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World Class
Customer Service

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Customer service is an art. Unfortunately, most small business owners don't think of it that way. Most companies adopt a strictly reactionary posture to customer service. Customer complaints or requests are dealt with as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Relationship enhancement techniques, which are so crucial in the sales and marketing process are largely abandoned once a prospect becomes a client. Over time, customer interactions become infrequent and antiseptic. In my opinion, this is an extremely poor way to conduct business.

This type of behavior has two principal sources. The first is what I refer to as the "post-honeymoon syndrome". Once the prospect becomes firmly entrenched as a paying customer, there is a tendency to sink back to our "pre-courtship" antics and return to business as usual. Of course some of this is both natural and necessary. The realities of running a hectic business do not allow for prolonged periods of intensive attention and lavish gift giving. Unfortunately, in business - as in marriage relationships, the tendency is to move to the opposite extreme of complete neglect.

A second common reason that most of us don't proactively manage our customer relationships is out of a sense of fear. I call this the "don't rock the boat syndrome". The flawed assumption here is that no news is good news. If we can somehow avoid communicating with the client then we can go about our daily activities in ignorant bliss - presuming that all is well. Hopefully this simply means that we find reasonable excuses not to call our clients - particularly those where there is some suspicion that all is not well. In extreme cases, however, it might mean that we are actively avoiding potentially unpleasant conversations with a customer. Not accepting their calls, for example, or worse yet, pretending to be someone else when you discover who is on the line.

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You know you have a problem if:

  1. You have your pre-schooler deal with all problem calls while you hide in the closet.
  2.   You realize that you need to make an urgent call to your mother-in-law (who you have also been avoiding) at the exact moment the customer call comes in.
  3. Whenever the phone rings, you quickly turn off your lights and hide under your desk hoping your secretary will assume you've gone for the day and just take a message. (Trust me, this never works. Inevitably you will hear your secretary say, "Oh, wait just one moment, I think I see him hiding under his desk. Yes, there he is. I'll put you right through to him.")
  4. You purchase a voice-disguising device from your local spy shop.
  5. You purchase a set of heavy-duty interior dead bolts for your office door.
  6. You start working the swing shift.
  7. You have your office phone number changed.
  8. You give instructions to the local phone company to designate your new phone number as "unlisted".
  9. You get a legal name change and begin wearing goofy disguises to the office.
  10. You record a message on your personal answering machine that greets all customer calls patched through by your secretary with a message that says (in a high pitched nasal voice) "The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again."
  11. You install Caller I.D. on your personal office phone.

Communication (more is better)

Direct and frequent communication with clients will allow you to continually monitor their attitude toward your product or service. It will also give you the opportunity to identify and correct small quality or service failures before they grow into major problems. You should be aware that expectations and perceptions can vary dramatically from client to client. Different clients have different needs. What works wonderfully for one client may not necessarily please another. Many times, a minor change in your operation can mean the difference between a happy and an unhappy client. The problem is that customers are not always direct and forthright in bringing things to your attention.

A client may feel that you are providing poor quality or service but be reluctant to say so. The client may slowly simmer for several months in quiet frustration, never giving any outward indication that there is a problem. You can be sure, however, that behind the scenes they will be frantically searching for a potential replacement for your company. Then, seemingly out of the blue, they announce that you are on probation or worse yet - terminated.

Continual proactive communication is the backbone of customer service. It is almost certain that you will experience a number of start-up problems as you begin a new account. Frequent and sincere communication with a new client will mitigate negative perceptions by allowing you to discuss the challenges that you are facing and explain the steps you are taking to bring the start-up problems under control.

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Customer Service Strategy

There are two key components to a successful customer service strategy.

1. Set Realistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations with the client up-front is one of the most important things you can do to make your job easier and keep your customers happier. It is absolutely imperative that you sit down with each client at the beginning of the relationship and explain that there will likely be some start-up issues which could go on for several weeks as you work through the personnel and system changes necessary to start a new account.

2. Communicate Daily with the Client

If you do experience problems as you begin a new account, acknowledge them as typical start-up issues and then enumerate the steps you are taking to resolve them. Most clients will be reasonable as long as they know you are aware of the issues and doing your best to overcome them as quickly as possible. Do not be overly defensive - it is important that you come across as confident and in control of the situation.

Of course it is not enough to acknowledge problems and promise solutions. You must work diligently to follow through and provide the solutions that are necessary. Communication will not get you off the hook indefinitely. You must ultimately toe the line. Appropriate communication will simply help buy the time you will need to effect necessary changes.

Be Bold - Ask!

One of the most effective ways of identifying problems is simply to ask the client where you stand. This seems a simple enough matter, but the reality is that it can be quite intimidating. It goes back to the "no news is good news" theory. Most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of directly soliciting criticism. Unfortunately, the news that is not exciting today will become decidedly less exciting the longer it festers unresolved.


Effective customer service is about listening to your clients. This means talking 20% of the time and listening 80% of the time. Most of us are not programmed for this type of interaction. If you find yourself doing all the talking, stop! (talking that is). A good customer service person is really just a poorly paid therapist. His job is to help the client divulge what it is that is really bothering her and then provide hope and direction for a possible resolution. This implies that the real work is not in solving the problem (although that will certainly require work), but in coaxing the problem out into the open where it can be analyzed and dealt with. This is the secret to good customer service and it requires a certain element of trust. Hopefully this trust has been developed over the course of the sales cycle. Generally it is this sense of trust that has led to your employment as a service or product provider.

In most large corporations, whenever there is a major service problem or quality failure that potentially jeopardizes the revenue relationship, the person dispatched to mend the relationship is usually the sales account representative. This is because of the relationship of trust that has been developed over time between the sales person and the client.

If you are personally involved in the selling process then you should feel comfortable going out and meeting with the clients. Even if you get to the point where you hire a full time sales person, it is always appropriate for you to accompany the rep on an important customer service call. The client will be flattered by the additional attention and will respect your ability as the owner of the business to marshal the necessary resources to resolve the problem.

Be Direct and Specific in Soliciting Feedback

You should be aware that the customer is probably just as uncomfortable with confrontation as you are. He will often be reluctant to vocalize concerns. Therefore, it is generally insufficient to simply ask "So, how are things going?"

To the untrained and inexperienced customer service representative the terse response of "fine" brings a wave of relief when in reality both the question and the answer were cop-outs.

You have to be far more specific and creative in your inquiries if you expect meaningful dialogue to ensue. For example, you might say something like:   "I've been meaning to visit with you about our service. How have we been doing? Are we consistently meeting your expectations?"

Depending on the answer, a follow up question might be in order. "What can we do to improve?" or "What would you like to see us do differently?"

One of the advantages of this type of approach is that it gives the customer the opportunity to express concerns without hurting our feelings. The implication of a properly phrased question is that you realize that your service is not perfect and that you are sincerely seeking ways to improve. Another advantage to this approach is that it allows you to receive feedback on your terms. In other words, you are very likely to get a pleasant, albeit direct response if the customer perceives that you are truly interested in identifying and solving problems. If you wait for the client to become so frustrated with a problem that he feels compelled to bring it to your attention then the balance of power has shifted. No longer is the issue being discussed on your terms. The chances of an unpleasant confrontation go up considerably in this instance. Ultimately the end result may be the same: the problem will be identified and resolved. The client's perception of the two situations however, will be quite different. In one case you came forward and took responsibility for a potential problem at an early stage. In the other case the client had to get involved to manage the problem. Over time, companies that are willing to be proactive and shoulder the burden of problem management will be rewarded. These will be the incumbent firms whose contracts are always renewed (much to the frustration of their competitors). Once a customer finds a competent contractor, they are extremely reluctant to make a change.

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Dealing Professionally with Complaints

One of the sad realities for most small businesses is that quality performances will generally go unacknowledged by most clients. Problems, on the other hand, will quickly be brought to light. This is one of the primary contributors to the "no news is good news" theory. If a client takes the time to call, you can generally count on it not being to point out how wonderful your work has been. More commonly the client will want to discuss either an additional and often burdensome request or a specific problem. There are a number of key points that you must remember whenever you receive such a call.

1. Stay calm.

This may seem like a trivial thing but if the client is harried or frustrated - or worse yet, downright angry, it can easily rub off on you. Anger and frustration are not conducive to a rational and objective discussion.

2. Take the time to listen.

Sometimes you just need to let the client vent her frustrations. While this is not always pleasant, it is sometimes necessary to allow for a subsequent productive dialogue. Let the client have her say without interrupting. Allow her to tell you her complete story (or at least her side of it) without back pedaling, interrupting, or trying to defend yourself or your company. Silence can truly be golden here. If the client launches into a particularly lengthy tirade, you may want to take the time to manicure your nails as you peruse the newspaper or conduct other busy work while cradling the phone on your shoulder. While I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I want to make the point that you must receive the complaint with a certain degree of detachment - not to be confused with ambivalence or indifference. If you take the complaint personally you are more likely to become defensive and stop listening and less likely to respond objectively and professionally.

3. Clarify your understanding by restating the problem or request.

Once the client completes her explanation of the problem or request it is important that you summarize what you were just told and then check to ensure that you have a proper understanding of the issue. For example, you might say something like:   "Let me be sure that I understand the problem. You're saying that the last batch of product you received from my firm was the wrong style, the wrong color, and the wrong size - and on top of that it arrived two weeks late. Is that correct?"

Once you have restated the problem, wait for the client to acknowledge your understanding of the issue.

4. Tell the client you will research the problem and call them back.

Unless the problem is of a very routine and simple nature I would always recommend that you call back. Generally, a call of this type will catch you off guard. You may not be in possession of sufficient information to respond appropriately. Offering to look into the problem and call back will do two things for you. First, it will give the client a chance to calm down. Second, it will allow you to gather information and build understanding so that when you do call back you are in a position to take command of the conversation rather than simply apologizing profusely or offering up lame excuses.

5. Call the client back with a meaningful and well thought out solution or explanation.

If you commit to call the client back, make sure that you indicate when you will call back (within an hour, for example), and then go out of your way to meet that commitment. Be sure to give yourself adequate time not only to come to a proper understanding of the problem, but also to develop a solution (if possible). The thing you need to remember is that periodic problems are inevitable in any business. Most clients are realistic enough to understand this. Your clients will not expect perfection. But they will expect you to be responsive to the problems that do occur. What is more, they will expect a timely response. Problems can be forgiven and forgotten, but an indifferent attitude or an insensitive dismissal of a problem that is important to the client will be long remembered.

In order for your follow-up call to be effective, you will need to be prepared to explain the problem from your companies perspective and then immediately propose a realistic and meaningful solution to the problem. If the problem is something that can be fixed, then it should be fixed. If it cannot be fixed, then you need to offer up a palatable explanation as to why the problem occurred and outline a plan to guard against a recurrence of the same problem. Above all, don't promise a solution that is unrealistic. The client is not expecting a miracle, he just wants to know that someone is on top of the problem.

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