It's True: Happy Customers Come Back

To build a customer-focused strategy you have to go beyond providing the best product or service.

It's a truism that happy customers keep coming back. And when it comes to customer service, almost every company talks a good game. Most companies claim to value its customers, to respect its customers, to have its customers' best interests at heart. But the real question is whether a company is prepared to put its money - its time and people - where its mouth is.

To build a customer-focused strategy you have to go beyond providing the best product or service. You must maximize customer satisfaction which translates into repeat business and good word of mouth referrals. That means you need to do two things. First, make customer service a driving force of your company that is incorporated into every aspect of your business, focusing heavily on training. Second, in addition to training all employees you must be responsive to customer needs. So maintaining constant communication with the customer during every stage of the sales process, including calling the customer before and after the sale to gather the customer's input. It's really about building a great customer experience.

Ninety-five percent of all business owners believe that their companies are exceeding customer expectations in terms of service. That is far from the truth. Poor service and poor communication ranks as the top consumer complaints according to most research. Yet, in a competitive economy good customer service is a matter of survival. And, becoming a customer service leader is one of the least expensive ways of improving your company's performance. It is important to understand how critical customer service is to your business. Small business owners are much worse than large business when it comes to addressing customer concerns because too many operate under the idea that there are an infinite number of customers and if someone doesn't like how they run their business, too bad. This is a serious error if you want to grow your small business and increase profits. You need customers to be satisfied, you need them to keep coming back, and you need them to tell others about your business. The following are some actions you can take to build a customer focused strategy:

1. Make customer service a focus from the top down. Senior managers and company owners must be just as focused as the sales people, customer representatives, superintendents and other employees in your company. Every aspect of your business should be concerned with ensuring the satisfaction of your customers all the way through every interaction with your company. Once you have determined what your customers want from your company, you must evaluate every aspect of your organization to determine how each department works toward satisfying those needs. And you must be prepared to reshape operations to fit your customer strategy. This can mean retraining employees or altering major parts of the business structure which is crucial if you want to continue to grow your business.

2. Hire carefully. Not everyone is temperamentally suited for dealing with customers. Make sure the people you hire are capable of dealing with upset customers without losing their cool. Remove any employees who are inattentive to customer needs. There are some people who are simply not suited to interacting with customers. No amount of training or company culture will overcome this. A surprising number of companies tolerate poor customer service from an employee because they are afraid of losing that person's technical skills. But employees who show disinterest toward customers don't win their company any new business or even maintain existing business.

3. Train your employees. Make sure your employees know your customer service goals and have been fully trained in how to handle customers. Company policies for dealing with customer issues should be clearly stated and understood by employees. There are financial benefits when training employees in customer service because a better trained staff can handle much more work and keep many more customers coming back.

4. Know your customers. Most business owners have no idea how their customers see them. They don't know what it's like to do business with their own company, because that's not a situation they've ever observed first hand. This lack of understanding can lead business owners to misjudge the effectiveness of their own customer care practices. Customer surveys are effective for getting to know what your customers think about your company. Provide customers with a means to give feedback at the time of purchase or project completion in the form of a report card that measures your work in several areas. This information is valuable in continuing to improve the performance of your company. Another way is to talk directly with your customers about their experience dealing with your firm. Sit down and ask them about their experience. Ask them for suggestions on how you could do things better. Or what they don't like. Talking directly to your customers is the fastest and cheapest way to gauge how your company is doing customer service wise. Share the results of customer feedback and surveys with your employees so that they can see how customers are responding and to cultivate a sense of group responsibility for performance.

5. Deal with complaints quickly. Customer dissatisfaction will only grow the longer it takes you to respond to a complaint. A fast response, and a willingness to work with the customer, can turn an upset customer into a repeat customer. Dealing with dissatisfied customers is one of the most important and delicate interactions a business faces. A study by Technical Assistance Research Programs Institute found that up to ninety-one percent of unhappy customers who made a big purchase will never come back and even among small-item purchasers, 63 percent will go elsewhere if they feel dissatisfied with their experience. This can have a dramatic impact on a business's bottom line. Other research indicates that reducing non-returning, dissatisfied customers by just five percent can double a company's profits. The most important thing in handling a customer complaint is making sure that the customer feels that he or she is being heard. Nothing increases customer anger more than the impression that the company doesn't care. Whether it's the business owner himself, a project manager, an estimator or the superintendent talking with the customer, it's important to make sure the customer knows that someone is listening. Empathizing with the customer and reassuring him or her about the importance of their complaint and their continued business with the company is critical in resolving a problem. Apologize to the customer in a way that doesn't blame anyone for the problem. Say your sorry that they've had a bad experience and that you want to make things right. Just saying you're sorry-even if you admit no blame-goes a long way toward cooling off someone who's upset. Shifting the blame elsewhere won't work and may only further antagonize the customer. Remember, 87 percent of angry customers will tell their friends and associates about what happened and that could cost you a lot more in potential business. Creating a customer service-oriented culture within your business is extremely important. It's also important to be very clear about the way employees are to treat and interact with customers. Employees need to have enough flexibility when dealing with a customer-especially a dissatisfied customer- so that they can handle a customer complaint without frustrating the customer any more.

6. Reinforce good service. Reward employees who "go the extra mile" to make customers happy to reinforce the customer service culture you want. Such rewards can take the form of a bonus, or an extra vacation day, a plaque or mention in a company newsletter.

Remember, no company gets it right all the time. Mistakes happen. Communication can get garbled. Errors occur in billing. Preventing errors is an important task for any company, but dealing with mistakes is equally critical. How you handle a mistake will directly determine whether you ever see that customer again. Most customers are perfectly willing to overlook a mistake on your part so long as they feel you've truly apologized and fixed the problem. Building a customer focused strategy for your company takes time, effort and consistency but the reward is a strong, growing business.

Linda Hanson, CMC, is a certified management consultant and author of 10 Steps to Marketing Success. She writes, speaks and consults on marketing, management and customer service issues and can be contacted at Sign up for her free newsletter The Superior Performance Report.