#7 Customer Service Is?

by Steven Cerri on October 2, 2006

Customer Service!

Big Deal or Not?

Good evening!

Customer service is a big deal… to customers. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal to businesses… at least some businesses. When I’ve been involved with customer service it’s seemed pretty easy to me and yet, apparently not to some. It’s considered such a confusing topic that this month’s issue of Fast Company devoted most of a whole issue to it.

I picked up a copy of the September 2006 issue of Fast Company off the newsstand, the one with Lewis Black on the cover looking like a surprised and disgruntled customer with smoke coming out of his ears. The first thing I read was the “Letter From The Editor”, Mark N. Vamos.

Mark begins by stating that, “Giving your customers great service…is easy.” He then proceeds to say that it really is difficult because what all (or most) customers want is to talk to the proprietor of the company to get their problems solved. He goes on to say, “I think most of us have an unspoken expectation of that relationship (i.e., between customer and company) that’s rooted in an idealized image of early-20th-century small town commerce. When we do business, we want to feel as if we’re looking the proprietor in the eye over a wooden counter. We want the owner of the hardware store to know us. We want the owner of the bookstore to remember that we liked the last book by that Sinclair Lewis fellow and to set aside the new one for us.”

Well, I don’t know how Mr. Vamos makes purchases but that is not at all what I want nor is it what I expect. I don’t care about the proprietor. I don’t want anybody guessing what book I want. I’m certain the days of living down the street from the hardware store where everyone knows my name are long gone or certainly seem so. When I call a customer service department and the person on the other end of the line calls me by name, I know they’ve already pulled up my information in their database. So let’s not get overly sentimental about the “old days”. The only time I expect someone to know my name is if I’ve had repeated contact with them in a short enough span of time that I appreciate that they haven’t forgotten my name or other pertinent information. Most of the time all I want is someone to talk to, rather than a machine, and I want that person to be the first and last person I talk to in order to get what I want done. That’s it.

The reason Nordstrom’s does so well is not because the customer has access to the proprietor or because they call me by name.

It’s because the sales person on the floor can and does ACT LIKE the CEO

But they are not the proprietor nor do I expect them to be. It’s because the sales person on the floor takes care of my issue. They are the first and last person I have to talk to in order to get what I want done. Get it?

Customer service is easy. I’ve provided a lot of good customer service and it was not rocket science. I know rocket science and customer service isn’t it. To get to good customer service all you have to do is ask two questions, “What does my customer want?” and “How does my customer want to be treated in getting it or in not getting it?” That’s it. The reason customer service is so difficult to find in the world is that companies don’t ask those two questions. They ask a different question instead and that is,

“What minimal contact do we have to provide to deal with the customer after the sale is complete?”

Whether company personnel ask that question out loud or it’s implied in their discussions, you know that’s the question they are answering when they implement their customer service policies. Just notice what customer service processes they have implemented.

Most companies treat customer service as an expense instead of an investment

When I was a product manager at a printer company, there were many instances in which I talked to customers and provided support to my customers. My overriding questions were always, “What is of interest to my customer?” “What has my customer told me they are interested in?” “What can I do to make my customer’s life easy regarding my product?” “How do my customers want to be treated?”

So if you’re a technical professional, how do you provide great customer service? Let’s say you’re an IT professional whose job it is to integrate hardware and software for clients. Your clients may be internal users or they may be external customers. How do you provide customer service that is exemplary?

The answer comes in several parts so remember that there isn’t a silver bullet here. It takes a focus on several components.

The first component relates to your perception of your role. You must first think “systemically”. That is, you must think beyond your own area of the organization, beyond your own immediate world. You must begin to understand how other components of your product, the customer’s needs, and your company’s support components fit together to form a “support system”. Because it is your ability to influence of this “support system” that will allow you to provide great customer service.

The second part is your perception of the customer. If you consider the customer a source of problems or if you consider the sale complete when the customer has purchased your product, you’re in trouble. The customer is an on-going source of business and you must think of them that way.

Third, you must establish informal relationships within the context of your larger organization. If your company is large enough to establish these relationships formally that’s fine but don’t rely on them solely. What allows you to act like the CEO in the customer’s eyes is your ability to have the informal relationships that allow you to behave in a semi-independent way. You just can’t do this well unless you have established informal relationships in your organization that support your independence and your independent decision-making.

Finally, the fourth part is communication. Communication must be open and flexible. You must be comfortable being in a fish bowl. Whatever you need in order to provide great customer service, you have to be able to ask for it (within your own organization).

Notice great customer service is not about the implementation of technology. Mark was right in his implication that we want that human touch. In the final analysis, good customer service is really very easy to provide, in most situations. However, what we often see in the business world today is that customer service is a “must have expense” that most companies attempt to automate so it can be provided at the lowest possible cost. Big mistake. The only way to a build business that keeps your current customers and attracts new ones is to build relationships. Good customer service is one cornerstone of those good relationships.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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