Saturday, January 12, 2008

Treat Employees as Customers

Although loyal customer relationships are strong and durable, an element of risk exists because the relationship is visible to competitors. Companies must rely on the implmentation of clearly-defined and understood systems and values.

Research shows that, for many organizations that achieve exemplary customer service and loyalty, employees are routinely and conscientiously treated with the same respect with which they are expected to treat customers. Indeed, employees are regarded as internal customers.

Managers know and heed the dictum,"if your not serving the customer, your job is to serve someone who is." Management must define service, product and service quality, and customer satisfaction and then articulate standards, expecations, outcomes and consequences clearly and specifically to employees at all levels of the company.
Employees judge the seriousness of the company's focus on service excellence based on the visible involvement of managers who set an example.

The bottom line is that the face of the company is an employee. Employees and the complementary business processes and procedures are the foundation of customer loyalty.

Front-line employees and staff support employees are only as good as helping customers and each other as policies and procedures allow them to be. Employees must be empowered to handle product problems and fix service failures at the point of occurrence. Superior service does not happen by accident - it happens when managers think and act service in obvious an subtle ways.

Customer Choice
Customers judge the success of their interaction with the company both by the outcome (whether or not their needs were met and satisfeid) and by the processes leading to that outcome (relationship). Given a choice, would the customer deal with the company again? Because customer choice is the essence of business, customer loyalty significatly influences that choice.

The best customer service companies empower employees to respond to customer needs and solve customer problems as they occur. Quick, friendly handling of complaints as they arise builds customer loyalty. The successful customer-oriented company measures, tracks and rewards customer satisfaction. They track repeat purchases, drive them and measure them. Things don't change if they're not measured.

The longer a company keeps its customer, the more the customer is worth. There's no magic solution to achieving customer satisfaction and loyalty: becoming the supplier of preference must be an absolute priority. Service excellence requires a complete organizational commitment that places the needs of customers before company policy and bureaucracy. A loyal, growing customer base is critical to any business strategy. Customer retention as a strategy for differentiation requires investment, training, internal feedback and solicitation of complaints, and high-level audits of performance.

Dr. Len Berry, professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, describes the need for "a continuing series of snapshots" that track the customer's perspecitve. He cites the need for companies to build the basic quality of reliability into their service. His research over 10 years consistently shows that reliability is the top of customers' most-wanted list. "Little else matters to your customers if your firm is unreliable" says Berry. He suggests that even at a 98 percent reliability rating, a large number of customers are still alienated. Companies must provide basic service and have the support system to keep it going.

Barry claims there are "no extravagant, unrealistic consumer expectations out there. They want you to do the damned service right the first time." He acknowledges that mistakes will happen but that the company can mitigate the damage with prompt, personal responses, conveying urgency and a desire for dialogue. Mistakes nothwithstanding, the service process is still the company's opportunity to delight customers and earn loyalty.

"one-third of all customer complaints result from customres who don't know how to use a product" according to John Goodman, President of TARP. If you add in people who bought the product for the wrong reason and those who had mistaken notions about what a product would do, he says, it could be even worse than that. Goodman suggests that companies have two ways to deal with ignorance and keep the customers satisfied; educate customers or "idiot-proof" the products. Proactive customer education and shaping customer expectations can reduce complaints dramatically. This means telling the customer exactly what the product will do, not what the advertisements say it can do.

Up-front education gives customers realistic expectations about whatever type of product or service they purchase. Shaping expectations is one of the most important aspects of keeping customers loyal. If customrs know what they want, know what they're getting and actually get what was promised, strong customer loyalty has been built.

Another opportunity for proactive education occurs after customers buy a product, but before they've misused or broken it. User support line provide a life-line to keeping customers and developing loyalty. The bad news is that the company responds to the customer after the problem has occurred.

The good news is that the company deals with customers at their most trainable moment, when they're in the middle of a problem and want a solution. Customer education and training contribute to stability, enhance the relationship and improve customer loyalty. Clearly it is in the company' s best interests to help customers run their businesses more efficiently.

Following up with customers benefits the company in two ways: it tells customers you are still there and that you care about them and it gives the company some indication of the success of its customer education efforts.

Performance improvement can engender a false sense of securiy because today's companies are chasing a moving target. What really matters is the ability of the company to improve at a rate faster than the competition and sustain that rate of improvement.

Whereas everyone agrees that the customer is king, many companies do not seem concerned with the satisfaction of other stakeholder groups such as employees, owners, suppliers and regulators. A company's ability to balance and mutually and sumulataneously satisfy the needs of its principal stakeholders may mean the difference between success and failure.

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