When you're a start-up with few employees and few customers, it's easy to stay on top of what customers want and what they're getting. But as you add more customers and employees, you add links to the customer service chain. That creates the potential for growth and the potential for poor service along the way. That's why creating a customer service policy and adhering to it is so important. Here are some steps you can take to ensure that your clients receive excellent service every step of the way.
- Put your customer service policy in writing. These principles should come from you, but every employee should know what the rules are and be ready to live up to them. This doesn't have to be elaborate. Something as simple as "the customer is always right" can lay the necessary groundwork, although you may want to get more detailed by saying, for instance, "any employee is empowered to grant a 10 percent discount to any dissatisfied customer at any time."
- Establish support systems that give employees clear instructions for gaining and maintaining service superiority. These systems will help you outservice any competitor by giving more to customers and anticipating problems before they arise.
- Develop a measurement of superb customer service. Don't forget to reward employees who practice it consistently.
- Be certain that your passion for customer service runs rampant throughout your company. Employees should see how good service relates to your profits and to their futures with the company.
- Be genuinely committed to providing more customer service excellence than anyone else in your industry. This commitment must be so powerful that every one of your customers can sense it.
- Share information with people on the front lines. Meet with your employees regularly to talk about improving service. Solicit ideas from employees-they are the ones who are dealing with customers most often.
- Act on the knowledge that what customers value most are attention, dependability, promptness and competence. They love being treated as individuals and being referred to by name.
Phrases That'll Make Your Customers Happy
Principles of customer service are all very well, but you need to put those principles into action with everything you do and say. There are certain "magic words" customers want to hear from you and your staff. Make sure all your employees understand the importance of these key phrases:
- "How can I help?" Customers want the opportunity to explain in detail what they want and need. Too often, business owners feel the desire or the obligation to guess what customers need rather than carefully listening first. By asking how you can help, you begin the dialogue on a positive note (you are "helping," not "selling"). And by using an open-ended question, you invite discussion.
- "I can solve that problem." Most customers, especially business-to-business customers, are looking to buy solutions. They appreciate direct answers in a language they can understand.
- "I don't know, but I'll find out." When confronted with a truly difficult question that requires research on your part, admit that you don't know the answer. Few things ruin your credibility faster than trying to answer a question when you are unsure of all the facts. Savvy buyers may test you with a question they know you can't answer and then just sit quietly while you struggle to fake an intelligent reply. An honest answer enhances your integrity.
- "I will take responsibility." Tell your customer you realize it's your responsibility to ensure a satisfactory outcome to the transaction. Assure the customer you know what he or she expects and will deliver the product or service at the agreed-upon price. There will be no unexpected changes or expenses required to solve the problem.
- "I will keep you updated." Even if your business is a cash-and-carry operation, it probably requires scheduling and coordinating numerous events. Assure your customers they will be advised of the status of these events. The longer your lead time, the more important this is. The vendors customers trust the most are those that keep them apprised of the situation, whether the news is good or bad.
- "I will deliver on time." A due date that has been agreed upon is a promise that must be kept. "Close" doesn't count.
- "Monday means Monday." The first week in July means the first week in July, even though it contains a national holiday. Your clients are waiting to hear you say "I deliver on time." The supplier who consistently does so is a rarity and will be remembered.
- "It'll be just what you ordered." It will not be "similar to," and it will not be "better than" what was ordered. It will be exactly what was ordered. Even if you believe a substitute would be in the client's best interests, that's a topic for discussion, not something you decide on your own. Your customer may not know (or be at liberty to explain) all the ramifications of the purchase.
- "The job will be complete." Assure the customer there will be no waiting for a final piece or a last document. Never say you are finished "except for...."
- "I appreciate your business." This means more than a simple "Thanks for the order." Genuine appreciation involves follow-up calls, offering to answer questions, making sure everything is performing satisfactorily, and ascertaining that the original problem has been solved.
Neglecting any of these steps conveys the impression that you were interested in the person only until the sale was made. This leaves the buyer feeling deceived and used, and creates ill will and negative advertising for your company. Sincerely proving you care about your customers leads to recommendations and repeat sales.
Never Let Your Customers Forget You
One important tool for generating repeat business is following up. Effective follow-up begins immediately after the sale when you call the customer to say "thank you" and find out if he or she is pleased with your product or service. Beyond this, there are several effective ways to follow up that ensure your business is always in the customer's mind.
- Let customers know what you are doing for them. This can be in the form of a newsletter mailed to existing customers, or it can be more informal, such as a phone call. Whatever method you use, the key is to dramatically point out to customers the excellent service you are giving them. If you never mention all the things you are doing for them, customers may not notice. You aren't being cocky when you talk to customers about all the work you have done to please them. Just make a phone call and let them know they don't have to worry because you handled the paperwork, called the attorney or double-checked on the shipment-one less thing they have to do.
- Write old customers personal, handwritten notes frequently. "I was just sitting at my desk and your name popped into my head. Are you still having a great time flying all over the country? Let me know if you need another set of luggage. I can stop by with our latest models any time." Or if you run into an old customer at an event, follow up with a note: "It was great seeing you at the CDC Christmas party. I'll call you early in the New Year to schedule a lunch."
- Keep it personal. Voice mail and e-mail make it easy to communicate, but the personal touch is often lost. If you're having trouble getting through to someone whose problem requires that personal touch, leave a voice-mail message that you want to talk to the person directly or will stop by his or her office at a designated time.
- Remember special occasions. Send regular customers birthday cards, anniversary cards, holiday cards...you name it. Gifts are excellent follow-up tools, too. You don't have to spend a fortune to show you care; use your creativity to come up with interesting gift ideas that tie into your business, the customer's business or his or her recent purchase.
- Pass on information. If you read an article, see a new book, or hear about an organization a customer might be interested in, drop a note or make a quick call to let them know.
- Consider follow-up calls as business development calls. When you talk to or visit old clients or customers, you'll often find they have referrals to give you, which can lead to new business.
With all your existing customers can do for you, there's simply no reason not to stay in regular contact with them. Use your imagination, and you'll think of plenty of other ideas that can help you develop a lasting relationship.
Dealing With Unsatisfied Customers
Studies show that the vast majority of unsatisfied customers will never come right out and tell you they're unsatisfied. They simply leave quietly, later telling everyone they know not to do business with you. So when a customer complains, don't think of it as a nuisance-think of it as a golden opportunity to change that customer's mind and retain his or her business.
Even the best product or service receives complaints now and then. Here's how to handle them for positive results:
- Let customers vent their feelings. Encourage them to get their frustrations out in the open.
- Never argue with a customer.
- Never tell a customer "You do not have a problem." Those are fighting words.
- Share your point of view as politely as you can.
- Take responsibility for the problem. Don't make excuses. If an employee was sick or a supplier let you down, that's not the customer's concern.
- Immediately take action to remedy the situation. Promising a solution and then delaying it only makes matters worse.
- Empower your front-line employees to be flexible in resolving complaints. Give employees some leeway in deciding when to bend the rules. If you don't feel comfortable doing this, make sure they have you or another manager handle the situation.
Excerpted from Growing Your Business