7 Steps to SMB Social Nirvana

When the team at The Social XChange pitches a client on how our company can help them successfully navigate the world of Social – the first question they skeptically ask is “why should we hire you?”  Now for anyone that has sold anything or attempted to win new clients, this is GO time.

To effectively close the deal you have to be ready with your best stuff – highlighting the processes used to construct a unique strategy for development, implementation and management of their Social presence.

Communicating the bottom line cost to the customer is also important, but we have found that smart business owners know if an easy to understand process is in place, the chances for success increase and they are less skeptical and more receptive to your services.

We have encountered quite a few small and medium businesses who truly want to believe they can handle everything “in house”.  In some cases this may be true, especially if the owner(s) are tech savvy or have prior marketing experience.  However, time is money and adding the equivalent of another 20-40 hours to their work week can be a game changer.

In order to quickly demonstrate the benefits of working with our team, we put together the “7 Steps to SMB Social Nirvana”.  The process has been specifically designed not only get a company off the ground but provide a road map for short and long-term ROI.

#1 – Define goals, benchmarks and direction.  The company needs a plan for who will update content, how much time will be spent on Social and how much new and repeat business can be generated from a formal strategy.  As for direction, do they want to generate leads, develop the company brand, improve customer service or simply provide information to customers?

#2 – Setup Social sites.  The Social XChange believes that companies should start with just a few sites – Facebook is an excellent first choice, Google + is another.  This will help “get their feet wet” in the short-term.  A dedicated website would come next, with Twitter, Pinterest, Linked In and other social sites to follow.  Less is more so a company does not get overwhelmed at the outset.

#3 – Develop a Social Calendar.  The successful business owner knows that planning ahead is critical to keeping their company profitable for the long-term.  Creating a Social calendar will help coordinate sales, holidays and special events with Social.  There are many excellent “ready to use” templates on the web – visit Social Media Today, Social Media Examiner or simply search for the best fit.

#4 – Own GEO.  If the company has a physical address that customers visit, GEO is normally already setup and simply needs to be owned and managed.  Facebook and Google places, as well as Foursquare can help get your business or location onto News Feeds when customer (or employees) “check in”.  Ensure each service is contacted to set up the “official” sites.

#5 – Monitor and manage consumer review pages.  Sites such as Yelp, City Advisor, Angie’s List and review pages from Google +, MSN and Yahoo are where your customers go to give a thumbs up or down, along with a detailed account of their experience.  You can own your “official” sites too – in order to respond to or assist customers who have had a poor experience.  Don’t forget your local BBB pages.

#6 – Publicize your Social Channels.  If you have a web presence, customers can find you simply by doing a quick browser search.  However, the key is to encourage engagement by creating a bond with everyone that comes through your door.  Signage, business cards, even flyers and receipts with Facebook, Google + or other social logos will prompt visits to your sites on the web.

#7 – Listen and Analyze.  There are some excellent tools available to monitor the web for mentions of the business, free Google Alerts can be an excellent first step.  In addition, there are tons of free and paid tools available to manage, measure and analyze your web presence and its effectiveness. Click here for an excellent article from Social Media Today on the Top 50 Tools.

So there you have it, the 7 step process used by The Social XChange to help small and medium businesses succeed with Social.  Explaining these methods will give the business owner a greater appreciation of the effort required and demonstrates how a cohesive strategy will create a competitive advantage for the company.

Short, simple, easy to understand – and an effective way to answer the question “why should we hire you?” and move the conversation to “when can you start”?

Confessions of a Customer Service Agent – If I was in Control

Today marks the final installment in our four-part series uncovering the thoughts and experiences of the Customer Service Agent.  The Social XChange interviewed more than two dozen service professionals during Customer Service Week in October 2013.  Our survey encompassed many phases of the job, including issues they encounter on a daily basis and the support  they receive from management.

This final part of the series concentrates on how the service professionals surveyed would “run” the company if they were in charge and able to make suggestions and changes to processes as well as how their company approaches “customer service”.

The number one change on the list for the vast majority of respondents was increased training when starting a job and refresher courses as they continue in the position.  The ongoing training allows for all agents or representatives to have the most current information available.  This ensures consistency in answers to customers – with the results being increased chances of resolution and satisfaction.

Turning to the day to day operations of their company, improved communication from other departments is high on the list of “wants”.  One of the most frustrating problems for the service professional is not knowing either a product or process. This item dovetails nicely with improved training.  Simply being aware of new products or processes is not enough, role-playing and additional training should always accompany each release or change.

More than 75% of the agents we spoke with thought that additional tools including interactive demos of new products would help them better understand and resolve customer issues. Roughly the same number also said that frequent network outages and downtime of their PC affected customer experience and that they would pour more money into updated office technology.

As far as working conditions, many representatives would suggest more time with their “team”.  Weekly meetings or huddles help each agent to voice concerns, share experiences, and build camaraderie with the other members of the group.  In the retail industry, smart managers generally gather staff before the store opens to go over the plan for the day.  This can be difficult in the call center industry with varying schedules and 24 hour operations, but no less critical to the success of the customer facing personnel.

Also high on the list – agents would schedule consistent meetings with their direct supervisor.  A full 60% of those surveyed stated they had not met with their supervisor at all in 2013, but were still responsible for the numbers on their monthly scorecard even though it had not been reviewed with the agent.  This leads to quite a surprise when year end reviews and raises are handed out and is simply unfair to the representative.

Feedback regarding benefits, bonuses, hours, and schedule were also touched on by the representatives.  Most of the bigger companies have decent to excellent benefit programs, but quite a few agents were concerned that Obamacare would prompt their company to eliminate health insurance in the future by moving employees to exchanges and increasing premiums.

In most non-sales positions, bonuses are scarce.  Agents (if in charge) would ensure that all employees have the opportunity to make additional money, either through up selling products or saving customers.  Flexible schedules and paid time off would also be a huge benefit for representatives.  Some excellent ideas on flexible schedules were voiced by the group, including split daily schedules for working parents and time off credit for working overtime.

Finally, the group agreed that “reactive” customer care is one of the biggest obstacles to ensuring total customer satisfaction. The representatives who gave us feedback on this topic were insistent that management “has no clue” about how to satisfy customers.  Processes are created to “fix” the customer on the “back end”, instead of designing steps to proactively service the client from the beginning.  Many thought that VP’s and Directors should listen side by side to calls at least one a month to hear and see the customer experience first hand.

The Social XChange team believes there are a number of important takeaways for management to help improve the customer experience.  The majority of agents we surveyed said that although management does solicit feedback from front line workers, an equal number say that the same managers do not utilize or implement suggestions they receive.

The bottom line: if management asks for feedback, report back to employees how their ideas can be implemented into daily operations or the business reasons they cannot be used.

One other key point – involve representatives as much as you can in decision making or changes since they are the first line of defense in keeping customers happy.  An engaged and informed customer service professional is the best advocate you can ask for when it comes to your business and customers.

In the end, a good number of the representatives we spoke with were actively seeking positions in other industries.   The job is tolerable for most agents, but it can act like quicksand for drowning employees who were not well trained and are ill prepared for assisting customers the right way on the first bounce.

Your comments and feedback are welcome below – the team would love to know what you think of customer “service” and how it affects your buying decisions.  Also, tell us your good and bad experiences – is customer “service” getting better… or worse?

Confessions of a Customer Service Agent – Management Support?

In the third of our four-part series entitled “Confessions of a Customer Service Agent” – The Social XChange investigates the role of management and the level of support, training and engagement they offer to their service professionals.  The data for this analysis was compiled through a survey of more than two dozen agents during Customer Service Week, October 7-11, 2013.

More than 80% of the customer service representatives surveyed related situations of little or no training, lack of knowledge about the product line and outright  indifference from management on the need to improve these areas.  In addition, many of the representatives we surveyed found career opportunities were far and few between and the ability to update their own “knowledge base” was extremely limited.

“Poor training” was a common theme from those surveyed, as many were given no more than a quick “walk through” when they started their job (retail stores were the worse offenders with almost no sales or “service” training).   If a formal training period was included, it was often shortened due to “business need” – the “need” to utilize the new hires as soon as possible whether fully trained or not.

For retail service professionals, “not knowing” can be extremely difficult with the customer standing in front of them and becoming visibly frustrated.  Any hope of pleasing a customer at this point is simply part of the “breakage” that management understands will occur with new employees.

For call center agents, the training they received was generally enough to get them “on the floor” but if they needed time to read over new material or master new processes, the common response from supervisors was simply “you are needed on the phone”.

Lack of advancement or career path options were additional pain points for a majority of agents.  In retail, companies are apt to advance service professionals due to shortages or if management is stretched too thin.  This generally results in customer facing representatives being moved up (with little or no advancement in pay) to “leads” without the requisite training for the position.

In call centers, the job is to be “on the phone” so cross training with other departments is a difficult proposition.  The irony is that monthly scorecards can be greatly affected by the agent being off the phone which in turn hurts their chances to move on to another department.

It appears that instead of ramping up training courses and ensuring that only the best become front line employees, there is a sense from those surveyed that management simply accepts a certain amount of employee attrition, customer inconvenience and that “only the strong will (or should) survive”.

The key management takeaway from this feedback – there is a clear need for more comprehensive training including product knowledge, tool usage and role-playing – items which are critical for agent success.  The representatives surveyed for this study were adamant they have shared this information time and time again with managers, directors, even vice presidents and corporate leadership, to no avail.

Our conclusion is that either companies do not understand the value of vigorous training and informed workers or they simply do not value customer relationships enough to ensure their front line personnel are prepared to resolve customer issues.

Monday: Part 4 of our Series – If Customer Service Agents were in charge.

Confessions of a Customer Service Agent – I hate customers!

Customer Service Week for 2013 was celebrated October 7-11.  During the event, The Social XChange team interviewed more than two dozen customer service agents representing retail, banking, casual food service, utilities, technical support and telecommunications to better understand the issues facing service professionals.

In this second part of a four part series, we asked agents about the new focus on “voice of the customer“, Net Promoter Scores and having customers in the driver’s seat when attempting to resolve their issues.

Some of the results were not surprising – of the more than two dozen agents interviewed, 88% were aware of the “voice of the customer” and NPS.  These agents are regularly scored by customers for ease of doing business with their company, if their issue was resolved and how likely they are to recommend the company to others.

Of the 88%, more than half felt that that the rating scale was unfair or skewed.  Also, since surveys only cover a small portion of the customer contacts they have on a daily basis, one bad survey can ruin an otherwise excellent monthly or quarterly scorecard.  Customer responses can also be credited to the wrong agent, further skewing the numbers and agent productivity.

A key takeaway for management – almost all the representatives voiced the opinion that they were not trained on or had been briefed as to how NPS and “voice of the customer” data fits into overall customer strategy – the most common question was “what are they doing with that information?”

Although companies are finally listening to customer needs and wants, many have not created the front line buy in or communicated a coherent strategy to make NPS truly effective for their organization.

One result from the survey which was surprising but not unexpected –  nearly 100% of the group had a negative or extremely negative view of the customer with the majority  surveyed believing that customers do not respect them or their profession.

On the heels of customers running amok during Black Friday, as well as a recent incident at a Red Lobster restaurant where a waitress was pummeled for bringing the wrong type of shrimp, service representatives feel they are fighting a losing battle against customers who cannot or will not be satisfied – and a significant number (more than 75%) say they lack the support of their company in dealing with these types of customers.

We have all heard customers say from time to time “I really hate company X”, but in this age of customer engagement and the “voice of the customer”, some seasoned service professionals believe the feeling may be mutual.

Tomorrow: Part 3 of our Series – Management Support?

Confessions of a Customer Service Agent

Customer Service week is an annual celebration held in the first week of October (In 2013, CSW ran from October 7-11).  Unique events including front line feedback forums and excellence recognition are sprinkled throughout each day of the week.  The customer service area is decorated, prizes are won and food is normally served to the entire group.

During the 2013 event, The Social XChange team set out to interview customer service agents in a variety of industries to uncover and spotlight the most pressing issues facing the CSR and how it affects they way they do their job.  Included in our research were questions about how agents deal with the “voice of the customer”, Net Promoter Scores and closed end feedback.  In addition, we were curious to know if agents feel they receive the proper support and tools from upper management and whether they believe their position better fits “customer recovery” instead of “customer service”.

Over the course of Customer Service Week, The Social XChange talked with more than two dozen customer service agents representing retail, banking, casual sit down food service, utilities, technical support and telecommunications.  The results (in four parts) will be published on this blog over the course of the next few days.  Surprising results and comments to follow!

Customer Service vs. Customer Recovery

One of the topics that The Social XChange is exploring in greater depth with Social 3.0 is the difference between customer service and customer recovery.

What is the difference you may ask? For companies such as ZapposSouthwest Airlines, and State Farm, customer service begins with the first sale or interaction and they gain and retain a customer with that initial experience.

In other words, if you get the initial transaction wrong (billing issue, defective product, or a bad internal process) then the client may have to call back, write or chat on your website, use self-service, or post to Social sites in order to have their situation corrected.  This creates a “customer recovery” opportunity.  You broke it, you fix it, but this effort may not save the long term customer relationship and certainly increases customer frustration.

Unfortunately, this is the way most customer facing centers are built – for recovery.  The alliance of FSM (Finance, Sales and Marketing) has long believed that customer service is a “cost center“, built to deliver “world class” customer care by fixing what went wrong on the front end of the transaction while increasing customer satisfaction and retention.

With every new product, price or process put in place, FSM calculates “breakage”.  Breakage, by definition, is the amount of customers affected by a defective, wrong or incompatible product, a price increase or simply a new internal process that benefits the company at the expense of the customer.   The number of people who will leave due to breakage and the number of people that customer facing agents “save” are also calculated.

In most cases, the focus for FSM is squarely on recovery – so it begs the question “how does this increase customer satisfaction?” Eventually, many customers will uncover the fact that they are not receiving “customer service”.

So therein lies the disconnect between customer service and customer recovery.  Unless the emphasis is to fix processes which cause “breakage” on the front end, a company will not be able to truly be known as “world class”.  All companies make mistakes and a flexible “recovery” plan is vital, but it should not be the focus of ones efforts.  Understanding the difference between service and recovery is critical, especially when a company gets only one chance to make it right.

Social 3.0 – moving beyond engagement

Social 3.0 – get ready to move your business to the next level in 2014!