Every one of us is a customer. There is not a single person on this planet who is not or will not become a customer of something. As customers, we know exactly when we are or are not receiving great customer service. In most cases, the company itself is not responsible for how we feel, but the employees who represent those companies are. The time a company spends actively engaged with a customer is incredibly short compared to the customer’s life with that company. How a customer is supported during those brief moments of interaction either furthers the relationship or potentially concludes it.
The average support call lasts roughly six minutes. The experience a customer receives in that time is critical. Technology will continue to advance, and more rapidly each year, but one truth will remain. We are human. While technology can aid companies during the customer interaction, it will never replace the human aspect completely. There are several components that make up the customer experience, all which need to work harmoniously together in order to exceed customer expectations and retain life-long relationships along the way.
Customers want to feel valued, and the truth is they earn that right the moment they decide to do business with your company. Great customer service is not something we achieve and then say, “We did it!” Building a great customer experience is less like climbing a mountain and more like white water rafting. The goal is to get your customer downstream while navigating the elements that are emotion, expectation, engagement, and perception. How well we navigate the experience is what’s important and is the reason why some companies see their customers leaving their raft for another’s. We need to position ourselves to be the companies and teams that customers can’t imagine doing business without. We have to get to a place where this level of customer satisfaction is the rule.
Roy H. Williams said, “The first step in exceeding your customer’s expectations is to know those expectations.” Interestingly, he didn’t challenge us with the idea of “meeting” our customer’s expectations. There are plenty of good companies who can meet expectations. We want to be the companies that exceed them. By knowing what customers expect, we can create a valued and valuable experience for them. As support professionals and the providers of services, our goal needs to be to exceed on all levels. This is what we’re called to do. It’s not enough to support technology. Supporting people builds stronger relationships and increases customer satisfaction.
In 2015, while I was preparing my first presentation for HDI, I conducted a survey to gather the data I would use in my discussion. My presentation focused on many of the ideas included in this article and is what inspired me to compile them into what you are reading today. At that time, I was a help desk analyst and when people asked, “What do you do for a living?”, my elevator pitch was, “I connect with people and connect people to solutions.” My presentation focused on creating value for customers and how to exceed their expectations along the way.
The survey I created was very simple. In fact, it had only one question. That question was “When I call for support, I expect…,” and I let the submitter fill in the rest. I couldn’t believe the responses I got and the level of engagement I received. I very quickly got the sense that people wanted to talk about this topic. They wanted to talk about customer expectation and experience. I managed to receive around 100 responses and was thrilled. I began sifting through the data and reviewing the answers. I found that I had great content, but no idea what I was going to do with it. Then everything clicked.
Reviewing the responses, I realized people were saying the same things in different ways. Patterns began to form, and the information began to tell a story. I took the response data and grouped answers into five categories of urgency, connection, validation, confidence, and ownership. Each of these play a part in the customer experience. Knowing how, when, and why they are needed is crucial to the success of the experience and your customer’s longevity with your company. As you read about each of the five categories, you’ll be reading a real response from the survey and what I codified that response as in the form of an expectation.
“When I call for support, I expect to have a courteous professional respond quickly and take ownership of my issue.”
Clearly defined SLAs set predefined expectations around service quality, availability, and responsibility, but we shouldn’t let that be a reason to stagnate. Be the first responder who is delighted to be working with your customer. In this case, the customer is saying “Make contact with me.” “Tell me my ticket or email went somewhere and that it has been received.” We should never give our customers the opportunity to follow up with us. It is our job to keep them informed along the way. If they’ve called for help and you're the first person they talk to, make sure they know they’ve got the best person for the job. This is where you answer the phone with a smile. Trust me, customers can tell when you don’t, and it’s a jarring experience.
“When I call for support, I expect to not wait on hold for hours or spend lots of time punching numbers to get to the right department.”
Automation and self-service tools work only if they are simple to use and easily understood. Automated systems provide no value if they are difficult or complex. Next time you are filling your gas tank, look at the images depicted for how to operate the pump. Most pumps have three or four symbols that depict what needs to be done. Insert card, remove nozzle, push fuel grade selection, return nozzle. Now imagine those instructions are exactly the same but before you can make a fuel selection and begin filling, you have to solve a complex math equation. This is how some customers feel. It’s important to understand there is a broad spectrum of customers with varying aptitudes regarding technology use. Everyone from hands-off, tech savvy, app expert, and in between. Automated systems should aid us during the support experience, but they cannot replace us completely as human contact. These tools should cater to varying customer intelligences and should be flexible. When implementing automation or self-service, assume you’re doing it for the least technical among your customers. Help your customer get to you quickly and efficiently.
“When I call for support, I expect to be treated with respect, for my concerns and complaints to be validated, and to end the conversation feeling like my problem was addressed.”
A voicemail box can’t detect frustration, and an automated email message can’t empathize. We must ensure that we are providing an experience where our customers are heard and their concerns are understood. I read a statistic that said 100% of the time if a customer perceives that they have been heard, they will associate that with a positive experience, even if their issue has yet to be resolved. Empathy is a powerful tool we have as support professionals to help our customers. Most of the time simply saying “I understand” de-escalates many situations and makes the experience a positive one. Maya Angelou said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In the context of customer support, this cannot be stressed enough; customers will never forget the bad experiences.
“When I call for support, I expect someone who has the capability to take the correct steps necessary to adequately address my issue rather than redirecting me to another person or supervisor.”
This is knowledge centered support. Teams need to have a working knowledge base to utilize for support. If five different customers call in and speak to five different agents with the same issue, they should get the exact same response from all five agents. Knowledge capture and reuse is the only way this level of consistency is achievable. Knowledge sharing ensures everyone has the opportunity to be an expert, which leads to workload efficiency and prevents burnout of the “go-to” people on your team. The goal is to increase the quality of support for every incident by providing a consistent experience to your customer base. The whole idea behind knowledge and knowledge maturity is having the best version of an answer available for support. In many cases there are multiple ways of doing something. The goal is to align on the one that is most clear, concise, and yields consistent results.
“When I call for support, I expect a representative who is honest with me, sets my expectations, and delivers on their commitments.”
We must back up who we say we are as the service desk, support center, call center, etc. Whatever you are, and whatever you stand for needs to be lived, breathed, and executed with excellence. We must follow-through and follow-up with our customers. There is tremendous value in setting an accurate expectation. The worst thing we can do is over-promise and under-deliver. The opposite provides an opportunity to over-deliver and exceed expectations by helping the customer understand up front the intent or plan for resolution. Ownership goes beyond support; it’s also the thoughtful action that shows we’re not just about business but betterment. When is the last time you called to check on a customer? How are they doing? Are they happy with the work your team is doing or with what your company is offering? Make a courtesy call.
Fostering a Positive Experience
Take a look at the graphic below. I created this to show the importance of understanding why knowing customer expectations is critical and the role we play in getting customers to the object of value they are after. Customers don’t buy a product. They buy an experience, and their experience is where value lives. Imagine a customer is calling into a support center with an issue they need addressed. The element that is going to bring that customer value is a resolution to their issue, but they have to go through an employee to get there. Every customer has two needs; one is technical, the other psychological. Remember that statistic from earlier I mentioned? One hundred percent of the time if a customer perceives that they have been heard, they will associate that with a positive experience. How well their psychological needs are met using soft skills creates value for the customer in that moment and during that part of the interaction as depicted above. How well the agent supports the customer using their technical skills, while being mindful of performance (target metrics), creates value for the organization and addresses the technical issue the customer needs fixed. It’s the purpose of their call.
Now imagine if client value and organization value were flipped and the service desk agent’s focus was solely on their own performance. Sometimes a fear-based culture drives this type of behavior; other times it may be that we hired for the wrong reasons. This explains why an analyst may have a rockstar handle time, a low queue volume, and other indicators that show they are technically adept, but their customer satisfaction surveys are consistently low. It is absolutely crucial that we hire for soft skills and we develop technical skills. Notice that each of the five expectations described earlier all exist between the customer and the employee. Every expectation has to do with the customer experience and not the issue resolution. The resolution is a byproduct of the interaction which is why we should be supporting people first and the technical issue second. Not one survey response said, “I don’t care how my experience is, I just want my problem fixed.” Customers have told us exactly what they expect and how they want to feel working with us.
As a team, when we understand the expectations of urgency, connection, validation, confidence, and ownership, we’re able to respond by demonstrating we understand the customer’s time is valuable, we communicate with respect, we have the capacity to actively listen, we’ll take time to build trust, and we are committed to excellence. We become a team that exceeds our customer’s expectations. As you're thinking about ways in which your team can exceed customer expectations, know that it starts with you, the person on the front lines. Your team or organization may have a mission statement, but do you? What is your purpose? What is your drive? Take time to craft your own mission statement that demonstrates why your company is lucky to have you and why your customers adore you. As an analyst, mine was “To create an experience for my customers where they feel valued so that they remain confident in themselves and confident in what I can do to support them.” What do I aim to do? “Create an experience for my customers where they feel valued.” Why do I aim to do this? “So that they remain confident in themselves and confident in what I can do to support them.” How am I going to do this? By exceeding their expectations! This is still my goal today. All that has changed is who my customer is.
Every interaction is an opportunity to exceed expectations and create a valued and valuable experience for our customers. Try conducting a simple survey of your own to uncover exactly what customers expect from your team and organization. Doing so may give you the information you need to exceed their expectations.
Every interaction is an opportunity to exceed expectations and create a valuable experience for our customers.
Luke Keultjes is the Manufacturing IT Solutions Manager (Americas) for Danfoss, an industry leader across the world of sustainable smart technologies. Luke works alongside a diverse team of architects and consultants, designing and supporting delivery of systems and solutions across the United States, Mexico, and Brazil. Over the last 12 years, he has supported organizations as an analyst. engineer, and manager. His goal is to develop and share best practices focused on industry knowledge, communication habits, technology relevance, and project/people management. Luke has a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Bethel University and was the recipient of HDI's 2014 Analyst of the Year award.