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Customer Service 101: How to Communicate Effectively, Professionally

Customer Service 101: How to Communicate Effectively, Professionally
Jerry Brigham

Treat people how you want to be treated and be kind — no matter what. These are the two most basic rules of good customer service, but there’s so much more to read between the lines. There are quite a few nuances that expand on these concepts and can help us understand how best to handle one of the most important parts of our business: customers.

The customer is always right, right?

Treat people how you want to be treated and be kind — no matter what.

Not always. I believe that the customer is not always right, but they will always win. This is the cornerstone of how I operate all of my departments; we ensure that every customer is taken care of and ensure that, regardless of the situation, we will always work to find a mutually beneficial answer to any issue. I teach my employees that sometimes it is better to give in and help the customer despite the revenue loss because the customer experience is more important — and they will always remember that. Customers will keep coming back when they feel like they have been well taken care of. Sometimes you have to lose in the short term to gain long-term rewards.

In the larger scope of business, being “right” doesn't really matter, anyhow; when we get wrapped up in the right/wrong continuum, we lose focus on solving the issue at hand. Drop the need to feel right all the time and let go of any emotional knee-jerk reactions that might come along with it. These things simply get in the way; they solve nothing and, more importantly, sell nothing.

Showing others how right you are is an issue of self-validation, which isn't what business is about. Your goal should always be leaving your customers feeling content and taken care of by focusing on creating as-positive-as-possible outcomes. The customer may not be technically correct, but assuring they receive respectful and supportive treatment allows us all to “win” in the end. Focus on cultivating the best mutually beneficial situations for you and your customers.

It’s the little things.

Unless you’ve secured an exclusive, there’s a good chance that your competitors stock the same or similar items as you do. Your customers have choices and if they’ve chosen to work with you, give them reason to stick around. Distinguish yourself from the rest and be a little “extra” with your loyal customers.

The easiest tweak is with your attitude. Maintain a strong, confident and caring phone presence, even if you’re having a rough day — always answer the phone with a bright (even happy) voice no matter what happened just before you picked up the phone. Anger and irritation won’t sell a product and certainly won’t keep customers coming back. This kind of demeanor is especially important for brick and mortar stores or at trade shows where you’re meeting customers in person. Even something as simple as a smile, matched with a helpful attitude, can make a significant positive impact.

During the sales process, whether via email, phone or in-person meetings, make your customer feel supported every step of the way. Take care of minor details on their behalf: if there are forms that can be pre-filled for them, handle it; anticipate their questions and be especially careful of tone when responding to concerns; if you’re meeting face-to-face, bring water or snacks along and offer some up before getting down to business. Most importantly, let your customers know how they will continue to be supported long after the deal is made, whether that be through access to marketing materials, displays and signage, written materials to help train sales reps, or other helpful tools that ultimately benefit your customers’ bottom lines.

Yes, money also talks. Customers love discounts and they love discounts-on-discounts even more. Whenever it’s possible to incentivize a little more — whether through an extra 5 percent off or throwing in a free tester unit — do it; your customers will remember what you made happen. And, of course, if and when necessary, combat potential “gimme gimmes” by setting professional and polite boundaries.

And in my mind, most importantly, always follow up. Respond to every email and phone call. Answer every question asked. If you had to research an issue, respond as quickly as possible to the person you are assisting. This expresses how important each customer is to your business. It also speaks to your business’s character and how much you respect your customers and their needs.

Manage conflict.

You won’t always be able to give the customer exactly what they want; however, you can make refusals easier to swallow. Counter negatives with positives: “I am unable to give you an additional discount off this order, but you’ll be first to know when the new items arrive” and follow through with that promise. Keep an eye on your customers’ buying patterns, too; you may find a way they can save money elsewhere without negatively impacting your bottom line. For example, have they been steadily ordering 3,000 units every few months? Suggest they make a one-time 10,000+ unit order in order to benefit from the bonuses that come with such a large buy-in, whether that be a greater discount or the addition of displays, signage, or freebies that often get thrown in.

Conflict resolution is best accomplished when all parties involved have had a moment to calm down and check their emotional state. If anyone is feeling hot or activated about a situation, no matter what it is, they should take a moment before re-establishing communication. Walk away for a minute. Never let business get ruined or relationships damaged due to temper. Mindfulness isn’t just for meditation instructors and yoga people — taking a breath and checking in can be an incredibly effective in any industry.

This feels like the ideal time to mention email communication: emotions, tone and intention are literally impossible to include into written communication. That means jokes often land flat and sarcasm can read as hostility. I train my employees to always be professional with their communication, both inside as well as outside the company. Despite the communication received from other parties, it is always in our own best interests to ensure that our communication with others is fair, impartial, meaningful and professional.

When navigating tense situations via email, ask at least one coworker (whom you trust) to read what you wrote before clicking “send.” Feel free to ask three coworkers; assuring your emails are void of anger, frustration, or other telltale emotions — inadvertent or intentional — that can lose a deal will allow you click “send” with confidence. And while we’re on the subject, don’t ever underestimate the power of brevity and how easy it can be to confuse brevity for terseness.

Facilitate clear communication.

When speaking with customers, especially when discussing deals or other business, ask clarifying questions anytime something seems unclear. Even if you’re nervous that it’s a “stupid question,” do it anyway; guessing and making assumptions can negatively impact you in the long run and there’s a good chance your customer will appreciate the fact that you want to make sure you get it right. Making helpful suggestions (never judgments) and thoroughly reviewing all options together is important, too; customers need all of the pertinent details so they can make an informed buying decision.

Following discussion, get all action items and agreements in writing. This eliminates grey areas and reduces the risk of misunderstandings. Verbal sales pitches can be pretty persuasive, so getting details in writing following the conversation can keep things clear and, in the chance confusion results in legal discourse, having these pieces of information on paper lets you and your team depend on and refer to facts instead of memories.

Timely responses and follow-through also are imperative when it comes to strong customer communication. People are forgetful by nature — which means that if you don’t complete a task the first instant you’re able, you’re more likely to never complete it all (and frustrate a customer or two). Limit forgetfulness and procrastination by resolving issues right away and, if that's not possible, write them down and take care of them as soon as you can. Make priorities and stick to them; set yourself deadlines, if it helps. However you do it, your customers will appreciate your timeliness and attention to detail.

Use common sense.

The most important piece of advice I’ve received is: Be willing and able to accept that no one is perfect — not even yourself. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s human nature. What makes us good people (and great salespeople) is owning our errors and, if a customer is at fault, don’t hold it over their head. Treat people how you want to be treated, remember?

Ask questions like, “What can we do?” or “What do you need?” and help your customer feel like a valued friend, which often includes getting to know them (even just a little) on a personal level. Learn their names and a fact or two — where are they from? What do they do for fun? This is important when working with people of all corporate levels: CEOs, supervisors, buyers, and admin assistants alike. Everyone is working together as a team and plays an important role in our ultimate success, which means all staff members deserve to be shown the same level of respect and care.

When it comes to providing excellent customer service, listening to and communicating with the customer is half the battle. Find out specifically what they need and, if they have an issue, work to resolve it. If that’s not an option, be honest and explain why you are unable to. Most importantly, always be on the lookout for when you can turn lemons into lemonade; win/win situations should be your ultimate goal, and consistent excellent customer service leaves a lasting impression in a competitive industry.

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