I don’t know when the art of customer service lost importance in our daily lives. My wife and I have had a lot of discussions about this very topic, primarily because both of us own small businesses. We have some admittedly high standards when it comes to customer service, but for good reason. Our expectations for decent, consistent customer service come from our personal experiences. We know all-too-well we can’t afford to have even one customer upset for long. Despite having this “insider information,” clearly preventable catastrophic customer service mishaps are not only too frequent, they’re actually expected.
In my opinion, the customer experience successes are the key to overall businesses health. Poor leadership generates metastatic and toxic customer experiences, easily poisoning a business from within. Too often, business owners (especially small business owners) have some sort of epiphany about their own clients’ satisfaction only after suffering some sort of nightmarish event as a customer themselves. It’s a sad running joke around the house about the frequency and severity of the abysmal customer service I personally experience. But the upside of my far-too-frequent customer service battles is that it’s made me hypersensitive to how business and employees interact with customers. My mistreatment by businesses ultimately made me hyper-vigilant about managing my own company’s commitment to total customer satisfaction.
Every business, large or small, eventually takes on the personality of those running the joint. If you’re a complete jerk in your personal life, unless corrected, that attitude will ultimately leach its way into how your staff treat your customers, as well as the public.
Managing a hundred different competing priorities and a thousand varied expectations in your day is usually impossible. Sticking to a few core principles offers the comfort of simplicity and clarity, especially for the sole prop – where the owner also happens to be the accountant, CEO, manufacturing guru, chief bottle washer, artist, and marketing department.
But even newbie business owners should take the time to create a sound framework of policies and procedures solely around how you will manage your customers.
And before anyone suggests, “a sole proprietor business doesn’t have the time or resources to codify how they will treat customers,” I counter with, “how can any small business afford to lose a customer?” I am in no way suggesting you need a verbose handbook of go-to policies, only that every business owner should establish internal guidelines for addressing customer service expectations. And this may be the most important step you take when establishing your start-up.
Equally as important is the “line” every business owner has to identify – this is the line they will never cross when attempting to satisfy a customer. For me, that line was rooted in morals and ethics more than anything else. If the customer lies, yells, swears, demonstrates intolerance, or is otherwise morally or ethically ambiguous, I will take a stand in dealing with them. But before I puff my chest out, I always ask myself how the situation I’m handling would read on the front page of the New York Times. Even if there’s a chance it could go poorly for me, if I can make a principled argument for my position, I will stand fast.
But “prevention” also takes on many forms, all of them stunningly simple.
Do you call your customers?
Three things to consider when creating your customer service policy:
- A simple call does wonders for appeasing customers and setting the tone for future client interactions. Hearing someone’s voice creates an almost instantaneous bond and implied trust. Customers will know your voice, your inflection, your intentions, and your sincerity. Interpersonal relationships with a customer can also foster a sense of intimacy, which is often the basis for repeat business or direct referrals. When actively managed, this direct personal engagement with a customer isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Both party’s expectations should be clear, outlined from the outset, and the “rules” managed consistently.
- Substituting emails for direct dialog has become commonplace in business, and relationships have suffered as a result. Emails are ambiguous, impersonal, sterile, and create unexpected problems. Business owners lose control after hitting the “send” button. Your words, although well-intentioned, take on a life of their own. Some seemingly innocuous comment could be taken completely out of context, alienating you from a customer.
- To make matters worse, business owners have an overwhelming reliance on word processing programs to make decisions on grammar, punctuation, spelling, and even word choice. Typos in your communications with a client are almost unforgivable, and their appearance in communications demonstrates a total disregard for attention to detail. If the business owner can’t get something as simple as punctuation right, then why would any customer trust him/her with his money?
The lesson here is that customer service pros take every opportunity to personalize their interactions with clients.
The more committed we are to maintaining a proactive stance, one where we are fully prepared to manage the customer’s evolving expectations, the more successful we will be.
And, at the end of the day, it will be the personal touches that keep your customers coming back – thanks to a positive customer experience.
No Matter What, Tell The Truth
Despite my unwavering commitment to my company and constituents, I know the terrible truth of being a business owner (and parent, by the way): we all make huge embarrassing horribly nauseating mistakes that affect our customers. You’d think that simply knowing this sad fact would somehow allow us to avoid screw-ups from ever happening, but it doesn’t since the occasional mistake occurs. The solution is to do everything possible to mitigate things within my control, and then fix whatever happens as soon as possible.
I should take a second and mention my grandfather here. Although gone a few years now, he left me with many stories, anecdotes, and quips, and I find myself quoting him routinely. Pop was such a savvy business-minded man, and he continually preached the importance of managing your reputation. “When you have nothing left, and your checkbook is in the red, you better have your good name,” he’d say.
Pop was right, of course. You absolutely must do whatever necessary to preserve your good name. This commitment to managing your reputation means telling the truth, “owning” a mistake, admitting an embarrassing error, and acknowledging shortcomings. There’s a foolish tendency for business owners to quickly assign blame – anything to avoid taking responsibility.
Listening to Pop’s life lessons has served me well. In every single instance, I have found simply telling the truth makes things so much better and almost always reestablishes your relationship with the customer. There are other advantages to committing to honesty, too. Telling the truth is easy. You don’t have to think too hard for too long, memorialize your lies, or wrestle with your conscience later.
Around my office we “own” our customer service errors and do so without excuses. We always diagnose what went wrong, discuss the event and circumstances, take corrective action, and then convey those findings directly to the customer.
Learn from mistakes – that’s how we continually improve the customer experience too!
Please Quit Saying “I Understand”
“I understand” makes me cringe. Every time I hear it I want to say, “So, John Doe, you’re telling me ‘you understand’ how I am feeling right here, right now, having been given extremely lacking customer service by your company? That’s remarkable, John.”
In reality, these two simple words put together further alienate an already upset customer. The fact of the matter is that the business owner will never truly comprehend what the customer is feeling at that precise moment. Stating you “understand” someone else’s subjective interpretation of your company’s failure in providing customer service excellence actually cheapens your relationship with your (now former) customer, and can be a difficult mistake to overcome.
Sorry, The Customer is Not Always Right
Let me clear one thing up.
The customer is NOT always right.
There, I said it. Much to the chagrin of many-a-marketing-puke’s public stance, the customer is not always right.
Don’t believe me? Just work in a retail or service industry job for ten minutes and you’ll quickly learn there are some truly awful people in this world. These same distasteful, overbearing, ridiculously petty individuals will eventually be your customers, and you’ll be forced to make futile attempts to appease them.
Some customers are very difficult for creative types to deal with. When a customer requests a change in his order – one the artisan knows is a hideous decision – the creative-minded business owners want to scream, “NOOOOO!” The problem is they really should go along with the customer’s poor choices. As sellers, we can and should offer suggestions, but at the end of the transaction, the customer deserves to get what she wants. It’s the business owner’s responsibility to complete that transaction in a professional way.
If you don’t, someone else will.
That’s not to say you should allow yourself to be demeaned or harassed. It only means the business owner has some decisions to make. There’s a distinct difference between a customer being “right” and a customer treating you poorly. You shouldn’t have to give up your personal moral or ethical position to make someone happy either. Again, it goes back to that “line” you identified earlier when framing your customer service model.
Business owners “win” one transaction at a time, one customer at a time. A happy, satisfied repeat customer could easily be lost with a single failure in customer service delivery. While repeat customers may give you the benefit of the doubt when a slip-up does occur, the trust you’ve developed with them is stressed and should never be taken for granted. It takes a lot of hard work and focus to get a customer, but even more work and diligence to keep them.
I’ve heard people say, “I just don’t know what happened” when a customer takes their dollars elsewhere. Despite all valid attempts at customer retention, some will choose another provider anyway. The key is to make sure you’ve done everything possible to stay competitively priced while providing amazing customer service and/or products. If a customer chooses to leave, then it will be for reasons outside of your control.
When it does happen, ask yourself if there was one more thing, even a little tiny thing, that would have made the difference. Inevitably, you will identify a number of things that could’ve changed and may have persuaded him to stay.
- Did I communicate effectively, efficiently, and proactively?
- Did I stop and listen to what the customer was really saying, as opposed to what I thought they were saying?
- Did I make the customer’s experience a personal one, and exchange trust and mutual respect?
- Did I say what I meant and use appropriate unemotional language that conveyed my actual intentions?
- If I made a mistake, was I quick to acknowledge the error, own the issue, communicate the remedy, and make whatever changes necessary to prevent a repeat?
If you’ve done all those things to the very best of your ability, then continue on the course, identifying additional opportunities for growth and targeting new customers while doing so.
If you haven’t done all these things, or ensured your absolute best, then it’s your responsibility to take a step back and reassess.
The customer experience is up to you – create your positive customer service policy and live up to it. Then watch your business grow!