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Empowering Customer Service Vital

It never fails to amaze me how many companies have employees who are empowered to offer former customers wonderful incentives to lure them back, yet their customer service representatives have the ability to offer virtually nothing to convince an unhappy customer to stay.

Powerless, these CSRs often actually ignore customers' requests and declarations of their intent to leave, even encouraging them to seek out another company!

They often repeat the few phrases they're allowed to say over and over again, further infuriating the customers.

I recently interviewed the CEO of a mattress company who told me that customer complaints never reach him because his employees are empowered to, within reason, give the customer what will keep him happy. His employees are happier too because they believe the company trusts them to make sound decision.

Sadly, that company is one-in-a-million today. If others would follow his example, there would a lot less need for those employees who call former customers because there would be far fewer former customers to begin with.

When I worked in fast food as a teenager, giving an unhappy customer a free apple turnover and having her leave happy was common place. Today, fast food employees, like others in customer service, are allowed to honor only coupons and deals for which there are pre-programmed keys on their registers.

It seems that companies today would rather lose loyal customers for life than allow their foot soldiers in customer service to toss them an apple pie.

Recently, we had just such as experience with our satellite dish company. After more than four years as a loyal, paying customer, we noticed a problem with our reception. We asked to have someone come take a look at it, and we were told it would be $100. That is the only option customer service was empowered to offer. We announced that we could get brand new satellite equipment for free from the company's competitor, and we were told to go ahead and switch, which we did.

After we switched, the first company called to ask why we left, and we told our story. The employee agreed that "after four years, we should have fixed it for free." Too late. We've signed a new one-year agreement and we couldn't be happier with our new, free digital video recorder.

On the flip side, we have no unresolved customer complaints at our business because, very simply, we do our best to keep our customers happy from the beginning. Sure, we make mistakes and we run out of things, but we always do what it takes to make things right, plus a little extra something for the customer. That attitude builds long-time, successful customer relationships. Here are some tips for empowering your customer service department:

1.) Depending on the nature of the complaint, arm your customer service employees with the ability to offer incentives to unhappy customers to encourage them not to leave. Allow them to offer at least half what the people who call former customers can offer.

For example, if you normally charge for a service call, but you're facing the prospect of losing a 10-year customer, allow the customer service representative to offer half off.

2.) If your company screwed up, and your customer calls you on it, allow your customer service people to admit that a mistake was made, apologize and offer something to make up for it ? a free month of service, a coupon for a discount on a future order.

Nothing is more aggravating than having someone apologize without admitting any wrong doing (i.e. "I'm sorry you feel that way." Or "I'm sorry you're upset about that.") Let them say, "I'm sorry, we were wrong. What can we do to make it up to you?" What ever happened to the motto "The customer is always right"?

3.) Toss the scripts. Giving customer service people lists of things to say to unhappy customers turns your people into nothing more than robots. With today's voice recognition technology, you may as well use an automated response system.

Train your customer service people how to act like human beings. Provide them with the kind of conflict-resolution training they need to turn unhappy customers into people who at least believe your company cares about their problem and wants to help them.

4.) Offer incentives to customer service people who retain unhappy customers.

For example, tape your calls, and once a month give an award to the customer service representative who does the best job turning angry customers into happy ones.

5.) Don't' wait for the customer to insist on speaking to a manager. If the customer service representative's authority to offer a solution is not enough to retain the customer, it should be SOP for the representative to request time to consult a supervisor and possibly bring them into the discussion.

Anne Brady is a freelance editor and writer with more than 20 years writing experience who, while working for Dow Jones Newswires, was frequently published by the Wall Street Journal. She and her husband own Brady's Homebrew (http://www.bradyshomebrew.com), which sells home beer brewing and wine making equipment and supplies.

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