Customer care Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009

In Gary Deeken’s book, without solid customer relationships, there’s little room for success.

Good customer service and satisfaction are among the essentials for business survival, and they’re part of the foundation that Central States Bus Sales Inc. has been built on, says Deeken.

“You have to stay close to your customer,” says the company’s president and CEO. “You have to do what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it. And you have to base your business on meeting your customers’ needs.”

By listening to its customers, the bus distributing company developed a business model with a built-in customer service component that its opposition can’t compete with, according to Deeken. It’s also helped the company to expand to markets in five states and grow revenue to $90 million.

Smart Business spoke with Deeken about how to create customer relationships and measure clients’ needs.

Form solid relationships with your customers. It starts with your people. Your people have to be good communicators.

They have to care about their customers. They have to relate to them. They have to understand their business. Most of that comes from just listening real well and doing more listening than you do talking.

We tend to develop the relationships with our customers and the leaders in the industry, and we listen very closely to them and learn from them.

It takes time to build relationships. You can’t ever expect a salesperson, for example, to walk into a customer and build a relationship on the first visit. The way we establish a relationship is getting to know them over a long period of time.

One of our philosophies is we don’t want any one of our people to really own the customer. We want the company to own the customer. So we don’t have a salesperson who is the only person that ever talks to a specific customer.

We’re touching that customer in a lot of different ways from a number of different people in the organization. We get to know and understand their day-to-day operating needs. Then look for ways to provide solutions.

What that helps us do is realize we have to drill down and understand the needs [of] our customers and the needs our customers are trying to meet for their customers.

You have to figure out how to have as many different touches with your customer as possible, whether it’s a personal touch, a salesperson calling on them, multiple salespeople calling on them selling different products. Contact with them at trade shows and conventions, through newsletters, advertisements. You want to build your brand; you want to have your name in front of them as much as possible. When you do that, then you develop relationships.

Study customer satisfaction to gauge your performance levels. Performance is a hard thing to measure. Sometimes customers will tell you, sometimes they won’t, whether they’re happy with how you’ve served them or not.

Sometimes, we as leaders, all we’re looking at are the numbers, the dollar numbers. That’s fine. You’ve got to do that, but you’ve also got to find other ways of measuring your performance and customer satisfaction.

We’ve hired a company that for every deal that we sell, this company contacts the customer and does a phone interview with the customer and asks a series of questions we’ve designated with them. Then they give us a report on that. Let us know how we have done with that customer, whether we met their needs, whether they’re satisfied with what we provided them with.

We separate (the data) by customer and by the salespeople that are responsible for those various different customers. It’s one of the tools we use to evaluate the salespeople and not just the salespeople but also parts and services.

It flows through the whole organization. It’s certainly another measure of performance.

Find a balance between providing good customer service and the cost of doing so. You have to look at each situation as it comes up and figure out a solution to solve your customers’ problems.

We look at each situation as a stand-alone situation and try to deal with it according to what best serves the customer. Sometimes it means we’ve got to send one of our guys out to their facility to solve it there. Sometimes it might be the solution is best by sending a driver out and picking up the bus and bringing it back to our facility to solve a problem.

There’s always going to be a balance between providing great customer service and the cost of providing that service. It’s difficult to really measure, in a lot of cases, whether or not the customer service that you provide, whether there’s payback for it.

A lot of times you don’t see a direct additional payback. But through my many years of experience, I have learned there is a payback. It may be a couple years down the road, but customers remember great service, and they will reward you eventually.

I don’t know if you can really put an equation to the balance. You’ve just got to know that customers do appreciate great service, and they’ll reward it in the future with giving you additional business.

HOW TO REACH: Central States Bus Sales Inc., (636) 343-6050 or www.centralstatesbus.com