Why great customer service is not an optional extra

on 03 October, 2012

A decent salesman can sell almost anything to anyone - once. To keep customers coming back, however, you need great service.

There’s a good quote (I just wish I could remember who said it) which went along the lines of: “Great sales without great service is like putting money in a pocket with a hole in it.”

The received wisdom is that it costs five times as much to win a new customer than to retain an existing one. It’s a fact of business life you can't ignore.

In the age of the internet and near universal product availability, if you aren't competing on customer service you are probably competing on price. And, as we all know, that is a slippery and dangerous slope. Because someone can always undercut you.

Ask any one of the hundreds of price-driven merchants who have disappeared over the past decade. The truth is - great customer service is priceless. It makes doing business with you easy and feel good. It helps your customers deliver for their own customers - and win repeat business. It's a virtuous circle.

But you have to take customer service seriously. You have to really mean it. Lots of people talk about customer service, and do very little about it. This is the worst of all worlds, as it sets up expectations and then fails to deliver. People don't easily forgive that. You need to turn things on their head.

Instead of being a supplier of building products with good customer service, you need to become a customer service company that happens to supply building products. That shifts your focus and approach - and can transform the way you work.

It’s now about relationships. And they are central and front of mind – not incidental to your success. 

Being realistic, it isn't necessary to delight your customers, as the old mantra goes, every time. But you have to deliver what you promise every time. Or the relationship will be damaged and customers will stop believing in you and go elsewhere.

Remember, you will be judged by what you do – not by what you say.

I believe in this ideology so much that we rolled out an training initiative across our business called “Premier League Service” which invested heavily in our staff, coached them on the benefits of outstanding customer service and explained how to offer it every time. Here are my tips for delivering great customer service.

It's not rocket science, but do these things consistently and your customers are more likely to come back. And they are likely to bring new customers with them:

Get feedback and act on it: Listen to your customers. Invite their feedback through lots of channels, and act on what they tell you.

  • Talk to your trade counter and branch staff: They have knowledge and insights no one else has. They are also the people who will deliver – or not deliver – the great customer service that will determine your future success.
  • Take some pride in what you do: It’s easy to assume that because we’re in the building industry, contractors don’t expect high standards. After all, it’s a dirty job, customers just want to get what they want and get out (except on Monday mornings where there are normally some controversial refereeing decisions to debate). Of course that’s not the case! In my opinion, customer service is about the whole package; how the branch looks, how the staff look and even how the phone gets answered. This can set the tone of the relationship with your customer from day one. It says you take what you’re doing seriously and high standards are essential.
  • Know what you’re talking about: Put simply, this means taking the time to invest in staff training. If your staff understand the products they’re selling, it just makes the customer experience slicker. This isn’t about specifying though, that’s not our job, but rather being on hand to put forward the different manufacturer’s ranges so the customer can make an informed decision on what’s right for them. However, it goes further than giving customers what they ask for. Product training helps your staff to sell add ons, accompanying products – the products your customers forgot to scribble down on their list (we all do it in the supermarket!). That’s where you add real value to the customer because you save them that second journey.
  • Do what you say you’re going to do: Keep your promises – this has got to be my number one tip for great customer service. If you say you’ll get the product to a customer on Tuesday, you get it there for Tuesday – rain or shine. And if the worst happens and something outside of your control means you’re not going to meet the deadline, you’re honest with your customer and you tell them as soon as possible. You don’t wait for them to call you. And you know what? They really appreciate the honesty. On occasion, everyone will experience issues within a supply chain which will impact on your customer – it’s how you solve them that matters the most. That’s real customer service at work.

Dave Sorrell is sales director for Drain Center.

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