In Any Economy, Customer Service Matters

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Whether the economy is growing, declining or stagnant, providing quality customer service should matter to a business.  70 percent of customers hit the road not because of price or product quality issues, but because they did not like dealing with the people who were selling the product or service.  Research conducted by the Forum Corporation adds that 45 percent of these customers said they switched to another company because the attention they did receive was poor in quality.  Did you know that 96 percent of dis-satisfied customers never complain; 91 percent do not buy again; and 100 percent will tell their “horror stories” to anyone who will listen!

Yet it seems today that customers are often treated like a nuisance, instead of the reason that a company is in business at all.  Products and services continue to increase in cost while customer service continues to decline.  Dealing with surly cashiers who seem to have more important things to do than ring up your sale has become the rule instead of the exception.  Having to find someone to help answer a question or locate a product becomes a more challenging task as employees become more scarce, less knowledgeable, and great at hiding.   It seems businesses today have forgotten how valuable customers actually are.  Without customers, no business can stay open.

We are in the age of relationship marketing, where customer service really matters.  This means developing and maintaining long-term relationships with customers should be an investment and a number one priority for any business.  In many cases, a businesses’ only real competitive advantage is providing quality customer service.  Delivering outstanding customer service is a commitment to do whatever it takes to serve the customer, and that commitment must be imprinted in the hearts and minds of every employee.  Only then can a company stand apart from its competition.

Those businesses that are successful at retaining their customers constantly ask themselves (and their customers) these questions:
1. What are we doing right?
2. How can we do that even better?
3. What have we done wrong?
4. What can we do in the future?

Americans define quality in service as:
1. Tangibles (people, equipment, facilities)
2. Reliability (doing what you say you will do)
3. Responsiveness (promptness in helping customers)
4. Assurance and empathy (conveying a caring attitude)

There are many books and articles written on the importance of customer service.  Executives constantly talk about the importance of providing superior service, and everyone seems to agree that it is essential to long-term business success, especially in today’s competitive marketplace.  Why then don’t more companies deliver?

Providing great customer service is not that difficult, right?  Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, once  declared, “If you want to achieve excellence, you can get there today.  As of this second, quit doing less-than-excellent work.”  Customers want to buy from and work with those businesses who demonstrate a sincere desire to help them at any cost.  So how do businesses instill this kind of quality service in their employees?

Businesses can empower employees to do whatever it takes to keep customers coming back.  The Ritz-Carlton, winner of the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality award, gives all employees the autonomy to serve customers in any way they deem appropriate, which includes giving hotel housekeepers the ability to spend up to $2,000 to solve a customer problem.  That is empowerment!  Empowering employees can be done in any business, at any level.

The number one rule in delivering great customer service is to listen.  When customers complain, there is a reason.  Don’t take offense, deny, or give excuses.  Listen to what is being said.  Take this opportunity to learn something, hear them out without interrupting or arguing.

Secondly, don’t take it personally.  Customer complaints will happen so learn to deal with them without getting defensive or angry.  It will only make the situation worse and you will end up losing a customer.

Always offer a sincere apology for any inconvenience.  Put yourself in your customers’ shoes.  Treat them as you would like to be treated in the same situation.

Finally, never say “it is not my responsibility.”  If you work at the business that made the product or sold it – it is your job!  Take ownership and make a personal commitment to do whatever it takes to fix the problem even if it is not your area or within your job description.

In the end, only those companies that make it an ongoing commitment to listen and consistently deliver quality customer service will keep their customers happy and their doors open.  “If you work just for money, you’ll never make it, but if you love what you’re doing and you always put the customer first, success will be yours.”  Ray Kroc, developer of McDonald’s.

Theresa Freihoefer is an assistant professor of business at Central Oregon Community College.  She comes to the College with a wealth of real-world experience in business.  Professor Freihoefer can be reached at tfreihoefer@cocc.edu.

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