Hey! All you service businesses out there! Listen up! Are you and your employees providing thankful service to your customers, accompanied by a smile, or resentful service with a scowl? Are you bending over backward to please your customers, or are you making them feel frustrated and disappointed? And are your employees focusing on your customers as if they are the lifeblood of your company, or taking customers for granted?
You should know the answers to these questions because, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re operating in a new world order and the same old lousy, careless attitude toward customers won’t work anymore. During the past century or so, our economy has evolved from being agriculturally based to being manufacturing centered to being technology driven. Now service is the name of the game. Based on my experiences and those of many others, if service is what we’re trading on in today’s global economy, then we’re in deep trouble.
You see, consumers represent about 70 percent of our nation’s purchasing power, and in this recession customers who have fewer dollars to spend exercise their choices more carefully. They will reject companies that don’t provide value or make them feel appreciated. Just look around you at the number of name-brand stores, auto dealerships, and businesses that have gone out of business or are filing for bankruptcy. While big department stores are experiencing declining sales, for example, Wal-Mart’s sales are increasing. Why? Because customers perceive that Wal-Mart provides more value. Wal-Mart’s combination of low prices, wide selection, branded names, and courteous service leaves its customers with a good experience.
Consumers are voting with their pocketbooks. They’re saying, “You’ve been taking too much of my money for too long without delivering a reliable, fair-priced product or service. I’ll spend my money with someone who appreciates my business, who makes me feel important (not like a pain in the butt), and who provides me with a good experience and more value.”
To illustrate my point, let me share a few examples of my recent customer service experiences.
Two years ago, I purchased a printer for my home office from a company with a well-known name and a reputation for reliability (supposedly). This printer served me well until recently, when it developed a problem. I read through the manual and tried to fix it, but to no avail. I followed all the troubleshooting actions given by the software programs, but I still had a dead printer. Finally, I called the customer service number.
The first recording told me to press “1” to continue in English. (I have my own issues with that, which I’ll reserve for another writing.) Then, a recording asked me to press “1” if I was calling about a computer, and so on, until I finally reached “8” for help with printers. Another recorded voice asked me to diagnose the problem by pressing certain numbers for certain problems.
After about seven prompts, I finally got to a recording that asked me to hold for the next available service representative as they were “all busy helping other customers” at the time. By now, my blood pressure had risen to a level sufficient to make me hold the line for as long as it took in order to give someone at this crappy- service company a piece of my mind. It only took another 15 minutes.
And guess what? It was someone in Taiwan who was extremely difficult to understand and had a bad attitude! Then, after he listened to the troubles that I was having with my printer, he put me on hold for another three minutes!
When he returned to the line, he told me that he couldn’t help me because my printer’s two-year warranty had expired. However, if I wanted help from the trouble desk, I could get it by paying him $130 to renew my warranty! After I told him that I wasn’t going to pay ransom money for an expensive printer that should last longer than two years, I hung up, determined never to buy anything from that company again.
I’m sure that offshoring some services saved this company a lot of money, but companies can’t abdicate the responsibility for good customer service. They should re-examine their low-touch, high-tech service strategies to make sure they are not only efficient, but more importantly, that they are effective.
Contrast that experience with one I recently had at a department store in New York City. At this store, a clerk helped us with our shopping list, going out of her way to help find things from other departments, arranging for gifts to be wrapped and shipped home. She was friendly, courteous, and service oriented. After that experience, I felt good about what I had purchased in her store and looked forward to going back again in the future.
Unfortunately, outstanding customer service like that is becoming the exception rather than the rule, to the point where getting good service stands out. That may have worked when the economy was rolling full steam ahead, but now that it’s slowed down and is even rolling a bit backwards, mediocre customer service just won’t cut it any more.
Service is Part of Value
Surviving a recession requires more than laying off employees, cutting operating costs, reducing prices, and offering sales and coupons to attract customers. It requires being smarter with your entire value proposition and making customer focus a core competency of your entire business.
Convenience isn’t the name of the game anymore either—consumers are shopping around for true value, and the perception of value includes how well they are treated by employees and how good they are made to feel by your company. If your employees don’t understand that the success of the business (and therefore their jobs) depends on how well they treat customers, then they may be joining the growing unemployment lines, and your company will join the growing list of bankruptcies.
I recently saw a sign hanging in the back of a McDonald’s restaurant that read, “Hire for attitude . . . . Train for skills.” How true. Without good attitudes, all the training in the world will be a waste of time and money.
The good news is that providing good service is not rocket science. It does not require an advanced degree to deliver. It can start with small things, like insisting that your employees always:
• Smile when greeting and working with customers so that the customer feels like the employee is happy about providing service.
• Make the customer feel important and express appreciation for their business.
• Say, “You’re welcome,” when a customer thanks them for providing help (instead of saying “No problem,” as if they’re doing the customer a favor).
• Look for ways to assist customers and not spend time standing around talking to each other.
During the holidays, I received an e-mail that included a list of companies under financial stress, warning me not to buy gift cards from them because they may not be around to honor their return policies and warranties. Many of those companies listed were ones that I did not associate with providing good service.
Providing exceptional customer service says, “I understand you, I appreciate the opportunity to serve you, and I appreciate your business.” In a recession, those companies that can woo customers who are feeling reluctant to spend by creating and enhancing customer relationships will be the ones left standing.