In a nutshell
1. Why customer relations matter to the organisation
Excellent customer relations help increase long-term profitability for the business. Harvard Business School has estimated the value of retaining existing customers:
- If you retain two per cent more of your existing customers, you could reduce operating costs by 10 per cent
- If you retain five per cent more, you could increase profits by between 25 per cent and a staggering 80 per cent!
- Satisfied customers tell a few others, but dissatisfied customers tell many, many others
2. Why it matters to you
Job satisfaction isn’t just a matter of financial rewards. Excellent external and internal customer relations are a good way to get other rewards:
- Emotional highs – being appreciated
- Sense of achievement
- Recognition of contribution
- Reduced stress levels
- More tolerance from customers if a mistake is made
- Autonomy or freedom to decide about some aspects of your work
3. What you can do as an individual
The key is to offer customers a positive experience. Remember, in that moment, you are the organisation from the customer’s perspective. Think about your own experiences as a customer and draw from them.
- Seek to use the current systems and procedures to benefit the customer rather than provide an obstacle.
- People remember bad experiences more easily than good ones – so a good one has to be really outstanding to stay in the mind.
- If you are an internal customer, encourage your colleagues by thanking them – if you don’t take people for-granted you will encourage desired behaviours.
4. What you can do as a leader
What sorts of activities can you, as a leader, do to enhance customer service?
- Help your people do the right thing.
- Establish your customer relations strategy.
- Encourage a customer-focused culture.
- Develop your staff.
- Walk the talk.
5. Establish your customer relations strategy
Decide what you mean by good customer relations – that is your strategic aim – and then decide how, at a strategic level, you are going to go about getting what you want.
- Working with your marketing people, clarify your aims, thinking through all the angles and implications.
- Then work out how you are going to get there.
- Long-term ways of achieving your outcome may require considerable financial investment, but this may be worth it if you can embed pleasurable experiences.
- In the long term, it’s also worth investing in structures that make your staff happy and proactive.
- Medium-term initiatives might include invitations to previews or, for staff, ‘employee of the month’ awards.
- Short-term considerations relate more directly to each buying event.
6. Encourage a customer-focused culture
Culture is a mixture of systems, structures and people, each of which may contribute to a customer-focused culture. Where do you need to make changes?
- Does your organisation encourage individual competition (with performance awards, for example) at the expense of team work?
- Can you aim for a flexible, flat structure within your own area of responsibility?
- Do your people feel sufficiently valued to value your customers?
7. Develop your staff
Clearly your staff need some skills to enable them to deliver excellent customer relations, so consider development in the following areas:
- Product knowledge
- Knowledge of the organisation’s organisation
- Interpersonal skills, such as listening and questioning skills, building rapport and dealing with difficult people.
And then empower your staff and encourage them to take individual responsibility for the end results. When they are successful, let them know with feedback.
8. What you can do as a manager
- Help your people do things right.
- Perfect the product.
- Turn complaints into gifts.
- Cure the real problem.
- Read the signposts!
- Listen to your customers.
- Act on feedback.
- Walk the talk.
9. Perfect the product
Gather feedback from customers and feed it back into your manufacturing or service process so all stages of the supply chain can have the benefit. This gives your people a chance to get it right. Consider also how you provide support so that it delights the customer.
- Aftersales support is a key place to gather feedback for product improvement.
- A problem put right with style will often gain more customer loyalty than if the problem had not arisen in the first place.
10. Turn complaints into gifts
When you are dealing with a customer with a complaint, focus on the solutions rather than the problem. This will assist you in keeping emotionally dissociated, which puts you in a better place to provide a good service.
- Put yourself in the customer’s shoes to find out what they want done about the problem.
- Encourage complaints, so you know what is wrong and can put it right.
- Put it right with style.
- Let your staff know how far they can go in putting things right.
11. Cure the real problem
Look for patterns and then dig deep to find the real root cause. Avoid dealing with just the symptom.
- Find the root cause with the ‘Five whys’ process – asking why until you reach an answer.
- Find out from staff and customers whether systems and procedures support good customer relations.
12. Read the signposts!
Consider what measures you need to have in place to assess both your own systems and the customer’s perception.
- However, be careful that you do not measure too much as this just leads to drowning in data.
- Monitor that which it is sensible to monitor, but only if you can do something with the information.
13. Listen to your customers
Use some of the following, each of which has advantages and disadvantages:
- Focus groups – can improve customer relations with participants and give good direct feedback
- People’s panels – a cross between focus groups and questionnaires
- Mystery shopper – keeps people on their toes but can demotivate staff
- Customer surveys – can sometimes offer the chance to recover lost business
- User groups are often funded by the supplier and act as a forum for users to share best practice amongst themselves, and also to feed back their collective suggestions to the supplier
- Exit polls – the interviewer can ask subsidiary questions to clarify or dig out deeper responses
- Questionnaires (administered in person, over the phone, or by mail) can be structured and unstructured
14. Act on feedback
When you get feedback, consider it carefully and act on it. Avoid the temptation to reject it if it does not accord with what you think is happening. Ask
- For each aspect of customer relations you have measured, what would make the single biggest difference to that result?
- Who can make the difference? How would they need to change their attitude and behaviour to make it happen?
- Do the systems need to change?
15. How to keep ahead of the game
Keep seeking continuous improvement, even only by a little bit at a time:
- Maintain a customer-focused and learning culture
- Continually exhibit appropriate management behaviour and leadership through example
- Display integrity in operating an appropriate system for managing people within a wider performance management system
- Develop a wholehearted application of systems for continuous improvement
- Get creative about what new initiatives you could introduce to provide a step change in your customer relations