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Sunday, July 01, 2012

Getting customer service right in construction marketing

These days, businesses and consumers cite the mantra:  "Great customer service," but it seems only a few (businesses or consumers) get it right.  Far too many customers regard "great customer service" an entitlement that has no correlating obligations.  I'm afraid many businesses also use the words but don't really practice great service on the front lines, where it matters the most.

There are exceptions.  Luxury brands build systems and processes to correlate consistent great customer service.  They can do this, in part, because their margins allow them to provide greater staffing depth and higher training.  

Meanwhile, some customers really appreciate their need to observe their end of the bargain, treating their vendors/suppliers (and front-line employees) with courtesy, respect and fairness -- creating an oasis of warmth in an often-hostile environment, and therefore receiving in return some positive reciprocation from employees who are more familiar with hostility than friendliness.

I agree that, to some extent, you can systematize these processes.  You can build into your systems performance rules and standards and guidelines for how you treat customers.  Some routine customer service training, incentives for good performance and the like will obviously help.

However, the leadership for this process I think needs to come from the top.  Are your owners/managers respectful of your employees; do they provide them with enough autonomy and power to resolve complaints and will "management" take the right stand in correcting any customer service failures?

In our case, our business had a couple of rather serious service flaws.  We did not have a responsive phone system for clients calling to pay their bills or complain about them.  And our invoices were confusing, causing customers to question the charges.  (This created a double whammy -- when customers would phone, they would receive voice mail -- and often no return calls -- so their concerns grew and their frustration increased.)

We solved these problems creatively.  Instead of simply moving the "accounts receivable" phone line to a more convenient location, I proposed that anyone in the office could collect a $5.00 bonus just for answering the AR phone.  Now virtually all calls are answered instantly -- and we know right away that the call probably relates to the bills.

Then we redesigned our invoices, included stuffers to explain them, and fixed up the gaps and discrepancies in our communications.  Result:  Complaints have decline and bills are paid more promptly (great for cash flow, of course).

I think in business you need systems which encourage reporting of client complaints (and their resolution, if possible) directly to senior management, without recrimination or hostility to the employees receiving the complaints, unless there is serious at-fault behaviour. (In one case, a former employee forged client signatures on documents; this sort of behaviour is grounds for dismissal, of course.)

Meanwhile, I think we can all learn something by doing what we can to treat our employees, vendors and suppliers as much as possible like our best customers.  We may be surprised by the positive pay-off.

If you have great customer service (or horror) stories please comment.

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