How to provide quality customer service during challenging economic times Featured

5:15pm EDT March 1, 2011

Between the status of our economy, inflation, unemployment and the ever-increasing cost of daily necessities — including, but certainly not limited to, gasoline — the overall mood of much of the population is one of woe.

Because of this, employers of all sizes are feeling the pain and will continue to see changes in their businesses. Those who can turn the “woes” into “wows” have the best opportunity to create a competitive advantage during these challenging times.

“Individually we cannot change the fundamentals of the economy,” says Amy Broadbent, the vice president of JRG Advisors, the management company for ChamberChoice. “One thing we can do is get back to basics. And, one of the basics of doing business is customer service.”

Smart Business spoke with Broadbent about customer service and what companies can do to provide quality customer service — even during challenging economic times.

In today’s unique business environment, what does customer service mean?

In these times, customer service means more than what occurs after the sale; it becomes a task of needs assessment prior to the sale. If you can satisfy the needs of a potential customer by identifying how they will benefit from spending the money they have with you versus your competitor, you have a much better chance at making the sale. It is critical to determine the needs of your prospects, explain the benefits your solutions provide, and bring the two together in a smooth and supportive way.

Should the focus be on finding new customers or retaining existing ones?

Research shows that it costs five times as much to bring in a new customer than to keep an existing customer. By no means can any employer forego seeking new customers, but now is the time to get back to basics by focusing on genuine and sincere customer service. Customers want to be loyal. It takes work on their end to find another company to meet the needs that you presently fill (or perhaps the needs you should be filling). More often than not, they leave due to the lack of good old-fashioned customer service.

Continuing to serve the customer after the sale results in a long-term client that no recession can change. This is the opportunity to turn a customer into a client and develop long-term relationships. A customer buys once, oftentimes because you have what they were looking for or offered the right product/price at the right time. A client buys from you repeatedly, renewing year after year and purchasing multiple product lines, building a long-term relationship that is often stronger than the lure of a lower price your competitor might offer.

How can a company improve its relationships with its clients?

You are presented with an opportunity to improve the relationship with customers every time they contact your company. The goal is to make all customer contacts as meaningful and helpful to the customers as possible. A few basic customer service practices that can easily be forgotten or overlooked include telling the customer what you can do for them (don’t tell them what you cannot do for them); acknowledging customers’ feelings and allowing them to vent if they are frustrated (this shows that you care about how they are feeling); remembering customers’ names and using them repeatedly; presenting acceptable solutions to the customers’ problems; making sure you are actively listening and giving your undivided attention to the customer; and remembering the importance of ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

One of the ‘golden rules’ of customer service is speaking in a manner that is professional, friendly and polite at all times, regardless of the situation. It is critical to pay attention to the tone of your voice to ensure you do not come across as disrespectful or condescending. Remember the adage that people can ‘hear’ a smile through the phone. Once you have resolved the customer’s issue, ask if there is anything else they need. Taking the time to ask shows the customer that you value them, which can lead to increased customer satisfaction, and, ultimately more business. Finally, follow up on the solution you proposed to the customer at a later date to be sure the problem has been resolved and that they are pleased with the outcome.

How can a company use customer service to gain an advantage over its competitors?

There is competition in every industry. Competitive advantage is not always achieved by how much money you have or the size of your organization. Oftentimes, you can gain competitive advantage by focusing on the basics and making your clients feel like they are important and cared for. Having a can-do attitude, raising the bar and going above and beyond what is expected can go a long way in making people feel good. This something extra and doing the unexpected is the ‘wow’ factor that differentiates good from great. If you can get everyone in your organization to embrace this philosophy, you will not only survive these challenging times; you will also achieve competitive advantage because of the ‘wow’ factor that differentiates you from your competitors.

Amy Broadbent is the vice president of JRG Advisors, the management company for ChamberChoice. Reach her at (412) 456-7250 or amy.broadbent@jrgadvisors.net.