As professional trainers, we work with a variety of clients, and providing good customer service is essential to help us maintain positive, long-lasting relationships. In my experience of over 20 years of training, I have discovered excellent ways to establish solid customer service, and have learned about the “customer pitfalls” that can negatively affect my business. In addition to satisfied clients, good customer service can lead to more referrals and contacts. How large is your vision for your own training career? Understanding how to avoid the pitfalls of customer service will help you to focus on success.
Looking outside of our own profession can help us find good examples of customer service. As I have traveled around the world to conduct training, I have discovered some exceptional examples of customer service. For instance, when I was out of town recently to give a training seminar at a company, I had a memorable hotel stay. When I left my hotel room to get into my car, I saw a small card on the windshield which read: “Thanks for staying with us. We’ve cleaned your windshield to help your day start off right. We hope to see you again soon!” They certainly will. While it was not a five-star hotel, this simple little act made a five-star impression. They branded in my mind the word “care”, which equals excellent customer service.
Many trainers work to make such an impression, yet fail. Why? Because somewhere along the way they were unable to keep up the momentum, and fell into a pit of mediocrity. Such a pit is created when trainers forget or do not reinforce the simplest acts of customer service. In today’s world, with so much speed and technology, we can offer a “personal touch” that shows others that we care.
Poor customer service is the number one reason why American companies lose business. On average, research conducted by the American Management Association has shown that 68% of clients stop doing business with a company because of poor service. Another study reveals that 90% of clients who ceased doing business with a company made no attempt to tell the firm why. What is even worse is that a dissatisfied customer tells up to ten others of his or her dissatisfaction, yet the average satisfied client tells only five people.
Here are some ways to avoid the pitfalls of customer service, to help you in your success as a trainer:
- Understand that little mistakes with communication can have major negative consequences. Sid Dinsdale, Chairman of the Midwest-based Pinnacle Bank chain, believes that remembering to use the Golden rule will help you to treat people the way you would like to be treated. “Remember to be consistently reliable,” he says.
- Be sensitive to the customer’s time frame. When a customer needs an immediate answer, it’s your responsibility to find the best and fastest way to do it. Even if you may not be able to give a complete reply, get back to the customer as soon as possible, and keep him or her posted. Richard Newman of the Newman Group, a training and development company, says that “returning phone calls within two hours is our policy, so when someone can’t get back to me within 24 hours, they are out!”
- Look for opportunities to enhance your customer relationships. Irv Blumkin, President of the Nebraska Furniture Mart, which is the largest retail store in the country, advises trainers to “Make sure to do your homework, and find out the _unique selling points_ that your customer is totally tuned into.” Blumkin asserts that “you need to know that one size does not fit all when dealing with your customers.”
- Understand that general assumptions about customers will not work all the time. Jack McDonnell, Chairman of the brokerage firm Ameritrade, believes that improving the protocol of business relationships will give you better insight into customers. “You have to really learn who and what your customer’s wants and needs are because each customer is different and he or she has different expectations.”
- Stay in touch with customers. As you get to know customers, determine when and what their terms are and the best way to communicate with them, using their “format”. McDonnell does warn, however, that “there is a fine line between what may be perceived as a nuisance and following up to provide additional and relevant information.” Some people actually do misplace things and welcome a friendly reminder. Some people tell you to email them, while others might ask you to leave voice mail messages.”
- Use the “Power of Three” personal note plan. This is a technique I’ve adopted and have used successfully for years. Every day, drop three customers a short note to say thank you, hello, or even to find out why they didn’t use your services. It’s a way of staying in touch, and taking the time to say to clients that they are important and you respect them. People ask me if it is ok to email, and I say yes, in addition to the three notes that you write! With handwritten notes, you go the extra mile and exceed your customers’ expectations.
AVOIDING POOR CUSTOMER SERVICE
A woman was once mistreated by a salesperson in a grocery store where she had been shopping once a week for three years. The poor service caused her to switch stores, and after twelve years she returned, and decided to tell the owner what happened. He listened intently, apologized, and thanked her for coming back. Then he went right over to his calculator. He estimated that if she had spent only $25.00 a week, and never increased her buying, he would have made $15,600. If she had been happy, she most likely would have increased her spending and referred others. The owner also estimated that even if this woman only referred four people, her referrals could have spent as much as $60,000.
All of this potential profit was lost because someone forgot how important the customer is. Whether a salesperson was in a hurry, didn’t show respect for the customer, or just had a bad attitude, the lack of communication skills caused the customer to take her business elsewhere. Almost any trainer can take the above story and relate to his or her business. The key is to recognize that what appears to be an insignificant incident can become a disaster.
As trainers, customers are our main priority. We are there to serve them, and they are the reason for, not the interruption to, our business. “Be open and friendly,” states Penney Horne, a manager for the Marriott hotel chain. Like trainers, she deals with various kinds of people, and also works in customer service. She says that “we have to remember who the customers are and adapt to them.” And trainers also have to always maintain a positive attitude.
You can also ensure client satisfaction by asking customers how you can help them. Betty Most of Clinique says that we should “keep probing to find out what they need.” Learn the art of asking open-ended, high-gain questions and be sure to really listen. Blumkin adds that “it’s a balancing act _ you have to do what it takes to keep customers happy.” And to get results, you have to know what works to boost your reputation. Blumkin says that it’s a matter of doing what is necessary and “figuring out the win-win.”
One-to-one marketing is one of the best ways to approach customer service. Encounters with clients must be approached as if all your business depended upon them. Here are a few tips for treating customers right:
- Give them the ultimate respect. “Customers are everything,” Blumkin says, “they are who keep you in business.”
- Listen with both ears and with a sensitivity to what customers aren’t directly saying. Lois Geller, owner of the Mason/Geller ad agency, advises trainers to “take the time to really know what your customers are saying and what they want.”
- Avoid misunderstandings by seeking clarification. When you speak with a customer, the first “no” you get might be because of a misunderstanding, so take the time to find out what he or she really needs. If you have
misunderstood the customer, let him or her know and apologize.
When trainers go out of their way for clients, the effort is remembered and rewarded. The client thinks of you for another seminar, or a customer calls to see how things are going, and refers you to another colleague who will need your services. As the classic expression goes: “Take good care of your customer or someone else will.”
SETTING YOURSELF TO CUSTOMERS’ CLOCKS
Whose clock really counts? Most companies have had the experience of customers who don’t respond in a timely fashion. A corporation’s attitude might be, “we have sales goals to achieve,” or “we must get all the customer complaint letters off our desk right away.” So how can we move the process forward without “pushing” customers too hard?
When customers don’t call back after we’ve given them a great offer, it is critical that we do not badger them with demanding follow-up calls, which try to disguise the real question: “I think it’s time we close the deal or resolve this issue. What’s taking you so long?” These types of calls can be avoided when an earlier conversation includes a couple of specific need questions, such as, “When do you need the proposal by?” or, “When will you get back to me with the details of your seminar?” While attempting to move things forward, trainers can become trapped by an internal deadline that will offend customers.
Another stumble block can be created when we cause clients to perceive themselves as insignificant in our minds. This is the fallout from rushed communications such as hurrying off the phone or sending correspondence that is too brief and not detailed. It tells customers that you’re playing a “numbers” game and are trying to get through the process in a cold and mechanical way. It takes very little extra effort to develop a personalized approach even when we have long lists of customers to handle. Here are three ways to do it:
- Ask the customer how he or she wants the issue to be handled. Some people prefer that everything be done in writing, while others would rather receive a quick phone call letting them know that everything has been done. While your company might have good policies and procedures that must be followed, never lose sight of a specific customer request that can make all the difference in the world.
- Check on customers long after a problem has occurred. Far too many companies and trainers have followed up immediately with great customer service to pacify the customer and smooth over the problem. However, this approach could fall short in the long run. Plan a follow-up call and mark your calendar for a month after the problem was resolved. Then, when the month has passed, call the customer and do three things: Thank him or her for the business, ask the customer if everything is going as he or she wants it to, and let him or her know that no problem is too small to be addressed. Betty Most of Clinique uses this kinds of approach and says, “this is how we train our Consultants who are the main lifeline to our consumer customers.”
- Put a preventative plan in place. Often we lose customers because mistakes are repeated. While we might do our best to fix the problem each time, the customer may run out of patience. If your pre-seminar preparation materials are going to be late, then call the customer in advance, let him or her know, and offer to send it using a faster service at your expense.
Complete customer satisfaction may not just come from satisfying the person with whom we directly work. We can miss the mark when we forget that making our direct contact happy is only part of total customer service. Trainers have found success in building relationships with at least three people at each company with which they do business, but not just any three people. You should know the three most important links in the success chain. Here are some examples to
- The assistant. If your main contact has an assistant, get to know that person very well. A good assistant often has as much or even more information than the person with whom you work. Call the assistant up, make small talk, and listen to find out as much as you can.
- The main receptionist. This person is usually seated at “information central,” and can help you solve problems when your client is away. He or she might also give you insight into the company. With supplemental information, you could discover when it’s a bad time to call or if leaving a message with the receptionist may be less confrontational than calling your contact directly. Send this person a note or small gift for his or her help and insight.
- The accounts payable department. When possible, we need to separate our direct contact from his or her accounts payable department. When you focus on money issues with someone in the accounts payable department, you free up more time to serve your main contact, who authorizes the
ASSUME = LOSE
Even customers we know “like the back of our hand” will change over time. Too often, assumptions are made about how long-time customers will respond to us. Realize that anything that is living needs constant nourishment. It’s too easy to slip and stop nurturing customer relationships after they have matured.
Customers need to be constantly informed by what we offer. In some cases, long-time customers need to be “extra” informed. Let’s say you mail out updates or new seminar information on the 15th of the month. You might select some customers to receive the information earlier and include a note from you.
Remember, as time goes by, the same level of service becomes less effective. The lure of competitors will encourage customers to reevaluate their loyalty to the trainers with whom they work. A question that we always need to ask ourselves is, “what’s the incentive for customers to stay with me for five or ten years?” By asking ourselves this, we’re focusing on how to build customer loyalty. Develop a simple program which includes:
- Surveys your customers can fill out to keep you up-to-date on their opinions
- A newsletter to keep customers informed of your latest services
- Making phone calls to customers immediately after a program to ask for suggestions, complaints or comments.
When we first make promises and proposals to customers, we do everything we can to push away the competition. Unfortunately, sometimes we lose that enthusiasm with later proposals. We give them the same old “bells and whistles.” Our challenge now is to discover what we can give them that will continue to excite them and keep their interest. Here are some suggestions:
- Ask “dream” questions. After a period of time, you probably know what your customers need. However, what is it that they dream and hope for? Inquire what you can do to impress them. You could ask, “I want to pull a rabbit out of a hat for you. What can I do to make that happen?”
- Increase contact frequency. Sometimes we assume that long-time customers will always be there, even if we let an extensive period of time go by without calling. If anything, we need to find ways to stay in touch more frequently. The challenge is to do it in such a way as to not become annoying. This might include: Mailing a newspaper clipping of an interesting article, writing an email that includes an inspiring quote, or remembering an anniversary or birthday with a card.
- Seek customers’ counsel. If we have done our homework, we should be experts in our field. However, there is always more to learn. One way is by asking clients about trends they predict in their industry. You could also ask them for advice about which trade or civic organizations are the best to join.
Above all else, people want respect. They want respect for their position, they want respect for thoughts and ideas, and they want respect from business contacts. There is a fine line between becoming “buddies” with a client and keeping a distance that appears cold and uncaring. The first challenge is how we address customers, particularly new customers. The rule of thumb, of course, is to always address someone formally with a “Mr.” or “Ms.” until he or she gives you permission to use another name. It doesn’t matter whether it is the receptionist or CEO of a company – the impression you make at any level can echo throughout the company.
One CEO shared with me the “burn no bridge” principle. He knows that his people might have to talk to several people at a company before they get to a decision maker. All along the way, messages have been left and a trail of conversations have led to the right person. Some of those conversations may have involved a “gate keeper” who tried to keep you out. This is why we want to build relationships with everyone we can at the client’s office. That gatekeeper can truly open the door with the right treatment.
Here are some useful job tools to help you be more effective when dealing with customers:
- Put a small mirror on your desk with the word “smile” as a reminder. Look at it while speaking to customers on the phone.
- Use plain English and speak slowly.
- Have an easy-to-follow script that you can work with – with open-ended questions and information-building tools.
- Make sure you can explain your services effectively and are prepared to upsell when the need arises.
Sometimes you will have to “step around” people in order to get to the right person, and you might forget to cover your tracks. Be prepared to quickly mend fences with the people who you might have had a tough time dealing with along the way. People do have long memories. Your goal is to replace an unpleasant memory with a positive one.
A pleasant memory can be created when we send gifts to our main contact, and when we also remember the people around him or her. When a dignitary goes to visit the president of another country, a wise leader will bring a gift for the president, the vice president, and if he or she is really prepared, for the office secretary as well. The same should hold true for the protocol with your customers.
TURNING NEGATIVES INTO POSITIVES
In a previous article I wrote for Training & Development, I focused on how to best network with others by following up with short notes. Such an important tactic that The Chicago Tribune dedicated two articles to my advice in this area. Therefore, I want to share how this relates to customer service, even when things go wrong. Here three types of problems even the best of us face and how to handle them:
- “The big problem.” This type of follow-up note requires a big “I’m sorry.” This would be the customer who ranted and raved even though you made everything right.
- “The win/win resolution.” When a customer has been very cooperative in solving a problem, send a note which communicates your appreciation. It is really a “Thanks, you made my day” type of note. Send this customer a personalized message that expresses your appreciation for his or her understanding.
- “Maybe next time.” Even if all is lost, a follow-up note can be the best seed planted for a future reconciliation. It’s a sign of true strength when we can admit that the customer was right, that we were
wrong, and that we regret the consequence of the lost business. However, this note should express the hope that you might be able to do business in the future.
The United States Postal Service tells us that only 4% of the mail is personalized. This classic technique will put your business ahead of 96% of the competition!
If you have an example of how you overcame a difficult customer service problem, I would love to hear it. Please drop me a note via the contact information below. And remember, in order to avoid the “pitfalls of customer service,” keep these four important words in mind, and strive for excellence:
We have the power to prevent and effectively respond to customer service problems. It requires us to be proactive and keep our egos in check, and to give customers the respect they deserve and desire.