A Publication of WTVP

A sale should turn a stranger into a friend, not just a customer.

You’ve got a solid but slowly eroding customer base. You assign most of the blame for recent declines in sales and customer traffic to a bad economy—it’s something outside your control. You don’t feel it’s time for a painful self-critique to discover what you yourself might be doing wrong, reluctantly or not, at the high level that is required to be the top-of-mind choice for customers.

In a perfect world, customers would spend as much money during the bad times as the good. But in the real world—the only one in which you can sell products—customers occasionally cut back, slow down and stay away. Something’s wrong. You can feel it. You can see it. Your accountant has spelled it out to you—it’s a slump. But what’s driving this decline?

Your business was doing fine in years gone by—when everybody was making money. Now, it’s not so easy, but that’s true for all businesses; thus, it’s not your fault. You hope for an improved economy and financial market stability…for customers to more readily open their wallets.

While we’re waiting, what should we be doing to make the best of things? Could relations with customers be more vital than ever? How do you establish loyalty? By smiling at customers once in awhile? Being pleasant and willing to chit-chat? Offering more product choices? Remodeling the store? Cutting prices? Handing out samples?

Aligning the Service Mission
One major way to retain and acquire customers is to keenly observe, then carefully evaluate your current customer service. People like to shop where they feel they are liked, valued and understood. They do business with companies they feel are in solidarity with their goals. That mission alignment comes through and is verified and established in how you and your employees treat your customers in every single transaction.

Cheerful, helpful, intelligent customer service is the key—not grouchy, dragging-your-feet service, where you half-heartedly interact with customers online or in your store. You think it doesn’t seem worth the time. You’ve got so much to coordinate back in your office—way back in that cave, where customer experience is a nice concept, but not really practical, considering how very busy you are.

Unfortunately, customer service is generally felt to just “be there” somehow in the swirl of staff personalities, their daily contact with customers, and of course, in the service department, where things are fixed or resolved. That’s enough, right? Just hire good people, train them, poke your head out occasionally, and move on to more quantifiable tasks.

Customer service is where your business is probably the weakest—the least supported, emaciated, and in some cases, for all intents and purposes, nearly dead. Poor customer service makes you more vulnerable to competitors moving into town or setting up shop online.

You know that good customer service is not always a priority in the business world. It is considered important, but it’s often shoved off to the side as a given, without much fuss or turmoil. “It just happens.” But you know that’s a myth. Exceptional service is memorable and greatly appreciated, since it seems to be so rare.

It’s dangerous to be overly optimistic and assume you’re doing a good job at serving customers. Chances are, there’s a lot of room for improvement. You can’t just say in an advertisement, “We’ll serve you as if you were family” or “You’ll be treated like royalty.” Jingles, slogans and mission statements don’t win and retain customers. How customers experience and interpret every transaction with your business—that’s what ultimately matters.

Customer service begins the moment the customer enters your store, visits your website, reads your blog or finds you on social media. It intensifies when money changes hands and the customer walks out of your store or clicks off your website with a purchased item. It should culminate with buyer euphoria—not remorse—in total product satisfaction and frequent repeat purchases. A sale should turn a stranger into a friend, not just a customer. That’s the whole point of social media marketing and network interactions.

Improving your service to customers—getting better at helping them, sharing insights into your industry, guiding their selections and accommodating their budget while solving their problem—begins with appreciating and understanding them.

Customers want outstanding, beyond-the-call-of-duty, pleasingly competent service, not just good products at a fair price sold by a nice person. How are you prioritizing this? How are you developing strategies to strengthen and protect this vulnerable aspect of your business?

The Changing Customer
In business, many things today are unpredictable. It’s difficult to stay on top of everything going on. To remain relevant, real-world customers’ changing needs must be met. Customer service is one aspect of your business that is under your control to a large degree. You may not be able to monitor how customers are treated on a 24-hour basis, but you must use tools to remain aware of how customers are serviced in every step of those interactions, while keeping an eye out for possible improvements.

People are empowered by new connectivity and access to products they never dreamed of being able to find and purchase. Their expectations, demands and desires have all changed. They’re not going to be patient when you can’t find an item, don’t know anything about it, or have to go through a lot of procedures to special-order it. Are you up to speed with the new realities in the marketplace, in technology, in peer-to-peer recommendation systems, online reputation management, and the psyche of the roving, wireless, always-on, multi-networked consumer?

People now have quick access to more products online than even the most seasoned world travelers. The new economics are based on Internet realities like near-zero production, promotion and distribution costs, as well as the freemium business model, in which one thing is provided free so they can sell you something else or charge later for an enhanced version of the free product. Newly emergent needs and idiosyncratic interests rule the stage of consumer demands.

Nothing is immune from this upheaval of consumer options. Are you still managing the way you have for years? When was the last time you read a book on new media, economics, marketing, business models, branding strategy, event promotions, membership incentives or sales methods? All these factors contribute to the quality of your customer service before, during and after the sale.

Customers have changed. Service is a bigger deal now in the age of the Internet, when people can obtain everything with a few clicks of a mouse. Your competitor may be in another town geographically, but virtually speaking, he or she is just a few steps away online. What customers wanted years ago is not necessarily what they want now. You can’t properly service customers if their needs have evolved but you’re not aware of or accommodating this reality.

The Soul of the Product
What gets sold in any transaction is a product or service, accompanied by an implied agreement that the customer has paid fair value for what you will perform or deliver, and that it will be durable, appropriate and effective in solving a problem, enhancing a lifestyle or fulfilling a need.

The moment the product is paid for, even before the customer receives it, your customer service kicks in. It’s an aspect of the paid product—the milieu in which it lives—and it becomes memorable. Customer service is the soul and deepest essence of the product as a user solution. The product is not just a dumb, inanimate object accompanied by a vague notion of imagined benefit.

Products are often used by customers, then followed with further questions, needs or interests as related to the product and the problem it solves. The product may be defective or broken, missing something, or of no use for some reason. This is when a business can make a strong impression on the customer by striving to satisfy them in a quick, friendly fashion.

Products sometimes come with problems, or accidentally cause more problems, often through no fault of the product itself. This paradox can be due to a mistaken model, the wrong size or a forbidden ingredient that went unnoticed at the time of purchase. Sometimes a different product is better suited to a customer, or perhaps the product was satisfactory, but has some negative features that required the customer to return it. Even worse, it may have made the problem worse or caused a new problem, setting off a chain reaction.

We’ve all been there: complaining to everyone we know when we have experienced bad customer service. We’ll go out of our way to warn the people we care about most. We want to sound the alarm about a business that treats customers poorly, with disrespect, or with sluggish reluctance. Thank goodness, customer service is one thing your company can control to a great degree.

Here are 10 things that you can do right now to improve your customer service:

  1. Examine your own motives for being in business. Decide to be more altruistic and customer-centric instead of profit-oriented. Trust the goodness and zeal of satisfied customers to make the ROI of improved customer service well worth the change.
  2. Value the sales and promotional value of satisfied, politely served customers. Be guided by the “Golden Rule.” Prove you care by asking them for their opinions, then listen intently.
  3. Tap into the customer mentality. Don’t think your customers have nothing to teach you about what you’re doing. Get to know your customers personally. Deeply and completely understand their problems and needs.
  4. Genuinely care more about your customers as people and not simply as wallets, considering both their accumulative and individual value.
  5. Interact personally with customers, fans, friends and followers on social media.
  6. Visit competitors, observe what they’re doing right that you are not, and implement new methods based on this data.
  7. Train and mentor your employees perpetually, even if it’s just Internet research with tests for comprehension.
  8. As CEO, owner or manager, set a vivid and consistent example of superior customer service. Personally model and portray excellence in sales and service to show your staff how to do it in the real world. This will also build your credibility and increase their trust in your ability to lead.
  9. Develop and fairly enforce clear rules about compliance with new customer relations strategies.
  10. Continue to keep yourself well-informed and up to speed on successful customer service initiatives, especially by competitors. Keep touring their stores and websites. Read their blogs and social media updates. Read books on customer relations, sales and marketing to keep pace with emerging trends and problems. Become a master at this game, and you’ll weather storms that could sink many other businesses. iBi