LAGRANGE, Ga. — Henry Ford once said, “Why do I have to hire the whole person when all I want to hire is his hands?” Many of us feel the same way about our customers. We wonder why we have to accommodate their ever-increasing expectations when all we want to do is service the account.
When did everything get so complicated?
When did customers get so demanding and knowledgeable about our business?
Why can’t they just accept what we give them?
Welcome to my world, commonly called “Customer Service.”
Ah, customer service. You can’t survive without it, and you can’t succeed with it today unless you manage all the changes and new customer expectations it creates. We define this as “Customer Management.”
If we have learned anything in the development of a customer service program, it’s that it’s a moving, living practice that keeps evolving as customer needs and demands continue to change.
Many years ago, businesses practiced what they called “customer service,” a process that was ill defined, unorganized, and mostly consisted of someone inside a supplier company who answered customer questions. They handled problems and generally pacified angry customers. They were the go-to person when the receptionist couldn’t do the job. There was no training program.
This position was usually delegated to someone who had “other” additional job responsibilities, a long-tenured or knowledgeable employee who wouldn’t further aggravate an upset customer.
No one covered for this person when they went to lunch, didn’t show up for work, or took a vacation. Most communication was kept either in their head, on slips of paper, or jotted down in a spiral notebook that could be found in their top drawer. Customer service was an “on call” person, a help desk, not a department or holistic practice.
When customer expectations began to grow, so, too, did service calls. We were then forced to create inbound, passive customer service (or customer complaint) positions and departments. For a time, this soothed the savage beast. Unfortunately, by using this system, we never found out about customer problems until it was too late.
Then we gravitated to what we called a “Customer Satisfaction” program. The service people became better trained, information flow was more accountable, and follow-up was more refined. But the most advantageous benefit this new, improved program was designed to provide was still to be only a passive listening post for complaints.
We grew more sophisticated. As textile service suppliers grew more aware of how the advantages of a well-run customer satisfaction process could benefit them, these programs incorporated “Customer Relationship Management” (CRM) training modules. These modules, complete with software programs, stressed the importance of customer relations with all key contacts.
The goal of a CRM program was to enable individuals within their customer base to know and develop relationships with supplier personnel. It made the business relationship more dependent upon personal relationships and expanded the idea of easy access to supplier personnel. It stressed encouraging the customer’s personnel to proactively contact supplier personnel with questions or ideas for improvements. But business leaders soon learned that by simply satisfying customer expectations, they had punched a one-way ticket to mediocrity.
Competition began to up the ante. They proactively sold service improvements and product offerings that provided incentives, which enticed “satisfied” customers to defect from their current supplier. Competitors kept up with the changing needs of customers and created new and better solutions for the business community. Competitors continued to create “dissatisfied” customers, and suppliers began losing more and more seemingly satisfied customers while watching profits and sales volume decline.
The realization that it costs six times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to renew or retain existing ones put a new emphasis on customer longevity.
Reaction to this competitive practice was creation of a whole new customer service plan entitled “Customer Loyalty.” Its focus went beyond maintaining a customer’s business for today to maintaining it beyond original contract dates or purchase order requirements. This loyalty-driven practice demonstrated and proved beyond a doubt the exponential profit generated with an extended “Lifetime Value of a Customer” program. But business leaders also learned immediately that the wonderful new concept strained the talent and competence of their service management personnel.
Additional training in identifying and fulfilling specific customer needs, goals and objectives was instituted throughout our industry. Service programs began to “earn” their customer retention. Service department personnel were educated in getting service agreement and purchase order renewals and extensions for these new customer accommodations and improvements. They were also trained in closing competitive opportunities and making sure nothing stood in the way of the customer renewing its service agreement. Customer loyalty programs upgraded service levels to new plateaus of profit and growth for most textile service suppliers.
But as is the case of life cycles of all improvement practices, customer loyalty programs became less successful as they were subjected to improved competitive options and alternatives. Once again, simply fulfilling customer expectations and receiving service agreement renewals and extensions as a reward became increasingly more difficult. Customers who were becoming more intelligent and aware began to question supplier commitment and value.
Competitors began to search out and exploit (again) any current or future supplier deficiencies or weaknesses, then leveraged their recommendations to grow their own businesses through customer acquisition. They made the customer understand the “they don’t know what they don’t know” principle. Customers began to realize their textile service suppliers could, or should, be the ones proactively communicating to them what they needed for improving their businesses, and it shouldn’t be up to them to solicit improvements. Hence the next stage of customer management called “Customer Success” was developed.
Customer success is the achievement of a true business partnership. It is the process by which the supplier becomes necessary to the success of a customer. The more necessary a supplier becomes to a customer, the more valuable they are, now and in the future.
No customer knows the total limits and value of products and services that a textile service supplier can provide. Therefore, it is the supplier who must continually and proactively offer solutions and improvements to the customer.
A true customer success program notifies every customer of the supplier’s responsibility in this regard. Anything less than that level of commitment would be an injustice. It is what every “Customer Service,” “Customer Satisfaction” and “Customer Loyalty” program should evolve into as the supplier evolves into a customer-focused service company. This is where all service companies should be situated today.
With all of the advances being made in social and electronic media, customer management is wide open to faster, higher, wider and deeper account development.
Customer communications, with complete documentation and verification of information, will be available 24/7. Off-site and off-shift employees will have as much access to their account status as any on-site program director. There would be the option to handle invoicing, problem solving, product offerings, service questions, comments and issues instantaneously, or during “off” working hours.
Marketing improvement programs that identify third-party references, testimonials of success, newsletters, critical issues, options and alternatives, and three-dimensional solutions will be commonplace. Any employee of any customer will have access to input problems, questions, suggestions or comments. Tomorrow will have the capability to truly define customer success at all levels of partnership.
Of future customer management programs, two things are certain: 1) these changes will continue to occur at “warp speed” and 2) training service personnel to manage this constantly evolving paradigm will be critical to your customer retention. (A word of advice: embrace youth.)
In the realm of service improvement programs today, the goal of all service management teams should be to decide where their own customer relationship status is on this ladder of progression.
Have they mastered the basics of a customer satisfaction plan?
Do they fully understand—and are they successfully managing—a complete customer loyalty system?
Are they implementing customer success practices and getting the proper returns for their efforts?
And what are their plans for future customer management improvements?
Someone once said that a company’s most valuable asset is its employee base. That may be true but without customers, no one would have employees. Nothing is possible without customers. The more we recognize their importance and contribution to our own success, the more we will endeavor to maintain their business.
We need every one of their bothersome questions and disruptions, and all of their inquisitiveness. We should value all the distress they cause us. If we don’t, there are dozens of competitors out there that would love to “put up with them.”
They are your valued customers. You have worked hard to obtain their business. Don’t lose them to a competitor through negligence. Be the business partner that your customer deserves.