What is “exceptional” customer service? It’s difficult to define, but you know when you have received it. It is an experience in which a service representative helped change a stressful situation into a relaxing one. If you get on the phone with a service rep, or start an email chain to a support department about something that is driving you crazy, and a few hours later your entire day is better because you did it, you have experienced “exceptional” customer service.
What are “exceptional” customers? When I say exceptional customers here I’m really thinking in the context of skill, training and experience. In my case, I’m generally dealing with DBAs and developers. Now, let’s take that a step further and say that I’m generally dealing with very experienced SQL Server DBAs and developers. Given this context, it’s much easier to understand what I mean by “exceptional.” These aren’t folks who just bought a new TV, and are upset because it didn’t come with an HDMI cable. These are people who have spent years shaping their craft, and building their own library of skills and experience. They are indeed “exceptional.”
Following are some Dos and Don’ts that can be considered when attempting to provide exceptional service to exceptional customers:
Do spend as much time as possible learning everything you can about whatever it is that you support, including subjects that are part of the same domain.
For example, if you support a tool like SQL Sentry, you will want to know as much as you can about SQL Sentry, Windows, Virtualization, SQL Server, SSAS, SSIS, SSRS, SharePoint and Oracle, and this is just the short list. You can break all of these down into the specific subsystems you would want to know deeply. Providing support to exceptional customers requires a deep understanding of what they do. You don’t have to know everything they know (which would be quite difficult considering the broad range of subjects), but you do need to understand their language.
Don’t always rely on your management or organization to decide where, when and how to train you.
A wise manager once told me that I should never count on anyone but myself to drive my career. The same applies to training. Continuously review yourself to know what training you need, and either seek it directly or ask for it.
Do be aware of, and prepared for, the fact that you may be talking to someone who knows more than you do about several subjects.
Exceptional customers know their stuff. Do not ever try and fake your way through a conversation with them. Be prepared to take a subject offline, and do the research in order to be able to effectively communicate with them about whatever it is.
Don’t make any assumptions about a customer’s background, experience, expertise or role in their organization.
This really speaks for itself. Making assumptions in general is something that should be avoided.
Do learn to put any life and/or professional issues aside when working with a customer.
In any support role you have to have some acting ability, but even more so with exceptional customers. They will expect consistent and rational behavior, so you have to be able to forget whatever else is going on, and focus on the moment. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be yourself, but you may have to put on the face of the best “you” you can be, even if on a personal level, you are not at 100%.
Don’t allow a bad mood to be reflected in your customer interactions.
It’s surprising how easily a negative tone can come across. For example, in an email, if you are normally very wordy, and suddenly you send a short response, it can be seen as carrying a negative tone. Don’t let the fact that you’re having a tough day affect your consistency.
Do let customers know the status of your effort.
Your customers will appreciate a simple note from a real person saying that their issue is being reviewed or worked on. You may not have an answer right away, but get an initial non-automated response to them as soon as possible.
Don’t avoid communication simply because there is nothing new to report.
If you’re working on something long term, provide updates at reasonable intervals. Every day is too often, but every 2 weeks is too long. I tend to target the middle of the week on a weekly basis. That way you aren’t hitting them with it when their week is getting started, and you also aren’t sending it when they are starting to wind down. Even if you haven’t made any new progress, let them know you’re still there.
Do track customer satisfaction, accuracy of information, and efficiency.
It is important to know how you and your team are doing, but measure your efforts by the results being produced.
Don’t measure performance by numbers.
Measuring performance based on the number of “tickets” you close is setting you up to create angry customers. It will ultimately motivate your team to cut corners, and only provide the bare minimum level of service to close incidents. If you measure numbers at all, you should use these measurements for planning capacity.
Do escalate by adding a person rather than handing off to a person.
If you need to get another person involved, do it by adding a person. This way at every escalation level you have folks that are familiar with the entire case. The customer will not feel like they’ve been transferred, and every support engineer involved continues to learn from the effort.
Transferring between people and departments is very frustrating for customers. When is the last time you were happy about being transferred?
Do know where your support ends, and someone else’s should begin.
Unfortunately, we can’t always know everything or solve every problem. Some issues turn out to be bugs in a hosting platform, or otherwise completely outside of any help you can offer. It is important to recognize when you have reached this point, and to be prepared to help the customer with the next step, which may even be a referral to another service. If you have to make that referral, do everything you can to help them transition to that next step, and continue to follow up until everything is resolved, or you know they are in good hands elsewhere.
Don’t continue to spend your customer’s valuable time on issues far outside the scope of your offering.
When you have reached the end of your ability to provide help, do not keep hanging on trying to solve something that you are not equipped to solve. Imagine how you would feel if your water heater stopped working, so you called in a plumber. The plumber discovered there was something wrong with your electricity and decided to make it his personal mission to fix your electricity. Three weeks later, when he finally gives up, you have to call an electrician and spend 5x as much as if the plumber would have just referred you to an electrician in the beginning. For your customer’s sake and your own, go ahead and let them know when you are at the end of what you can offer.
Do learn to see all sides of a situation, and put yourself on each side.
This can really make all the difference. If you can get into the customer’s shoes and truly understand what they are going through to the point that, even for just a moment, you feel it yourself, you will be in a position to provide exceptional support.
Don’t approach incidents from an angle of selfishness.
Never rush an incident because you have to get to a meeting, or because it is late on Friday, or for any reason! If you are not prepared to be completely available for the customer, for as long as you are needed, then you shouldn’t start on the incident yet. It is better to have to wait a bit longer than to have a bad support experience that sticks in your mind forever. If you have to wait, just make sure you respond to let the customer know their issue is in the hands of a real person.
If you want to provide exceptional customer service (which you should want to!), and you are working with experienced, exceptional customers, just remember that you need to be on your game as much as they are. They expect it, and they have earned it!
Until next time,