The Importance of Customer Service

Customer service is so much more than a window at the grocery store, or a link to a standard form email on a website! Customer service is why you have employees. Follow me here. If a business could manufacture, distribute and sell their product without the necessity of people, they would. Why? Cost control! The single greatest line on most companies P&L is payroll. Why generate all that expense if you don't have to? I would argue that the answer to that question is customer service.

Every employee within your company is a customer service representative. Everyone within your company represents your company and your product no matter where they are or what they're doing. Its a growing trend with employers to fire employees for off the job behavior because of the negative effect it can have on a company's image. Do not be fooled, the most important property within your company is your image! As an illustration think Reba McEntire versus The Dixie Chicks. Now, regardless of whether or not you agree with The Dixie Chicks statement, few can argue that the decision to say the words that they said (which had nothing to do with music or album sales) had a huge impact on their reputation and their brand. Remember this? The fact is you need a responsible work force who has the integrity to represent your company and your product all the time!

A knowledgeable, friendly customer service associate will guarantee return business. By listening to customers requests and pairing their needs with the features of your product or service, you've helped the customer arrive a solution. Customers love solutions! That's a huge reason why they spend money in the first place! Having the right associate with the correct knowledge in front of your customers will get you repeat business. A recent survey found:
"customer service ranks above price as a global driver for customer retention. More than 4,100 consumers in eight countries who participated in the study determined that the number of consumers who leave because of poor service is significantly higher than the number of those who leave a business because the found a lower price elsewhere."
Earlier I asked why companies would choose to generate all the expense of having employees, if they could find a way to deliver their product or service without having to have a person to do it. Some companies choose a higher EBITDA over customer service. Don't believe me? Have you ever called an '800' number seeking some sort of help for a product you've purchased? You're probably cringing now just thinking about that experience. Here's why. Several companies, in an attempt to reduce costs, have gone to automated telephone systems. If you had the choice to do business with a company who had an automated answering service, versus a live person, who would you rather reward with your hard earned dollars? Chances are if you have a pulse, and you're being intellectually honest, you said (or at least thought) the company with the live person.

What can you provide if you don't have customer service? The answer to that question: your product at a low price. Here's why. In the absence of a knowledgeable, friendly employee who would otherwise educate the customer to the pros of your product or service, people compare prices. If you can buy widget 'A' for $100 or widget 'B' for $95, you'll buy widget 'B' assuming there is no real loss in features from one to the other. That works out great if you're an internet business seeking volume over EBITDA.

Will any person do? Unequivocally the answer is NO! Is the customer service level provided you the same from a 7/11 clerk versus a Starbucks barista? Now, arguably the case could be made that the barista's only interest in providing good service is to secure a tip. Should this be taken as this an indictment of 7/11 or its employees? No, the reality is that most 7/11 locations are franchises and each individual owner places their own premium on recruiting the best and brightest associates. 7/11 is able to make a profit by being a low price leader and by having a convenient location. I would argue that having a great company image and outstanding customer service professionals places your product in the forefront of customer consideration and makes your product or service idealy placed to for the sale.

In my career, I've had the opportunity of being the face of customer service for some really outstanding companies. I know how much customer service means in securing new business and ensuring repeat business. I know what its like to sit across the desk from an operations manager looking to reduce costs and improve the bottom line. You'll never get that business without a great customer service The great thing about good customer service is that it is almost universally understood, and when you've positioned the greatest product in the market (yours) through an outstanding customer service representative (me) then the result is business, and not just business, but repeat business!

Operations Managment

Survey a random group of 3rd graders, and you'll be hard pressed to find any who desire to become an operations manager when they grow up. And yet, without operations managers, many companies would sieze up and stop altogether! There is no doubt that operations management is often a 'not so sexy' job, but there is little doubt that it is a neccessary one! Keep reading and I'll share with you my observations and experiences as an operations manager and what effect they can have on your company.

Operations managers come in many forms and with many titles. Some companies call them transportation managers, some call them branch managers, some production managers and others project supervisors, yet they all have a striking resemblance to one another, they ensure that the day to day operations under their oversight are completed on time and at the lowest possible cost. Most operations managers are given control over a certain portion or line of the company's profit and loss statement and are challenged with managing employees, processes and product lines, while simultaneously charged with reducing overhead while maintaining the quality of the company's product. Many operations managers would describe their official job responsibilities as the day to day organization of chaos. Operations managers rely on their skills of oversight, delegation, networking and cost control to complete their tasks. Of these skills, the often most overlooked or underated is the ability to network with other operations managers. The ability to swallow pride and admit that one does not have all the answers is an admirable quality!

In my capacity as a multi-location branch manager, I was challenged with 4 essential tasks; reducing monthly transportation costs while simultaneously increasing it’s revenues; increasing utilization on company assets, handling pre-existing interpersonal conflicts which exsisted within my staff and find a new operating location for my primary branch which had out grown its current facility. With a limited staff and few resources (the company I was employed with had very little invested in tools and training) I set to work. You can read about the steps I took and the results here.

Often, operations managers are required to be salesmen. They are sometimes responsible for formulating the next year’s business plan, and required to sell any increases in budget or staff to their management. At the same time, as new promotions and products are rolled out, they are tasked with selling the company strategy down the chain to those under their management.

Travel to a company awards ceremony or retreat, and you might have trouble locating an operations manager in the room. While much is demanded from the operations managers of the world, it is often difficult to quantify the results as a matter of increased profits or increased sales.The operations manager toils away, satisfied that they were able to reduce their costs by 2% and increase productivity by 5%, which gave the company the competitive edge it needed to move those extra thousand units that month. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to create a process which reviewed our accident reporting process, improving the procedure and saving the company more than $50,000 in the first six months while simultaneously improving the quality and availability of our product.

An operations manager who understands the intricacies of the position, not only handling managed employees, but interfacing with upper management and buying into and selling company initiatives and processes, is imperative. Operations managers must be able to adapt quickly and understand the cost impact of decisions made even before the total cost is played out in the form of an invoice or a line item on the P&L. You need a manager who is dedicated to their position and is satisfied to be the best operations manager they can be. Experience matters and thankfully, I have what you’re looking for!

The Always Say 'Yes' Mentality

More often than not, the easiest word for a customer service representative to say when interacting with a customer is, 'no.' Unfortunately, it often is the most damaging word that can be said, as well. Customers are selfish individuals, and should be. After all, they've worked long, hard hours to earn the money that they are going to be spending with your company. A selfish individual does not want to hear what can't be done, they want to know what you're going to do for them, how you're going to do it, and how long it's going to take. Therefore, your most important task is to provide a reassuring atmosphere to your customer by providing the right products and services with the best associates. This is where the word 'no' becomes so dangerous. When you tell a customer no, you take them out of the comfortable reassured atmosphere where purchases happen and place them in a position of being defensive or even offended. Customers feel as though they have spent the time to find your company, contact your company (whether by phone, internet or in person) only to be told that whatever they are requesting cannot be provided. Many feel this way, even if the 'no' they received was not directly related to their main object of consideration. For example, when I worked for one of the nation's leading truck rental and leasing company's, we provided trucks for do-it-yourself movers. People would make reservations weeks and months in advance, planning out every last detail. When the date arrived to pick up their truck, they would walk through the door, most stressed due to the life event taking place, and would begin to complete the required paperwork. Sometimes a customer would request to pull a trailer with the rental truck, as the truck had a ball hitch and wiring for pulling a car carrier trailer. The company policy stated that nothing other than company trailer equipment was to be pulled behind the rental truck. However, instead of explaining the policy, often a customer service representative would simply answer 'no,' and unfortunately from the customer's standpoint nothing else that had occurred during that transaction mattered any longer. Their moving truck was still available, it was still the brand new one with less than 10,000 miles on the odometer, it was still full of fuel, but those things no longer mattered to the customer because they'd been told 'no.'

The proper way to handle a situation when you're forced to turn down a customer request is to respond with what you can do, not what you cannot. This is the 'Always Say 'Yes' Mentality.' In the example given above, instead of responding to the question of whether personal trailer could be towed behind the rental truck with a simple 'no,' the proper response should have been something to the effect of, 'Unfortunately company policy states prohibits the towing of any non-company vehicle behind the rental truck. In addition, the ball hitch is a specialized 2 1/4" size along with a custom wiring harness which will likely not accommodate your personal tow vehicle. However, I have the phone number for a few companies which will gladly relocate your trailer equipment for a fee, would you like me to provide you with their information?' In this circumstance the customer was told what they were requesting was not available, however, they were also told what could be done to appease their request. The customer was also given the opportunity to determine the outcome of the situation by choosing 'how to' and 'whether or not to' proceed. In effect, you've told the customer what they're requesting is not available, you have not said 'no,' but have given the customer the opportunity to say 'no.'

There are appropriate ways to disclose to a customer that something they seek is not available and/or not an option, however, a simple 'no,' is never the right call. Here's an article which lists many of the common ways customer service representatives say 'no.' Teach your team how to appropriately respond to these situations, and you'll maximize your customers experiences and guarantee repeat business!

Managers, Setting the Tone

In an earlier post, I detailed Operations Management, and the importance of those who lead your team. I'd like to speak directly to the importance of the team leader, and the manner in which they can directly influence your company's performance.

It goes without saying that Managers are directly in charge of the operations over which they preside, and the staff which they direct, however, the incorrect person ill-suited to perform the functions they are assigned can destroy an operation in very little time. As destructive to your operation, or perhaps even more so is an inconsistency in the position, whether from turn over or general vacancy.

When I took over as an operations manager for one of my previous employers, I walked into a situation where the previous two managers had been less than outstanding. The most recent manager had been injured on the job and out of the office for several months by the time I started. The manager previous had seen the operation through a corporate restructuring, but was hesitant to accept the new direction from a reorganized corporate office and fresh blood in the Area Vice President position. We'll deal with the two managers and their approaches individually.

Most recent manager:

  1. The most recently departed manager had been injured on the job and had been out of the office for several months prior to my transition into the managing position. During his tenure, money was missing out of the cash drawer, family members of current employees had been hired, and not least of all, subordinates had been screamed at and belittled in front of customers and other employees. In the interest of full disclosure, I never met this person, and have no animus toward them what-so-ever. That being said, they definitely made my task more difficult. The damage done by a manager can be more difficult to repair than some sort of problem caused by any other staff position, especially to a young or inexperienced team or individual team member. The effect that missing money had on the dispatcher (an hourly employee and relatively inexperienced employee) was apparent immediately. As I began to dictate new cash drawer policy, specifically placing the cash drawer under my supervision with another exempt employee providing audit support, the dispatcher challenged. Several hours of coaching and reassurance were required to gain the trust of the dispatcher.

  2. Nepotism. There is not necessarily anything wrong with nepotism within the work force, however, when the two individuals work within the same office space, and are incapable of separating their home life from their work requirements, there is a problem. In this case, the two individuals would bicker, as children and parents do, but they had also teamed up against other employees in a long standing interpersonal conflict. Again, several hours of coaching with the employees both individually and together was the answer. Even after coaching and hours of team work, the employee relationship was never as professional as it should have been and team morale suffered.

  3. Staff discipline must be a very delicate matter, even if the entire team must be addressed. In the circumstance mentioned above, an employee was screamed at and belittled in front of other staff members and a customer. Needless to say, the company lost the business of that customer, never to be regained. The employee developed a distrust of all managers within the company. The employee felt that they had been unfairly disciplined, as both the manager and the employee were asked to leave for the remainder of the day in question. It took several months of coaching and individual work effort with this employee to gain their trust, and make them feel as a member of the team. Belittling a staff member is never okay, especially in front of other staff members and customers.

Previous Manager

  1. During this manager's tenure, the company was bought out by a private individual who changed the direction of the company and refocused their sales support and customer service efforts. Prior to the buy out, managers had been 'left alone' to run their operations as they saw fit with little interaction with the corporate office. During the transition to the new customer centered focus, daily interaction with the corporate office increased significantly. This manager, instead of accepting the new direction, became 'withdrawn' making himself a 'Henry David Thoreau or Ted Kaczynski (less the bombs). He was an island. It was impossible for the staff to buy into the company's customer focused business initiative when the manager failed to communicate direction to the staff. As a result the staff got used to doing things their own way. When the most recent manager before myself came aboard, he initially attempted to get the staff to embrace the company protocols, however, quickly gave up his effort and acceded to the 'easier to do it our way' mentality. This made it very difficult to get the staff up to speed with company procedure when I finally came aboard. The only real blessing was that I was learning the procedures and policies at the same time as my staff was.

You must have a manager who is capable of understanding the company's procedures and capable of selling that message to the staff under their direction.The manager must be able to coach and direct your team, and be able to gain their trust. It’s imperative that your team all be pulling in the same direction, and an ineffective or under-experienced manager can fail to provide the proper direction for the employees. You need an individual who is experienced in dealing with different types of personalities, and capable of handling personality conflicts. You need a manager who has a proven track record. The great news is, that I have that track record which you will find in my résumé! I look forward to speaking with you about my experience, and what I can bring to your team!