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Alf's Articles

Let's give it up for the customer

by Alf Nucifora

Nowadays, companies invest heavily in acquiring the latest CRM technology and hiring change management consultant gurus with the intention of getting closer to, and sustaining a more significant, long term relationship with the customer. In the good old days we called it “generating customer loyalty.”

We are constantly reminded that today’s customer is no longer loyal. Too much brand switching, they whine; too much buying according to the lowest available price, they complain. But the truth is that the basic tenets of a successful buyer-seller relationship haven’t changed; we have. Fundamentally, the customer wants to remain loyal and the research consistently verifies the assertion. In a recent Network of City Business Journals survey, 89% of the respondents agreed with the statement, “Once I find a product I like, I stick with it.” Only 22% were influenced by what’s hot and what’s not.

I spoke recently to managers at four Atlanta-based companies, all of which operate in highly-competitive and/or pressured business environments. In every case, seeking customer loyalty has become both faith and practice.

You have to believe!

For Greg Colson, Managing Partner of the accounting and consulting firm, Moore Colson, client service is much more than a mission statement, it’s a philosophy to be lived. What makes the statement more than a cliché in Colson’s case is hands-on behavior that puts money where the mouth is. Take the subject of integrity, for example. The firm takes an obsessive, almost neurotic approach to any potential conflict-of-interest. Says Colson, referencing the work of the firm’s Lender Services division, “There can never appear to be a conflict of interest. We never work both sides of the street.” At a more minor level, a somewhat old-fashioned, yet reassuring attitude also prevails on the subject of appearance. Staff dress faithfully matches that of the client. If in doubt, the default mode is always business attire. It’s a respectful attitude no longer evident in the behavior and practice of many of today’s leading professional services firms.

Treat them the same as…

It always comes back to mutual dignity and respect. In the main, customers expect nothing more than common courtesy in the transaction. This demands viewing the experience through their eyes. As simple as that admonition may seem, it is now more the exception than the rule. Employees no longer have the time, motivation or training to practice the time-old art of forging empathy with the customer. In truth, customer empathy seems well on its way to extinction, in our relationships, politics and business transactions. It shouldn’t and it doesn’t have to be.

The same dictum holds true on the internal front. Superior Essex, a cable and wire manufacturer with five thousand employees nationally, has successfully addressed the issue of “internal customer” loyalty in that most dissonant of relationship territories-- employee benefits; and at a time when healthcare cost is growing by double digits annually. The company understood that the necessity to curtail cost had to be offset with a concomitant regard for the employee. Benefit offerings were streamlined and provider contracts renegotiated so that every employee retained maximum entitlement, had equal benefits access and better coverage in the bargain, as good, in fact, as any Fortune 500 company. How did they do it? Says MaryAnn Munson, Director of Corporate Benefits and the person most responsible for setting and executing the strategy and calming the roiling benefits waters, “We streamlined the benefits program with the position that we wouldn’t mess with the employee pocketbook. And we did a lot of listening…visited every plant…encouraged employees to contact me or my staff with questions or concerns.”

The customer is always right

The words seem to have sprung from a nineteenth century catechism yet they’re just as relevant today as they were back then. Denise McCarty, the manager/pharmacist for the venerable Wender & Roberts Pharmacy (est.1918) preaches about exceeding her customer’s needs. Says McCarty, “It’s always been our culture to go the extra mile and customers reward us with their loyalty because of that.” In today’s healthcare no-mans land, where the drugstore customer is rarely ever more than a computer number, a Wender & Roberts store carries the air of an apothecary. An out-of-town visitor without a prescription receives prompt, personal attention, and without the attendant rolling-of-the-eyes, even though the pharmacist will spend the next thirty minutes trying to track down the doctor for the requisite authorization. Ditto with frustrating overrides from medical insurance companies or special orders.

It’s all about relationship

Customers want to feel loved. Fairly simple proposition. That’s why Wender & Roberts still offers house charge accounts and why McCarty reminds her staff to remember and address each of the pharmacy’s 700 daily prescription customers by name. Why Moore Colson guarantees tax returns within fifteen days of coming in from the field (irrespective of filing due date). Why Georgia International Travel forces constant contact with its clients. Notes General Manager Andy Hadjian, “We’re always in front of our customers, face-to-face and by email, in addition to the regular daily contact with our res agents.”

In most environments, the front-line worker defines the relationship. “Our front line people are the company” says Hadjian. “We empower them to make decisions, including giving refunds.” It’s nothing more than common sense. If customer loyalty develops from a rewarding and satisfying “touch” between buyer and seller, better make sure that the company touch person, the employee, has been properly motivated, trained and incentivized. Retailers please take note.

When it’s all said and done

The results speak for themselves. For Wender & Roberts, it pays out at the cash register. Says McCarty, “We may be more expensive, but our customers know we’re worth it”. For Moore Colson, it’s an industry-low staff turnover rate. Georgia International Travel has been forced to charge ticket processing fees to compensate for lost airline commissions-- which their loyal customers willingly pay. And there is less employee anger, fewer complaints and an improved retention rate at Superior Essex, a company that has had to grapple with multiple acquisitions.

After all, loyalty’s just another word for nothing left to prove.

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