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Scaling Your Company to Always Serve Your Customers

Research shows customers are increasingly fickle. And as companies grow, founders tend to forget that.

This story appears in the April 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It should go without saying: Do not neglect customer service. It keeps customers happy and cash flowing, and it helps maintain the sort of robust and running conversation you need to better understand your customers and your industry.

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Related: 7 Essentials of Great Customer Service

And yet experts say they see it all the time: As founders struggle to monitor the overwhelming number of moving parts involved in growing a company -- product, marketing, office space, cash flow, supply chain, staffing, distribution, sales -- they slack off on customer service. Or they treat it like whack-a-mole, dealing with angry customers as they arise. Or they farm it out and forget it.

Whatever they do, the end result is bad. Fifty-four percent of customers stop buying from certain companies because of poor service, according to a study published in January by Aspect Software, a developer of call center programs. That's five percentage points higher than what their 2016 survey found.

So, what to do? Maryli Karske, a customer consultant who has worked with Ralph Lauren and Burberry, says the first step for founders is to accept that they may not have all the answers themselves. "At most startups, the CEO usually decides on a customer care strategy, along with everything else," she says. That's not going to work as you scale up. "If you're not experienced in this area, you'll make poor decisions or install inadequate systems that are expensive to change."

First, says Karske, you need customer-centric staff. "When hiring, don't focus only on resumes. Look out for staffers who are good with people. They don't have to be working in a similar industry. You can come across someone great working in hospitality or in a grocery store."

Related: Customer Service Is Ground Zero For Success

Of course, customer service isn't just about hiring good people. Once you have a team, Karske says, you need to implement a system to ensure that customer feedback is filtered intelligently throughout the entire company to improve both product and service -- enabling you to identify problems before a customer starts complaining.

"If businesses used data they often already have at their disposal, they could prevent some problems arising," says Vince Lynch, CEO of IV.AI, which uses AI to improve customer service. "They'd know which items are most often returned and at which times, say, so they could address particular production challenges or shipping issues."

To do this, Karske insists, don't skimp. "You must offer proper training, install software that fulfills your requirements and set a realistic budget."

This becomes more critical as your company grows. Imagine it: You have a small customer service team -- and then you need to add bodies fast. If that team is part of a system, the system can scale. There's a process to teach new people about the company, fit them into your culture and make them effective. But if there's no system in place, new people just add confusion.

Just as small companies run the risk of not taking customer service seriously, larger companies do the same. Karske says she often sees bigger firms lump customer service in with the marketing department. But the skills involved in crunching data to learn about customer behavior are not the same as those needed to placate an unsatisfied customer, change failing procedures or garner valuable firsthand insight into how products are being used.

Related: See You at the Top: A Guide to Winning at Customer Service

Finally, great customer service is often deeply tied to employee satisfaction. Karske says that it is probably no coincidence that companies with good service tend to have highly engaged employees who are empowered to solve problems and have a deep knowledge of their products and services. "The staff are happy at Zappos, and it shows," she notes. "Most utility companies and airlines," she adds, "not so much."

The structure part is challenging. But once you have that, things will get easier. "It's really not complicated," Karske says. "Follow up on every conversation, and never break promises. It's a virtuous circle: Look after your customers and they'll help your company grow."

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