ACHIEVING SUPERIOR CUSTOMER SERVICE
In this competitive and recession-squeezed market, providing superior customer service can make all the difference in both your reputation and your success. All business owners would like to believe their organization provides exceptional customer service. While many businesses boast about their standards, how many are truly successful in delivering a quality of customer service that keeps even the most demanding clients coming back for more?
Smaller companies may find it difficult to compete with larger companies on product price or diversity, but they can hold their own against the bigger players by offering a level of service customers cannot find elsewhere. Emphasizing superior customer service generally has a positive effect on overall company culture as well, attracting and motivating employees who are committed to providing high-quality service to each and every customer.
If you are looking for ways to improve the service your company offers, consider the following questions:
Do customers feel welcome?
Take a moment to imagine what it would be like to approach your business for the first time as a potential client. Emphasize to your staff the importance of first impressions. The initial contact often sets the tone for the customer’s impression of your company. For example, when a customer calls your company’s main number, does a machine or a friendly voice answer the phone? If your company uses an automated receptionist to direct calls, are customers offered frequent opportunities to speak to a human being? What, if any, are the wait times on calls? Keep in mind that callers placed on hold may hang up in frustration and move on to the competition.
If your customers interact with your business online, reflect on what they experience when they log on to your website. Does the homepage open quickly and provide a menu of choices that is easy to navigate? While potentially eye-catching, flashy graphics may actually be a distraction and cause your website to be slow. Think about the tasks customers are likely to perform on your website, and try doing them yourself. If the desired information cannot be accessed quickly, or the process for purchasing or ordering items is time-consuming or confusing, consider redesigning or updating your website.
Now, consider your business premises. What do customers see when they walk through the door of your office or storefront? Is the space clean and inviting? If customers frequently have to wait during their visits, consider providing comfortable chairs or sofas, as well as magazines to pass the time. Fresh flowers, a water cooler, thermoses of hot coffee, and a plate of fruit and cookies are hospitable touches that customers will likely remember.
Do customers feel important?
People do business with your company because they have a specific need that they believe your firm can meet. Building a relationship with customers requires you to identify that need as precisely as possible and make that need your top priority. If you work with a small group of clients, take the time to sit down with each one, discussing his or her wishes and expectations. If your business relies on a large volume of customers, look for other ways to assess their wants and needs, perhaps by using customer surveys or interviews.
Does your business deliver what is promised?
When it comes to customer retention, consistency and reliability of service are paramount. Even if business is steady at the moment, are you prepared to handle a sudden surge in demand? To avoid disappointing clients, keep on hand a list of subcontractors, temporary workers, or alternate suppliers who can be called upon to help your company deal with increased demand, as needed, at short notice.
Regardless of good intentions, never knowingly make promises that cannot be kept. In most cases, it is possible to explain reasonable limitations to customers without losing business. When deadlines cannot be met despite your best efforts, be sure to notify customers and explain the situation, preferably in advance of missing the deadline.
Do loyal customers feel appreciated?
Recognize customers who honor you with repeat business. Consider creating a system of rewards for key customers, especially those who show their loyalty by patronizing your business over a long period of time. These customers may, for example, be offered special discounts or free products or services; membership to a club of elite customers who enjoy certain privileges; or incentives for recommending your business to friends and families. If appropriate, send regular customers handwritten notes on holidays and their birthdays, or even as an unexpected thank you for their business. Whenever possible, make an effort to get to know your best clients personally, greeting them by name and showing an interest in their lives.
Are you accessible to customers?
Once you have established a relationship with a client, he or she may want or need to contact you regularly, sometimes outside of normal business hours. Larger clients, in particular, should have the contact information of the owner or a higher level manager with the authority to address any potential issues. Consider providing an emergency number on the company’s after hours voicemail message for any client with a serious problem.
To maintain routine communications with clients, send out e-mails or distribute a printed newsletter with news and information about special promotions and new products. If appropriate, provide consumer tips or industry developments.
Do your employees demonstrate your commitment to customer service?
Simply instructing employees to be polite to customers hardly ensures that your standards are being met. It is essential that employees receive training in both general approaches to customer service, as well as the particular standards set by your business. Employees should be thoroughly familiar with not just the products and services offered, but also with customer service policies and the appropriate response to any other problems.
Also, keep in mind that the more satisfied your employees are, the more likely they will be to provide excellent service to your customers. As part of an effort to attract and retain high-quality employees, provide incentives for demonstrating superior customer service. Occasional rewards could include cash or prizes, as well as more formal incentives, such as bonuses. Even simple verbal recognition of employees who provide excellent customer service can let them know how much their hard work is appreciated. Consider customer responses to a particular employee, whether positive or negative, when making decisions about the size of year-end bonuses or promotions.
Do you make customer service a strategic priority?
The goal of optimizing service to customers should be an integral part of your long-term strategic plan. When operational changes occur in your business, regardless of whether they involve new personnel, new premises, or a redesigned website, the impact of these changes on customer service should be weighed. Maintain a record of both customer complaints and compliments, analyzing the feedback and using your conclusions as a basis for deciding whether to keep or alter certain practices or procedures.
Do your customers trust you?
While a talented salesperson can make a sale to just about anyone once, the quality and integrity of the treatment customers receive are the factors that make or break a long-term client relationship. Whether the issue is an unexpected rise in prices, a mistake made by your business, or a failure to deliver on a promise, customers will be much more likely to forgive the transgression if they believe you and your employees are responding to their concerns with honesty and a willingness to address the problem.
Honesty is essential both in the preparation of marketing and advertising materials, and in the sales process itself. The consequences of recommending products or services that are inferior or that do not meet their needs include the risk of damaging or destroying hard-won relationships.
Do your customers express enthusiasm for your business?
You will know you are on the right track when customers tell you that your business offers them “something special.” Clients who are excited about the service provided by your company will not only return themselves, but also recommend your firm to friends and family. In exchange for a gift or special discount, invite customers who are especially happy with the service they have received to provide a testimonial for your website and marketing materials.
Rather than striving to meet customer expectations, strive to exceed them in your quest to provide superior customer service. This high level of service can enhance your reputation, encourage repeat business, and motivate your employees, which can help to build and strengthen your company.