The science of service Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

If you’re looking at your budget and considering cutting back on support for customer service, you might want to reconsider. About 96 percent of unhappy customers don’t take the initiative to tell you they’re unhappy with your service, but they will tell nine other people and not return.

Customer service should be as important to you as it is to your customer, and customer service is second in importance only to product quality when it comes to satisfying customers.

The difference in today’s market is that brand loyalty isn’t what it used to be. Businesses are making a new promise every day without credible reasons for the consumer to believe the promise. Customers make purchases because they believe you’re selling something they need, but they also know they have many options. A single bad experience with you can result in your customers making purchases from the guy down the street next week. The products may be similar, but the quality of your customer service can be why they prefer to make purchases with you.

If customers have a good experience with your business, they’re more likely to return and spend money again. Positive word-of-mouth is one of the cheapest and most effective means of growing your business. It’s also much less expensive to retain a customer you already have than to attract new ones.

“The quality of your customer’s experience is one of the most important sustainable advantages a company can have, particularly in a competitive environment,” says Andy Bodea, senior vice president of global operations for Equifax Inc. “Senior leadership must be behind the initiative in order to provide the right tools, and all the elements of providing customer service need to be adopted throughout the company for it to work well. It’s OK to admit that you’re not perfect with customer service, but you should have an execution focus on how to make it happen.”

Customer service in today’s market entails doing business where and when your customers want to. The trick is to cut costs while being flexible with your ways of improving customer service quality across all avenues, including online and by phone.

There’s an easy formula for this, yet it’s not utilized. It starts with paying better wages. Then you have to invest in your employees’ ability to perform through education and train them to respond to customer needs.

Why a customer service program is important
Your customer service representatives have unlimited access to your customers, products and equipment, yet they’re largely considered dispensable and are treated as such. This is the wrong approach. You can’t personally know who your regular customers are or what their preferences entail, but your employees do, so it’s important to retain them. Investing in customer training and rewarding them with a pay increase upon completion of the course or offering another benefit, such as time off, makes for a more enthusiastic employee.

“Companies tend to have poor tracking of the link between training and turnover,” says Robert Smith, senior vice president of marketing and membership for the American Management Association, a professional development firm. “Companies measure only financial or operational aspects and don’t know the money they’ve lost in employee turnover on the employee’s knowledge and training.”

Although many customer service positions are considered entry level, giving the employee the option to advance within the company will be an incentive for the employee to stay and can help you reduce employee turnover, which on average costs businesses 20 percent of the employee’s annual salary to replace.

“If you have different levels of customer care positions in your business, those who are working at the lowest level get bored easily because their job entails performing simple tasks,” Bodea says. “These positions are filled by the newest hires and have a 20 to 60 percent turnover rate. If employees make it to the highest tier, they are very valuable and may not be with the company if not provided the opportunity to advance.”

You may see investing in customer service training as a luxury in today’s economy, but experts warn that not doing so could lead to your company’s demise.

What you can do
The biggest error you can make is getting too caught up in cutting costs and other internal workings to see your business from the customer’s point of view. Customer service is what keeps the lifeblood of your business — the customers — coming back. Even when inevitable mistakes are made, customers return if the error is handled properly.

“Keep in mind that the customer is the priority,” says Sue Park, vice president of customer service, The Home Depot Inc. “They put the money in the register.”

Another mistake is investing money in loyalty programs focusing on drawing in new customers, while losing focus on appeasing your current customers. If you don’t ask customers about their experience with your business, they’ll likely not tell you — but they will go home and tell others. If you stay flexible and listen to what they say by acting on their feedback, you can best design a customer service program that works for you.

What many companies don’t understand is that good customer service is rare. If you already have brand recognition, you can further your competitive advantage by listening to customers’ concerns and acting on them. You need to define what good customer service means to your specific set of customers before you can best meet their expectations. This can be achieved by polling them in a variety of ways, including comment cards, e-mail or an online form.

Even with well-trained employees and a list of customer recommendations, you still need your managers to be an integral part of your program. They should point out positive behavior and not just the negatives. Successes should be noted to encourage employees to do more than the bare minimum, and negative incidents should be handled immediately instead of waiting for an evaluation.

“Employees may repeat a behavior they’re not aware is undesirable,” says Liz Tahir, an international marketing consultant and speaker. “Having the proper communication with employees is essential. If you treat them well on a regular basis, they won’t react negatively when a manager points out an area that needs improvement.

“Employees treat customers the way you treat them. Ask yourself if you greet employees enthusiastically, interact politely and try to accommodate them in their requests.”

Making sure employees have the correct set of tools to perform their jobs is another important step in ensuring good customer service. Proper training and empowering employees to handle customer’s concerns or problems will build employee confidence while expediting the customer’s requests.

“Always putting yourself in the customer’s shoes when determining how to best resolve issues or respond to a request is the best way to resolve issues,” Tahir says. “All of the great companies have incorporated customer service in their core business philosophy, helping to brand their business as one known for great customer service.”