Thursday, July 06, 2006

Business Musings: Customer Service pt 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, I worked IRL as a sales associate for a number of years. The company I worked for was a large one and had a very high focus on customer service. In the world of business, it can be a maker and breaker for a small struggling business. Customers DO appreciate good customer service. If you impress your customers with professionalism, responsiviness, courtesy, and individual satisfaction, you'll have customers till the day you close your doors. People LIKE when other people make them happy, and they will come back. This is especially relevant to new businesses that are just building a clientelle. They will come back to you again and again. This works IRL and it works in SL too.

Customer service is just as much about protecting the customer as it is about protecting the retailer. Retailers generally want to make sure their customers are going to continue to be served by their establishment. But an abusive minority can make an otherwise excellent and kind retailer's life a living hell.

Viewpoint 2: The Retailer
Unlike the viewpoint of the Consumer, the Retailer has a lot more work than to just be polite and sensible. Especially as your business grows, the issue of customer service will become more and more complicated. The retailer has many issues to deal that relate to customer service, but don't nessisarily come to mind when one thinks about it who's never had to deal with it. It is vitally important to plan for these issues and have policies and strategies in place for when the problems arise. Some practices from real life can help provide some much needed guidelines that will help you structure your customer service plans.

Fraud Threat & Policies
One very real, and very scary prospect for many retailers is getting ripped off. IRL this stems from everything from shopplifting, to register scams, to embezzlement, and anything inbetween. In secondlife, some of these threats do exist and they are real worries. This makes it vitally important that retailers establish their policies on various issues early in their business lives and make it CRYSTAL CLEAR to their consumers what their stance is on these issues. Not only does this help the customer make an informed decision about shopping with you, it gives you a consistant guideline when dealing with complaints and issues that is well known and well publicised. Lets examine some of the most common ones, and look at how this relates to customer service issues.

1) Return fraud & Return Policy
This is exceedingly common IRL. Especially in stores that have return guarantees. People will bring items back without a receipt and demand a refund. They also bring back highly used, obviously damaged IN use, extremely dirty (or downright disgusting) items and demand a refund. While at least one doesn't have to deal with the horror of dealing with actual merchandise that is.. uh.. sticky or something, but as secondlife retailers we still end up having to deal with the dreaded 'return policy'. Where this gets complicated is permissionsissues in secondlife.
While permissions are designed to help protect our intellectual property and creations in secondlife, they are, in a word, clunky. They sort of work, but there are work arounds that many retailers have pulled their hair out in frusteration over. A lot of retailers sell 'no transfer' items to avoid people buying their stuff and reselling it for cheap or more expensive depending on the item. But this poses a problem when it comes to the issue of returns.

The problem is that the customer cannot actually return the item in question. Ever. No transfer is no transfer. The retailer has no way beyond honor system that the customer will delete the inventory if they issue a refund or exchange. This makes a lot of retailers very sour or at the very least leery of exchange or refunds period. To make matters worse, there is the same sort of fraud that goes on IRL to some degree going on in SL. People trying to return things they never bought, or get a 'replacement' when they never even purchased one in the first place. I cannot tell you how _EXTEMELY_ common this is. It gets worse the more popular and widespread your products become, so it is best to get solid on your return policies from DAY ONE.

One of the things that you can do that is extremely helpful in preventing this sort of fraud is record keeping. I know that we, as the artistic sorts we generally are that are running these businesses tend to LOATHE paperwork with a passion, it will save your butt if one of these rather unsavory sorts comes begging you for a refund or for product they never bought. Secondlife does keep track of all your transactions for about the last 30 days, including names of who bought something, what they paid and what vendor or object they bought it from. However, what if someone comes wanting something replaced from 3-6 months ago? Hard to verify if you haven't been keeping records.

How I do this is I have a vendor that sends me an email with the details of who bought what, when, from where. I have a filter on my Gmail account that tags them all and goes into the archive. When I get a free moment, I input it into an excel type spreadsheet. ( this is also a great way to track sales data!). This way, I can easily check if someone has bought something from me, when they bought it, where they bought it from, and how much they paid. If you don't want to get a vendor that has that feature, be sure to simply download your transactions on a monthly basis and store the information for later reference.

So if the customer can't return the item, what do you do? You can't discriminate based on what you think of an individual's honesty. Its very important that whatever it is you decide is to your level of comfort is set down clearly and followed consistantly. You have a few options.

A) No refunds or exchanges. Period. You don't give them. If you choose this route, make sure that this is ALL OVER YOUR STORE and in a notecard inside the item and in the vendors when people click on them. Make it ABUNDANTLY clear and then stick to it.

B) Refunds or exchanges within a period of time with 'reciept'. A common policy is refund within 14 days, exchanges only after that time for up to say, 30 days. Once that time is up, you are not obligated to do a refund or exchange of any sort. Although you can stipulate any timeframe you wish as the retailer. Again, write this all over your store and put it in notecards. Make it clear to customers. The 'reciept' is your record of the transaction. Make sure you keep very tight records if you do this. People will try to take advantage of you. Sad, but true.

C) Refunds or exchanges done with a 'reciept'. This means you are willing to exchange or refund at any time for any sale which you have record of, regardless of if the customer will or won't delete the inventory. The reason I say this is because even if the customer says they will, doesn't always mean they will. So you as a retailer have to be willing to accept this fact. As long as you are willing to do this, its fine to have this policy. Again, make it clear that you do refunds and exchanges so people know what to expect from you.

Whatever refund/exchange policy you decide to adopt ( or variation thereof) I suggest putting signs up or at least having a notecard avaliable with all your store's policies for customers to take.

Obviously if you have transferable merchandice that is no copy/mod/transfer, it is easy for the customer to give you back the merchandise and get a refund or exchange almost normally, just like in a store. However, it is still important to have a refund policy in place, as someone might have bought the item from someone else and is now coming to YOU for a refund. Remember, if it is transferable, its resellable. So they could have bought it from a yardsale for half of what its worth, and are now coming to you to return it and get the full value back. RECIEPTS ARE IMPORTANT to prevent this sort of fraud. Also, people can replicate the look and feel of retailers boxes and contents, so its important to check items before you refund for fraud.

2)Replacement & Support
We all know from experience that SL is extremely flakey. With each update there are new bugs and old ones that rear their ugly heads. This frequently causes inventory glitches, scripting bugs, and all sorts of unexpected weirdness. Add to this that customers may be new, or unfamiliar with building and in making a modification or addition to their new whatever-it-is-you-sell, they may accidentally break it. This means they will be coming to you for support.

While you are writing up your policy notecard, one section should be definately be on your policies regarding replacements and upgrades. Many designers provide upgraded products for free to existing customers, while others might have them avaliable for a discounted price, or some don't offer upgrades at all. Its important to say where you stand from the outset. Replacements 'with reciept' is the norm, generally speaking. If the guy payed for something, its courteous and professional that if he asks for a replacement (of the SAME product, provided there has been no upgrades or version changes), give it to him. We've all had stuff disappear from our inventory or become corrupted. Just make sure you've got a record of his or her purchase.

Support in and of itself can become a full time job if you aren't careful. As your business grows, you'll probably find more and more of your time is eaten by supporting your products. If this becomes a problem, I'd suggest hiring some trustworthy people to help handle inquiries, but if you can't or don't want to, you'll definately want to set your boundries regarding what you will and won't support. If someone gets a faulty product, finds a bug in your product, or has a legitimate problem, it should be something that you at least take the time to investigate. You, the retailer, are still human and make mistakes. Something could have the wrong permissions, be packed in the wrong box, be misnamed in a vendor. Its important to make sure that YOU haven't made a mistake because if you did, you are going to want to fix it ASAP before you get more people coming to you with the same problem. However, that being said, once you establish it isn't your fault and its not a technical problem with your product, then it becomes another issue entirely.

As a retailer you are only responsible for supporting your own products. You are not responsible for compatability or 3rd party modifications UNLESS you specifically advertise that you support a particular 3rd party product. If you do support a 3rd party product and find that you are getting reports that it isn't working, you should do your best to investigate the problem. Most customers are pretty good about waiting if you are investigating a problem or at least they know you are 'working on it'. A lot of times, they just want you to acknowledge there might be something wrong. In these cases, be polite and calmly thank them for telling you, you'll look into it. If they get at all pissy, remain calm, be as polite and professional as possible explaining to them how it will take some time to fix it and if It is legit, you'll be issuing a fix, or notice or something. Most should be happy with that. Some, of course, won't, but always try to be professional even with the thick headed customers.

Professional Conduct
When it comes time to actually enforce and use your policy remember the #1 rule of customer service: Be polite, courteous, and professional. There is no need to cuss out a customer. In fact I suggest NEVER swearing at a customer no matter how profane they are with you. When faced with an irate customer, policy is your saving grace and your sheild. Use it, stick to it. Just make sure whatever policies you have, they are fair, consistent, and readily avaliable to all.

Another handy tool is a FAQ notecard, especially if you tend to deal with the same questions over and over again. This helps customers help themselves before they have to come to you for help. Also, it might answer many questions they may be about to ask, even after the first.

Its not easy to resist the urge to become angry and beligerent with a customer that is being angry and beligerent to you. Most of us are artists. We don't deal with this sort of thing too well being sensitive, emotional, and often moody creatures. If our businesses are large, we may end up dealing with several of these sorts a night. It gets tiresome and sapping. But remaining professional will make you and your business stand above the others that can't. Word of mouth is a powerful tool for or against you. Good customer service will get you noticed and recommended.

How far is too far?
A big question remains is how far is too far to satisfy a customer? This really depends on your comfort level. For a legitimate customer, I will go as far as I reasonably can to satisfy them.
As an example, in a case I had within recent memory, I had a customer purchase an avatar I made of one gender the day before I came out with same avatar but the other gender (they were quite different despite being the same race). He asked me if he could have the other one, because he had misunderstood my vendor and bought it on a risk that I had mismatched it with the picture in the vendor. An honest mistake, if perhaps a little risky. But I had the records of his purchase, and he had bought it only the day before. It cost me nothing to give him the one he wanted, and being new, I figured it would be good exposure for the new avatar. So, I gave it to him, and thanked him for supporting my shop. He was so pleased that he even put up a sign for my place at his land as an advertisment for me. It was a win-win situation.

However, not is all peaches and cream, such as in this example, where my 'reciept' policy saved me from ( someone I later learned was) a scammer. A girl messages me while i'm offline asking me to message her. I respond via email/IM that I'm at work and won't be in world for a while and what her inquiry was regarding. She replies that she needs an avatar replaced. I ask her what it was and when she bought it. The reply ( this is all offline ) comes back specifying the avatar she wanted, which happened to be one of the most expensive that I sell. I ask her when she bought it and she gives me a month. I check the records I have and have no receipt. I have a strict 'receipt required' policy. I ask again to confirm and tell her I have no record of a purchase. There is a slight argument where she repeatedly asks to have the avatar replaced. I remind her I'm not in world, but without a reciept I won't do it. Eventually I simply say that I'll be in world later in the evening if she wants to take it up with me in person, she never replies. I later learned from another retailer in my area that this is a common ploy for the girl trying to get something for nothing. So my policy has saved me without compromising my customer service.

While this is how I do business, I know other retailers have other comfort levels. I know a retailer who absolutely does not do refunds or replacements. This retailer is very strict about it and it does meet with a great deal of resistance. But I also know this particular retailer has had more scammers, beggers, and irate, angry customers than you can shake a stick at at their door. I helped this retailer in question develop policies to help them deal with some of these problems, and while they may not be the most popular, they are consistant. And I know they will bend over backwards to help legitimate customers who are polite and willing to comply with their policies.

But it is a source of a constant reminder that no matter how good at customer service you are, there are people who will NEVER be satisfied. This is when you must brace for impact and dig in with your policy manual firmly in hand. You cannot satisfy everyone all the time. Its a fundamental rule of reality. You should only feel obligated to do as much as you have said you will do and nothing more. Do not let customers bully you into doing things that YOU are not comfortable with. Your policies are a reminder, not only to your customers, but to yourself as to what your obligations are. They are your golden rules. If a customer is extremely rude and will not listen to you or your rules of business, you have a right to say " No, I will not serve you. Please leave".

This is known as 'Denial of Service'. People can be banned from stores, malls, and other business places for rude and disruptive conduct in real life. It can also be done in Secondlife. There is a mute button, feel free to use it if someone can't stop swearing at you and being a general ass because they won't take 'no' for an answer. You can ban the individual from your land and store. This may insight attacks against you, but they will be in the wrong. Save the conversation in a notecard and file Abuse Reports freely if the individual feels the need to grief you because he can't have his way.

But you should try to use this as a last resort. Hopefully this helps. Please feel free to post any questions or ask me inworld.


At 2:20 PM, July 15, 2006, Blogger Jakkal Dingo said...

Just as a scam warning to other vendors, Theodor Mommsen tried to scam me by taking a script out of a scripted object and demanding a refund. When his scheme didn't work, he threatened to 'report' me to some non-existant "SL Better Business Bureau." Right.


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