10 quick and easy customer service tips

Simple but effective ways to improve your client service

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The customer is always right is a phrase that has guided good businesses for nearly a century, and it remains at the core of all customer service skills to this day. Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American entrepreneur who made his name in Britain through his eponymous stores, is widely credited with the saying.

He furnished Selfridges with a library, reading and writing rooms and special reception rooms for French, German, American and ‘Colonial’ customers. There was also a First Aid room and a Silence room, with soft lights, deep chairs and double glazing – all to keep customers on the premises as long as possible.

Delightful as it all sounds, it doesn’t have to be as expensive and arduous. Selfridge died destitute from his free-spending ways. As you well know, it’s often the little things that count. We’ve identified some of the quickest and easiest methods that are guaranteed to deliver results without a huge cost to you. We also list the 10 cardinal sins any company that cares about its customers should avoid. Read on to help your business make an instant impact with the people that matter most.

Fit around your customers

Britain’s inconsiderate sales staff really get Wendy Shand’s goat. The web entrepreneur, who launched her Tots to France enterprise earlier this year, is a big fan of the American attitude to customer service, having experienced it firsthand earlier in her career.

“In the UK, people have got into the habit of doing the bare minimum,” she says, noting that when she started her company, which markets holiday properties in France, specially kitted out for people with children, she made it a policy to show customers she understands their position.

“Operating a 9-5 business for my target market would be hopeless,” she explains. “When you have small children, you simply cannot concentrate on a phone conversation when they are around, so we offer to discuss a client’s holiday requirements once the children are in bed and they have a glass of wine in their hand!

“Trying to have an adult conversation when the kids are howling in the background is very stressful, so I deliberately avoid calling at high-stress times like bath time and make a point of suggesting a time when all is quiet. It often means that we are working late, but I find parents appreciate that extra attention to detail.”

Talk to your customers

“Talking to your customers seems pretty obvious, but most people actually don’t do that,” says Nigel Cover, director of the performance improvement company Grass Roots, which counts some 40 of the FTSE 100 firms as its clients.

“Too often you have sales staff sitting behind the counter, talking to each other. They should be asking customers how they can help, asking what they’re looking for today. This should be part of the DNA of any business.”

It can be very easy, he says, for staff to become “frightened of selling”, and it is important to look at what you are offering in terms of your environment for the customer. Are you creating and meeting a need for your client? Effective sales happen when you are selling something that meets the customer’s need, he stresses, but that need may not necessarily be something on your shelf but something else on the customer’s agenda.

Know your market

The internet has really levelled the playing field. Your customers are now aware of new industry information and your competitors’ prices at the same time the information is available to you. So, you need to be more knowledgeable than they are if you want to make that sale.

“The pace of change now is quite phenomenal,” says Cover. “The level of knowledge of customers has increased 10% in 10 years, and we now have a country full of savvy customers, which is good, but demanding. In this environment you must know more about what you offer than your customer does, otherwise you’ll lose their trust.”

This is of particular importance for those selling electronic goods, he says, because the competition is so fierce and the market is constantly changing. Short and simple tasks like researching your competitors’ offers and knowing the new products headed to market will cost you little and earn you respect.

Reward loyalty with loyalty

Scottish hair salon entrepreneur Thomas McMillan says emphatically that one of the most foolish things a business can do is alienate its loyal customers with promotions aimed solely at first-time clients.

“Ask a first-time client to tell you who recommended your business and think about giving an incentive to the loyal customer for the recommendation,” he says. This allows you to monitor where clients are hearing about you, he points out, and where your advertising and marketing is most effective.

Nigel Hill, author and founder of The Leadership Factor, which specialises in the measurement of customer and employee satisfaction, agrees with McMillan and says winning new customers is almost certainly more costly and less profitable than keeping existing ones.

“For all sorts of reasons, existing customers are safer and less likely to defect. And yet a lot of companies are more interested in winning new ones than keeping the ones they’ve got,” he says. Hill believes too many businesses take their customers for granted, and if you look at the bigger picture, companies are losing money through customer decay as much as they are gaining in new customers.

“With most customers, you don’t start making a profit out of them until usually five years down the line,” he says. “You’re spending all this money on marketing, but you don’t spend enough time with your existing customers to develop a relationship.”

Use first names

It’s the small, personal things that can make the biggest difference, according to McMillan, and that’s why he implores staff to use clients’ first names. “So many people attempt to do one thing 100 times better, when in fact doing many things just 1% better has a bigger impact,” he says.

Visit your competition

Go and be a customer yourself. Grass Roots’ Cover is a firm believer that many customer service problems stem from owners, managers and staff alike all forgetting what it’s like to be a customer. Try to walk a mile in their shoes.

“Customer service expectations aren’t just about what you offer,” he reminds. “Try to benchmark in your mind who you really aspire to be. If you are a growing business, pretend to be a customer in your own company or your competitor’s business, and then you can see all the nuances and tricks of the trade that people offer. When you are shopping, think about what that experience is like and bring that back to your work.”

McMillan advocates taking it a step further by checking what services your client has previously received and consider how those experiences will influence choices during a visit to your business.

Add a personal touch

It’s often the little things that people remember and get you referred. And that’s what helped Tim Davies and his brother, founders of web hosting and broadband provider IDNet.net, win clients as diverse as the BBC and the Zoological Society of London.

From the very beginning, the brothers shunned the call centre route for support queries because they have an incredible knack for annoying even the most patient of customers. Instead, they take the calls themselves and are getting great customer feedback as a result.

“The people in call centres are just reading from FAQs and aren’t nuanced enough for our market,” says Tim. “People also have trouble understanding accents if a call centre has been outsourced to another country. What’s more, we’re aware that people find it very upsetting to wait 24 hours for a response when they have a support issue.”

Not only do the Davies’ customers speak to them directly, but as a policy, the brothers endeavour to get back to every e-mail within the hour.

Get staff behind you

For any culture change to happen within your business, however, your staff must be on board. As Hill points out, Shand’s experience with customer service in America was great because in that culture, employees understand how much a customer is worth. When they don’t, it’s not always their fault.

“Not many human beings who work have the objective of giving bad service. Often it’s the procedures stopping them,” he says. “When customer service is really bad, it’s usually because the whole systems of the company make it difficult to give good service.”

To start from scratch and build a culture of good customer service within your business, you should hold workshops to get them on board with the idea. Get them to think about themselves as a customer. List all the points of a customer journey and ask them to highlight all the possible moments of misery along the way. Instead of all these moments, he says, ask them to identify where there could be a moment of magic.

Offer incentives

Peter Gale, UK manager of the DataBase Factory, an outsourced contact centre and fulfilment service which manages subscriptions for companies, has seen his client relationships pick up through an innovative bonus scheme he awards his account managers.

Every month, Gale sends a simple scale from one to 10 to his clients asking them to rate how happy they are, “from suicidal to ecstatic,” he says. The clients and the account manager know that for him to receive his bonus that month, customer satisfaction must be above a certain benchmark.

“It doesn’t cost us much money at all, it’s fun, and it helps develop a rapport with the clients,” Gale says. “It keeps us focused on what the customer wants and gives us a lovely, quantifiable level of customer satisfaction.”

Apologise for business slips

Perhaps the key to it all, though, is behaviour. As Hill points out, a lot of this is down to perception. Customers are a lot less disgruntled if you simply behave in the right way, he says. If it’s going wrong, then apologise.

Customers take a strong cue from how much they perceive you are trying your best to do a good job, and if you look as though you are really concerned about their experience, that is going to make a huge difference.

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