First impressions matter

By Mark G. Auerbach

Your marketing, advertising, and public relations campaign is top notch. Your collateral materials, website, and social media are attractive and enticing. You’ve accomplished the best practices of solid marketing: AIDA. Attract attention, Interest the consumer, make them desire your product and service, and take action. And, then, thud. Your website is too complicated. A link doesn’t work. The wait time to talk to a live person or a surly salesperson sours the deal. It happens all the time.

The soured creme de la creme take to social media to complain about how they were treated or not treated by your company, and a problem emerges. We expect the worst when we deal with certain companies, like utilities, airlines, and some of the others whose bad customer service is scrutinized by the media and the “woe is me” tales that appear on social media. So, we’re armed with knowledge. But customers often have a choice as to whom to deal with, so if they don’t have a good first impression of your business, they’ll seek out your competitor.

Your business may be renowned for expertise in its field, or by the credentials of its principals, or the quality of its programs and services, but if the first impression of your company by your potential new client or a returning one isn’t positive, all of that may not matter to them.

My career began working in the box-office of a performing arts center in Washington, DC. The theatre’s public relations department made sure we were armed with everything we could want to know about a program and attraction, including the pronunciation of those difficult names in the business. We, as front-line people, were included in staff meetings. We were treated as valued employees, and when a problem escalated with a customer, the organization always backed us up. So, my understanding of customer service has always been fine-tuned.

Questions to ask yourself

When a customer inquires by phone, do they reach someone agreeable, helpful, and a person who appears to care about customer satisfaction? Are they put on hold for long periods of time? When the call is answered, does the phrase “Your call is important to us” really hold true?

Whether your staff work in house or remotely, training in phone etiquette is essential. They must be well-versed in your product and service and empowered to make certain decisions to assist the customers. They should never work from a script. In your hiring practices, make sure that your front-line people enjoy interacting with people and are personable. A grouch won’t turn on the charm. And make sure their work conditions are suitable. Light, space, breaks. Customer service is high-pressure, and the workplace must be conducive to good interaction.

If your customer inquires online, through email or a chat function, how quickly does someone in your organization respond? Are they polite? Do they use good grammar? Again, good training helps an inquirer have a first impression. All email should be answered within one business day. You can have an auto response to the initial inquiry, saying something like “Thank you for sharing your concern. One of our team will respond to you within one business day.”

How accommodating are you to someone with special needs, such as a person with visual issues (large type options, speak text) or someone with hearing impairments (needing special TTY equipment). Or to a customer base whose first language may not be English?

All your front-line people must have good communications (and problem-solving) skills, appear to be concerned about the customer, good with follow-through, and even-tempered. Customer service requires a thick skin.  Basic manners often fall by the wayside, and decent communication skills suffer, when people aren’t used to interaction without a device. Diffuse the tension with real concern, charm, and a smile.

The Disney Institute (the theme park people) offers a variety of training programs worth looking into, if you’re looking to enhance your company’s public image. They’ve trained many people in the hospitality industry, along with other first responders. For details:

Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn. Mark also produces ArtsBeat in print in The Westfield News, on radio for Pioneer Valley Radio and on TV and radio on WCPC15 and 89.5fm/WSKB. He also produces the TV and radio series On The Mark and Athenaeum Spotlight with Guy McLain.

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