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Customer Service As A Product

Fostering relationships with the end-user is the key to success in the age of the internet and high competition. Where business is concerned, it's all in the delivery.

Customer service is every entrepreneur's business. The product or service you provide is only as good as the manner in which you deliver it to your customers. In this day and age, every businessman worth his capital must make customer service his "other" product. The place customer service holds in the scheme of things is equal to his main business. In some ways, it means even more.

Increasingly, this holds true for large corporations and long-standing companies. In fact, the buzzword these days is CRM, or Customer Relationship Management. Heads of enterprise, particularly those involved in direct selling and direct marketing know that managing the needs and wants of their customers is crucial. Fostering relationships with your end-users, the key. More and more corporations are setting up departments in their organisation that are devoted to this aspect of the business alone.

Customer service is the means through which a new business can rise above the fray, and set itself apart. Corporations have taken significant steps to improving their level of customer service, and they're investing in CRM technology and database software to enhance their customers' positive experience. But do not be misled. Technology can be a vital tool to deliver quality customer service, but it is only part of the solution.

Technology Plus Talent

Don Peppers, author of the "Enterprise 1 to1" and partner at the highly acclaimed, Peppers & Rodgers management consultant group, predicts that in the next five years, there will be a number of CRM failures. These are companies that put money down for CRM software and database systems, but failed to make changes in their organisation, culture or mindset.

"If your company wants to build long-term relationships with customers that will generate higher margins, increased customer loyalty and greater customer satisfaction, the change must come from people, and even slow, incremental change will have gains in the long run."

Companies like Amazon, the online shopping network, have made significant investments in CRM and, as a result, they are well regarded for making every customer's visit better than it was before. An Amazon user is always greeted by name. Amazon gives each customer a list of book and music recommendations that is custom-fit to their profile. Not only that, Amazon also gives every individual customer information about what other customers like them have purchased.


Not For Big Business Only

Naturally, this issue cannot be neglected by small and medium businesses, particularly those that have just begun to establish themselves. After all, the average consumer has such a broad range of options and choices for just about every product, service and idea. What's more, customers are empowered by the Internet, and have a wide access to information, not just about a particular product or service, but also about other businesses that provide the same products or services. These days, it's the consumers' market-and consumers want more for less. Businesses should beware the fickle customer, and try to win his loyalty.

The bottom line: if you don't listen to their customers or if you fail to serve them to their satisfaction, you're going to lose them to a business that does. Surpass your customers' expectations consistently and effectively, and you win their loyalty for life.

Amazingly, this holds as true today in the age of the Internet, as it did two decades ago. However, like many entrepreneurs, perhaps applying the principles and skills of good customer service to your business can be a little daunting. Good customer service is most often associated with brick-and-mortar businesses where you have a floor manager, clerks, people who will be at the frontline, making polite, friendly, cheery contact with your customers. What does customer service mean if your business is Web-based, solely or in part?


First Pick Of Assignments Or Projects

A high performer deserves to have a choice in the range of products open to him. This cannot be considered as anything else but a reward. As manager, you are demonstrating your satisfaction regarding his work by giving him freedom of choice. Reluctance to reward staff in this manner for fear that they may always choose "the easy" assignment is narrow-minded and simplistic. If the employee does consistently good work, this will not necessarily be his criterion for choice. On the other hand, choosing the "fun" job should be his prerogative - for so long as this reward is deserved. Bear in mind that people who enjoy their work do their work well.


Brick & Mortar vs The Web

The basics of enhanced customer service carry over from traditional brick and mortar businesses to the Internet, but are applied in different ways. Traditional customer service demands that you as a business do the following.

  • You deliver what you promise.
  • You do everything you can to make the customer experience a pleasant and positive one.
  • You anticipate the needs of your customers and address them satisfactorily.
  • Your staff - whether on the phone, on the Net or in person - knows your business, is knowledgeable about your product or service and can be depended on to be pleasant, attentive and courteous.
  • You treat your customers like valued friends.
  • You are always looking for ways and means to continually improve overall service.

Web-based customer service is no different.


Integrate Customer Service In Your Web Site Content

Perhaps the most basic requirement in terms of Web-based customer service is ease of use. Your Web site should be easy to use: clear, direct and simple. If anything on your Web site is vague or causes confusion or difficulty, you are violating the basic tenets of good customer service. Apart from pure navigational issues, this could also refer to overly long forms to fill out for registration or order-fulfilment forms that are too cumbersome and not customer-friendly.

Moreover, the customer service should be invisible, almost automatic. You should not even be using those words. Rather, quality service should be apparent in the content of your site itself. One of the barriers that a Web-based business must overcome is the absence of a human person who can greet a customer with a smile and assist in whatever difficulties might arise. For this reason, the content of your Web site must translate the warmth, understanding and personal nature of a human face and voice. This can be done via the language you use as well as via the features you provide on your site.

Dominos, the pizza delivery chain in the U.S., invested in Marathon technology to ensure the stability of its web-based ordering system. All customers have to do is key in their zip code and indicate their order, which is then transmitted to the point-of-sales. The correct outlet is then notified and the order dispatched. Although orders for pizza via the Internet represents 5% of overall volume, significant growth is projected.


Personalise Your Customer's Experience

Perhaps the best example of top-notch customer service is the online shopping network, Amazon. It is also a good case study for the effective utilisation of the database and software. While most small and medium businesses might be hard-pressed to follow in this giant's footsteps, Amazon, nevertheless provides a good model.

Log onto the Amazon site, and you are greeted by name. Order your books or music, and you immediately receive an email informing you of the status of your order. In addition, the company tracks your shopping choices so they are able give you more useful information: other books, music that you might be interested in (based on your first purchase or purchases), what other customers (who have bought the same titles) have purchased.

Also, if you haven't shopped at Amazon in a while, they will sometimes send you cash vouchers to persuade you to shop anew. These techniques and strategies represent Web-based customer service at it's finest: efficient and professional and still warm and personal.

The Internet is a two-way street and a channel for communication. Too many Web sites neglect this very crucial aspect of Web-based customer service. There must be a way for the surfer or the prospective customer to reach you. And the more ways there are, the better it is for the customer. Provide an email address that they can write to, particularly one with an actual name, and not a figurehead. If customers can call a number and speak to someone in real time, all the better.

Some companies have found it useful to place chat facilities or message boards on their site so that customers can interact with each other and perhaps answer each other's questions. Always encourage customers to give you feedback and to ask questions. Find out what it is they want and need through surveys and questionnaires on your site.


Strive To Give Customers Something More For Less

This applies to customer service in any realm. Free promotional items, discounts on future purchases, cash vouchers or gift certificates - these are things that you can give very easily via the Internet as well as traditionally. Some businesses offer attractive screensavers that customers can download from their site. Other companies offer content-separate and apart from the service or product they are selling. For example, information on the latest trends, articles, pictures, jokes - anything that will afford the customer with pleasure or entertainment. These can add up to that "something more" customers are always looking for.

Speed is another kind of service that is often undervalued by businesses. Customers want what they want, and they want it fast. Transportation company, Ryder Trucks in the U.S., understood this. Which is why it replaced its manual system of checking credit approval with a computerised and Internet based system. Customers who wanted to rent Ryder trucks no longer had to wait too long for them. The whole process was reduced to a matter of seconds.


The Human Factor: Follow-Through

A crucial point in customer service: your staff must be prepared for answering questions, to assist with problems, and to follow through in real life. No matter how attractive, warm, friendly and efficient your Web site is, if you don't have the manpower to follow through, this will be more detrimental in the long run. Being consistent is key, and clearly, there must be synergy between your Web-based service and your service on the ground.

The apparel catalogue company Land's End is a prime example of an organisation that provides customer service - online and on the ground. Land's End sales people are more than sales people, they are customer service people who are there to answer questions and assist customers. The Land's End Web site allows users to chat with someone from the company. And the company's call centre is manned by people who are specifically trained about the products first. So when a customer asks a question whether on the net or on the telephone, the answers are there for the taking.


Service As An Important Part Of The Singapore Economy

With much of Singapore's economy being dependent on the service industry, it's no wonder that there are many organisations and individuals that are sterling examples of customer service. The Productivity and Standards Board (PSB) organises the annual "Excellent Service Award" (EXSA) to encourage and motivate service staff in Singapore to deliver quality customer service. This award has been given out since April 1995 and among the top recipients are well-known organisations like The Westin Stamford and Westin Plaza, Cold Storage Singapore, Changi International Airport Services and SMRT Corporation.

As Mr Peter Chen, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Trade and Industry stressed on the importance of customer service, "With the service sector identified as one of the twin engines of growth for Singapore in the next decade, and, as Singapore becomes a knowledge economy, the service provider will play an increasingly important role [which] involves going all out to delight the customers".

"This article was contributed by Christopher Lai, Director-Head of Business Development, Small Business Services, CSG, American Express International Inc."



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