Superior customer service requires companies to know their clients well enough to both easily communicate with them and to foster long-term relationships. According to the U.S. Consumer Affairs Department, it costs five times more to gain a new customer than to retain an existing one. So when customers are unhappy with a service, excellent customer care just may hold onto their business and loyalty.
The approach to assuring that customers are getting what they need is two-pronged â?? a solid customer service plan, and a method to measure their level of satisfaction.
Crafting a Powerful Customer Service Plan
A viable service initiative minimizes stress for customers and the service staff, in effect increasing morale and satisfaction on both sides. A good plan also improves efficiency by concentrating resources in those areas most important to customers, and optimizes success by fostering excellent relationships. Use these guidelines to structure your service strategy:
- Establish a starting point. Conduct a company assessment to evaluate existing policies. Why were these policies established? Are they still relevant? When was the last time they were updated? Are there particular policies that result in customer frustration?
- Collect data. Gathering information about your customers can be a daunting prospect, but an organized approach helps.
- Review customer feedback, including complaints, praise, questions and comments, to get a sense of the full spectrum of client satisfaction.
- Establish clear objectives; then use surveys and focus groups to compile measurable feedback.
- Consider operational data, such as the status of backlogs and returns, as well as information from vendors and suppliers.
- Evaluate data. Not all information collected in the previous step will be equally helpful. Consider what is timely, affects long-term performance trends and addresses the issues most important to your clients.
- Finally, educate customers. They should be fully aware of operational protocols (e.g. return policies, credit) so they have clear expectations. Likewise, they should know who to contact when problems arise.
Make Sure Employees Are Onboard
To ensure your employees understand how critical superior customer service is to the business, create a service vision and service policies. The vision should be concise and help unite the staff around a single goal. The related policies should be clear and straightforward. They should also be customer friendly and empower employees to satisfy the company's patrons. Then, take these steps:
- Train the staff. Make sure employees understand the importance of customer satisfaction to the company's success and longevity. Provide detailed service expectations in job descriptions and staff manuals.
- Effective training comprises not only the initial burst that follows the implementation of a new plan, but also workshops and evaluation sessions built into the regular workday. Critical focus areas are:
- Communication skills, to improve customer-staff rapport and foster attentive listening habits, as well as enable personnel to create a positive first impression, deliver a consistent message and show customer appreciation to build long-term relationships.
- Problem-solving skills to help customer service representatives understand concerns as they arise, alleviate customer stress and propose solutions.
- Create a customer service culture. The previous steps are integral to establishing good customer service, but are not as important as consistent follow-up. For this reason, a customer service plan should incorporate ongoing data collection for continuous evaluation. What is the customer retention rate? Have personnel addressed the most common complaints? How have customers responded?
- Reward good performance. Recognize and praise employees who have delivered excellent customer service. This can be a potent incentive for the star staffers' coworkers.
Customer Satisfaction - in Full Measure
Most business owners know the power of the spoken word. For good or ill, public chat over company performance can impact revenues. The problem is, though, business owners often find it tough to pinpoint exactly how clients perceive their companies. While they may hear rumblings of dissatisfaction, studies suggest that only a small percentage of unhappy customers ever send a formal complaint.
For this reason, it's critical for an owner to open and maintain a line of communication to clients. Honest exchanges can provide vital clues about clients' buying decisions, service preferences and their opinions of the competition.
There are several ways to begin the process of data collections. Chief among these are customer questionnaires and surveys, while focus groups of select clients can include both written assessments and discussion.
Regardless of the chosen methodology, clear goals established early on in the process are essential. Also, checking your company's performance against similar businesses is a good way to ascertain your competitive standing.
Beyond the basics, here are other methods of obtaining customer satisfaction information:
- Administer your own survey. If you know your customers and can identify what you'd like to learn from them, this option will allow you to easily make decisions to improve your business.
- Use survey software. These programs offer an inexpensive alternative to contracting with an outside source. Besides creating surveys for a number of formats, including PCs, phones and mobile devices, many allow you to generate reports, export data,
- Consult with a survey house. If you are unsure of your goals in collecting information or do not have the time to complete the process in-house, this is a good option.
Create an Effective Survey
Books on survey science abound in today's market. But despite the wealth of expert opinion out there, a few common rules apply across the board.
- Determine the objective. Be specific about what you'd like to learn and achieve. Limit your goals so the survey can be completed in a short amount of time. Include a few non-invasive questions so you can establish appropriate demographics.
- Decide who takes the survey. Is there a particular segment of your clients you'd like to know more about? Do you have a few key accounts? Decide the scope of customers the survey should include.
- Develop the survey. Start with several potential topics. The questionnaire could address product features, desired products or services, effectiveness of employees, customer appreciation, service hours, cleanliness of environment, company perception or after-sale service.
Edit the list to include only those areas most applicable to current corporate needs and resources. Then, consider using a scale or ranking method to help determine customer priorities. An example: questions could be answered with "very dissatisfied, dissatisfied, indifferent, satisfied, very satisfied" or "very poor, poor, average, good, very good."
Avoid open-ended questions that are difficult to quantify; and remember to include a brief introduction to explain the purpose. Finally, always edit and test the survey before sending it out.
- Administer the survey. Decide how you'd like to implement the survey. At your place of business as clients are leaving? At a carrel set up for this purpose? When the doors first open?
Other options include mailings, email or telephone interviews. If the survey requires that customers send the information back to you, be sure to establish a deadline.
- Analyze the results. Depending on the size of the survey, this process might require spreadsheets or special software. Analyzing the information in terms of demographics or by company department might also be helpful. Determine if graphs such as pie charts or line graphs will be most beneficial to your staff. After all, you will want to discuss the results with them.
- Implement changes. Determine the best changes to make. Are there certain adjustments that could have significant impact on customer satisfaction, but will take a lot of work? Do others require little in terms of time or resources? Be sure to share projected revisions with your customers.
Avoid Potential Pitfalls
Although systematic tracking of customer satisfaction can yield many positive results, miracles don't happen overnight. Realizing the benefits requires patience. Remember:
- Obtaining feedback is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. The most successful companies change according to their customers' desires and demands.
- Be wary of over-analyzing the data. It's easy to lose sight of your long-term goals when you're foundering in numbers. Survey information is only a guideline for potential change.
- Show your clients you appreciate their input and thank them for their efforts. Customers like helping out if they see changes being made per their suggestions.
- Use customer feedback to highlight areas for improvement, not to punish employees.
- Use customer satisfaction training and policies to motivate and encourage employees, not to discourage them.
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Superstar Customer Service: A 31-Day Plan to Improve Client Relations, Lock in New Customers, and Keep the Best Ones Coming Back for More by Rick Conlow and Doug Watsabaugh, (Career Press Inc., 2013).
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Please Every Customer: Delivering Stellar Customer Service Across Cultures byRobert Lucas, (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2011).
Customer Satisfaction: The Other Half of Your Job by Dru Scott, (Crisp Publications, Inc., 1991).
Customers for Life: How to Turn That One-Time Buyer into a Lifetime Customer by Carl Sewell and Paul B. Brown, (Doubleday, 1998).
Customers.Com: How to Create a Profitable Business Strategy for the Internet & Beyond by Patricia B. Seybold, (Time Books, 1998).
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Apian SurveyPro (www.apian.com )
Creative Research Systems (www.surveysoftware.net/company.htm )
Inquisite (http://www.inquisitive.net.au/ )
American Society for Quality Control (http://asq.org/index.aspx )
International Customer Service Association (http://icsatoday.org )