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Alf's Articles

Don't Let Customer Service Problems Fester

by Alf Nucifora

A reader from Washington State reminded me that we have to remain vigilant about customer service. Said Steven Colson, "I would suggest an article on the tremendous opportunity that exists to exponentially increase sales through customer service. I know that sounds simplistic. I would point out, though, that the biggest firms are currently providing a woeful interface to their clients. Therein lies an exceptional chance for innovation and profit."

His remarks hit a responsive cord. Not a day goes by that I, like you, are exposed to the painful inconsistency in the quality of customer service that is offered by the majority of companies and brands. Examples abound. I called the public relations contact for a major software provider for a product briefing over a week ago and still have not received the courtesy of a return call. Understand that I represent the potential opportunity to tell more than a million business readers about their product and I still can't get a return call. In my constant trips to the "big box" office supply store (it makes no difference which one, Office Depot, Office Max, Staples, they're all indistinguishable in their service mediocrity) I'm constantly greeted by uncaring and often surly staff…if I can even find someone to answer my question. On a recent trip to a Rich's department store (a division of the venerated Federated), I waited for more than five minutes while a customer service representative trained a trainee with my $13 transaction as the training tool even though I specifically indicated that I was in a hurry. I tried to explain that Rich's training problems were not my concern. That seemed to register as a genuine surprise to the trainer. And, they wonder why department stores are fading in retail relevance.

On the other hand, my BellSouth DSL connection has been playing up. The tech people in the boiler room in some unpronounceable backwater were of little help. One could see them scrolling down the help menu as they tried to answer my plaintive questions. But the request for a service repair call was answered promptly. The technician showed up at the appointed hour, fixed the problem, gave me his business card and revisited me the following day in response to an unexpected glitch. My local Acura dealer replaced the defective air conditioning motor even though the car was eight months out of warranty. He knew from the maintenance records that the problem had been developing for some time and he knew that I was a committed Acura buyer (five to date). Why run the risk of losing a loyal customer for a few hundred bucks?

I can't reiterate enough how important customer service has become, particularly as an analgesic for buyers who are constantly reminded that their loyal patronage is no longer of great concern to most marketers, CRM notwithstanding. And yet maintaining the discipline of a superior service transaction is even more important today. In tough economic times, as we are currently experiencing, superior customer service can quite often be the one distinguishing element or "atmospheric" that separates commodity vendors. In truth, it can be the major competitive advantage…not just in securing the singular transaction itself, but in maintaining customer loyalty over the long term.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) evaluates the quality of products and services available to household consumers in the United States, rating 185 companies in 35 industries in the process (www.theacsi.org). According to Professor Claes Fornell, Director of the University of Michigan Business School's National Quality Research Center, which compiles and analyzes the quarterly ACSI data, an obvious relationship exists between spending and the resulting satisfaction of the spender. It shows up, he says, in the correlation between the ACSI and government statistics on personal spending. And like consumer spending, the relationship between customer satisfaction and stock price is also evident. "If a large improvement in the ACSI for one quarter is followed by a smaller ACSI gain or by a negative change the next quarter, the stock market has generally gone down," he says. "The importance of customer satisfaction in the market economy is further underscored by looking at the stock prices of individual firms over time," notes Fornell. "If a company manages its customer assets poorly, as suggested by low or declining ACSI scores, how likely is it that it manages its other assets well?" Just look to WorldCom, USAir, K-Mart and AOL for the answer to that question.

So, if the issue is as much a concern to you as it is to me, the immediate solution is evident. First, conduct an audit of your current customer service philosophy and practice. Move the issue to the top of the priority pile for management and staff attention. Fix the obvious weaknesses immediately; don't let them fester. And then reintroduce the disciplines that distinguish superior providers from the mediocre…constant tracking, evaluation, metrics and training, all wrapped within the cocoon of an obsessive culture that pounds home the belief and the practice that the customer is always, always right.

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