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From Scowl to Smile: 5 Practical Steps to Instill Exceptional Customer Service

Whether in a restaurant, a retail establishment, or the local post office, we have all experienced a decline in customer service. Rarely do smiling, happy employees interact with us anymore. Instead, the person we are dealing with in face-to-face relationships does not even attempt to feign a smile, but rather greets us with a scowl, completely avoids eye contact with us, and grudgingly mutters responses to our requests and questions. When did customer service cease to exist? Why is it suddenly so difficult for employees to show customers some common courtesy along with a little friendliness? Have we ventured so far from the service standards of yesteryear and become so shortsighted that we refuse to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves?

Today, improving customer service is a top priority in organizations worldwide. As a result, company leaders spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually training their employees how to provide exceptional customer service. Unfortunately, the effort is not paying off. Even with such vast resources being spent on this simple and obvious problem, few companies achieve outstanding results. And as their customer service levels plummet, dissatisfied customers take their business elsewhere and company profits suffer. Is there any improvement in sight?

The Importance of Customer Service

Purchasing virtually any goods or services is a process whereby the customer moves from interest to desire to decision. During that process, one of the primary determinants as to whether the customer completes the purchase, as well as his or her level of satisfaction in the sales process, is the attitude of the sales employee. Interestingly, the customer's attitude frequently reflects that of the salesperson. Thus, an employee attempting to close the sale will generally find it much easier to do so if he or she gives the customer a positive attitude and friendly disposition to respond to.

Equally important is the post-sale service experience, especially in today's environment filled with technically complex products and services. This trend is likely to continue as technological complexity increases and as our population continues to age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2005 there will be 85 million Americans over age 50, and they will have cumulative purchasing power of $900 billion annually. The combination of technical complexity and the aging population will result in an increased proportion of sales transactions requiring post-sale customer service on a periodic or continuing basis.

Given the customer service problems we face today, coupled with the growing demand for increased levels of pre- and post-sale customer service, we need to begin thinking much more seriously about how our organizations will rise to meet these growing market demands. Adding to this problem will be the demographic reality of a shrinking pool of available younger workers to fill these customer service openings, which frequently are entry-level positions. The following practical steps can help your company stay ahead of this trend so you can meet tomorrow's customer service needs today.

1. Hire happy people. In our haste to find a "warm body" to fill a vacant position, we frequently miss some of the most obvious indicators of a person's likely success or failure. People who are open, approachable, and generally happy are far more likely to respond in a positive manner to our customers' needs. Prospective employees who act guarded or excessively shy, or who show evidence of having a "cold fish" personality during the interview process, probably are not good hires at the outset.

2. Train your people thoroughly. When employees thoroughly understand the organization they represent, as well as its policies, products, and services, they are far more likely to interact positively with customers. Realize, though, that training of this sort is not a one-time-for-life event applicable only to new hires. Today's organizations, markets, products, and services are dynamic and changing constantly. Keep your employees up-to-date with all the latest trends by offering continual training opportunities.

3. Treat your people exceedingly well. Do you treat your employees the way you want them to treat customers? Most company leaders do not, yet they expect their personnel to excel when it comes to friendly customer service. The fact is that employees who are unhappy on the job are not likely to display a positive, helpful attitude to their customers. Instead, they will respond to customers with the same attitude and outlook they receive from managers and supervisors. To foster exceptional customer service skills, company leaders need to ensure that they treat their employees in the same manner they want their employees to treat customers.

4. Solicit customer feedback and act promptly upon it. The only way to get a true reading of your company's customer service is to actively solicit feedback from every customer, not just the ones who you know are satisfied. Equally important is to ask for feedback in a way that prompts more than superficial responses. Demonstrate your desire for honest opinions by asking proper questions. Superficial questions return superficial responses, while thoughtful, insightful questions result in honest, valuable answers. Carefully formulate open-ended question so the answers can reveal the true state of your company's service levels.

5. Ensure that your senior leadership is hearing unfiltered feedback from both your operating personnel and your first line managers. In almost every organization, the people on the front lines have a clear understanding of the true customer satisfaction levels. The problem lies in how accurately this information moves up the organizational hierarchy. Just as any military general in the field strives to get an accurate report of what is occurring on the battlefront, many executives yearn for a clear understanding of the customer service that occurs at their organization's front lines. If you want to know what is really happening in your organization, get out and talk with your employees and your customers. Then, establish clear and strong guidelines for information to travel up the ranks. The more accurate information you can obtain, the better understanding you'll have of what needs to change.

Regardless of your industry, if you want your customers to regularly experience service with a warm, heartfelt smile rather than a scowl, you must set the example and live by it. Show your employees the vision to follow so you can instill customer service practices that will positively impact your bottom line.

Copyright 2005 by John Di Frances

John Di Frances is an internationally recognized organizational legacy expert and keynote speaker. www.difrances.com

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