‘It Ain't Easy Being A Customer Anymore!'

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‘IT AIN'T EASY BEING A CUSTOMER ANYMORE!'

by Mike Manes

The good news about being a “poor old Cajun boy” (I've been criticized for using this term to describe myself; forgive me — this is part of my life's experience, my culture) is that most people's expectations of us are low. I'm given latitude by the Politically Correct Police because I'm, you know, a “hick.”

This latitude lets me write in unvarnished terms, based on personal experiences and observations of the marketplace. What follows is my best effort to provide insight as a customer into the problems with service today, as well as my suggestions as a consultant on ways to return to the good old days when the “customer was king.”

You'll find the first lesson of this article in this disclaimer. Please note the words “forgive me” a few lines above. If you offend someone or if you think you might have, apologize. Acknowledge your mistakes. Don't argue with customers. If what you did or said, or what they perceived you did or said, offended them — make amends, or at least apologize for hurting their feelings.

THE INGREDIENT/ENTRÉE: CREATING A CUSTOMER FOCUSED OPERATION

Let's start with positives: Not all customer service is bad. There are examples of great customer service. The best in my experience include Miss Billie at the teller line, Rose fitting my glasses, and Larry introducing you to the next suit I'm going to buy. These folks are the best at what they do.

When you walk into their stores they don't greet you; they celebrate your arrival. At the moment of eye contact, you'll feel that you're the only customer they have. They don't know about you and your demographics; they know you. They'll spend the appropriate time with you, uninterrupted by the phone, engaging in conversation (relationship building and market research). Their interest is first in you, your wants, and your needs.

They'll then convert what they've just learned and their knowledge of their products and services into solving your problem or satisfying your expectations. Most important, when they commit to doing something, they do it — when, where, and how they promise!

It's difficult to quantify bad examples because there are so many experiences to choose from. Some examples include a monogram shop that promised me four shirts with my company logo on a certain day. For the next month after the promised delivery date, I called to check on the order more than 17 times. Finally the owner “fired” me as a customer for being unreasonable.

A CPA firm sent me a letter threatening to charge me double their usual fee if I didn't deliver my tax information by a certain date. I don't deny their need for the information in a timely fashion. However, a diplomatic phone call would have been more effective and kept me from “firing” them.

One Bank (not its real name, but close) discourages its customer service personnel from acknowledging customers by name since this encourages conversations that slow down the transaction process.

Remember, “stuff happens.” As long as humans work in business (or for you “techies” — as long as humans write the programs for the Web sites or systems that are your business) mistakes will happen. How you handle them makes the difference between “good” or “bad” service. Sometimes a “bad” initial experience can offer you a great opportunity to shine over the long term.

Adding to the deterioration of service is the “shrinkage” of manners and civility in today's world. An anthropologist once stated that the difference between the North and the South is that the South has a sense of manners and tradition. I hate to admit it, “Sir, it ain't as good as it used to be.” Maybe we can bring manners back.

My favorite customer service story is about a woman who has to interrupt an employee's conversation with her friends to get help to make a purchase. When the employee “grumps” over to help, the customer explains, “remember, around here, I'm profit and you're overhead.”

The good news is that as the average for service deteriorates, the exceptional stands out all the more. If any business will make an effort to be friendly, fast, focused, and flexible, their service will be considered world class.

CUSTOMERS: A NICHE OF ONE

Today, customers have the power. They're sophisticated, have full access to information on products and services, and can buy what they want from an unlimited number of sources in a global economy. This means that you can no longer sell or service a “mass market,” but rather must focus on each customer as an individual: A niche of one. Each customer is unique and different.

Respect this diversity. Train your team to understand and follow not only the Golden Rule — “do unto others as they would do unto you” — but also the Platinum Rule — “do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” In other words, don't let an old guy on your team talk down to a young customer about the “good old days” or anything else. Also don't let a young service person talk “street talk” to an old “Mo Fo” who's trying to buy from your company.

The essential questions in each relationship are: Who is this customer? What do they want and need? How do you profitably deliver it at a price they are willing to pay? Success in customer service does not come from on high (Harvard Business School, business books, or seminars) but, like beauty, “lies in the eye of the beholder (customer).” Customer service is a “bottom up” activity.

Part of your challenge is that customers differ, not only as a niche of one, but in their demands for individualized service. Some customers want “high touch”: a relationship that they can trust, while others need “high tech”: a seamless and fast transaction. Your problem is that you don't sell either; you sell products, commodities, and/or services. What do customers expect you to do — alter your delivery system to their idiosyncrasies? The bad news is that the answer is “yes.”

The good news is that if you narrow the market, it's doable! Customers want what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. They want a positive buying experience. Your job is to juggle the delivery of your products, commodities, and services through transactions and a basic relationship to create this experience.

The one absolute principle is that people want to feel important and to be respected. This is the bare minimum. Everyone in your organization who touches, talks to, or works with customers must understand and act on this reality. Teach them basic communication and human relationship skills. Teach them to smile, make eye contact, shake the customer's hand (or offer the other appropriate cultural greeting), listen , restate what they've heard to verify that what they heard is what the customer said, understand their need(s), agree on a solution, and deliver as promised.

After your team becomes effective in the basics of relationships with a niche of one, segment your market. A sign I saw years ago provided probably the most effective “screen” for segmenting customers:

“PRICE (COST), QUALITY, SERVICE: CHOOSE ANY TWO”

Customers' answers to this “survey” offer insight into the direction of your profitable delivery model. You can't be all things to all people, so narrow your focus. Let the market itself select. Which segment can you serve most effectively? Which segment will choose you?

If price (cost) is the customer's first choice, streamline delivery. Customer service might actually endanger your effectiveness because service (other than the basic manners and respect mentioned earlier) adds cost to the product/system. Recognize that discount merchants can be nice and yet not provide service (Although Wal-Mart has a greeter, you're serviced by a “shelf” or “rack”). Service at Wal-Mart often requires you to stand in a long line at a service desk (that might be understaffed intentionally). This is the price customers must pay for cheap. Because Wal-Mart loyalists are buying price, rather than service, their expectations are being met .

A recent segment on NPR indicated that Amazon.com doesn't have a service number readily available. Customers buying “cheap” don't have high expectations for service.

If quality is job 1, build it right the first time. If it doesn't work, fix or replace the product without argument. The customer was willing to pay for quality in the cost of the product.

If service is the customer's primary expectation, build on relationships. Spend time on dialogue. Ask questions. Listen and learn; then learn and listen. Step into the shoes of the customer. Don't meet expectations: exceed them! To quote Stephen Covey, “begin with the end in mind.”

The end in a service-driven relationship is a satisfied customer. Focus on the need — not the product. Weave an assortment of products, commodities, and services into a positive buying experience. Meet the customer where they are, don't look to the procedures manual. Break the rules, if needed.

As an example, around 1978 I purchased a blazer from Larry. Eight years and 25 pounds later, I was wearing that blazer at my son's basketball game. Larry approached me and whispered quietly in my ear, “Mike, we've had a lot of problems with that brand of blazer. Over time, the material shrinks.”

Larry offered to take the coat in, have it altered (he knew me and my clothes well enough to “eyeball” the right adjustments) , and return it to me two days later at no charge since the material was faulty. I agreed and he did. I can't remember some of the things I did yesterday, but 20 years later I still remember this experience and Larry remains on my all time Top 10 List of service personnel.

Did he owe me an alteration after eight years and 25 pounds? No.

Did he provide an alteration anyway? Yes.

Did he break the rules? Yes.

Did he exceed my expectations and create a positive experience for me? Absolutely!

What are you doing to exceed the expectations of those who buy service?

Michael G. Manes can be reached at Square One Consulting, 625 Weeks Street, New Iberia, LA 70560, (225) 939-5944 (Cell), e-mail [email protected], or visit www.squareoneconsulting.com.

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