With unemployment rates as low as 3.1% in some areas of the country, finding quality customer service people has become an incredible challenge for operators and business owners everywhere. According to the Los Angeles Times, the American Customer Satisfaction’s Index of consumer happiness, which ranks moods on a scale of 1 to 100, has slid from 77.0 in the 1st Quarter of 2017, to 76.7 at present – the longest period of stagnation since 1993.

Have you experienced the three types of horrible customer service, as I have in just the last 30 days?

Inconsistent Customer Service – At a trip to Eataly in Century City, a multi-level marvel of Italian dining and groceries, an unfriendly bartender basically ignored my party until I finally got up, walked around the bar and asked for service after repeated attempts to get his attention. There were only three of us dining at the bar! Later, another employee gave us incredible service, going out of his way to help us find a specific item and pointed out other products that we might like. Is it possible that both employees experienced the same training program?

Ambivalent Customer Service – I walked into Macy’s to buy a premium pair of walking shoes - $165 retail. When I approached the lone employee in the department, she simply pointed to the walking shoe section and said, “They might be over there.”

Inflexible Customer Service – On my way to visit my son, I decided to help him out by picking up a cable box he needed at Spectrum Cable – only to be told that he alone could pick up the equipment, even though I had him on the phone and he verified his identity by giving his social security number. “I’m sorry – that this the policy,” said the rep. Ultimately, after requesting a supervisor, they turned the cable box over to me. “He just isn’t trained to come up with solutions,” said the supervisor.

Manage the decline – or take steps to elevate service?

Here is the challenging question for management: Do we simply throw our hands up in frustration and blame the thin pool of qualified applicants – just manage the decline and accept the fact that customer service will be mediocre at best, or do we take steps to elevate customer service?

I would suggest that we need to do a little of both. Today, we may not be able to employ as many high-quality customer service reps as we would like to have on board. At the same time, when you have some experienced and high-quality customer service reps on your team, you better take steps to maximize their happiness and performance.

My company was fortunate to have talented people in the client services role. Looking back, we made some mistakes in managing that team. The biggest mistake – giving them an unmanageable workload – a situation that can be even more relevant today in a thinner workforce. Another error – believing that even the most difficult client can be brought around. This type of thinking results in stress and an excessive amount of wasted time dealing with people who were simply impossible to satisfy.

Fortunately, we did many things the right way – which translated to tremendous success for the customer service reps and for our company.

Ten ways to maximize customer service performance

1. Make superior customer service a top to bottom companywide commitment – from the CEO to the pot washer.

2. Give customer service reps a clear understanding of the customer service objective. Is it to retain business or upsell? A combination of the two works nicely.

3. Show appreciation for top customer service reps by compensating them properly and heaping praise when a project or initiative is successful.

4. Provide small but consistent monetary rewards for upselling and account retention.

5. Deliver regular, ongoing training - backed by strong internal communication. When there is a client crisis, bring management experience in to support and advise.

6. Provide Management Oversight - Are the red flag situations being resolved? Are we connecting with enough people? Do the reps understand that the best clients deserve special attention? Use client management software that helps them be organized, but not overwhelmed. Is a chronically unhappy client worth the effort? Sometimes, it is best to “cut bait.”

7. Give customer service reps the opportunity to see clients armed with performance evaluation forms. Help them identify small problems before they become significant issues.

8. Use digital newsletters and social media to engage clients. It is worth the effort.

9. Make sure that customer service reps are spending enough time with the more difficult clients. There is a tendency in customer service to gravitate to the happy clients only and ignore the more challenging or unpleasant location contacts.

10. Focus on follow up. Define the time frame parameters of what is expected from a customer service representative. Within 24 hours? Same day? Make it a rule and stick with it.

“Looks like your oil is down a quart, Mr. Jones.”

Somewhere along the way in our society, we decided that customer service wasn’t that important anymore. There was a day when self service gas pumps did not exist. Everything at the “service station” was full service. The uniformed employee pumped your gas, checked your oil, checked your tire pressure and washed your windows. The thinking was simple - customer service was paramount. Plus, that customer contact created a great upsell opportunity. “Looks like your oil is down a quart, Mr. Jones.”

So, you think that old concept is archaic? Look what is happening today at some forward-thinking companies.

  • Doctors in places like Florida are offering concierge service. Pay $2500 plus your insurance and enjoy the convenience of having your doctor’s cell phone number.
  • Grocery delivery is a favorite of many consumers. You pay more, but you never have to navigate a shopping cart again.
  • Google Search Engine Advertising – It used to be impossible to speak to anyone at Google. Today, they are knocking down your door with monthly “search engine optimization” phone calls. Reminds me of, “Looks like your oil is down a quart, Mr. Jones.”

Certain businesses and consumers are willing to pay for exceptional service. Exceptional service creates business opportunity. It is a selling point that is being overlooked because automated solutions are so much easier and so cost efficient. Do not assume (especially in the B2B space) that everyone wants to “do it themselves,” figure out solutions on their own by checking “FAQ” or never speak to a live operator.

Today – Great service exceeds expectations

I know that the trend in the office services industry is to let the customer order online and then deliver their order. While it saves on labor, it is costing the refreshment industry millions of dollars in lost sales every year. As a former operator, the concept of inventory control, creating an order onsite (not online) and stocking the client’s cabinets had a clear effect on most clients – they were stunned and spoiled. For those who understood the value of service, price was not the major issue.

While experts can provide long lists of customer service tips, the goal to provide exceptional service – even for an additional cost – is attainable. Any company that makes exceptional service a priority and combines that mindset with real internal oversight will enjoy a huge competitive advantage. Today, exceptional service, by itself, exceeds client expectations. Make the commitment to exceptional service and watch your sales and client list grow.