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Customer Service: A Powerful Growth Tool

“Customer Service: A Powerful Growth Tool”

Strategies to keep your customers clamoring for more.

Don’t underestimate the power of customer service.

Experts say that customer service can play a greater role in your company’s success than your actual product or service. Even an outstanding product can flop without a strong service component. Yet mediocre products can become market leaders when backed by a superior service department. Why? Customers enjoy working with your company.

Even though customer service is a big buzzword, for many companies, it’s only talk: They don’t walk the walk. Assigning a few employees to a "customer service" department just doesn’t get the job done.

Moving Beyond Lip Service

Top-notch customer service requires a sustained effort. No matter how well you did today, tomorrow is another day, with a new set of challenges. Management must stay in touch with both employees and customers regarding service issues.

Start by making sure your product or service meets customers’ expectations. Do you really deliver what you promise? Creating unrealistic expectations by overpromising can cause monster problems for any business.

Hire the right service reps. Some people just don’t deal well with the public, while others really enjoy helping strangers. Who’s answering your phones?

Take the time to properly train your customer service staff. Nothing infuriates customers more than service reps who sound like they are reading from a computer screen and ignore questions for which they don’t have a pat answer.

Simplify the return process. Some firms have company policies that are condescending, such as: demanding unnecessary paperwork, very short warranty periods, warranties with hidden costs and hostile responses like: "I can’t believe it just failed! That’s never happened before. Are you sure you were using it properly?"

Don’t give your customers a hard time. Follow the lead of Sears, where a customer can return an old, broken Craftsman tool, and the staff will replace it quickly — and with smile. This policy has moved millions of dollars worth of tools that never came back. Granted, such a policy may not work for all businesses, but you certainly can simplify returns for customers.

Don’t use voice mail as an "iron curtain," where people never answer phones and are very selective about returning calls. Make sure people calling with a complaint have easy access to a flesh-and-blood attendant.

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Don’t be defensive when a customer complains. Even if you are right, making a customer feel bad makes them wish they had never purchased from you. On the other hand, helping people resolve a problem without blame makes business friends for life.

Value Complaints

Complaints are vital feedback from the marketplace. They allow you to make improvements by telling you:

  • What’s not working in your company. You may learn that a product is faulty or that an employee is cheating customers.
  • What customers want that you aren’t currently providing. Pay special attention to complaints voiced as questions: "Why place that item up there where no one under 7 feet can reach it?"

In fact, research shows that if you have good service recovery, customers will feel more positive toward your company than if there had never been a problem. Customers understand that problems occur and will forgive you — if you handle complaints efficiently and with grace. Here are a few tips for putting a positive spin on negative feedback:

  1. Thank the customer. Say it immediately, without stopping to assess the complaint’s validity. And explain your gratitude: "Thank you for telling me about this — you’ve helped me fix a problem we don’t want any of our customers to experience!"
  2. Apologize. Saying "I’m sorry" helps the customer forgive your company — the first step to healing your relationship.
  3. Get vital information. Ask, for instance, "What time were you promised delivery?" and "When did the shipment arrive?"
  4. Promise immediate action — and then take it. Prompt resolution helps restore your credibility, minimizing the bad feelings and "bad-mouthing" problems.
  5. Monitor satisfaction. Call to ask if the customer is happy with how the complaint was resolved. Thank them again for bringing the problem to your attention.

Know Thy Customer

From a proactive perspective, you can bolster customer service by learning exactly what your customers want and how well you’re providing that.

Standard options for surveying include focus groups, random surveys of both employees and customers, toll-free phone lines and customer comment cards. Yet these methods may not be the most candid or catch the real problems that are costing you customers. Some more creative alternatives include:

Lost-sale follow-ups. Learning why customers didn’t buy can be useful. Call or send comment cards to long-time accounts that have cut back on their purchases or stopped buying altogether. In some cases, this contact may lure them back for another try — or uncover a specific problem that can be resolved to regain their business.

Key account reviews. Also called "debriefings," these sessions involve everyone who touches the account, including invoice processing and delivery. Discuss concerns, opportunities, upcoming projects or orders and any changes in account activity.

Customer visits. Send appropriate personnel (other than sales) to visit customers and discuss any concerns and procedures. Ask for a tour to see how customers use your products, how the company operates and where departments are located and laid out. There’s no better way to get an insight into your customers’ needs than by seeing them operate on their own turf.

Service expenses. Review expense reports and invoices to isolate recurring problems. These may arise in repeating repair costs, field-service costs, high warranty costs for specific problems and returns or refunds.

Role play. During a staff meeting or training session, ask employees: "What is it like to do business with us?" Ask them to detail both pluses and turn-offs. Let them take various roles based on different types of customers. Videotape the responses and allow other employees to provide input.

Being imaginative about interacting with customers will help you see new perspectives and gain insight.

Service Starts at Home

Treat your employees as you treat your best customers. Not only do motivated employees stay longer, which reduces your recruitment costs, they also provide better customer service.

Train your staff. When you invest in training, employees feel valued, which makes them more motivated and productive. This also makes them more confident in their jobs. Most people don’t go in search of new jobs to make more money; they leave because they haven’t been trained to handle their job, which leaves them frustrated.

Empower employees. Employees who have the authority to satisfy customers feel they have control over their jobs and are motivated to do more. Give them guidelines so they can think creatively about how to provide good customer service on the spot, without having to have every action approved.

Get their input. Before changing any tasks, ask employees how they would improve the process or how changes will affect them. People are more enthusiastic and committed to change when they control it.

Hold a focused, month-long campaign to solicit suggestions. Anyone who submits a suggestion should receive a reward (certificate, mug, etc.), and the easies
t and most obvious ideas should be implemented immediately to show responsiveness. Emphasize the significance of small ideas. If each employee can find a way to save $1 per day, the company can reap major savings.

Reward everyone. Too often, salespeople receive rewards — including major monetary ones — while the support staff is ignored. Don’t send the message that service is less important than selling. Provide comparable rewards in all areas. That may require setting up measuring sticks to record how well departments perform or encouraging feedback when salespeople receive extraordinary help.

Employees often receive attention only when they make a mistake. They need to know that their contributions are noticed and appreciated. Big bonuses aren’t necessary. Acknowledge and reward small successes with pizza parties, small gifts, a day off or even a sincere round of applause.

One final word: Consider the cost of finding and selling a new account. Then consider the cost of keeping existing accounts with good customer service. Good customer service is the cheapest salesperson you’ll ever hire.