You may not be able to precisely define good customer service, but you know it when you see it. Does it begin before the sale with the image and message your company presents? Is it the process by which you handle customer complaints? Or is it the total customer experience from the time of initial contact until your product or service is delivered, payment is made, and the purchaser is satisfied? Whatever your definition, customer service is an essential - and possibly the most significant - element of business survival and success.
The essence of customer service is anticipating and meeting your customer's needs quickly, fairly and completely. In the digital world, customer service means that the marketing, sales, and delivery of specific products and services are perfectly aligned with the needs and desires of each specific customer who purchases the product or service. Every interaction between company and customer is designed to avoid disappointment and enhance satisfaction.
Prerequisites to Great Customer Service
There is no single, perfect model of great customer service, no specific methodology you can implement, nor a recipe to follow that will guarantee that your company always delivers total customer satisfaction. The best companies understand that fulfilling each customer's needs is a constant struggle that never ends. But their reward for persistently improving the customer's experience is escalating revenues and profits.
1. Know Your Customer
Customer service begins and ends with truly understanding your customers, what makes them tick, what makes them happy and what frustrates them. Are your intended customers young or old? Male, female or both? Are they price-conscious or value-driven? Are they technical Luddites or technology professionals?
Build profiles of your targeted customer groups, those people most likely to need and use your products, and compare your actual customer demographic with your targeted customer profile. Hypothesize their motives for buying your product or service and test your hypothesis with real-life research through customer surveys, face-to-face interviews and personal observations. If you don't understand your customers, it is virtually impossible to fulfill their expectations.
2. Understand Your Customer's Expectations
The art of marketing is convincing potential buyers that your products fulfill their needs, both recognized and dormant - but customer service is the science of discovering and exceeding explicit and implicit expectations about company and customer interactions. Expectations for one product versus another, different companies, and even industries vary widely, so you need to develop your own high standard based upon your particular customers.
For instance, to a Walmart patron, good customer service is a wide selection of products, self-service and the lowest prices in the market. While a customer shopping online with Amazon wants a broad selection of products too, its superior customer service is built around easy search capability with plenty of easily accessible product information, rapid secure online checkout, multiple delivery options and constant communication. Two different companies, two different approaches to customer service - but both companies dominate their industry by understanding their targeted customers' expectations.
3. Share Your Customer's Experience
Often, entrepreneurs and managers are so invested in their products or services that they overlook the flaws, faults, and failures of their support and administrative services. For instance, online retailers such as eToys.com and Pets.com identified large potential markets, but failed because they could not deliver their products timely for reasonable cost. And in 2005, Overstock.com failed to properly implement its customer tracking system, leaving the company unable to tell customers the status of their orders, which cost the company more than $14 million.
On the flipside, enterprising entrepreneurs have made millions by recognizing and addressing universal flaws in customer service. For example, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. developed the "For Dummies" series of how-to videos, illustrated step-by-step articles, and more than 250 million books in more than 1,800 titles for people struggling with poorly written, incomprehensible, and overly technical guides for products and their use.
Customer service failures range from requiring callers to contend with a rigid progression of telephone transfers, to rude help center personnel incapable or unauthorized to solve commonly occurring problems. Step in your customers' shoes to determine whether your company's customer service is exceptional, adequate, or in need of improvement.
4. Fix Your Customer Service Systems
Great customer service starts from the top of the organization. If the officers and managers of your company do not make customer service a priority, neither will those employees on the firing line dealing with customers every day. The two most important aspects of customer service are responsiveness (how quickly and appropriately you respond to a need) and reliability (how consistently and fairly your actions to satisfy the need).
Great customer service boils down to the following:
- Hiring the Right People. Attitude and values are the most important attributes of great customer service, neither of which is easy to change. You can teach customer service skills, but hiring the right people in the first place is critical.
- Training Your Employees. Train your employees to ask questions to communicate effectively with all personality types, listen and identify service deficiencies, and resolve issues quickly and appropriately.
- Rewarding Proper Behavior. Reinforce your objectives by recognizing employee efforts and success in satisfying customers' needs.
-Continually Measuring Results. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it," according to an old management adage. Telephone answer times, resolution percentages and the number of incidents resolved within 24 hours are some of the customer service metrics available to track. Companies such as IssueTrak, Intuit and Zendesk are just a few of the many software programs available to help monitor customer service elements.
5. Don't Get Comfortable
Customers are notoriously fickle, and the competitive environment is in constant flux as new products and services appear and fade away. And success often breeds complacency. For example, USAA and Whole Foods were ranked number one and number seven in the 2009 top 10 list of companies with the best customer service compiled by JZ Analytics for MSN Money - yet neither company appeared in the top 10 during 2011 and 2012. Developing and maintaining great customer service is a never-ending effort - becoming complacent or relaxed for even a moment can cause instant damage to your reputation.
Great service is the key to gain repeat customers who will return time and again to your business or website, as well as recommend your products and services to others. Conversely, disgruntled, unhappy customers not only cost you sales, but also influence others to avoid your business. Failing to meet your customer's expectation initially is a problem - but failing to respond and resolve the problem is a sure disaster with adverse consequences for sales and profits.
What additional customer service tips can you suggest?
Mike Lewis is a former business executive who now runs his own small business and writes about tips related to marketing, finance, and investing.