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The truth about customer service Featured

8:00pm EDT June 28, 2001
You're probably getting tired of articles about customer service, but it's such an important part of the equation for successful growth. Even with all the rhetoric about service, it seems to be rapidly becoming a lost art.

Customer service must be an integral part of a company's growth strategy. But like any other part of our strategy, it must be more than words. It must be reality. It must be felt inside and outside the company. Making it reality is the hard part, and why true customer service is as rare as it is.

In working with companies and their customer service issues, I've found several reasons companies can't seem to get their customer service act together. Most, not unexpectedly, point back to management. Here are a few of these reasons.

No clue

This is the most frustrating. It is when the owner or management has no clue what customer service is all about. Either that, or perhaps they really don't care.

In these companies, whatever happens, happens. There is no plan or strategy regarding service (or likely anything else). The company behaves like it's the only game in town. When you call the medical office, get put on infinite hold, are then "greeted" by someone who thinks she holds the keys to the kingdom and are told that the first available appointment is in two months, you are experiencing this one first-hand.

Rules rule

All companies need policies and procedures. Without them, there is no consistency, and chaos is likely. The larger the business, the greater the need. But having policies and procedures without common-sense human intervention is a leading cause of customer dissatisfaction.

For many years, we patronized an established local furniture store with a reputation for quality products and correspondingly high prices. We had purchased many items there and recommended it to friends. Yet, the one time we had a problem with something we had purchased there, the manager let the rules rule.

He held fast on the rules, didn't use common sense and let a minor $30 repair on a relatively new piece of furniture (that he refused to make due to the store's "policy") cost it thousands of dollars in future lost business. The manager told me he would get in trouble with the owner if he made an exception. Maybe this really belongs in the no clue section.

If you insist

This is the type of service that's driven by competition or industry standards but has not been really ingrained in the culture.

An associate and I recently waited in a well-known chain restaurant for 45 minutes (of the hour we had for lunch before a meeting) for our food to be served. When I complained, the manager came to the table and told us she would "buy our lunch." That was a good start, but when I told her that it was not our problem that the kitchen was backed up and that the employees should alert the customers, she said, "Look, I said I was buying your lunch," and walked away.

Most successful smaller businesses operate under a differentiation or niche market strategy. By doing this, they can limit competition with larger companies, sell at higher prices and maintain required margins.

But that strategy also requires exceptional customer service in order to provide the value the customer is seeking. This means a defined customer service strategy. Even more important, it means companywide understanding, involvement, training, practice and reinforcement. It is an investment that will pay off every day the company sells to a customer.

Joel Strom is director of Joel Strom Associates LLC, the growth management practice of C&P Advisors LLC. The firm works exclusively with closely held businesses and their ownership, helping them set and achieve growth objectives while maximizing their profitability and value. Contact him at (216) 831-2663.