Posted by: Andy Porter | October 14, 2010

Customer Service IS Marketing

It is interesting to me how companies view the subject of customer service. Most every business will tell you that customer service is important to them and that they always strive for the best service possible. If you had a group of business owners rate the relative importance of say:

  • Developing an internet marketing plan
  • Creating new advertising
  • Attracting new customers
  • Improving customer service
  • Increasing sales

I would venture to say that improving customer service wouldn’t be at the top of the list. It seems that some businesses act as if customer service is one of the things we have to do, but maybe not as vital as other things.

Of course I say this not because of what owners tell me, but based on what I see businesses do. I mean, how many companies to you encounter that have really great customer service? Not too many. That in itself tells me that not a lot of businesses take it very seriously.

I realized that maybe many business people do not see customer service as a part of marketing.

What’s missing is the idea that good customer service, by itself can increase your cash flow.

Advertising, selling, customer service, storing and shipping, are all integral facets of marketing. They cannot be separated. You cannot remove customer service from marketing any more than you can remove advertising.

Looking at customer service as one part of your marketing plan sheds a new light on things.

Any intelligent marketing plan includes customer service. Take Starbucks for example. They clearly do a lot of things right. One of those things is customer service. The entire company from upper management to baristas works hard to provide it and have good success achieving it. And consistently good customer service has become one of the main reasons for their expansion.

There is a world of difference between actually providing personal, friendly customer service and simply pretending that you care about your customers.

In this years “MSN Money: 10 Worst Customer Service Companies” Five different banks achieved the ignoble honor of horrible customer service. The banks on the “10 Worst List” are: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank and HSBC, Capital One. So let’s use banking as an example of the opposite side of the coin.

In many companies, like the above banks, customer service is simply something handled by the PR department. They SAY they have great customer service, they ADVERTISE their incredible customer service. And unfortunately that’s as far as they take it. The bank tellers in the local branches may be friendly and remember your name and smile. But that does not make up for the way the rest of the company treats its customers.

What, specifically, does great customer service entail?

Starting at the bottom or entrance to a company, it starts with the staff that deals directly with customers, either in person, on the phone or through Internet lines. How a customer is greeted, how the phone is answered, the general level of friendliness and patience of the employees to customers is part of customer service.

But customer service does NOT start and end here. In fact this is just the beginning, the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Customer service ALWAYS starts at the top levels of an organization. It starts with a commitment; this carries from founders, owners, and board directors to executives and management, on to general employees and ends with the customers themselves.

There is an entire section of customer service related to the policies and procedures established and followed in a business. What is the return policy? Does the company share customer’s private info with other companies? Are there any hidden costs? Is there any confusing fine print?

It really doesn’t matter that you have friendly people answering the phone if your company policies and methods of doing business are not customer friendly.

Advertising is also part of this equation. If a company is exaggerating in its advertising with half truths or even untruths to gain customers it will eventually alienate its customer base. Have you ever seen or heard an advertisement that you think stretched the truth?

Another large factor in customer service is internal atmosphere. How do the staff like working at the company? Do they get along with each other? Is there interdepartmental bickering and finger-pointing? Employees who are happy with their job will always provide better customer service than those who aren’t.

Here is the basic customer service equation:

Dedicated, alert management plus Loyal employees plus Teamwork through out the entire company plus Customer-friendly procedures and policies plus Staff training and education equals Great customer service.

Omit any part of the equation and customer service suffers.

The most obvious connection between customer service and marketing is word of mouth. The better the word of mouth about a company the more business they will garner. Good word of mouth means more referrals, higher staff morale (and better staff retention) and more repeat sales. Great word of mouth also makes all of a company’s other advertising and marketing efforts more effective.

Where to go from here? It seems unfair of me to end with out offering some sound advice to get started with.

I am not going to call this a customer service program, or even a teamwork program, I am going to call it a marketing program. Then maybe some of you will actually try to implement it!

Marketing program

1. Establish several avenues to receive feed back from your customers. Have surveys to pass out, email out, have a feed back form on your web site and most importantly have customer comment log books all over your business so the employees can jot down any customer comments when they hear them.

2. Hold weekly employee staff meetings. At each meeting do the following:

  • Read each and every customer comment, good or bad, out loud to all staff. No censoring, just the raw comments.
  • In the case of positive comments, give everyone a big pat on the back, this reinforces what’s right.
  • In the case of complaints, with the staff decide if there was any error on the part of anyone in the company. If there was an error, ask the staff to workout what should have been done and create any needed policy to prevent it happening again. Get the staff to work out how to make sure the problem doesn’t repeat.
  • If the consensus is that there was no internal error, just a grumpy customer, don’t stay on it, go to the next compliment/complaint.
  • Review how the company is doing, statistically. Employees should be apprised on how things are really going. Do NOT use PR to make things seem rosier than they are, just the facts, Ma’am. Ask the employees to come up with ideas for improving everything from customer perception of the company to customer service, to reducing wait times.
  • Do these steps each and every week.

3. Set aside time each week to educate staff on some aspect of improving service. A few ideas are:

  • Have the staff make a list of the most commonly asked question. Then have the staff, as a group, create complete answers to each question. (make sure to get this all down on paper).
  • Arrange for lunch meetings where staff can get educated on the various services or products you offer. Ask vendors to come give lectures on software or to teach staff technical details about products, etc.
  • Find a book on customer service and go through chapters one at a time, with staff, start a dialog, do role-playing drill, as needed.

4. Work out with all your staff exactly what is the procedure for compensating customers if you do screw up. Buy $100 worth of $5 coffee cards and give them to customers who have to wait. Get $20 movie passes and have them on hand if you really mess up bad. Make sure ALL employees are empowered to compensate customers for any mistakes you make.

5. Write a policy for your company that that says griping, gossiping and complaining are grounds for dismissal. Pass out the written policy. Go over the policy in all job interviews. Add it to the employee manual. Insert the policy in the employee agreement. Go over it at the weekly staff meeting. Enforce the policy. If the griping/gossiping/complaining continues, find your most vocal griper/gossiper/complainer and fire them.

If you do these 5 points and keep doing them you will gradually build a team of loyal employees. Your customer service will improve. Your word of mouth will improve. You will get more new customers. Your staff turnover will decrease. The level of drama and stress in the office will decrease! Of course there may be a few bumps along the road, you may lose a few staff along the way. But if you just keep going all will come out better than you expect!

Best of luck and many happy returns!

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