Smaller companies can keep in close touch with consumers and clients and react more quickly when there’s a change in customer attitudes. To get results from these advantages, learn what customers value most.
As companies grow in size and revenue, too many lose sight of how important customer service was in making them successful in the first place. Companies that avoid this trap do so by keeping close tabs on constantly changing customer values … likes … dislikes… and needs.
Ask for customers’ opinions at every opportunity. The methods — questionnaires, phone surveys, etc— vary from industry to industry and aren’t as important as the questions themselves. Ask pointed questions, such as: Would you recommend our product or service to a friend or relative? What are we doing better than our competitors? What are they doing better than us?
Next, monitor results on a long-term basis to see how well the company is satisfying customers in…
- Personal attention
- Employee competence — including the ability to solve problems when things go wrong.
Constantly surveying customers elicits valuable feedback that enables the company to react quickly to changes in expectations of customer service.
Example: Ten years ago, buyers might have been surprised by toll-free numbers. Today, they expect them— and might also expect to download product information from a Web site.
Make employees responsible
When you learn what customers value, let everyone in the company know — a process that’s usually much easier for small and medium-sized companies. Too often, survey results sit on managers’ desks and never get to frontline employees — the people who turn the information into action.
The most efficient way to improve customer service is to give these employees a role in designing systems that will satisfy consumers and clients. Employees know firsthand how their jobs interact with customers. And by redesigning the jobs themselves, they develop a stake in making the changes succeed.
Example: If research shows customers want more timely information on the status of an order or process, let the appropriate staff members develop a system that makes that possible.
Classic mistake: When a customer complains, a manager intervenes and gives the customer a discount. That’s nice for the customer, but the cause of the problem hasn’t been fixed … the company loses revenue … and the employees don’t have a clue as to what happened — or why. Even worse, the customer may be encouraged to make further complaints.
Smarter: Give employees the responsibility and resources to change the system that caused the problem in the first place.
Examples: If restaurant patrons complain about slow service, let waiters and kitchen staff work on ways to expedite orders. If clothing store customers complain that sales clerks were interrupted by phone calls, involve those same clerks in developing a better way to handle calls.
Hire outstanding employees
Resist the temptation to save money by hiring the lowest-salaried workers. When it comes to employees who deal directly with customers, it’s always prudent to pay a premium for employees who genuinely enjoy interacting with people.
The higher salary will be more than offset by the repeat business that these employees generate and by a reduction in the number of unhappy customers. There’s also less turnover among competent employees who like their jobs. To find employees with strong people skills…
- Recruit friends — and relatives — of current employees who are talented in customer service. Research shows employee recommendations have a high success rate.
- Shift emphasis in the hiring process. Rely less on rigid testing or academic credentials and more on relevant experience, the job-appropriate behaviours candidates display in interviews, role-playing and general conversation. For customer-contact positions, look for friendly applicants who enjoy speaking and listening to others. A prominent hotel succeeded in hiring more people-oriented workers by counting the times that applicants smiled spontaneously during interviews.
Rule of thumb: Don’t try to teach friendliness. Use training to develop and polish skills such as telephone techniques or technical knowledge.
It’s easy for companies to let standards of customer service slip, despite the constant pressure to raise them. To maintain high standards:
- Make dealing with customers easy for employees. Invest in good computer hardware, software and training to make sure people get the most out of them. Simple off-the-shelf contact-management programs allow employees to build and constantly update individual customer profiles. This is not just for the record of the customer’s previous dealings with the company, but for pertinent professional demographic information as well.
- Measure your company’s customer service against its competitors’. For small and medium-sized companies, one of the most effective ways to do this is to regularly send ‘mystery’ shoppers to rival businesses. Then compare the top-rated rival with your own company.
- Have managers work on the front lines of customer service as often as possible. An hour or so of this type of work is worth more than the customer-service reports that land on their desks weeks later.
- Demonstrate how top-notch service helps the company. Show employees data that indicate improvements in repeat sales. Provide regular information on reductions in customer complaints. Share positive testimonials with employees.
Example: Don Beyer Volvo in suburban Falls Church,Virginia. A few years back, the owners moved the company’s management offices to the area of the showroom where customers shopped. There was an instant improvement in morale and service because managers were no longer isolated from customers.
All of these steps significantly boost employee enthusiasm by constantly reinforcing the effectiveness of their customer service efforts.
Adapted from an article by Dick Schaaf, author of Keep the Edge: Giving Customers the Service They Demand