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Honoring the Traditions of Customer Service
1/1/2009 -

Open any recent business publication and you're likely to find an article on customer service. A term almost as overused as "free" and "discount," customer service has emerged as a buzzword concept of the 21st century. But no matter how tired you are of hearing about it, customer service holds the key to the success of your business, most marketplace observers believe.

"Customers count on having their expectations met and exceeded," states Jack Wolf, president of Target base Marketing, a Dallas, Texas firm specializing in consumer behavior studies. "They are much more demanding than they used to be."

"One of the current trends is that quality products will rule the marketplace," adds business consultant and author T. Scott Gross in his book, Positively Outrageous Service. "The days of cheap goods are nearing an end, if they are not already gone forever. With nearly every business capable of offering quality at a reasonable price, service will be the competitive difference."

More than Hello

Many companies firmly believe they already provide good customer service. But their definition of quality service and the definition of their customers are often not the same. "We talk a lot about customer service," asserts Kent Burnes, a northern California-based consultant to small businesses. "Even giant discount operations now stress customer service over price. Just about every owner we counsel acknowledges that customer service can break down, but they insist that it has broken down in everyone else's business except their own.

"In fact, very few companies provide good customer service and very, very few understand that it entails more than being friendly," Burnes continues. "Customer service encompasses every component of your operations - from the ability to provide what customers want, to being available when they need you, and instilling in each and every customer a deep-down sense that they are valued."

Put another way, customer service at its most basic is about relationships. And like all relationships, they require constant work.

Entrepreneur Chip Bell is an advocate of treating customers as partners. In his book of the same name, he writes: "It's about taking 'customer relationships' to a higher level of union than the traditional service-provider-to-consumer relationship. It's about developing a kinship that nurtures commitment and cultivates loyalty.

"Loyal customers spend more money each successive year they stay with you," Bell adds. "Devoted customers become an extension of your sales and marketing efforts; their word-of-mouth accolades bring others. They help you by providing feedback, not as disappointed consumers but as allies. Loyal customers assertively demonstrate commitment to your success."

The Golden Rule

Outstanding customer service begins with putting yourself in your customers' place, claims Kristen Anderson, who heads Performance Research Associates, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based firm specializing in customer service programs.

"When we work with a company, we encourage someone to literally wear a hat that says 'customer,'" she notes. The hat rotates among employees and managers to ensure that everyone understands the customer perspective. ”During meetings, it is that person's job to ask the needling questions that customers sometimes ask."

For Sheri Seitzer, owner of Concepts in Photography portrait studio inMemphis, Tennessee, customer service is no mystery. "I try to do for others what I want done for me," she explains. "I offer extended hours by appointment; I also stay late two evenings a week and sometimes come in early. If a couple has a fussy baby, I allow them to reschedule. And I allow more time for nursing mothers so they don't feel rushed. I try to be very flexible." Beyond flexibility, Seitzer's efforts on behalf of her clients read like a lesson in superior service. She offers specially-priced packages for single mothers "because I was one once." To ensure that brides and their attendants arrive on time, Seitzer sends letters in advance of the scheduled session expressing appreciation for their promptness. She encloses a coupon for a free portrait session for brides, and includes discount coupons for attendants. "The brides think it's great that I thought both of them and their attendants." Seitzer will also visit a client's home to see where the portrait will hang and to help choose the clothes the client will wear. "If clients have props they want to use, I'll plan the shoot around them," she says. "We discuss everything in advance so portraits turn out the way clients visualize them."

Customer Service Is a Long-Term Investment

In our late 20th century world of shrinking margins and downsized staffs, customer service is sometimes seen as a luxury. Moreover, an increasing focus on profits has driven a wedge between businesses and their customers.

And, experts maintain, therein lays the problem.

"Great customer service requires focusing not on the transaction costs, but on the relationship value," counsels Chip Bell. "Transaction costs are by no means irrelevant, but they can become destructively dominant if we aren't careful."

David Halimi, proprietor of Diamond Western Wear in Chico, California, shares Bell's belief. "We'll do whatever it takes to make our customers happy so they don't go somewhere else," Halimi states firmly. "We have only one policy: 100 percent customer satisfaction."

Halimi isn't exaggerating. He has a shoemaker on staff that will change the shape of a boot heel or replace a leather sole with a rubber one, should a customer request it. The charge for this service: nothing. Halimi also keeps a local seamstress busy with customer alterations, even on jeans; Again, at no charge. And recently, Halimi spent $16.50 to overnight-mail a $2.99 bow tie that a customer needed for a wedding.

"We don't look to make money on every transaction," declares Halimi. "On the surface this doesn't seem to make good business sense. But we see our customers as long-term investments. If you want to have relationships with customers, you must treat them well. That $16.50 has been paid back many times over."

Positively Outrageous Service

While Sheri Seitzer and David Halimi modestly view their form of customer service as living the Golden Rule, their approach also falls within the realm of what Scott Gross calls "Positively Outrageous Service" or P.O.S.

"P.O.S.," he writes, "creates an experience that's memorable because it is so different from the expectation." Moreover, it is often so unusual that a customer feels compelled to talk about it.

Gross lists some words that go well with P.O.S.: "surprise, fun, unexpected, not necessary, playful, caring, and entertaining. Not all of these words will apply every time," he explains. "Just understand that whenever you get into a discussion about your favorite restaurant, vacation, tailor, grocer or government agency, the positively outrageous experience is the one you relate to top all others."

It is possible to create an "outrageous experience" in many ways. Gross tells of one restaurant owner who randomly picks a Monday or Tuesday night each month to deliver to all diners' tables a letter rather than the bill. The letter explains that because the restaurant's philosophy is to make customers feel like guests, it seemed awkward to charge for their good time. As a result of this P.O.S., what were once low nights have become standing room only.

Stay Close to Your Customers

Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, in their 1984 bestseller In Search ofExcellence, pointed out that for companies to succeed, they must stay close to their customers. While many of the firms featured in that book have subsequently fallen from their perch, the principles that lifted them there in the first place remain true today. In fact, the reason many of them slipped from their position of excellence, some industry observers have postulated, is that they strayed from their founding principles.

"The excellent companies really are close to their customers,"Waterman and Peters wrote. "Other companies talk about it; the excellent companies do it."

Shane Jones, owner of Ace Personnel in Overland Park, Kansas, claims his closeness with customers has been pivotal to his company's success. Specializing in temporary employees for light industrial and clerical jobs, Jones got his start in his apartment bedroom with a $3,500 loan on his old Chevrolet Celebrity. Five years later, he runs a multimillion dollar firm with a payroll of 550 temporary employees.

"When I landed my first big client, I drove to his plant every day,"Jones recalls. "I brought cake to motivate employees and when there was a tight deadline, I took off my tie and rolled up my sleeves to help out. By personally going to the site, I was able to learn how the business operated, especially the assembly lines."

That practice of staying close to customers is just as strong today atAce Personnel as when Jones founded the firm. Division managers spend one day a week visiting clients, observing the operations and improving their own understanding of clients' businesses.

"We want them to know we're on the same team," affirms Jones. "In many cases, we function as the client's human resources department. Our goal is to help clients save money and comply with OSHA (Occupational Safety Hazards Administration) and other legal requirements.

"If we are part of the same team, clients will be more responsive to our suggestions," he continues. "Customers are not always right. I know that sounds negative, but by getting to know their business and building trust, you can sometimes provide needed advice.

"For example," says Jones, "by observing one company's assembly line we determined that the job could be done by eight temps, rather than 10.We suggested to managers of another plant that they pay supervisors more generously and allow employees to leave 15 minutes early if their lines met the day's production goals. Those 15 minutes are a lot less expensive than a bonus, and are a great morale booster as well."

Look Inward

No matter how sincere your intentions or your policy, you must look inward at your employees and training programs if you want to make your mark in customer service.

Kristen Anderson agrees. "If you have good people, you must hang onto them," she advises. "You need to train and retrain them. Employee satisfaction has a direct link to employee retention, which in turn has a direct link to customer retention."

St. Louis, Missouri designer Pat Whitaker also prides herself on recruiting top people and keeping them happy. "Paying good salaries is essential, of course," Whitaker acknowledges, "but recognition is important, too. When one of our projects gets written up in the newspaper, for example, we make sure the people quoted are really the ones in charge of the project, not just me as the company principal."

Philadelphia's Claudia Post set good treatment of employees as a major goal when establishing Diamond Courier Service in 1990. Today she attributes achievement of that goal as a primary reason for her firm's success. "Claudia and those of us on her staff treat all our couriers with respect," explains Sales Director Tony Briscell, "so the couriers are motivated to give better service."

Diamond messengers not only get the standard commission of 50 percent of each job's fee but, unlike most couriers, are also guaranteed the federal minimum wage when work is slow.

"If couriers are held up in traffic, they let customers know – even after hours," reports one satisfied client. "That's very important." Adds another, "Diamond's couriers get here fastest and deliver 95 percent on time. They're just more responsive than anybody else."

Old Concept Made New

Outstanding customer service isn't a new concept. Rather it is a reminder of old ideas that somehow got lost, maintains Scott Gross.

"Success in the 1990s and beyond will belong to those who are best at honoring the oldest traditions of customer service," he declares. "Listen to your customers. Give them exactly what they want, any way they want it. And invite them to participate in their own service. This will be the new-old way of succeeding, an announcement of a return to the days when the customer was both a friend and a neighbor."

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