Great Customer Service On A Shoestring Budget

Brad Cleveland, Author, Speaker and Consultant

November 21, 2016

In my earlier years, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I sure didn't plan to be a customer service strategist. But through serendipity and a strong interest kindled by early front-line jobs, I've had the good fortune to work in one aspect of this field or another since the late 1980s. As entrepreneur/partner, then owner/CEO of International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), and now as a writer and speaker, it’s been fun to watch customer service evolve into what it is today: a powerful brand differentiator.

I’ve enjoyed meeting and talking with Tugboat Institute members these past few years — if you’ve been to a Tugboat Institute Summit, we may have crossed paths a time or two. One thing Evergreen CEOs have in common, beyond their commitment to the 7Ps: Most don’t have significant investor money to throw at customer service (a good thing because, as with other aspects of building a strong business, that’s not often the best approach). Yet, service is exactly where the 7Ps really play out.

Good customer service is essential for any business to thrive. It doesn't matter how big your company is, who your competitors are or how entrenched they may be. If you have a product the market wants and you deliver on customer care, you win. All else being equal, if you demonstrate genuine regard for a customer’s service experience and your competitor doesn’t, you’re likely to earn loyalty and continued business. Conversely, if you drop the ball — if service isn’t easy, or if you let a customer’s complaint slip through the cracks unaddressed — that customer is likely to look for greener pastures (and will probably tell others about the experience).

So, how can an Evergreen business create a successful customer service approach without breaking the bank? Through all of the change I’ve observed over several decades, here are some recommendations that have staying power:

Be True To Your Brand

Most Evergreen CEOs take pains to imbue their products and marketing with a distinct personality. But they may not extend that to their customer service channels — and that’s a huge missed opportunity. You don’t want to pack your product full of character and greet your customers with a canned response. "Thank you for calling XYZ Company. Press 1 to speak to a representative" is not delightful. Take the time to make all of your messaging, across every channel and customer touch point, true to your voice.

Set The Right Foundation Before You Get Big

If you’re still a small company, now’s the time to get your processes in place — before you get so large that customer concerns become overwhelming. To get started on a plan that can scale as you grow, there are a few things to consider:

- How, when and where will you interact with customers? Identify a sensible mix of channels: web, mobile, social, phone, email, etc. Then determine who “owns” the overall approach that includes those channels. (The industry term is to shape a “customer access strategy.”) Many smaller companies can’t afford the luxury of a dedicated customer service team, so employees often pull double duty — and ownership and accountability are essential. By cultivating the right channels for the right purpose, you can create substantial efficiencies. Some new entrants are making a big difference. Social media can be an effective and affordable way to engage with customers, for example, and more companies are harnessing mobile tools such as text to great effect.

- What are your customer service standards? I have a mantra: No unnecessary heroics, please. We've all heard stories of companies going to extraordinary lengths for customers — hopping on a plane to hand-deliver a product that didn’t ship on schedule, for example. Impressive, sure, but heroics mean that you’ve dropped the ball somewhere earlier in the process. Ideally, you’ll never have to go to such extremes, but you do need to establish parameters for service. What does it mean to deliver quality? How far do you go with empowerment? What are you willing to do and how far are you willing to go for customers? Make sure everyone in your organization knows the answers to these questions and can deliver for the customer.

Bake Post-Mortem Reviews Into Your Process

Assessing your customer service activity should be as regular as reviewing your P&L. Taking note of and learning from these interactions creates a feedback loop that, in time, will minimize the need for customer service interactions.

One of the innovations Uber brought to taxi service is the ability for customers to provide immediate feedback. Today, you can survey customers through the channels that make the most sense: personalized email, text-based, dial-pad input following a call, and others. In an era when customers are fatigued from being over-surveyed, it’s notable how high the response rates can be for transaction-specific surveys that are short and easy.

Internally, track customer engagements by type. What are they? Billing problems? Technical support? Orders not arriving as expected? Difficulty understanding products or services? A well-oiled customer service approach can help improve virtually every aspect of your business by pinpointing operational and manufacturing hiccups, informing your marketing team about what customers need and want, and providing fodder for Pragmatic Innovation.

Set An Example By Engaging With Customers Yourself

Most Evergreen CEOs are great about this by virtue of living their Purpose and putting People First. John Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group, was known for regularly carving out time to spend on the phone with customers in the call center. By doing this, he not only better understood customer needs, but he also saw firsthand the areas of service that needed attention. Above all, he sent a clear message to the rest of the team: Customer service matters.

The most successful companies view customer service as an opportunity, not an obligation. As you nail this aspect of your business, you’ll reap rewards in all the others.

Brad Cleveland is the Principal of Brad Cleveland Co. LLC.

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