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How to improve customer service?
Listen and understand customers' needs for service

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In this article I am going to discuss how you can manage your customer relationships so that you can provide customer service that delights them and makes them coming back to you at literally no cost to you. I actually feel awkward writing this article since this is supposed to be Customer Service 101, but every single day, I see that businesses forget this and keep screwing up. Looks like we all need to be reminded of the simplest (but often profound) things repeatedly.  

So how do you manage your relationships with your customers that delights them every time?

Appreciate the business that your customers give you. If yours is the only gas station in a certain geography, do not take your customers for granted. Never. One, you can never rule out emergence of competition in the future. And two, you might not go too far with a business model that is not based on customer service that delights. As I mentioned in another article (How to improve customer service?), customers will flee as soon as they have a choice, if you did not do enough to appreciate their business. And competition can come from unlikely places. In my town, for instance, the newest gas station was not opened by another local entrepreneur. It was an effort by BJ's. While it is a fairly long drive to buy gas for me  and for many other residents in the area, but we now plan are gas purchases, and fill up our tanks at BJ's. I simply do not recall the local gas station making me feel better about giving my business to them. When you appreciate the business that your customers give to you, you are reinforcing how important the customer is to you and that is what results in a stronger relationship. A customer's relationship is, of course, based on good product, low price, and good service, but more importantly, an emotional bond is needed to strengthen the relationship.  (Related article:  Customer service outsourcing)

Talk to your customers. Yes, I love the convenience of automated equipment that do not require dealing with unfriendly staff, but it simply does not mean that you stop interacting with your customers. The power of personal touch is incredible. If you are the business leader don't just sit on your ass all day looking at numbers. While I always use an ATM and am one of the first users of online banking in the US, every time I go to my branch (Chase Manhattan Bank), I get treated like an important customer.  I also recall the days in Japan, when the bank managers would simply hang out in the ATM area chatting with customers and asking them what they could do improve their ATM's.  Not only a great way to develop stronger customer relationships but also a totally free way to conduct market research for next generation of ATM's.  So move your ass to a place where your customers are. If you have nothing to talk about, just tell them who you are and talk about the weather. In a restaurant when the owner/manager comes to my table and asks if everything is as I expected, I notice it. I return to the restaurant more often.

Retain your existing customers. It is literally free versus acquiring new ones that could cost you a lot of money. When my hairdresser at the place I get my haircut decided to quit, I did not hear from them telling me what happened and how they could switch me over to another competent hairdresser and how they would even give me a couple of bucks off just to try her/him. I would have definitely evaluated the option; while I liked my hairdresser, I was not married to her. I actually liked the spa more than I liked her. What happened was the total opposite. My hairdresser called me first with the news and told me about the new spa that had opened in our area. She offered to cut my hair at the time that I had scheduled weeks ago at the old spa and even told me that I will get a discount just for visiting the new place. Well, the decision was easy for me. The new spa got another new client, and if you are like most men, I do not have the energy to look around too hard for another spa. If the service is even reasonably good, my relationship with them as a customer is almost permanent, provided someone does not snatch me away.

Go the extra inch. I don't believe in miles because it seems like such a long distance. When you go to a store that offers free balloons to all kids that visit it, what happens? The kids love the store, force their parents to visit it, and half the time, they end up buying something there.  The restaurant that I went to last week did not have one ingredient for a dish on the menu, the manger not only apologized profusely, but also did not charge me for the other dish that I ordered.  Such an experience becomes a story so powerful that I am writing about it here. I have also already mentioned it to a couple of my friends. You might have heard the term a lot during the dot-com days, but when you go the extra inch, you turn a business transaction into an 'experience'. That is when it becomes a story and gets told a million times. Sheri Bridges, a marketing professor at Wake Forest University, quoted in an article on Microsoft's tips for small businesses, defines a "delightful" consumer experience as one so personalized that an individual thinks of her or his experience as unique and that is why the incentive to share it with others, creating brand loyalty, word-of-mouth marketing, and propensity to spend more.  (Related:  Dell customer service)

Be customer-centric. It is a buzzword from the dot-com days, but jokes aside, it is a very profound term. If you design your business model around the customer, good things start to happen. Too often our business model is designed to produce a high rate of return or pushing some cool technology. What you should never forget is what it means to the customer. The customer should be at the heart of any discussion related to your business. Once you do something as simple as that, you will not need to do much strategic planning. Whatever term you might like, customer relationship management or one-to-one marketing or all-customers-are-king, the goal is still the same: make your business revolve around your customer. 

Finally, let me restate that if you go back and look at all the things that I am suggesting you do, these do not cost literally anything.  All that they require is a change in strategy and behavior on your part as a business leader.  You also need to make sure that people that work for you share this philosophy and can execute it on a daily basis, every single time when an interaction with the customer occurs.  Have you noticed those folks at Home Depot that not only walk with you to the exact location (rather than giving directions), but also show you what to buy and give you some useful tips on how to use it? Someone at Home Depot has made sure that this happens every single time in any Home Depot store.

Recommended links:  Customer service and care    How to decide which conferences to attend?   How to empower customers

Major elements of a key account management program for an MNC    Online chat support

How to build a customer base for a startup?    Knowledge exchange with virtual customers   How to partner with your customers   

How to build a customer facing organization   How to build a community of customers

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