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Advice to Marketers

by Alf Nucifora

It's been one of those "kick the customer when he's down" months. A slew of business travel days, an office move and an attempt at the ordering and self-installation of office DSL. The invariable result, frustration and angst. Cumulative hours on the phone confronting cold-blooded phone menus and disinterested boiler room reps who are ill-prepared to provide even the most basic information and feedback. It continues to be obvious that customer service is not getting any better, a contention, incidentally, that was confirmed by the recent American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) that showed a drop in its most recent measurement cycle to an index low of 72.1.

Which begs the question, if customers are unhappy, why don't more companies listen? Admittedly, some do. Acura, Infiniti and Lexus are resolute in probing customer service performance at the dealership level. Even the ponderous Big Five accounting firms have acquired the faith and are measuring client feedback through third-party evaluation. At the local small business level, I'm gratified that my dentist (Dr. Abe) calls me at home in the evening after any significant procedure. It's customer listening in its purist form.

One of the best customer listening examples I've witnessed in recent times comes from the real estate industry no less. Cushman C&W Wakefield is a leading global commercial real estate services firm with 11,000 employees and $830 million in annual revenues. Since 1992, the company has fielded a Client Opinion Survey among 5,000-6,000 clients annually utilizing the services of an outside consultant. Surveying is conducted by mail with an astonishing 45% return rate. C&W is attempting to increase that response rate with Internet testing. Client respondents are the traditional real estate heavies, CFOs, heads of real estate departments, etc.

The survey itself probes a number of important customer service areas, particularly as they relate to the interaction between C&W broker and the client. These include ability to negotiate, understanding of client needs, client satisfaction, competitor perceptions, feedback on C&W service offerings and the all important effectiveness of communication between client and broker. While C&W would not reveal survey costs, most research projects of this nature can run the gamut from $25,000 to $250,000 depending upon the size and scope of the research. Any survey response with a rating of less than 3 (on a scale of 1-5) must be followed up by an appropriate branch manager.

According to Rod Barnes, Managing Director for Relationship and Quality Management, C&W has uncovered information from the survey process that has allowed the company to save accounts in peril and expand the business. From a client perspective, notes Barnes, "It's a great way (for the client) to provide information that the company will follow up on. In essence, it's another effective channel of communication" between client and company.

Why does C&W make such a significant investment in a program of this type? For one thing, it provides concrete validation for individual broker performance. It also helps generate new clients; tracks performance over time, which in turn leads to the development of important trend information; and most importantly, lets clients know that the company cares. Look at any unhappy relationship, either personal or professional, and the cause is inevitably related to lack of communication. Says Barnes, "the program has more than paid for itself many times over."

What has C&W learnt? There has been genuine surprise at the willingness and candor with which clients are willing to divulge information, even that of the most private, confidential nature. And, the common trends… as expected, clients want better communication and as much research as they can get their hands on.

In terms of leverage, C&W has also coupled the survey with a Service Excellence Awards program that acknowledges "best of breed" brokers in five key categories. Says Barnes, "It's become an ego thing. Even the successful high six-figure earners want to compete for the award."

Originally, Cushman & Wakefield instituted the program to prove to clients that the company had a methodology to measure and acknowledge client satisfaction as a factor in the relationship. But, today it has become much more than that. In the current economic client where the real estate industry is beginning to tank and every other headline screams impending recession, C&W has wisely recognized that superior customer service coupled with concerned listening and genuine response can lock a client into a lifetime relationship. If you treat them exceedingly well when times are bad, they will, as Barnes so succinctly puts its, "remember you when business turns around." It is so obvious a proposition and yet so few pay it much heed. Hence the hours on the phone cursing at phone menus and unresponsive customer service automatons.

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