Real Customer Service: Overhead or Profit Center?

My wife and I especially love an old turn-of-the-century grand hotel in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for getaway weekends. In the dining room, “Gentlemen will wear jackets and ties to dinner.” Don’t even think of wearing that ball cap! It bespeaks a golden age of style and grace you rarely get to see, let alone experience, in the modern age of steel and glass, all you can eat buffets, modem plugs in every room, and “don’t forget your number cause none of us knows your name” organized insanity most of us now allow to pass as holidays. (I wonder if “getaway” applies to arriving or leaving some of these “joints.”) However, of greater importance is that they know they offer a superior product, they know their service is consistently excellent, and they know that therein lies their real product: excellence! This hotel I mentioned and other successful businesses have one key practice in common: they make a conscious decision, on the very first day they decide to be serious about being successful, and decide on what type of customers they want to attract. They accept they cannot have them all, nor do they want them all, so they decide to get the ones worth having. What makes a good customer? Well how is this for starters:

  1. Solid
  2. Dependable
  3. Predictable
  4. Loyal
  5. Engaged
  6. Profitable

Obviously, I enter #6 in the “Duh” category of overstating the obvious, but it is still worth mentioning. (Unless you entered the business world as a hobby while awaiting the Estate to clear Probate Court.) So the next logical question is how do you attract customers like those that I mentioned in the above paragraph? Well, why not use the same list to measure and improve you own organization? Then, seek the level you have achieved to be associated with, better yet, they will find you. We spend so much time in our discussion talking about serving the customer that we often fail to mention that you must make sure the customer is worthy of your service and attention. To that end, I challenge you to first better plan, train and execute your business in such a way that the customer you want feels the same about you: a vendor worthy of their business. The single greatest attribute of a truly successful business is excellence in customer service. We all know that, so why do so few of us actually achieve this goal? Save The Speeches, Just Do It! Every first phone call from an agency or service provider contains “a brag” about their commitment to customers and achieving their absolute satisfaction. Then when an issue arises, the people I do business with are not empowered to act. Or their voicemail has been “acting up” which explains why they did not return my call for three days. You do not earn business with customer services “promises,” you earn business through real customer service, applied by the point of contact, at the exact moment a customer feels they need the commitment from you to resolve a wrong, real or imagined. Spend It, Don’t Count It! Real customer service (prepared, planned, trained, available, and effective) is expensive when looked at as a budget item. It has a return you measure in years, not quarters. There is a recruiter I know who has always provided top quality service. When I change jobs, I call him to let him know where I am, he does not have to come looking for me. How valuable is it for him to have 25 or more clients such as myself? What is the dollar value? You Never Lose What You Do Not Have “New business” always costs more than “keeping old business.” Repeat this 28 times till it is no longer an unnatural thought. Often, badly run service providers will lose an old customer due to the cost of repairing an error or perceived wrongdoing. However, the mathematical equation is often lacking simple and basic component, the actual cost of not repairing the error vs. the cost of repair. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*> For example, the customer involved sends you 18 checks per year, average check $10k, for placements. In two years you have placed 30 people in the organization, some in management roles. (If you place 36, in all honesty, you probably lost 6 in turnover. Even hypothetical examples should be realistic.) The customer loses a critical hire, three days after the guarantee expires. The client is frantic because in the last 93 days, the exiting employee has become key to a new software release. They hint that due to the nature of the catastrophe that they now find themselves in (and rightly or wrongly feel you participated in), you should assist them without fee. You baulk. They walk. Good customer service would consider the “loss of one fee” an investment to keep, and enhance, the 18 fees expected. We can enjoy a fine debate and discussion for endless hours over “spilled milk,” contract law, whiney spoiled customers, and the underlying unfairness of a world gone mad. However, me, I guess I am a little soft. I would rather deposit 18 checks than not lose one I don’t have anyway! There Is Nothing In The Phone Book After “Z” Companies that refuse to consider quality customer service are doomed to wander through piles of leads trying to replace lost business until the dreaded day they lose “ZZZ and Sons” as customers and “AAA and Daughters” still has not forgiven them for a customer service “bust” from three years ago. Customers, good customers, are finite, fragile and have long memories. Never Forget, The Customer Is The One With The Check! They Get The Service Some of us feel that the candidate pool has become so scarce and the need so great, that the candidate has in fact become the customer. Well, I would rather have ten checks than ten candidates. That means I need check writers as customers. So, until a Web Content Developer is willing to cough up 18K for my time, the efforts of my labor and the time I invest in customer service will always be focused on serving the need of the customer (the person with the check). When you “short change” the customer, a long-term potential, to benefit the candidate whose use of “Apache” as a development tool will be meaningless in 6 months, you lose in the long-term. The Final Judge Of The Quality Of Your Service Is The Customer You are not done repairing the damage or servicing the customer until the customer feels you are done. If you are going to pick a point to stop, despite the customer’s needs or feelings, why bother to even start. A little customer service is like being a little dead. Some things just do not come in doses. If You Feel Your Customers Are “Jerks” Who Will Abuse Good Customer Service And Take Advantage Of You, What Does That Make You? If you use expressions like “jerks,” “slobs,” “ingrates,” or “clowns” when talking about your clients, then I have to suspect that either you are not too fussy about who you do business with, or maybe it is your clients that lack discrimination. Remember, the goal of good customer service is to attract and keep the customers you want. If you call customers “clowns” and work to keep their business, then I guess that makes you one of the guys with a squirting flower. Attract the business you feel is worthy of your efforts. But first, be worthy of that business and then settle for nothing less. As Gold, Good Customer Service Is So Rare That Once Found, We Seldom Lose It Ever have a customer “fight” to keep you as a vendor? It is a great feeling and it is clear indicator that, unless your father owns the client company, you have achieved customer service excellence (you have come far, “Grasshopper”) Every dollar you save in seeking “replacement” business is another dollar in the 401K plan. Once you develop and provide quality service, you keep old business, you find new clients seeking you as their new service provider. (And the down side is what? None that I can see.) So, what is the point? Why invest in excellence?

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  • Doing business with people who like and respect you for your commitment and professionalism and the quality your efforts bring into their business.
  • Having a consistent and dependable revenue stream that will grow in good times and sustain you in bad.
  • Feeling a sense of common bonding and purpose with a large community of business leaders and associates who seek you out as a partner and a peer.
  • Not having to “duck” phone calls from customers.
  • Always being “invited” into other people’s business worlds, rather than having to sneak in the back door.
  • Actually liking and respecting the people you are in daily contact with and not feeling the need to wash your hands every time you hang up the phone.

Yeah, I see your point, save a buck on customer service. Besides, you are only up to “K”, and “Z” is a long way off. Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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