Editor’s note: This article is part of a featured series, 2015: The Year of Customer Service. In this series, we’re interviewing customer service experts to find out how companies can take a more customer-centric approach to business in 2015 and beyond. Find out what customer service experts say you should be doing to support your reputation and make customers happy in this exciting series.

In Part 1 of our interview with Adi Bittan of OwnerListens, we learned how important it is to communicate with your customers: how consumers are speaking out and using social media to communicate, and what that means for every business. Now we want to discuss exactly how businesses can work to effectively communicate with customers and deliver great service at the same time.

We asked Bittan to share her best customer service advice, particularly how to communicate with customers and both encourage and empower everyone in your business to practice good customer service. She also told us how to help customers to help themselves, and how to send a clear message that your business cares about customer service — in addition to simply offering good customer service. Read on to see which steps Bittan recommends businesses take to deliver on great customer service.

Supporting an Ongoing Customer Conversation

Customer service fails without open lines of communication. If your customers can’t tell you what’s wrong, you can’t fix it. Bittan explains that enabling an ongoing conversation with customers is all about accessibility and swift replies.

“To have a true conversation, you must be available and responsive,” says Bittan. And that means not just having channels for customers to reach you, but to make them efficient and effective.

Bittan points out that it’s not enough to simply be accessible, you have to be able to respond and react quickly. “Customer expectations have risen, and you’ve got to be quicker than ever or risk losing that customer to a faster competitor.” Consider these facts:

The average attention span of a US adult: 8 seconds.
Average response time to a text message: 5 minutes.

And as consumers are using more and more outlets to communicate with businesses, it becomes essential for businesses to develop solutions for responding to communication from every channel, whether it’s over the phone, email, social media, reviews, or in person. Bittan encourages businesses to ensure that there are systems in place to give customers a quick reply, no matter the channel through which the customer reaches out to you. Even a preliminary reply is better than nothing, she notes — but don’t forget to follow up later.

On the OwnerListens platform, for example, customers can choose how they want to reach out, but contacts are funneled either to small merchants’ phone via SMS or email, or for larger enterprises, a routing system sends a text to the right person. Either way, communications reach a representative who can respond and take action right away.

Continuing the Conversation

While getting started is easy, keeping the conversation going may be more difficult. Customers may get the ball rolling by making a purchase, calling to ask a question, or sharing a complaint. No matter the purpose of the communication, what they are ultimately telling you is that they want to have a relationship with your business — and it’s up to you to nurture that relationship with further communication.

But continuing the conversation is where it gets tricky, says Bittan. “You don’t want to be too pushy on the one hand,” she says. “On the other hand, you want to stay top of mind for your customer.” She recommends these best practices to keep a good balance in continuing customer communications:

  • Reinforce communication channels repeatedly: Make sure the ways to communicate with you are presented to customers wherever they are.
  • If you want a conversation, make two-way communication channels front and center: Note your SMS number, phone number and email first and only then send customers to an FAQ or Youtube help channel. This is quite challenging if you have many customers and you’re a small team, especially in low margin businesses. Business owners have to evaluate the balance between a volume they can handle and the value of high touch customer service. Keep in mind every customer message is both a sales and support opportunity. Also consider how much the conversation is costing you versus how much money you would need to attract a new customer, and how much damage would occur to your reputation as a result of failed communications.
  • Make sure marketing communications, no matter the medium, are sent only to those who opt in: One, it alienates customers when you send unwanted communications. Two, customers can punish you by marking your emails as spam which will get you in trouble with email providers and might get all of your emails banned. If you make cold calls and customers complain, you can get in trouble with the government and be subject to fines. To be clear, email and calling are still extremely powerful marketing tools. Just use them judiciously.
  • Respond like a human: Throw out your template responses and start talking to people as you would like to be spoken to. There is nothing wrong with an automated ‘we’ve received your message,’ but if your substantive reply is a template, customers can tell. And that doesn’t feel like a conversation, it feels like a transaction.
    • “If it sounds like we’re advocating higher touch customer service, indeed we are,” says Bittan. “With a changing world comes a time to change our approach to customer service.”

      Bittan encourages businesses to think of customer communications beyond a simple cost center, and consider it as insurance for your reputation and an opportunity for upselling and retention.

      “It’s no wonder the customer service, reputation management, and CEM industries are blossoming,” says Bittan. “Merchants need tools to help handle this shift in customer expectations.”

      Of course, she points out that while high touch customer service is certainly worth it, it’s not without its challenges, and businesses will have to put forth effort to make it work. “Businesses and employees must step up customer service to compete,” she says. “It can be done with the right training and the right mindset. Every employee should be trained with customer service and customer relationship in mind.”

      How Business Leaders Can Encourage Customer Service and Communication

      For business leaders who want to reap the benefits of high touch customer service, there’s often a struggle, particularly for small businesses. You want to provide support, but are probably not able do it all yourself. Bittan says you shouldn’t have to — but it’s important that you put processes in place that support your organization’s ability to effectively communicate with and support customers in a positive way.

      “The business owner’s job is to lead the organization, not to be doing all the work themselves,” says Bittan. “Their job is to create the right policies, train managers and employees, provide them with the tools they need, and empower them to execute. Leaders must reflect to the organization how important customer service is to them, but they don’t have to spend all their time on it.”

      To share the importance of customer service, Bittan recommends enacting processes including:

      • Collecting customer service data
      • Tying customer service scores to compensation and promotions
      • Participating in customer service debriefs/brainstorms
      • Talking constantly about customer service
      • On occasion, taking a customer service call on the front line

      Bittan says that these are all behaviors that reflect the leadership’s commitment to the customer service cause.

      Making Customer Service a Top Priority for Employees

      Employees need to know that customer service is a top priority — and that means constant communication and reinforcement of this fact. It’s all too easy to discuss customer service when an employee is hired, only to have it slip in subsequent weeks, months, and years. By frequently discussing and supporting good customer service, and making it a part of your business culture, you can ensure that employees understand how important customer service is to your organization.

      Make customer service part of your business culture and keep the excitement of delivering great service alive with Bittan’s approaches for keeping customer service top of mind:

      • Mission: Making every customer happy should be part of your mission. Share it with your employees, put it in all your employee facing communications.
      • Strategy: Know your customer well and know what makes them happy. Correction: not happy, delighted! If you don’t know, do some research and find out. For example, use OwnerListens to get customers to text you the top three reasons they come to your business. Ask what would make them recommend the place to a friend or write a good review. Ask what would make the business even better, what customers would like to see changed. Then, assess the gaps between the answers and reality. Do more of what customers like, less of what they don’t like.
      • Tactics, processes, and tools: The nitty gritty part. Put processes in place that make amazing customer service naturally occur. You should have delighted customers every day and not just when an employee decides to go the extra mile.

      Another great way to make delivering great customer service an everyday occurance? Continuously remind employees of the value of their work. “Employees, especially millenials, are looking for meaning in their work,” says Bittan. “They need to know what they do matters.”

      You can show employees how meaningful customer service is by sharing stories with employees, says Bittan. Offer examples of great service, happy customers, and the value the organization created on a regular basis. This can be a weekly or monthly email that highlights a few instances of value created. For example, a car repair shop’s weekly message might look something like this:

      “This week, we fixed 43 cars for our customers. On average, it took us 2 days to turn around a car and give it back to its owner. We’re helping customers get back to work, drive their kids to school, and enjoy the freedom of car ownership!”

      Motivating employees to make customer service a priority takes a multi pronged approach. Bittan recommends employing the following tactics:

      • Acknowledgement: When someone does a good job, make sure they know it and others in the organization know it. Share positive comments and stories. Mention people by name, and detail what they did right so others can emulate. Have all levels of management participate and be made aware when an employee does something great. Front line employees are especially excited when upper management notices what they do.
      • Debrief, learn and educate: Employees sometimes make mistakes. How you treat them after the mistake is exposed has a profound influence on other employees. This is not to say there should be no consequences for poor performance. There should be. However, when communicating with the other employees, the emphasis should be on what should have been done, not on the specific employee being a bad person, a screw-up or a loser. Unless the mistake is egregious, don’t be quick to fire and don’t embarrass employees publicly. This is a sure way to prevent employees from admitting mistakes in the future. An extension of this policy is that if an employee has improved since their mistake, show that you forgave it. Employees who get second chances and make the effort can end up being your best and most loyal going forward.
      • Train and trust: If employees are underperforming, businesses must look closely at their training, tools and practices. Not everyone is born great at customer service, but with the right training they can be. Focus training on mindset and attitude and TRUST your employee to implement. If you train and don’t trust, you get employees who run to their managers for every little thing, which can lead to a bad customer experience. You also run the risk of getting employees that make bad decisions, another factor that can lead to bad customer experiences. Only if you both train and trust will you get employees that do the right thing by customers.
      • Accountability: Have tools in place to know what employees are doing, how they’re handling situations, and whether customers are happy with those practices. Accountability creates heightened awareness that leads to better results. Consider the negative Yelp review that just mentions a brunette sales associate wearing a gray apron. That could be one of ten people that work for you. Without an exact date, time, and accurate location, you may never know who it is. The value of that review to improving employee performance is low. With a system like OwnerListens, that creates real time accountability including pictures, you can pinpoint the exact employee in question and call them in for a debrief and corrective action if needed. The likelihood of them making that mistake again is very low. One of our favorite stats is that when you deploy OwnerListens to keep bathrooms clean (e.g. ‘text this number if this bathroom is dirty’). Initially businesses get a lot of messages. Because owners and managers can go back to shift logs and see exactly who was on bathroom duty at the time, there’s complete accountability. Within a few weeks, the number of bathroom complaints goes down significantly. That’s the power of transparency and accountability.
      • Reward: Let’s be honest, money motivates. Businesses should create both structured and unstructured programs that reward employees for great customer service. This requires having measurement tools some businesses haven’t incorporated yet. You can’t systematically reward what you can’t measure. An example of a structured program powered by OwnerListens is a company that motivates employees when they 1) reply to customers quickly 2) customers give the conversations high scores 3) customers click on follow up actions to the conversation. This requires that the business be aware that responding quickly is creating higher customer satisfaction, which we were able to show them with data. To make sure there’s a quality element to the response, we ask customers to score the conversation. Finally, at the tail end of the conversation (not in a separate marketing message), we include a link to an action desired by the business (for example, a link to follow the business on Facebook or sign up for an email list). When customers enjoy the conversation, they are more likely to take that action. This balanced combination has employees jumping to respond to customers, but at the same time, being thoughtful about their response. An example of an unstructured program might be giving managers discretion to reward employees when they see great behavior, or when such behavior is reported via systems like OwnerListens. Managers might give someone an extra day off, a gift card, or some other cool perk. Done tastefully and communicated to other employees effectively, this can boost motivation to go the extra mile and remain in a customer service mindset.

      Bittan encourages business owners to watch behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s TED talk to learn more about what makes us feel good at work and how it motivates us to do a good job.

      Enabling Employees with Customer Service Tools: Going Mobile

      Of course, it’s not enough to encourage and incentivize great customer service. Business leaders need to invest in tools that employees can use to deliver great customer service.

      Bittan recommends thinking from the employee’s point of view when evaluating the tools your business can use for customer service. Consider what would make them successful. You may find the same thing that OwnerListens did: that a mobile platform that works on any phone is highly effective.

      Why the mobile approach? OwnerListens observed thousands of employees to consider communications tools that would interrupt an employee’s work flow as little as possible. “If you’re a front line employee, you probably have your phone with you at all times, you already use email and SMS on it, you don’t want or need another device or some specific computer you have to go to, to see what you need to do next,” says Bittan. “You just reply to the SMS we send and it’s part of your flow. If you’re busy, we send the SMS to multiple people so someone else will pick it up and the employee is not stressed between attending to someone in front of them and answering a call.”

      Bittan says that the mobile approach is good for managers and business owners as well, as it means they don’t have to physically be in the office or store to monitor what’s going on. They can jump in and intervene, or just wait for the weekly report. Going mobile with customer service can even help business leaders save time: Bittan says OwnerListens has had owners and managers tell they they were able to take nights off and have dinner with their family because they knew any problem sent through the system would just come to their phone.

      Enabling Customers in Customer Service

      In addition to empowering employees and business leaders with mobile and other tools that support customer service, a growing trend is to offer self service to customers. For example, encouraging customers to consult a well written FAQ or instructional video for help, or booking travel arrangements independently. Typically, self service empowers customers to handle small issues on their own, saving business resources while allowing them to find a satisfactory solution faster than they might have done with help from the business. Bittan says that this is an important trend that can yield great results for business — but only when prepared for properly.

      Bittan highlights the upsides of offering self service to customers:

      1. Less phone calls and support requests: Customer support is expensive, particularly house visits and phone calls. Cutting down on those can save significant money, especially if your staff is not adept at turning service calls into sales calls.
      2. Less friction with employees: Customer support is a hotbed for friction, arguments and dissatisfaction. This can end up creating unhappy customers who leave, post bad reviews, and simply have a bad experience. That’s not why most sellers get into business.
      3. More investment by the customer in seeking self-help creates more loyalty: This seems paradoxical at first, but actually makes sense. Once a customer has spent time thinking about the problem, investigating it, and hopefully solving it, they feel a part of the product’s journey and are more likely to be loyal. If, on the other hand, they just came to you and handed off the product, the personal connection would be lost. This does not apply everywhere, but it generally works. (In high end products where service is expected, this may not apply). Look up the ‘sunk cost’ principle to learn more about this interesting psychological effect.

      There are, of course, downsides to self service as well, says Bittan:

      1. There is less person-to-person interaction: This reduces the opportunity to clarify questions, upsell, and create a personal connection that engenders loyalty. When you start considering every support call as a potential sales call, this point of view is clear. Who doesn’t want more sales conversations?
      2. The seller is on the hook for creating self serve resources that cater to customers: Those customers might have many different preferences, priorities and shopping styles. This challenges the merchants when deciding which information to put front and center, which to exclude, and which to relegate to perhaps a completely different page. In a store environment, the space and display constraint is even more challenging. As a general rule, assume that the first step for a shopper is to reach for their phone to look their question up, especially if there’s no sales associate around. This means they might land on a Google result you don’t control.
      3. The customer is exposed to potentially misleading or inaccurate information that may be posted online: Whether intentionally (such as by competitors) or innocently erroneous, it’s an uphill battle to climb once a customer sees incorrect content about the product online. In the same way doctors hate it when patients self medicate or self treat, businesses run the risk of customers causing damage to the product while following a misguided YouTube video or following a blog’s instructions that are relevant for last year’s model.

      To avoid these downsides, Bittan says it’s important to strike a balance by having great materials available that address all stages of the customer journey, from research before the transaction to the shopping stage during the transaction, and the support stage after the transaction.

      “Each of those stages might require emphasis on different aspects of your product or service,” says Bittan. “For example, before deciding to buy, the customer might want to know about product attributes, your parking and opening hours and of course, price. While they are in the store and ready to buy, customers may want to know where the product is in the store so they can touch and feel it. Perhaps they’ll want to negotiate the price or ask for a discount. After they bought the product, they might need help setting it up, have questions about how to use it properly or want to know how to replace it if it’s faulty.”

      As a best practice, Bittan recommends showing core information front and center with a link to secondary information customers are less likely to need.

      But the most important component of self service? Have a way for customers to reach out if they don’t find the information they need, she says. “There is nothing more frustrating than perusing a website for answers and coming up short. Don’t let that happen. Make sure contact info is clearly available on every page.” Consider enabling test messaging as a form of contact, as at OwnerListens, Bittan has found that secure text messaging is the preferred form of communication.

      Letting Customers Know You Value Customer Service

      No matter how you deliver customer service, it’s essential that you’re making sure customers know that their happiness matters to you. That’s why marketing your business as a customer service organization is so important.

      Yes, you can let your actions speak for themselves as you breed customer loyalty, referrals, and great reviews, but spreading the word about your customer care and successes sends a powerful message. It tells customers that you’ll do what you need to in order to make things right, and it lets them know that you’re all ears if they have something they’d like to share with you. How can you do it?

      “Being a customer centric organization needs to be reflected in everything you do both internally and externally,” says Bittan.

      And there’s no better way to reflect your commitment to customer service than in the very first point of interaction, says Bittan. “Whether it’s the website or the storefront, both should stress customer centricity. It’s about the customer’s problem, not about your solution.”

      A great way to give a good first impression is to show you’re accessible. Bittan recommends employees that smile and greet customers, signs that invite customers to ask questions, the messaging in your receipts, your mailers etc. “Just ask yourself, if I were a customer would I feel like this is about me?”

      Another great resource for showing your commitment to customers? Accentuate the positive, say Bittan. “You know your business’ strengths, but are you telling your customers about them? If you’re proud of the value you’ve created, let the world know.”

      “Even seemingly ‘unsexy’ businesses are doing things of value and importance,” points out Bittan. “Talk about those things. Share them on social media and with existing customers.”

      “If you helped a family get hot water today by fixing their heater, that’s awesome. If you saved a customer $150 by finding them the right flooring for their budget, you’re helping them get to their goals in a financially responsible way. If you helped a nurse find comfortable shoes, that’s value. All those little things that don’t seem interesting until a customer is actually checking out your business because they need flooring, or a plumber, or comfortable shoes.”

      Point out your strengths with tools like the OwnerListens cards feature, suggests Bittan. “Share a good review, write about something awesome you did today for a customer, generate a nice looking card (it’s really easy), and post on social media. You don’t need a social media manager for that. Just make it a part of your day or week.”

      Bittan says it’s also important to acknowledge the negative and show that you’re a learning organization. “To err is human, and making mistakes actually humanizes your organization. Customers understand that you can’t be perfect but they want to see how you fix things when they go wrong.”

      Instead of hiding such situations, own up to them, recommends Bittan. Explain what you learned, how you rectified the situation to make the customer happy, and what steps you’re taking to prevent similar future errors. These days, your mistakes end up online anyway in the form of reviews. Reply to those reviews and show customers that you really do care and you really are on a path to continuous improvement.”

      Thank you again to Adi Bittan of OwnerListens! We are so glad to have excellent expert advice for delivering great customer service! Check out the OwnerListens blog for more from Bittan, and follow her on Twitter @AdiOwnerListens.