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Recognizing customers who need to go is usually easy. Deciding when – and how – to sever ties is a tougher task. Here’s help.

Some customers are more bad than good for business.

Their “expectations can’t be met, other times customers require an inordinate amount of time, and on rare occasions, a customer’s behavior may expose an organization to undue peril,” says Kate Zabriskie, President of Business Training Works. “When any of those situations occur, it’s best to say ‘goodbye’ and do so quickly in a way that creates the least resentment on both sides.”

Here are five signs a customer needs to go – and tips on how to end it in each situation.

1. They cause most headaches

Perpetual squeaky wheels who upset employees and demand a lot more than they deserve will likely disrupt business more than they will contribute to it.

If they buy little and cost your people time and mental energy, they’re taking away from the proper care of good customers.

Goodbye move: “Rely on the classic ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ approach,” Zabriskie says.

Say: “I’m concerned that we’re doing a lot of rework for your firm. I’ve concluded that there has got to be someone who is a better fit for you. We’re not hitting the mark with you the way we do with our other customers. This isn’t good for you or us.”

2. They abuse employees

Customers who swear, yell, demean or harass employees should be fired (just like you’d likely fire an employee who did that to colleagues).

Goodbye move: Call out the inappropriate behavior in a calm and professional way.

Say: “Julie, we have a no profanity rule here. Respect is one of our core values, and we’ve agreed that we don’t yell and swear at our clients or each other. We expect that courtesy from our customers, too. You’re obviously unhappy, and my employees are too. For the benefit of everyone, at this point I think it’s best that we part company. We both deserve better.”

3. Their behavior isn’t ethical

Some customers don’t do business or live in line with the values and ethics your organization does. And you may not want to associate your organization with anyone whose business practices are illegal, immoral or routinely questionable.

Goodbye move: “When someone or an organization exposes you to unneeded risk, it’s prudent to disassociate yourself and your organization from them pronto,” Zabriskie says.

Say: “We’re a conservative organization. While we understand others have a more robust appetite for risk, it’s typically something we avoid. Another vendor is probably going to better meet your needs. At this point, we’re really just not a good fit.”

4. They put you at risk

If you spend a lot of time chasing payments and hearing more excuses why you shouldn’t or can’t be paid, it’s time to let those kinds of customers go.

Goodbye move: You can point to the deficiencies in payments and effects it has on the business relationship.

Say: “Janet, I know we’ve tried a range of payment options to make this relationship work. At this point, we simply don’t have the financial appetite to accommodate your payment schedule. For that reason, I’m asking you to find another vendor. We can’t accommodate the work.”

5. You don’t fit together

Some relationships end under no pretense. Both sides are just in different places than they were when the relationship started (whether it’s business or personal).

Goodbye Move: “This last goodbye is the hardest. When you find you and your customer are no longer compatible, it’s a good idea to start the conversation with something open-ended,” says Zabriskie.

Say: “I know where you started, and you’ve told me where your business is headed. And it’s good to hear that you’re comfortable where you are. That’s a nice place to be and go. As you may know, we’re on a growth strategy and have been for a couple of years. What concerns me is our ability to give you the attention in the future that we’ve been able to give you in the past. I think you deserve to work with a partner company that can make your work priority number one, and right now I don’t think that’s us.”

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Think you have great service? Customers probably think differently about that … and some other things. 

There’s a disconnect between what contact center leaders think of the experience they provide and what customers think of the experience they get, according to the 2019 NICE inContact Customer Experience (CX) Transformation.

“A major takeaway from the study is that companies in all industries can no longer rely on product quality or price alone – they must consistently deliver exceptional customer experience in today’s … economy,” the researchers said. “Closing the perception vs. reality gap between how businesses believe they are executing on their customer experience strategy and how customers are engaging with their brands is critical.”

Big findings to note: Customers are happier with service on the phone than companies think they are. But customers aren’t as happy with self-service options as companies think they are.

Check out this infographic for more details.

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Trust is the foundation for the next great interaction. So you want trust at the heart of your customer experience. 

The problem is, there are so many things that can break down trust: data breaches, one bad service interaction gone viral, product recalls, poor customer experiences, etc.

Everyday actions and attitudes on the front-line and behind the scenes can boost – or even rebuild – trust with customers, according to SiriusDecisions’ Isabel Montesdeoca, Service Director of Demand Marketing, and Peter Ostrow, Research Director of Sales Enablement Strategies.

Here are five strategies that work.

Change the focus

“You want to move from ‘What’s in it for the company?’ to ‘What’s in it for the customer?'” Montesdeoca said when she recently spoke at the SiriusDecisions 2019 Summit.

One key is to take cues from customers on an individual level. Find out and respect their contact preferences. If they prefer calls, make it easy for them to get someone on the phone. If they opt out of email blasts, make sure you pull them from your database.

Get personal

“Match customers’ signals – explicit and implicit,” Montesdeoca said.

Some customers want to feel a personal relationship with the companies, salespeople and service professionals they work with. Others like to keep it strictly business. Making sure you do what they prefer is a way to personalize the customer relationship and build trust.

Ask customers their preferences as far as frequency of contact and type of contact. But don’t just act on what they say. Track their activity and respond in the ways they reach out.

Be dynamic

You can improve trust and nearly every customer relationship with what you gather each time you interact.

“Every interaction can be designed to make an ongoing evaluation of the data, signals and the temperature of the relationship,” Ostrow said. “Then you know how to offer what they need when they need it.”

Bottom line: If you consistently keep tabs on how customers interact with you, what they like and don’t like, and their satisfaction, you can adapt to their changing demands, needs and preferences.

Be interconnected

Disconnects within organizations and between employees often break down customer trust. Customers get frustrated and lose faith in companies when they work with one employee who doesn’t know anything about their many interactions with other people and service channels.

“Every employee should be aware of customer needs, regardless of whether they work with customers or not, or the touch points customers have had,” Ostrow said.

Good internal systems should allow all employees to access customer and account information so they take the next step for customers based on the previous steps.

Make it effortless

Effortless experiences are the keystone of customer trust.

“You want to reduce the friction,” Montesdeoca said. “Get customers to their goals faster, at a profitable level, and deliver value and relevance.”

How? It takes anticipating customers’ motions and re-imagining how you can make those easier. “Constantly thinking about how to make things easier, actually,” Montesdeoca said.

One tip on looking at things from every angle comes from a pro who creates websites for SiriusDecisions’ customers: When she creates a self-service tool – almost anything that customers see online – she asks her teenage son how it looks to find out if it’s appealing to see and makes sense to use. Then she asks her retired mother to try using the site to get perspective on how easy it is (or isn’t) to navigate.

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Difficult customers – you struggle to love them, and you definitely can’t leave them. Here’s what you can do. 

Hard-to-handle customers come in all forms, but some are more common than others – and those are the types you need to be prepared to deal with most.

Once you recognize the personality you’re dealing with, you can respond appropriately.

The Bully

Personality: This is the same guy who used to torment everyone in the schoolyard. He just grew up, got a job and continues to intimidate people with his raised voice and menacing ways.

Your response: Focus on changing the negative behavior, not The Bully. Use a positive attitude to send the message that there’s no need for The Bully to revert to his bullying tactics.

The Complainer

Personality: This customer is never satisfied. No matter what you do to meet or exceed expectations, she’ll find something to complain about: It could’ve been done faster. I thought you were going to do maintenance, too. It’s not what I expected.

Your response: Nothing will stop The Complainer from complaining. Listen, but don’t overreact. If she’s out of line, tell her politely, but firmly.

The Know-It-All

Personality: This customer has all the answers before the questions are even asked! That’s whether they’re your questions or his, too.

Your response: Listen and avoid arguing. If The Know-It-All is seriously wrong about a fact that will impede an order, hurt the relationship or jeopardize safety, point it out. Otherwise, let him go on about minor points that mean little or nothing.

The Nag

Personality: The Nag constantly emails, calls or texts to “just check in” or “inquire about the status.” He’s worried he won’t get exactly what he wants (and perhaps has a little too much time on his hands), so he won’t let it go.

Your response: To ease his worries – and hopefully his over-the-top contact – schedule as much follow up and written confirmation as possible. Regular emails and texts (you can write them in batches and schedule their sends) will help.

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You screwed up, and it’s time to apologize.

It’s hard to say you’re sorry. But it’s the first step in rebuilding a relationship when customers deserve to be upset.

A simple “we’re sorry” won’t cut it when customer relationships are on the line.

Yet, 85% of companies don’t have a standard or process to rebound from a major mistake. And almost all of them agree that an effective and convincing apology is critical to the customer experience, according to research from Corporate Visions and GainSight.

Good recovery more important than no mistake

It’s even more important than you might think: Researchers have found that companies get higher customer satisfaction and loyalty ratings from customers who received a solid apology and recovery than customers who never experienced a problem!

“If you just have no failure with your customers, there will a nice, slight up in terms of their loyalty and satisfaction,” says Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer at Corporate Visions. “And what happens when you have a service failure is the immediate reaction is panic … and yes, it is actually not good. But if you recover well from that service problem, you can actually create loyalty and satisfaction levels higher than if you never had a service problem to begin with.”

Make the perfect apology

So, when there’s a problem, and it’s time to apologize, this is how to make the best recovery. These elements don’t have to be in any particular order. But you must:

  • Take responsibility. You want to admit that there’s a problem and it’s your fault, regardless of how it happened.
  • Express regret. Say you’re sorry for the problem.
  • Offer a repair. Describe exactly how you’ll fix the problem.
  • Explain the problem. Don’t point fingers. Briefly explain what happened so customers understand you have a handle on it.
  • Declare repentance. Make it clear that you do not want this problem to repeat.

Here are two examples of what the perfect apology sounds like.

  • Mr. Customer, we’ve had a production delay, and your delivery will be late by one day. Our mainframe was affected by a power outage for five hours, and several orders had to be put on hold during repairs. Our technicians were able to get us back on line. We’re installing generators so it doesn’t happen again. I’m sorry this has affected you, and we have put your order at the front of our shipping priority. We’ll also waive shipping fees on your next order.
  • Mrs. Customer, I’m sorry to report that we can’t customize your item. We thought we had the capability, but it’s not possible with our current machinery. We hope to scale to size in the next six months and make more customizations like you requested. What we can do is change the size you requested at no additional charge and get this out to you on time.
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Customers tell you everything was “fine,” “good” or “great.” But researchers found that’s often not what they really think. 

They aren’t as satisfied with customer service as they were last year – and they weren’t really satisfied then.

CFI Group’s The Contact Center Satisfaction Index dropped to 68 on the 100-point scale in 2019. That’s down 3% from the previous year.

Self-service impedes satisfaction

“In the world of self-service, customers now reserve only the toughest problems for the contact center agents,” says Sheri Petras, CEO of CFI Group. “Many simple questions are now handled by the customer on the company website, saving the complicated, frustrating questions for contact center agents.”

In their research, CFI often found the better customer satisfaction was with self-service options – such as website and mobile apps – the worse the score was for the contact center!

Prepare front-line customer service professionals

It can be difficult for customer service pros to perform up to expectations that come from an already frustrated customer.

But CFI experts suggest these strategies for front-line service pros to help frustrated customers and raise satisfaction.

  • Give customers quicker access to service pros who can help. In the study, customers who reached a person directly were 27% more satisfied than those who first reached Interactive Voice Response (IVR). A voice is far more reassuring in times of frustration than a prompt to hit a number.
  • Give service professionals more power. Satisfaction goes even higher when the person who takes customer calls handles the situation in one call. Service pros need ample amounts of training, discretion and support to make one-and-done happen.
  • Get more mobile friendly. Nearly half of the customers who try to help themselves before calling customer service look at the website from their phones. And guess what? They usually find it difficult to find and decipher answers from the tiny screens. It’s more important than ever to make customer service functions – FAQs, contact information, account login and details, etc. – mobile friendly.
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Some customers need your attention more than others – and helping them will ensure your company succeeds. 

Anxious customers – those who are worried about an outcome, want something out of the ordinary or are just natural worrywarts – need to talk to you. To you. Not your self-service options.

And it’s especially important in anxiety-invoking industries such as healthcare and finances, where customers have extra reasons to be anxious.

Yet, far too many organizations steer all customers toward self-service and away from the calming voices and reassuring words of customer service professionals, according to recent research from Harvard Business School.

Some companies “are funneling nervous customers to self-service technologies – kiosks, websites, and smartphone apps – isolating them at the precise moment when they’re most keen for connection,” say Harvard researchers Michelle Shell and Ryan Buell. “It is clear that these technologies are less expensive to offer than human support. But what’s less clear is the toll these self-service interactions may take on customers.”

Bad gets worse

The researchers found that anxious customers who use self-service tools weren’t happy with their experience even they got what they wanted when it was over.

Then guess what. They were dissatisfied and trusted the company less – only adding more anxiety to the next time they have to deal with the company.

The surprising fix

Researchers found there’s a low-cost fix – a simple change – that can reverse anxiety or prevent it altogether: Offer customers access to a person who can help for the asking.

“We found that when people had the ability to connect with another person – either an expert or a peer – the deleterious effects of anxiety were offset,” Shell and Buell said.

Now here’s the kicker. Very few customers took companies up on the offer to get out of self-service and on to personalized help. Just having the option to chat with a professional or peer helped ease their worries.

Even better, the “someone’s available now” option increased customers’ trust and improved their perception of the experience.

3 tips to make self-service feel more personal

To ease anxiety and give the customers who need your help the most personalized attention, try to:

  1. Make it easy to access a human. Truly easy. Make a phone number, email address or chat box easy to see on every self-service page or portal you have. Staff your customer service operations so there’s a person who can take the call, email or chat within minutes of a request.
  2. Reach out. Most CRM and sales software offer the ability for pop-up chat boxes after customers have been on the site or a particular page – say a FAQ or self-help page – after a certain amount of time. Use those to offer self-helpers personal help. In the same notion, if customers are visible to employees at any time, offer help when it’s obvious they’re stumped. Simple, effective, but not always done.
  3. Slow down. Many customer service pros are ready to help, then rush through the helping process because they feel the need to move onto the next customer or task. Emphasize a priority to see customers through all of their questions, concerns and anxieties before even thinking about ending the conversation.
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Most customers look at online reviews before they buy these days. Positive reviews are good for you. Negative reviews, not so good. Fake reviews, downright illegal. 

Clearly you want honest, positive reviews and even some negative reviews that can help you improve. We’ll get to how to manage those reviews in a bit.

A first (mistake) of its kind

First, let’s look at the dangers of fake reviews.

In a recent case, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined an online retailer almost $13 million for having a third-party website write and post false reviews on Amazon for its weight-loss pills. Under an agreement, Cure Encapsulations, Inc. may just pay $50,000 in fines, plus an undisclosed tax bill.

But the case sets a new precedent – it’s the FTC’s first that challenged one company’s use of fake, paid reviews on an independent retail site.

Online review best practices

Fake reviews aside (and surely never even considered), customer experience professionals want to make the most of online reviews – since more than half of shoppers check online reviews before buying. Whether you gather reviews on your company website, other retail websites or product/service review sites, you want to:

  • Request. The best way to get reviews is to ask customers to give them. Even better, when you solicit reviews, and a negative one comes in, you should be quicker to respond and fix any issues – which could lead to a follow-up positive review. Request reviews on your site or third-party sites through email or text that includes the link.
  • Respond. You must respond to negative reviews because you want to make things right. But it’s equally important to respond to positive reviews, letting customers know you appreciate their kind words and encouraging them to continue to give feedback.
  • Be professional. Avoid arguing with negative reviewers. Offer solutions, not explanations, when things go wrong. Ideally, take issues offline, resolving those through email or a call.
  • Track reviews. Depending on the number of reviews you get, set up alerts from every source (in-house and third-party) so someone checks feedback regularly. It needs to be at least daily, and might be hourly for organizations with lots of transactions.
  • Watch competitors, too. Many organizations track their competitors’ reviews to see what customers say about other products and services. Then they can use that insight to find areas for internal improvement or, in the case of a competitors’ negative review, jump in and offer to help the reviewer with your product or service.
  • Build a solid bank. When potential customers see many reviews – ideally posted recently – they trust the company more. Positive reviews are powerful, but negative reviews that were responded to quickly and resolved make a strong impact, too.
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The less customers have to do, the more satisfied they’ll be – and some words and actions can make every experience feel effortless. 

The very best phrases fall under what researchers call “advocacy.” They suggest service pros aren’t just doing something customers requested. They’re advocating for the customer they interact with.

Advocacy improves the customer experience, according to Matt Dixon, co-author of The Effortless Experience and chief product and research officer at Tethr.

A thin advocacy line

But it’s not straightforward advocacy, Dixon warns.

“In a sales interaction, it’s much better to demonstrate ‘declarative advocacy’ (e.g., ‘I have the perfect package for you’) but such a confident, declarative approach doesn’t work well in service calls because it sends the customer the message that there’s only one possible course of action…and if it doesn’t work, you might be out of luck,” Dixon says. “The better approach is for reps to demonstrate ‘flexible advocacy’ (e.g., ‘I have a few ideas for how to fix this…let’s try this one first’). The message to the customer is that there’s more than one way to solve the problem.”

“Flexible advocacy” comes through in phrases like these:

  • I won’t let you down
  • I’ve got another option for you
  • I can assure you
  • Let’s go ahead and do that for you
  • Let me see what I can do, and
  • I’m going to take care of this for you

On the other side, some phrases are the exact opposite of advocacy. They make customers feel like you’re working against – not with or for – them. Here’s what researchers found were the worst to use, and should be avoided:

  • There’s nothing I can do
  • That’s not an option
  • There’s no way for me to do that
  • I have limitations
  • Those are just the rules we have, and
  • I don’t have that ability/power
Create an advocacy environment

To create an environment where front-line service pros feel they can advocate for customers, researchers suggested these strategies:

  • Make self-service easy. The more guided, natural-flowing your self-service options are, the more likely only the complicated or emotional issues will come to front-line service pros. When they’re dealing with fewer low-level, tedious tasks, they’ll have more time, interest and drive to advocate for customers.
  • Take care of the next issues. Service pros become super advocates when they don’t just focus on answering the question or solving the issue at hand. They also want to focus on what’s next – the next possible question, action, concern – that might prompt a customer to contact them again.
  • Give front-line service pros control. The more training service pros receive, the more equipped they are to handle any customer issue and use judgment in situations when they aren’t completely equipped. Continual training must be a priority.
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Hold on tight, customer experience professionals: New research says you purposely give bad customer service. And it may be right!

Now stop gasping – and let’s get down to what they’ve found, and what you can do to shed that kind of image.

Turns out, companies often profit when they make it more difficult for customers to get what they want – especially fixes for complaints, according to the research “Why Customer Service Frustrates Consumers: Using a Tiered Organizational Structure to Exploit Operational Costs.

‘That’s a hassle!’

Intentional or not (although researchers said most organizations do it intentionally), many companies make it a hassle for customers to fully resolve a complaint by having them make a second or third contact. For instance, at some organizations front-line service pros are only allowed to send replacements or give order status. They give customers other contacts – with limited hours of operation – to get the refund they want.

That’s a hassle, customers think. Then they don’t follow through, and the company doesn’t have to replace an item, which would cut into profits.

Customers might be upset, but companies are off the hook for paying out. And customers keep coming back because 1) there are a limited number of suppliers or 2) it’s a bigger hassle to change suppliers.

“This may help us understand why some of the most hated companies in America are so profitable and why customer service, unfortunately, remains so frustrating,” say the study authors Anthony Dukes and Yi Zhu in Harvard Business Review.

4 worst service practices – and how to avoid them

Most customer experience professionals don’t try to make the service difficult. But sometimes customer service practices that were put in place for a reason at one time create hassle today.

Here are the four worst practices that make customers think, This is bad customer service! – and how you can eliminate them:

  1. Approval-laden service. Researchers specifically pointed out this hated practice: requiring customers to contact someone else to get a final answer. Customers want the person who answers their inquiry to be the person who can fix it (or even give the final denial). Fix it: Train and empower front-line employees to take care of issues up to a certain high-dollar amount.
  2. Customer equality. In an effort to “be fair,” companies create boundaries so all customers are treated equally. That practice usually doesn’t work because all customers don’t deserve to be treated equally. But all customers deserve to be treated fairly. Ill-behaved customers don’t deserve to be treated the same as loyal, cooperative customers. Fix it: Unless a rule or policy is in place to keep employees and customers safe, allow some bend so front-line employees can do a minimum for all customers and more for deserving customers when necessary.
  3. Online emphasis. Companies encourage customers to do more and more business through their website, social media platforms and email. Some companies even punish customers for calling or wanting to work with an employee directly with fees. And while those practices are cost- and time-efficient, they’re not for every customer or situation. Some people, in some situations, want to deal with another person. Fix it: Make it easy for customers to contact an employee who answers them almost immediately.
  4. Restrictive returns. Customers sometimes find a product wasn’t right for them after they used it. Or they might get a defective product. Or the service didn’t live up to their expectations. So they want to return it, only to find out they can’t or returning it is at their loss or more trouble than it’s worth. Restrictive return policies make one thing sure: Customers themselves won’t return. Fix it: Ease up. Even if you can’t accept all returns, work with customers to find another, reasonable solution such as finding a better-fit product or service or giving credit and samples.
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