I’ve been a customer for 30 years. But when I get a bill that seems high, and I can’t get a response in a fairly reasonable time, like five to six minutes, I consider switching to newsstand only or a different newspaper.” – a News Tribune subscriber.

I don’t get e-mails like this very often, but it does happen. I don’t like it, and I don’t blame customers for being frustrated.

Consumers in today’s world expect and deserve instant responses, and even more so when it comes to resolving frustration over a customer service issue.

In a blog post from just about a year ago, I wrote about customer service and some things we had done at The News Tribune to try to improve it. These things have worked, but I have seen a definite shift in the way our customers communicate with us over the last year.

More and more, customers are reaching out via social media. In an article I read just last week, the author refers to six key ways to boost customer service on social media.

In a nutshell, the key is to monitor comments so that you know what your customers are saying about you. You also need to be prepared on how you are going to respond. Social media answers are many times public responses, and your organisation needs to be sure there is a unified voice in responding to complaints or questions.

The news media business also needs to look outside of our industry on how best to handle customers.

Alaska Airlines, which is based in Seattle, does an excellent job with social customer service. Trudy Dobbins, Alaska’s manager of customer care, says this: “Customers on Twitter and Facebook speak loudly. These sites are very powerful tools to get your voice heard, and it’s important we’re there to listen and assist.”

Michael Roy is Alaska’s social media specialist and leads a team of agents who assist customers. He says in a post on Twitter: “A social conversation with your customer is an opportunity to create an unforgettable customer service experience. #SocialCare #custserv.”

The key is to not just improve customer service and response times, but the customer experience as a whole. Some customers want to still talk to a representative, and we need to give them a way to get there without too much pain. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems can be good, but we do not need to make them too complicated. Many of our readers are older, and these systems can cause more confusion than good.

There are some good ways to develop an IVR system, and it would not hurt to take a look at your current system and be sure yours is as customer-centric as possible.

Bill Pawlak, president of user-interface design firm Inovdesigns, shares these tips:

  • Have fewer menu items. Because people can’t see the choices and have to remember what they are hearing, IVR systems should have a maximum of five menu items, as people have trouble remembering any more than that.

  • Put popular options first. Put the most frequently used menu items at the beginning of the list.

  • Dont forget to pause. When asking callers to press buttons as responses, make sure there is an appropriate pause between menu items, since people using a cell phone must constantly move the phone away from their ear to press the correct key.

  • Provide numbers after descriptions. To reduce callers’ dependence on short-term memory, the number key needed to activate a particular menu item should follow the text description of the item itself.

    For example, “To hear our product descriptions, press or say one,” rather than “Press one to hear our product descriptions.”

Another good practice is to not have potential customers go through too much trouble to sign up for our products. According to a blog post on Salesforce.com, “many small businesses are beginning to realise that relying on their voicemail – for calls they can’t answer – is not a good idea.”

Instead, businesses are turning to live-answer systems. They may cost a few more dollars, but the return on investment could be huge in the way it improves the customer experience.

At The News Tribune, we follow a similar approach with our in-bound sales calls. All of these calls are routed to Biscayne Marketing, a tele-services firm based in Florida.

Rick Alovis, president of Biscayne says this: “When you look at the statistics for satisfaction and the abandonment rates when a customer calls and reaches an auto attendant versus a live agent, the choice becomes obvious. When it’s a potential customer, the stakes are even higher. Connecting to a skilled sales agent will increase sales closing rates tremendously.”

Great customer service is not something that comes easily, and it does not happen overnight. Your Customer Rules!, a book focused on getting customer service right, has a key insight to share: “Companies don’t earn the right to talk about ‘delighting their customers until the basics are done properly.”

You need to start with the basics, make sure those are right, and build a customer experience in stages. Only then can we continue to build loyalty and develop a new generation of customers while continuing to service those we already have.