Customer Service: by phone and email

Most people forget or simply don’t realise that offering an excellent service to your customers starts right from the initial point of contact. It is also at this point that the crucial first impressions are formed by your customers and in many cases this is over the phone or by email.  There are some simple small things you can do that will have a big impact on the way your customers view you and your property.

Over the years I have found that customers generally have a low expectation when it comes to being served by phone or by email. This is possibly the result of many large corporations “outsourcing” their service functions or simply trying to “force” their customers into a purely online transactions. The use of international call centres, “apparently” intelligent call routing (where you go through a plethora of options only to find none is suitable!) or simply making you do the transaction yourself and then charging you for the self service you have enacted on their behalf, have left many people wary of phoning or emailing!

What an opportunity this represents! What an advantage it is being small, personal and friendly. You can literally hear the sigh of relief, the softening of the voice and the added interest when customers find what they are looking for. So what are customers looking for when it comes to being served by phone or email?

They are all looking for different things because they are all different. So treat them as individuals, try to understand how they want to be served. Meet these needs and you are on the right track.

I have spent a lot of my time reading feedback from customers and still do browse through the feedback emails – I’m addicted. There are 3 themes that seem to run through the highest scores and they are so simple they make perfect sense.  Customers really appreciate helpful, friendly and efficient service -it’s hardly breaking news! If you can deliver these 3 things day in and day out, you will get some great advocates and probably some good extra business.

Customers call because they want help, either to get some questions answered, to feel reassured or simply to transact a booking.  Let them talk first, ask soft questions and spend time listening. You need to understand them and you can only do this by listening. The more information you have on them, the easier it is to tailor your responses to suit their needs and to help them in a way they prefer. For instance, some business people may be very busy and so just want short sharp answers or possibly additional information emailed to them which they can read on the train home, when they do have spare time.  Part of being helpful is understanding clearly why customers have called and what is critical to them.

Customers enjoy being served by friendly people. Good friends understand us, are interesting to us and enjoy being around us. The best service comes from those people who enjoy giving it, and customers can hear this over the phone and read it in emails. Smile when you answer the phone, ask questions. If customers are taking children on holiday, ask if they have any hobbies; what they are planning to do? All you are doing is showing a genuine interest in why customers are coming and what they intend to get out of their visit or holiday. I’m amazed at some of the hobbies people have and how interesting it is to learn about them. This gives you the opportunity to build a rapport and to understand better how to meet their needs.

If bookings need modifying always try to accommodate the customer and make it easy for them. Many customers are really anxious if they have to call to cancel or amend a booking and you can hear it right away. You can ask why, without being too direct and often when you actually discuss the situation you are able to work out a solution together that works very well for the both of you.  Being able to remove a burden from your customer without them actually knowing it’s happening is the real art of service.

If you say you are going to do something, why not do it early? A prime example where an efficient response creates confidence is when transactions are made over the phone and then followed up in writing. If you modify a booking by phone and have the customer’s email address then why not email the new confirmation right away? It reassures the customer and completes the process, providing your customer with something tangible. It also gives customers a chance to check everything is as per their wishes. Another useful touch point is sending out customer reviews or just replying to them in a timely and efficient manner.

You often hear people bemoaning the fact that some technology has made us less efficient. That may be true in some instances but when it comes to customer contact you can really score points. Email and texts are unobtrusive and a great way of connecting with your customers in a manner that’s convenient for them. Simple, useful things like links to directions at the foot of your booking confirmation email will be appreciated. If, during your conversation, you found out the customer had a particular interest and you know of something they may be interested in then why not send them a link to a relevant website when you email directions? These small actions come from understanding your customer and anyone can do them; indeed it’s exactly when being small, personal and friendly works in your favour.  Large businesses can’t act like this. The same individuals do not “interact” with the customer along the process or even at the same point of a process (think about call centres). You have a great opportunity to offer a service level that will make your customer’s life easier and turn them into promoters of your property.

Save money on credit card handling charges.

I won’t make any friends in the banking industry for saying this, but here goes.

If you already have a deal which is bad or average then it’s worth shopping
around now. You could save money, as your bank may be taking advantage of you.

A good credit card rate is between 1% and 1.5%.
An average credit card rate is between 1.4% and 1.9%.
A bad credit card rate is 2% and over.
(These rates are indications based on PDQ and virtual terminal. They will
be good for most B&Bs, guest houses, cottages or hotel businesses.)

So how do you do get the rate down ?

The first rule of dealing with bank credit card handling fees is negotiate. The second rule is negotiate and the third rule is negotiate. When it comes
to card charges, banks will try and get the highest charge they can
get away with. You can easily end up being charged 2.5% instead
of 1.5%. It’s a big difference and, let’s face it, in these times it pays to be
smart with costs. Who could ever feel bad about squeezing a bank?

We have been dealing with banks and their credit card charges for more
twelve years, so here are a few tips. I hope they lead to reducing your charges:

  1. When it comes to card charges, feel free to play banks off each against other. They
    all provide a similar service, so get at least three quotes from different banks.
  2. Let each one of them know you are shopping around for a good deal on your
    card business. If they want your account then they need to give you their
    best possible rates.
  3. Don’t feel you need to stick with the same bank you use for other services. Card transactions are mostly handled by completely different sections. They
    won’t do you any favours since card handling is mostly treated as an independent

What factors do they look for in calculating their charge ?

Risk: The lower your risk in the eyes of the banks the better rate they give and each bank
assesses risk differently (all the more reason to try different banks).

So what are the main risk factors?

  1. Time and Money: The time between taking payment and providing the service is a risk period to them. If you take a deposit in advance rather than full payment it will be a lower risk. Make sure the bank knows you are low risk (if you are). The more payment you take a greater time from arrival the higher the risk.
  2. Method: How you take the payment. If you use chip and pin, customer present, the risk is very low.  Taking payments over the phone – so-called card holder not present transactions – are a higher risk. Online card transactions are an even higher risk, but using online 3D secure can reduce the risk. You can expect a higher charge for online card transactions.
  3. Reputation: A good long trading history with a healthy set of accounts will reduce the risk that the bank sees in you and hence your charges.

Turnover: the higher your turnover the better the deal you can get. This is a simple volume calculation. If the bank can get 1.7% on 50,000 and your turnover increases to 70,000 you could get them down to 1.5% or lower; it’s worth a try.

Competition: They all have targets to meet and if they know you are shopping around for the best deal they won’t be tempted to over charge you and risk losing your account.

If anyone has any other tips or stories I would love to hear them. Happy hunting.

(feel free to re tweet or link to this blog)

Booking buttons for all occasions

Wouldn’t it great if you could have a booking button and link for all your requirements ?

  1. Appears on your website
  2. Works in an email campaign
  3. Friendly for Twitter and Facebook
  4. Fits easily on your blog
  5. Goes anywhere else…

Well guess what – with freetobook you can.

It doesn’t matter where you put this magic button: it will always know to go and check your availability; it will also know to go back to your website once the booking is done. It can be used to promote your property availability across all known internet systems.

Everyone has their own style. Design your own button. Here are a few we cooked up:

book it book it book it
book it book it book it
book it book it book it

In an email it could look like any one of these:

Book Now Book an Offer here Click here to book

On Twitter or Facebook you can use a (url shortner) like or then tweet merrily away:

“Check out our latest winter offers, rooms available from £50”

For truly intelligent online booking try freetobook. It is are you ?

Upgrading your website ? Here are a few tips.

Like most visual things in life, a website is very much a personal thing. That said, there are certain practical additions that are absolutely necessary to ensure you give yourself the best chance of getting the booking. Here are a few things that – if done well – can make a real difference.

Great images help your customers relate to your property.  Start by identifying what customers like or love about your property and then try to capture that in images.  These are so important it’s worth considering getting it done professionally.  Another option is ask a friend. Most of us know someone who is a keen amateur photographer!

Much of taking a good photograph depends on the light or indeed the timing/season. For example, make a note if you really want to show a particular aspect of your property or area that is seasonal: it could be bluebells, a certain shrub in full flower or the autumn leaves in woodland nearby.  Never underestimate the power of these images as they really speak to us on a deeper emotional level. Always label your images so it’s clear what you are showing and consider having gallery to make access to all your images easier.

Try to set your site out in a logical fashion: think about what process your customers will want to undergo and what process you want them to undergo. If you can marry these together you are on the right track. It might help to visualise the journey your customer will take from approaching through the exterior or grounds to finishing up inside. They will be interested in your rooms, your local area and what activities are on offer and ultimately they will want to know if you have any availability and for how much…then they’ll book.

Availability and rates are critical, essential to closing the deal, indeed so important that they must be easy to access from any page and in a very visible position (i.e. at the top left of the page). Don’t make your customers work to find the answers. Generally it is best to have them in the same place on every page. If this is followed by instant booking functionality, you allow your customers to book your property when they want to…..and that could be at 1.00am if they are in Australia! Do not underestimate the amount of business you are losing by not offering this. Make sure that whoever is providing this service for you is displaying the appropriate security messages that encourage trust.

Another good way to generate trust is through the use of customer reviews or awards. Reading other customers’ reviews is now considered a “normal” stage in the process of selecting a property to stay at. Make it easy for your customers to reference these and ideally have them on your own website to stop them “wandering” off. Keep your reviews current (update them at least monthly) and actively seek this feedback from guests (i.e. ask them at check out if they would mind receiving a feedback email?) Nobody tells it better than your customers and all feedback is “good” feedback; use it wisely and don’t waste it. I’m constantly amazed at how generous some customers are in their feedback, especially if they had relied on feedback themselves when selecting the property. Awards are also very useful. Though they are not always instantly recognisable to a global audience, they do demonstrate a genuine passion for your craft.

If you have any special offers, make sure these are highlighted and clearly described: they are a great way of differentiating your property and leading customers into the rates and availability process. Many customers are flexible with their dates and will adjust their dates to take advantage of an offer.

It’s never too late to learn and question what you have.  A good way to get ideas is to just go out there and look at plenty of other sites; it is easy and free to do. Think about where your eye goes when you see a new page; why did it go there? There may have been a subtle difference in the colour of the text or a “cracking” little image/photograph. If you have a great photograph, why not place your search and availability tab right next to it, or use it subtly on every page as an informal “logo”?

The use of colour is always a very subjective topic. Try to maintain a theme so each page uses similar colours and shades. You do not have to use the whole pallet! Lots of white as a background is a good thing; it just makes it easier for your customers to read the text and therefore focus on the important bits. Remember customers do not have hours to browse through your website.

When it comes to text, keep it simple. Don’t use too many font sizes/types on the page as this can make it harder for your customer to read. Some suggest no more than 3 font sizes/types. The actual content/text should be representative of your property. Ensure your key features and selling points are clearly indicated and written in a way that appeals to your customers’ emotions and imagination.

Lastly, don’t take this too seriously!  You are trying to achieve a sense of place, something that is representative of what your property has to offer. Everyone has their own ideas and views, many of which are just right for them. These are just some of the basics that should be thought provoking and even if they just lead you to deciding you have the right website then at least you have “tested” it.

How to handle complaints

There is no one magic formula, but here are a few useful practices I’ve learnt and employed over the years…

  • The first thing you need to make you sure you do is respond quickly and sympathetically. By responding immediately and listening you gain trust. Many customers who make complaints actually have a very poor expectation that there will indeed be a positive outcome or a response. By just replying quickly (either face to face, phone or email – and I mean quickly, within an hour or even 5 minutes of that email/letter landing in your inbox), you will start off on the right foot.
  • You are probably not in receipt of all the facts at this stage, so a simple acknowledgement and expression of surprise and regret is enough. No one likes receiving complaints. Having dealt with a few, you will know that sometimes you need a little more information in order to properly investigate. By asking specific questions in an open and non judgemental way you are showing a genuine empathy and displaying a positive attitude towards actually wanting to help and resolve.
  • Also use the initial contact to “buy time” and explain that you have to investigate the issue. This can help defuse any tension. If it is taking longer than expected, keep your customer updated.
  • Do not simply accept guilt without investigating first. There are often 2 sides to a story.
  • Be careful not to agree compensation until you are in full receipt of the facts. Most customers understand you need to investigate and that it is part of resolving the complaint in a professional manner.
  • Be human and treat each issue individually, just as you would do a customer. Use the complaint as a great chance to get a know a bit more about your customer. You will be surprised how open people are if you take the time to listen, and even a bit of sensitive humour can help lighten a situation. Of course be professional, but more importantly try to get the customer on your side.
  • Do not hide behind policies or jargon. The end game is that you resolve the complaint to the satisfaction of your customer and you do it in a way that actually turns them into a promoter of your property. This can be difficult and involve a plain, stark acknowledgement of a fault or error. Take the opportunity to fix faults and avoid a further complaint. Most customers understand things aren’t always perfect and many are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if you have shown a real interest in the issue and a desire to help.

If there is a secret, it’s probably to work even harder at avoiding complaints, learn from each one, identify common points of failure or themes, and eradicate them.