If anything strikes fear in the heart of a business owner who is proud of his company's customer service, it is an unhappy customer telling others he is displeased. It used to be that one person upset by Company X's treatment told an average of eight to ten friends. Then those people told even more and, before long, maybe one hundred people knew of the bad experience.
Now, anyone can share a bad customer service experience by writing an e-mail, posting on a blog, or sending an update to Twitter, and soon the tale—fair or unfair, good or bad, true or false—is on its way around the world. If the old eight-to-ten figure gave you chills, the new figures will to knock you off your feet.
With the economy in tatters, people feel overwhelmed and concerned about their light wallets. While you cannot control the current state of the economy, you can show your customers you care. Treating mistakes casually, or repeating them, can cause even your strongest supporters to remind you they have choices and can take their money elsewhere. But if your company values great customer service you will back it up with actions and build a good foundation to survive the occasional dissatisfied customer. You could even achieve despite an economy where many are suffering losses.
How do you build these foundations? Cohesively.
The cost of acquiring a new customer is ten times the cost of keeping the ones you already have. You need to get out the polishing cloth and burnish the customer service skills of everyone in the organization. That's right—everyone. The customer sees you as Company X, not just a loose collection of departments under the same roof. If a customer service situation arises you must correct the error as soon as possible in a cohesive manner. No telephone tag, no sending the customer from person to person, and no instructions to the customer that begin with, "You will have to" or "You need to."
If you know which actions drive customers away, you know which ones keep them around. You must emphasize good customer service practices to your employees and continue to build on them to improve.
Even though every industry is different, customers often look for and expect universal service standards:
- Attention to detail. If a customer is in a hurry, offer immediate help. Teach employees disposition and awareness.
- Consistent performance. Good service today means good service tomorrow. Create a work environment that does not lend itself to mood swings.
- Help when it is needed. Twenty-four hour service is only good if it's actually 24 hours. Don't promise more than you are willing to deliver. Don't put phone customers on hold for "a minute" that stretches into five, then seven, then more.
- Knowledgeable staff. This means employees must know both the product and the company well. They should be able to see the "bigger picture" in order to offer the best possible service to their customers.
- Flexibility. If a customer needs immediate help, what can you offer? Do you know your customers by name—well enough to know their special needs and be able to listen when they have a problem? Or do you operate by a rigid set of one-size-fits-all rules?
- Convenience. Are you easy to find on the internet? If someone wants to visit your store, is your address clearly visible from the street? Is parking always available? If customers dial your number, will they talk to a real person? If you use an automated phone system, is it clear and easy to operate?
This customer wish list is deceptively simple. Just because it makes sense does not mean every worker agrees with it and does everything on it. Good leaders will set customer service expectations that are in line with their company, hire people who match the organization's values, and train them continually to deliver what customers want. Monitoring customer service behavior throughout the organization to correct missteps swiftly always is a good idea.
The excellent customer service you offer may present you with a new kind of math—so many happy customers telling so many others about you that you and your workers can barely keep up with the good word-of-mouth.
Jim Sirbasku is CEO of Profiles International, Inc., which helps with the selecting and developing of high-performance workforces through human resource management solutions and a suite of employment assessments.