Creating an Effective Customer Service Plan
The ability to service customers well is a talent that must be taught and nurtured within every organization. By accepting this concept and having your employees buy into it, you will put your customers first where they belong. Customers are savvy, and they avoid companies that are not responsive to their needs.
Having a formal plan for effectively servicing customers helps everyone in your organization know that your organization's ultimate goal is to keep customers happy and coming back to spend money on your products and services time and again. This discussion will take you through the process of establishing a formal customer service plan.
Customer service is a state of mind in which you and your employees are constantly thinking about improving every facet of your business that deals with customers. Its finding a way to make sure every customer is satisfied and continues to do business with you. To meet the needs of your customers, you must know what the customers want and expect. You must be able to provide quality service on a consistent basis. Many companies formalize customer service plans without ever consulting their customers. This is not an effective practice. You must speak to your customers to ascertain their perception of the service you provide. In reality, the customer is the ultimate critic. In addition, you must periodically ask your customers how you are doing.
Your customer service plan must include a method for measuring and tracking customer satisfaction and loyalty, as well as a program to ensure its continual growth to higher levels. Depending on the size of your company, you will need either an informal (for small companies) or a formal plan (for larger companies) that includes not only customer service policies and procedures, but also specific explanations on how you would like to treat clients in a variety of circumstances.
What are the benefits of having a company-wide customer service plan?
The benefits of developing and implementing a quality customer service plan far outweighs the effort it takes to formalize the plan and educate an organization's employees. The benefits are many:
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II. Establishing a Company-Wide Approach
Customer service plans are unique to each organization. No two plans are alike and there is no right or wrong format, but a few basic elements should be addressed by all customer service plans:
Assessing Your Companys Customer Focus
The key to making this proactive approach work is achieving buy-in from all employees, from top-level managers down to receptionists. Each staff member should understand how his or her job fits into the company's overall customer service plan only then will they realize that every interaction with customers affects the way those customers see the company as a whole. For example, if a customer calls for the first time to inquire about a new product and encounters an abrasive switchboard operator, that may be enough to form a negative opinion of your firm, and he may never call again. Likewise, your sales staff may be high powered deal-closers, yet lose accounts because they don't pay attention to small details like sending thank-you notes to clients.
To establish an effective customer service
plan, you must first have a starting point. The following is a self-assessment survey.
Reflect on the current level of service your company provides to customers, and then
answer the following questions as honestly as possible. True or false:
___ 1. Our company is dedicated to satisfying customers.
___ 2. I, as the owner of the company, show employees by example that customer service is extremely important.
___ 3. We never promise things that we can't deliver.
___ 4. We always ask customers for feedback, and we take their complaints seriously.
___ 5. We develop new policies, products and services and make tangible changes to existing ones based on feedback from our customers.
___ 6. We proactively anticipate problems before they reach customers.
___ 7. We know our customers' expectations.
___ 8. Our staff is accessible to our customers and frequently interacts with them.
___ 9. Our goal is to resolve all customer grievances quickly and efficiently.
___ 10. We strive to not only meet, but also to exceed customer expectations.
___ 11. All of our employees know that customer service is part of their job.
___ 12. We constantly examine our competitors' products, services and policies to learn from their strengths and weaknesses.
If you answered True to all of the questions, congratulations! Your organization has a strong customer-orientation. If you answered False to more than two questions, your customer service plan needs work.
Assessing Your Customers' Needs
Organizations often claim to know their customers without ever taking the time to perform a thorough analysis of their customers' satisfaction with the services or products provided. Often potential areas of customer complaints can be realized by reviewing the return rate of products you sell. If this is high, your customers may be unhappy with their purchases, and you must find out why. Is your product inferior or not user-friendly? One can assess the number of service or maintenance calls that are received and conduct an analysis of complaint consistency. Are the complaints related to inadequate support, faulty products or parts problems? Check the status of product shortages (backlog or just not enough); if a shortage exists, there are undoubtedly unhappy customers out there.
In the service arena, one might look at the length of time it takes before a customer service representative answers a customer telephone call. What percentage of customers listen to music on hold while waiting for a representative to answer in person? What is the average wait before a call is answered in person? Your employees and your customers are excellent sources of information, including "the good, the bad and the ugly."
It would behoove all employers to listen to their employees when it comes to customer service. Your employees are often the ones in contact with the customers on a daily basis. It's not unusual for the first person to have contact with customers to be the receptionist. He or she is likely to have an excellent idea of the customers' likes and dislikes. Often customers will complain about the poor quality of a product, the lack of support, or the extraordinary amount of time they spend waiting for service from your organization. The customer or client will often not voice the complaint to others in your company. Find out from your employees what the customer complaints are. Keep in mind that only 2 percent to 4 percent of disgruntled individuals register complaints.
If your company currently uses an ad-hoc customer service plan, you may want to consider implementing something a bit more formal. If the plan is in writing, employees will have a resource to turn to whenever they have a question about how to handle a client. The following steps will set you on your way to developing your plan.
The process of gathering information and analysis of the findings should be an ongoing process for all organizations small or large. The customer service plan must change to meet the requirements of an ever-demanding customer and to maintain the competitive advantage.
Establishing Formal Customer
Handling Customers Under Normal Circumstances: Each time a customer interacts with your company whether it is to place an order, make an inquiry, return a product or lodge a complaint there is a flow path that can be charted. Charting the customer interaction path not only increases efficiency but also assigns employees responsibility for each part of the process. By devising this pattern, your employees can handle every customer interaction in the same consistent fashion. If theres a bottleneck in the system due to consistent mistakes that are made, the flow chart will show it quickly.
Large companies typically have a flow chart in place for every conceivable customer interaction so that employees know how to behave each time they come across them. As problems arise, the chart is revised to keep the flow smooth and to alert new employees how to handle the unexpected. Small firms can learn from this technique of efficient customer service.
Sample Flow Chart: Order Processing:
Before establishing a flow chart, you should identify each task involved in processing an
order and assign them to distinct groups of employees, ensuring a smooth flow of
information and goods. The following are typical order-processing tasks:
__Order separation and batching
__Processing and data entry
__Final audit and inspection
Which groups of individuals within your company will handle each of these tasks? ________________________________
Specify the steps for the order-processing procedure in a written document for all employees to learn. Begin by taking notes while you're on the phone with customers. You know exactly what you like to say to customers; by describing it in writing, your employees and associates can address customers the very same way. Add to your notes by observing key employees who do an excellent job serving customers. What do they do that is special or unique? How do they make customers feel at ease? Compile your observations into a book, such as a three-ring binder.
You must also build into your flow chart a device for obtaining customer feedback and measuring satisfaction. Depending on the value of each order or customer, this device can be as simple and inexpensive as a postcard that is included with each order. This simple tool may give you a non-intrusive way to find out what your customers really think about your firm's products and service level. A customer satisfaction survey may also be included as part of a warranty registration card. Sample questions for the postcard or survey include: Were you satisfied with your recent purchase? Were you pleased with our company's service? Are there any ways we can serve you better in the future?
What other questions do you want to ask your customers that you could include in a survey or postcard? ________________________________________
If the order value is especially high, a personal phone call is always a nice way to thank the customer after the sale and ensure that everything about the product is satisfactory for them. Car dealers that do this get repeat customers. Physicians who do this build their practices faster. For really large sales, the salesperson should occasionally call on the client personally.
Handling Customers When a Problem Arises: When things go awry, a good customer service program can save you and your customers a great deal of grief. One person or team should be assigned to handle customer problems and complaints. For customer problems that can't be resolved at this level, a higher level manager should be assigned.
Again, a flow chart is a valuable tool for handling such problems with customers. It is especially important in these circumstances when customer tempers may flare and accusations are made for your employees to know how to remain calm and defuse the situation.
Sample flow path for addressing a customer problem:
Each step of the customer service resolution process must be documented on paper or in a computer archive, in case of future litigation. A paper trail should be initiated with a complaint number (which may consist of the date followed by the customer number) so files may be easily retrieved and reviewed by management or attorneys.
Dealing effectively with your customers: Now that you have created and established a service vision, and have created a customer service plan, the next step is to improve your communication and problem-solving attributes. The method of communication is as important as what is communicated. Greet your customers appropriately. Make them comfortable from the beginning. The initial customer contact is very important, and first impressions can often win or lose a customer. Make your customers feel special. Listen to them attentively to find out what they like or dislike. Ask if you can help your customers. Be constructive at all times, avoid being defensive, and never lose your temper. Ask customers to give you letters or verbal recommendations or referrals. Invite your customers back to your office, store or business.
Hiring a staff that has the ability to solve problems is critical to the growth of a business. Problems will always arise; accepting responsibility for the problem and effectively managing the situation can turn a negative situation into a positive one. If problems are resolved quickly, customers will continue to buy and refer others. It is very important to listen effectively. One must understand the problem, identify the cause, discuss possible solutions, and solve the dilemma. This is not an easy process to learn, and an effective manager or owner must train all employees in the process of not only crisis management but also in the art of solving problem. Becoming an effective problem-solver takes effort, motivation, dedication, and pride in one's work and one's self-worth.
Educating Your Staff
Your staff must understand and buy into the organization's service vision and customer service plan. Time must be set aside for staff education and orientation to the customer service plan. You must demonstrate by example the customer service philosophy on a daily basis. Role-playing sessions can be very effective. In these sessions have employees assume various roles: employee, owner, a happy customer and a disgruntled customer. During these sessions, have your staff play out various customer interactions the way they would handle them. Offer constructive feedback when you see areas that can be improved. Above all else, remember that it takes patience, time and a nurturing environment to develop a truly service-oriented employee.
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International Customer Service Association
Nancy J. Friedman, "Customer Service Nightmares: 100 Tales of the Worst Experiences Possible and How They Could Have Been Fixed" (Crisp Publications, 1996)
Kristin Anderson and Ron Zemke, "Delivering Knock-Your-Socks-Off Service" (AMACOM, 1997)
Robert Hiebeler et al., "Best Practices: Building Your Business With Customer-Focused Solutions" (Simon & Schuster, 1997)
Nancy Artz, "301 Great Customer Service Ideas: From America's Most Innovative Small Companies" (Inc. Pub., 1995)
Paul R. Timm, "50 Powerful Ideas You Can Use to Keep Your Customers" (Career Press, 1997)
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