Most leaders agree that poor customer service is a business killer today, in terms of lost customers, reduced profits and low morale. Yet the average perception of customer experience continues to decline. Young entrepreneurs and startups, in particular, often remain naively unfocused -- despite their passion -- of what it takes to provide the high-quality service expected.
It's a tough job, and inexperienced entrepreneurs just don't know where to start, and how to do it. Chip Bell and Ron Zemke, who are experts in this area, provide some of the best specific insights I've seen, in their book "Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service." Their eight initiatives should be required reading for every entrepreneur:
1. Find and retain quality people. You have to start with hiring only people who are willing and able to make serious customer service happen. Make sure you know and communicate well exactly what you mean by high-quality service. Train them fully, give them authority, make them accountable and tie their pay to customer satisfaction.
2. Know your customers intimately. This means personally listening, understanding and responding to your customers' evolving needs and shifting expectations. Then make sure that everyone on the team does the same, and are motivated to improve the match with your startup. Seek out complaining and lost customers for the most important input.
3. Build a service vision that everyone sees as clearly as you. This means articulating and living the customer service mindset for the team, in front of customers and in the board room. It must be understandable, written down and verifiable. It should also have regular measurements and metrics to make it real, and it should be benchmarked against the competition.
4. Make your service delivery process "happy." A well-designed service delivery process will make you easy to do business with. The process must be employee friendly, as well as customer friendly and have feedback mechanisms to correct poor results. If service employees are not happy, the process isn't working yet.
5. Train and coach continuously. Companies with great service routinely spend 3 percent to 5 percent of salaries training team members -- experienced as well as new. Leaders have found that keeping everyone on top of changes in technology, competition and customer demands is critical to success. Service people need this as required team support.
6. Involve, empower and inspire. Involve team members in the fix to customer problems, as well as fixing the faulty process causing the problems. Empower them to look beyond simple rules for solutions, not out of habit, routine or fear. Inspiration is the process of creating excitement, enthusiasm and commitment, by your passion and actions.
7. Recognize, reward, incent and celebrate. By human nature, people that work for and with you want to do a good job. The best incentive is to give them something good in return. This should start with constructive feedback on how well they are doing, and what they can do to improve. Don't forget recognition for accomplishment and efforts.
8. Set the tone and lead the way. Like it or not, you are the personal role model for all the people in your startup. How they see you deal with and talk about peers, partners, team members and customers tells them what the real rules of conduct are for customer service. You can't con or manipulate people into doing quality work.
Customer service is not just handling exceptions, something that you can think about later, once the business is up and running. It's a core process that must be up and effective when you deliver your first product or service.
What elements of customer service do you think are most important and why? Let us know with a comment.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.