 80 percent to 90 percent. “Customers keep coming back, because they’re treated like family. They know the waiter already knows where they want to sit, or what beer they want and even what their kids’ names are,” says Muraoka. “Our guests are always smiling and telling us how happy our employees make them.” Muraoka and Nitta know it’s those smiles and compliments that are the real prize for Big City’s employee of the year. The shopping spree is just gravy.

2 BE AVAILABLE

Don’t make yourself scarce. Good customer service means being available whenever and however customers want to reach you – be it online, over the phone or in person. Take Pizza Hut, for example. It has one statewide number, online delivery options and convenient carryout locations. You can even order through your television if you’ve got digital cable.

Maybe you’re already halfway there yourself, with an adequate sales- and phone-support staff and a decent Web site. The problem is, decent isn’t good enough anymore. When consumers shop online, they expect quality virtual service and they’ll retaliate if they don’t get it: 70 percent of consumers would respond to a dissatisfying online experience by spending less at a retailer’s brick-and-mortar store. Beef up your Web site with electronic payment options, bill summaries and easy-to-find contact information.

Conventional consumers, who prefer face-to-face and phone interactions, deserve the same attention. Brian Malecek, president of Expanets of Hawaii Inc., a telecommunication company, knows that his customers need immediate access to the service department 24/7. That’s why Expanets guarantees quick responses. During business hours the company’s response time is no more than 15 minutes. “After hours, calls are routed through an automated phone system, which pages the on-call technician. If the tech doesn’t respond, the system rings other technicians until someone calls in,” says Malecek. “We see to it that our customers are able to track us down, because our livelihood depends on theirs.” Your business may not call for round-the-clock service hours or on-call technicians, but be sure to find a delicate balance for your specific clientele, and make it as easy for them as ordering a pizza.3 DON’T JUST MEET CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS, EXCEED THEM

Patrons of Alaka‘i Floral Creations never have to worry about missing holidays, anniversaries or loved ones’ birthdays. That’s because storeowner Janice Pearson remembers for them. “We call and say, ‘You sent these types of flowers to this person last year, would you like to place a similar order this year?’ and usually, the senders are very appreciative that we remembered.” How appreciative? The store averages nearly a 75 percent response rate on its reminder calls. “Customers can get whatever they want anywhere, but if you extend a little bit more of yourself, it makes them feel special and they’ll come back to you,” says Pearson.

Brad Harris, division manager of C.S. Wo Gallery, whose company shares a fondness for flowers, agrees. “We have a red-rose program in which customers receive a rose with the delivery of their furniture. It’s not complex, it’s just an extra little touch,” he says. C.S. Wo prides itself on going the extra mile for its customers. Upon entry, customers are greeted with coffee, bottled water and fresh-baked cookies. They’re also given a narrow half-hour window to expect the driver – as opposed to the usual eight-hour timeframe given by telephone and cable companies. These small touches prove that good service doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. It just needs to wow the customer.

4 FIND OUT WHAT CUSTOMERS WANT, THEN GIVE IT TO THEM

When Bank of Hawaii launched its “Tell Mike” campaign in the spring of 2001, inviting customers to send feedback directly to Chief Executive Officer Mike O’Neill, the company was inundated with replies. O’Neill received 4,500 customer comments in the first three months alone, including some complaints. This pleased Vice Chairman of Retail Banking Dave Thomas to no end. “The fact that the customers took the opportunity to let us know how they felt about various things allowed us to react to their concerns,” he says.

Complaints ran the gamut from dissatisfaction with branch services to criticism of unknowledgeable staffers. Responding immediately, the bank hired 60 employees, instituted concierges at its larger branches and implemented a “rapid response” guarantee. The company also began a dedicated teller school for new employees, and launched an “excellence in sales and service” program. Now Bankoh’s customers are as quick to applaud the improvements, as they were to grumble. Thomas says ratings in such key areas as service, product knowledge, speed and efficiency have improved by 10 percent, according to customer surveys. Without asking, the bank might have never known what it was doing wrong or right.

5 PRACTICE GOOD PHONE TECHNIQUES

You may think good phone skills are only for receptionists. Wrong. Every employee answering a phone, whether a customer service agent or the company president, needs to make sure that everyone who calls gets treated right, and not like an annoyance or interruption. Because every year, sour attitudes cost U.S. companies $1.6 billion in lost revenues, according to Datamonitor Inc.

To prevent losses at your company, Hawaii Call Center Association President Kevin Johnson says, “Start by hiring the right people. They need to be polite, well-mannered and have the ability to manage conflict. But most importantly, they’ve got to be empathetic. We all want to feel like the person we’re talking to wants to help us.”

He suggests taking a “soft skills” phone-training course, such as the one offered at Honolulu Community College. HCC’s Telephone Customer Service course teaches proper phone etiquette, including mental multitasking, data entry accuracy, conflict resolution and effective listening.

“Once you move beyond the basics, learn to listen for opportunities to upgrade or cross-sell. Customer service today is so aligned with sales that there’s always an opportunity,” says Johnson. “Train yourself to think, ‘How can I identify an unmet need and resolve it with one of our products or services to help their original problem?’ For example, if a bank customer calls because he’s bounced a check, you offer him overdraft protection. Is that selling? No, it’s helping.”

6 EMPOWER YOUR EMPLOYEES

Nothing frustrates a customer more than being put on hold, told to call back or being transferred from person to person, while an employee tries to pawn them off on someone else. So why not empower the first person the customer encounters – the front line employee – to resolve the problem? “If you give employees the authority to take care of the customer, nine out of 10 times you’ll save the customer valuable time and aggravation,” says Tom Luiz, co-store manager of Home Depot-Iwilei.

All of Home Depot’s employees are authorized to mark down prices, accept returns and match competitor prices – without seeking manager consent. Further, the store’s help line is printed on all of its receipts, and a sign in the store displays a number that customers can call to have their complaints routed directly to management. Luiz says average ticket sales jumped 3 percent last year as a result of the company’s commitment to immediate restitution.

“The employees may be cautious at first, because they’re not used to having power,” warns Luiz. “But that will definitely change once they realize they have the authority to make decisions that make customers happy.”7 BUILD RELATIONSHIPS FIRST, SALES WILL FOLLOW

In 2005, U.S. companies will spend $30.6 billion on “customer relationship management” software and initiatives. However, before companies can manage a relationship, they must first build it. Here’s where the aloha spirit comes in. “We do have service training programs, and I could probably say, ‘Yeah, there are a lot of steps,’ but, really, it’s not rocket science,” says Andrew Chun, marketing director of Big Island-based KTA supermarket, where the majority of shoppers are repeat customers. “A lot of it is just teaching your employees to treat customers like family. It’s like when aunty comes over and you ask, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ It comes from the heart.”

Dwayne Chung, sales representative at Pets Unlimited in Kalihi, says many salespeople view customers solely as opportunities to make money. He has a highly contradictory approach. Chung befriends every customer who walks through the door, probing for information to better serve the customer’s needs, not to push products.

He gives discounts and freebies to loyal customers, and if he recognizes a customers’ preference for fishes, he’ll hold some of the better breeds on the side and give them first crack at a purchase. “Some salespeople are so robotic. ‘Hi, bye, aloha. Whatever.’ I like to talk story, find out all the scoops,” says Chung. “That’s the local way, and I think if you’re more like a friend, they’ll come back more and end up buying more anyway.”

8 RENOVATE YOUR ESTABLISHMENT

Most people wouldn’t think to include physical renovations in their efforts to improve service. However, giving your brick-and-mortar institution a makeover can save the customer time, boost morale and increase sales. The way a tux on a maitre d’ tells customers that they’re special – worth the time and trouble of spiffing up.

Sears-Ala Moana is a testament to that. Last year, the store underwent a major face-lift to make it more shopper-friendly. “We wanted to make the store more efficient and inviting for customers,” says general manager Gill Berger. So walls came down, merchandise was moved for better visibility, aisles were widened and cash registers were clustered together for faster checkouts. Customers responded loudly with their wallets. Average ticket prices jumped, and overall sales increased by almost 10 percent following the $8 million renovation.

The Renaissance Ilikai Waikiki Hotel also reaped decent returns on its $27 million renovation in 2001. Guest satisfaction improved, and occupancy rates increased 20 percentage points following the revamp. While the increase can’t be solely attributed to the renovation, Ilikai Director of Rooms, Sandy Kinoshita, says it sure did help. “Physical improvements better the quality of your service, because they make the employee proud to be there,” she says. “But it also makes the guest want to come back.”9 MAINTAIN POISE UNDER FIRE

Complaining customers will generally give you one chance to make things right. Don’t blow it. Try cooling down a touchy situation by applying a little HEAT: Hear them out, Empathize, Apologize and Take responsibility. Don’t get defensive or take it personally. Instead, keep your cool and ask, “What can I do to make it right?” If the customer’s requests are unreasonable, state what you can do, rather than what you can’t. Customers don’t like the word “No.” And under no circumstances should you begin quarreling.

“Employees take it personally and start arguing with complaining customers. They wind up adding gasoline to the fire, when, really, it’s a rare opportunity for them to see where they can improve,” says Ron Martin, who does sales and customer service training. “Most customers would just walk out and tell others about the poor service they got. So when a customer takes the time and effort to complain, they’ve given you a wonderful gift to make it right, and it should be seen as such.”

The same applies to B2B relationships. In the early ’80s, Campbell Estate cancelled a lucrative contract with Xerox Hawaii over repeated poor service issues. Campbell Estate executives challenged the company to adopt a more customer-centric approach. Instead of giving up, Xerox complied and after a decade, regained Campbell Estate’s business. Ideally, it won’t take 10 years to complete restitution, but Xerox is proof that it’s possible to win dissatisfied customers back by utilizing simple conflict-resolution skills.

10 NEVER SETTLE

To keep your competitive edge, you must constantly upgrade the quality of your service so that competitors don’t pass you by. No matter how well you think you’re doing, be perpetually dissatisfied.

Ever since HawaiiUSA Federal Credit Union implemented its customer service program six years ago, surveys have shown that customer satisfaction has steadily improved. At last count, in 2002, responses ranged “from very good to outstanding from 90 percent to 95 percent of our respondents,” according to Karl Yoneshige, the credit union’s president and chief executive officer. Instead of rejoicing, the company began a new “Service Plus” program to improve customer response time, enhance employee training and reduce lines at its branches. “Our surveys were encouraging, but it was no reason to be complacent,” says Yoneshige.

C.S. Wo Gallery has a similar theory. Manager Brad Harris says the company constantly tweaks its service program, regardless of how many compliments it receives. “Once we think we’ve got it figured out, we sit down and figure it out again, because the environment is always changing,” he says. “The minute you feel like you’ve arrived is the minute you need to start worrying.”

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