Customer service is the difference between a good company and a great one. Customer service is one of the secrets to company success, and a timely topic both inside and out of Silicon Valley. Actually, this is not such a well-kept secret: Time Magazine recently published “4 Keys to Killer Customer Service.” According to the article, great customer service can be achieved by offering:
1. Perfect products or services: companies must offer quality products and services to maintain a loyal customer base and attract new buyers.
2. “Caring” delivery: the quality consumer experience mentioned above must also extend to the delivery of the product or service.
3. Timeliness: customer needs must be immediately met: this is the instant gratification generation with minimal patience and company loyalty.
4. Effective problem solving processes: companies must anticipate for Murphy’s Law even after offering quality products and services with professional delivery.
Technology has had an immense impact on customer service. Traditionally, customer service meant an interaction between company employees and their customers either face to face, through snail mail or over the telephone. In the 1980’s companies introduced toll free numbers that cost companies an average $3-5 per call. With advances in information technology and rapidly declining costs of data transmission, companies such as United Airlines have cut costs by opening call centers outside the United States. These have been located primarily in India and the Philippines to take advantage of lower labor rates and to enable 24-7 customer access. Increasingly, the Internet is replacing the customer service representative. Instead of paying for toll free calls or setting up offshore call centers, companies like Marriott are enabling customers to directly access the same information screens used by the call center personnel, allowing customers to directly find answers to their questions and make reservations online.
Offering superior customer service is even more important in the age of social media. Now customer comments go viral in seconds reaching potentially thousands of people through “tweets”, “facebooks”, “instagrams”, or any one of the rapidly increasing numbers of new social media outlets. In response, marketing savvy companies like Best Buy have hired full time employees to monitor Twitter and other social media sites in order to immediately respond to customer concerns, complaints, or compliments.
However cost effective and efficient the Internet can be, personal touch is still essential for companies to offer their customers “killer” service. Charles Schwab is a Bay Area-based company renowned for its focus on its customer base. ”Our success is built one client at a time.” This philosophy is imbued in the corporate culture and implemented by the company’s multi-cultural employee base. Tracy Zhang is a 20 year veteran, successful Vice President and top producer at Schwab. Ms. Zhang’s journey to Silicon Valley started in China. After Tiananmen Square, she was one of the few allowed to leave the country to attend graduate school in the United States.
Ms. Zhang’s secret to success? “Killer” customer service! Ms. Zhang looks for ways to add value for her clients. When she started at Charles Schwab, brokers controlled information. The role of financial advisors was to keep clients loyal by parceling out industry, company, and stock information. Fast forward to today when anyone with Internet access can find out the same market data. The challenge now for the financial industry is to figure out how to add value. Ms. Zhang feels she has the solution by offering customized financial planning and counseling at every stage in her clients’ lives depending on their economic situation and expectations as well as risk tolerance. She offers retirement counseling to her 50+ clients and at the same time mentors their college age sons and daughters to help them learn to successfully budget and start planning for the future. Ms. Zhang treats all her clients as if they were million dollar investors. One example of her exemplary customer service involved an international money transfer. Her client wanted to transfer a few thousand dollars from a local bank in a secondary city in China to an account at Schwab. The wire transfer failed repeatedly, and it looked like the money would never leave China. Undeterred, Ms. Zhang worked with bank officials in China, Hong Kong, New York, and San Francisco until the wire transfer was successful. As a result of Ms. Zhang’s exceptional customer service, her client has invested additional funds with Schwab and remains a loyal customer to this day.
The actions of Ms. Zhang and the employees at Charles Schwab demonstrate how exemplary customer service equals long term success. While technology has changed the delivery of customer service, and the use of CRM software has improved the customer experience, technology cannot replace the value of the personal touch for long term customer loyalty and financial success.