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Service with a smile

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What would you do if you were out with your family for a very special occasion – at a ‘pay through the nose’ restaurant – and when your daughter politely asks for an additional bread roll, the waiter replies, “one is enough for you”.

This happened to a mate of mine and prompted him to open a business teaching Aussies to give good service, no matter what the industry.

Customers want to be treated in the manner to which they are accustomed. The old adage, ‘the customer is always right’ is crucial to strengthening the trades/customer relationship. It’s also damn useful for making bucks.

Here are a few tips to help give your service that top-up:

Ways to make service sparkle

  • Speak to customers – be cheerful and smile at people – frowns use 72 muscles while a smile takes 14! Where possible, call people by their name
  • Listen to your customers to find out what they really want from you
  • Do things the way customers want them done
  • Train your staff to treat your customers in a manner that you want them to be treated
  • Make sure your customer knows what product or service you provide so they know exactly what they are getting from you
  • Handle customer complaints with care and concern. Make sure they feel their business is important to you. Fix up possible mistakes and let your customer know you have (see below)
  • Always return phone calls to customers
  • Have a policy for telephone service and make sure it’s carried out by everyone in your organisation. Service involves the way the telephone is answered, the speed of response to a query and all aspects of contact with the customer
  • Always turn up on time for your customers. If you are in the trades, or provide a service and you know you are going to be late delivering that service, call the customer and explain the reasons why you will be late
  • Make sure you are always your customer’s first choice
  • Don’t make promises to customers that you can’t keep
  • Add value. From time to time, and within budget, provide your loyal customers with extra support or rewards
  • Ask your staff and your customers what kind of service they would like and try to find ways to put any of these suggestions into practice
  • Remember that there is consumer protection in Australia (The Trade Practices Act 1974 and fair trading legislation) and the last thing your business needs is to be in a court or tribunal for deceptive trade practices.

Of course, these words of wisdom seem so obvious, but all too often both owners and employees fail to separate their own personality from their business. This can be fatal!

Playing the dutiful servant for a million dollar account is easier than smiling at a whinging customer who keeps changing his or her mind. Copping it sweet, however, and, even copping a smaller profit on one job, could get you such good references as an understanding type, that you will more than make up the losses from the client from hell.

Caring for the Customer

Ultimately, customers make their decisions with their feet as the following example attests.

A little old lady went into a bank and asked a teller to speak to the bank manager, Mr Johnson. The teller solemnly replied:

“I’m sorry, but the bank manager is dead. We’re all very sad.” The next day, the little old lady returned to the same teller and asked to see the bank manager and again the teller, though perplexed at her return, told her: “The bank manager is dead. A replacement is due here next week.”

One day later, the woman returned, lined up at the same teller and again asked to see the bank manager. This time the teller could stand it no more. Outraged, he asked, “I told you two days ago that the bank manager was dead. And yesterday I told you the bank manager was dead and here you are again! What are you playing at? Why do you keep coming here and asking to see the bank manager?”.

The dear old lady replied: “I’m sorry but I just love hearing those words — the bank manager is dead!”

Apologies to bank managers and their families, but this funny gag has its foundation in the legendary ‘customer service’ that our banks have been famous for. Marketing departments spend thousands of dollars on new systems and promotions to increase customer service levels. It seems efficiency is what they focus on most of all – but that’s just one aspect of service. What do we have to do to be treated like a human being?

You should treat your customers with care. This involves communicating with customers and letting them know what needs to be done for the transaction to take place. If you are putting them on hold on the phone, or you need to make a call or locate a file, let them know – tell them exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave them standing there guessing, otherwise they become frustrated.

Greeting, or even smiling at a customer is no crime. Educate your staff to go beyond the plastic smile and standard phrases. Recognise customers and acknowledge them if they’ve been in your business before. Every time you do this, you reinforce a relationship with them. The more you know about your customers, the more you can find out their needs and help fulfill them – that’s what service is all about.

Know your customer!

Are all your customers from the same background? Do they speak English, or do you serve a cross-section of cultures? Are they disabled, elderly or young?

One person who has a great handle on good and bad service is Catherine DeVrye. She argues that the evidence is overwhelming that customer satisfaction directly affects your bottom line. Catherine is the author of the best-selling book Good Service is Good Business which recommends treating each customer like an ‘honoured guest’.

The small business advantage

DeVrye says small business owners should recognise and use their size to gain a competitive advantage by giving personalised customer service that large companies just can’t match. It’s a great point.

Management experts maintain that a big firm will more easily lose customers, as they often have a ‘one type of service suits all’ mentality.

A United States survey called The Profit Impact of Marketing Strategy (PIMS) spoke with consumers of over three thousand providers of goods and services. Customers were asked whether they perceived the organisation as a ‘good service provider’ or ‘poor service provider’. Those results were then matched with the actual financial performance of the organisation in the market place. The findings were conclusive:

  • The perceived good service providers could charge an average of 9-10 per cent more for the same basic good or service
  • They grew two times faster than their competition
  • Furthermore, the perceived service leaders improved their market share an average of six per cent per year, whereas the perceived poor providers lost as much as two per cent market share per annum. The main reason customers did not return to restaurants was not due to poor food, but bad service – 83 per cent of diners cited that as the reason for not returning.            

You can't argue with customer perception

Of course, you can look at statistics on customer reactions, but the bottom line is summed up by DeVrye: “A customer only cares how they feel in any given situation. No one ever said customers were reasonable human beings! And, although those customers may not always be right ... they are always the customer.”  

You can’t argue with that and it should be kept in mind when devising your customer service systems.

Of course if the bottom line is important to you, two things must be remembered: if you are in the service industry, then, give service. A customer service plan and a system should be developed that not only trains your staff to deliver service as you, the boss, wants it, but also suits the nature of your customer. You can’t leave this crucial element of your business to chance.

DeVrye advises that you try to make the job of customer service as important as you can. Make sure you lead by example and convince your staff that the success of the business hinges on how they deliver service. Why do successful operations such as McDonalds have awards such as ‘employee of the month’?  

Other DeVrye customer service tips include:

Lap up and minimise complaints – loyal customers are the most likely to take the time to complain. The others simply take their business elsewhere

  • No news is not good news – US research shows each dissatisfied customer will, on average, tell 15 other people, while a satisfied customer will tell no more than six (TARP – Technical Assistance Research Program on behalf of the United States Department of Consumer Affairs.)
  • Never simply dismiss any one complaint as an isolated incident
  • Fight to recover customers – the experts say if a customer complaint is handled well, 95 per cent of those complainants will return to do business with your organisation
  • Treat customers like a lover – if you offend a customer, consider a small gift to make up. You might turn an unhappy customer into a good and loyal customer
  • Listen to your customers – they are telling you what they want and are showing you the way to a bigger profits and bigger business.

Careful of customers and technology

Customer relationship management (CRM) has become code for managing your customers and it often involves using technology.

While having a system to manage your customers is a sensible way to go, marketing expert Barry Urquhart from Perth-based Marketing Focus says that one consequence of technology-driven businesses is lack of personal contact – and it is what customers want most.

He argues that customer loyalty has fallen, telephone rage is endemic and price sensitivity is extreme. Consumers feel that they are being targeted, analysed and taken out of the market with tempting offers.

He advises that consumers want a positive and mutually rewarding relationship and warns against computer-types showing you how to establish, manage and maintain relationships. “Interactions between companies and customers focus on the process,” he insists. “It is often motivated by the pursuit of lowering costs, not on fostering closer relations with customers.”

Offering advantages to a client can also have disadvantages.

For example, Urquhart points out that Interactive Voice Response (IVR) telephone systems reduce staff numbers and develop the button-pushing skills of potential customers. They do little for the person who needs answers to several key purchase decisions.

“So often customers feel trapped with IVR telephone systems,” he argues. “They find themselves on a treadmill, from which they cannot escape and speak to someone who has some answers.”

Be careful that what looks like an efficient solution does not frustrate your time-poor or technologically phobic customers.

Make sure you know the difference between being customer-focused and being customer-driven.

Urquhart advises that identifying primary target audiences is one thing, but learning to listen, to think and to make decisions like customers is quite another. “At all times the reality check must be – is it best for the customer?” he insists. “It's a matter of going the extra step in customer relations.”

Technology should complement, not substitute the human side of your customer relationships. As Urquhart concludes: “Without the human factor, relationships are reduced to interactions – with little attendant emotion, satisfaction and loyalty.”

Technology is one small (enabling) component of customer relations. It is, or should be, a value-added element. The fundamental objectives in relationships must include the attainment of a positive, desirable destination for the customer. Don’t forget the main game is to get customers and keep them.

Not all CRM is negative

But not everyone agrees with Urquhart. Stuart Sutherland, the general manager of Burton Technologies, believes well-conceived CRM using technology can be a big positive for customer service.

“Customers, in the past, have experienced anger because of long queues,” he says. “This anger then was directed at front-line staff at counters.”

Sutherland's company has introduced its ‘Q-matic’ queuing systems in ANZ banks, Road Traffic Authorities, or their equivalents around Australia, and in the Mater Children's Hospital in Brisbane.

“At the Mater, patients receive a ticket dispensed upon entry and numbers are called up on a live-to-air television channel which the parents and children can watch,” he says. “This not only allows better management, it improves the customer relationship compared to the old days.”

Go soft on service

Urquhart recommends that managers and staff need to focus on the ‘soft’ side of customer service. That is, promoting a sense of warmth, emotion and positive attitudes.  Those are the outcomes, and the absence of these is what is driving customers away from businesses, products and services, and towards competitors and substitutes.

For too long the focus on CRM has been on input. That is, quantifiable measures of costs, response times, productivity and management expenses.

‘World best practice’ does not equate to or necessarily lead to happy, satisfied and loyal customers. Similarly, remote located and often outsourced call centres have increased the anonymity of customers.

Callers have perhaps understandably become more aggressive and abusive. Stress levels among call centre people have increased, morale has fallen and staff turnover rates have accelerated. Urquhart says that each of these is a consequence of the lack of a positive relationship with the customer.

So remember, contact with your customers could be worth more in revenue than what you save in costs by using technology.

Handling a complaint

A person with a complaint is likely to tell on average nine other people and this is bad word-of-mouth advertising for your business. Most people don’t complain directly to you – they tell others and take their business elsewhere. Consider a complaint as someone doing you a favour by alerting you to a possible problem within your business.

Sure, you are occasionally going to get that customer from hell who is going to always complain no matter how good your service is. But you even have to know how to deal effectively with this rare specimen.

Here are a few tips to handling customer complaints:

  • Take each customer complaint seriously
  • Try to put yourself in the complainant’s shoes and let them know you understand how they are feeling
  • Don’t show anger or hostility to the customer and don’t be condescending
  • Explain to the customer what you are going to do to fix the problem. If you are going to investigate their complaint, let them know that and fix a time that you will call them back
  • As a solution, offer a discount on the service or some kind of value added offer that will show them you are trying to repair the damage. Even ask the customer what they think should be done to make them satisfied with your service
  • Aim for a positive solution – your customer will tell others about the positive outcome. And this is a win for you as good word-of-mouth advertising is the cheapest advertising of all.

Software helps

Microsoft Outlook – a software component of the Microsoft Office suite – can be used as a customer contact management system and time management tool.

Apart from managing email and surfing the net, Outlook can:

  • Send and receive faxes, and access files from other programs such as Microsoft Word. With every activity recorded against the relevant contact, you have a complete communication history for each customer entered into the database
  • Record information about each contact — even birthdays will appear on the calendar – so you’ll never forget to send cards to key customers. The Calendar can schedule and remind you of appointments
  • The ‘to-do list’ helps you keep track of things such as client appointments, prospect follow-ups, keep-in-touch calls, thank you notes, etc.


Published on: Thursday, October 22, 2009

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