In A Pinch, Try Customer Service

Crisis shouldn’t be the spur, but better late than never.

A Wall Street Journal article from a couple of summers ago caught my eye. Titled “Customer Service as a Growth Engine,” the article described efforts by large organizations such as Walgreen’s, Comcast, American Express and others to pay “more attention to customer service in an effort to increase sales and gain market share in the economic recovery.” The Journal cited a survey of more than 1,400 companies that found more than a quarter saying customer service would be the prime target of increased funding once the economy improved.

To which I silently responded, Duh!

I wonder if it occurred to executives at all those companies surveyed that had they invested more money in – or not scraped it away from — customer service activities when the downturn hit, they might already be enjoying increased sales and market share. It’s a real simple concept. People like to do business with companies that make it likeable to do business with them.

People in many lines of business are susceptible to overlooking customer service. That’s because they don’t really look at the people who pay them money as “customers” per se. Most think in terms of what they get rather than what they give. Customers come to them because they need something, goes this thinking, and for money they provide it, so ergo, customers ought to be grateful the business is there for them.

Much worse is when this line of thought evolves into the stinkinest thinkin’ of all. That’s when customers become not only supplicants, but adversaries. They are so-o-o-o demanding, and so ungrateful of the hard work you as a business owner put in to provide for their needs. Think of cabbies who only want to choose the most lucrative fares on a rainy day, or a home repair contractor who goes days without returning your calls because he’s wrapped up with a more important job.

This is dangerous thinking. Whoever pays for your services is a customer, plain and simple. You need to do everything in your power to make sure not only that you provide the goods or services needed, but that your customer finds you easy to do business with and would like to work with you again.

Companies of all kinds can get so wrapped up in trying to generate revenues that they neglect customer service. It’s easy to do, especially since many activities that fall into the customer service category may end up costing money, and in hard times everyone is looking to trim overhead. In the end this is shortsighted, because anything that detracts from customer service is bound to impact revenues in a negative way over time. Besides, for the most part customer service is not expensive.

Running a business can get pretty complicated, but customer service is not. You don’t need an MBA to master it, and it costs little to nothing to implement. It’s a matter of attitude and simply applying the Golden Rule to your policies and procedures that relate to customer interactions.

Most important of all is simply to make customer service a priority, and train all your people on how to behave when dealing with customers. Stress the importance of being polite, keeping appointments and adhering to professional telephone manners. Make sure they don’t reek from cigarette smoke or body odor, and to avoid the griping and grousing that attends so many lunch break conversations. Set an example by being civil and polite in all conversations with your people, and make sure they understand that this is how you expect all business to be conducted even when you’re not around.

Ever walk into a retail store and stand around waiting while some clerk avoids eye contact while finishing up paperwork or some other chore? That’s a good example of anti-customer service. A better way is to make it an explicit company policy that employees ought to drop whatever they may be doing at any given moment in order to respond to a customer request. Some important tasks might get delayed, but this rule states loudly and clearly that nothing is more important to your business than your customers.

Something else is important – stretch the definition of a “customer.” A company owner may be person who writes a check for a b-to-b transaction, but the office staff and other “little people” also qualify as customers. Those little people have a way of getting promoted into positions of buying influence. Even if they stay in their “little” roles, they may be persons of influence with the power to either embellish or stain your reputation with the customer who does pay you money.

Consider establishing customer service goals and rewards, such as restaurant certificates or bonuses to employees who avoid customer complaints and/.or generate customer testimonials. Develop a review process so that after a transaction gets completed, you go back to the customer to find out how things ran and what you could’ve done better.

Years ago, I interviewed Angie Hicks, founder of the “Angie’s List” consumer referral service for home repairs. One of the things she told me ought to be burnished on the walls of every business.

As you might expect, plumbing companies are among the most prevalent on Angie’s List. I asked her what were the most common complaints she sees about plumbing service firms. Specifically I asked about price, and she said that while price is one of the categories graded by Angie’s List members, plumbing contractors generally don’t get hammered in this area. “It’s the little things,” she said.

“Getting people to return phone calls, showing up for appointments — that’s what our List members mostly complain about. The little things make a big difference. It’s especially bad this time of year (late May) when remodelers and other trade firms are getting busy,” said Angie.

Those “little things” are absolutely within your control. Nothing can prevent you from returning calls, showing up on time, being polite, telling everyone in your organization to wear a smile when dealing with customers, and to treat everyone they encounter during business hours with respect. Nothing can prevent you from drumming it into all your employees that their livelihood depends on doing these things just as much as it does how they perform their jobs.

Humans are imperfect and mistakes will happen in every business. But it’s a lot easier to overcome those mistakes when the people who employ you look at your firm as easy to do business with.

Jim Olsztynski (pronounced Ol-stin-skee) is a semi-retired independent writer who worked as a trade magazine editor for more than 35 years. He can be reached at 847-915-2329, wrdwzrd@aol.com

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Jim Olsztynski

Jim Olsztynski has been a trade magazine editor and writer since 1977. He writes a monthly column titled “Smart Business” that appears in several contracting magazines, including National Driller, Roofing Contractor, Walls & Ceilings and SNIPS. You may recognize him from his appearance as a plumbing industry spokesperson for the History Channel’s Modern Marvels program titled: “Arteries of Civilization: The History of Plumbing.”

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About Jim Olsztynski

Jim Olsztynski has been a trade magazine editor and writer since 1977. He writes a monthly column titled “Smart Business” that appears in several contracting magazines, including National Driller, Roofing Contractor, Walls & Ceilings and SNIPS. You may recognize him from his appearance as a plumbing industry spokesperson for the History Channel’s Modern Marvels program titled: “Arteries of Civilization: The History of Plumbing.”
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