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SUPERIOR CUSTOMER SERVICEHow to Keep Customers Racing Back to Your Business-Time-Tested Examples from Leading Companies
By Dan W. Blacharski
Atlantic Publishing Group, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Atlantic Publishing Group, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBasics of Customer Service
Everybody's heard the expressions service with a smile, the customer is always right, and have a can-do attitude. We may have heard them so many times that they have become meaningless, but running a business today is more competitive than it has ever been, and providing the best customer service possible is often the only thing that can differentiate you from the competition.
Of course, there's a lot more to customer service than creating a lot of trite expressions and posting them on your break room bulletin board. Expressions like the customer is always right are all well and good, and they are important, but one must take a look at what's behind those expressions when creating a good customer service implementation. It involves creating a detailed strategy, implementing good customer service tactics, and, increasingly, using technology to help bring it all about. And in the spirit of modern-day management, we have even assigned this process a three-letter initialism: CRM (Customer Relationship Management).
But even before sophisticated business models and computer technology transformed the art of customer service into more of an exact science, customer service existed. When Mr.Macy started his first store, he made his customers feel welcome. When Mr. Ford made his first automobile, he did so with the intention of making his product accessible to the masses. Donut shop proprietors sometimes have a pleasant habit of putting "a little extra" into your box of a dozen, and modern department stores tend to go easy on you when you want to return something the next day but forgot your receipt.
THE CUSTOMER SERVICE GOLDEN RULE
Think of it as a customer service Golden Rule. How would you like to be treated when you go into a store? What kind of experience do you want when you shop online? Do you want to go through a lot of hassle, fill out a long form, and wait for a manager to come out and sign it, when all you want to do is exchange your 40-watt light bulbs for a pack of 60-watt bulbs? Let's take a quick look at the history of this Golden Rule, a philosophy that has been handed down throughout the ages:
"All things therefore that you want people to do to you, do thus to them." - Christian
"Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." - Buddhist
"That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind." - Islam
"Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you." - Confucianism
Customer service, in fact, has its roots in these simple and ancient philosophies. Regardless of the philosophy, these basic rules for living (and for the purpose of this book, for doing business) are based around the irrevocable fact that all people should have dignity, and there is a difference between right and wrong. We take into account how others feel and what they desire, and we try to do right by them when we are running a business. In doing so, we can feel better about ourselves as individuals, sleep the sleep of the righteous-and, ultimately, reap the rewards of our good deeds in terms of a successful and profitable business.
Although there has been customer service in one form or another for as long as there has been commerce, it has been varied in its approach. Today's era of e-commerce has created an environment where it is extraordinarily easy to compare prices, and even easier to switch suppliers. Buyers have easy access to conveniences like e-business exchanges, where they can see not only what you have to offer, but also what all your competitors-all around the world-have to offer as well, and at what price. Before this e-commerce model came into play, manufacturers, for example, frequently were at the mercy of their suppliers. They had to sort through massive paper parts catalogs and were often locked into long-term deals that gave suppliers, not their customers, the upper hand. It was, in many cases, difficult to switch, so customers tended to stick with the suppliers they had. This tendency didn't go unnoticed by suppliers. The supplier would not bend to accommodate the customer; rather, the customer had to bend to accommodate the conveniences of the supplier.
This is no longer the trend. As Forrester Research notes, "No longer can a company lay claim to a market segment and have free reign over the customers in that area." Customers and prospective customers have broader access to information today, and a global perspective on business, driven by the Internet, has changed the face of commerce-and as a consequence, customer service-forever. More companies have multiple distribution channels and global outlets, and even smaller companies can now compete on an international scale. These factors have made it difficult to set one's company apart from the pack. Differentiation has become blurred. Selling a product in this environment, especially online, is a great challenge when there are hundreds of other companies offering equivalent products at equivalent prices.
SETTING YOUR COMPANY APART
How can you, as a company, compete in this environment? There are more small fish in an increasingly large pond, all competing for the same piece of the action. The only solution is to find a way to set your company apart from the pack. Of course, you will strive to offer quality products at a reasonable price. But this no longer puts you ahead of the rest; it only puts you on an even playing level, even after you have already cut your prices to the bone. Besides competition from the global Internet, smaller companies, especially retailers, face price pressure from big-box retailers, further driving down prices and cutting margins. No, offering good products at the best prices won't set you apart; it will only keep you from sinking.
One of the only ways left to differentiate yourself from the increasing competition is to offer better customer service. Doing so requires a concentrated effort throughout the company, from top to bottom. Customer service is not just the responsibility of the service center or the call center. It's not limited to those who have first contact with the customer. Rather, it must come out of a comprehensive, integrated strategy that involves every single area of the company.
When customers buy a product from you, more often than not, it's a product that they could have gotten at any one of a hundred other places, and probably at the same price. There are three types of impressions that you can leave:
1. The customers had a neutral experience, neither bad nor good. Their product works to their expectations. You won't stand out in the customers' mind later on, and when they need another one, they will more than likely purchase it from whichever place is more convenient. There's no particular reason for them to come back to you. You have maybe a 50-50 chance of getting repeat business; less if there are more shops in your area that offer the same thing. 2. The customers had a bad experience. Perhaps the product works as expected and the price was reasonable, but a sales clerk ignored them or they had to wait in line too long. Your employees may not have been dressed professionally. Maybe the free coffee in your waiting room was stale and you were out of sugar. Unless you're a regulated monopoly and customers can't go elsewhere, you're out of luck here. No repeat business for you. 3. The customers had a positive experience. The product worked and was priced reasonably. They were served promptly by a friendly employee who answered all their questions and recommended a companion product that turned out to be a good buy as well. Your employee also recognized the customers as having been in before, greeted them by name, and gave them a free calendar. Next time, those customers will come back to you, even if somebody closer offers the same thing.
BUY-IN FROM MANAGEMENT
If you want your customer service to be the best, your customer service implementation, strategies, and CRM technology must start with a management buy-in. If the top brass doesn't actively support a customer service initiative, it won't succeed. There's a reason for this: customer service goes beyond the customer service department, and for this strategy to infiltrate the entire organization, it must start from the top and filter down.
That's not to say that the idea must come from the top brass, and more often than not, it doesn't. It's a matter of presenting the concept of improving customer service-and spending money on it-that must be presented effectively to the decision-makers to get their participation. Some customer service doesn't cost anything extra for the company: It doesn't cost anything extra for employees to keep a friendly attitude or to go out of their way to answer a question. Some customer service comes at only a very trivial expense; keeping fresh coffee in your waiting room is an example. But some customer service can be costly: Software systems designed to help your entire organization provide more efficient service to your customers can represent a major investment, and for this, there must be support at the highest levels.
The first thing you have to deal with in trying to get buy-in from executive staff is the attitude that customer service is a cost center. When something is seen as a cost center, it's often also seen as an area that can be cut-and is often the first one to get the axe when there's a budget crisis. "Need to trim the budget? No problem, let's lay off a few customer service guys."
That's the mindset that must be changed, and a good argument can be made that customer service is, in reality, much more than a cost center. It can also be a center for preserving existing revenue, and for generating new revenue as well. There are two areas your customer service department will make you money:
1. A good customer service center is an essential component in getting repeat business and referral business from happy customers.
2. A good customer service center will know the customers well enough to anticipate their needs. Cross-sell and up-sell, two very big revenue centers, come mainly out of the customer service center. Every contact with a customer is an opportunity for cross-sell and up-sell.
THINGS YOUR CUSTOMERS DON'T WANT TO HEAR
How many times have you, as a customer, been frustrated when trying to conduct a simple transaction that has been made unduly complicated by a beady-eyed underling bent on making your life miserable? Said underling goes "by the book." Strictly. At all times. And "the book" was written by people who never have to deal with customers directly, and it was written to accommodate back-end business processes that are, for the most part, obsolete anyway.
1. "Your order is held up in the accounting department." Customers don't want to hear that their business is being delayed by a bunch of bean-counters!
2. "It takes a few days for that to go through processing." This vague delay tactic implies that your customer's order is being delayed because it is on the bottom of a stack of papers on some underpaid clerk's desk. Why should processing take more than a few hours?
3. "Oh, it looks like that didn't go through because you didn't fill out Form XG7-195234, Part 2-C(19)iii correctly. I'll send that back to you and you can re-submit." Government agencies and regulated monopolies may get away with this, but you won't last long in business this way.
4. "Sorry, the computer won't let me ring it up that way." Computers are meant to make things more flexible. If the computer won't accommodate a customer, you need to change your computer programs, now.
5. "My department doesn't handle that." Customers don't care which department handles that; they just want it handled. Two words: integrated systems. 6. "I don't know." The worst response of all. Your company has computers, and information can and should be shared. There's no excuse for this at all.
Virtually all of these no-nos can be avoided with a more integrated approach to customer service. When every business process is created with an orientation toward serving the customer, none of these things will ever have to be said; this means every business process in every department in the entire company.
CUSTOMER-CENTRIC BUSINESS PROCESSES AND "THE EXTRA DONUT"
Implementing a strong customer service project involves changing every business process in the company to accommodate the customer. When a business process-any business process-is designed without thinking about the customer, the result is inevitably disastrous. IT is notorious for this. Computer programs, which ultimately serve customers or are used by customers to gain information about their accounts, are designed by IT, often for the convenience of IT. However, what makes perfectly logical sense to a computer programmer may be a convoluted mess to a customer. When designing a customer-facing program, IT must focus not only on how to make the program run efficiently on the back end, they must also design the program so it is friendly to the customer on the front end.
Part of creating customer-centric processes is the culture of extra effort. If you've ever visited New Orleans, you may be familiar with the word "lagniappe." Roughly translating to "a little bit extra," it's a culture of doing business that means putting forth extra effort, or giving customers more than they bargained for. It's the extra donut in the box.
When the sales clerk goes into the backroom and fishes out that pair of shoes that just suits you perfectly, instead of trying to sell you the ones that are "just okay," that's lagniappe. When tech support helps you fix your computer problem, even though it doesn't originate with their software, that's lagniappe. When the shop owner doesn't have what you want, and tells you which of his competitors do, that's lagniappe and then some.
THE CUSTOMER SERVICE MINDSET
In the coming chapters, I will talk a lot about strategies and tactics, and a lot about specific pieces of technology you can use to help create superior customer service. But aside from all the software, consultants, and three-letter initialisms, it all comes down to a frame of mind. There's a certain mindset involved in customer service, a culture, if you will, that must dominate the entire corporation, from the CEO down to the person who empties the wastebaskets at night.
Developing this mindset requires three things:
1. Hiring "customer-oriented" employees At some point or another, almost everyone in the company will have some type of interaction with a customer, even if that interaction is indirect. When a job candidate says to you, "I would prefer to work in the back office because I'm just not a 'people person,'" then it's time to keep looking.
No department operates in a vacuum, and every single process, every single task that is completed, no matter how obscure or mundane, will affect the customer in some way.
2. Creating a positive work environment Happy employees translate to happy customers. Creating and maintaining a positive work environment, free from office politics, hostility, and other nastiness, will help employees be in a service-oriented mood. And besides that, workplace hostility can lead to lawsuits!
3. Providing ongoing customer service training Customer service training, first for all customer-facing employees but ultimately for everybody, is essential. Creating a culture of service requires constant vigilance, training, and education. In-service classes on customer service techniques, as well as classes on using customer-facing software applications and CRM tools effectively, will help you get the most out of what you have.
WHAT DOES YOUR COMPANY LOOK LIKE FROM THE OUTSIDE?
Part of developing the customer service mindset is looking the part. In some businesses, many employees will have actual contact with customers, and it makes sense to require them to look presentable. But what about the back office? Appearance there, too, makes a big difference, for two reasons: 1) There may be times when a customer or business partner must visit, or at least walk through, the business office, and 2) an overall professional appearance just helps to create a culture of service.
Excerpted from SUPERIOR CUSTOMER SERVICE by Dan W. Blacharski Copyright © 2006 by Atlantic Publishing Group, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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