Harvey Mackay: Taking care of customers is taking care of business

Oct. 25, 2011

Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important in running a business than stellar customer service. No customer service, and pretty soon, no customers.

The key is to latch onto your customers and hold them fast. Don't just meet their needs. Anticipate them. Don't wait for them to tell you there's a problem. Go out and ask them if there are any problems. They are your most important and accessible focus group. Every word of personal feedback they give you is worth a million faceless questionnaires.

With the business operating at digital speed, the margin for negligence is disappearing. Broken promises, missed deadlines, inadequate customer service and support — give in to any of these and you are finished.

The statistics remain quite constant: 90 percent of those who are dissatisfied with the service they receive never return to the place of business that disappointed them. Only 4 percent of unhappy customers actually bother to complain to the company. The response they receive dictates where their next buck goes. The other 96 percent complain to their friends, a.k.a. former potential customers. And disgruntled customers have very long memories.

For years, we believed that if customers received bad service, they would pass the word along to 20 people or so. Conversely, if they were on the receiving end of great service, they might tell a few folks, but not in numbers anywhere near the bad-news story.

Enter the Internet. Bad reports can span the globe instantly. Good reports can too, but they are not shared as frequently. Don't be deceived by how many people "like" you on Facebook. Customer service has taken on a whole new meaning with the rise of consumer rating websites which provide unfiltered reviews of services and products. Google yourself and see if you appear in the blogosphere — and never underestimate the power of YouTube and social media to destroy your reputation.

We can all relate to and recall instances of lousy treatment. But when you are the one in charge, how do you prevent it? The answer is so simple – set your standards high, and don't accept anything less from yourself or your employees. And remember that the way you treat your employees is often transferred to the customer.

The fact is, most customers who complain don't really want their money back. They just want products or services that work the way they're supposed to. They want someone who will listen to them and fix any problem that arises. Is that asking too much? Is that an unreasonable request?

Rather than looking at complaining customers as a pain in the neck, reset your mindset and see a golden opportunity: the chance to improve your service, product and image, all in one fell swoop. Those customers who take the time to tell you when something is wrong are blessings in disguise. They're really doing you a favor. Listen carefully to their concerns and go the extra mile to satisfy them. It isn't enough that you think you've done all you can ... it's when the customer thinks you have done all you can.

Undertake a top-to-bottom evaluation of your company. Examine the return policies, the authority given to representatives who deal with the public, the follow-up after a sale, and even more importantly, after an issue has been resolved to make sure the customer is satisfied with the outcome.

Then take a brutally honest look at your top management and reinforce the attitude that the customer may not always be right, but they are always the customer. Message: Excellent customer service is paramount to your success.

Survey all your customers, whether they've ever reported an issue or not, and give them the opportunity to rate your service. It's a chance to improve your company without having to hire an outside consultant — because your customers have firsthand information that you need. Then, without delay, incorporate any changes that you can.

How you serve your customers should never be debatable. When there are unrealistic expectations from a customer, honesty is the only acceptable answer. If you can't make a customer happy, at least help them understand their limitations. Help them find the company that can satisfy them, if necessary.

No matter how many people there are in this world, there will always be a finite number of customers. It doesn't matter whether you are selling homes, cars, cell phones, or envelopes, like me. There are just so many people you can sell to. Develop relationships with as many as you can realistically service. Put yourself in the customer's role: What if you had to go to a different grocery store every time you shopped? Would you save any time if you had to switch suppliers every time your company needed print cartridges? What if you had to take your prized little red Corvette to a new mechanic each time you needed a tune-up?

Customers have every right to shop around for the best goods and services. Customer loyalty develops over time, based on a combination of several factors: price, quality, service, and how problems are resolved. Price is important, but alone it is rarely the main reason a customer chooses to return. Quality expectations can vary from good enough to top-of-the-line, so the variable is learning what each customer expects. Service is, in my estimation, more important than either price or quality. So oftentimes, the differentiator is problem resolution. Your response must be immediate and fair. Someone is counting on you because someone is counting on them. Usually, the fix is fairly simple. When it isn't, be aware that it might cost you big time, but the result will pay off in the future.

I once figured it cost my company $5,000 to put a new customer on the books. I can't afford to let that kind of investment — or the hit to my reputation — go bad.

Mackay's Moral: It's not about what you can do; it's about what you will do.

Harvey Mackay, author of the new book THE MACKAY MBA OF SELLING IN THE REAL WORLD (Portfolio), is founder and chairman of the MackayMitchell Envelope Company. He has written six New York Times bestselling books, including the #1 bestseller Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.

Topics: Customer Experience , Customer Service , Employee Training

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