Great expectations Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

Customer service is the business of every employee — now, that’s not just a phrase Dave Wangler throws around at TMW Systems Inc., it’s the attitude he wants his nearly 400 employees to embody.

“Everybody realizes they’re here because of the customer and only because of the customer,” says Wangler, president and CEO of TMW, a solutions provider for the transportation sector. “Our employees recognize that TMW might be the name on their paycheck, but they actually work for our customers, and our customers get to vote in the marketplace on whether we’re doing a good job or not.”

In order to build strong customer relationships, two sets of expectations have to be addressed — what you expect from your employees in terms of customer service and what your customers should expect from you. It’s those interlocking thoughts that have allowed TMW to meet its 1,800 customers’ needs.

Smart Business spoke with Wangler about how to set customer expectations.

Build customer relationships. What it comes down to is establishing very clear expectations and delivering upon those. Say what you’re going to do and do what you said you were going to do.

We deliver fairly complex software solutions that companies rely upon to run every aspect of their business.

Having expectations, for example, of what an implementation of our software might look like, what benefits they can expect to see, what challenges they’re likely to encounter as we implement and as they go forward using our solutions.

Establishing clear expectations in the sales process and in the delivery process and delivering against those really drives successful customer relationships.

If you get off on a good footing as you begin the relationship, you establish a reputation with that customer, or an expectation of if they’ve got a problem, what is your response going to be.

You set those expectations. ‘If you have a problem, you call us. Here’s what’s going to happen.’ And you follow up on those, and you deliver against those. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

Be open. If you can’t (meet their expectations), then you have to explain to them why.

Notice I started with establish clear expectations. In other words, if we go in and our expectations are mismatched about what a product or service is going to do or what it’s going to cost, we have a problem.

I need to establish clear expectation on the front end and agree to what those are. If I fail to meet expectations that I’ve set, I think one has to be pretty frank with customers and sit down and explain to them why. Either one or two things is possible, A, they’re reasonable, but you’re failing to meet them, so you need to come up with a plan as to how you can. Or they’re unreasonable; maybe things have changed.

You’ve got to be clear about re-establishing, resetting expectations so that you’ve got the right yardstick that the customer can measure the company by.

Communicate service as a culture. I have 1,800 customers and 400 employees. Is it sitting down with certain customers? Sure. But it’s got to be more than me saying it. It’s got to be a culture.

You’ve got to have a consistent repeatable process, whether you’re delivering a new implementation to a customer, whether you’re building some special capability for them, whether you’re solving day-in- and day-out problems. You’ve got to have this culture of establishing those expectations and delivering upon them.

It isn’t just something I do; it’s got to be a culture of our business.

You also need to have a culture of being invested in your customer’s success and a willingness in leading from the front, a willingness to, when there’s a problem, drop everything and take care of it.

I think culture gets established over time. If the culture isn’t something you can grow upon and, as the CEO, you enter a situation and you need to instill that or change the culture as we’ve sort of done with some of our acquisitions, at that point, it’s about lead from the front.

There are probably two schools of thoughts (on communicating that culture). There is the personal leadership that flows down through the organization. If you can get your C-team and your executive management team to live that, as well, that moves down to the vice president and that moves down to the directors and that moves out into the field.

That’s the organizational behavior side of this.

There are lots of things that you can do and that we do to communicate that. You have to measure everything you do.

You can have this lead by example, this sense of urgency, but I think you have to measure and incentivize.

Let me give you an example. We have call centers for customer support. We measure the performance of those call centers not by how many calls they close or how many calls are open; we measure performance based on customer surveys.

We survey every customer twice a year with the same questions. How are we doing? Are you happy with the level of service, the knowledge of the person helping you, the responsiveness? There’s a 12-question survey that goes out.

We incent the support group in each one of our businesses based upon the results of that survey, so there’s a monetary incentive.

If that survey is greater than a certain threshold, then there’s a bonus payout. If it’s not by a hundredth of a point, then there isn’t.

You measure and incent people based upon the results of those objective measures.

That alone I don’t think will do it, but it is a way to really enforce that culture and put the focus where it is.

You build the culture, you lead by example, you propagate that through, you measure and incent.

How to reach: TMW Systems Inc., (216) 831-6606 or