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Will your customers stay or stray?

Selling to a new customer is difficult. Holding that customer can be even more difficult. It all comes down to what you provide in the way of the customer experience.

Not every company does this well. Only 25% of respondents to one of our recent surveys said that the employees of businesses they buy from “make me feel they are on my side.”

The survey identified eight critical behaviors that employees who interact with customers must use to help keep them. These behaviors produce loyal customers who buy more, refer other customers to the supplier, resist price breaks and special offers from competitors, and even forgive occasional mistakes.

To identify the behaviors, we surveyed 5,500 consumers in the Americas (the U.S. and Brazil), Europe (Germany and the U.K.) and Asia (China, Singapore and Taiwan) and conducted in-depth interviews with outstanding customer contact employees in these countries.

  • Almost 40% of respondents reported they have posted negative online review about a company or a brand.
  • Half of those surveyed said they would defect to a competitor after only one bad service experience.
  • Employees’ interpersonal skills are what makes or breaks the customer experience. One third of survey respondents believe it’s more important to be “listened to and shown respect” than to have their issue resolved.

These are the eight behaviors used by employees who provide outstanding customer experiences:

  1. Building relationships. Everyone is under time constraints. The employees who get the highest marks in customer experience use the available time to communicate warmly and build a bond with the customer. They use the customer’s name and they ask thoughtful questions — business questions and appropriate personal ones. They make the customer feel he or she is being treated as an individual rather than a number.
  2. Listening attentively. These employees practice active listening so they can communicate with empathy, even when the customer caused the problem being complained about. They understand that they shouldn’t take complaints personally.
  3. Gathering information. Employees rating high on customer experience probe sensitively to uncover unstated needs or, when a problem occurs, learn exactly what is happening.
  4. Communicating clearly. These employees take the initiative to talk with customers in ways that the customers can understand. They avoid unnecessary complexity. They’re clear about what they know and don’t know about the issue being discussed.
  5. Managing difficult conversations. When dealing with an unhappy customer, these employees avoid placing blame — whether it be the organization, another employee or, critically, the customer. They defuse any tension before moving to resolve the issue. If a customer’s complaint is justified, they apologize. An appropriate apology can work wonders.
  6. Empathizing. Employees who provide a satisfying customer experience know how to walk in their customers’ shoes. They use a voice tone and body language that shows understanding of the customer’s feelings. Employees can empathize more effectively if they recall an “emotional memory” of their own that’s similar to the customer’s situation. Studies have found that doing this provides the additional benefit of reducing employee stress during challenging customer contact situations.
  7. Avoiding problems. These employees do more than resolve customer issues; they also prevent issues from recurring. They ask questions, find answers. Tell them what to do, and they do it. Then they share what they learn with their colleagues so they can improve the experience of other customers.
  8. Learning continuously. Effective employees never stop learning about their organizations, their products and their services. They also keep learning about customers — individuals as well as industry segments — so they can predict and meet future needs.

It isn’t technical skill that separates these employees from others. It’s the commitment to providing a warm, human experience during interactions with customers. It’s meeting the customers’ emotional needs for respect, understanding and individual attention. It’s making a strong effort to resolve problems. These skills are learnable.

Teaching them to your employees will help make your customers stay instead of stray — and can help make the customer experience a competitive advantage.

You can make customer experience an even stronger competitive advantage by capitalizing on the new tools that make it easier than ever to monitor your progress. These tools include a variety of customer-relationship management systems, voice-of-the-customer software, customer interface technology and predictive analytics.

Make these principles part of your plan to help your customers stay and not stray.

Sharon Daniels is CEO of AchieveGlobal, which provides performance-improvement consulting and learning solutions in sales, leadership and customer service. With offices in 42 countries, the company offers customized learning in 30 languages and dialects. Contact the author by e-mail.