Gary S. Shamis thinks about his clients everywhere — even in the bathroom. The managing director of SS&G Financial Services Inc. is so attuned to the idea of improving customer service that he looks for it everywhere he goes.
So when he walked into the restroom at his firm’s Cleveland office and noticed a supply of single-use toothbrushes and swigs of mouthwash, his internal service alarm went off.
“It was like, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do: Make somebody feel more comfortable,” he says. “We’ll probably extend that to all our offices.”
It’s not uncommon for Shamis’ employees to test those ideas because, like him, they’re looking for ways to improve the client’s experience every time they take on the customer role outside of the office. When they get a flash of service do’s and don’ts from their everyday transactions, they take the lessons back to SS&G, where customer service is ingrained into the culture.
The firm’s strong approach to service has contributed to its steady revenue growth, an average annual increase of 20 percent for the last five years. So if you’re losing business, your customer service philosophy may be the place to start.
“You can’t really grow unless you do a good job of retaining the clients you bring in,” Shamis says.
Sure, price and other factors may come into play, but service can make or break a deal.
“There’s an old adage in the restaurant industry that between food and service, what brings somebody back to an establishment is not the food, it’s the service,” Shamis says. “You can have great food and bad service, and they won’t come back. But you could have lousy food and great service, and they will come back. It’s the way that they’re treated.”
Shamis starts off that culture at SS&G by scheduling lunches with all new employees to establish the importance of service in the company. Beyond that introduction, service stays on the forefront through several manifestations, from training and retreats to special committees and customer surveys.
Think like a customer
Sometimes, even the most skilled employees need some steering when it comes to customer service.
“All these smart people we have here could pass the CPA exam, [but they] have never had a course in customer service,” Shamis says. “And what are they really doing? They’re servicing customers.”
So even if it seems like common sense, remind your employees how to treat their customers through training. After all, he says, “One of the fundamentals of having good customer service is to be able to teach people what customer service is.”
Shamis teaches an in-house course at SS&G designed to illustrate customer service from the perspectives of both the servers and the ones being served. He uses an industry study from the 1980s that surveyed both of those groups and backs that up with feedback from SS&G’s own clients.
He starts the training sessions by asking employees to list attributes of customer service. Their answers go up on a board and then everyone votes on a couple of defining characteristics.
But then Shamis unleashes the customer’s perception. And usually, the answers don’t match.
“A lot of times, people don’t look at it from a client’s expectation,” he says. “They try and define what quality is based upon what they think it is. … Most of the time, the professionals are looking at a good value proposition. Their [definitions] are more analytic and results-oriented.
“And then when you go to the client side, what you find out is they want phone calls returned timely and they want information to them on a timely basis. They’re more interested in the interaction.”
After employees see the gap between the two definitions, in what Shamis calls an aha moment, they begin paying closer attention. The next time they become the customer, they’ll be more aware of what separates good service from bad.
“It’s really something that’s just so simple,” Shamis says. “What we talk about is how do you like to be treated and what are your expectations and how does your experience of the way you’re treated correlate with the way you should treat your customers.”
Even companies with established service education programs often fail to include this simple role-playing in their approach, souring their whole service philosophy.
“I think they fail mainly because they don’t put themselves in the customer’s shoes,” Shamis says. “[It’s] basically asking myself, ‘Well, if I was a customer, how would I like to be treated?’”
He has also taught his course for other firms. If you’re just developing an educational element for customer service at your company, begin by checking with others in your industry to see whether they can help you launch your program.
For the second half of service training, Shamis takes all 425 employees from every office on an annual retreat. The topics rotate every year between the company’s three cultural elements: service, growth and employee-centricity.
Look for local experts on the topic to speak at your retreat. In some cases, you might be able to stretch the value of these sources by having them speak more intimately with the senior leadership before they present to the entire company.
Brainstorm for better service
SS&G originally created a Super Service Group as a way to reinforce superior customer service, but it has since evolved into a brainstorming group that initiates tactics for improving customer service.
“Some tactics that we come up with [are ideas] that we’ve seen other places that we think we should implement in our office,” Shamis says. “Hopefully, people are so aware of it that it becomes something they’ll look for in the way they deal with other people.”
Just like the training session will flip on their attention to customer service, involving them in a group like this will give them an outlet to actually share their observations and ideas.
Your service group will inevitably draw from other service factors in your culture, such as training and listening to customer feedback. Because of that overlap, the committee can’t just be tacked together as an afterthought.
“It only works if you culturally want to do it and understand that’s what you want to do,” Shamis says.
Include employees from all of your departments in your service group, both to get a range of input from people who connect with customers in different ways and to maintain a single vision of service throughout the entire company.
“We tried to get representatives from all over the organization — people who touch clients in different ways in different offices, so we can try and be consistent wherever we go within the organization,” Shamis says.
One of the Super Service Group’s big ideas was a lobby overhaul. Committee members equipped the waiting areas with flat-screen TVs, ready with business channels for adults and video game hookups for kids.
Other everyday tactics seem more like common courtesy and don’t require such a shove to implement. These surface in the employee handbook as telephone and e-mail protocol.
“Most of it is really just the attention to (customers): returning phone calls on a timely basis, returning e-mails on a timely basis, checking your voice mails if you’re not going to be available,” Shamis says. “Let them know you’re going to be out of town on vacation and not returning e-mails and give them an option.
“There’s nothing worse than calling somebody’s office and asking for Gary Shamis when the receptionist knows that he may not even be there and they put you right into voice mail. What we attempt to do is say, ‘Well, Gary’s not there, can somebody else help you? If not, would you like his voice mail?’”
Ask customers for input
But even the best service training and implementation strategies would fall flat if you leave out the other half of the equation: the customer. Previously, SS&G employed an outside agency to survey clients every few years. Even when the process switched to the Internet, Shamis realized it was a lot of effort for a few responses.
“What we brainstormed was that instead of every two or three years going to market and asking how we’re doing, why don’t we ask every time we do something?” he says.
The end result is a postcard that is sent out to the customer every time SS&G provides a service.
The more often these postcards or customer surveys go out, the more value customers will think you put on their opinion, the more responses you’ll get and the more efficiently you’ll be able to gauge overall satisfaction. Otherwise, your reaction to mistakes and lost customers might be several years behind.
“Now every piece of information that comes out of our office — if it’s an audit, if it’s a tax return, if it’s a valuation — in every one of them we include a postcard and we provide (an) opportunity for the customer to feedback to us specifically,” Shamis says.
That’s more than 10,000 opportunities a year to get direct feedback, and he says usually about 2,000 of those are returned.
Provide a range of questions on the cards that will measure the client’s entire experience. At SS&G, customers can fill in their name and company or remain anonymous. Then, they rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, their service in terms of timeliness, value and effective communication.
By filling out what service they received, clients route the response directly back to the appropriate department. Copies of the feedback go directly into employees’ mailboxes for affirmation. Or, if it’s negative — which, for Shamis, only amounts to three or four postcards a year — it should go straight to the top for investigation. He usually calls the client to better understand the problem and find a solution.
“We try and not become defensive, but we try and be realistic as to what happened and then address it,” says Shamis, who begins by examining the legitimacy of the responses, determining if it was just a one-time misunderstanding or a more widespread complaint.
The feedback can also be used in employee evaluations, as if clients are reviewing employees based on their service skills. Shamis also uses the postcards to research the changing expectations of customers for his in-house training.
Shamis ties together all these attempts at improved customer service by distributing pamphlets to clients that explain the firm’s efforts. After all, you want customers to know what you’re trying to do for them.
“If somebody wants to buy a Mercedes Benz or a Chevy, there are 10 different places they could buy it, and they’re probably going to be relatively the same price,” Shamis says. “How are you going to differentiate yourself? Usually, that’s going to be on the service side.”
How to reach: SS&G Financial Services Inc., (440) 248-8787 or www.ssandg.com