Don't just solve Problems - Preempt them!

Most business owners are guilty of group –think when it comes to customer service. Most believe that if we (or our employees) can be courteous, responsive, helpful and meet a customer need quickly, then we’ve excelled at the art of customer service. Surely our ability to resolve a customer problem quickly and completely is at the core of great customer service.

But that thinking traps us. It causes us to equate resolving problems with building a stronger customer relationship because we’ve demonstrated to the customer that we can be counted on. It’s akin to patching a leak in an otherwise beautiful yacht. “Aye, Captain, she’s ready for sea again!” The reality is that solving today’s problem barely begins to repair the relationship, even if the experience is well-managed by the company. This is because most issues that customers have are violations of basic expectations about the product or service. And as I have written before (see “Amazing Your Customers – First Things First”), meeting basic expectations doesn’t create real customer satisfaction; it only prevents customer dissatisfaction.

In many service businesses, the goal is to resolve issues as quickly as possible (albeit completely) because the next issue is only moments away. And so customer service employees are trained to listen well, ask good questions, be empathetic, and take charge of the situation in order to speed resolution. It’s not uncommon for them to ask customers, “Have I resolved your issue today?” Employees value the “Yes” because it affirms that they’ve done what they’re paid to do and brings closure to the immediate issue.

But resolving today’s issue doesn’t always prevent future issues, either the same one (unfortunately this happens too often) or a related issue. Leading customer service companies are realizing that there are predictable patterns to customer complaints. For example, analysis of customer complaints may show that when customers have problem “A”, 40% of them will also experience problem “B”. And if they have problem “B”, they will contact the company to get it resolved. When that time arrives, the customer will be annoyed and the company will have to incur the additional cost of servicing them a second time.

If we know this kind of pattern in advance, then we can proactively educate our customers about how to handle problem “B” should it arise. In industry lingo, this is known as “forward-resolving.” Since the customer is already engaged with someone from the company, extending the conversation a bit longer to prepare the customer to deal with problem “B” (for example, by showing them how to find a relevant FAQ on the company’s website) changes the dynamic of the entire customer experience. Such interactions position the customer service employee as a customer advocate, not merely as a technician who’s following a script. The avoidance of a future callback a) reduces the chance that the subsequent interaction might damage the relationship further; b) reduces the amount of effort customers have to expend dealing with the company; and c) gives the customer more control over their user experience.

The evidence is strong that customer loyalty is influenced much more by how customers feel they’ve been treated than by the reducing the amount of effort they have to expend in working with your company. According to research done by Matt Dixon of the Corporate Executive Board, the customer’s subjective impression of the experience is twice as powerful in creating loyalty as their perception of what they have to do to get their issues handled.

And yet, what do most companies do? They invest considerable time and resources in reducing customer effort (e.g., by providing multiple ways for customers to be served) while believing that good “soft skills” on the part of their customer service employees will cement a positive customer experience. But remember, that positive customer experience only brings that customer from a point of dissatisfaction to a neutral feeling about the company overall.

The key to building real loyalty lies in “forward-resolving” problems that customers aren’t even aware could become an issue. That’s your opportunity to demonstrate that you can anticipate needs and leverage your company into the world of delivering a truly superb customer experience.

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