Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Customer Service Excellence

Often, we've spoken of the importance of bridging the gap between sales and marketing. A key outcome of accomplishing this is more highly satisfied customers. The way your company interacts with customers before, during and after the sales process is as important as any other element in your marketing strategy. In fact, some argue that it is the most important piece of your marketing strategy.

Case in point . . . in an article from Inside Retailing, author Alison Higgins-Miller talks about the "Customer Service Paradox." Higgins-Miller states that "while CRM systems and customer retention are key focuses for retailers, customer service is not yet seen as a core part of customer retention efforts. I suggest that, in light of the ongoing empowerment of consumers, customer service deserves equal billing with sales and marketing in a retailers’ priorities list." She also argues that the ability for a customer to complain -- then have that complaint resolved successfully -- creates a better customer relationship than one in which there was no complaint. In other words, the consumer was able to effectively interact with the company and experience first-hand (hopefully) great customer service. This great experience leaves a more lasting impression in the mind of the consumer and when they go to purchase again, they think of that company who demonstrated that they cared the last time around.

Excellent customer service also helps marketing and sales better position and sell more product. As Higgins-Miller discusses, "Further, in light of increasing skepticism and immunity towards sales and marketing messages, an effective customer service operation can often become an important marketing channel for an organization. For example, one retail organization emails its customers with regular hints and tips for consumer electronics products they have bought. This is not only appreciated by the customer as a useful, post-sales communication but an opportunity to cross- and up-sell relevant products and services. "

Overall, the importance of fostering a culture of excellent customer service cannot be overstated. From culture to technology to processes, a company can create excellence in customer service. You can start with the basics, and build from there. Higgins-Miller talks about six areas to consider as you look to create excellence in customer service in your business:

Define your strategy -- The first step in creating better customer service is to determine which strategy or strategies are most applicable to your business today. Some organizations start with the simplest approaches, and build from there. Others are more aggressive, using customer service as a communications channel from day one. As part of this it’s vital to listen to your customers and identify their needs, so any strategy developed is in line with their needs.
Assess your technology needs
-- Customer service departments are most effective when they are empowered by the correct technology and able to offer the customer multiple contact channels. To provide the customer insight necessary to address a customer enquiry or complaint, for example, it's vital to have a CRM system in place that captures relevant information across all these communication channels and presents this to frontline staff as useful knowledge.
Embrace customer centricity --To deliver first-class customer experiences, the whole organization must make the customer the focus of their efforts and develop new business processes that enable it to provide seamless customer experiences. These processes must often cross departmental boundaries. Marketing departments, for example may be called upon to define new customer-opportunity profiles. Companies that want to achieve top-level customer service must have the ability and commitment necessary to design and implement these innovative business processes.
Empower customers to help themselves -- Provide customers with an individual portal area where they can see all sales and logistics information, perhaps even track queries or complaints. Enable customer to opt in and out of communications from this portal and adjust their preferences. Provide customers with a dynamic knowledgebase of questions, answers, tutorials etc. where they can find answers to their questions themselves. This knowledgebase can also be used internally by frontline staff to help customers with their queries.
Engage your customers proactively
-- Don’t wait for customers to voice their concerns directly, regular proactive communications around products and service satisfaction can identify any problems before they get out of hand. Customer feedback will also help your organization to measure customer satisfaction and identify areas for improvement.
Clarity of vision --It's hard to get somewhere - or lead others in the right direction - if you do not know your destination. To improve customer service, managers need to have a strong sense of how customer interaction histories can be leveraged to discover revenue opportunities.

We agree with Higgins-Miller. These are some great areas to take a look at to begin thinking about improving your own customer service arena. Certainly, after giving these six areas some thought, you will be armed with some good data to improve your customer's experiences with your company. And by engaging all areas of the company, you will change the culture of your company to one that creates excellent customer experiences.

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