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8 Critical Steps to Establish a Customer Service Culture

"Every company's greatest assets are its customers, because without customers there is no company," --Erwin Frand

During our recent weakened economy, many businesses have seen declining revenues and declining budgets. Declining budgets often lead to reduced staff levels and diminished services. To me, this does not make sense. I believe that it is during the down times, when service should be at the forefront and retention of loyal customers even more of a focus.

When price wars fail to drive revenues, businesses often look to service to give them a competitive advantage. Many big business marketers are returning to a "service sells" mentality, however, many sell great customer service and few deliver. The problem is that few marketers have ever truly served a customer.

Throughout my years in business, I have had the opportunity to interact and develop a customer service philosophy. It is inherent that when you are in a service-based business, there will be times when your customer is compelled to offer you their feedback. It is what you do with this feedback that will shape the future and their impression of your business.

Upon reflection, most all of my interactions with displeased customers were not the result of a poor product, but rather a disappointing customer experience. Why is that? Because, product is not personal, customer service is. Briefly, I would like to share with you eight critical steps to establish a customer service culture.

1. Customers are the reason for work, not an interruption of work

This sounds really obvious doesn't it? How many times have you gone into a business only to wait while someone is on the telephone or busy doing some "non-service" task? Employees often lose sight of the importance of the customer and get consumed in lesser day to day tasks. Sure, there are tasks that need to be accomplished, but you cannot afford to sacrifice service to get them done. Good customer service must be a priority for you and your team. Without your customers, you have no company!

2. Train, train, and continue to train.

? Cross train your entire staff to be able to assist a customer regardless of their department. When a customer becomes upset they want their problem solved not to be shuffled between employees that are not empowered or enable to assist them.

? Offer continuous customer service training for your staff and once they are providing good service, continue to train them.

? Utilize role play situations to assist your staff in recognizing and experiencing both easy and difficult service opportunities. If an employee has a level of comfort with a difficult situation, they will be able to better handle it.

3. Empower your staff to serve

? Establish a system of resources for your staff to serve the customer. Allow them latitude to take the necessary action to provide exceptional service and resolve any issues should a customer become disgruntled. Create a structured system to allow your staff to serve customers.

? Establish a discretionary budget that an employee may access to recover a customer before you lose them. I recently learned that a major hotel chain has a monetary fund available per year and per employee enabling them to go above and beyond to ensure exceptional service. This empowers the employee to right a wrong or create a "memorable" customer experience. I am not advocating large sums of money, but with regards to customer service, a small gesture can go a long way.

? Ask your staff what tools would enable them to provide better service. You would not send a fireman into a burning building without the proper equipment. Failing to empower and enable your staff with the necessary tools to serve you customer leaves you with few options other than poor service.

4. Make service personal

? Greet repeat customers by name, if possible.

? Offer a handshake and introduce yourself. Creating service that is personal will not only retain customers, but help diffuse difficult situations should they arise.

? Thank your customers for their patronage. It really does make a difference.

5. It is ok to say "Yes", even when you should say "No"

? Support your staff when they make customer service decisions. In my business, it is my policy that an employee can act without concern for repercussion, as long as they are meeting a customer's need. I have found this creates a greater willingness to serve the customer.

? Often times you could say "no" to a customer, however, "no" can have huge implications on your business. Ask yourself, "Am I willing to potentially lose 10 customers as result of this interaction?"

6. Offer a solution

? Shift from the problem to the process for resolution.

? Offer a choice between several options.

? Put yourself in their place.

? Involve the customer in determining the solution.

? Clearly explain any limitations that exist.

7. Recognize your staff members for outstanding service

? Implement a customer service awards program that recognizes employees for exceptional customer service. Maybe you have tried these without success and do not believe that they work. I would tend to agree if the program were like most I have seen. Try something different; break the mold. One of my most successful clients offers spa treatments for his female employees if a customer goes out of their way to recognize them for great service. Another client provides his employees with a "day off with pay" incentive for every five unsolicited, positive customer comments that he receives. These are just a few examples that are "outside the box." Be creative and generate a little excitement in your staff for customer service.

? Take the time to acknowledge employees at staff meetings. People want to leave their mark and feel that they matter. Taking the time to recognize them in front of their peers can make a real difference.

8. Ask your customers what they think of your service

The best way to find out if you are satisfying customers is to ask them. Formal efforts could include customer surveys, questionnaires, interviews or comment/suggestion cards. Informally, get out and talk with your customers and your staff. Ask them how they feel about service you are providing. Ideally, use a combination of both methods.

You may be thinking, "Why should I go ask for trouble? Who knows what I might hear if I ask?" That is the point. As you will see in the statistics below, most customers will not voice their disappointment with your service levels. They will simply leave and never return. If you do not ask about the quality of your service, you might make the wrong assumptions and feel that you can reduce service levels because you get few complaints and lead your organization into areas that turn off your customers or cause problems that you never intended.

On the other hand, asking your customers about their satisfaction sends a message to them that you care about your business and about them. While you might hear some criticisms, you might also learn what you are doing right and see what you should modify.

In addition to the information, you will benefit from the interaction. Every interaction is a customer service opportunity. Make the most of each and every one.

Most of us continue doing business with people and businesses who give good service. We might not say anything, but we reward good service providers by continuing to do business with them. If the service is outstanding, we will probably tell our friends and colleagues about it. Likewise, when we receive poor service most of us vote, not with our voice, but with our feet-we just leave.

In the 1980's the White House Office of Consumer Affairs commissioned a report called the TARP study. The report revealed the following facts about unhappy customers:

96% of dissatisfied customers do not complain directly.

90% will not return.

One unhappy customer will tell nine others.

13% will tell at least 20 other people

Superior customer service is one of the most difficult deliverables facing the business world today. Selling service is the easy part, delivering on that promise offers a tremendous challenge. So I ask you, what can you do to improve the service you provide? Implement these eight steps and begin to excel at providing a superior customer culture today!

?Anthony Mullins - Elite Coaching Alliance 2005

Anthony Mullins is the President and Coach for The Elite Coaching Alliance. He specializes in leadership development, business coaching, strategic planning, 1-on-1 coaching, facilitation and inspirational speaking. He is the author of the upcoming book "Leadership Links." Anthony can be reached by e-mail: anthony@elitecoachingalliance.com

Visit his website @ http://www.elitecoachingalliance.com

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