Good Old Customer Service The Away Day

WHAT HAPPENED TO GOOD OLD CUSTOMER SERVICE?

old fashioned customer service  

I remember a time in life when everyone who dealt with customers would be polite, respectful, and be grateful for your business but on one of my recent pre-holiday season shopping trips I couldn’t believe how bad some customer service had become.

I’m not really one for walking around shops for hours and hours, I generally know what I need and go straight to it, then straight back out of the store. A majority of my shopping is done online, partly because I just don’t have the time to go shopping, and partly because I really can’t deal with throngs of people who all concentrate on looking at their smartphones instead of looking where they are going.

I mentioned before that I had taken my daughter on a day trip to the capital and upon reaching Oxford Circus tube station, a young lady stood in the middle of the stairs playing Candy Crush on her phone, while 3,000 people queued up behind her to actually walk up the steps. She had single handily brought the capital and the most significant tube station for people wanting to go shopping to a complete standstill while she finished the level.

So I’m not too sure what I was expecting when I went on this trip, more of the same perhaps but without tube stations. I was visiting the City of Birmingham which can be just as chaotic as any other major city on the lead up until Christmas. In fact, Birmingham can be chaotic whenever you go, but not quite as bad as it was this time.

Everyone was queuing up at the sales counter, and I mean everyone. There must have been at least fifty or sixty people waiting to be served, so you would think that the staff on the cash registers would be sufficient to handle a crowd. No, there were two people on the cash registers in a busy department store, but there were about ten staff gathered in a corner all talking about the forthcoming Christmas party they were planning.

After waiting in line for thirty seven minutes I was ready to go and find some food, so in to a fast food restaurant we went. Now this is something that I usually wouldn’t do because although the food is always consistent no matter where in the world you eat it, it’s not exactly the healthy option. Not that this used to bother me, but since I have been finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, I am really starting to have to think about what I eat. Today though there was not enough time to get everything done that needed to be done, so fast food was the order of the day.

There was a long line of people here as well, I must have counted at least thirty or so people in front of me, and at least another twenty behind me. It was I guess what they would have called busy. Eighteen minutes later I managed to get to the front and tried to order the food. Once again, three or four staff were gathered to one side of the restaurant, while three staff served. Those three or four staff were looking at a mobile phone, and the poor girl who ended up serving me was clearly becoming annoyed with both the queue and the other staff. I got the food around ten-minutes later but the order was wrong. I just hadn’t got the heart or any remaining will to go and ask them to change it.

When I went to yet another department store which was actually the first one we had already visited but you know, we had to make sure that nowhere else sold what they sold, I tried to ask an assistant for some advice. I might as well have phoned a friend. The one assistant who was clearly so eager to make a sale was preoccupied on Snap Chat. I considered asking her for her number so I could text my question to her, but I thought this may have sounded a little creepy. In the end, I gave up, went home and ordered it online and it was delivered an hour and a half later.

So what happened to good old customer service? It seems that mobile phones have something to do with the demise of good customer experiences and whilst I appreciate that staff can feel under pressure when they encounter certain types of complaining and unusually odd customers, I think I am relatively low maintenance. I might need a little advice, and I might need to be served at the cash registers, but generally I don’t really ask for much beyond what used to be known as the absolute minimum.

The thing is that I remember visiting these very same stores a few years ago and staff would be everywhere. They would ask if you needed help with anything, and they would never strike up a conversation with their colleagues about their personal lives in front of you. I had learned from the Christmas party crowd that they were hoping Michael from menswear would be going, and it seemed that he was a contender for all of their affections. Michael was going to be in for a really fun night. Hey, I even considered telling them I was Michael’s younger brother, but again, thought better of it when I realised that at 47, I was probably old enough to be Michael’s grandfather.

corporate Away Day funny 

The following day I decided to visit a local art fair. Not exactly a huge one, with just twenty or so exhibitors but one that usually has a great reputation for selling quality work. I was interested because I have been contemplating getting back in to the art fair scene for some time so that I can start connecting with potential collectors, and also because I like to show my support for independent artists and crafts people.

I purchased a few things while I was there, but it struck me that many of the exhibitors were not engaging at all with their potential customers. They were either on the phone or just sat in a corner reading a book, and a few even had earphones plugged in and were listening to music. Out of all of the exhibitors, there were at a quarter of them who were clearly not engaging with anyone. In some cases not even lifting their heads to acknowledge that customers were waiting, and I watched a few customers who just gave up and moved on.

This isn’t the first time I have been to exhibitions and the exhibitors haven’t been engaging with potential customers. But you would think that anyone who took the time to stop and look at your exhibiting space would be a potential sale, even a polite hello would be a great start.
So this week I am going to suggest a few ideas for those who will be exhibiting and trying to sell art over the coming weeks.

GETTING IT RIGHT

I’m not too sure when it became okay for companies to let their customer service experiences become quite so tardy, but I have noticed it more and more over the last few years. I remember visiting shops as a young man with my parents and I am not sure if I have rose coloured glasses on, but I do remember staff were more attentive.

I also wondered if staff cutbacks were creating issues, but the fact that so many staff can be huddled in a corner probably means that this might not be the big issue within some organisations and businesses, and as an independent artist, there is only me to create, manufacture, promote, and sell, and customer service has to be front and centre of what I do or I know I won’t make sales. If I don’t make sales, then times become tougher.

In order to get it right, we must first define what good customer care is all about. It is essentially the level of care we apply towards a customer, prior, during, and post transaction, and it is about building a solid relationship that is memorable enough in a positive way for the customer to come back time and time again.

Many large businesses will tell you that they spend X million on training customer care to their staff, or that they have a great reputation for quality customer care, yet read the reviews of some companies and you will find that many of them will not quite relay what the company says is happening. The internet has exposed many failings with companies because it is an easy way to provide feedback, and people do like to feedback, particularly when they have something negative to say.

The problem for retailers is that the internet is accessible by anyone with a smartphone and data so bad feedback can quickly go viral, and unless you are prepared to publicly deal with such complaints, your company can become exposed and suffer reputational damage. Forget the hundred times you get things right because everyone else will, but the one time you get it wrong, it will get out of hand unless you can change the narrative and convince people otherwise.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all doom and gloom and there are still shining examples of how things should be done, a recent online order didn’t turn up as expected so I telephoned in this case Bose, and I was dealt with courteously and promptly and the staff even apologised because I hadn’t been kept informed of the delay. Well done Bose.

Sometimes that is all it takes, unlike my insurance company who didn’t get back to me at all for three months, despite the accident being entirely the fault of a third-party. I got the impression that they were acting on the part of the driver at fault, and it was persistence and around twenty-phone calls and me engaging a lawyer before they responded. One day after the lawyer was appointed, suddenly I was kept informed and the whole issue was wrapped up within a week.

So what can you do as an artist or small business to make sure that you get things right?

Firstly I must admit to being a geek who likes to fill out surveys, but only if they are accessible and won’t take up more than a few minutes of my time, and only if the results are not then used to spam me.

You need to ask your customers/collectors what their expectations are. You don’t have to do this formally, it can be something simple like a suggestion box in your gallery or studio, or wherever your clients visit. You can even send them a pre-paid return envelope and ask them to fill out a paper based survey, or you could do it online.

If you have an email contact list, online surveys are generally the best way to go because they are more convenient. If you don’t want to use a survey, ask customers what they think of your business and to reply by email.

Whichever way you go you need to ensure that it is quick for them to engage with because people don’t like spending time on anything where there is no return.

Keep any surveys to an absolute minimum number of questions. You can also offer the customer to make a few additional comments, but unless it is quick and easy to do, the return rate will be low.

Consider asking people to complete a longer survey but give them something in return. If I ask someone for fifteen minutes of their time, I want them to know that I appreciate it and I value their input. More about this in a moment, but consider giving something away or making the survey in to a draw for a small prize.

Once you have the results you actually need to analyse them and begin to consider how you might make changes to meet their expectations. Typically customers will respond with a few things you can immediately fix and a few things that will take a long time. For the quick fixes, make sure that your customers know you have implemented something new as a result of the survey, so when you are reviewing the feedback, pick out the quick wins first and deal with those.

The thing with feedback is that you constantly need to ask for it. So make surveys and feedback sessions a regular part of running your business. When you make changes as a result, celebrate and let everyone know. If changes will take much longer to make, then let people know that you are working on the changes, be open and be honest.

Running any business can be tough and more so when you are running it alone. Everything depends on you and you are the single point of failure. Many businesses who fail, do so because they seriously underestimate the work involved, or the actual costs, so make sure that you pace yourself, and work on your time management.

Every month I set myself a few achievable goals and I split my time into times when I will be creating, times when I will be writing, and times when I will be doing all of the other fun stuff that comes with running a business such as preparing promotional materials for the next month, or the next major sales season. With sales seasons, I will be preparing for Easter from mid-December onwards, and I will be preparing for next Christmas in the quieter summer months.

Mark Taylor artist Pixels  

Customer care however is not something you can set aside a few hours for each month, these days customer care is 24/7/365 and especially when you rely on the web to generate many of your sales. Talking to a potential customer can take a few minutes, or if they are commissioning a piece of artwork, conversations might need to happen on a regular basis, so whatever planning you do, always set a contingency so that you can always focus on the customer care element of your business.

Happy customers spend more money and importantly they will keep coming back. I don’t even think people mind paying a little extra if they know that they will be well looked after, I know there are some places I go to fully aware that I will be paying a little more for the product, but I also know that if I have a problem they will be right there when I need them.

The day I went on the shopping trip to Birmingham I visited what felt like a million different shops, although it was probably only a dozen or so, and for the most part the only three experiences I remember were the ones I have written about above. I still spent money with them, but that was out of convenience instead of loyalty, and I know that next time I go to these shops, if I go back at all, my expectations are going to be low and I won’t look forward to the experience.

When working with customers and in particular when they are spending as much as they do on art, you cannot let a bad day get in the way of customer service. Whatever has gone wrong you need to put it aside and get on with dealing with the customer and make them feel that they are front and centre of your world. Providing good quality customer care and giving the customer a great experience should be at the forefront of any business you do. To make customer care work, you really have to want to do it. There is no room for a lame attempt because that is exactly what people will most remember.

I’m not too certain what the training involves for customer care these days but I can tell you that customer care today is nowhere near what it was like a few years ago. I have been thinking about this a lot recently and I keep thinking that it is not just that staff want to check Snap Chat, there must be something more to it. Then I recalled something that really struck me, isn’t the latest corporate trend all about sending people on away days with motivational speakers, free USB drives, and a tote bag?

I have been on more than a few corporate away days in my time and here’s the problem I have found with them.

The Corporate Away Day or what every away day feels like. 

Registration starts at 09:30am and then everyone stands around for half an hour eating croissants and drinking instant coffee. Your first problem is that when the event is supposed to start at 10am everyone is still eating croissants and the coffee maker is down to a dribble. This pretty much sets the tone for the next part.

At 10:15 when finally everyone is seated in rows like a school assembly, they continue to have a conversation for another five minutes while the late arrivals want to take the only seat available right in the middle of the row and they spill the remains of the coffee over everyone because they are trying to grapple with a free tote bag and a cup and saucer whilst checking their phones for last minute likes.

Then the motivation starts with an announcement that lasts twelve minutes telling everyone that there are no fire alarms planned for today so if we hear a bell, follow me because I will be right behind you. We shall meet on the car park three miles down the road, and the ladies toilets are upstairs, the gents are right next door, and please could everyone turn their phones to silent. At 10:30am we are already a quarter of an hour behind, and people are worrying about what’s for lunch.

Everyone is told to look at their name badge which is usually spelled incorrectly because that’s what they do in Starbucks, and everyone will notice that they each have a coloured sticker. That’s when the fun starts because members of the audience will set up trade deals to swap stickers because they want to be in the same group as Michael from menswear.

And then it starts, we are subjected to PowerPoint where everything the presenter is telling us is written not just on the stapled handouts which are dangerous to touch, but is also appearing on a 70 feet wide screen, and that took some doing because Bob from the IT department didn’t bring the extension lead and a VGA cable until five minutes before the fire alarm speech and then he had to change the bulb.

Then the inevitable happens, the presenter changes the slide and instead of a photograph of the sales floor there is a photograph of a topless Michael from menswear and the middle to back rows start a wave of giggles.

The facilitator steps in while the photo is replaced and asks for everyone to be quiet or they won’t be able to get lunch on time. Everyone settles down for a moment and silence spreads across the room until someone starts with the giggles again.

It is at this point it is fair to say that the day is lost, but carry on we do. The presenter has been talking for five minutes and you frantically turn each page of the handout to figure out where he or she is up to. Then you realise that even the presenter has missed five pages but no one says a word because they just want this to be over.

Then you have to get up and move to “breakout” areas with your colour marked on a black and white photocopy that says red zone. Thirty-minutes has been allocated to the “workshop” but by the time the same late arrivals turn up, only this time with a look of disappointment because they couldn’t swap their coloured stickers. We are now down to eleven and a half minutes to have fun and bake chocolate brownies, as a team.

Someone mentioned fun but one of the class is a secret lover of the Great Bake Off on TV and takes over the entire preparation of the chocolate brownies, leaving the remainder of the class to stand around and catch a few Snap Chats and likes.

Then we all move back in to the assembly hall as it is now known and we are told that we are running a little late so can we all go and have the provided lunch and be back in fifteen minutes.
Now the fun starts because you were sure you filled out the forms for special dietary needs and all that is now left are a few curled up ham sandwiches, a few spicy chicken satays (frozen) which will upset your composition for days, and a bunch of fruit, but the bananas have all gone. That is disappointing because bananas can help to bung you up after the satays.

In the frenzy to get a plate full of Pringles most are now on the floor as you head back in to the assembly hall for round two. You would really want the afternoon to be better but it is now a half past one and you know that traffic is going to be a nightmare if you don’t leave at three.
The afternoon sessions start and a few more have clicked on to the fact that people are willing to trade coloured stickers for cherry Bakewell’s and bananas. Some people attend the same workshop as they do in the morning and it takes forever to convince the workshop leader that it was your twin who turned up this morning.

Then the afternoon break is called and people who need a smoke run for the doors in a cloud of white mist. The 2:45pm afternoon break is also the most deadly part of the day, this is the time when 50% of the attendees will receive a call (using the vibrate function) to say that they have a family emergency. A lot of people are in crisis and 50% of the conference jump in to their cars and drive off in to the sunset, Tote bags in hand, some forgetting them and rushing back to retrieve them, it’s like a scene from a movie, lots of flames, people having a fall, wives going in to labour, no one to pick little Johnny up from school, and babysitters who have walked out on their charges. Remember, 2:45pm, it is a dangerous time.

This is when we wrap things up and tell everyone how successful the day has been, so inspiring too see everyone working as a team, how much profit we will earn, how amazing Bob from IT has been in saving the day, look at how many Post-It notes are on our parked questions board, and how we should do it all again next year.

No.

There is probably a place for some corporate away days, but if you want to give staff a boost, don’t put them through these days of buzz words and brownies because while I was waiting in line in those shops, if those staff had ever been to an away day I can tell you that they only learned how to leave someone else cooking the chocolate brownie.

When people experience bad customer service they rarely complain straight off, usually leaving it until they get five minutes to vent on Facebook. If that happens then it is already too late to do anything about it. I post a piece of art and twenty people see it, I vent about someone or something and 2000 people see it.

Corporations are to blame too because great customer service is rarely rewarded, paying just as much attention to those who perform outstanding service as those who don’t. Great service should never be optional, so companies should make it clear what is expected when writing job descriptions for staff.

Poor customer service also seems almost geographical. In some parts of the world you will get great service from pretty much everyone, in other parts not so much. But as an artist your work is international as soon as you post it for sale on print on demand and social media, so your customer service needs to be responsive to people from around the world.

There are other ways that you can create great customer service particularly when exhibiting. For many artists an exhibition or gallery even is one of the few times the artist will meet collectors and potential buyers face to face so here are a few other ideas that you might want to try.

Treat everyone equally. At one time I could distinguish a collector from a browser at 200 paces, there was just something different about them, but nowadays not all collectors wear a Gucci suit and anyone could be your next best collector.

Some customers may be irritated that they have had to wait in line or may have many questions, some customers will just want to connect with you. No matter what a person needs make sure you treat them all well. The gentleman who told you his medical history might need some support and when you offer an ear and listen, the gentleman might be more inclined to buy your work. The lady who was irritated that you couldn’t speak to her earlier might have wanted you to convince her that the $2,000 she had on her at the time should be spent on your art.

You also need to be flexible because not everyone is the same, and those who are great with people will notice subtle clues from the body language of the client, and adapt your sales pitch accordingly. None of this can be learned on an away day, it takes years of dealing with people to get it right.

You also need to be very clear with customers. If the price doesn’t include the frame then let them know. If you are selling online and can offer a percentage off your products through print on demand sites, make sure that the customer knows if that means 50% off your commission and not the base price, and always end the conversation with some kind of confirmation that the customer is satisfied.

Collectors will know you but casual buyers might not. The more casual or novice art buyers will look to you for advice so make sure you stay informed about the art world and also know where to turn if you need to give them some advice that you can’t immediately answer.
When you have customers in the vicinity avoid any temptation to check your email or Snap Chat, instead engage with the customer even if it is only to say hello or shake their hand and welcome them.

Focus purely on them and avoid distraction so that you get an understanding of what the customer wants and avoid trying the hard sell on something that they don’t want just because it is easier or more expensive. In short, make their interest your interest because it will pay dividends. You need to be appreciative and show a genuine interest with a real smile and not some forced grin.

Most of all you will occasionally need a really thick skin. Accept blame if it is due, and try to put things right, and this is really important when you are promoting on social media. One wrong comment can jeopardise your business, so treat people online as you would in real life, because in the world of fluffy clouds and Ethernet, you have very little control.

If a customer has a problem and you manage to resolve it without being branded forever on social-media, make sure you follow it up and make sure the customer is happy. It is these small details that will keep everyone coming back. As an artist, customers buy in to you as much as they do the art.

Make yourself available. In this day and age and mindful that as I said earlier, every artist is international, you need to be responsive. Whilst it is a nightmare for a single artist to be available 24/7 to answer questions, if you let people know when you will be available, they can contact you. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being woken up at 3am by a client in the USA, only to find that they didn’t realise it was 3am where you are. If you have a website, let people know when you will be around, no one expects you to be awake 24 hours per day, except maybe my daughter.

Offer your best collectors something special, maybe a small framed print, or a loyalty scheme. Anyone who buys my art can send me their address and I will always send them a signed art card, I have been doing this for many years and not only is it a way of saying thanks, each time they receive one they will remember me.

Use social media to set up a small community for your collectors so that they can engage with you and other likeminded collectors. I have considered setting up a private group for a few years where my collectors can chat with each other, importantly I will get the feedback and be on hand to offer them my latest works, or engage in the conversation.

In summing all of what I have written up when it comes to great customer service it isn’t about the training, and it isn’t about going for the hard sell, it is simply doing what humans are meant to do, and that is connect with each other.

I hope you have learned a little more this week about how to go back a few years and offer great customer care but if you have any insights please do share them with our community in the comments below or on social media. Remember you can join both The Artists Exchange and the Artist Hangout on Facebook, or connect with me through https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia or on Twitter @beechhouseart.

If you want to take a look at my latest works please do visit Marks work on Pixels

Until next time, have a great weekend.

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fine art Mugs and cupsMore than 200 artworks now available on Coffee Cups over at Marks Pixels site

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